In reporting the recent events at India's best-known Muslim seminary, the English-language press — from the New York Times to Indian dailies — pro-ved its proclivity for misrepresenting Muslims yet again.
Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi — the Darul Uloom's top administrator, sacked because he was quoted speaking favourably of a chief minister blamed for anti-Muslim riots — was made out to be all that Muslims are generally thought incapable of being: educated, liberal and "modernist".
Vastanvi's portrayal had, what I call, the typical ‘zoo effect'. It's the wonder-struck effect overwhelming us at a circus. As the animals perform, we marvel at what the tamed beasts can accomplish.
Vastanvi's views about Muslims doing fine in Gujarat, where eight years ago they faced a pogrom, were more about the community's resilience rather than unabashed praise of the state's demagogic chief minister, Narendra Modi.
For good reasons, he took care to not sound provocative, or raise the bogey of discrimination. He certainly didn't want to disturb the peace, as they say. His remarks had to do with compulsions only Gujarati Muslims have.
Simply put, Vastanvi did not want to spark another riot or have licences of his colleges cancelled. All this had to be somehow construed as plain praise of Modi, and, worse, be taken as a sign of modernity.
The problem does not lie in a Muslim's praise of Modi but in our turning that into a benchmark of modernity.
Islam and modernism, as philosophical systems, are incompatible, but nevertheless reconcilable within the framework of political liberalism. But If Vastanvi knew what modernism is, he would not touch it with a barge pole.
Newspapers, even the sticklers for accuracy, such as the Wall Street Journal, talked about Vastanvi's reformist agenda, when he had none.
Vastanvi ruled out updating Darul's curriculum, which he considered the best. By Islamic standards, it is indeed world-class. So, he was against the idea of an omnibus State-run madrasa affiliation board, a government proposal to modernise madrasas now gathering dust.
As a trained cleric, Vastanvi is deeply loyal to Darul's vaunted Deobandi school of thought that follows from the Hanafi School of Islamic Jurisprudence. It is this jurisprudence that was the basis for the Imrana rape case fatwa, which declared that a woman raped by her father-in-law must be made a legally wedded wife of her rapist.
Vastanvi was being diplomatic when he was making those supposed remarks on Modi. Be that as it may, a diplomatic mullah is better than a blunt one. But to call him a modernist is committing blasphemy! Amen.