“There is a basic distinction between madrasas in Pakistan and India”
Waris Mazhari is the editor of the Urdu monthly Tarjuman al-Quran, the official organ of the Delhi-based Tanzim-i Abna ul-Qadim Dar ul-ґUlum Deoband (Deoband Madrasa Old Boys Association). A graduate of the Deoband madrasa, he has also studied at the Nadwat ul-ґUlama, Lucknow, and the Jamia Millia Islamiya, New Delhi.
Q: What are the objectives and activities of the Dar ul-ёUlum Deoband Old Boys Association?
A: As the name of our organization suggests, we are a group of graduates of the Dar ul-ґUlum at Deoband, which is the largest madrasa in South Asia. Our members live all over India, and some are abroad, and they work in different capacities. Membership is open to all graduates of the Deoband madrasa. We are an apolitical organization, with our headquarters in Delhi. Our basic work is to help spread the teachings of the Quran among Muslims and counter what we see as un-Islamic beliefs and practices. We also help promote the vision that the Deoband school of thought represents. At the same time, we also feel the need to work for closer interaction and cooperation between followers of the Deobandi tradition and Muslims of other schools of thought, and have been taking some steps in that direction. Promoting inter-communal understanding and harmony is also one of our aims.
Q: Is your organization officially part of the Deoband madrasa?
A: No, we are an independent body, but we do enjoy the support of many ґulama and elders at Deoband. We are not directly involved in the functioning of the Deoband madrasa, although one of our primary concerns is to help reform the madrasa syllabus and system of education in order to make it more useful and effective.
Q: As someone who has studied at a traditional madrasa and then at a regular university, how do you look at the question of the reform of the madrasa curriculum?
A: The syllabus generally employed in the Indian madrasas is several centuries old. In many respects it is irrelevant, and is not able to meet the challenges of modern life. Hence, I feel there is an urgent need to reform the syllabus as well as the whole system of madrasa education. For this we need both to introduce new subjects as well as new books for teaching traditional disciplines. There is a strong case to be made for the reform of many books that are still being used in the madrasas for teaching religious subjects. Take, for instance, the case of the Shara-i Aqaid, a treatise on theology (kalam) written some six hundred years ago, which continues to be taught in many Indian madrasas. It is written in an archaic style and is full of references to antiquated Greek philosophy which students today can hardly comprehend. Rather than providing the student with a firm understanding of the basic principles of Islamic theology, it deals with imaginary and hypothetical problems and verbal puzzles. So, it asks questions such as: Is there one sky or seven or nine? Can the sky be broken into parts? Now, all this has been convincingly refuted and consigned to the rubbish heap by modern science. This book, like many other similar texts, is no longer being taught in schools in the Arab world, so why should it be continued to be inflicted on students at Deoband and other madrasas in India? As I see it, we really urgently need new books of theology that provide a relevant understanding of Islam for todayҒs world. Unfortunately, however, many conservative ulama simply donђt agree.
Q: What exactly do you mean by books of Islamic theology that are more relevant to todays context?
A: The books of theology still used in our madrasas are largely based on ancient Greek philosophy, as I said. Now, that is because they were written at a time when Greek philosophy posed a major challenge to Islam. Also, they were intended to combat various other rival schools and sects, such as the Kharijites, and so they deal at great length with their doctrines in order to refute them. But now this challenge from Greek philosophy and the rival sects no longer existsҗthe Kharijites died out by the third century of Islam. Hence, the books of kalam that were written at that time do not have much relevance in our day. What we need today, instead, are books of theology that also take into account the confirmed findings of modern science. They must seek to engage with contemporary ideological challenges, such as materialism, existentialism, atheism, Marxism, post-modernism and so on.
Q: What do you have to say about reform in the teaching of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) in the madrasas? Is this also required?
A: Yes, most certainly. Fiqh must always evolve with time, for as conditions change and new issues emerge new fiqhi responses must be articulated. This calls for the need to exercise ijtihad to examine matters afresh and to take into account new developments. Now, in matters of faith (aqaђid) and worship (ibadat) and other areas that are specifically legislated for in the Qurђan, there can, of course, be no ijtihad, for these are given for all time. But in large areas in the domain of social transactions (muamilat) one must be open to the possibilities of new interpretations. Unfortunately, this is strongly discouraged in the Indian madrasas. Thus, for example, they continue to teach about the laws governing trade, purchase and sale that were developed in medieval times and which were elaborated upon by the early ґulama. They do not refer at all to modern developments, to the context of a now globalized economy. Although numerous ulama have indeed written books dealing with fiqhi responses to new forms of commercial transactions or other modern developments, they are, unfortunately, not included in the madrasa curriculum itself. Instead, they are often simply prescribed as optional readings for students to study on their own. Weђve been trying to get the authorities of the madrasas to radically overhaul the teaching of fiqh to include a range of modern issues, but, I must confess, most of them just dont seem to be willing to listen.
Q: Along with a more relevant fiqh and kalam, do you also feel the need for new commentaries on the QurҒan (tafsir) to be taught in the madrasas?
A: I strongly feel the need for that. The Deoband madrasa, like many other Indian madrasas, continues to teach commentaries penned by early medieval ulama. It uses only two quite inadequate texts for the purpose: Jalalёayn, taught in the sixth grade, and Bayazavi, in the seventh grade. Jalalayn, a single-volume text which was written some eight hundred years ago, contains very little actual commentary as such. Bayazavi runs into eight to ten volumes, and was written some seven centuries ago. Generally, madrasas teach only a very limited portion of Bayazaviђs commentaryat most just a quarter of the first para of the Qurגan. In fact, I would say that, overall, relatively little attention is actually given in the madrasas to tafsir.
This said, I must also add that the medieval Quranic commentators (mufassirun) were, after all, human beings, and no matter how pious they may have been, they were certainly not infallible. When seeking to interpret the QurҒan they always insisted that theirs was a human effort, admitting that no human being could reveal fully or exactly the will of God as expressed in the Quran. Many medieval tafsirs also suffer from the influence of concocted ahadith or what are called israҒili rivayat. Although much of what the old commentaries provide is also valuable, one must also recognize that many of the classical commentators used tafsir for polemical purposes, thus detracting from the worth of much that they have written. Further, they were naturally also influenced in their thinking by their own social location, by the general prevailing social environment as well as by the then available stock of knowledge, and all this is reflected in the different tafsirs that have been written down the ages. So, today, when social conditions have undergone such a radical transformation and when the stock of human knowledge has increased manifold, naturally we need new interpretations of and commentaries on the Quran. Now, since we believe that the QurҒan is of eternal validity, and provides guidance for all times, naturally you need newer interpretations and commentaries of the text as times change, to show the relevance of the Quran in every age.
So, yes, we do need new commentaries, but, more importantly, we also need to train our students to gain a direct understanding of the QurҒan unmediated by other texts. The Quran itself says it is a simple message and a practical guide to action, so why do we need to be burdened or bound by commentaries and super-commentaries, instead of understanding the QurҒan on its own terms?
Q: Would you say that the ulama are generally opposed to any sort of reform or modernization of the madrasa syllabus?
A: No, not really, although there are many conservatives who feel that way. Some of them are opposed to change because they are reluctant to deviate from the path of their elders. Now, while we must respect our predecessors and cherish their great contributions, we must not go to the extent of putting them on a divine pedestal, for ёworship of the elders (buzurg parasti) is strongly condemned in Islam. On the other hand, there are several ґulama, including many leading scholars associated with the madrasas, who strongly feel the need for modernizing the madrasas, while at the same time preserving their essentially religious character. A large number of the members of our own organization think on these lines. However, good intentions here, as elsewhere, are not enough. Even though many madrasas do want to reform and modernize, they often face an acute shortage of funds, without which no such work can be launched.
Q: When you say that madrasas need to modernize, what exactly do you mean?
A: I believe, as do many other ulama, particularly among the younger generation, that madrasas must introduce modern subjects in their curriculum. Some modern subjects are necessary not only for their own sake but even to understand the Qurђan. For instance, history. Now, in many madrasas history is just not taught, not even the biography of the Prophet (sirat), so how can students properly understand the Quran? Besides history, we should familiarize our students with the basics of all other modern subjects, including the natural as well as social sciences, as well as Hindi and English. This is really necessary so that madrasa graduates do not feel lost or alien or suffer from an inferiority complex when they have to face the modern world. This, unfortunately, is what today often happens, because most madrasa students know little about the world beyond the madrasa. I am not saying that madrasas should teach these subjects up to the same the same level as in modern schoolsҗthat would impose too heavy a burden on the studentsbut I do feel that the students must have at least a basic grounding in them. It is also only in this way that madrasa students, as future בulama, would be able to provide proper religious guidance and leadership to the community at large.
Q: What about technical education and the problem of employment of madrasa graduates?
A: Yes, this is important as well. Madrasas must, if they have the funds, provide some sort of technical education so that their graduates can earn a decent livelihood by setting up small businesses of their own in case they do not become professional ulama. In this way they would spare the community a big burden. I think madrasas must seriously address the issue of the employment of their graduates, because obviously there are not enough job opportunities for these graduates as imams or madrasa teachers. Some madrasas do have facilities for training their students in such skills as calligraphy, watch-repairing and book-binding. Now, I donђt mean to denigrate these trades, but, clearly, these are dying out now, and what we need is new skills or trades to be taught, such as computer applications, journalism and so on. That indeed is happening in several madrasas, and even Deoband has now opened a computer training centre.
This is all to the good, and the process needs to be further encouraged. After all, the aim of the madrasa has never been, and nor should it ever be, simply to churn out only religious professionals, people who depend on their livelihood on transmitting or using religious knowledge. History affords us numerous examples of great ulama who were also, at the same time, traders, artisans, craftsmen and so forth. So, I donђt see the introduction of technical education in the madrasas as a deviation from tradition or as leading the madrasas away from the path of religion, as is sometimes imagined.
Q: Christian seminaries, for instance, often require their students, who train to become theologians, to engage in some sort of social work. Are there any similar efforts being made by madrasas in India today?
A: This is indeed happening, although on a very limited scale. In recent years some ulama have started small projects, running schools and charity centres, but clearly, while this is a good beginning, we still have miles to go. I think madrasas must also try to get their students involved in social work. But, then, there are others who seem to have little concern at all for such things, and who would rather spend their time and money constructing big and fancy buildings than bother about the poor. Take for example, the enormous marble mosque that is being constructed at the Deoband madrasa, at a cost of between 15 and 20 crore rupees. Now, the Prophet and his Companions, as we know, prayed in simple structures, often made of mud and earth, for the simpler the mosque the better can one concentrate on worship. Given that, how on earth, I wonder, can anyone justify such lavish expenditure on building palatial mosques, especially since the vast majority of the Muslim community lives in abject poverty?
Q: Some ёulama argue that teaching modern subjects in the madrasa would lead to a dilution of the religious identity of the institution. Do you agree with this claim?
A: Not at all. Introducing these subjects would not lead the madrasas away from tradition at all. Instead, I would say that in this way they would be going back to tradition, for in the early Muslim period there was no distinction between religiousђ and worldlyђ knowledge. Many classical madrasas taught both shariah-related subjects as well as disciplines such as astronomy, chemistry, mathematics and so on. A quarter of a century or more ago, the Deoband madrasa taught mathematics, astronomy, and even Sanskrit, but unfortunately it no longer does. Till recently, the Deoband madrasa also taught medicine (tibb), which, however, has now been discontinued. I was told this was because some of the madrasa authorities felt that teaching medicine might attract students towards the temptations of the world, because of which they might lose their interest in religious affairs. I think this is a completely distorted way of looking at things and is really lamentable. This notion that the world (duniya) is separate from, and indeed opposed to, religion (din) is absolutely un-Islamic, but I regret to say that many ґulama continue to think that way. I mean, the first revelation to the Prophet was Readђ, and it made no distinction between religiousђ and worldlyђ knowledge. And this is why the early Muslims, while remaining firmly committed to Islam, were able to make such impressive strides in every branch of what is thought of now as worldlyђ knowledge. Personally, if you ask me, I think that this un-Islamic distinction that many of our ulama now make between ёreligious and ґsecular knowledge has much to do with an effort on the part of many ґulama to stress their own claims to authority. They feel that if madrasa students gain knowledge of the duniya, they would then cease to con sider their teachers as authorities or would lose their respect for them. Now I am not saying that students should not respect their teachers. Far from it!
Q: I understand that the Deoband madrasa has now started teaching English.Wouldnt you consider this a major improvement?
A: That it certainly is, but let me tell you that not all, or even most, of the students of the madrasa would actually be taught English. There are some 2500 students in the madrasa, and the madrasa authorities has arranged to have each year a batch of 25 graduates (fazils) of the madrasa, who have already passed the eight-year fazilat course, to enroll in a two-year English course. But, in any case, something is better than nothing, as you would probably agree. Let me also add here that many members of the managing committee of the madrasa were vehemently opposed to even this limited teaching of English, claiming that it would lead the students astray from the path of religion and cause a weakening of their faith and their dedication to the cause of Islam. Some even went to the extent of claiming that the proposal to introduce English was a cunning and sinister ploy to smuggle Zionism into the madrasa through the backdoor and thereby poison the minds of the students!
Q: Muslim girls continue to be one of the most educationally deprived sections of Indian society. What role do you think the ґulama could play in promoting girls education?
A: An interesting development in recent years in India has been the setting up of numerous girlsҒ madrasas, many of these having been established by young madrasa graduates. Although these are still relatively few in number, they are now playing a significant role in promoting literacy, Islamic knowledge and general education among Muslim girls. Many ulama now realize the importance of girlsђ education, provided it is conducted in an appropriate Islamic environment. However, unfortunately, there are still a number of traditionalist ulama who do not show much enthusiasm for this, particularly when it comes to modern education for our girls. They argue that since many of the ёulama of the past opposed more than a basic education for girls, we need not depart from their tradition. I think this is quite misplaced, for Islam gives equal stresses to education for males as well as females. To give you a small instance: I published an article in our journal some months ago, lauding the example of a Muslim girl who came second in the examinations for the Indian Police Service in 2001, and presenting her as a model for other Muslim girls to follow. I received a number of angry letters from ulama protesting the article and saying how ёun-Islamic it all was. However, interesting to note, several graduates of Deoband wrote congratulating me for what I wrote.
Q: Having studied at two of the leading Indian madrasas as well as at a regular university, how do you regard the methods of teaching generally employed in the madrasas?
A: In several respects the methods used at the madrasa are indeed better than those employed at universities. For instance, the importance that madrasas place on punctuality, piety, respect for teachers, hard work and so on. However, they also have their serious drawbacks. I feel they give too much stress to memorization, and too little to actual comprehension, critical questioning and debate. Also, they focus more on the learning of particular books rather than on actually understanding a particular subject. The system of teaching Arabic also needs to be radically overhauled. I think we could really gain from the new methods for teaching languages being used in some modern universities. Since Arabic is not the mother tongue of the students, they often find it very difficult to understand the Arabic grammar books, and few of them are actually able to properly converse in Arabic even after spending years at the madrasa. These texts must be replaced by new, more easily understandable books, which are now easily available in the market. However, many ґulama might oppose this, for some of them have a vested interest in continuing with these books. After all, they or their elders have written commentaries upon commentaries on even the most basic Arabic grammar texts that are now used in the madrasas, and so feel that if these are removed from the syllabus their own influence would be undermined, for one of the main sources of their influence is precisely the mastery that they claim over these books. These ulama had studied these books when they were students themselves, so if you remove these books naturally many would take it as a challenge to their own authority. They would then be forced to learn new books themselves before they teach them to the students, and this many do not wish to do. They donђt want to have to face a test themselves! The same could be said in the case of all other subjects and books being taught in the madrasas today.
Q: What do you have to say about the allegations of madrasas being involved in promoting violence or working with pan-Islamist forces to establish an Islamic state in India?
A: I think one must make a basic distinction between madrasas in Pakistan and those in India. The contexts of the two countries are radically different, which makes any comparisons and the drawing of any parallels difficult, if not impossible. In Pakistan, because of a whole host of internal as well as external factors, some madrasas have indeed been directly engaged in promoting violence. On the other hand, there is no evidence at all to suggest that any Indian madrasas have done so. Now, as far as the Deoband school of thought is concerned, a small section of the Deobandi ulama in pre-Partition days, led by Maulana Ashraf ёAli Thanwi, supported the demand for a separate Muslim state of Pakistan. However, the vast majority of the Deobandi ulama, led by Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madni, the then rector of the Deoband madrasa, vociferously opposed the Pakistan demand, closely working, instead, with the Congress for a united India. The bulk of the ёulama have consistently supported the unity of India, and have always stressed the need for harmonious relations between Muslims and other Indians.
Now, after making this clarification, I must say that, yes, among the Muslims, just as in the case of every other community, you do have some hot-headed youth who speak the language of violence and revenge. Some might even be involved in violent activities. But if you were to conduct a survey of Muslim youth who have been involved in such activities, I assure you that you would discover that almost none of them is a madrasa student. Almost all of them would either be completely illiterate or else have studied in a modernђ school. The same could be said to be true of Hindu militants, for instance. Even in the Arab world the vast majority of militant activists have a university training, and are not madrasa products. Now, as I see it, many such people are attracted to mindless violence not because of religion as such, but, rather, precisely because they have only a very superficial understanding of religion and of the Islamic tradition. Because their aims are largely political, and not religious, they see in mindless violence a means for advancing their political goals while using the rhetoric of religion.
Q: What about some fringe Muslim groups that call for the establishment of Islamic rule in India?
A: I think that the demand to establish an Islamic state or khilafat in contemporary India is entirely impractical and completely utopian. Muslims are a relatively small minority in our country, so groups that talk of the forcible establishment of the khilafat and the imposition of Islamic rule in India today are simply building castles in the air. I see this as going against the basic injunctions of Islam, for the Prophet himself is said to have asserted that Muslims should not revolt against established authority if they are allowed the freedom to practise their faith. Now, as I see it, political power is something that God grants to whomsoever He wills as a giftit isnגt something to be directly struggled for, although an Islamic state is indeed a good thing. So, if God wills such a state to be established anywhere, it is to be welcomed, but if it does not exist even then Muslims can lead Islamic lives. If you look at the Quran, you will discover that just three or four of the prophets mentioned therein were actually rulers. The others did not even try to acquire political power, for their only concern was to guide people to the path of true religion. In the light of this, I would say that those so-called Islamists who present the Islamic state as the foundation of Islam, and, in effect, propagate a political interpretation of the faith, do not do justice to the intention of the QurҒan itself.
Q: So, you think there is no truth in the propaganda against the madrasas at all?
A: Well, as far as allegations of breeding militancy and terrorism are concerned, I can assure you that this propaganda is completely false. However, not everything that is alleged about the madrasas is incorrect. There is some substance in the allegations that many madrasas continue to cling to many outmoded ways and refuse to change with the times. Many madrasas are ruled by their administrators like petty fiefdoms. Those in charge often use the influence that they wield to serve their own political interests. This has happened, for instance, in my own alma mater, the Deoband madrasa, which split in the 1980s because of an unfortunate personality dispute. Then again, many madrasas are vehemently opposed to any sort of outside influence. To give you an example, the Deoband madrasa has a huge library, containing several thousand books and manuscripts. However, it continues to refuse to subscribe to a single English or Hindi newspaper, other than periodicals that are considered as Islamicђ, that is to say, in line with the Deobandi school of thought. If students are deliberately kept ignorant about what others feel about Islam, how would they ever come to know about the propaganda being conducted in the English and Hindi press against Islam and the madrasas, and how would they be able to counter it?
Then again, I think many of our madrasas build an extreme insularity and a lack of concern about the problems of others that is completely un-Islamic. The same holds true for much of the Muslim press. So, they talk only of Muslim problems, and the ulama and madrasa students imagine that Muslims are the victims of every sort of imaginable conspiracy. This naturally stultifies creativity and openness and a willingness to properly relate to people of other faiths, to work with them for common goals or even to learn from them. Now, for all this to take place, madrasa students must know about whatђs happening in the world around them. So, they must have access to newspapers and the media, even to those owned and controlled by non-Muslims. But, in many madrasas there is a strictly observed ban on reading anything other than the literature supportive of the particular school of thought that each madrasa belongs to. Naturally, the students are left ignorant of the ways in which others view the Muslims and also with the developments in the wider world. Watching television is also forbidden in the madrasas. Many ulama castigate television as a Satanic device, but secretly keep television sets in their own homes! Now, I donђt say that everything that is broadcast on television is good. As you would agree, much of it is simply awful, but I do think that some programmes, such as the news bulletins or discussions on current affairs, are instructive and useful. Madrasas ought to allow their students to watch these programmes, while keeping them away from harmful channels.
Q: How do you think the propaganda campaign against the madrasas can be effectively combated?
A: I think we need to closely interact with the media to present a proper, balanced picture of the madrasas so that we can clear the deep-rooted misunderstandings that many people have about them and about Islam in general. Some larger madrasas have taken steps in this direction, such as by setting up media cells, inviting journalists to visit and report on them, publishing leaflets, issuing press statements and so on. All this is, of course, very good and needs to be encouraged. At the same time, we do face certain major difficulties. Often, if we issue a statement refuting the unfair propaganda against us, non-Muslim newspapers simply refuse to carry it. It appears that some of them have a vested interest in denying the truth, in order to reinforce and perpetuate anti-Muslim prejudices. Then, again, much of the propaganda against the madrasas or Islam in general is conducted in Hindi and English, which few of our ulama know well enough, so they are unable to counter it. On the other hand, our ёulama generally write in Urdu, and so their statements countering anti-Muslim or anti-madrasa propaganda rarely reaches non-Muslim readers, few of whom now have any knowledge of Urdu. I think one of our most urgent tasks is to prepare well-researched literature on Islam and on the madrasas in English and Hindi and other Indian languages so that we can effectively reach out to our non-Muslim brothers and sisters.
Q: What impact do you think the anti-madrasa propaganda has had on the general non-Muslim public?
A: It has had a seriously deleterious impact, needless to say. So, when I travel on a bus or walk through a Hindu locality, sometimes people look at me with suspicion and hostility. Many Hindus would, I guess, now imagine that all madrasa students are dreaded terrorists, although, as I said, there is absolutely no basis in reality for such a fear. However, the propaganda has, in a perverse sort of way perhaps, been somewhat of a blessing in disguise. Now that they are under attack, I think many madrasas are at last waking up to the urgent need to reach out to the general public, including non-Muslims, and explain to them what they are all about. Some madrasas now regularly organize meetings to which they invite local non-Muslims, sometimes even government officials, so that they can gain a proper appreciation of what madrasas really are and what Islam actually is. I think this must be encouraged and done on a far larger scale than at present. In this way madrasas would be able to come out of the walls that they have created around themselves and interact and dialogue with the wider society.
In a sense, the propaganda against the madrasas might also lead many madrasas to consider modernizing their curriculum, to adopt more efficient administrative and managerial policies and in general to be more accountable to the public. This, in fact, is happening in several cases. Take the example of the Deoband madrasa itself. Had it not been for the propaganda against the madrasas I doubt if Deoband would have finally relented and allowed the introduction of English. With wild stories about the madrasas circulating in the international press, scores of foreign and English-speaking Indian journalists descended on Deoband, seeking to find out things for themselves. In order that the madrasa could effectively explain to these journalists what it was all about, and to clear their misconceptions of the madrasa system and of Islam, the authorities of the Deoband madrasa were forced to admit the need for at least some of its students to learn English, and that is how the English department was launched.
Q: What role, if any, should madrasas play in promoting inter-faith dialogue?
A: As religious guides, the ulama of the madrasas must play a leading role in promoting inter-communal amity, although, unfortunately, they do not seem to be doing much in this regard today. However, I think that inter-faith dialogue is not a task simply for the ёulama alone. Ordinary Muslims, too, must interact more closely with our non-Muslim countrymen. Only by cultivating personal links and friendships can we reach out to and dialogue with others and clear up our misunderstandings of each other. Now, in this process of interaction non-Muslims might well put forward their own criticisms of Islam or the madrasas or whatever, but, just as the Prophet did, Muslims should bear all this in a spirit of tolerance and try to clear their misunderstandings gently. We, Muslims and non-Muslims, must explore ways to live together in harmony and jointly work for the progress of the country. I think there is a lot we can learn from the example of the true Sufis of the past, who never attacked followers of other religions, but, instead, worked to bring all people together in a spirit of love and service.
Q: Certain Deobandi groups in Pakistan, such as the Lashkar-i Jhangvi and the Sipah-i Sahaba, have been involved in bloody massacres of the Shia minority there. They have even called for the Shiёas to be declared as apostates and non-Muslims. They have also been involved in battles with the Barelwi Sunnis. How do you, as a graduate of the Deoband madrasa, react to all this?
A: I think this is really tragic. Shias are also fellow Muslims, and are our own brothers. So, too, the Barelwis. All those who pronounce the creed of attestation to the faith of Islam (kalima shahada) la ilaha il allah muhammadur rasul allah (ёThere is no god but God and Muhammad is His Prophet) must be considered as Muslims, whatever their other differences. But, as you know, many madrasas, because they are all associated with one school of thought or the other, are unfortunately engaged in branding rival schools of Muslim thought as ґun-Islamic and heretical, claiming that their own school of thought is the only legitimate Islamic group. Virulently attacking other Muslim groups has unfortunately become a favorite pastime for many ґulama, and this is reflected in their fatwas and writings and in the heated debates (munazaras) that they periodically organize. In many madrasas, students are actually trained to engage in fiery polemical battles with Muslims of other groups. From the point of view of the overall interest of the wider Muslim community I think this is really a calamity, as it only further creates divisions at a time when unity is urgently required. I think the ulama must seriously address this issue, and attempt to solve, or at least live with, their differences through peaceful dialogue, instead of dragging them before the public and creating such furor. Rather than fanning internal strife, the ёulama ought to be trying to create understanding and tolerance between the different Muslim groups, based on a constructive agenda for the betterment of the community as a whole. By all this I want to stress that the age of polemics, whether within the Muslim fold or between Muslims and others, has gone, and we should now seriously think in terms of dialogue rather than confrontation. In any case, such polemics do not often actually lead to others changing their views or coming closer to the truth. In fact, it might actually cause people to be even more alienated, to cling more closely to their own positions as a defense mechanism since they would regard them as being under attack.
Q: One last question, to end on a somewhat personal note. Given your views on the madrasas, do many traditionalist ulama see you as a threat?
A: I cannot speak for myself, and I must say that I am not an exception in any way. Many members of our organization feel exactly the way I do. Several of them have, after graduating from Deoband, gone on to enroll in regular universities and many of them are working in various capacities, not simply as imams and khatibs in mosques or madrasa teachers. Being exposed to the outside world has naturally made us critical of many aspects of the existing madrasa system, although we remain deeply appreciative of its many good aspects as well. And, I must tell you, there are many ёulama, including senior teachers, in Deoband and various other madrasas, who also share our views.
Originally printed at http://www.islaminterfaith.org/august2003/interview.html#interview2, and reprinted at TAM with permission.