Thursday, February 28, 2008

Nice to have something of our own

It's nice when you can find something for the children that adds to the quality of time that you spend with them. I found a book called Muslim Nursery Rhymes, by Mustafa Yusuf McDermont and I think it is excellent.

Muslim Nursery Rhymes

I can remember my mother reading or reciting nursery rhymes to me as a child and now I can do the same for my little ones. They like to hear them and often sing or say them on their own throughout the day.

Today, we continued with Saxon and did a little bit of hands on activities about frogs as part of the Islamic Studies series, Who is your Lord? They learned that ALLAH created everything, even the animals, in this case, frogs.

Toilet paper roll frogs

They colored the eyes black to take out the faces!

No idle hands

We also did a little mosque construction today and my daughter asked me why it came with four pillars instead of five, lol. She's slowly learning about the five pillars of Islam and I thought this was cute.


I got this from the Online Islamic Store website and I think it's a real blessing. As much as I like and support some Melissa and Doug products, I like to see things that identify with our way of life.

Middle Eastern

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Class and lesson helpers

I am almost finished rearranging our tiny classroom and I am pleased with our space. I had to reorganize to maximize the available space, so I put various little things in rolling carts that have drawers:

Classroom bins

These are handy for dinosaurs, puzzles, Play-doh and art supplies. One drawer stores our worksheets for the week and another has pencils and extra writing utensils. It seems that no matter how many pencils I purchase, they are hard to find when we need them.

Room divider

This is one of the places that we use with our felt stories/calendar felts. I need to add Velcro to the backs of the flashcards that you see with the Islamic months on them. We found these at a used classroom furniture sale last summer, along with our white board. The seller was literally down the street from us on the side of the road. We almost did not see him. He delivered everything and gave us a really nice price. The other board has some felt pieces on it. I need to cut them a bit and shape the bottom piece like grass. Felt is nice because it is really inexpensive; I found these at Walmart.

felt pieces

So far, my daughter is responding well to the phonics program - I am still waiting for a piece of the math curriculum. We also did a session about stranger danger - which included advice about speaking to people who are Muslim that you do not know. I explained that returning salaams to others is fine but never go home with/accept gifts/food/rides from someone you don't know, even if that person appears to be Muslim. Always refuse. I went here for a lesson plan that I loosely used as a guide. Now, we will focus on reciting and writing our address and telephone number, InshaALLAH.

One thing I am pleased with is the teacher's manual that I recently received for our science lessons

Teacher's Manual

This book is nice because it has the lesson plan drawn up for you!

Why I like the teacher's manual

This saves me a lot of time. I found out about this text through Follett Educational Services. They sell used text books and they deliver to Canada and abroad. I didn't actually purchase from them because the books were not available at the time but their site is invaluable because it lists the accompanying texts for whatever book you need. It also gives the ISBN so I used that information to get the science texts for $5 U.S. from another seller. Read More...

Monday, February 25, 2008

Felt fun

Felt printables

I set up a felt board in the classroom - really, we have a couple of those dividers that are used to make office cubicles. I put some felt on one of them to spruce it up. These are from a resource for printables and homeschool/preschool ideas and activities. I colored and laminated these and put velcro on the back. I also have some flashcards for the Islamic months that we use.

Ideally, the kids will be responsible for updating the calendar, InshaALLAH. Initially, they will need help of course but after a while, they should get the hang of it. I was going to purchase a pocket chart but if I can make do with what I have using a little imagination and taking a few extra minutes to make the materials, why not? Read More...

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Tentative schedule

Here is a glimpse of our upcoming week for grade 1, InshaALLAH.

Friday wasn't clear so I didn't scan it (I am doing everything in pencil just in case), but Saxon has four days of lessons and then an assessment day for phonics and math,so Friday will be assessments and catch up day if need be, InshaALLAH. We will also do a Friday art lesson - probably something from

My husband found a new link:

The quality of the audio is great and you can choose to hear Arabic with an English translation per line or simply listen to the Arabic. Enjoy! Read More...

Is this what they mean by socialisation?

It's really sad when a first grade child is being harassed. Read More...

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Nutrition lesson plans

I found this today:

There are classroom printables, including a felt story about a city and country mouse trying different types of cheeses. There are extensive food pyramid pictures/posters to print and laminate. One of the posters had a pork chop so I changed it to a lamb chop. Everything else was all right, I believe. Read More...

Monday, February 18, 2008

Need some free clipart?

Go here:

I could have used this a few weeks ago!

This is pretty nice too:

Al Khaliq - The Creator by Dawud Wharnsby Ali


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Saxon is here!

We received our Saxon Phonics and the manipulative kit for the Saxon Math program on Friday.

140 lessons

I am very excited about using Saxon. The phonics program is 28 weeks, which breaks down to 140 lessons, 4 lessons and then an assessment. There are workbooks, games, readers, spelling tests, the works. Saxon teaches the affixes, digraphs, diphthongs, etc.

Saxon Extras

I read about the advantages and disadvantages of Saxon and I think for us, it is the way to go. I'm not much of an unschooler - I need the structure because I am way too paranoid about skipping something and ruining her educational foundation, especially in math.

Saxon 1 Math Manipulative Kit

I am excited about her natural aptitude,alhamduLILLAH, but I want to make sure she has the discipline to learn the things with which she is not so comfortable. I notice her boredom or sudden weariness when we get to something difficult or tedious like handwriting, so I push onwards a little and ignore the whining. Most of the time I think she is just testing my limitations and if I encourage her to continue she does well. Now, we have to wait for the other books. :)

By the way, if you go to this link there are many different pictures available to make your own mural.


I will color them and cut them out for our bulletin board, InshaALLAH. There are also a myriad of other types of pictures and such for posters, bookmarks, classroom decorations and so on. Read More...

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Getting down to business

I've been all over the web scouring blog after blog to figure out how to better organize the school and our lives. I finally found - run by a homeschool master! She has documents for just about everything you can imagine and I am so thankful that I found her site. She even has useful tips for the different subjects, including art. There are drawing exercises with evaluations every few lessons that will aid your child with mastering the basic shapes and lines in handwriting.

I saved the documents and now I have my very own lesson planning binder, complete with attendance and grade sheets. There's also plenty of writing space for extras like unit studies, Arabic, Islamic studies (like this 52-week one), etc.

Time to get to work

We're still working on counting with money and I'm trying to organize my thoughts for the direction of the homeschool - including the addition of my son in a "formal" or should I say guided preschool curriculum. There are some things that we can all do together, like recitations of the Qur'an, listening to and our read aloud sessions. He's doing really well with his potty training too so I will have to keep his needs in mind by scheduling regular washroom breaks and such.

I don't want to overwhelm him but I do want to make sure his day is full of useful activities and that he isn't a distraction to his big sister - I anticipate his little sister as the biggest distraction/challenge, so if I can keep him busy there will be only the little one to appease.

InshaALLAH I will try to post a schedule soon, to give an idea of how we spend our time in the classroom but for now it's still pretty rough. Hopefully, in the next week or so this will be done. It's a lot of work and I have to say, teachers deserve much more applause than they receive.

Newest smart toys are from ToysrUs, courtesy of Granny!

what a deal

These puzzles come four in a pack for $3.98CDN and they have everything from planets and maps to animals, alphabet and numbers! My little ones love puzzles so I will have to introduce new ones little by little or according to our studies.

One unit study/lapbook I would like to do is on nutrition. These should be handy for that:

Fruits and vegies

We also got tons of Play-Doh to occupy us.
Granny is so gracious, we love her!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Contents of the February 2008 Issue

Interview: Athar Afzal (Ahl-e Hadith Madrasa Graduate)
Interview: Arshad Amanullah (Ahl-e Hadith Madrasa Graduate)
Interview: Zubair Hudawi (Graduate of a Sunni Madrasa in Kerala)
Interview: Naseem ur-Rahman Falahi (Graduate of the Jamiat ul-Falah, Azamgarh)
Interview: Maqbool Ahmad Siraj (Editor, "Islamic Voice", Bangalore)
Interview: Zafarul Islam Khan (Editor, "Milli Gazette", New Delhi
Interview: Asghar Ali Engineer (Director, Institute of Islamic Studies, Bombay)
Interview: Waris Mazhari (2) (Editor, Tarjuman Dar ul-Ulum, New Delhi)
Interview: Tariq Rasheed Firangi Mahali (Leading Alim, originally from Lucknow)
Interview: Maulana Wahiduddin Khan (Editor, Al-Risala, New Delhi)
New Models of Islamic Education in Kerala

Athar Afzal is a graduate of the Jamia Salafia, Varanasi, the apex madrasa of the Ahl-e Hadith in India. He completed his doctoral studies from the Department of Arabic at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, his thesis being on the role of madrasas in the state of Uttar Pradesh in promoting Arabic and Islamic studies.

(Interviewed by Yoginder Sikand)

Q: Could you tell us something about your educational background?

A: I am from the town of Maunath Bhanjan, in eastern Uttar Pradesh, which is a major centre of Islamic learning. There are scores of important madrasas in the town. Most of them are associated with the Deobandi and Ahl-e Hadith schools of thought. I did my initial training at the Jamia Aliya Arabia in Maunath Bhanjan, which is one of the oldest Ahl-i Hadith madrasas in India. It was set up in 1868 by Maulana Faizullah Maui, one of the pioneers of the Ahl-i Hadith movement. I studied in this madrasa for fourteen years, after which I enrolled at the Jamia Salafia, Varanasi, where I studied for two more years. After that I joined the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, where I did my graduation, post-graduation, M.Phil. and then Ph.D from the Arabic Department.

Q: Having received both a madrasa as well as university training, how do you see the sort of education that you received at the madrasa?

A: I think that, on the whole, madrasas are averse to looking at or interpreting Islam in a new, more relevant way. With notable exceptions, they are characterised by a nostalgic hankering after the past, which leads to a certain narrow mindedness. Their way of understanding Islam does not take into account the social context in which we live today. In the Ahl-e Hadith case, with which I am most familiar, there is also a marked tendency to accept the views of Saudi scholars as normative and to impose their legal opinions, in the form of fatwas, on Muslims living in India. This, to my mind, is wrong. In matters of worship the rules do not change across space and time, but in some other social affairs they can, so fatwas on the latter sort of issues that might be appropriate in the Saudi context may not be so in the Indian case. So, for instance, a Saudi mufti may declare that it is wrong to have close relations with people of other faiths, but in India, where Muslims live along with other people, this is ridiculous. Fatwas are specific to time and place, and a fatwa given somewhere at a certain point in time may not be applicable in a totally different context.

This aversion to change and openness is also reflected in the fact that madrasas in general focus overwhelmingly on medieval jurisprudence. They teach their students almost nothing about contemporary social issues, although numerous Islamic scholars, most notably those associated with the Delhi-based Islamic Fiqh Academy, have written extensively on these matters. The books of the Academy are not, however, taught in any madrasa as far as I know. I think, in a sense, this reflects the erroneous assumption of a rigid separation between religious and secular knowledge, which was absent in the early Islamic period.

Q: What measures of reform would you suggest for the madrasas to adopt?

A: It is not that madrasas have been totally immune to change. They have been changing over time, although the pace and scope of these changes may not be as spectacular as some of us would wish. When we talk about reforming the madrasas we must keep in mind their actual goals and purpose. They are meant to train religious specialists and so reforms must be such that can help the madrasas better fulfill their purpose. This is why I feel that the demand that is often made that madrasas should incorporate detailed teaching of Science and Mathematics in their curriculum misses the point completely. I think that rather than the ‘hard’ sciences, we should be thinking in terms of incorporating the social sciences into the curriculum, along with basic Maths and English. Teaching social sciences in the madrasas is important in order that the students can go on to interpret Islam in a socially and contextually relevant manner. You cannot provide meaningful legal opinions or fatwas if you have no idea of the social realities of the country, of which the madrasa students, by and large, know little. A good grounding in the social sciences is necessary in order to develop new perspectives on the principles of jurisprudence to come up with relevant jurisprudential responses to a range of contemporary issues. For this the students should know about current affairs, about the developments in the country and the world at large.

Some madrasas have tried to do this but this has not really taken off. For instance, some years ago the Jamia Salafia arranged for professors from the Jamia Millia Islamia and the Aligarh Muslim University to visit the madrasa and speak to the students on a range of issues of contemporary concern. The students really benefited from the programme, but, sadly, this was discontinued due to opposition by some teachers.

I also feel that madrasas should familiarise their students with the writings of modern Islamic scholars and Quranic commentators, including liberal and progressive Muslim thinkers. As of now, most madrasas teach only the commentaries of early and medieval scholars, whose understanding was influenced by their own times. We, however, need new interpretations of the faith that reflect the circumstances of contemporary India. To illustrate the importance of this let me refer to the debates on dar ul-harb or ‘the abode of war’ and dar ul-islam, ‘the abode of Islam’ that goes back to the classical commentators and which is still taught in most madrasas, although these notions are not Quranic at all. Today, there is no dar ul-harb or dar ul-islam and so it is simply meaningless to teach all this.

Q: What about including English in the madrasa curriculum?

A: I think this is really essential. In addition, I think Hindi and the local regional language also must be taught. Some madrasas now teach English, but the standard of teaching leaves much to be desired. And then there are numerous ulema who fiercely oppose the teaching of English in the madrasas, claiming that this would lead the students astray! This is also why they oppose the idea of madrasa graduates joining universities. I think this argument is wrong. I know of scores of madrasa graduates now studying in universities who are still committed and practising Muslims. I also know of scores of students in the madrasas who routinely skip their prayers. The point I want to make is that this notion that modern or English education will cause the students to abandon Islam is completely erroneous.

Further, I think that if the ulema knew English they would be in a far better position to tell others about Islam, to clear their misunderstandings and to present the faith in a more relevant manner before the general public.

Q: How do you look at the response of the ulema to demands for gender equality now being voiced by a growing number of Muslim women?

A: I think that equality of the genders is mandated by the Quran. I believe that women have as much right to study or work as men do. My own elder sister is a post-graduate and teaches in a government school, and I think there is nothing wrong with that at all. It is fine by me if men and women work together provided they both dress modestly and preserve their dignity. You cannot lock up women in their homes and expect society to progress. Women’s rights can be protected not by men or male ulema alone but by educated women themselves. This is why I believe that women should study Islam for themselves and why we should have many more women Islamic scholars than we now do.

Male scholars or activists alone cannot ensure gender equality. We need women to be equal partners in this project. Men will keep talking about how they are committed to women’s rights, but much of this is simply hot air. Take the case of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, which claims to be the leading Muslim organisation in the country. The Board could have taken up the issue of social reform in a major way, but it has not, and it is hardly visible at the grassroots. It could have mobilised public opinion against caste discrimination, dowry, denial of inheritance rights to women or arbitrary divorce, but it has not done so. One reason is that it is male-dominated, and the few women on the Board do not have much say.

Q: In recent years a number of Indian Ahl-e Hadith scholars have penned scores of books denouncing various other Muslim groups as virtual heretics. How do you look at this?

A: This is not a recent phenomenon. In fact hurling of fatwas of deviation or apostasy has been a fairly frequent occurrence for centuries. In every Muslim sect there are some who believe that other Muslims are infidels and that they alone represent true Islam. Many Ahl-i Hadith scholars also feel that way, but there are several others who do not. The latter believe that their way of understanding Islam is right but they do not condemn others as kafirs.

I think the early 1960s mark a major point of departure in inter-sectarian relations among Muslims in India. Before this, Ahl-e Hadith scholars, while insisting that theirs was the ‘true’ Islam, refrained from branding other Muslim groups in derogatory terms. But from the 1960s onwards there was a gradual change, with some Ahl-e Hadith scholars, like some rival Deobandi and Barelvi writers, penning books denouncing other Muslim groups as virtually outside the pale of Islam. This owes, in part, to the growing Saudi influence on the Ahl-i Hadith, as growing numbers of Ahl-i Hadith scholars now began studying in Saudi universities, where they were taught a very narrow, literalist form of Islam. So, some of them now go to the extent of claiming that the Hanafis, who form the majority of the Indian Muslims, are not Muslims at all! This is, to my mind, ridiculous. I mean, some Hanafi practices may not be in accordance with the Quran or the Prophetic traditions as the Ahl-i Hadith understands them, but this does not mean that you can condemn all Hanafis as non-Muslims. Likewise, the claims put forward by some Deobandi writers that the Ahl-e Hadith is ‘un-Islamic’ is equally distressing. One Deobandi leader even went to the extent of declaring the Ahl-e Hadith as the biggest source of strife in the world. Often, such attacks take the form of personal attacks and abuse.

I think these inter-sectarian conflicts are often simply tussles for power and authority among sections of the ulema. This is like rival political parties who rake up controversial issues to garner mass support and present themselves as the legitimate representatives of the community. On the other hand, some of the ulema who are engaged in this sort of polemics might be motivated by a sincere conviction that they alone represent ‘true’ Islam and who feel that others, too, must follow their way. But the methods that they use are wrong. The Quran tells us to speak to others with kindness and wisdom, not to shout others down or abuse them.

Sadly, the culture of reasoned dialogue is missing in the madrasas. Students are trained to deliver fiery speeches in order to ‘prove’ the ‘falsity’ of other Muslim sects or other religions. Sermons in mosques often take the form of loud, passion-filled harangues. To my mind, this owes something to the intellectual arrogance of many ulema, who presume that they alone have the right to speak and that they know everything and so they don’t think twice before vehemently denouncing those who think differently. Compare this with the practice of the Prophet. Once, a Bedouin entered the mosque and began urinating inside. When the Prophet’s companions saw this they were enraged, but the Prophet asked them to restrain themselves. He asked his companions to wash the spot where the man had urinated, and then gently spoke to the man, telling him that he should not have relieved himself in the mosque. This is a small illustration of how we should relate to people who disagree with us, be they Muslims of other sects or people of other faiths.

Of course we cannot do away with our differences, but we must learn how to live together despite them. The ulema of the different sects will continue to differ, but they should learn to dialogue with each other, rather than condemn others as kafirs. The problem arises when these differences are dragged out into the public arena and the ulema of the different sects seek to mobilise public opinion behind them. In many cases, there is a simple economic factor behind this. The more vociferous you appear to be in the defence of your sect the more money you can rake in from your supporters and the greater the champion of Islam you appear to them to be!

Q: Are you suggesting that there have been no efforts to promote inter-sectarian dialogue among the ulema at all?

A: No, there have been such efforts, but they have not really taken off. For instance, after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the ensuing widespread killing of Muslims across India, the Jamia Salafia organised a meeting of ulema of different sects, where it was decided that they should all work together on issues of common concern. This unity lasted for only a short time, however, and was later wound up. I think such efforts are so short-lived because of personality clashes, vested interests, lack of modern education and the absence of a culture of tolerance among the ulema and also because many ulema understand Islam from a very narrowly-defined sectarian perspective.

Q: What do you feel about the way in which the ulema relate to other religions and their adherents?

A: The ulema believe that Islam is God’s chosen religion and most of them are convinced that it is the only way to salvation. Many of them also believe that all other religions have lost their relevance after the advent of the Prophet Muhammad. That said, there are differing views on how Muslims should relate to people of other faiths. There are some who regard non-Muslims in a very negative light and who suggest that Muslims should have as little as possible to do with them. Then, there are others, among whom I include myself, who believe that Muslims should befriend people of other faiths, based on the recognition of our common humanity. This is important, not only for its own sake, but also because it is our duty as Muslims to tell others about Islam, which can only happen when our relations with them are cordial. Of course, as the Quran says, there is no compulsion in religion, and God alone guides whom He wills.

This said, I must admit that barring a very few exceptions, the ulema are not engaged in any sort of inter-faith dialogue work, although this is really crucial. They are simply not intellectually equipped for this task. Some ulema invite non-Muslims to the functions that they organise in the madrasas, and they use this occasion to tell them about Islam. For instance, the rector of the Jamia Salafia, where I studied, Dr. Muqtada Hasan Azhari, invited numerous non-Muslims, including the Dalai Lama, to visit the madrasa and speak to the students. He also used to attend inter-faith dialogue meetings in Varanasi. All this is valuable, of course, although I must admit that people like Dr. Azhari are the exception, rather than the rule.

Q: What do you feel about the approach that is adopted in teaching other religions in the madrasas?

A: Very few madrasas actually teach their students anything about other religions. At the Jamia Salafiya we learnt something about Christianity and Judaism, but nothing at all about Hinduism. Most ulema know as little about Hinduism as most Hindu priests know about Islam, and on both sides this is mixed with tremendous misunderstanding and prejudice. This is unfortunate, since we in India live alongside with Hindus and have been doing so for centuries. Also, the teaching of Christianity and Judaism leaves much to be desired. We are not taught to study them as their adherents understand them. Rather, we study them simply in order to refute them, which means we bring our own preconceived notions and prejudices into play. We are guilty of the same sin that we accuse the Christian missionaries and Orientalists of when they study or write about Islam. I think madrasas should invite Hindu, Christian and other scholars to speak to the students about their own religions so that the students can understand these religions as their adherents themselves do.

Q: How have your years at the Jawaharlal Nehru University influenced your own way of thinking about Islam?

A: I think these years have been really valuable. They have helped me broaden my own way of looking at the world, which, in turn, has forced me to reshape my own understanding of Islam. For instance, while I was in the madrasa I had no Hindu acquaintances, but now at the university I have many Hindu friends. We live together and there is no problem, and that has made me realise how similar we all are in so many respects. My Hindu friends have helped me remove many misunderstandings about Hinduism, and I think I have also helped to clear some of their prejudices against Islam. There is no better way of dialogue than personal friendships. Many of my Hindu friends tell me that through me they have learnt to see a different Islam, one that is liberal and accommodative, not conflictual or narrow-minded. Of course, my own approach is not liked by some Muslims, who accuse me of being a communist just because I sympathise with the Left’s commitment to social justice and communal harmony, although I am also a practising Muslim.

Q: What do you think should be the agenda that the Muslim community in India should be setting for itself?

A: I think we need to be talking about modern education, inter-community or inter-religious dialogue, human rights and gender justice much more seriously than we actually are. We also need to join hands with democratic elements in other communities to struggle against religious chauvinism and fascism that appears in different guises. Of course we must speak out against Hindu fascist groups, but we will have no moral authority to do so if we do not also condemn with equal vigour similar groups that come in a ‘Muslim’ or ‘Islamic’ garb.

Q: How do you react to the charge of madrasas being used as ‘factories of terror’?

A: I can speak only about the Indian madrasas as they are the only ones I have knowledge of. I think that this claim of Indian madrasas churning out terrorists is completely incorrect and that there is simply no evidence to back up this assertion. This said, I must also state that several madrasas are indeed in promoting a sort of extremism, but this is not directed against the Indian state or the Hindus but, rather, against rival Muslim sects.

Q: The militant Islamist Lashkar-e Tayyeba, which is associated with the Pakistani Ahl-e Hadith, is engaged in the ongoing conflict in Kashmir. How do you, as an Ahl-e Hadith scholar, see the agenda of the Lashkar?

A: I have no hesitation in saying that the Lashkar-e Tayyeba is a terrorist organisation, and its claim that it is engaged in an Islamic jihad against India is complete nonsense. I mean, how can we possibly convince others of our claim that Islam is a peaceful religion when terrorist groups like the Lashkar resort to killing innocent people in the name of Islam? The very logic of the two-nation theory on which India was partitioned, of the Hindus and the Muslims of India being two antagonistic ‘nations’, which groups like the Lashkar propound, is ridiculous, and I am opposed to any further partition of India. Imagine what sort of message goes out to Hindus when some Muslims in Kashmir or wherever demand that because a certain region has a Muslim majority it can no longer remain with India. This is simply intolerable. We Hindus and Muslims have to learn to live with each other peacefully, for there is no other way. We have to counter groups like the Lashkar that speak the language of hatred. We have to find a third way between Bush and Osama. We are neither for blind Westernisation or capitulation to Western imperialism and nor are we for the mindless hatred against non-Muslims that some self-styled Islamists propagate.

I can understand the anger of many Muslims against America, for what America is today doing in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, but I don’t buy the argument that many radical Islamists make that America is by definition anti-Islam. America’s policies are determined by its perceptions of its own interests, not by any inherent hatred of Islam. This is why the Americans have long enjoyed a very cosy relationship with some countries that claim to be ‘Islamic’ states. There are no permanent friends of foes in politics, only permanent interests. So, it is wrong to brand all Americans or all non-Muslims as anti-Islam, as some radicals tend to. I don’t deny the conspiracy theory outright, but we cannot keep blaming others for all our ills. We also need to introspect, to critique ourselves at the same time, because we are, in part, also to blame for our own sorry predicament. We keep talking about the West violating human rights in Muslim countries, and there is a great deal of truth in this complaint. However, we also need to critique the existing regimes in many Muslim countries, including those that claim to be ‘Islamic’, that deny their own peoples their basic human rights.

Q: Do you see yourself as an exception among the ulema, or are there many others like you?

A: I am certainly not an exception. There are many young madrasa graduates who think on similar lines, especially among those who have also had a university education. However, our voices are rarely, if ever, highlighted in the media, because the media seems to have a vested interest in promoting the stereotypical image of the ulema as fanatics thoroughly opposed to modernity. That said, I think people like us are also to blame in part, because we have not got together to form a movement or even a forum to share our views. One reason is that many of us are too scared to speak out for fear that we might lose our jobs, being condemned as ‘agents’ of one ‘enemy of Islam’ or the other just because we might dissent from the views of those who claim to speak for the entire community. But in addition to that is sheer apathy, for which we alone are responsible.


Interview: Arshad Amanullah

Arshad Amanullah is a graduate of the Jami‘a Salafia, Varanasi, the apex madrasa of the Ahl-i Hadith in India. A graduate in Mass Communications from the Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, he is presently a freelance documentary film maker.

(Interviewed by Yoginder Sikand)

Q: Could you tell us something about your background?

A: I am from Jharkhand, in eastern India, and that is where I grew up. I did well in the matriculation examinations, so my father wanted me to join engineering college. But by this time I developed an interest in Islamic studies. It all started when, once, I happened to pray in a mosque belonging to the Barelvi sect that follows many customs associated with popular Sufism. Since my family belongs to the rival Ahl-e Hadith sect similar to the ‘Wahhabis’ who denounce Sufism and many popular practices as ‘un-Islamic’, we pray in a slightly different way, and when the Barelvis saw me praying they drove me out of the mosque! The imam of the mosque insisted that if I wanted to pray in the mosque I would have to do so the way the Barelvis do, but I refused and I stopped going to that mosque. This set me thinking about the different understandings of Islam and the sectarian problem. I began reading about Islam, and then decided to go in for Islamic studies instead of engineering. I took admission in an Ahl-e Hadith madrasa in Keonjhar in Orissa and spent a little more than a year there. After that I shifted to the Jamia Salafiya in Varanasi, which is the apex madrasa of the Ahl-e Hadith in India, where I spent seven years, from 1994 to 2000. Barring in one year, I consistently topped the class.

After I finished the course at the madrasa I was told that I might be able to get a scholarship to study in Saudi Arabia but I refused, because I did not want to live in a kingdom where there is no freedom of expression. Besides, I had grown increasingly opposed to the conservative ‘Wahhabi’ Salafism that is taught in the Saudi universities. Instead, I decided to come to Delhi, and enrolled at the Jamia Millia Islamia, a Central Government university, for a BA degree, after which I did an MA in Mass Communications from the same university.

Q: Looking back on your years in the madrasa, how do you think you have gained from the sort of education that you received there?

A: Well, I did manage to learn about the Quran and the Traditions attributed to the Prophet, which I probably would not have had I not joined the madrasa. However, I must say that my interest was more in Muslim philosophy and literature, about which we were taught relatively little. Instead, enormous stress was paid to the nitty-gritty of legal and ritualistic issues or fiqh, such as the proper length of the beard, the proper way of wearing one’s trousers or styling one’s hair. I am not saying that these are unimportant, but what is the use of having a beard but harbouring evil in your heart?

In many madrasas the focus is on these external things, which are really not such fundamental issues that we should be obsessed with them. Most people in the madrasas, teachers as well as students, are not exposed to the world around them. They have a very different way of thinking. And, like in many other madrasas, in our madrasa, too, there were some people who were fiercely sectarian. Almost every madrasa is associated with one sect or the other, and many ulema associated with the madrasas see as one of their principle tasks the rebuttal of other sects.

Q: Was the rebuttal of other sects actually taught to you as a subject?

A: Well, we were made to believe that only our sect—the Ahl-e Hadith—is correct, while the other Muslim groups are deviant in some way or the other. To begin with, I was a hardcore Ahl-e Hadith, too, so much so when the police raided the Nadwat ul-Ulama madrasa in Lucknow I secretly rejoiced since I thought that the Nadwis followed a deviant sect.

This belief in the superiority of the Ahl-e Hadith was sought to be constantly reinforced in the classroom. So, we were taught that our way of praying is correct and that of the other Muslims, such as the Hanafis, is not valid. But, gradually, I realised that this approach, of rebutting other groups through forceful polemics, is pointless. You can’t force others to change. If you think you are right that’s fine, but others also have a right to do what they think is correct, provided it does not create any social problems.

Q: How did your own views on inter-Muslim sectarian differences begin to evolve?

A: After a while at the madrasa, I got fed up with the obsession with the details of rituals, and began reading up on social issues and history. I also started studying the works of the ulema of other schools with an open mind, in order to learn from them, rather than simply to rebut them, as is the normal fashion. At this time I also started writing for the Jamia Salafiya’s students’ fortnightly wall-magazine al-Manar, of which I was the editor, and for the madrasa’s journal, Muhaddith. I tried to broaden the scope of the wall-magazine to include new sorts of issues, such as Orientalism, the musical aspects of the recitation of the Qur’an, various social problems and so on.

Q: There has been some talk about the need for introducing social science teaching in the madrasa syllabus. How do you respond to this proposal?

A: I think it is very important. Madrasa students, as well as most of the ulema, imagine that if you internalise the Qur’an and the teachings of your sect all your personal and social problems will be automatically solved. And then, to make matters even more complicated, there is a certain trend among many ulema to attribute all the problems of the Muslims to what they insist is a Zionist-Hindu-Christian conspiracy, without carefully analysing the real roots of the problems, thereby absolving Muslims of any responsibility in the matter.

This approach of looking at all questions and offering solutions simply in terms of theology and jurisprudence, divorced from empirical social reality, is also reflected in the writings of many ulema. Thus, for instance, some Indian Ahl-e Hadith scholars are translating and publishing the fatwas of Saudi Arabian ulema and seeking to impose their views on us in India, although we live in a very different context, which calls for different responses on a range of issues. Blindly following the fatwas of a certain scholar just because he is a Saudi is bizarre.

Q: It has been suggested that the Ahl-e Hadith in India are today seeking to present themselves as a carbon copy of the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’, primarily to gain Saudi money. Do you agree?

A: Well, that seems to be the direction in which some, though not all, Indian Ahl-e Hadith are moving, and in this the lure of Saudi petrodollars also has some role to play. In the past, there were some Indian Ahl-e Hadith leaders who differed from Saudi scholars on certain issues, and they exercised their own judgment or ijtihad. For instance, Maulana Daud Ghaznavi, one of the pioneers of the Ahl-e Hadith movement in India, was influenced by Sufism, although the official Saudi scholars are opposed to Sufism. The Maulana used to perform some ritual practices that are considered to be Sufistic by the Ahl-e Hadith. He was convinced that these practices had their origins in the Quran and the genuine Prophetic traditions.

Today, however, efforts are being made to make the Indian Ahl-e Hadith a replica of the Saudi Salafis. So, now some of them prefer to call themselves ‘Salafis’, rather than ‘Ahl-e Hadith’ in order, perhaps, to stress their closeness with the Saudis. Several of them preach a sort of understanding of Islam that has no room for interpretation, one that is extremely literalist and intolerant of other understandings. In turn, this has led to a growing distance from ordinary people and their problems, and to a distinct sense of elitism.

I think this has a political dimension as well. The early Ahl-e Hadith was a progressive movement in many senses. Their opposition to the blind following of traditional jurisprudence, stressing genuine Prophetic traditions over fiqh, was a progressive stance. But now, partly due to the Saudi connection, sections of the movement are growing increasingly reactionary, raising minor issues of difference with other Muslim sects in order to condemn them. Because of this, the moderates in the Ahl-e Hadith are being increasingly silenced.

Another result of this increasing sectarianism, in which some Ahl-e Hadith ulema are playing a leading role, is that many problems of the community—education, communalism, poverty and so on—are being sidelined as rival sects fight over petty issues of ritual or doctrinal differences. Just to cite one instance: a fatwa of the late Shaikh Bin Baz, who served as chief official Saudi mufti, condemning the lifting up of one’s hands to ask for prayer as an ‘innovation’ has been translated and published by an Ahl-e Hadith scholar in India, and this has led to much acrimony among the different Muslim groups who differ with the Ahl-e Hadith on this issue. Aren’t there more pressing things to think about?

Q: How exactly do you think some sections of the Ahl-e Hadith in India are actually serving Saudi interests?

A: When the Soviet Union was still around, American anti-communist propaganda was actively promoted by the Saudis, who arranged for this to be translated and published in Urdu and distributed or sold in India. The Saudi ulema sought to promote a very narrow and ritualistic sort of Islam, one that was silent on the question of social justice, which is really a fundamental pillar of the faith. And even today the Saudis are seeking to export a very conservative sort of Islam, which is obsessed with minor details of ritual. I think this sort of Islam is deliberately calculated to lull people into submission, so that they do not speak out against the Saudi monarchy, its corruption and its links with American imperialism.

Many of the pioneers of the Ahl-e Hadith were involved in the anti-colonial movement in India and some of them led uprisings against the British Raj. But today you have a situation where the ulema associated with the Saudi monarchy are not willing to speak a word against American imperialism! And you have a number of Ahl-e Hadith scholars in India who praise the Saudi monarchy for being what they call the only genuine Islamic government in the world today, a ridiculous claim that they tirelessly repeat in their writings and speeches.

Q: You mention the ‘moderates’ among the Ahl-i Hadith being somewhat sidelined by ‘hardcore’ elements. Is it really possible to make such a distinction?

A: I think so. In the Jamia Salafiya, for instance, we had some teachers who were rather liberal and others who were really hardcore. There were some teachers who were very conservative, most of whom had studied in universities in Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, the rector of the madrasa, Dr. Muqtada Hasan Azhari, was what would call a moderate, in the tradition of the Egyptian Salafis such as Muhammad Abduh. He received an award from the President of India for his services to the Arabic language, and he has also been involved in dialogue efforts with Hindus and Christians.

I recall a small incident that took place when I was a student in the madrasa in Varanasi. Just across the madrasa is a graveyard belonging to the Barelvi sect. One day some Barelvis were lighting candles on some graves. Seeing this, some students of our madrasa began pelting them with stones, shouting out that this practice was an unlawful innovation. When Dr. Azhari came to know about this he scolded the students, and told them that even if they believed that the practice was un-Islamic, throwing stones was not the way to make their point. He told them that they should seek to convince the Barelvis through dialogue rather than through violence or extremism, or else their efforts would be counterproductive.

I think this sort of approach ought to govern relations between the different Muslim sects and between Muslims and others as well. Aad to say, however, it is completely lacking in the case of the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’ and their Indian followers.

Q: How did studying at a regular university—the Jamia Millia Islamiya, New Delhi—change your own way of looking at the world?

A: My years at the madrasa in Varanasi did help me to think differently about social problems, although this was not the focus of the syllabus as such. The approach in the madrasa was definitely elitist, based on the assumption that one has access to the absolute truth and that those who think differently, such as ‘ordinary’ people and even graduates of universities, are ignorant. But in my years at the Jamia Millia I came in touch with several Marxists, who taught me to think in different terms—in terms of the general masses, the suffering and the poor. It enabled me to think in broader, humanistic terms. So, I would say, Jamia Salafia trained me to think about society and social problems, but my coming into contact with Marxist friends at Jamia Millia added a new perspective to my thinking and made it more humanitarian.

For instance, my views on relations between the genders has also been gradually transformed as a result of coming to the university. I now have many friends who are girls, and that is not an issue for me any longer. Some ulema say that girls should not be sent for higher education, and that they should sit at home instead or else they will go astray. I would like to ask them if simply sitting at home will prevent them from straying! I personally feel that Muslim girls, too, should go in for higher education, and there is nothing in Islam to stop them from doing so. If they chose to go on to work outside the home, preserving their modesty, as indeed men must, too, I think that is fine. In the Prophet’s time, too, women worked outside the home. The Prophet’s first wife, Hazrat Khadijah, was herself a trader.

Q: Have your views on other religions and their followers also undergone any change over the years?

A: In the madrasa we did not really go out, and few of us had any Hindu friends. In any case, Varanasi is a communally sensitive area, so we generally stayed to ourselves. After coming to Delhi, however, I made several Hindu friends. Earlier, I used to think that the Hindus’ Ishvar and the Muslims’ Allah can never be one, but now I think that there is only one God, who is called by different names. Having now made several Hindu friends I think it is wrong to think that all non-Muslims are somehow ‘enemies of Allah’, which is a claim that some Ahl-e Hadith extremists, such as the Lashkar-e Tayyeba in Pakistan, make.

The Quran very clearly says that to kill a single innocent human being—it makes no distinction here between Muslims and others—is tantamount to killing the whole of humanity, so how can I ever agree to what the Lashkar claims? Killing innocent people is a crime, and is not an Islamic jihad by any stretch of imagination. I think Muslim organisations must explicitly condemn killings of innocent people, no matter what the religion of their perpetrators or their victims. If you want others to be sympathetic to your problems you must also reciprocate. Just as Muslim organisations condemn right-wing Hindu groups for killing Muslims, they must also speak out against the killings of non-Muslims, such as is happening in Kashmir.

Q: You mentioned having made some Marxist friends in university. How has Marxism influenced your way of thinking? Some Muslims would argue that Marxism and Islam simply do not go together.

A: In the madrasa I was taught to believe that all Marxists are necessarily enemies of God and religion, but when I came into contact with Marxists in Delhi I realised that the ulema, in general, are silent about class differences, imperialism, social oppression and so on, which are basic social realities. I learnt to think about society and social problems in a different way after coming into contact with Marxist friends. I started reading up whatever I could on Marxism and on great Indian revolutionaries. I even took part in leftist demonstrations but I did not become a member of any Marxist students’ organisation as such.

Q: What changes would you like to see introduced in the madrasa syllabus in order to make it more relevant?

A: I think madrasas need to think in terms of the employment potential of their students. After all, there is a limit to the number of imams and preachers that our society can afford. Now, some ulema would counter this argument and claim that the students should study simply for the sake of the faith and should not be concerned about their worldly prospects. I don’t agree with this argument at all. As I see it, Islam tells you to think about your worldly conditions also. If you ignore or are indifferent to this aspect, as some ulema say we must, you are only further reinforcing the vicious cycle of poverty. This sort of socially disengaged ‘Islam’ is not really truly Islamic at all, and actually works to further entrench existing social elites.

Another issue that needs to be thought about is reform in teaching methods. Presently, the focus is simply on the learning, even memorising, of books, rather than actually understanding a discipline, as a result of which many students can hardly follow their lessons. Some madrasas have introduced blackboards, but these are rarely used. The teaching of Arabic is meant to be one of the major aims of the madrasa, but this is done in the traditional bookish manner, and little stress is given to conversational Arabic, and audio-visual methods are generally not used.

Equally importantly, I think madrasas must also introduce departments of social work. Unlike many Christian seminaries, for instance, madrasas make no proper arrangement for training the ulema to be social workers as well. They teach the students to be emotionally charged orators, but not to do concrete social work, in the mistaken belief that simply by lecturing to their congregations all our problems can be solved. What they don’t realise is that the world does not work that simply.

Another issue that desperately needs to be looked into is the sectarian approach of many madrasas. Some ulema have a vested interest in promoting and reinforcing sectarian differences, because in this way they can claim to be religious authorities and leaders of their own respective sects. Now, we cannot do away with sectarian differences, but surely we can learn to live with each other despite our differences. The ulema have to realise that there are more pressing issues confronting the Muslim community and India as a whole than the peripheral issues that they keep harping about. Unfortunately, however, there is no organised effort being made to promote intra-Muslim dialogue. The approach that some people adopt—of seeking to unite Muslims against a perceived external threat, whether real or imaginary—might work in the short run but cannot have any lasting impact, because ignoring internal differences in this way does not actually do away with them and they are bound to resurface once the perceived threat has been met. I think this question is related to the broader issue of the need to be able to critique our own selves, which is not something that many ulema are willing to do.

Q: Some advocates of madrasa reform have called for the introduction of modern social science disciplines in the madrasa curriculum. Do you feel this is important?

A: I think this is really crucial if you want the students to know about how the world is heading and if they are to play a relevant role as religious authorities. As of now, however, most ulema do not realise the importance of this, because they have little or no interaction outside their narrow circle. There is such a gap between the ulema and others that if at all when people speak to the ulema it is almost invariably about religious issues, narrowly understood. The ulema are not really aware of the world around them and so they cannot offer relevant opinions on other issues. As a result of this, they cannot counter anti-Islamic propaganda even if they want to, because their links with non-Muslims are almost non-existent. They may not even be able to communicate with them in a mutually intelligible language, because most of them read and write just Urdu and Arabic. They have little or no idea of how non-Muslims think, so their logic fails to convince them because they are not equipped to answer their questions. In response to their questions the ulema will quote from the Qur’an and the Hadith, to which their non-Muslim detractors will respond that all this is in the books but the way Muslims behave is very different. The ulema won’t be able to convincingly answer this point, of course, because they have little knowledge of the world outside. The point I want to make is that if the ulema are to be at all relevant they have no choice but to properly understand the context of India in the twenty-first century.

The absence of modern social sciences in the madrasas creates other problems, such as warped notions of Muslim identity. When I was at the madrasa I learnt history, but this was only the story of various Muslim kings and religious scholars. That sort of political history is, of course, very elitist, and so history comes to be reduced simply to the story of the ulema and the nobility, and the masses do not figure in this picture at all. If Muslim kings ruled India for a thousand years, so what? What do the Bengali Muslim peasants or impoverished Bihari Muslim weavers have to do with that? Why should it make them proud at all? After all, these Muslim kings who ruled for a thousand odd years were all from the ‘upper’ castes or ethnic groups who claimed to be superior because of their foreign origins. From the sort of history that many madrasas teach the message that is sought to be conveyed is that Islam is inseparable from political power, and that just because a Muslim happened to rule a certain country it was a blessing for Islam. This claim is fallacious. After all, although some ulema may wish to deny this, it is a fact that Muslims, too, have castes, at least in India, and the plight of the downtrodden Muslim castes was hardly different from that of their ‘low’ caste Hindu brethren in the entire period of so-called Muslim rule in India.

Another reason why we need to introduce social sciences in the madrasas is simply to make the understanding of the scriptures and Islamic jurisprudence more relevant in today’s context. Fiqh occupies a major part of the madrasa syllabus, and the majority of the Indian ulema, who belong to the Hanafi school, believe it is some sort of holy cow that cannot be touched or changed. But this, I believe, is wrong. The word fiqh actually means ‘understanding’, and is the outcome of the inferences or ijtihad of the jurisprudents, who tried to solve the problems of their times in accordance with their own understanding of the Qur’an and the Traditions attributed to the Prophet. That being the case, why can’t we do the same today and develop fiqh perspectives that are relevant in our own context? Fiqh, as it is taught in most madrasas, focuses mainly on the details of rules regarding worship, but very few madrasas teach their students about fiqh perspectives on issues of contemporary concern, although such books have been prepared by scholars. For this, I think it is necessary for madrasa students to have a good grounding in the social sciences. Introducing social sciences in the madrasas would also help them gain affiliation with universities, so that the students can go on to study a range of subjects once they graduate. This, in turn, will help them expand their career choices, which are presently very narrow and restricted.

Q: What are your own views about the ongoing debate about madrasas and ‘terrorism’?

A: Madrasas are meant to be centres of religious learning. They provide free education, and often free boarding and lodging, to a vast number of poor children, thus saving the public exchequer of a large burden. They are also playing a crucial role in promoting literacy. In the Indian context, I think that although they may be conservative they are certainly not militant and are not involved in any sort of terrorism. However, if people are pushed to the wall such conservatism can take other forms in self-defence, although this has not happened in India. I think the charge against the Indian madrasas of being ‘terror dens’ is ridiculous. Madrasa students do not even get proper food, so how can they obtain high-tech weapons?

Q: How, then, do you think that the anti-madrasa propaganda in India can be countered?

A: Some ulema have sought to defend the madrasas of the charges against them by writing books, but these are almost all in Urdu and so go unread by most non-Muslims, few of whom can read the language. I think Muslims who are in the mass media ought to work along with the ulema to counter the propaganda, and this has started to happen in some places. But because of the enormous gulf between the ulema and modern-educated Muslims this is not happening on the scale that it should.


Interview: Zubair Hudawi

Zubair Hudawi is a graduate of a Sunni madrasa in Kerala, a southern Indian state where Muslims account for almost a quarter of the population. He did his M.Phil. from the Department of Arabic at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, having worked on the role of traditionalist ulema in promoting modern education in Kerala. He is presently pursuing his doctoral studies at the same university and on the same topic.

(Interviewed by Yoginder Sikand)

Q: Could you tell us something about your educational background?

A: I studied till the fifth grade in a regular school and then enrolled at the Dar ul-Huda Islamic Academy, in Chemmad, in the Mallapuram district of northern Kerala. This madrasa is run by the Samastha Kerala Jamiat ul-Ulama, which is a Sunni Muslim organization. I spent thirteen years there, and along with my religious studies I did a Bachelor’s course from the Osmania University, Hyderabad, as an external candidate. I then came to the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. There, I did my MA in Arabic and am now doing my Ph.D.

Q: What are known as ‘Sunnis’ in Kerala, that is Muslims other than those affiliated to the reformist Jamaat-e Islami and the Nadwat ul-Mujahidin who are critical of sme aspects of ‘Sunni’ tradition, are often thought to be less enthusiastic about modern education. Do you agree with this view?

A: A few traditionalist Sunni ulema and organizations might feel this way, but I do not think it is true for the Kerala Sunnis in general. Things are rapidly changing today, and traditionalist Sunni groups are as involved in promoting Islamic as well as modern education as other Muslim groups in the state.

The Dar ul-Huda Islamic Academy, where I studied, is a Sunni organization, and is a good example of how traditionalist Sunni ulema in Kerala are now increasingly willing to incorporate modern education in the madrasa system. It is a unique institution of its kind, and is a sort of model that other Sunni groups are trying to emulate today. At the Academy we studied the general Islamic subjects, along with subjects like English, Mathematics, Science and History till the twelfth grade level. This allowed us to appear as external candidates in the government secondary school examination. In addition, we also learnt Urdu, Malayalam, or mother tongue, and Comparative Religions. Besides, we had to learn computers and take part in a range of extra-curricular activities, such as games and literary and public discussion groups.

In the eighth year of the course at the Academy students enroll for a Bachelor’s degree correspondence course in a regular university, so that by the time they finish the twelve year course at the Academy they also have a regular BA degree. Students can select from a range of subjects what they want to major in.

By combining traditional Islamic and modern education in this way, the Academy trains ulema who choose from a range of careers, and thus need not only work as imams or preachers in mosques. Some of the Academy’s graduates are abroad, working in the Gulf. Some have joined various newspapers. Several of them are now studying at regular universities, many of them in higher Arabic and Islamic studies, but a few in other fields which madrasa graduates earlier rarely entered. Thus, for instance, a graduate of the Academy is presently doing his M.Phil at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, where he is working on ‘The Crisis of Tradition and Modernity Among Muslims’ for his thesis. Several of the Academy’s graduates do become religious specialists, but they are quite distinct from the traditional ulema in that they are able to relate to the world around them in a far more relevant manner as they have a reasonably good grounding in modern disciplines as well.

Q: Do you know of similar experiments in combining modern and Islamic education for girls as well?

A: There are scores of such institutes catering to Muslim girls as well in Kerala, but, unfortunately, few people seem to have heard about them outside Kerala. Our Academy now has a girls’ wing, the Fatima Zehra Islamic Women’s College, which offers a seven- year course. The course combines Islamic and modern subjects, after which students appear for the secondary school examinations. As in the Academy, no fees are charged, and students get free food as well.

Q: How do you account for the fact that Muslim organizations in Kerala have been far more successful in combining modern and Islamic education than their north Indian counterparts?

A: In much of the rest of India there is a sharp dualism between Islamic and modern education. As a result, students who study in madrasas have little or no knowledge of modern subjects. Likewise, those who study in regular school have little or no knowledge of Islam. This dualism is reinforced by the stance of some traditionalist ulema, who seem to regard the two forms of knowledge as distinct from, if not opposed to, each other, although, as I see it, any form of beneficial knowledge is legitimate in Islam.

In Kerala, this dualism has, to a large extent, been overcome. We have a unique system of Islamic education in Kerala, which is not found in any other part of India. Every local Muslim community has its own madrasa, which is affiliated to a state-level madrasa board run by one or the other Islamic organization, such as the Jamaat-e Islami, the Kerala Sunni Jamiat ul-Ulema and the Nadwat ul-Mujahidin. These madrasa boards prepare the syllabus and textbooks that are used by all the madrasas affiliated to them. The boards also conduct annual examinations and send out regular inspection teams. The costs of running the madrasas are met by the local community council, which collects donations from each Muslim family in the locality. Often the office of the council and the madrasa itself are located in the local mosque, which functions as a sort of community centre.

The timings of the madrasas are adjusted in such a way that allows the children to attend regular school as well. In this way, by the time they finish their school education most Muslim children in Kerala have a fairly good grounding in Islamic studies as well. I don’t think there is any similar system in any other Indian state, where, generally, if you want to study Islam you have to go without modern education. In Kerala, fortunately, we do not have to make a choice between Islamic or modern education. Our children can study Islam while at the same time carrying on with their regular studies as well. After they graduate from regular school, if they want to specialize in Islamic studies they can join an Arabic College, and if they want to go in for modern education they can enroll in a university.

Q: How did this transformation in the madrasa system of education in Kerala come about? Was there no resistance to this?

A: I suppose before 1947, we, too, followed the traditional system. But Kerala is quite distinct from the rest of India, and the state has witnessed a wave of reform movements, which Muslims have also benefited from. We have also developed along with the other communities. I think the fairly harmonious relations between the different communities in Kerala is a major factor in explaining why Muslims there been willing to modernise their system of madrasa education. In contrast to many other parts of India, in Kerala, Muslims, Hindus and Christians all live in mixed localities, so there is a lot more give and take between the communities and a willingness to learn from and share with each other. In many parts of the north, Muslims have been forced to live in their own ghettos, and this trend is becoming even more pronounced with the alarming rise of right-wing, anti-Muslim Hindu forces in recent years, because of which Muslims feel safer if they live in separate localities. This further reinforces a deeply rooted insular mentality, which dampens any enthusiasm for change and reform.

Another important reason why madrasas in Kerala have been more open to change is that the state has a fairly sizeable Muslim middle class, which has taken an active interest in working along with the ulema and community organisations in the field of education. In contrast, in much of the north, the Muslim middle class is almost non-existent or else evinced little interest in intervening in the field of traditional religious education.

Q: Some ulema oppose madrasa graduates joining regular universities, claiming that this would result in them straying from religion. How do you, as a madrasa graduate now studying in what is regarded as one of India’s best universities, look at this argument?

A: I do not agree with this argument at all. True, there may be some madrasa graduates who are now in universities who are not very particular in their observance of religion, but these must be just a minority. Most madrasa students whom I know who are now studying in universities are regular in prayers and other Islamic rituals. I don’t believe it is difficult to preserve your faith in a university environment. Moreover, I think that studying in a regular university can provide madrasa students with new opportunities for interacting with, learning from and influencing others, including those who may be deeply prejudiced against Islam or Muslims.

I think the belief that joining universities would cause madrasa students to lose their faith in or commitment to Islam stems from a distorted understanding of religion that sees Islam and modernity as incompatible. Such a perception is more widely prevalent in north India, in contrast to Kerala. I firmly believe that most modern scientific and technological developments, including in the realm of knowledge, are not, in principle, opposed to Islam and can be embraced. So, there is no reason why Muslims, including madrasa graduates, cannot go in for modern education while taking care that this does not impact on their religious identity and commitment.

Q: What is the reason that the Kerala model of Islamic education is so little known in the rest of India, particularly in north India?

A: The main reason for this is that Kerala is the only state in India where Urdu is not used as the medium of instruction in the madrasas. In fact, very few Muslims in Kerala understand Urdu at all. Because of this, there has been little interaction between ulema in Kerala and elsewhere in India. This also explains why the writings of Kerala Muslim scholars, which are almost all in Malayalam, the state’s official language, are almost wholly unknown in the rest of India.

Another reason why many Muslims outside Kerala are not familiar with the Kerala experience in modernising madrasas is the deeply rooted, yet misplaced, belief that north Indian Muslims represent, in a sense, normative Islam. Hence, many north Indians feel that they have little, if anything, to learn from the south Indian example. There is this feeling that real Islam is to be found in the north, and that south Indian Muslims do not fully measure up to that standard. When I came to Delhi I was amazed to find some north Indian Muslim students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, which is considered to be one of the premier universities in the country, also appeared to share this opinion. When they learnt that I was from Kerala, they asked me, in all seriousness, if I knew how to pray in the proper Islamic fashion! One of them even asked that if we were Muslims how is it that we cannot speak Urdu properly! When I answered them and told them about Kerala’s unique madrasa system and pointed out the fact that Kerala is among the few states in India where Arabic is taught in government schools and in all our universities, they were really surprised and embarrassed.

But things are changing gradually now. In recent years there has been growing interaction between Muslim educational groups in Kerala and other parts of India, through visits and conferences, and this has helped others to learn about the Kerala system of madrasa education. The Academy where I studied has taken a significant step in this regard by setting up a separate unit, where education is imparted in the Urdu medium. This unit caters to Muslim children from other Indian states who speak Urdu, and it is hoped that once they finish their education they would return to their homes and set up similar modernised madrasas there as well. In addition, the Academy is now working with the authorities of a madrasa in Mumbai to help it modernize and impart both Islamic as well as modern education.

Of course, a lot more needs to be done in this regard. I think one really productive way of doing this is to organize groups of younger ulema and Muslim community activists from other parts of India to visit madrasas and Muslim educational institutions in Kerala, so that they can go back to their states and start similar experiments.

Q: Traditional madrasas have been heavily criticised for promoting inter-sectarian rivalry. How do you react to this charge?

A: It is an undeniable fact that many madrasas have been actively involved in promoting sectarian strife. Some of them go so far as to brand other Muslim groups as ‘infidels’ or at least as ‘aberrant’. I think this approach is completely misplaced. Even if you believe that your own sect represents the truth, it does not mean that you should violently denounce other sects.

The way forward is through dialogue, not through heated polemics. I think everybody has the right to believe what he or she wants, and no one has the right to forcibly impose his or her views on others. This applies to both intra-Muslim relations as well as to relations between Muslims and other communities. After all, the Quran very clearly teaches us that everyone is free to believe whatever he or she wants and that there can be no compulsion in religion.