Madrasas and Charges of ‘Terrorism’: Interview with Maulana Salman Nadwi
by Yoginder Sikand
Maulana Salman Hussaini Nadvi, Dean of the Faculty of Shariah at the renowned Nadwat ul-Ulama madrasa in Lucknow and member of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, is a senior Indian Muslim scholar. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, he talks about various aspects related to madrasas in contemporary India.
Q: Today, madrasas in general suffer from a bad press. What do you think can be done to address this?
A: I think much of this owes to lack of knowledge of media persons of what madrasas are all about. Instead of dispelling wrong propaganda about madrasas, much of the media has fallen victim to anti-madrasa propaganda and is further fuelling it. I strongly feel that to address this issue, media persons must visit madrasas themselves, observe their environment closely, interact with the ulema, the teachers and the students and then present a true picture, based on what they observe. They must present the truth, as they see it, rather than project a distorted image which certain forces opposed to the madrasas are bent on creating and reinforcing.
Another thing that needs to be done in this regard is to promote more interaction between madrasas and schools, colleges and universities. There can be exchange of students and teachers, joint programmes, such as debates, seminars and also joint sport activities. In this way, teachers and students in madrasas and in these other educational institutions can interact, learn about and come closer to each other. This will surely help break down prejudices, many of which are based on the lack of familiarity. And I am not just advocating that madrasas interact with Muslim secular institutions. I would also like them to interact in the same way with Hindu institutions, Hindu teachers and Hindu students. For instance, Hindu teachers can come to madrasas to deliver lectures. Or, madrasa students can have joint sport functions with college students, Muslims and non-Muslims. Such was the case earlier with the Nadwat ul-Ulama, whose students used to play football with students from the Lucknow University, located just adjacent to the madrasa.
The point behind such joint activities is to help promote a consciousness of a common humanity. Religion, if understood correctly, does not teach division, but, rather, addresses itself to all humankind. True religion is based on true humanism. It wants that human beings, irrespective of religion, should live together amicably.
Q: But some conservative ulema might oppose such activities, claiming that they might ‘negatively’ impact on the religious commitment and identity of the students of the madrasas.
A: Some maulvis may indeed oppose this, but I think when madrasa teachers and students interact with others and have a free exchange of views and ideas with them, many will support such initiatives, provided, of course, that the others also relate to them with a genuine concern for understanding and dialogue. This will help promote a more balanced and true picture of the madrasas in the public domain. Obviously, this would be for the good of the community and for the country, too. We must work for the country, for which peace and good relations between the different communities is indispensable. And for that we must come closer to each other, promote mutual trust and confidence and oppose narrow communalism.
Q: What efforts have you personally made in this regard?
A: I have tried to do this, in my own limited way, through the Jamiat Shabab il-Islam (‘The Union of Islamic Youth’), which I established in Lucknow way back in 1974. The intention was to help madrasa graduates interact with graduates of colleges and universities, both Muslims as well as Hindus, and to help reduce the gap between the two streams of education. We also wanted young madrasa graduates to become social workers, to take a more pro-active role in community affairs, and to engage with society, with Muslims as well as Hindus, on issues related to education, social welfare and so on. And even today, when I travel to and speak at various madrasas and colleges, I repeat this same point: that madrasas and college-educated students must interact more closely. This will help counter misunderstandings. It will also work for the larger good of the country.
Q: What do you see as the reasons for the current wave of propaganda directed against madrasas, emanating from powerful quarters in the West and even in India?
A: There is no doubt that much of this has to do with the powerful Zionist lobby in America. Today, America is in the grasp of the pro-Zionist lobby, which controls its current administration, its politics, its economics and its media. America has consistently backed Israeli aggression and has always vetoed any UN resolutions that are critical of Israel. This, and the greed for cheap West Asian oil, accounts largely for the anti-madrasa propaganda emanating from America. To add to this is the power of the right-wing pro-Zionist Christian lobby, which dreams of the imminent arrival of Jesus Christ, who they believe will establish a global Christian empire with his capital in Jerusalem.
Obviously, in the current context, the only forces that can stand up to and resist this religious aggression and these hegemonic designs of America and Israel are the Muslims. The ulema of the madrasas, who are well-versed with the history of the Muslims and of Islam, play a crucial role in shaping the mentality of the Muslim masses and to give them a certain direction. America knows that this class of people can effectively mobilize opposition to its imperialistic policies and designs, and so it is seeking to undermine them. In order to legitimize its imperialist aggression against many Muslim countries, it constantly claims that the ulema are ‘terrorists’, ‘extremists’, ‘obscurantists’, and so on.
Often, these anti-Muslim forces commit certain heinous crimes through their paid agents and place the blame on the ulema or on madrasa students. This is part of their larger strategy of seeking to delegitimise the ulema so as to weaken resistance to Western and Zionist imperialism.
Q: Would you say that this holds true in the case of India also?
A: Much the same pattern is being repeated in India, too. In India, many bomb blasts are actually engineered by certain agencies, who then wrongly blame Muslims for them, especially madrasa students and teachers, in order to defame them. It seems that now American, Israeli and Indian agencies have come together and are working in tandem. The Hindutva right-wing has for long been engaged in such destructive acts directed against Muslims. So, any time there is a bomb blast Muslims are automatically blamed for it, even if there is no evidence for this, and they are arrested under draconian laws. In jail they are tortured and forced to sign fake confessions. In this climate of growing injustice, some might entertain feelings of revenge. But that, I feel, can only further add to the mindless destruction that we are witnessing. If we are to ensure peace in the country, which is indispensable for its progress, there needs to be an immediate stop to the harrassment of innocent Muslims wrongly accused of ‘terrorism’.
Q: So, are you saying that there is no evidence of Indian madrasas being engaged in ‘terrorism’?
A: Exactly. Madrasas give great stress to morality, to manners and decorum, to respect for elders and so on. So docile are madrasa students that they cannot take any step forward. To accuse them of aggression is, therefore, wrong.
Q: But surely this is not the case with many madrasas in Pakistan?
A: The situation in Pakistan is somewhat different. There is a certain extremism there in some madrasa circles. In many cases, this is as a response to incidents, events and provocations specific to the Pakistani context. Some madrasas there may indeed be involved in militant activities as a response to what is happening in that country. But Indian madrasas are quite different, and not a single one has been proved by even the Government of being engaged in ‘terrorism’.
Q: Certain governments and influential policy-makers, who, while accusing madrasas of fanning ‘terrorism’, at the same time are now vehemently advocating ‘reforms’ in the madrasa curriculum. How do you look at this?
A: I don’t think their intention is proper. They talk about ‘reforming’ the madrasas even though they lack a proper understanding of the madrasa system. For such people to talk of madrasa ‘reforms’ is like forcing a healthy man to eat medicines! It can only make the man fall sick and have all sorts of unwanted side effects! Instead of curing the man you will end up making him fall ill! This is what some governments are trying to do.
I would suggest that government dialogue with and interact with reliable and responsible ulema who enjoy the confidence of the community and only on the basis of that, and with their support, formulate its policies. This sort of dialogue is essential. If the government has any misgivings about the madrasas, it can sort them out with the ulema through dialogue. It should not impose any measures with a preconceived notion about the madrasas and without the cooperation of the ulema.
Q: In this context, how do you see recent suggestions emanating from official quarters for the setting up of a National Madrasa Board under government control?
A: I think imposing such a Board against the willingness of the ulema is not only wrong, it will also not work. The opposition of many ulema to this Board is because of what they have seen happening to many of the madrasas affiliated to government madrasa boards in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. There, many such madrasas do not teach at all, and some of them even have fake names of teachers on their registers simply to pocket the money given by the boards. Many teachers in such madrasas have lost the passion for teaching as they are now assured of a steady income and have become like any other government servants, whose primary concern is to increase their salaries. Often, teachers in such madrasas will be found demonstrating outside state assemblies, staging dharnas and strikes, demanding increase in their pay and perks. This, of course, goes against the stature of the ulema.
So, seeing the dismal state of affairs in many madrasas affiliated to state madrasa boards in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, many ulema are apprehensive that if a National Madrasa Board is instituted, it would lead to the same phenomenon replicating itself throughout the country and on a massive scale, which can only prove detrimental to the cause that madrasas are meant to serve. Otherwise, the ulema have no conflict with the government. Nor are they opposed to modern education, as is claimed by some advocates of the National Madrasa Board. After all, many madrasas have begun teaching computers and English, and scores of others have been teaching Mathematics, Hindi, Science, Social Sciences and so on for years now. We want our madrasa students to learn these subjects too. Islam does not oppose this. We tell our students that many great scientists and inventors in the past were Muslims, so that they can take pride in and be inspired by their example. So, it is wrong to say that our opposition to the Board stems from any hostility to modern knowledge. Rather, the opposition stems from the feeling on the part of many ulema that the Board is being sought to be imposed on the madrasas and that its consequences will be negative.
If this issue is sorted out through dialogue between the government and the madrasas there can well be cooperation between the two. The government should let the madrasas free, and if it is sincerely interested in helping them improve, it can provide them grants for infrastructuiral development and for teaching modern subjects without interfering in their functioning. But for the government to take any unilateral decision without the consent of the majority of the ulema would be grossly undemocratic.
Q: What role do you think middle-class, university-educated Muslims can play in the process of promoting dialogue between the ulema and the government?
A: Unfortunately, some such Muslims seek to downplay their Muslim identity, wanting to have little or nothing to do with the Muslim masses and their issues. This is both because they are concerned only about their own aggrandisement as well as because they fear think that if they identify themselves with Muslim causes they would be mistakenly branded as ‘communal’ or ‘obscurantist’ by others. This is very unfortunate. I think there is a great need for middle-class Muslims who have links with the media and the government to facilitate dialogue between the ulema and the government. Unfortunately, however, little has been done in this regard.
Q: To return to the point about the growing anti-madrasa propaganda, would you agree with the oft-heard argument that this must be understood as part of a broader strategy to seek to impose Western values on the rest of the world so as to reinforce Western hegemony?
A: That is how it seems to me to be. America, and the West in general, wants to establish its global cultural hegemony, which is indispensable for its economic and political hegemony as well. It operates on the assumption that those who do not share its culture and its values are its foes and that, henceforth, they should be suppressed and eliminated. This, of course, leads to aggression, as evidenced in the massive destruction wrought by the Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere.
Q: But then how do you explain the fact that America has such close relations with regimes that claim to be ‘Islamic’, such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states?
A: These close links are simple because these regimes feel compelled to have them. They are like servants who cannot express their anger against their master, being wholly dependent on them.
Q: Yet, at the same time, these regimes boast of their ‘Islamic’ credentials. Isn’t this some sort of hypocrisy (munafaqat), which is considered to be a grievous sin in Islam?
A: Yes, it is hypocrisy. It is 100 per cent hypocrisy. There is no doubt about it at all. For instance, Saudi Arabia is under American pressure, and although it does not agree with every American policy, it finds it difficult to speak out against America.
To come back to your question of culture as a tool of imperialism—I am not blindly opposed to everything from the West. We need to appreciate and learn from good things in every culture. Some people talk of the ‘clash of civilisations’, but I prefer to talk of the ‘consensus of civilisations’. In the face of the massive onslaught of blind Westernisation, which is certainly a weapon being used to promote Western hegemony by supplanting other cultures, we are ignoring the tremendous ill-effects of many aspects of contemporary Western culture. We have to preserve and promote the good aspects of our own Eastern cultures, based on the Hindu religion, Islam and so on, and refuse to be swept away by the West or suffer from an inferiority complex, which is reflected in blindly imitating everything that comes from the West.
Q: What role do you think the Muslim ulema can play in promoting inter-community dialogue in India?
A: Inter-community dialogue and understanding is an Islamic imperative at the same time as it is necessary for the welfare of the country as a whole. My appeal to Muslims is to strive to be models of Islamic virtue so that they can be a source of mercy (rahmat) to others through their actions. Deal kindly and gently with others, not aggressively—only then will people be willing to listen to you. The earlier method of polemical debates (munazara) is of no use. It only further reinforces conflicts and divides. It reflects an unhealthy urge to seek to impose one’s views on others, to denounce others. What is needed, instead, is dialogue, through which we should learn to understand each other and each other’s faiths and thereby clear our misunderstandings. In that way, people of different faiths can come closer to each other. The Quran says that God has made human beings from the same pair of primal parents and has divided them into different communities so that they can know or understand each other. This can happen only through dialogue, not through fierce polemical exchanges.
So, for instance, ulema should meet with Hindu and Christian religious leaders and discuss issues of mutual interest and get to know each other. They should seek to understand other religions in the same way as their followers understand them. They should know if in puja a man is praying to a stone, considering it to be a god, or is actually taking it as a symbol of Ishwar, or if when a man is saying his prayers in a mosque if he is praying to a wall or to God. There should be programmes in temples to which ulema are invited, in mosques where pujaris are invited, or in churches where pujaris and maulvis both are invited. Let them closely interact with each other. That will make them recognise their common humanity.
Q: As a leading Islamic scholar, what do you feel about Muslim girls’ education and modern education for Muslim children? Some argue that the ulema are opposed to both.
A: This argument is wrong. Women should not be behind men in religious or modern education. They should acquire both sorts of education and share it with other women and with their own children. In matters of education there should be no difference between men and women. History itself shows that many Muslim women were better scholars than their male contemporaries. Both halves of society should have equal access to education, otherwise society will not be able to maintain its balance.
As for modern education for Muslim children, we are all for it. We do not say that all Muslim children must enroll in full-time madrasas and spend five or six years training to become maulvis. Not at all. If in a locality there are just five or ten maulvis from whom people can get religious instruction it is enough. The other children can go to school and take up a range of professions, although every Muslim child should be taught the basics of his or her faith as well. After all, not all the companions of the Prophet were expert religious scholars. Many of them were traders or agriculturalists or workers. So, Islam is not a hurdle to acquiring modern education, contrary to what is sometimes alleged by some people.