Interview with Maulana Wahiduddin Khan about Madrassas
Posted Aug 13, 2007

Interview with Maulana Wahiduddin Khan about Madrassas

Yoginder Sikand


Based in New Delhi, 82-year old Maulana Wahiduddin Khan is one of India’s most prolific Islamic scholars. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand he talks about the much-discussed issue of madrasas.

Q: You are a prolific writer and have written extensively on a vast number of issues related to Islam. How is it, then, that you have written very little on the issue of madrasas?

A: I did write a couple of articles on madrasas in my earlier days when I worked for the Jamiat ul-Ulema’s Urdu paper al-Jamiat, which I edited for around eight years. However, after I established the Islamic Centre in New Delhi in 1970 I decided to focus only on producing dawah-oriented literature, trying to present Islam in terms intelligible to the modern mind and aimed at both Muslims as well as others. Much has been written on the madrasas, including by the ulema of the madrasas themselves, but there is very little dawah-oriented literature available, so that is why I decided to devote my time to this.

Q: What exactly do you mean by ‘dawah-oriented’ literature?

A: Telling others about Islam is dawah, and literature written with this purpose in mind is dawah-oriented literature. Dawah is the greatest responsibility of Muslims. The Quran and numerous Hadith reports mention that it is the duty of Muslims to convey the message of Islam to all of humankind. In our country, many Muslim organizations are working for the Muslim community and some of them claim that this is dawah work, but this is not the case. Unfortunately, very few Muslims are today engaged in any organized dawah work.

Q: How is dawah different from proselytisation?

A: The two are very different. Proselytisation aims at changing a person from one religion to another, for which all sorts of methods are used. But the Quran says that it is only God who can change people’s hearts. So, in contrast to proselytisation, dawah aims at sharing one’s faith with others. It is a knowledge-sharing experience and process in which one teaches and learns at the same time. And in the process of doing so, one gets to realize and understand good points in other religions as well.

Q: Since you have written very little on the madrasas, does it mean that you do not see eye-to-eye with many ulema of the madrasas?

A: Some people are critical of my approach, but I must also say that my books are read by many ulema and several madrasa educated people are with me in the dawah work that I am engaged in. The ulema are doing good work by running madrasas. You can call it a sort of division of labour. Madrasas are needed and so, too, is dawah work, and there is no contradiction between the two.

Q: How do you look at the madrasa system? There is much talk about the need for reforms in the system?

A: Unlike some others, I am not critical of or opposed to the madrasas as such. Muslims need both types of education—religious as well as secular. Muslim children should have knowledge of both their religion as well as secular subjects. There is, of course, no need for all Muslim children to go to full-time madrasas to train to become ulema. However, there must be some children who do so that the tradition of religious learning can be carried on. We need madrasa-trained ulema who have knowledge of the Quran, Hadith, Islamic jurisprudence and Arabic.

As far as the question of madrasa ‘reforms’ is concerned, I really don’t believe in this talk of ‘modernisation’. You certainly cannot ‘modernise’ the Quran and the Hadith. So, I think the word ‘modernisation’ in this context is uncalled for.

While on this subject of ‘reforms’, I must say that the ‘modern’ schools and universities are also in urgent need of reform, a point often neglected by vociferous advocates of madrasa ‘reform’. In the Psychology departments of many Indian universities they continue to teach the outdated Conditioning Theory and the Illusion Theory. What I mean to say is that no syllabus can be perfect. What’s more important than the formal syllabus are good teachers, because it is teachers who teach, not books.

Some people argue that madrasas teach some outdated centuries-old texts on Greek philosophy and logic. But we must also that departments of English in universities also teach English classics, written centuries ago, which have no value in the outside world. For me these texts are a minor issue. The basic issue is the need for good, committed teachers.

Q: So, are you arguing that madrasa students must not be made familiar with basic ‘modern’ subjects?

A: No, not at all. What I suggest is that separate institutions can be established where some madrasa students, after they graduate, can enroll to learn ‘modern’ subjects, particularly different languages such as English. I myself received a traditional madrasa education and learnt English and ‘modern’ subjects on my own after I graduated. I feel that if students are forced to study ‘modern’ subjects while in the madrasas in addition to the subjects in the existing madrasa curriculum it would be too much of a load for them to bear. It might destroy the fabric of the madrasas.

Q: In recent years a small number of these specialized institutions for madrasa graduates that you refer to have been established in India. How do you look at this phenomenon?

A: I think this is a very welcome development. However, it needs to be done in a more organized way. What many of these institutions lack is good teachers motivated by a missionary zeal. It won’t do to have just professional tutors. I strongly feel that more important than the curriculum are the teachers. In my days in the Madrasat ul-Islah in Azamgarh, we had teachers who worked with missionary passion. They instilled in us the spirit of enquiry, which is the mother of all knowledge and without which one cannot progress. This tradition must be revived. Presently, we have no institutes for training madrasa teachers. They need to be trained in pedagogical techniques, child development and so on. I think this is one issue that Muslim organizations must focus on.

Q: How do you think the rigid dualism between the madrasa-trained ulema and the ‘secular’ university-trained Muslim intelligentsia can be bridged?

A: In my childhood, this dualism was not so apparent. At that time, the secular educational system did not lack ethical or moral values, but today the situation is, lamentably, very different. I suppose this is a result of wider social changes. You cannot create an institution like an island. Neither madrasas nor secular schools are islands, cut off from the outside world. They are both influenced by the wider society. Rabindranath Tagore’s attempt at creating an ideal educational institution in a rural setting, uninfluenced by negative influences from the wider society, proved to be a failure.

A feasible way to overcome this educational dualism is by promoting greater interaction between students and teachers of madrasas and those of schools and colleges, including both Muslims and others. In the past there was this sort of interaction. Many Hindus used to study in madrasas, but not now.  Presently, there is very little such interaction and that is why there is such a glaring lack of understanding between the ulema and products of universities.

Q: Some ulema might argue that the sort of interaction that you advocate might have a negative impact on the faith of madrasa students. What would you say?

A: I don’t agree with this. Interaction, based on a spirit of scientific enquiry and learning, is the source of change and progress. There is a tradition about the Caliph Umar which says that he used to learn from all. This learning he got through interacting with different people. Through interaction with others, based on the quest for knowledge, you can refine your own morals and learn to recognize and respect others as fellow human beings. This is precisely what Islam wants.

To enable madrasas and their students to interact with others, and for them to come out of the four walls of their seminaries, the best way is to inculcate in them the dawah spirit. For this, madrasas can arrange seminars and conferences to which they can invite people of other faiths as well as Muslims and others from colleges and universities. This sort of interaction will be a great means of promoting knowledge on both sides and will go a long way in dispelling mutual misunderstandings.

To take my own example: every day I interact with people, of various social and religious backgrounds. I consider this a blessing, for it provides me knowledge, sensitivity to the humanity of others, rich experiences and moral values.

Q: Related to the above question, some ulema might argue that interacting with people of other faiths might negatively impact on the students’ Muslim cultural identity. Some ideologues refer to a hadith in this regard which warns Muslims against copying the ways of others. How do you see this argument?

A: There is no single Muslim cultural identity, just as there is no single Hindu cultural identity for that matter. This notion of completely separate communal cultural identities has been used as a ploy to keep communities apart from each other and reduce interaction between them. It is a major hindrance to interaction and to successful dawah work. One’s identity should be determined by one’s piety, not by the dress he or she wears or the food he or she cooks or the language he or she speaks. Some people think that a Muslim’s cultural identity is determined by the fact that he uses a pot with a long spout for his ablutions and that a Hindu’s identity is determined by the fact that he uses a round pot without a spout. This sort of thinking is stupid, to say the least.

In south India, it is often difficult to distinguish a Muslim from a Hindu, because there Hindus and Muslims are almost identical in terms of language and dress. Despite not having a clearly and completely separate cultural identity that sets them apart from the local Hindus, the south Indian Muslims, are, I think, perhaps better Muslims than their north Indian counterparts. There is a lesson that we need to learn from this.

Now, as for the hadith report which you referred to, my argument is that it applies only to copying the religious symbols of other religions, such as the Christian cross and the Hindu janeo. Other aspects of material culture are not forbidden, provided, of course, they do not violate the teachings of Islam.

Q: What role do you feel the madrasas and the ulema can play in inter-faith dialogue?

A: I think they must play a central role, but, unfortunately, this they are not doing. Madrasas do not realize the value of positive interaction with others, including with people of other faiths. Contrary to the fear that interacting with others might negatively impact on the faith and identity of their students, I feel it will strengthen their religious commitment and understanding.

In this regard, let me cite the story of a disciple of Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi, who complained to him saying that his son was not interested in religion. In response, the Maulana advised him to send his son to a Christian school. After his son enrolled in this school his father discovered that he had become a practicing Muslim because he was constantly challenged there about his faith. His Christian friends frequently asked him about Islam, and so he had to read up on the subject. They asked him about namaz, the Islamic form of prayer, so he started praying.

I can cite a similar instance from my own life. Almost half a century ago, when I was in Lucknow, I met a scholar of Hindu background who was an atheist. He told me that if the Prophet Muhammad was removed from history, it would make no difference to the story of the world. Instead of reacting violently, I took this up as a challenge. A process began developing in my mind, because Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad was the last and final prophet and a model for all humankind. This statement forced me to study numerous books about the historical role of the Prophet, and the result of that was my book ‘Islam: The Creator of the Modern Age’. This book was, in a sense, a product of the interaction I had with that atheist scholar. If I had not met him I would not have experienced that shock or challenge which forced me to study this subject.

So, what I say is that this fear of interaction is baseless and those who play on such fears do not know the value of the challenges that interaction poses. Interaction, done in a positive and conscious way, is itself an important form of education and the source of all knowledge. If madrasas do their part in promoting interaction with people of other faiths, I think it can go a long way in helping to improve Hindu-Muslim relations in India.

Q: Are you suggesting that the onus of promoting interaction with others lies on the ulema? What if the other side is not interested in interaction?

A: I am not blaming the madrasas at all. I am just pointing out that the Islamic imperative of dawah crucially depends on interaction, with other Muslims and with people of other faiths. Addressing some 1,40,000 of his followers at Mecca on the occasion of the Haj, the Prophet Muhammad said that he had been sent by God with a message and he told his followers to spread this message to the whole of humankind after him. Accordingly, most of these followers left Mecca and Medina and settled in adjacent lands. That is why if you visit Mecca and Medina you will find very few graves of the companions of the Prophet there. Most of them left for other lands, where they settled and, interacting with people there, spread the message of Islam. Many of these companions of the Prophet did not know the language of the people whom they began living among, but yet they interacted with them and a result of that interaction was the present Arab world, stretching from Morocco in the West to Iraq in the West.

Q: Perhaps one major hindrance the ulema of the madrasas might face in trying to interact with people of other faiths is that many of them may not be familiar or comfortable with any language other than Urdu. Do you think this is a major problem?

A: Where there is a will there is a way. I learnt Hindi and English on my own and I am sure that others with a madrasa background can do so, too, if they have the will. If you interact with others, gradually you will learn their language and will be able to be sensitive to their culture and traditions.

Q: Another issue is the negative images that many madrasa students and teachers might have of people of other faiths. How does one tackle this if the sort of interaction you are calling for is to be promoted?

A: There are these negative stereotypes on both sides. I think that this is largely due to lack of interaction. Positive interaction is a great killer of negativity. A Hindu who has no Muslim friends but has only read about Muslims in the media will probably have a very negative opinion about them. On the other hand, a Hindu who lives in a mixed or in a Muslim locality will more likely have a much more positive appreciation of Muslims. Positive interaction is the basis of the process of removing misconceptions, and for this you do not need any artificial schemes or programmes.

Let me give you an instance of the power of constructive interaction in removing stereotypes. In a village in Himachal Pradesh there was a small Muslim community which had set up a madrasa. The Hindu villagers had all sorts of negative views and feelings about the madrasa and the maulvis who taught there. One day, some Hindu houses caught fire and, seeing this, the madrasa students rushed to the spot and put down the flames. After that, the attitude of the Hindu villages towards the madrasa changed completely. They became as positive in their appreciation of it as they were negative about it before. This miracle was a result of interaction.

Q: Would you recommend that madrasas also teach their students about other faiths?

A: Yes, madrasas could also consider teaching their students the basics of other religions. This will enable them, as would-be ulema, to relate more comfortably with people of other faiths. This will also assist them in their dawah work.

The teaching of other religions should aim at providing students an objective understanding of other faiths. The earlier approach of denouncing other religions must be given up. You must learn to understand your neighbour even if you do not agree with him. I think bitter polemics are against the ethos of Islam. So, for instance, in my case, when I visit Hindu, Sikh, Christian shrines and other places of worship I try to empty my mind of prejudices, and I have learnt a lot from this. My intention in doing so is to learn, not to debate or to denounce others as inferior. As I see it, dawah is an expression of sympathy for others, not hostility. It has anything to do with pride based on the feeling that one is superior to others. The Quran asks us to be sympathetic well-wishers of others.

Q: Another obstacle in enabling the ulema to interact with others could be the fear of rejection due to anti-Muslim prejudice. Do you agree?

A: My point is that dawah and healthy interaction require great patience, endurance and personal sacrifice. To cite a personal example, when I shifted to Delhi many years ago I learnt about a group of Hindus who would meet once a week at a certain place. I was keen to interact with them and so I started attending these weekly get-togethers. At one of these meetings, a man, whose name was Malik Ram Sarraf, came up to me and told me something which he claimed was in the Quran. I replied that it was not. He responded by saying that it indeed was. He said that he knew Urdu and had read the translation of the Quran several times. He told me that I was ignorant.

Now, this was a matter of great humiliation for me and his derogatory remarks about the Quran hurt me very badly. Yet, I tolerated what he said. I was not rude to him. As a result, over time, Malik Ram Sarraf became a good friend of mine. This was the fruit of patience and adjustment that is needed in dawah work.

Q: How do you react to charges about Indian madrasas being allegedly involved in promoting ‘terrorism’?

A: This charge is completely baseless. There is no such madrasa in India which is engaged in this sort of work. Yes, it is true that there are some madrasas in Pakistan that are doing this, but even there I would say it is not so much a madrasa phenomenon as much as it is a Pakistani phenomenon. Just the other day the Pakistani Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, Syed Tanveer Husain, called for what he called jihad against India in the Parliament! This is total madness. This man is not a madrasa graduate, and so terrorism in some madrasas in Pakistan is a specifically Pakistani issue, rather than one of madrasas as such. It is a reflection of a particularly distorted version or understanding of Islam that has developed in Pakistan over the years, which has been used as a means to promote certain vested interest. Unfortunately, some sections of the media wrongly equate Indian and Pakistani madrasas and so assume that the former are engaged in terrorism just as some of the latter are. This is wholly incorrect.

Q: Can you elaborate on this point about the exploitation of Islam in Pakistan? What exactly do you mean?

A: The Pakistan movement was basically centred on the demand for a separate land, and for this Islam was used as a tool for popular mobilization. People have the right to demand a land of their own, but why should you exploit religion for that? This is not right. Those behind the Pakistan movement claimed that Pakistan and Islam are one and the same and argued that they needed a separate Pakistan in order to establish Islam. This is totally wrong. Islam cannot be established by grabbing land. Rather, it can only be established if it rests firmly in individuals’ hearts and minds. The Prophet Muhammad once pointed to his heart and said that taqwa or piety resides therein.

Exploitation is the source of all evil, and since Islam has been exploited by the leaders of Pakistan ever since the country’s inception it was natural that the country became the nursery of conflict and strife, unfortunately in the name of Islam, which Islam does not allow for at all.

Q: Why is it that most madrasa students tend to come from poorer families? This was not the case in the pre-colonial period.

A: The cause lies in the educational dualism that I referred to earlier and to the fact that middle class parents would prefer to send their children to ‘modern’ schools because the jobs that madrasa graduates get are not well-paid. The salary of madrasa teachers must be increased. In that way one can hope that brighter children might prefer to enroll in madrasas and become ulema. In the past, madrasas produced brilliant scholars and leaders, such as Shabbir Ahmad Usmani, Husain Ahmad Madani and Abul Kalam Azad, who played a vital role in India’s political life, but this is not the case today.

Q: How do you look at the sensationalist and distorted reporting about madrasas in large sections of the mass media?

A: The media is impelled by profit-making motives and thrives on ‘hot’ news in order to feed the market it caters to. The media is not interested in ‘soft’ news because that is not profitable. So it thrives on sensational news and selective reportage. One day I was listening to the Hindi service of a radio station and a listener called up from Mauritius and asked why the radio station did not give much coverage to Mauritius, which also has a large Hindi-speaking population. The programme presenter replied, half-jokingly, that the media is based on ‘hot’ news and that no such ‘hot’ news ever seems to emanate from Mauritius! ‘Create some hot news there’, he told the caller, ‘and we’ll report about your country’.

The point is that if you want to change the way the media reports something, you have to work at changing people’s mindsets.

Q: What are your views on the proposed national-level Madrasa Board that some government bureaucrats are suggesting?

A: In theory this sounds fine, particularly in order to centralize the madrasa system. The problem, however, is of lack of good rapport between the madrasas and the government, in the absence of which such a Board can serve little purpose. Many ulema doubt the government’s intentions. In any case, if such a Board comes into being its policies and activities must be framed and implemented through consultations with the ulema. The ulema must make the decisions and the government officers should do as they advise them.