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Old ways, New Realities

At India’s premier Islamic seminary, students are asked to burn photos. Yet, they learn photoshop. Darul Uloom is adjusting to the new India, reports Priyanka P Narain.

india Updated: Feb 26, 2008 02:23 IST
Priyanka P Narain

At the Darul Uloom madrassa here, the resident mufti issued a religious decree last September calling photography a form of idol worship. His fatwa, bearing seal and signature, ordered Muslims: “Burn the photographs that you have in your possession. Also, acquire those photographs, which are in the possession of others and burn them. If they refuse to give it to you, buy it from them and burn them.”

Some students and faculty took the command to heart and don’t allow anyone to take photos of them anymore. And then there’s Abdus Salam Qasmi, the madrassa’s computer teacher. The former student at Darul Uloom teaches students software applications, such as Adobe PageMaker and PhotoShop—programmes which require the use of photography. On a recent day, pulling a camera stand from his drawer, Qasmi said with a hint of mocking conspiracy, “Sometimes, I give them a small camera and teach them how to take photos and edit them.”

Such are the complexities and contradictions of Islamic education today. Perhaps nowhere in India is the dichotomy reflected as strongly as this madrassa—one of the most important Islamic seminaries in the world and the birthplace of Deobandism, an ideological strain to which the Taliban claims allegiance.

As the government plans to modernise education and infrastructure in the nation’s 12,000 madrassas, to add the teaching of math, civics and science to that of the Quran, a debate wages inside those schools as to just what strings might be attached to the increased aid.

In many cases, the poorest choose Islamic schooling because their parents want them to have shelter and food, as much as an education. Meanwhile, a conference of Islamic scholars began here on Monday to discuss allegations that madrassas have turned into breeding grounds for terrorism. A similar, fundamental question forms the heart of the matter: How can Islam be reconciled to modern life? Should it be reconciled at all? Despite the internal conflicts, each morning in Deoband starts with a comforting rhythm, one that has unfolded for 140 years. Dawn breaks in long torn strips of mist and dust snaking around the minarets and domes of Deoband.

In the cold and semi-darkness, when night has not quite departed, the muezzin summons the faithful to prayer and the 3,500 students at the Darul Uloom madrassa answer the call. So begins another day of learning.

Do we look like terrorists?

Aadil Khan, a 20-year-old from Bhopal, quotes from the Ramayana and believes all religions lead to the same god. He says shyly that when he finishes his education in two years, he wants to start his own madrassa back home. It’s a dream many share.

And like so many other students, Khan is aware of outside perception: “You must have heard that we are terrorists here. Now you have met us? What do you think — do we look like terrorists to you?” Their defences are heightened lately. About 35 students and former students have been arrested on terrorism-related charges in the last eight years. Three months ago, a current student, Sajjad-ul-Rehman was arrested for involvement in the serial blasts that ripped courts in Varanasi, Lucknow and Faizabad on November 23 last year.

But madrassa officials say it was impossible, that he was attending classes in school when the blasts occurred. “They name Lashkar-e-taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, or some other Islamic organisation every time something happens and people think all of us are terrorists,” said Adil Siddiqui, 75, the public relations officer at Darul Uloom for two decades. “In this atmosphere of mutual distrust, both sides need to talk,” said Siddiqui, a well-spoken former employee of Press Information Bureau in New Delhi. He encourages journalist visits and tells the media-shy maulvis to talk, saying, “Until you talk, they don’t know who you are. You are doing no wrong. Stand up, look in their eye and talk to them. Answer their questions. Only then they will understand you.”

For now, the arrests of former students and Siddiqui’s encouragement are drawing the maulvis out to talk. “We want the government to define terrorism. We want them to stop arresting Muslims for terrorist activities without evidence,” said Ari Mohammed Usman, deputy vice-chancellor of the madrassa.

Complex realities

Despite some who agree Islamic education needs to be upgraded, in the heart of this madrassa, a deep mistrust of the government simmers as it tries to extend its reach inside classrooms. In 2003, the government set up a programme to teach computers, math, science, history, geography and English by offering small incentives and teachers for the schools.

Last year, its team of experts visited madrassas across the country; their recommendations are to be released later this month. Earlier in the month, Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh wrote a letter to the budget committee demanding higher allocation for madrassa modernisation.

Since most seminaries of the country will follow Deoband’s lead, the government must bring the Darul Uloom madrassa on board as a key ally for the strategy to work. But officials here are not in the mood to become allies. “When you come to us with this ‘so-called’ modernisation and aid plan, you are telling us that we are not modern,” Siddiqui said. “Islam is the most scientific religion of all. What the Quran had said 1,400 years ago, your scientists are finding out now. We have a budget outlay of Rs 9 crore a year. We don’t need your money. We don’t need you to tell us how to educate our own.”

From inception, Darul Uloom has refused government aid or grants, running simply on donations. When asked about the top 10 donors, cash keeper Aijaz Ahmed said he did not know any names. “We have 35 volunteers who travel through allocated regions across the country, who go to homes, shops and mosques to ask for donations. I don’t know who donates. Ask the accountant.”

The madrassa’s main fear is that government cash will come with conditions. In 2003, when the government announced its Scheme of Assistance for Infrastructure and Modernisation of Madrassas to encourage formal education in madrassas, it was met with resistance among the maulanas, or those who studied under Islamic scholars, who saw it as “government interference in a religious institute.”

Such logic is also what prevents madrassas from accepting help. For instance, at the computer department, more than 250 students apply for admission every year. Most are turned away.

The teacher, Abdus Salam Qasmi explains, “We can accept only 30. So we conduct a tough written exam and ask questions that most will not know the answers to. It’s just a way to find an excuse to turn away students. There are only 12 computers here.” Two years ago, when the US embassy in New Delhi offered to donate more computers, the madrassa refused to accept them. “The US has a use and throw policy. They help whom they need and then forget about them. They used bin Laden and when the Russians were defeated, they forgot about him. They are doing the same to Musharraf. If we take their help, they will try to force their agenda on us,” Siddiqui said.

Thus, every year, Qasmi conducts entrance exams that have nothing to do with computers. And every year, he must turn most students away.

Allah’s angels

Beyond the brick chowks with banyan trees and intricate, scalloped doorways, a new mosque rises in marble. Here, students begin their day with a namaz. When they leave, they go home to become maulvis or muftis at mosques, or start their own madrassas. Others return to run the family business or to farming. “But a few others join Aligarh University or the Jamia Millia and become unani doctors,” Siddiqui said, referring to a form of alternative medicine. “You will not find our boys waiting in lines outside the unemployment bureau. They have no use for it.”

Abid-ul-Rehman, 22, said he feels it is their lot to live a life different from the rest of the world. “We come here to learn how to lead a religious life. Our mazhab, or religion is law. If we follow the rules, Allah will be pleased with us. But if we don’t, then on Day of Judgment, we will be condemned to burn eternally in hell fire.”

For most students, expertise in Islam offers a chance to be someone, especially if they come from poor families. Nissar Ahmed, 23, admitted he likes being treated with deference, but added, “It’s not me, it’s because I study here. I would not get this respect if I were an engineer or doctor.”

Lured by the promise of being men of god, these young men believe they can rise to any challenge. Before returning to the seminary for his lunch, Ahmed warned that tarnishing the image of Darul Uloom by calling its students terrorists will backfire. “Muslims of the world will die to protect its honour. We are a peace-loving people, we don’t want to hurt anyone,” he said.

“But if someone raises an evil eye against us, there will be bloodshed.” As government looks at ways to modernise madrassas, the Deoband school fears cash comes with conditions.