Islamic Voice A Monthly English Magazine
Rajab / Shaban 1423 H
October 2002
Volume 15-10 No:190

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View From The Other Side


"The need of the hour is to introduce social sciences in Madrasas"
The Muslims are facing the confusion of Priorities


"The need of the hour is
to introduce social sciences in Madrasas"

Mubarak Ali from Pakistan

Lahore-based Mubarak Ali is a leading Pakistani Leftist scholar and social activist
He has taught History at the University of Sind, and is presently the editor of the Urdu quarterly ‘Tarikh’.
In an exclusive interview for Islamic Voice,
he conveys his thoughts on Islam in contemporary Pakistan, to Yoginder Sikand.

What do you feel about the current talk of madrasas emerging as centers of ‘terrorism’ in Pakistan?
Much of this talk is exaggerated, I must admit. On the whole, the madrasas create narrow-minded, sectarian students, but not terrorists. Not all the Afghan Taliban were madrasa-educated. They also included young people educated in modern schools or colleges. They were influenced by television, radio, newspapers and textbooks. During the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, the Americans motivated madrasa students to engage in armed jihad and prepared for them special textbooks which glorified ‘holy war’. Then, when Mulla Omar took power in Afghanistan, he encouraged the madrasa students to come to his help. During this period they were militarily trained and fought for the new regime in Afghanistan.

How can madrasas be suitably reformed?
The only way out is to radically change the curriculum and introduce the teaching of social sciences. Instead of doing this, our government is focusing on the introduction of the natural sciences in the madrasa syllabus and is also providing them computers. I think this is a useless exercise. It is the social sciences that make people to think and helps them open their minds, not the natural sciences.

What are your reflections on the possibilities in Pakistan today of developing new ways of understanding Islam to seriously take into account issues such as democracy, human rights, women’s rights, religious pluralism?
Rich people in Pakistan prefer to give donations to a madrasa or a mosque rather than to an organisation working for social development. Dictatorship and ‘feudal democracy’ have disappointed the people and economic hardship and social problems are forcing them to take refuge in religion. The State institutions treat people as subjects and not citizens. In such a situation, in a backward society, the interpretation of religion is also backward. The religious minorities are often made victims of the blasphemy law. There is little effort being made to develop new Islamic perspectives on issues of contemporary concern.

What are your views on the current relations between Muslims and the West, and on the emergence of Islamist radicalism?
There are several complex reasons for the emergence of Islamist radicalism and anti-West feelings among large sections of the Muslim community. What has happened, and is still happening, to the Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Palestine and Kashmir has convinced people that there is a conspiracy against the Muslims by some communal forces. And so, growing numbers of Muslims feel that the way out is to adopt the path of ‘holy war’, turning their backs on dialogue. Widespread economic backwardness is another reason, leading to the feeling of extreme helplessness among many Muslims. Acts of violence provide them some ‘satisfaction’ that they can terrify even their powerful ‘enemies’.

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The Muslims are facing
the confusion of Priorities

Muslims need to reflect on their inheritance from the modern reform movement. The early Muslim reform movements were actually seeking to create a conscious Muslim identity under the hegemony of what Francis Robinson describes as “the Urdu-speaking elite”. This elite group was neither ‘traditional’ nor ‘modern’, and it would be anachronistic to try to grasp the reform movements in terms of these dichotomous categories. With their emphasis on a modern and liberal Islam, the early reformers vested the Muslim educated elite with an almost hegemonic ideological power over all other plebeian followers of Islam.

Mohammad Iqbal saw contemporary Islam as suffering from inertia and quiescence. This, he thought, was preventing it from facing the challenges of the modern period, and was encouraging an attitude of quiet resignation among its followers. This, he believed, was not true Islam, which is characterised by initiative, action and constant change. Now, when Iqbal talks of inertia and passivism among Muslims, he is actually expressing his disappointment with the pace and direction of change. The question of direction is important here, for it reveals the social and political objectives of his religious thought. The nature of change that Iqbal would want to see had two main objectives. The first was to introduce within Islam a disciplinary regime, to inculcate among Muslims the attributes of a “superman” (in the language of Nietzsche) - discipline, rationality and a sense of purpose. The second objective was to see religion become a source of social and political power. Islam, according to Iqbal, is not submission, but supremacy. It is not self-negation, but self-affirmation and furious activism. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad sought to shift the emphasis of modern religious reforms from a concern with power, to an effort to establish a universalist morality, based on compassion and service to humanity. Azad’s eclectic theology based on love and compassion was shared by several other Muslim scholars in the sub-continent. In a seminar held at Simla in 1967 on “India and Contemporary Islam,” several scholars such as K.G. Saiyidain, A.A.A. Fyzee and Ishrat Hasan Enver called for a more constructive dialogue of Islam with other religious traditions, in order to comprehend better our shared spiritual heritage, based on a universal ethical system. Ishrat Enver, perhaps, summed up the argument in the following words: “Islam, it is maintained, in so far as it is synonymous with the love of God must culminate in the love of man irrespective of social, cultural and parochial limitations”.

Says Abid Ullah Jan, Executive Director of the Integrated Regional Support Programme (IRSP): “The dream of subserviently taking orders until acquiring the position of imaginary strength will never materialise because the Muslims are not subjected to a one-pronged attack. There should be no doubt that the Muslim countries are not only ordered to act in specific ways but are also systematically targeted to keep them socially, economically, morally and militarily in an unstable position. Education definitely is the key. The question, nevertheless, is what kind of education? Are Musharraf, Nawaz Sharif, Benazir Bhutto and the establishment in Islamabad illiterate? Is the military junta in Algeria or the dictatorial clique in Egypt and Turkey illiterate? If they are not, can’t they think of a right approach to alleviate misery of the masses rather than colluding with the managers of genocide, occupation and repression? What did they get from their education?

In fact, the Muslims are facing the confusion of priorities. Some say our priority is to educate ourselves; others say we need to make ourselves economic giants of the world and yet others believe we need to separate religion from politics and trust in the pleasure of world mastering demi-gods for our survival. We would remain confused as long as we don’t clarify our top priority as Muslims. We are not Muslims to defend Islam or make our countries, as General Musharraf said, bastions of Islam. Islam doesn’t need soldiers and bastions for its defence. Islam needs Muslims to live by Islam and their top priority should be to understand and reach Allah. That is the destination; Islam is the way towards it. Education certainly is the right tool provided it is used for the sake of knowing and understanding Allah. Imtiaz Ahmed, well-known sociologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University puts it candidly: “It is a bad time for Muslims in India because of the growing sense of insecurity and vulnerability. “The big challenge ahead is the need to understand that communalism cannot be fought with communalism. Alternate approaches are essential, but the present leadership will not allow it.” All fundamentalist movements thrive on the notion of a monolith. So, both the orthodox Muslim leadership and the VHP want to project the community as a single unit. Concurs M. A. Kalam, a well-known anthropologist with the University of Madras: “The so-called Muslim leadership deliberately fostered a culture of blind obedience and stifled dissent by raising the hoax cry of ‘Islam in danger’.

S. Zainuddin, a sociologist with Aligarh Muslim University says that the Muslim political leadership tries to create symbols of identity-like Muslim Personal Law or the status of Urdu-and then uses them to whip up sentiments. These symbols create the sense of a single ‘Indian Muslim’ identity and hides the immense diversity. Education is the key and Syed Zafar Mahmood, administrator, Punjab Wakf Board, summarises it perfectly: “For expanding the Muslim educational base, two very viable routes are available- opening new schools for modern education within the existing un-utilised private properties and modernising the madrasa education. The Indian Muslim intelligentsia will have to do some soul-searching and find out if it is discharging fully its obligation towards the educational upliftment of the community”.

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