Yoginder Sikand, Times of India , 8 Nov, 2006
Subjected to relentless attack by right-wing Hindu groups and by sections of the media as dens of terror, madrassas in India are discussed only within a narrow framework of security considerations.
Forced on the defensive, the response of the ulama who run the madrassas is also now largely framed in similar terms. They seek to argue that madrassas have nothing at all to do with terrorism.
Consequently, other crucial issues pertinent to the madrassas, particularly the question of curricular reform and the welfare of students, are increasingly being sidelined in public discourse.
In response to allegations against madrassas in recent years, Indian ulama organisations have organised several conferences on the issue of 'terrorism', disclaiming any association with it.
One such conference was held in New Delhi recently. It was organised by a faction of the Ahl-i Hadith movement, a school of Islamic thought ideologically close, if not almost identical with, the Saudi Wahhabis.
In contrast to most other such conferences, this one brought together leading ulama of schools of thought other than the Ahl-i Hadith, such as Deobandis and Jamaat-i Islami.
Not surprisingly, the Sunni Barelvis and the Shias, both of who consider the Ahl-i Hadith Wahhabis to be virtually outside the pale of Islam, were conspicuous by their absence.
Allegations of terrorism levelled against madrassas was a major issue of discussion during the conference. The subject was the central focus of the keynote address by Maulvi Rabe Hasani Nadvi, rector of the Nadwat ul-Ulama madrassa, Lucknow, and president of the influential All-India Muslim Personal Law Board.
Nadvi's comments reflect a widespread response on the part of the ulama to charges levelled against madrassas by their detractors as well as to critiques of madrassas by fellow Muslim advocates of reform.
Nadvi insists that far from being producing 'terrorists', madrassas are devoted to training students who 'possess high morals', 'nobility' and 'humaneness'.
Critics of the madrassas, he argues, are inspired by base motives. They have inherited, he says, the legacy of European colonial rulers, who introduced a system of education that had no space for morality and spirituality, and was focused solely on material gains.
This system of education was not concerned with life after death, but was centred entirely on worldly pleasures. Consequently, he argues, European colonialists sought to destroy the madrassas, and their ideological progeny today continue in their legacy.
In seeking to defend the madrassas from allegations made against them, Nadvi offers a mirror image of the arguments of the madrassas' detractors, describing madrassas as representing the ideal system of education and in no need of any substantial change.
On the other hand, he dismisses the 'modern', 'secular' system of education as a leftover from colonial times, critiquing it for 'ignoring the higher goals of a moral life and being, in one sense, opposed to these'.
This is why, Nadvi says, imperialist forces are seeking to defame madrassas as 'conservative', 'fundamentalist' and as ideological factories of 'terrorism'.
In this determined defence of madrassas, the difference between theory and actual practice is completely erased. It is as if the graduates of madrassas, unlike their counterparts from 'modern' schools, are the very epitome of virtue.
As Nadvi puts it, "The role of other forms of education in promoting people's morals and character appears much less than that of the madrassas". The critique of madrassas articulated by their opponents is thus dismissed as having not the slightest validity at all.
In Nadvi's defence of the madrassas there is no recognition of the obvious fact that not all madrassa students live up to the high moral standards he insists that they maintain. There is no admission of the fact that sectarian prejudice is actively cultivated in many madrassas, a fact much lamented by Muslim modernists.
With almost every madrassa being associated with one or the other of several competing schools of Islamic thought, one of their main functions is to rebut the claims of their competitors to representing normative Islam.
Nor is there any reference to patriarchal attitudes and what Islamist feminists would argue are misogynist and 'un-Islamic' interpretations of the Shariah that are routinely articulated in speeches and writings of numerous ulama.
Muslim advocates of interfaith dialogue would contend that the 'un-Islamic' positions on interfaith relations and perceptions of other faiths and their adherents that are associated with some significant sections of the ulama are completely ignored in this uncritical praise of madrassas.
There is not even a hint of recognition of the fact that madrassas often promote a narrow, insular mindset.
That madrassas generally focus on the nitty-gritty of mediaeval fiqh or jurisprudence on a host of issues that have completely lost relevance or else are interpreted in such a manner as to be incompatible with modern sensitivities is also ignored.
In Nadvi's uncritical adulation of madrassas there is no allusion to fact that at least some madrassas in Pakistan are engaged in promoting militancy directed against people of other faiths as well as against Muslim sectarian rivals, something critics have used to wrongly brand Indian madrassas as dens of terror.
With security considerations shaping the way in which the debate on madrassas is conducted both by the raditionalist ulama as well as anti-Muslim ideologues, the welfare of millions of children studying in madrassas is increasingly being regarded as of little or no concern.
Neither the traditionalist ulama nor Islamophobes appear particularly interested in going beyond the narrow confines of a security-driven discourse to put the welfare of madrassa students at the centre of the debate.
The writer works on issues of interfaith dialogue.