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Published in the 1-15 Feb 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Book Review

A Page from Freedom Movement

By Yoginder Sikand

The Prisoners of Malta (Asiran-i Malta)Book: The Prisoners of Malta (Asiran-i Malta)
Author: Maulana Syed Mohammed Mian (translated by Mohammad Anwar Hussain and Hasan Imam)
Publisher: Manak Publications, New Delhi 
Year: 2004
Pp: 279
ISBN: 81-7827-104-4 295
Price: Rs. 295

Although numerous ‘ulama played a leading role in India’s freedom struggle, little literature exists on them in English. Much has been written on them in Urdu, but this is largely inaccessible to the English-knowing public. This book on the ‘ulama of the Dar ul-‘Ulum madrasa in Deoband is thus a very welcome contribution to the limited corpus of writings in English on the politics and contributions of the Indian ‘ulama. 

Recent years have witnessed a concerted campaign by Hindutva groups in India to brand madrasas as ‘dens of terror’ and as allegedly engaged in ‘anti-national’ activities. Madrasas, so it is claimed by their detractors, are engaged in ‘conspiring’ to ‘destabilise’ India, in league with a host of anti-Indian forces, such as the dreaded Pakistani secret services organization, the ISI, as well as numerous unnamed ‘radical Islamist’ groups. As several commentators have pointed out, there is little or no substance to this allegation. They also stress the little-known fact that while numerous leading madrasas of the country and their ‘ulama were in the forefront of India’s freedom struggle, Hindutva groups consistently opposed the national movement and, like the Muslim League, collaborated or colluded with the British Raj.

This book provides a fascinating glimpse of the involvement of key Deobandi ‘ulama in the Indian independence movement. The author, Maulana Mohammad Mian, was himself a leading Deobandi and served for many years with the Deobandi-related Jami‘at ul-‘Ulama-i Hind (‘The Council of the ‘Ulama of India’). His close association with numerous politically active Deobandis who played a central role in the struggle against the British is strikingly brought out in fascinating details that he supplies in this book, which have been almost totally ignored in most other accounts of the Indian independence movement.
The focus of the book is on two important Deobandi ‘ulama, who, besides being leading Islamic scholars, were also important figures in the Indian national movement. The first of these was Mahmud ul-Hasan, the first student of the Deoband madrasa, and who later rose to become its rector. The other is Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani, a disciple of Maulana Mahmud ul-Hasan, who served as rector of Deoband in the crucial years leading up to India’s Partition in 1947.

Mian presents the two ‘ulama as carrying on in the tradition of the founders of the Deoband madrasa. The madrasa, he writes, aimed at preserving the Islamic tradition as well as training its students to work for the independence of the country from British rule. Mian focuses more on the latter purpose than the former. Over several long chapters he details Maulana Mahmud ul Hasan’s role in this regard. These include his setting up of a Deobandi student organization that sought the cooperation of the Turkish Sultan in rising up against the British; the numerous fatwas that he and other Deobandi ‘ulama issued against the British and in favour of the Non-Cooperation Movement led by Gandhi; his role in bringing the Jami‘at ul-‘Ulama in close association with the Congress in the course of the Khilafat Movement, and, finally, his travel to the Hijaz in order to mobilize Arab and Turkish support against the British, which led to his imprisonment in Malta by the British. 

Maulana Mahmud ul-Hasan died in 1920, a few months after his release from imprisonment in Malta. He was succeeded by his close disciple and student, Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani. Mian describes Madani’s yeoman contribution to India’s freedom struggle, in the course of which he had to suffer long bouts of imprisonment as well as taunts from his Muslim League rivals of having allegedly sold out to the ‘Hindu’ Congress. Of particular interest in this section is Mian’s discussion of Madani’s approach to nationalism, which set him clearly apart from both the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha, who brooked no possibility of Hindus and Muslims being members of a common nation. In opposition to the League and the Mahasabha, Madani developed the concept of a ‘united nationalism’, for which he sought sanction from the example of the ‘pact of Medina’ that the Prophet Muhammad entered into with various non-Muslim tribes. All the signatories to the pact were considered to be members of a common ‘nation’, and were allowed to freely practice their own faiths. Madani saw no reason why this model could not be replicated in India. Indeed, he saw it as the only way out of the vexed communal tangle. It was this firm commitment to the possibility of Muslims, Hindus and others living together as equal citizens in a united India that lay behind Madani’s involvement in the freedom struggle and his consistent opposition to the Partition of the country. 

In highlighting the important role of leading ‘ulama in India’s freedom struggle, this book forcefully challenges the notion, so widespread today, of madrasas and their ‘ulama being fiercely ‘obscurantist’ and hostile to nationalism and inter-community harmony. That said, the text is marred by a too strictly literal translation. Large parts of the book are not of any particular historical interest, and could well have been left out, for they make rather tedious reading. On the whole, however, this book is a welcome addition to the limited corpus of writings in English on the Indian ‘ulama. Numerous other such works exist in Urdu, which urgently need to be rendered into English and other languages.  «

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