An emerging generation of socially-engaged Indian Ulema

Yoginder Sikand

Posted Dec 20, 2009      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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An emerging generation of socially-engaged Indian Ulema

By Yoginder Sikand

Reforms in India’s madrasas are a much talked-about subject today. In discussing the issue, the media tends to give inordinate attention to the views of the older generation of ulema, particularly those who are associated with certain large madrasas or Jamias, especially those that are known to be particularly conservative. Consequently, the voices of younger-generation ulema, particularly those who have also had a university education, tend to be completely silenced.

But, given that these men will, in due course, form a significant section of the Muslim religious leadership, it is crucial to listen to what they, too, have to say. Their views can be quite surprising for those who imagine that the ulema are wholly opposed to reform or ‘modernisation’ of madrasa education and to reviewing some deeply-entrenched and controversial understandings on certain religious matters. In fact, these young ulema are among the most passionate advocates for madrasa reform and for more relevant and socially-engaged understandings of Islam in the contemporary Indian context.

Recently, I had the good fortune to meet one such young Islamic scholar, the Lucknow-based Maulana Yahya Nomani. I had been in touch with him for almost a year through email after I had translated a fascinating book that he had penned in Urdu on the subject of jihad. Although I had read numerous books on jihad before, I had not come across such a penetrating and deeply-satisfying analysis. Maulana Yahya was kind enough to let me translate the book for the benefit of those who cannot read Urdu.

The book, simply titled al-Jihad, provides an incisive critique of the arguments about the Islamic concept of jihad put forward by both hardened Islamophobes and radical Islamists alike. ‘Jihad is often seen by non-Muslims as anti-human, as akin to terrorism, and as a cover-up for imperialist conquest. I wanted to critique that impression’, Maulana Yahya explains. ‘At the same time’, he adds, ‘many Muslims are opposed to ijtihad, to reviewing some of the rules of classical fiqh that were developed in a totally different historical context, including in matters related to jihad, some of which are not in accordance with the Quran. Consequently, Muslim youth in many countries, inflamed by the oppression suffered by Muslims, have taken to indiscriminate violence, wrongly claiming it to be jihad. I wanted to counter their arguments, too’. ‘I wanted the book to appeal to both Muslims and non-Muslims alike’, he explains.

Some of the salient arguments that the book makes is that terrorism, proxy war and the targeting of non-combatants is un-Islamic, as is launching war by any entity other than by an established state or government. Likewise, war for the sake of worldly conquest and power cannot be termed a jihad. That is to say, a war does not become a jihad simply because those who engage in it claim it to be so. Furthermore, the book argues while denouncing the claims of some extremists, Muslims can, indeed must, befriend people of goodwill belonging to other faiths and deal kindly with them.

‘Some radical ideologues claim that armed jihad is a struggle to end rule of kufr or infidelity, and insist that Muslims must always engage in such a struggle if they are in a position to do so. By this they also mean that even if a non-Muslim government allows Muslims religious freedom they still must engage in violent jihad against it. What they believe is that non-Muslims have no right to rule any bit of God’s earth’, Maulana Yahya explains. But he does not agree with this formulation at all, which he terms ‘bizarre’, ‘extremist’, and as not warranted by his reading of the Quran. ‘The real purpose of jihad’, he points out, ‘is defence or establishing justice, and not to end non-Muslim rule in any country. If a non-Muslim government is just and does not oppress Muslims or suppress Islam, there is no justification to launch armed jihad against it.’

Maulana Yahya is also critical of some aspects of the received juridical or fiqh tradition with regard to rules governing jihad that were formulated by the medieval jurists or fuqaha. ‘For instance, there is no concept of permanent peace with non-Muslims in the corpus of medieval fiqh’, he notes. Since that position corresponded to the then-prevailing historical conditions, he says, there is an urgent need to revise and change this understanding in today’s context, where permanent peace is something that is not just a widely-accepted concept but is something that Muslims, along with others, should actively strive for.

In his early 40s, Maulana Yahya is the grandson of the well-known (and, for some, controversial) scholar Maulana Manzoor Nomani. His father, Maulana Muhammad Zakariya, was a teacher of Hadith at Lucknow’s renowned Nadwat ul-Ulema madrasa. Having completed the fazil course at Nadwa in 1993, Maulana Yahya did a Bachelor’s course in Islamic History at Madinah University, after which he joined the monthly al-Furqan, an Urdu religious magazine based in Lucknow founded by his grand-father. Besides working as associate editor of this magazine, he holds regular Quranic classes in mosques and dawah camps for youth. Recently, he set up al-Mahad al-Ali lil Dirasat al-Islamiya (‘Institute for Higher Islamic Studies’) in Lucknow, which provides a two-year course to madrasa graduates to, as he puts it, ‘make them aware of modern issues, concerns and challenges’.

The Institute seeks to familiarize madrasa graduates with subjects that they have had little or no exposure to in the course of spending several years studying in madrasas. These include research methodology, English, computer applications, and basic sociology, political science, law and economics. Till date, almost fifty students have completed the course. Some of these have gone back to teaching in madrasas, where they are expected to impart their new knowledge and thereby promote change in the madrasas from within. Others have enrolled in universities for higher education.

Maulana Yahya argues that the ulema must have a good grasp of contemporary issues and conditions in order to express Islam in a relevant manner, to provide the community with a socially-engaged leadership, and to come up with contextually-appropriate Islamic responses to various questions and challenges. This is why his Institute places particular focus on developing its students’ research skills, something that is left ignored in most madrasas. Students are expected to do research not just on theological or legal or fiqhi matters but also on issues related to Muslims’ social, economic and educational conditions and problems.

The Institute, Maulana Yahya tells me, has set for itself an ambitious publishing programme. It plans to assign particular topics of contemporary concern on which there is paucity or complete lack of well-grounded published works to its students to work on as projects, which would later be brought out in the form of books. So far, the Institute has published two books, one Maulana Yahya’s book on jihad, and the other a classic historical treatise by the late Maulana Abdul Majid Dariyabadi. A third book is due to be out soon—on women and Islam, critiquing the views of both some ultra-conservatives, who completely rule out any public role for women outside their homes, as well as ultra-liberals, who argue for complete sameness between men and women.

Like Maulana Yahya, I have met scores of other young ulema over the years who are engaged, in their own ways, in promoting inter-communal harmony, in articulating more relevant understandings of Islam (including on a host of controversial issues such as jihad and women’s rights), and in facilitating reforms in the madrasas. Their voices cry out to be heard. They can no longer continue to be ignored.