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INTERVIEW: Prof. Barbara D. Metcalf
No Indian madrasah has been linked to terror 

Barbara D. Metcalf teaches at the Department of History at the University of California, Davis. She has worked extensively on Islam in India, focusing particularly on the reformist Deobandi madrasa and the related Tablighi Jama’at movement. Here she talks to Yoginder Sikand about the role of madrasahs and the Tablighi Jama’at in contemporary South Asia.
Q: In recent years, and particularly after the events of 11 September, 2001, there has been much talk in India, Pakistan and America, particularly in official circles, about the activities of some madrasahs that are believed to be actively involved in sponsoring militant activities. What are your views on this? 
A: The government of Pakistan has the most serious issues about madrasahs because all evidence points to the fact that many madrasahs, especially along the frontier with Afghanistan, have in fact been places where young men have been recruited for militant movements. These movements have had international dimensions, especially in Afghanistan and Kashmir, but they have also spilled over into the sectarian and now anti-state violence that threatens everyday life within the country. Even a couple of years ago, I was disheartened to visit a major madrasah in Lahore, the Jami’a Ashrafiyya (one that Musharraf identified, by the way, as a model madrasah), and was depressed that a guard with a rifle slung across his lap had to sit in front of the main entrance. Any institution seems at risk of some kind of attack. 
The Pakistan government has attempted to end foreign enrollment as a first step to controlling the madrasah, and now is trying to register madrasah, ideally with a view to knowing more about what is taught and even introducing secular subjects. This has produced great protest in recent weeks. Here is where America is involved -- even if the Pakistani government see this registration in its own interests, and in the interests of its citizens, the madrasah and the `ulama see the move as exemplary of Musharraf's being a pawn in the hands of America. 
As for India, there have been inappropriately inflammatory comments by right-wing politicians about the alleged subversiveness, foreign funding, etc. of madrasah. As Muslims themselves have replied, if there is illegal activity, there are laws that can be applied. There is shockingly little attention given, I might add, to the right-wing teaching inculcated in some Hindu schools. Two actions are worth noting. The BJP government when it first came to power began denying visas to foreigners wishing to study in madrasahs, ending centuries of India's being a cosmopolitan venue for the religious sciences for students from Central Asia, Malaysia, and East and South Africa in particular. Secondly, the government has initiated under the Human Resources Ministry an initiative to supply teachers, texts in secular subjects, and even computer instruction (all through the medium of Urdu) to madrasahs. This move has, understandably, been met with skepticism about intent in many institutions although several computer instruction facilities are functioning successfully. 

Q: Do you think government interference is the right way to approach the question of 'reform' in the madrasas?
A: It certainly does not seem to have been productive so far. 

Q: How would you distinguish between the Indian and the Pakistani madrasas on questions related to security and 'terrorism'?
A: I think that it is unfortunate to link the two countries. As far as I know, no one has ever identified an Indian madras ah linked to terrorist activity whereas in Pakistan there is a case to be made. 

Q: How do you see the madrasah of South Asia as responding today to questions of modernity and pluralism?
A: This is a very important question. First of all, what do the students learn? It is worth underlining that the madrasas vary enormously -- the term covers little ad hoc schools teaching the alphabet to local children all the way to places that consider themselves universities and centres of great scholarship. At best, the schools teach far more than the rote learning they are accused of. In fact they inculcate great linguistic skills, analogic and other forms of reasoning, and logic as well as the content of a great cultural tradition. Ideally, students learn a high level of self-discipline and morality. Two vignettes. In Pakistan when I was last there (3 years ago) I met a young woman who had graduated from a madrasah in Peshawar. She spoke fluent Arabic and, in a large gathering of women, was impressive in her self-confidence coupled with modesty about her achievements. I also visited a girls' madrasah in Lahore with facilities for teaching blind girls and providing training in computers. (They also teach the girls the encyclopedic, early 20th century guide for women, the Bihishti Zewar, which I was interested in since it's a text I've translated!) All this may not add up to "modernity", but it certainly means that some students acquire considerable "social capital" thanks to these schools. 
I also visited a couple of madrasahs in the upper Doab when I as in India last winter. One comment. One of the schools taught roughly equal number of girls and boys, and as we arrived, a flood of girls in bright colored kurtas came flying out of school, as happy as children any where at the end of the day. The school was to be closed the next day to serve as the polling place for the scheduled state elections-- neither the girls nor the civic duty were part of the usual image one has of a madrasah. 
Literacy is good, schooling is good -- even if this is not modernity. And in both India and Pakistan, as people often note, there are often limited options for students. Public education in Pakistan is a disgrace. I am less informed about India, but I might note that a team of anthropologists working in the area I visited documented what they called "institutional communalism" on the part of government, by which they mean a disproportionate neglect of schools, medical facilities, etc. in primarily Muslim areas.

Q: What implications do you think the influence of the Tablighi Jama'at, an Islamic movement about which you have written extensively, has had on inter-community relations in India?
A: This is a hard one. Ideally Tablighi Jama`at, as a movement focused on what of late I've been calling "spiritual rearmament" among Muslims, is tolerant of the foibles of fellow Muslims, inculcating mutual respect and avoiding criticism, so not contributing to sectarianism among Muslims -- and not really interested at all in non-Muslim outsiders. 
Outsiders are, to be sure, considered misguided, but there certainly is no physical or even verbal opposition directed toward them. Tablighis don't even participate in debates. Most religious traditions through most of time claim absolute truth -- even what we call Hinduism, if one remembers that Saivites and Vaishnavites have killed each other and even Gandhi's "tolerance" had at core a kind of patronizing hegemony (not that that is not infinitely more attractive than Hindutva). There are cosmopolitan precedents within Islam, but not to my knowledge among Tablighis. So while Tablighi Jama’at certainly does nothing negative to hurt inter-community relations, it, fundamentally (and, again, this is probably true of most religious people in most religious contexts) does not value non-Muslim religions except in so far as they fit into the classic Islamic "comparative religion" of all faiths stemming from true teachings that have gone astray. Tablighis are not interested, for example, in inter-faith dialogue or any exercise that would involve trying to understand the framework of another faith -- though, again, it is worth saying that this orientation is one that few of any religion embrace. So Tablighis do inculcate a kind of cultural encapsulation but they are not alone in doing this in India. 

Q: The Tablighi Jama’at is now the largest Islamic movement in the world today, with a particularly strong presence in South Asia. What political role do you see the movement as playing?
A: Tablighis do not espouse any political position as a body -- they have no organization that could speak for all participants in any case. They have to maintain cordial relationships with authorities because they need permits for meetings, visas for travel, etc.. Many people suggest that governments look kindly on them precisely because they are not political. Individual Tablighis may or may not vote and participate in political life and, presumably, like all voters in India they try to figure out who will best serve their interests. 

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