Interview with Maulana Kalbe Sadiq, VP of the All-India Muslim Personal law Board
by Yoginder Sikand
Maulana Kalbe Sadiq, a leading Shia Muslim scholar, is the Vice-President of the All-India Muslim Personal law Board (AIMPLB). He has a Ph.D. in Arabic from Lucknow University and runs a chain of schools and colleges in Uttar Pradesh. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, he talks about his vision for the Muslims of India and reflects on crucial international developments.
Q: While being a religious scholar (alim), you are also engaged in promoting modern education among Muslims. What role do you feel the ulema should play in the field of education?
A: I think one of the most crucial challenges facing the Muslims of India is that of education. We must make that one of our foremost priorities. There may be some ulema who do not recognize the importance of modern education, but, increasingly, the ulema, both Shia as well as Sunni, are realizing it. Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet, said that he who doesn’t know about something, he becomes its enemy. Likewise, there may be some maulvis who know nothing about modern education or science and, therefore, oppose it. However, these are increasingly becoming a smaller minority.
But on the other hand, this saying of Imam Ali also applies to those who have ‘modern’ knowledge but know nothing about religion, and so they also begin to oppose it or neglect it, thinking that it is a sign of ‘backwardness’.
Personally, I see myself as in between these two extremes. I feel that our survival depends critically on excellence in modern education. But I also stress the importance of religious knowledge. Through science and technology you can control the world, but true religion means control over oneself, one’s soul. And so you find big scientists spending their lives inventing machines to destroy human beings because they have no faith in God. So, I keep stressing, what we need is both ‘modern’ as well as religious education.
The Sachar Commission report has brought out the fact that Muslims are behind even Dalits in terms of education and in many other fields. Hence, my appeal to Muslims is, for God’s sake, open your eyes. This time is not for building palatial mosques, but, instead, for using our resources for setting up schools, colleges, polytechnics and research institutes. I also say that much of what is being taught in the name of religion has nothing top do with true religion or spirituality. True religion inheres in values, not just rituals. But, unfortunately, much of what is imparted in the name of religious education is ritualism, without the foundational values of true religion.
Q: What do you feel about the government’s proposals for intervening in the madrasas in the name of ‘reform’?
A: Muslim opinion on this is divided. Some Muslims favour this and others oppose it. So, I can’t really give any opinion on the matter. But the point is that merely installing two or three computers in a madrasa and teaching basic English and mathematics will not lead to any substantial change. Madrasas need to change their basic approach. They need to adopt modern ways of approaching a host of issues. We urgently need to exercise creative reflection (ijtihad) in order to meet contemporary challenges.
Q: In the Jafari Shia school of jurisprudence, which you represent, ijtihad is allowed for, while many Sunni ulema argue to the contrary. What do you have to say about this?
A: Yes, in our school ijtihad has always been open, so our leading clerics or mujtahids are able to creatively respond to contemporary issues through ijtihad. But even among Sunni scholars today many are calling for the ‘gates of ijtihad’ to be re-opened. This will probably happen soon, if not today, then tomorrow, because it is not possible to have a stagnant jurisprudence (fiqh) for a constantly and rapidly changing world.
Q: In India today, a growing number of ulema are setting up ‘modern’ schools, which provide both ‘modern’ as well as Islamic education. How do you see this?
A: I think it is a very positive development. However, many of these schools are of mediocre standard. A person should do what he or she is trained for or capable of. But many of the ulema who run these schools seek to tightly control them even though they do not have any ‘modern’ education themselves. This, I think, is wrong, and only results in poor standards. In my own case, I have been associated with the setting up of numerous schools and colleges, and even a medical college in Lucknow, but I have left the management of these institutions to a professional team and do not interfere in their day-to-day functioning. Unfortunately, many top-ranking mullahs who control institutions are victims of enormous egoism and that is why they want to treat their institutions like their own private properties.
Q: Muslim education, in India and elsewhere, is characterized by an extreme dualism, between the ulema of the madrasas, on the one hand, and the ‘modern’ educated middle class, on the other hand. How can this dualism be bridged?
A: Rather than term it as dualism, I would prefer to see this as representing two channels of education. Only if and when these two channels meet can our woeful educational conditions really change. At present, there is hardly any communication between the two groups, as a result of which there are great apprehensions, misgivings and misunderstandings on both sides. We must appreciate the good points in both systems of education and seek to bring them together.
For this, too, we need to take recourse to ijtihad so that our approach, in the field of education, as elsewhere, is based on the ethical values of Islam, rather than on empty ritualism. Imam Ali told his son, Hazrat Muhammad bin Hanafiya, that when one goes to some other land one should not isolate oneself. He advised that one should abide by one’s values and yet adopt the good things that one finds among the people one lives with. So, in the field of education, as in other fields, Muslims should take good things from others and there is nothing wrong with that.
Q: What do you think the state should do for Muslim education?
A: Muslims expect a lot from the government, but the government is so corrupt. We don’t have real democracy in India. Real democracy means the protection of the rights of the minorities, not brute majoritarian rule. But, sadly, in India minorities are not given their due. But then, expecting that the government alone should shoulder the responsibility of solving Muslims’ educational problems is asking for something that even God does not allow for. In the Holy Quran God says that He does not change the conditions of a people unless they make efforts to change these themselves. So, those Muslims who demand that the government should change its policies but are themselves unwilling to change or to do anything positive and constructive for the community are living in a fool’s paradise. In other words, Muslims have to take the initiative themselves, while, of course, the government also has to abide by its duties. Unless Muslims themselves make efforts to promote education in the community nothing is going to change.
Q: What role do you feel the ulema could or should play in promoting inter-sectarian and inter-communal harmony in India?
A: I think that in this regard their first responsibility is to refrain from inciting Muslims to take to violence under any condition. They must also seek to promote dialogue and unity between the different Muslim sects. In this they must focus on the things that the different Muslim sects share in common—which, if I have to quantify it, would be over 97%—and refrain from using the 3% things on which they differ in order to divide them.
As for inter-religious dialogue, I think the Muslim ulema and religious scholars from other religious traditions need to take it up with great seriousness and urgency. This is the only way to solve inter-community disputes. I have read about other religions and have come to the conclusion that while they differ in matters of ritual, if one goes to their core and studies them in-depth, one finds that many of them share the same spiritual basis. We need to build on that shared spirituality.
Q: What efforts are being made to promote inter-sectarian dialogue, especially between Shias and Sunnis?
A: Although this is very important, in India there are no organized efforts to promote inter-sectarian dialogue between the ulema of different sects. I think this is really very unfortunate. However, despite this, the demand for dialogue and unity is being voiced from various quarters, although some extremist, false mullahs might oppose this. In India, groups like the Jamaat-e Islami, the All-India Muslim Personal law Board and the Milli Council have repeatedly stressed the need for unity between the different Muslim sects.
Q: What about efforts to promote Shia-Sunni dialogue in other countries?
A: In Pakistan, a Deobandi scholar, Maulana Ishad Madani, recently challenged anyone who can justify the denial of the need for Sunni-Shia dialogue. A leading Indian Deobandi scholar, Maulana Khalid Saifullah Rahmani, recently wrote a wonderful article stressing the need for Shia-Sunni unity and dialogue. In Iran several efforts are being made in this regard. For instance, every year the Iranian government celebrates the ‘Unity Week’ (hafta-e wahdat), and invites Sunni and Shia ulema and activists from different countries to participate together and to stress Muslim unity.
Q: But some hardliner Sunnis would argue that this is not a sincere effort and would claim that this is a ‘pretence’, referring to the Shia notion of taqiyya or dissimulation.
A: Let these critics say what they want. But I know that the government of Iran is indeed serious about this. After all, in Iran, where Shias are an overwhelming majority and Sunnis a small minority, there is no Shia-Sunni problem. Likewise, in Iraq, where Shias account for 65% of the population, although fringe groups like Al-Qaeda are targeting Shias and their holy sites, the Iraqi Shia religious leadership has constantly warned the Shias against falling into the American trap by retaliating against the Sunnis. They have stressed the need for Iraqi Shias and Sunnis to be united and stand up against the American occupying forces. This is surely a sign of a very great and mature leadership. America is trying to set Sunnis and Shias against each other in Iraq and elsewhere, and Muslims should see through this sinister game.
Q: What role has the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, of which you are the Vice-President, played in promoting Shia-Sunni dialogue?
A: The issue of Shia-Sunni dialogue is not within the purview of the Board, whose focus is only the 1937 Shariat Application Act. However, the fact that Shias and Sunnis have representatives on the Board is itself of considerable significance. But, still, I do feel the need for an organized forum here in India, as well as elsewhere, to bring the ulema of the different Muslim sects together. We should move away from the past and think of our common future. It is pointless talking about what happened between Shias and Sunis in the past. What’s happened has happened, and that we cannot change. But we can build a better common future if we work together. Instead of thinking of the welfare of just our own sects, we should think in terms of general Muslim welfare and interests.
Q: In Lucknow, where you live and work, there have been cases of conflict between Shias and Sunnis. What role have local Shia and Sunni ulema played in defusing this tension? Do they visit each other’s institutions and madrasas to exchange views?
A: There is a tremendous communication gap between the ulema of the different Muslim sects here. I think I must be one of the only ulema in Lucknow who visit the institutions of other sects. I have visited the Nadwat ul-Ulema, a leading Sunni madrasa in Lucknow, several times and have interacted with students and teachers there in a very friendly atmosphere. I have visited another major Sunni madrasa in Uttar Pradesh, the Madrasat ul-Islah in Sarai Mir, in Azamgarh, a couple of times. I was also invited to the Ahl-e Hadith mosque in Malerkotla, Punjab, where I delivered three lectures, which were well received. I have good contacts with leading Sunni ulema.
Q: Some extreme anti-Shia groups, such as some official Saudi Wahhabi ulema, have gone to the extent of claiming that Shias are non-Muslims. How do statements like these impact on efforts to promote Shia-Sunni dialogue and unity?
A: The Saudi government is a slave of the United States. It instigates these mullahs to issue such fatwas against the Shias in order to protect its own interests as well as that of America. Some Saudi mullahs have declared that Muslim holy shrines in Iran and Iraq, which the Shias particularly revere, should be bombed. Likewise, Tom Tancredo, the US Republican Party’s presidential hopeful, recently announced that America should, if need be, bomb the Muslim shrines in Makkah and Madinah, which all Muslims hold in great regard. You can see how the perverted logic of both is the same. I would appeal to all Muslims, Sunnis as well as Shias, to see through this game and not fall into efforts to divide them.
Q: In your speeches, you constantly refer to the need for the ulema to be more socially engaged. You yourself are engaged in a number of community projects, especially in the field of education. What role do you envisage for the ulema in this regard?
A: The Holy Quran tells us to leave aside those things that don’t give any benefit to people. So, we need to develop a socially engaged understanding of Islam that enables us to help people in concrete ways. Otherwise, the youth will ask us why we are building fancy mosques but doing nothing for the poor, when the essence of Islam is to help those in need.
This means that the ulema must be more socially engaged than they presently are.. They must come out of their mosques, madrasas and khanqahs and move among the masses, understand their economic and social problems and seek to solve them in practical terms. They must raise their voice against oppression, no matter what the religion of the oppressor is. However, unfortunately, most ulema have forgotten this responsibility and restrict themselves to leading prayers and giving fatwas.
Q: You, along with some associates, have recently taken over the management of the Urdu daily Aag. What do you have to say about the Indian Muslim media, particularly in the light of your own experiences in this field?
A: The Indian Muslim media is not very effective. There is no electronic Muslim media, besides one or two religious channels. The Urdu print media leaves much to be desired. Urdu papers tend to focus on emotional issues, ignoring positive news and developments. If many of our Urdu editors are ignorant and not well-educated, what else can you expect? Now this sort of emotional rhetoric can, of course, boost their sales but it will have a very negative impact on the future Muslim generations. After all, our problems can be solved only through dialogue and wisdom, not through emotional sloganeering. Further, much of the Muslim media is obsessed with the past, wallowing in the past Muslim glory.
Through Aag, we want to steer a new course in Urdu journalism, focusing more on positive and constructive issues, and staying clearly away from empty emotionalism. In a few months’ time since we took over Aag, it has become the single largest circulated Urdu paper in Lucknow and we hope to launch a Delhi edition soon, too.
Q: You yourself have studied in leading madrasas in Lucknow, the Madrasat ul-Waizin and the Madrasa Nazmiya. How do you see the increasing attacks on madrasas in the media today?
A: I can say with full confidence that no madrasa in India, whether Shia or Sunni, is engaged in providing any sort of terrorist training. There are indeed some in Pakistan that are doing this, but this does not apply to India at all. I think this talk of Indian madrasas being allegedly engaged in promoting terrorism has been deliberately engineered by communal parties and outfits. These groups do not want to see the truth, so even if we try to explain the reality of the madrasas to them, they will not listen or cease their anti-madrasa propaganda. I think they are deliberately doing this so that Muslims devote all their attention to defending madrasas, thus leaving them no breathing space to focus on modern education. It is a means, actually, to perpetuate Muslim educational marginalisation.
Our madrasas are open for all to see. They impart the message of humanity, not terrorism. Anyone can come to the madrasas and see this for oneself. And in the case of the Shia madrasas, I can confidently say that we give equal stress on worship of God and the service of God’s creatures. Shias believe that you cannot, under any condition, give up your own life unless it is to save the life of an innocent person, irrespective of her or his religion.
Q: What do you have to say about the demonisation of madrasas in the Western media?
A: This is part of the larger Western design to demonise Islam. The West needs an enemy to survive, to seek an excuse for its imperialistic offensives. And if such an enemy does not really exist, it has to conjure up a ghost and use it to scare people. So, following the collapse of communism, the West and Zionist forces, desperately searching for an enemy, decided to project Muslims as the new foe. They began claiming that Islam presents a danger to the world and in this way sought to create hatred against Islam and its adherents. And while their are terrorists among Christians, Jews and Hindus as well, the media only refers to Muslims when it talks of terrorism. This is part of a well-planned strategy.
We must be dispassionate when discussing the issue of violence in many Muslim countries. The West needs to look at the causes of this unrest. Address and remove the basic causes if you are seriously interested in solving the problem. In fact, it is primarily the West, and its client state, Israel, that have created conditions for this unrest. The oppression and denial of the rights of the Palestinians, the invasion of Iraq and so on—all these have naturally created conditions of unrest among Muslims, who wish to retaliate. After all, even if you pinch a little ant, it seeks to defend itself by biting back.
Q: Since you refer to Iraq, what are your views about sectarian conflicts raging there, between Shias and Sunnis?
A: This sort of thing never existed in Iraq before the American invasion. There was never any sort of terrorism there before the Americans invaded. My mother was from Iraq and I know the country and its people well. There was never any Shia-Sunni problem in Iraq, and even though Shias are in a majority there relations between Shia and Sunni Iraqis were cordial. It is true that Saddam persecuted Shia leaders and arranged for many of them to be killed, but he also persecuted many Sunnis and caused their deaths, too. Before the Americans invaded, Iraqis rarely thought of themselves as Shias and Sunnis or as rivals on the basis of sect. There was never any communal riot there. All this started and flared up after the Americans invaded Iraq in the name of bringing ‘peace’ and ‘democracy’ to that country. And I think the Americans are deliberately trying to stoke sectarian rivalry in Iraq and prolong the civil war so that they can divide and rule.
Q: Some Muslims argue that America is anti-Islam or anti-Muslim, and see its invasion of Iraq, among other developments, as proof of this. Do you agree?
A: One has to distinguish between the American people and the current American government. I am not saying that all Americans are anti-Islam. This is not true. However, the Bush administration certainly is anti-Islam. This owes, in large measure, to the power of the Zionist lobby in America. Pro-Zionist Jews control large banks, many industries and much of the media in America, and if they leave America, the country will collapse. And it is this lobby, in addition to the extreme right-wing Christian lobby, that is behind the clearly anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim policies of the Bush government.
On the other hand, I must also say that many Americans are indeed open-minded. However, they are easily swayed by the media, and the dominant Western media, as I mentioned earlier, has a vested interest in whipping up anti-Muslim hatred. I strongly believe that if we are able to reach out to the American people with the truth, many of them will indeed listen to us and will also agree with us.
Q: There is much talk now of America allegedly planning to attack Iran. What do you think the Iranian, or general Shia, response would be if this happens?
A: I don’t think the Americans will be so foolish. Hizbullah taught the Americans and the American-backed Israeli army a fitting lesson in the defeat it inflicted on the Israelis in Lebanon. The Shias are a different people. We are not terrorists but we will not run away if challenged. The Americans managed to get some traitors in Iraq to collaborate with them. The history of Iraq is full of tales of such betrayal and intrigue. But in Iran things are very different. All Iranians, even those who have differences with the regime, will solidly unite to oppose any American aggression. And the price of an American attack will be borne not just by America but also by its client regime, Israel.