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Blotted out by the din raked up by the media over a statement about the Vande Mataram song issued by the Jamiat ul-Ulema-e Hind at its recently-held convention at Deoband was a significant resolution passed at the same meeting of leading Deobandi clerics dealing with modern education among Muslims.


Resolution Number 16 of the 30th session of the Jamiat declares, ‘The Muslims of India are highly backward in the realm of modern education. It is the main cause of their socio-economic backwardness.’ Hence, it stresses, Muslims must to take to modern education, along with religious education. It appeals to Muslims to set up schools and colleges—‘as many as possible’, it advises—as well as professional and technical institutions. For those who imagine that the ulema, particularly the conservative Deobandis, are viscerally opposed to modern education, this should come as a major—and welcome—surprise.

While the Jamiat’s exhortation to Muslims to set up modern educational institutions is indeed heartening, the rationale that it proffers for this purpose might not quite be so, and, indeed, has evoked some harsh criticism in the Urdu press. The English translation of the resolution, hosted on the Jamiat’s website (, explains that Muslims must set up their own schools and colleges because ‘A section of Muslim students who get admission in the government and semi-government common institutions for modern courses get isolated and sometimes become unaware about their Islamic values.’ The Urdu original, also available on the same website, expresses the rationale somewhat differently. ‘That section of Muslims which takes admission in government and semi-government institutions [to acquire modern education]’, it reads, ‘generally becomes neglectful of Islam because of the anti-Islamic environment therein.’ (musalmano ka jo tabqa sarkarai aur ghayr sarkari idaron mai in ulum wa funun ki tahsil ke liye dakhila leta hain un idaron ke deen dushman mahaul mai bilumum deen se ghafil aur bezar ho jata hai’).

There are significant differences of meaning and nuance between the English translation of the resolution and the Urdu original. This might be an inadvertent error, due to poor translation perhaps. On the other hand, the difference might well be deliberate, with the Jamiat seeking to soften and suitably shape its arguments for an English-knowing audience, while passing on a different message to its largely Urdu-knowing followers. The English translation speaks only of a ‘section’ of Muslim students who study in government and semi-government schools, while the Urdu original appears to speak of all Muslims who study in such institutions. In contrast to the former, the latter terms the environment in such institutions being unambiguously deen dushman—which can be translated as. ‘anti-Islamic’ or even as ‘fiercely opposed to Islam’ or, more literally, as ‘enemy of Islam’.

It is not that the Jamiat’s depiction of the environment of many government and semi-government educational institutions as inappropriate for Muslims is not wholly without any basis, however. In many states of India, school textbooks and school-related practices (such as prayers) in government educational institutions remain heavily Hindu-oriented. As numerous studies have shown, school texts often contain derogatory statements and claims about Islam and Muslims. In large parts of India where Muslims speak Urdu, government schools—even in areas of heavy Muslim concentration—have no facilities for learning the language, thus denying these children their Constitutional right to receive primary education in their mother tongue. Instead, they are often forced to learn highly Sanskritised Hindi as well Sanskrit, both of which are taught through a heavy dose of Hindu-oriented texts. All this, very understandably, is a source of considerable—and legitimate—resentment on the part of many Muslims, who see the educational system as geared to subtly (and, in some cases, brazenly) promoting (Brahminical) Hinduism. The lack of sufficient separate girls’ schools and colleges, especially in Muslim-dominated areas, is also another factor of concern for many Muslims (as well as others), who are reluctant to send their girl children to co-educational institutions. Similarly, a perceived lack of moral training in government educational institutions—their focus simply being on what is seen as ‘worldly’ knowledge and training children for ‘worldly’ careers—is another reason for why some Muslims, particularly a large section of the ulema, have their own reservations about them. These concerns merit attention and cannot be summarily dismissed as the ravings of incorrigible ‘obscurantists’.

That said, to characterize, as the Jamiat seems to have, the ‘environment’ of all government and semi-government educational institutions across the country as ‘anti-Islamic’, and to appear to brand all the Muslims who study in them as ‘generally becom[ing] neglectful of Islam because of the anti-Islamic environment therein’ is quite far-fetched, to put it mildly. At the very least, it betrays a fundamental lack of sufficient familiarity with such institutions, with the modern world, and with the complex demands of living in a religiously plural society. To be fair, the Jamiat’s appeal to Muslims to set up modern educational institutions is, in itself, laudable, but if the intention driving the appeal is to isolate Muslims from their non-Muslim fellow Indians, and, thereby, to further ghettoize them, it is bound to receive little support across the Muslim community itself, raising questions about the very credibility of the Jamiat. Further, and needless to add, what could also be seen as an appeal for Muslim educational apartheid can only help facilitate the agenda of right-wing and viscerally anti-Muslim Hindu chauvinists, who would like nothing more than Muslims being banished completely from the ‘mainstream’ of Indian life. If the Muslims are undertaking this task themselves, they must presumably be thinking, the better for them, saving them the trouble of doing so!

The Jamiat’s rationale for Muslims to set up their own educational institutions in order to insulate them from the allegedly ‘anti-Islamic’ environment of government and semi-government schools and colleges has, mercifully, not gone unchallenged in Muslim circles. India’s leading Urdu daily Rashtriya Sahara recently (14th November, 2009) devoted two whole pages on the subject, hosting articles by leading Muslim educationalists decrying the Jamiat’s characterization of government-funded educational institutions as ‘anti-Islamic’.
‘Muslims Must Make Full Use of National Educational Institutions’ is the title of an article by the former Dean of the Faculty of Education at the Aligarh Muslim University, Professor Ali Akhtar Khan. Terming the Jamiat’s resolution as ‘unfortunate’, Khan explains that the Jamiat can hardly expect government schools to provide Islamic education to Muslim students studying therein simply because provision of any sort of religious education—and not just Islamic—in government-funded institutions is forbidden by the Indian Constitution. Hence, he caustically remarks, ‘there is no question of not only anti-Islamic education in such institutions but also of pro-Islamic education.’ To label such institutions as ‘anti-Islamic’, he comments, reflects nothing but ‘ignorance’.

Rebutting the Jamiat’s suggestion that government educational institutions generally lead to Muslim students straying away from Islam, he cites the instance of government-funded universities such as the Aligarh Muslim University, the Jamia Millia Islamia, and the Maulana Azad National Open Urdu University, which, he says, ‘have a large number of very religious Muslim teachers and students, besides many others who, while they may not be called ignorant of Islam or distanced from it, might more appropriately be called non-practising Muslims.’ The credit for the former and the blame for the latter, he explains, cannot be attributed to the government institutions they are associated with. Such institutions, he explains for the benefit of the ulema of the Jamiat, who might be unaware, ‘are not meant to have anything at all to do with either promoting or opposing religion, their mandate being limited simply to providing secular, modern education, to training good doctors, engineers, economists and so on, and not religious education, which is the duty of maktabs and madrasas.’ Hence, he suggests, for the Jamiat to accuse these institutions of being ‘anti-Islamic’ and of causing Muslim students to stray from Islam, is, quite simply, absurd. To appeal to Muslims to avoid them on account of their being allegedly ‘anti-Islamic’, would, he insists, ‘not be wise’. Rather than these institutions, it is the parents of Muslim students who have ‘strayed’ from Islam who are at fault by not providing them proper religious guidance at home, he argues.

Another objection that Khan raises with regard to the Jamiat’s resolution is that, as he puts it, ‘while the appeal to Muslims to set up their own modern educational institutions that also provide religious education might be a noble and laudable idea, given the pathetic economic conditions of the Muslims in general this seems quite impossible.’ He cites the instance of some Muslim organizations that have set up large professional educational institutions, but notes that they charge exorbitant fees, thus effectively keeping out poor Muslims, who form the vast majority of the community. The quality of many of these institutions also leaves much to be desired.
Appealing to Muslims to avoid government educational institutions would, Khan stresses, ‘would be entirely counter-productive’ for Muslims themselves. It can only result, he explains, ‘in further accelerating Muslim marginalisation’. Far from avoiding such institutions, he advises, efforts should be made to mobilize as many Muslim students as possible to benefit from them. Besides, he suggests, Muslims should presssurise the Central and state governments to set up more primary and secondary schools and colleges in Muslim-dominated areas—instead of police stations, as is now the case.

In a similar vein, Professor Hamida Ahmad, former Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Aligarh Muslim University, argues that the Jamiat’s claims about government educational institutions being allegedly ‘anti-Islamic’ are ‘a reflection of Muslim apathy’. The Jamiat’s stance completely ignores, she suggests, the great educational awakening among Muslim youth today who, she says, ‘are demanding quality education. They are going in for new professional courses that were earlier unimaginable for Muslims, and are studying in numerous government and non-governmental educational institutions.’ Hence, she says, ‘to debate about whether these young Muslims are thereby straying from the faith seems somewhat inappropriate.’ Marshalling Islamic arguments to claim legitimacy for Muslims’ studying in government and other non-Muslim educational institutions and to counter the Jamiat’s argument, she cites a statement attributed to the Prophet Muhammad that exhorts Muslims to even travel all the way to China to acquire learning.
Responding to the Jamiat’s statement, Siraj Husain, IAS officer and former Vice-Chancellor of the Jamia Hamdard, New Delhi, writes, ‘I do not agree with the view that general education is in any way harmful to the Muslim community. In fact, this is not an issue that is at all discussed among most Muslims’ Probably indicating a section of conservative ulema, he notes, ‘only a certain class keeps talking about this’. At the same time, he adds, ‘ordinary Muslims have realized the fallacy of this argument, and know that they can secure good employment opportunities only through modern education.’ Hence, disagreeing with the Jamiat’s argument, he appeals to the government to expand educational opportunities for young Muslims.

As regards the Jamiat’s contention that Muslims should set up their own modern educational institutions because Muslims who study in other schools and colleges are generally left ignorant of their faith, Husain argues that ‘this work is very difficult and costly and full of problems.’ He advocates, instead, that Muslims should study in general schools and colleges that are open to all, irrespective of religion, and points out that relatively few of them actually do study in Muslim-run institutions. At the same time, he concedes that this does not mean that Muslims should not open their own educational institutions.

In his article, Bangalore-based writer Asjad Anwar argues that the Jamiat’s appeal is impractical, unrealistic and implausible. He berates the likes of the Jamiat for what he regards as absurd fatwas that are completely inappropriate. ‘Fatwas must be contextually appropriate and practical or else they become an object of mockery’, he warns. Critiquing the Jamiat for appearing to advocate that Muslims should study only under Muslim teachers, he argues that this argument has no Islamic sanction. To back his point, he cites the instance of the Prophet Muhammad, who agreed to set free non-Muslim opponents who were taken as prisoners of war if they would educate a certain number of Muslims. Hence, he stresses, ‘it is not necessary that teachers of Muslim children be only Muslims who strictly abide by the shariah’, which is perhaps what the Jamiat would ideally want.

A major reason why a large numbers of Deobandi ulema are opposed to Muslims studying in non-Muslim modern educational institutions is that in such institutions they generally (out of choice or compulsion) do not abide by what the Deobandis regard as appropriate ‘Islamic’ dress—hijab and burqas for girls, beards, topis and kurta-pajamas for boys. An oft-heard complaint in Deobandi circles about madrasa graduates who enroll in universities is that most of them get so influenced by the environment therein that they adopt Western clothes and shave off their beards. This, they ardently believe, is wholly ‘un-Islamic’. This factor is possibly one of the major reasons why the Jamiat chooses to describe the environment of such institutions as ‘anti-Islamic’ and, by appealing to Muslims to set up their own institutions, implicitly warns Muslims to avoid them.
In a hard-hitting article titled ‘This Stress on External Appearance Seems Meaningless’ Dr. Aslam Parvaiz, Principal of the Zakir Husain College, Delhi University, and editor of a widely-circulated Urdu scientific magazine, critiques this argument and laments:

‘Today, a section of the Muslim community gives inordinate stress to external appearance and dress. I am of the opinion that our deeds, work and performance should form our identity. Sometimes, it seems that the external appearance that we keep harping on is simply a façade and a contradiction. We are trying to hide our own inner weakness behind external dress. It is those whose faith is weak who fall into this obsession with externals. External appearance by itself is of no use. The real thing is our character, our words and our deeds. This is what the Quran actually teaches. Without these, external appearance is useless. That is why strengthening our character is much more important than stressing our dress and external appearance. People should recognize us by our character, our work, our morals, our tolerance, and our commitment to peace, and not by our dress. Only a person who is hollow within would obsess about external identity. Clothes are for our protection and in order to look nice, but the best dress [as the Quran says] is the garment of righteousness (libas al-taqwa)’.

If these biting critiques are any indicator, then, it appears that the Jamiat’s advice to Muslims might well fall on many deaf ears, threatening it with increasing irrelevance even in Muslim circles.


Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at the National Law School, Bangalore.







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