Contrary to how the media generally portrays them, madrasas in India are not entirely opposed to reform. Indeed, the winds of change are being felt even in the portals of the more conservative madrasas, such as the vast network of Deobandi seminaries spread across the country. One such instance is the recently-established Jamia ul-Umoor, in New Delhi`s Muslim-dominated Abul Fazl locality.
Set up in 2005, the Jamia ul-Umoor is the brainchild of two young graduates of the Dar ul-Ulum, Deoband, India`s largest and most influential madrasa. Maulanas Khalid Saifullah Qasmi and Azmatullah Qasmi, the men behind this venture, are both in their mid-twenties and represent a new generation of Deobandi scholars eager to embrace and promote modern knowledge along with traditional Islamic learning. After having received their degree from Deoband they enrolled at the Dar ul-Umoor, in Srirangapatanam, near Mysore, for a year`s course in a range of `modern` disciplines.
Like their teachers, the twenty-odd students at Jamia ul-Umoor are all graduates of the Deoband madrasa. Having completed a rigorous eight-year course in Islamic Studies there, in the Jamia they are now being exposed to a whole new world of learning. The two-year course that they are undergoing consists of lessons in English, Computers, Economics, History, Geography, Mathematics, Management, Political Science, Physical Sciences, Journalism and Comparative ReligionsÃ¢â‚¬"all subjects that they have had little or no exposure to in their years at Deoband. Judging by the ease with which the students converse in English, despite having studied it for less than half a year, they seem to be fast and eager learners and their five teachers, zealous instructors.
The students, neatly dressed in spotless kurta-pajamas and topis, sit in a circle on a large quilt. On being prompted by his teachers, Tauqir Qasmi, who has just turned twenty, stands up and delivers an impassioned speech in Arabic on the importance of modern education and on how Islam positively encourages it. His colleague, Aslam Rafiqi Qasmi, follows after him, with a remarkably clear speech in English on the problems of the Indian Muslims. He refers to the `shameful and lamentable` Partition of India and the `massive and most horrendous` killings of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs that ensued. The Indian Muslims, he says, `continue to pay a heavy price for the Partition`, being `wrongly branded as anti-nationals by many Hindus`. He refers to the literally thousands of Muslims who have lost their lives in hundreds of organized pogroms and riots in India since 1947, and of the discrimination that they continue to face in many spheres. He ends his speech by stressing the need for Muslims to take to both religious as well as modern education.
The welcome addresses over, I sit with the students and discuss their studies. One of them wants to know how to secure admission in the English department of the university I teach in. Another wants to know how he can get the articles he has written published in the Times of India. A third asks me, in impeccable English, `Why are Muslims, especially the ulema of Deoband, thought of as terrorists by many, while they had actually played a leading role in India`s anti-colonial struggle?`.
The students and their teachers insist that the Deobandi elders are not against modern education per se, as is commonly imagined. Hasan, a young student from Bihar, argues, `Islam says that all beneficial knowledge can be acquired and so our ulema have never opposed what is good in the modern educational system. What they were opposed to, however, was Western culture. We can and, indeed, should acquire knowledge of all the beneficial modern disciplines, provided this is done according to our culture and that it helps us become better Muslims`. Ali, another student, adds, `In Islam, there is no distinction between religious and secular education. All forms of beneficial knowledge should be had`. Says another student, Abdur Rahman, `Learning English, Computer Applications and other modern subjects will help us in our task to telling others about Islam`.
Maulana Furqan, senior teacher, nods his head in agreement. He tells me that three graduates of Jamia ul-Umoor`s first batch, which passed out last year, are now studying at a regular university, the Jamia Millia Islamia, in New Delhi. `We want our graduates to go on to join universities and then take up a range of careers, not necessarily as maulvis or religious specialists`, he says. `In the past, madrasas produced both ulema as well architects, astronomers, scientists and so on`, he informs me, `and so we must go back to that holistic conception of education and bridge the gulf between the ulema and those who have studied in universities`. `Working in various fields, and not just as maulvis, our students can play an important role in promoting social reforms as well as communicating the message of Islam to others`, he adds. `In today`s world, you need to know English in order to tell others about Islam. Also, there is a wealth of useful knowledge in English`, he explains. `Hence`, he stresses, `it is important that maulvis, too, must learn the language`.
I ask Maulana Khalid Saifullah what he feels about the argument of some conservative maulvis that madrasa students should not enroll in colleges for fear that they might go astray.
`It depends on the individual student`, he answers. `If the students` moral and religious training is sound, there is no reason to fear that their faith would weaken if they join universities. In fact, they might have a positive impact on other students, who might, by witnessing their example, seek to come closer to religion`.
`To further strengthen their commitment to the faith`, he adds, `we arrange for pious Sufi scholars to come here to interact with the students, so that, by being in the company of men of God, they will learn to devote themselves to the faith, rather than to the pleasures of the world`.
Maulana Saifullah tells me about the 25 other students of the Jamia ul-Umoor, who are enrolled in the hifz course to memorise the Quran. In contrast to most other institutions that specialize in hifz, the students here must also study English, Mathematics and Science. He also refers to his plans to arrange for his students to simultaneously enroll for the tenth grade examinations, so that after they finish their course they can join various different departments in regular universities. `Our ulema must keep themselves abreast of modern knowledge and contemporary developments`, he stresses. `That is essential for them to provide proper leadership to the community`.
Innovative madrasas like the Jamia ul-Umoor are increasingly visible today, although the media rarely, if ever, refers to them. These institutions indicate the possibility of bridging the rigid dualism that characterizes Muslim education, between the ulema and those who have studied in `modern` institutions, something crucial for promoting education among Muslims more generally.
Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi