Editor’s note: Last year, Yasmin M Khan, a Paris-based researcher whose area of interest is Muslim education, visited a collection of small and largemadrassas in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. She spent three months interviewing administrators, students, former students, and local Muslim leaders. Her inquiries ended in September, by which time she had gathered a large quantity of information and opinions on the relevance of madrassas, their role in Muslim radicalisation and the impact the government's madrassa modernisation programme has had on these institutions.
Khan found Muslim opinion divided. Many thought madrassas were being unfairly targeted because of “anti-Muslim prejudice” and that the debate ignored the role they played in providing Islamic learning and providing free education to poor Muslim children. Others argued that these institutions were an “anachronism” and called for greater regulation around their sources of funding and their curriculum.
There was near unanimity on one issue: it was all very well to modernise madrassas by introducing computers, but not at the expense of mainstream “secular” schooling. Parents in rural areas told Khan they were “forced” to send their children to madrassas owing to the lack of proper schools in villages.
Firstpost invited Khan to write a series of four articles drawing from her travels. We commissioned pencil drawings by Maitri Dore, a Bengaluru-based architect, to serve as visual elements accompanying Khan’s pieces; she was not allowed to photograph her subjects.
By Yasmin M Khan
The Deoband brand of madrassas, which has mushroomed all over Asia and beyond, preaching an orthodox version of Islam and radicalising Muslim youth, is one of India’s most popular exports.
Recently, the Financial Times reported that the word ‘Deobandi’ (a graduate of Darul Uloom, Deoband) has become “shorthand for a Sunni Muslim extremist”. The “ubiquitous” Deobandi madrassas, described as “dens of jihadism and violence”, it said, were everywhere – estimated to run into “tens of thousands”. “Wave after wave of Deoband graduates have gone on to found their own madrassas across [the] region,” wrote the paper’s South Asia bureau chief Victor Mallet in a comprehensive survey of madrassas on the subcontinent.
Despite its progressive role in the freedom struggle and during the Partition debate, when it rejected Jinnah’s two-nation theory, Deoband always preached a hardline and exclusivist version of Islam based on a narrow literal interpretation of the Quran as opposed to the syncretic Sufi Islam that came more easily to Indian Muslims.
Compared to their counterparts in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, Indian madrassas have been relatively benign in that they don't teach violent jihad and their boys have not been directly involved in terrorism. But their radicalising influence is very real. By propagating a narrow and selective interpretation of Islam and its texts that portray women as inferior to men and non-Muslims as “kafirs”, they sow seeds of extremist thinking. They promote a harsh and intolerant version of Islam and insist that their understanding of the Quran and Sharia alone is authentic – and those who don't accept it are not ‘true’ Muslims.
Indian madrassas are unfamiliar with what Europeans call “non-violent extremism”. But it is a slippery slope. Those brought up on a heavily sectarian discourse and bogey of “Islam under threat” are known to become easy prey to al-Qaeda and Islamic State style propaganda and instigation to violence.
“The cultural alienation that madrassas breed make their boys sitting ducks for jihadi groups who are able to exploit for their own purposes,” said a former member of the National Commission for Minorities, who wished not to be named.
Experts in the West call it the “conveyor-belt effect” whereby madrassas initiate the process of radicalisation putting them on the path to further – and often violent – radicalisation. A friend of mine who lives in Meerut decided to send her ten-year-old son to a madrassa during summer vacation to learn the Quran and “something about Islam”, told me she was shocked when after a few weeks the child started asking “strange questions” like why she didn't wear burqa; and was it “haram” to watch movies and have photographs in the house? When she asked him who had told him these things he said his “maulvi saheb” at the madrassa had. “But I was really upset when one day he asked if our Hindu maid was a ‘kafir’. I told him to stop talking such nonsense and decided that he was not going back to the madrassa,” my friend told me.
And this brings us back to Deoband. Over the years it has become a sort of a franchise, with its graduates setting up their own madrassas based on its teachings and producing some of the most virulent extremists in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Most of these madrassas are funded by those Saudis intent on promoting their fundamentalist and ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islam – it draws its name from Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an 18th century scholar who launched a movement to revive pure Islam purged of other non-Islamic cultural influences and practices such as visiting shrines of saints or even constructing concrete graves.
But it isn’t just Saudi money that is propping up Wahhabism. Several other rich Arab countries are ploughing in “millions of petro-dollars” intomadrassas to promote conservative Islam in the name of protecting and preserving Islamic culture, said Sultan Shahin, editor of the progressive New Age Islam website.
“Along with funds, the petro-dollar rich Arab countries also provide the core curriculum and textbooks for these madrassas. This teaching provides basic grounding in an extremist religious outlook that keeps children from interacting with other communities, even other Muslim sects...They are brainwashed in madrassas by semi-literate mullahs and then thrown out without any means or skills for survival,” he told the UN Human Rights Council in a submission.
Meanwhile, Deoband takes pride in the fact that its old boys are broadcasting its message far and wide. “There's not a single city which doesn't have a Deobandi madrassa,” boasted an Ulema. I have visited Darul Uloom several times and every time it felt like being on another planet which doesn't bear any resemblance to the real world outside. The atmosphere – from the orthodox dress code, restricted individual freedoms to a discourse rooted in the idea of a separate Islamic identity reeks of a world sealed off from modern society and outside influences. Students are discouraged from talking to outsiders except with the permission of the authorities, and in the presence of an authorised minder.
Its vice-chancellor Mufti Abul Qasim Nomani makes no bones – in fact declares it with pride – that its “mission is to preserve Islamic culture”, as he put it in a newspaper interview. He denied that this meant teaching a hate for other cultures insisting that it preached “only love and peace”.
Deoband's influence goes beyond madrassas: one of the country's most divisive right-wing groups, the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board is dominated by Deobandis and has close links with Deoband. Progressive Muslims including Professor Tahir Mahmood, a former chairman of the National Minorities Commission and a member of the Law Commissioned have called for it to be banned because of its toxic agenda.
Moderate madrassas are struggling to resist the tide of radicalisation even as the government has launched a programme of modernisation ofmadrassas. Introduction of computers and courses in modern subjects have had no effect on the core curriculum which is teaching Islamic theology and training imams of the future. And that curriculum remains unreformed; and it is taught by maulvis whose own worldview has been shaped by fundamentalism.
According to Maulana Waheeduddin Khan, noted progressive Islamic scholar, traditional maulvis have no understanding of the “complexitites of the contemporary world and so cannot address modern problems or interpret Islam in a way that would appeal to modern minds" (interview with Yoginder Sikand in Islamopedia Online). His views are echoed by another Muslim scholar and historian S Irfan Habib. He said, madrassa education, the way it is structured, is “not relevant for the mainstream employment opportunities”.
It is important to stress that Indian madrassas don't preach violence and there is no suggestion that they are involved in anti-national activities. In fact, Deoband is intensely nationalistic — always has been. The violence is embedded in the ideology of intolerance, misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitism they preach. The fact that most madrassas practice gender segregation even in state-funded institutions as highlighted in the first part of this series, speaks for itself.
The key to modernising madrassas in the real sense lies in reforming the core theological curriculum — the guts of Muslim education — and bringing it in line with the changes brought in several Islamic countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Egypt and Tunisia. Some madrassas in Kerala and West Bengal have taken the lead on this and hopefully others will follow their example. Any attempt by the government to force the issue will be seen as interference but perhaps a start can be made by initiating consultations with Ulemas.