ISLAMIC INSTITUTIONS IN INDIA - Protracted Movement for Separate Muslim Identity?

by R Upadhyay, June 2003

Diminishing influence of Islamic clergies in centre of power particularly after the decline of Moghal empire in India prompted them to launch an Islamic revival movement, with the  sole objective to re-establish the political authority of Muslims in Indian sub-continent. Being the main victims of the decline of Muslim rule, the upper caste/class Muslims more mainly concerned for regain of power or to share power with the ruling class. The contemporary Islamic theologians in British India, who also belonged to the same class and had enjoyed honourable status in the society adopted a strategy to mobilise the Muslim mass with a call to return to Prophet era by establishing Islamic institutions.  Gradually these institutions underlined the need to adopt methods appropriate to the changed political environment. They got the support of elite Muslims in their endeavour. But even after struggling for over last 150 years they could not achieve their goal but only succeeded in widening the gulf between the two major religious communities of the Indian sub-continent. 

Over the years the Islamic clergies founded a number of Islamic institutions like Farangi Mahall at Lucknow, Darul-Ulum at Deoband , Nadawa al Ulama at Lucknow, and Darul-Ulum Manzar Islam in Bareilly with thousands of madrasas in India. These institutions, which draw students " mainly from the starving Muslim peasantry and working and lower middle classes" (Deoband School and Demand for Pakistan by Faruqi, page 40) are therefore, the representative bodies of Muslim proletariat.  Leave aside the establishment of Islamic polity, these theological seminaries are yet to introduce any modern system of education in their curricula, that could improve the material prosperity of the Muslim community of this country. In the  absence of any avenue to compete with modern educated graduates in the field of their employment, the unemployed and under-employed men of Islam produced by them were by and large  forced to become self-proclaimed holy warriors of their faith. 

Aligarh Muslim University was founded for modernisation of Muslim community with an ultimate objective of improving their economic prosperity.  It has in fact also been producing doctors, engineers, scientists and scholars of modern subjects.  But in due course of time this citadel of Muslim middle class also came under the influence of the fundamentalist forces, which are leading the above-mentioned theological institutions. In the name of preserving the cultural identity of the community they are in fact serving the cause of self-seeking Muslim elite in their game for sharing powers with the ruling class of the country. 

Islamic institutions in India have been maintaining enormous influence over the Muslim mass  throughout the country.  But being under the control of classical theologians, these institutions have all along been opposed to the modernisation of Indian Muslims.  The clergies being produced by these institutions have successfully produced a deep gulf between the common Muslims and the modern educated members of the community. In the absence of any scope for re-interpretation of religion for democratic, secular, scientific, industrial and modern condition of the society, common Muslims do not see beyond mosques and madrasas. 

A discussion on the historical background of Islamic institutions may throw some light as to how the Muslim proletariats are being exploited by the bourgeoisie/petty-bourgeoisie Muslims in the name of religion and playing the game of Muslim separatism in the country. An objective discussion on these institutions may not be an answer to the Muslim problem in India but at least the reader may look into the present scenario in right perspective. 

Dar-ul-Ulum Deoband. 

Darul-ulum Deoband is not only the largest Islamic institution in India but it is only next to Azhar in Cairo. Carrying out the tradition of Shah Waliullah (Instrumental in inviting Ahmad Shah Abdali to attack Marathas in 1760) and his staunch follower Saiyyad Ahmad (1786-1831.He had led the holy warriors of Islam to wage jihad against the Sikh kingdom of Punjab in the battle of Balkot in May 1631 and was killed), the Islamic theologians who had enjoyed honourable status during Muslim rule were directly or indirectly involved in the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.  Depressed with the failure of the Mutiny,  Mawlana Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi (1833-77), and Mawlana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi (1828-1905) who acted as commander and Qadi (Judge) of the fighting force respectively in Shamali rebellion in 1857 against the British (Deoband School and Demand for Pakistan by Faruqi, page 21)- set up an Arabic madrasa at Deoband on May 30,1866. This madrasa, was raised to the status of 'Darul - Ulum in 1867(Abode of Islamic learning), which gradually developed as a centre of higher Islamic learning and assumed the present name of Dar-ul-Ulum in 1879. Over the years this radical Islamic institution spread a net work of madrasas under its administrative and ideological guidance all over India and it is now the biggest Islamic institution in the country. 

Basically, Deoband under ideological influence of Wahhabi school of Islam (a radical Islamist movement launched by Maulana Wahhab of Arabia) was founded for the religio-political cause of Indian Muslims for their strict adherence to 'Hanafi' (one of the Sunni schools of Islamic law ascribed to Abu-Hanifa -699-767) school of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence).  Its main characteristics as described by M.S. Agwani in his book 'Islamic Fundamentalism in India, page 21-22 are as under:

*       Upholding the fundamentalist goals of Shah Waliullahand and Saiyyad Ahmad, Deoband was intended to be a movement rather an institution.

*    Strong aversion to Government patronage.

*    Fundamentalist in religious matters but flexible in political affairs.

*        Calling for a return to true Islam of the Quran and Hadith eschewing the practice of tomb worship and celebration of the anniversary of saints.

*   Upholding the principle of immutability of the Shariat.

*    Projects the golden vision of Islam.

*    Articulating an active conscious of Islamic identity.

  Stipulates a central role of Ulama in rejuvenation of Muslim society.

 Its aim is " to resuscitate classical Islam: to rid the Muslims of the theological corruption, the ritual degradations and the material exploitations to which they have fallen prey since British occupation.  Theologically, the school stands for a rigid orthodoxy of the classical Aristotelian type - the door of 'ijithad' (re-interpretation of Islamic law) is closed tight.  On the practical side Deobandi theologues are puritanically strict" (Modern Islam in India by Wilfred Cantwell Smith, 1946, page295). "Their ideal is traditional Islam at its purest - with a strict enforcement of Canon Law" (ibid).

 For Indian 'secularists' Deobandies are projected as socially progressive since they are opposed to superstitions and saint worship. But had it been so how do they defend polygamy and oppose compulsory education for Muslim girls?  In principle Deoband is obsessed with the old order of Islamic society. Their protracted religio-political movements to revive Islam in purest medieval form and projection of that era as the brightest past of Indian history have permanently sealed the secular and emotional integration of Indian Muslims with the largest majority of this country.  It is a fact that they supported Indian National Congress during Freedom Movement and opposed partition of the country, but their communal bargain for such support made them known as 'communal nationalists'.  

Mawlana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi, who succeeded Mawlana Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi after his death as patron of Deoband gave a fatwa (Opinion of an Islamic Jury on a point of law).  He  declared that "in worldly matters cooperation with Hindus was permissible provided it did not violate any basic principle of Islam" (Faruqi, page43).  But this gesture of Gangohi, was viewed as an outcome of political conflict between traditional Deoband and Modern Aligarh.  The then Aligarh movement launched by Sir Saiyyad Ahmad was loyal to British and strongly opposed to Indian National Congress.

The basic philosophy behind setting up any religious institution is to cultivate the spirit of spiritualism in the society but foundation of Deoband school was to unite the Muslim community and preparing them as holy warriors of Islam for re-establishment of their political and administrative authority.  The lower middle class and the poor peasantry of the community were enticed in madrasas and encouraged for adhering to Arab tradition, which was a mark of being 'Ashraf Muslims'( Sheikh, Saiyyad, Moghal and Pathan having their lineage to medieval Arab world). The common Muslims due to inherent weakness of human beings for upward social mobility got allured to imitate the religious behaviour of Ashraf.  It was in fact a subtle attempt to attract the common Muslims towards medieval Islam.  "This process of social mobility, called 'Ashrafisation or Islamisation as a parallel to Sanskritisation to Hindus" (Islamic Revival in British India:Deoband by B.D.Metcalf, 1982 page 256) widened the gulf between Muslims and Hindus. 

 The overriding purpose of Deoband is to disseminate knowledge of Quran, Hadith (sayings of Prophet) and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) derived from selected text and commentaries.  But Deobandi Ulama utilised such knowledge for launching political jehad as a part of Muslim separatist movement.  Mawlana Mahmud-ul-Hasan (1850-1921), the Rector of Deoband since 1905 had mounted an aggressive campaign against the British in First World War. In 1909 he had also organised an association of the old boys of Deoband known as Jamiyay-ul-Ansar but the real purpose of this organisation remained a close guarded secret. Deoband also promoted organised participation of Ulama in politics by taking a lead in formation of Jamiyat-Ulam-i-Hind and also provided leadership in Khilafat movement against British.  It has aggressively exploited religion for Muslim politics in India. For Deobandis religion cannot be separated from politics.  It opposed the two-nation theory and partition demand of Muslim League because its leadership was apprehensive of communal hatred that would hamper the propagation of Islam since it is a proselytizing religion (Faruqi, page 114).

 Deoband supports the doctrine of composite nationalism in principle but its obsession in molding the Muslim life in India in conformity of Shariat exposes its precedence of religious fundamentalism over the larger interest of Indian society.  Its role in post colonial India kept the Muslim masses in a state of confusion.  Its ideology of workable compromise between political pragmatism and religious dogmatism made the whole community an imaginary suspect in the eyes of the majority community, which helped the Hindu nationalist forces to come to the centre stage of Indian politics.

 Thousands of 'Wahhabi warriors' produced by Deoband and large number of madrasas affiliated to it have hardly benefited the Indian Muslims as far as their material advancement is concerned. Its hate-filled doctrine against western education has kept the Muslim backward and as such they are relatively lagging behind in competing with non-Muslims in material achievements at national level.  The leadership of this movement was so much obsessed to build up a future worthy of Islamic traditions that, they did not wish to create any environment for encouraging their students towards acquisition of modern knowledge.  They rather infused a sense of complex in them to the effect that by acquiring Islamic knowledge and imitating Arab cultural behaviour they would be superior to their fellow Muslim youths acquiring modern education.

Khaled Ahmed in his article "The Grand Deobandi Consensus" published in The Friday Times of Pakistan , dated February 4-10, 2000 said, "The civil war in Afghanistan and the jehad in Kashmir have gradually veered to a Deobandi consensus". He also maintained that while Taliban of Mulla Umar, which enjoys popularity in Pakistan was trained in the traditional Deobandi jurisprudence, Harkat-ul-Ansar (Mujahideen), a terrorist outfit in Kashmir is of Deobandi persuasion.  He also quoted John K. Cooley in his book Unholy Wars that  "Mullah Umar and Osma bin Laden first met in 1989 in a Deobandi mosque, Banuri Masjid, in Karanchi".

Nadwatul - Uluma, Lucknow

 Nadwatul - Uluma is another Islamic institution at Lucknow, which draws large number of Muslim students from all over the country. Like Deoband ; Nadwa also draws inspiration from Maulana Wahhab of 18th century for resuscitation of classical Islam.  But contrary to Deoband's complete obsession against the idea of Aligarh movement in promoting modernity among the Muslims, Nadwa's avowed objective was to bring a middle path between classical Islam and modernity. In an annual convocation of Faiz - i - Aam Madrasa at Kanpur in 1893 Islamic zealots like Muhammad Ali Mongiri, Ashraf Ali Thanwi and Mahmud-ul-Hasan felt the need of preparing a group of Ulama conversant with the conditions and events of the contemporary world. With an idea to counter both the Aligarh movement as well as the challenge of western education this institution was intended to be an updated version of Deoband.  The choice of the name Nadwa got inspiration from a hall in Mecca, where nobles used to assemble to deliberate.

 Nadwa was eventually shifted to Lucknow in 1898 and updated the Islamic curricula with modern sciences, vocational training, para-military training etc with the following three distinct features:

*   To serve as a bridge between the Old World and the new but firm and  unbending in the matter of fundamentals.

*  Aimed at producing an educated class of Muslims well versed in traditional learning and yet actively involved with the ruling power.

*  Sought to give Arabic, both modern and classical, a central place in its system of education besides facilitating links with Muslim West Asia.

(Islamic Fundamentalism in India by M.S.Agwani).

Nadwa tried to prove that it had chosen a middle path between Deoband,s religious fundamentalism and Aligarh's imitative modernism for which it got some favour from British as well as from the wealthy and powerful Muslims.  However, it could not sustain the criticism of its opponents that it was another form of Aligarh movement.  Eventually, its proclaimed middle path was grabbed by orthodox Islam, which found complete Shariatisation of Muslims as the only answer to the multifarious problems of modern age.  One can very well judge the 'middle path' of this seminary with the following quotation of Shibli Numani displayed in the main hall of its library:

"Europe has no past. Hence it gropes aimlessly in the darkness of the future.  But Islam's past is so splendid, that progress for the Muslims lies in retreat into the past until they return to the blissful age of the Companion (of Prophet), nay of the Prophet himself" (Agwani, page3).

 By infusing pride for Islamic past and prejudice for non-Islamic era Nadwa cannot claim to be a reconciler of traditional Islam with modern world.  Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, popularly known as Ali Mian, (since dead) who became synonymous to Nadwa in post-Independence years and its Rector was totally opposed to western liberal education as propagated by Aligarh movement.  He said, "I am one of those, who believe that religious order cannot be established unless religion comes to wield political power and system of governance is based on Islamic foundation" (Agwani, page 34).  His remarks that Hindu, Greek, Roman and pre-Islamic Arab civilisations are "no better than ancient monuments) shows his hate-filled belief against non-Islamic civilisations.  Initially Ali Mian was one among the close circle of Maulana Maududi, founder of Jamaat-e-Islami.  He was even the in-charge of Lucknow branch of JEI till 1943.

Mastery of Arabic and profound study of Quran being the main concern of Nadwa, its members had an ambition to enhance their stature by identifying themselves with the great period of Muslim history and with the larger world (Metcalf).

Dar-ul-Ulum Manzar Islam, Bareilly

Dar-ul-Ulum Manzar Islam, which was founded by Ahmed Reza  at Bareilly in 1904 is also a prominent Islamic institution in India.  Its followers known as Barelwis are spread all over India and also in Punjab province of Pakistan.  They represent " the most ignorant and morbid section of Muslim community.  Its founder, an Islamic scholar of repute was strongly opposed to Deoband movement for its aversion to saint-worship and other Islamic celebrations of Sufi cult and accepted them as Islamic traditions.  In 1903, he even issued fatwa against the founding members of Deoband for their opposition to celebrations of Islamic customs like birth anniversary of Prophet and tomb worships of Sufi saints.  Ahmed Reza had also opposed Khilafat movement and his followers owned allegiance to Muslim League during Freedom Movement.

The main characteristics of Barelwis  are as under:

*  Barelwis believe in a hierarchy in Islam from Prophet to the numerous Sufi saints and peers.

*   They believe in celebrating the anniversaries of saints, commemorating the martyrdom of Prophet's grandson Hussain and other religious customs.

*    They institutionalised the birth anniversary of Prophet.

*    Barelawis are found relatively tolerant and do not bother to oppose modern education.

*    Contrary to the activist fundamentalist groups like Deoband, Nadwa and Farang Mahall, Barelwis are found quieter.

 Even though, Barelwis are always found having confrontation with the fundamentalist groups, they did not make any effort to contain the separatist movements being launched by the former.

Farangi Mahall, Lucknow

Aurangzeb donated a spacious mansion in Lucknow known as Farangi Mahall to the bereaved family of a contemporary Mullah Qutubuddin, who was killed in late sixteenth century by his rivals.  His son Mullah Nizamuddin settled down in Farangi Mahall and institutionalised Islamic teachings with specialisation in fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence).  With an objective to prepare students for careers in princely services and to produce Ulama for guiding the Muslim mass for restoration of stable Muslim rule in India this institution was known as Farangi Mahall school of Islam. Shah Wali Ullah who was the Ideological patrom of various fundamentalist Islamic institutions in India also drew inspiration from Farangi Mahall.  Mawlana Abd al Bari who had taken main initiative in formation of Jamiat-ul-Ulama Hind in 1919 belonged to Farangi Mahall school of Islam.

 The role of Islamic institutions in India suggests that whether it is Deoband, Nadwa, Barelley or other Islamic Institutions in India, they have mostly institutionalised the legacy of Shah Waliullah.  In stead of interpreting Islam in the context of Inter-faith movement particularly in a Hindu-majority society, their ideological exclusivism never allowed the Muslim community to integrate with Hindu majority emotionally. 

The philosophical basis of any spiritual movement is to generate emotional brotherhood among the people of diverse religious persuasions with a friendly and harmonious dialogue.  But the Islamic institutions in India used the spiritual space of Islam with a sole focus to negate the positive influence of the bright past of Indian culture, tradition and heritage.  Their role to infuse pride of Islamic past with prejudice to Hindu past offended the Hindu society. Defending medieval past of India as a brighter side of Indian history only shows their desperation. Without giving any thought to secularism and rather crying hoarse against the hallucinating danger to Islam in Muslim community, the Islamic institutions created an environment of political confrontation both in parliament and outside.  Such attitude directly or indirectly helped the forces of political Hindutva to come to centre-stage of Indian politics. 

Instead of encouraging the Indian Muslims, who have by and large overwhelmingly accepted Indian identity and guiding them for their social, economic and spiritual developments, the hard doctors of Islam being produced by Islamic institutions kept their co-religionists away from their emotional integration with Indian society.  

Ravindra Nath Tagore in his "Bharat Teertha" wrote:

"Hethai Arya, Hethai Anarya, Hethai Dravid Cheen; Shak Hun dal, Pathan Mogal, Ek Dehe Holo Leen. (In this land, Aryans, non-Aryans, Dravidians, Chinese, Shakas, Huns, Pathans and Mughals have metamorphosed into one single being. Quoted from BJP TODAY dated January 16-31, 2003). Had Tagore been alive today, he might have changed his perception due to the changed scenario. President Kalam in his broadcast on the eve of republic day said, our strength lies in the democratic root of our civilisation.

Ignoring the larger social pathology of Indian society and sidetracking the spiritual aspect of religion Islamic institutions remained engaged in only pushing the political ideology of medieval India among the Muslim mass.  They ignored Mohammad Iqbal's poetry of Sare Jahan se Achchha Hindostan Hmaara and, Mazhab nahin sikhata apas me bair rakhana but kept reminding their community his presidential address to All India Muslim League in December 1930, when he said, " Is it possible to retain Islam as an ethical ideal and to reject it as a polity ?  He answered categorically, " the religious order of Islam is organically related to the social order it has created.  The rejection of the one eventually involves the rejection of other" (Community and Consensus in Islam by Farzana Saikh, page 16). In stead of providing value based education based on modern, proper and scientific teachings to create good citizens for the overall development of Indian society, the Islamic institutions produced clergies for driving the Muslim mass to medieval era as a part of their movements for Muslim separatism. 

  (E-mail <ramashray60 @yahoo.com)