Q: Could you tell us something about yourself and your background?
A: I was born in a village in Gujranwala, Punjab, in 1948. My father, Maulana Muhammad Sarfaraz Khan, was a graduate of the Dar ul-Ulum, Deoband, where he had studied under the renowned scholar Maulana Husain Ahmad Madni. He taught at various madrasas in Pakistan for nearly 60 years, and wrote around 50 books. He is, by God's grace, still alive and is considered to be a leading representative of the Deobandi school of thought in Pakistan.
I began my education by memorizing the Quran and learning basic Arabic grammar under the instruction of my father and other teachers, and then went on to study the dars-i nizami, the curriculum in most South Asian madrasas, at the Madrasa Nusrat ul-'Ulum in Gujranwala, completing the final year, which was devoted to the study of Hadith, the traditions of the Prophet, in 1970. Since then I have been serving as a khatib (preacher) at the Markazi Jamia Masjid in Gujranwala. I am also engaged in teaching and writing. I teach at the Madrasa Anwar ul-Ulum at the central mosque in Gujranwala and am the principal of the Madrasa Nusrat ul-Ulum as well.
Q: You are also associated with a number of Pakistani religious and political organizations. What has been your own role in these groups?
A: At the political level, I am associated with the Jamiat-i Ulama-i Islam Pakistan, a leading largely Deobandi political party, and for around 25 years I have occupied various positions in the organization at both the provincial as well as central levels. I served for many years as assistant to Maulana Mufti Mahmud, leader of this party, but now my association with the party is simply that of an ordinary worker. I have distanced myself from electoral politics and now am devoted to scholarly and intellectual pursuits about Islam, including the many problems facing the Muslim community.
For this purpose we have set up an educational centre in Gujranwala called the Al-Sharia Academy, where we are trying to experiment with combining religious and modern education. Besides this, I write a daily column for the 'Pakistan' (Lahore) and a weekly column for the 'Nawa-i Haq' (Islamabad) which deal basically with current affairs. We also bring out a journal called Al-Sharia, of which I am the editor. It has a web edition, which can be accessed on www.alsharia.org.
Q: What are your views about the ongoing debates about madrasa reforms in Pakistan?
A: I have myself been trying to promote reforms in the Pakistani madrasas for quite a while now. I have written several articles on this subject in numerous magazines and newspapers. My own stand is that the present structure of the madrasas should be preserved, and their autonomy and independence should not be tampered with. However, for their part, the madrasas should, based on a proper understanding of contemporary demands, make such changes in their syllabus and teaching methods that would enable them to understand the needs and challenges of the times at a global level and represent Islam in today's terms.
Q: How do you look at the present madrasa syllabus, its strengths and weaknesses?
A: I think the biggest strength of the present syllabus is that it enables the student to connect solidly to the past and to preserve the Islamic tradition. Its biggest weakness, however, is that it does not provide the student with an adequate understanding of today's conditions and demands. In this regard I would like to refer to the work of the Nadwat ul-Ulama in Lucknow, India, where modern subjects have, to an extent, been integrated into the madrasa syllabus. Such institutions need to be set up in Pakistan as well. We tried to do this in Gujranwala a few years ago. We started working on the Shah Waliullah University, which was planned on the model of the Nadwat ul-Ulama, but we failed to proceed because of a lack of understanding among those who were behind the project.
Q: Madrasas, particularly in Pakistan, are said to actively promote sectarianism and sectarian conflict. How do you react to this charge?
A: I think that as far as the question of sectarianism is concerned, the situation with the madrasas is not at all encouraging. Students are trained to rebut other sects through fierce polemics, but this is really destructive. I feel that instead of this, each madrasa should familiarize its students with the beliefs and proofs of the sect that it is associated with, as well as the basic beliefs of other sects, and train them to dialogue, rather than violently denounce, the other sects. Sectarian differences cannot be eliminated. However, if a culture of tolerance is created, and if dialogue and understanding take the place of polemics, the destructiveness of sectarianism can be considerably reduced.
Q: How has Saudi and other Arab financial assistance impacted on inter-sectarian relations in Pakistan?
A: The financial aid that is given by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries has increasingly been influenced by sectarian concerns, and the harm that has come out of this is obvious. It has led to stirring up sectarian hatred and has also led to reservations about the Saudi Arabian government.
Q: Some Pakistani Sunni groups, including the radical Deobandi Sipah-i Sahaba, consider the Shias as kafirs, branding them as what they call 'enemies of Islam'. How do you, as a leading Deobandi scholar yourself, look at this?
A: I have always differed with the extremist stance of the Sipah-i Sahaba, and have also written about this in several of my articles. I tried to explain my position on the issue in my meetings with several Sipah-i Sahaba leaders, including Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, Maulana Zia ur-Rahman Faruqi and Maulana Azam Tariq. For my part, I do agree with the consensus of the Sunni 'ulama about some what are called ghali or 'extreme' Shias. However, I do not support, on this basis, the launching of a movement denouncing all Shias as kafirs, forcibly suppressing them and creating an environment of conflict. My own position is that, considering the question of beliefs and history, and preserving our differences and distance, we can still tolerate our differences and try to present our case through logical proofs.
Q: Several radical Islamists consider all non-Muslims as, somehow, 'enemies of Islam', and this is reflected in the teaching in some madrasas as well. How do you react to this?
A: To consider all non-Muslims as enemies and to seek to mobilize against them in that way is wrong and is also not pragmatic. Many non-Muslims all over the world are willing to listen to what Islam is all about, but we have not bothered to do anything in this regard. Many non-Muslims share similar concerns with Muslims, including opposition to imperialist forces, but we have failed to reach out to them. The number of non-Muslims who are seriously anti-Islam is relatively much less, but because they control, in large measure, the leverages of power, the economy, culture and the mass media, they appear to us to be everywhere, while this is not actually the case. Muslim intellectuals must seriously look into this and revise their understandings. For this it is essential to promote intellectual awakening and serious research.