Change in madrasa structure and syllabus is imperative: Maulana Saeed ur-Rahman
By Yoginder Sikand
Maulana Saeed ur-Rahman is the principal of the renowned Nadwat ul-'Ulama madrasa in Lucknow. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand he talks about allegations madrasas as well as the question of madrasa reforms
YS: What do you have to say about the current propaganda against madrasas as allegedly being 'dens of terror''?
SR. This propaganda is completely baseless. The gates of the madrasas are open to all, and anyone can come at any time to see for himself what we are engaged in. Even if the most hardcore Hindutva leaders, who have been demanding that all madrasas in the country be forcibly closed down, were to visit us, our doors would be open for them. Let them come and see exactly what we are doing, instead of issuing baseless statements against us.
The madrasas are an open book, and we do not have any hidden activities whatsoever. All that we do is to teach religion to our children. But today powerful groups in the West, in order to promote global American hegemony, have started a vicious propaganda against Islam, Muslims and the madrasas, and unfortunately some people in India, too, are toeing this line.
YS: But what would you say about certain madrasas in Pakistan, especially along the Afghan border, that are said to be involved in terrorist activities?
SR: The social, historical and political context in Pakistan is very different from that in India, and hence one cannot compare the functioning of madrasas in the two countries. In any case, not all, or even most, Pakistani madrasas have been involved in militant activities. Then, one must see the involvement of some Pakistani madrasas in militancy as also a reaction to American aggression in neighbouring Afghanistan. As I see it, the people of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province and adjacent parts of Afghanistan have a long historical tradition of internecine tribal warfare, and so it is not the madrasa system as such, but, rather, the historical and cultural traditions of the people of that area and a complex set of specific political factors, that are responsible for militancy taking root in some madrasas there.
YS: How do you feel the propaganda against madrasas should be combated?
SR: All this has to be done within the confines of the law, using constructive, not destructive, means. The best way to do this is by our own practical example, by producing students of high caliber who can contribute to the community as well as the country as a whole. Madrasas should regularly invite non-Muslims to visit them and freely interact with their teachers and students. In that way, by seeing things for themselves, others can learn what are our activities really are. We would even welcome suggestions from them as to how to improve our functioning. We have organised a few such meetings, but I agree we need to do more. Madrasas can also reach out to people of other faiths through literature. For instance, the Nadwa brings out a journal called Saccha Rabiin Hindi and Fragrance of the East in English, and sends free copies of these to several non-Muslims, including government officials, journalists and social activists, so that they are kept aware of what madrasas are actually all about and of their activities. In this way we are also trying to present before them a balanced perspective on Islam.
YS: Many critics of the madrasa system feel that today's conditions demand a radical overhaul of their syllabus. What do you feel about this?
SR: One of the principal aims of the founders of the Nadwa was to reform the traditional madrasa syllabus. They envisaged a new curriculum that would combine the best of the traditional and modern systems of education. The madrasa syllabus, you must remember, has never been static, and has always evolved according to changing conditions. Today, when the world is changing so rapidly, we feel that change in the syllabus and structure of the madrasa system, too, is imperative. But the sort of change that we want is such that the basic aim of the madrasa training students who are well versed in the Qur'an and the Islamic sciences is preserved and is not diluted in any way.
As we at the Nadwa see it, in order for madrasa students to play an effective role in society they must be well aware of the changing world around them, and that is why we also teach a range of modern subjects as well, including English, Hindi, science, history, geography and so on. This is also necessary for the students as future ulema in order for them to be able to express Islam in terms intelligible to people today. We encourage our students to keep abreast with the developments in the wider world, for which we arrange for several newspapers, in Urdu, Hindi, Arabic and English, to be kept in our library. We organise weekly meetings for students, where they discuss contemporary world affairs and other such topics. We have recently started two new departments of computers and journalism, so that our graduates can play a more socially engaged and enlightened role as community and religious leaders. We have also introduced a one-year course in comparative religions for graduates of our madrasa. Since we live in a plural society we all should know at least something about the religious beliefs and practices of our fellow countrymen. This is also important in order to promote inter-faith dialogue and to correct misunderstandings that others might have about Islam. We would encourage other madrasas to follow our example in this regard and revise their curriculum on similar lines.