It was around a decade ago that I first met Maulana Waris Mazhari or Waris-ji as I now call him) when I was researching for a book on madrasa education in India. Winding my way through the warren of clogged, narrow lanes in the congested Muslim ghetto of Batla House in New Delhi, I chanced upon a board planted outside a modest one-storeyed building. ‘Dar ul-Ulum Deoband old Boys’ Association’ it announced in bold Urdu and English letters. Hesitatingly, I knocked on the door.
‘Salam’, said the young man who opened the door and welcomed me in. He was not the grave-looking, white bearded maulvi I had expected. He was young—then hardly thirty—of middle-height and of slight built. He was dressed in a neat white kurta-pajama, and a neatly-clipped beard. ‘What can I do for you?’, he asked politely, as he ushered me to a sofa in a room cluttered with wooden cupboards stacked with Urdu and Arabic tomes.
I explained to him my project. I was visiting madrasas across India, I said, to personally meet with traditional Islamic scholars or ulema to see what they had to say on a whole host of issues to do with current debates about madrasa education that the mass media, political parties, and entire governments and international bodies seemed to be so worked up about. In contrast to some other ulema whom I had met in the course of my research, who, probably because of my Hindu or Sikh sounding name, assumed my intentions to be completely malafide, Waris-ji patiently heard me out, displaying no sign of doubt or suspicion. Moreover, and much to my pleasant surprise, he seemed to agree with me that while allegations about Indian madrasas being involved in terrorism were wholly bogus, there was much about the present system of madrasa education in India that was urgently in urgent need of change. Not stopping at that, he even went to the extent of insisting that in his own community of Deobandi ulema there was much that needed to be reformed. Unlike most of the ulema I had till then met, he insisted that the ulema urgently needed to introspect and engage in serious self-critique, and not take all criticism against them, whether by fellow Muslims or others, as motivated by ulterior motives of what they readily branded as ‘enemies of Islam’.
Waris-ji’s deep knowledge of his own faith and the tradition of madrasa-based Islamic learning, his large-heartedness (he provided me dozens of books and articles, which proved to be indispensable for the book I was writing), his open-mindedness about his own tradition and simply his being a wonderful human being soon won him a special place in my heart. It is truly an honour and a privilege for me to be his friend.
Over the years I have sought Waris-ji’s help for various articles and books on Muslim and Islamic issues that I have worked on. We have also collaborated on some specific projects, including a study of opinions about madrasa education of madrasa graduates now studying in universities (which we did for the short-lived Centre for Indian Muslim Studies at the Jamia Hamdard where I had worked for a while); an Urdu book that we jointly authored rebutting allegations about Indian madrasas as ‘dens of terrorism’; and an Urdu translation of a book of mine on Indian ulema and madrasa reforms. Waris writes in Urdu, and in order that his views on various issues of contemporary relevance relating to Islam and Muslims gain a wider audience, I have, over the years, translated several of his writings into English and hosted them on a blog that I have created for this purpose: www.warismazhari.blogspot.com
Through Waris-ji I have come to know of several other younger-generation Indian ulema, including graduates of some madrasas that are seen as extremely conservative, who are aware of the desperate need for reforms within the wider Muslim community and within the ulema class and their madrasas. They are cognizant of the urgent imperative to develop contextually-relevant understandings of Islam to deal with a host of issues of great importance today, such as women’s rights, relations with people of other faiths (or of no faith at all), politics, democracy, the state, international relations, war, peace and jihad, and so on. Unfortunately, their voices are not heard outside a very limited circle. Existing Islamic organizations might consider, and might even readily brand, their views as nothing short of heretical. Not surprisingly, they have no space in such organizations, or, if they do, they cannot voice their opinions on controversial subjects in their forums. Often, they are simply too afraid to speak out, fearful of losing their jobs, their reputations in the ulema community or even worse. Since it caters to public taste and prejudice, it is exceedingly rare, if not impossible, for their voices to find any place in the existing Muslim media. There are no Muslim institutions anywhere in the country to financially support such individuals to engage in research and outreach work. Many of them barely manage to eke out an existence, and so engrossed are they in seeking to do so that they cannot give the task of reforms that they regard as so vital today the attention that it sorely deserves.
Waris-ji is a self-made man. Born in Rampur, a remote village in Bihar, he lost both his parents and eldesr brother when he was barely six months old, in a fire that engulfed their home. Brought up by his sisters, he was the only one among his siblings to study in a madrasa and the only hafiz, someone who was memorized the entire Quran. He graduated from the Dar ul-Uloom at Deoband, possibly the largest traditional madrasa in the world, in 1994, after which he enrolled for a Master’s degree programme in Arabic at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia, where he is presently engaged in doctoral work in the Department of Islamic Studies on the issue of madrasa reforms in contemporary India. Since 2000, he has been the editor of the Urdu journal ‘Tarjuman Dar ul-Uloom’, the official organ of the Deoband madrasa’s Graduates’ Association.
People like Waris-ji would be considered a precious asset elsewhere, but, it would seem, existing Muslim organizations or institutions have little or no need for such people. Bereft of any institutional backing, he earns a modest income doing sundry translation work from English and Arabic into Urdu, from which he earns barely enough to provide for his family—his wife and two children. But, despite this, he has been able to produce an impressive body of knowledge over the last decade that is of immediate relevance to many of the issues about Islam and Muslims that are so heatedly debated and discussed all over the world today.
Although Waris-ji is a graduate of the Deoband madrasa, and edits the official journal of the Deoband Graduates’ Association, I would hesitate to call him a ‘Deobandi’, an appellation that perhaps he himself is not comfortable with, preferring to call himself a ‘Muslim’ pure and simple. In fact, on a great many issues he appears to depart considerably from the traditional Deobandi position. Admittedly, the Deobandi tradition is not a homogenous entity. For instance, in the years leading up to the Partition of India in 1947, a section of the Deobandi ulema, led by Shabbir Ahmad Usmani, Ashraf Ali Thanvi and Mufti Mohammad Shafi, lent their full-hearted support to the Muslim League’s demand for a separate Muslim state of Pakistan, based on the untenable thesis of the Muslims and Hindus of India constituting two wholly different, indeed antagonistic, ‘nations’. On the other hand, and based on their reading of the same set of Islamic texts, another group of Deobandi ulema, led by the then rector of the Deoband madrasa, Husain Ahmad Madani, passionately opposed the Pakistan scheme and called for a united India, insisting that the so-called ‘two nation; theory had no merit in Islam itself. According to their understanding of Islam (and in contrast to that of Usmani, Thanvi and Shafi), all Indians, including Hindus, Muslims and others, were a single nation. On the basis of this, they argued the case for a ‘united nationalism’ (muttahida qaumiyat) that would form the basis of an independent India, where all religious communities would have equal rights and duties. This faction of the Deobandi ulema, although in many ways socially conservative (especially as far as women were concerned) was remarkably politically progressive for its times.
Waris-ji’s deep concern for inter-faith dialogue, unity and solidarity, in particular between Hindus and Muslims in India, can be said to reflect the tradition established by Husain Ahmad Madni and his Deobandi followers. But, on a number of points he differs from them considerably. This is reflected particularly in his insistence on the need to revisit and reformulate, and even, if need be, reject prescriptions of the corpus of fiqh, the cumulative legal tradition developed by the ulema over the centuries, on a number of matters, including on peace, war and jihad, women’s rights and status, relations with non-Muslims and so on. In this regard, he is closer to various modernist Muslim scholars, who are generally regarded with scant regard, to put it mildly, by the traditionalist ulema. Some of his views on madrasa reforms and the ulema class, too, are in distinct contrast to those of many, if not most, ulema.
The chief merit of Waris-ji’s copious writings is that they offer sound Islamic arguments to pursue a socially progressive agenda on a whole range of fronts. At the same time, they offer valuable resources to develop and engage in an internal Islamic critique of the ideology and politics of extremism and violence, on the one hand, and Islamic traditionalism or conservatism, on the other, both of which are equally debilitating as far as the Muslim community at large is concerned. If voices like Waris-ji’s could get wider a wider hearing and acceptance, and even begin echoing in the portals of the madrasas, the fortresses of the ulema (a phrase that many ulema use to describe their institutions), it would be nothing short of revolutionary in enabling Muslims to deal in a more meaningful and productive way with some of the most crucial issues that they (and others, too) are confronted with today.
One need not agree with everything that Waris-ji writes. I, for instance, do not. But that much, indeed most, of what he writes is interesting, refreshing, valuable and of extreme relevance in today’s world, where Islam and Muslims are such a hotly-debated issue, cannot be denied.