To step into the historic campus of Darul Uloom in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur district is to step back in time. The day begins early when the muezzin’s pre-dawn call to prayer breaks through the minarets of the imposing main mosque sporting a distinctive Mughal-era facade.
Before anything else — even their morning tea — the students offer the first namaaz of the day. From the three-storey new hostel, the main mosque is a short walk.
It’s 4 am and the eateries, along a car-wide street that cuts through the old and new campuses, are ready with breakfast: puris (unleavened bread made from dough), minced-mutton and matthi (cookies). As soon as the prayers are over, students with money will swarm these restaurants. Others will make do with the canteen tea and bread.
It’s the crack of dawn but, here, rush hour has begun. The whole of Deoband in fact has a different time zone, attuned to the Darul-Uloom clock.
Alms-seekers have already spread their mats; the bookstores are open and rickshaws weave dangerously on a street full of clerics.
“Discipline is critical to the study of Islam; nobody can rise late,” says Qari Abdul Hasan Azmi, professor of Quran recitation.
Let alone terror, there is nothing explosive — not even signs of anger or revenge — here. The students here are a bunch of disciplined, devout people whose mission is to “submit to the will of Allah”.
Haunting chants of Quranic verses ring out from its crowded classrooms, where men with beards and spotless skullcaps hunch over religious texts under the tutelage of some 250 teachers.
In the final-year class, a teacher reads out notes over a microphone as he interprets the Quran for 800 students. If they pass the exam, they will be called alim, or literally a scholar. With this degree, they become certified clerics, a globally valid qualification that will allow them to work as imams in mosques or set up madrassas.
The graduation degree is a 13-year course, with five years of primary education. The main subjects of primary education are Hindi, Urdu, Persian, History, Geography, General Knowledge and Mathematics. The two-year compulsory English course, surprisingly, comes in the later stages of graduation. The English professor Syed Anwar throws an unexpected challenge: “Talk to them in English. Test them.”
Adil Siddiqui, the public relations officer, in fact, claims Darul has been fulfilling key objectives of the National Education Commission: “free education, free meals and universal education”.
At 10 am, a student steps out of a classroom in the main courtyard and sounds the 100-year-old gong with a padded hammer. The morning shift that began at 6.30 am has ended. The next shift that begins at 3 pm will start with computer classes in the three-room computer lab that also doubles up as the Internet centre. Students huddle around professor in-charge Mohammed-ullah, who is surfing the BBC’s Urdu website. At another computer, a student takes printouts of requests for online fatwas. These will then be translated into Urdu and entered into the fatwa logbook before being sent to Ifta department.
“Look at this one,” says Mauhammed-ullah, as he prepares to upload a fatwa that has just come in from the Ifta department. A man from UK, perturbed by unrequited love, had requested help. “Pray to Allah so that the girl you love reciprocates your feelings immediately. If things don’t progress, ask your Lord to make you forget her soon enough. Surely, Allah knows best,” the fatwa bearing the sign and seal of the Ifta head reads. On an average, Mauhammed-ullah gets 300 requests for online fatwas a day.
Spread over nine acres and with an official budget of Rs 9 crore annually, Darul-Uloom is in fact a tourist attraction for many Muslims, for it houses a personal scarf belonging to Prophet Mohammed. The relic, a gift from the government of Turkey, is housed in its finance department.
The seminary runs entirely on donations and its finances are audited by a government-approved chartered accountant, after which the balance-sheet is presented to the government. Its granary stores a year’s stock of all essential food items.
To arrive at Darul Uloom’s present requires a walk through its past. In the aftermath of the 1857 uprising, its founder Maulana Qasim Nanautvi declared a jehad (religious war) against the British. Its stalwarts, like Husain Madni, opposed the Partition, refusing to be uprooted from their native land. “This religious school was born out of the freedom struggle,” says senior professor Qari Usman, “but nobody talks about this anymore.”