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Thursday, November 12, 2009 11:19:22 AM, Yoginder Sikand

Justice Siddiqui

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Justice M.S.A. Siddiqui is the Chairman of the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand he discusses his proposal, sent to the Government of India for its consideration, for the setting up of a national-level Central Madrasa Board and the vociferous opposition that the proposal has met with from some Muslim quarters.


Q: Recently, you created a storm when you suggested to the Government of India that it set up a Central Madrasa Board. A large number of ulema and heads of Muslim organizations and movements vehemently denounced this proposal. Why do you feel the need for such a Board?


A: I proposed the Board simply to assist Muslims to enter the national mainstream. I think the Board is an important step in that direction. Until Muslims join the mainstream of Indian life it will not be possible for them to have an equal share in the country’s progress and prosperity. Muslims must accept that the only way for this is through modern education. Muslims must learn the art of prospering in the face of adversity. Lamentably, however, they tend to rely on emotions and rhetoric, not intelligence, in the face of anything new. They should learn from the Jews, who were badly oppressed for several thousand years but yet never gave up their love for learning, so much so that today a tiny country like Israel has such a powerful control on global affairs. This was only because of the Jews’ love for knowledge.


Q: Why do you feel so many ulema are so vehemently opposed to your proposed Board?


A: If you read Muslim history you will discover that many good new things and useful inventions and innovations were vociferously opposed by the maulvis. Even when, in the early period of Muslim history, it was proposed that the Quran be compiled as a book this proposal was opposed by some people! When the Caliph Umar proposed to expand the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, even that was opposed! The mullahs vehemently opposed Syed Ahmad Khan, founder of the Aligarh movement, and even called him a kafir!


What I mean to say is that among Muslims, in general, there is a marked tendency to adopt a very negative, critical approach to new things. Every new thing they readily denounce as a ‘conspiracy’, as ‘interference in Islam’, or as kufr or infidelity. So, it is hardly surprising that some of them see the Board as a ‘conspiracy’ against Islam and Muslim identity. I wish to assure them that this is not at all the case. The Government has no intention to grab or control the madrasas. If the Government actually wanted to, nothing could have stopped it from doing so.


In any community it is the role of intellectuals to help mould the minds of people on constructive lines. Unfortunately, this is almost totally lacking among Muslims. We have very few modern-educated intellectuals who take an active interest in community affairs. As for the traditionally educated maulvis, community reform is also one of their roles but few actually take this seriously at all. Most of them are interested simply in self-projection, while the few really committed religious scholars prefer to remain in the background. I don’t want to generalize here, but I have a feeling that a large section of the elites of the Indian Muslim community, along with many maulvis who run madrasas, actually do not want the common Muslims to gain modern education because they feel that this would enable them to escape from their clutches, because of which they would no longer be able to play politics or make money in their name. Many of those who oppose any substantial reform of the madrasas do so simply because this would hurt their interests, power and influence, although they are careful to camouflage this by claiming that such reforms are supposedly ‘anti-Islam’ and so on.


It is an undeniable fact that a large number of maulvis have today become politicized, and are associated with some or the other political party in order to extract gain for themselves. Some of these people, as well as some other self-styled leaders of the Muslims, are crying out hoarse against the proposed Board, wrongly branding it as an anti-Islamic ‘conspiracy’ simply in order to make political mileage for themselves, to project themselves as saviours of Islam and the Muslims. But, who has allowed these mullahs to assume a monopoly over Islam? Allah suffices to protect Islam. It is He, not any mortal being, who will preserve Islam till the Day of Judgment.


Because of the nuisance value of these mullahs, the real ulema or religious scholars have chosen to remain in the background. As an Urdu poet so wonderfully expressed it:


Kisko yeh fikr hai ki qabile ka kya hua

Sab is pe lad rahe hain ki sardar kaun hai


(Who is bothered about what happens to the people?

People are fighting among themselves over who the leader is)



If the common Muslims were to become educated, naturally these maulvis, as well as the entrenched Muslim political elites, would no longer be in a position to take advantage of their poverty to feather their own nests. That is why many of them are furiously opposed to the inclusion of modern subjects in the madrasa curriculum, which is one of the things that the proposed Board seeks to do. Their opposition to the Board is also a reflection of the feudal mentality of our political and religious elites, which, lamentably, is still very deeply-rooted.


That said, let me also state that the proposed Board has been welcomed by a large number of Muslims, including many ulema, especially younger-generation madrasa graduates and students. I have received numerous letters from across India from such people supporting the set up of the Board, and they belong to various maslaks or sects. There is a silent revolution underway among the Muslim youth of this country. They want quality education for the community, and the opposition of some maulvis to this will not make any difference. If they continue their opposition it will, needless to say, be counter-productive for them. People will simply stop listening to or following them.


Our madarsas should no longer continue to be like a fixed stone in the midst of the flowing river of life. Change is the only constant in temporal life. Islam developed its magnificent civilization because this civilization went on changing from age to age absorbing new discoveries and creations in every aspect of human endeavour. It never shied away in throwing away old, outmoded conventions and doctrines. We have to adjust the educational needs of the Muslim community to suit the compulsions of the global village.


In this regard let me also state that it is perhaps understandable that some very large madrasas, such as Deoband and Nadwa, may not want to join the proposed Board or to seek the Board’s assistance in teaching modern subjects to their students. They have enough resources to manage on their own, some of them being richly funded from Arab sources. Further, they might wish to continue functioning as specialized institutes for higher Islamic learning. The bigger madrasas—the real Jamias that are like universities—can be left out of the purview of the Board, which can focus on the smaller madrasas, particularly those that face chronic shortages of funds.


Q: One of the aims of the proposed Board is to facilitate the teaching of modern subjects in the madrasas. Why do the opponents of the Board have problems with this?


A: One factor is what I regard as the un-Islamic dualism that has crept into the Muslim educational system. Islam does not countenance any rigid division between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ knowledge, which is why even Science, Mathematics, Geography and so on were taught in the early madrasas, in addition to the Quran and Hadith. This is what enabled the early Muslims who studied in these madrasas to become great scientists, mathematicians, explorers and so on, in addition to great commentators on the Quran and experts on Muslim jurisprudence. It was only in the wake of the enormous devastation of West and Central Asia caused by the Tatars in the thirteenth century that the notion of a division between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ knowledge began to emerge among the ulema. Soon, these two were seen as not just different from each other but also as fundamentally opposed to each other. This led, in turn, to a tendency towards a world-renouncing monasticism, or rahbaniyyat, which is something that the Quran sternly forbids. Muslims pray for God to provide them with success in this world and in the next, and Islam regards this world as the field for the next. Obviously, therefore, Islam, properly understood, has no room for this sort of asceticism and indifference to the world and knowledge of it. The Quran speaks numerous times about the need for humans to reflect on God’s creation, which it terms as His ‘signs’ (ayat). That is, in a sense, a call for us to engage in research. How can one engage in this sort of research and, thereby, fulfill a basic Quranic mandate, without knowledge of modern disciplines?


Our proposed Board, far from being a deviation, is a small step to reviving the lost Muslim tradition of a holistic concept of knowledge. By making sharp and untenable distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ knowledge, and using this as an argument to oppose the introduction of modern subjects in the madrasa curriculum, the conservative maulvis are adopting an un-Islamic stance, which can only further reinforce Muslim backwardness and marginalization.


Q: How do you think the proposed Board would help modernize the madrasas?


A: One crucial step that the Board would take, if it comes into being, is to introduce the teaching of English in those madrasas that choose to affiliate with it. In the past, many of our traditionalist ulema, who were rightly opposed to the British colonial rule, made the grave mistake of opposing the learning of the English language as well. They forgot that a nation might have a language, but a language does not have a nation. Today, you cannot develop without knowledge of English, most scientific and technical literature and even a lot of Islamic literature being in that language. By facilitating the teaching of English and other modern subjects in the madrasas the Board will also enable madrasa graduates to enroll in regular universities and for a wide range of subjects. In this way, the Board will help these graduates widen their future prospects, which are very restricted at present. As of now, only a couple of universities in India recognise madrasa degrees, and that too for a very limited range of courses. Ideally, I would like to see all the universities in India recognizing madrasa degrees, but for that it is imperative that madrasas also teach modern subjects, which is one of the major objectives of the proposed Board.


Through the Board we propose to provide affiliated madrasas with teachers for modern subjects with decent salaries. Presently, most madrasa teachers earn a pathetic salary, between five hundred to two thousand rupees a month, and often go for months without pay. Naturally, then, madrasas do not attract the best teachers. Often, it is those who have no other option who take to teaching in madrasas and agree to survive on the pittance that they receive. One cannot expect many such teachers to take their work seriously. It is because these maulvis are paid such a miserable salary that it has now become so easy to literally buy a favourable fatwa from a mufti simply by paying a small sum of money.


I have proposed that the Board will provide affiliated madrasas with trained teachers for modern subjects whose salaries would be equal to that of government servants. It is but to be expected that, because of this, those who are teaching these subjects in non-affiliated madrasas for a pittance, being heavily exploited by their managers, will seek employment in the affiliated madrasas. And, since the teachers of religious subjects will find that those who teach modern subjects in the same madrasas get a better salary, they will begin to demand better salaries and service conditions for themselves as well. Obviously, some madrasa managers will be upset about this, but this will help erode the heavy exploitation of the madrasa teachers. I feel that this challenge to the authoritarian ways of many madrasa managers and their exploitation of their teachers is one reason why some maulvis who run madrasas are so opposed to the Board since it so directly threatens to undermine their vested interests.


Q: An oft-heard argument put forward by many of those opposed to the proposed Board is that the teachers who would be appointed to teach modern subjects in the affiliated madrasas might be non-Muslims, who might lead their students ‘astray’ or cause a ‘dilution’ of their commitment to Islam. How do you respond to this charge?


A: I am aware that some people do argue on these lines, but this is a ridiculous charge. In the wake of the Battle of Badr, the Prophet Muhammad arranged for Meccan prisoners of war to educate Muslims as a way to win their freedom. These Meccans were not just non-Muslims, they were also inveterate foes of the Prophet and had taken up arms against him, but yet he wanted them to teach his followers. In this regard, let me also cite a saying, according to which the Prophet is said to have exhorted his followers to go even to China for knowledge. Now, in those days there were no Muslims in China, so, obviously, what the Prophet meant was that his followers should go to China to study non-religious knowledge from the non-Muslim Chinese. Given all this, how can it be said that for a non-Muslim to teach modern subjects in a madrasa is impermissible or, as some argue, a ‘conspiracy’ against Islam?


We should be working for a more inclusive and democratic society, and non-Muslim teachers teaching Muslim students would, in fact, be a very welcome step in that direction. I will go even further and say that we should be moving towards creating an environment wherein even non-Muslim students can study in madrasas if they want.  This can prove a very useful means to promote inter-faith and inter-community understanding and interaction through education.


But to come back to your question, it will be for the Board to choose the teachers to be appointed in the affiliated madrasas for teaching modern subjects. Naturally, this will be done taking into consideration the sectarian affiliation of each madrasa. The Board will consist of people from different sects or maslaks and so they will ensure that the selected teachers are suitable for the madrasas they are sent to depending on their own sectarian affiliation.


Talking of the problem of sectarianism, which is so rife in the madrasa system, the proposed Board will, I feel, go a long way in bridging maslaki differences because it will have representatives from the different maslaks. It will thus provide a much-needed forum for ulema from different maslaks to work together.


Q: Some critics of your proposed Board argue that it might enable the Government to interfere in the functioning of the madrasas and to dilute their religious identity. In fact, they regard the Board as part of a ‘conspiracy’ hatched by the Government precisely with this purpose in mind. What are your comments on this?


A: Let me clarify that the proposal of the Board was suggested and initiated by the National Commission for Minorities’ Educational Institutions and forwarded to the Government. It was not done on the directions of the Government. This is something that many critics of the proposed Board do not realize. This is the major source of confusion that underlies the opposition of some people to the Board. Further, my proposal very clearly specifies that the Board will not interfere in the religious or dini talim component of the madrasa curriculum. The proposal also specifies that affiliation with the Board will be purely voluntary and not compulsory. The madrasas will be free to affiliate with the Board if they want, or refuse to do so, if they choose to. Moreover, affiliated madrasas can always disaffiliate themselves whenever they want to.


Nine states in India presently have state-level madrasa boards, to which several hundred madrasas have been affiliated, some for decades. These boards are controlled by state governments. How come there has been no such vociferous opposition to these boards? Why is it that some maulvis are opposing the national-level Board that I proposed, even though this Board would be autonomous and free from government control?


The fear that the proposed Board might interfere with or investigate the accounts and budgets of affiliated madrasas is a major reason for the opposition to the Board on the part of some maulvis. It is an undeniable fact that there is considerable and very serious financial misconduct and misappropriation of funds by many madrasa authorities. In one particular state, which I do not want to name, I was told that there are some 250 madrasas that exist on paper alone, and which receive funds from the Government’s 15-point programme for employing teachers for modern subjects. One of these so-called madrasas was actually run by a Pandit, who had turned it into a pathshala! These corrupt people are scared that the Board might put an end to their malpractices.


Some critics of the proposed Board argue that the Government has no business to bother about the madrasas. But, my point is, the Indian Muslims, who number some 200 million, are also citizens of this country, and so obviously the Government ought to be concerned about the educational profile of such a large community. When I say this my critics at once pounce and declare that, according to the Sachar Committee Report, just 4 per cent of Muslim children study in full-time madrasas and so, they argue, the Government should be more concerned with the 96 per cent who don’t. My reply is that, firstly, that the figure of 4 per cent that the Sachar Committee report came up with is a considerable under-estimate, a figment of a fertile imagination. It is clear that those who had cited this figure did not do any rigorous survey. But, even if one assumes that the figure is indeed 4 per cent, does it mean that the Government should not be bothered about them? In my view, the Government should be concerned about the education of every single child in this country. If one part of the body is spoilt, obviously it will soon lead to the whole body falling sick. If the Muslims, or a major section of the Muslims, remain educationally and economically backward, obviously it will bode ill for the peace and prosperity of the country as a whole. Moreover, our democracy is an inclusive democracy and therefore, the Government is responsible for the welfare and development of its citizens. Education is the potent tool for human development and empowerment of the people. If the Government thinks that introduction of modern education in madarsas is in the interest of the Muslim community, the same cannot be brushed aside claiming some kind of immunity or exclusive right. That apart, Article 51-A of our Constitution obligates every citizen to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and to strive towards excellence in all spheres of individual and collective activity so that nation rises to higher levels of endevour and achievement.


Sadly, some maulvis want to isolate the Muslims from the rest of Indian society. This is one reason for their vehement opposition to any meaningful reform of the madrasas. I am totally against this isolationist mentality. Muslims here can’t live on their own little island. We should break down the walls that some people want to build around us, and convert them into bridges so that all communities of our country can benefit from increased interaction with each other. As an Urdu poet so aptly put it:



Sahara lena hi padta hai mujh ko  dariya  ka

Mai  ek katra hun, tanha to bah nahi sakta


(A drop has to take the help of the river

For it is just a drop, and cannot flow alone)


Q: Some critics of the proposed Board claim that the intention behind the ‘modernisation’ that the Board will usher in is to subvert the madrasas and destroy their specifically religious identity and character by gradually converting them into secular schools. How do you react to this charge?


A: This is a ridiculous allegation. As the person who suggested to the Government to set up this Board, let me say that I believe that we do need the madrasas. They are vital for the preservation of Muslim culture and religious tradition. Madrasas also focus on character-building, which is something sorely lacking in general schools. I myself studied in a madrasa as a child, and I am proud of this. My teachers there were heavily involved in, and committed to, moulding and improving my knowledge, character and personality. I am not advocating that madrasas be secularized out of existence and turned into general schools. Far from it. All I am appealing for is for madrasas to introduce some basic modern education so that their graduates can function properly in the outside world and so that some of them can go on to enroll in colleges and universities and thereby widen their career options which, at present, are extremely limited.


Q: Some maulvis who oppose the introduction of modern subjects and English in the madrasa curriculum argue that if these subjects were taught to madrasa students, their commitment to the faith would weaken, and that they would become more ‘worldly’ and would refuse to take up low-paid jobs such as that of imams in mosques and teachers in madrasas. This, in turn, they say, would result in a veritable crisis for the whole Muslim community, which would be left bereft of madrasa teachers and mosque imams, leading to a serious dilution of their Islamic faith and identity. Hence, they argue, such subjects must not be taught in the madrasas. How do you respond to this allegation?


A: This is a completely bizarre argument. If maulvis who argue like this want the 20 crore Muslims of India to become beggars and faqirs and wallow in poverty, I certainly cannot agree with them. If the maulvis want to make the 20 crore Muslims of India pious Muslims, well, that is a good thing, but, for heaven’s sake, don’t stop them from acquiring modern education as well.


Some critics use another argument to oppose the reform of the madrasa curriculum. They claim that if modern subjects were included in the syllabus, the burden would become so great for the students that they would excel neither in the traditional religious subjects nor in the new ones. This argument is also fallacious. It is certainly not an Islamic approach. Leaving our madrasa students ignorant of the modern world, of languages such as Hindi and English, has such a deleterious impact on their self-confidence. They suffer a terrible complex when they come into the outside world and find that they are forced to take the help of others even to read a sign in a railway station or to fill up a form in a post office.



Q: The USA, other Western governments, as well as the governments of scores of other countries, including Pakistan and India, began talking about what they termed as ‘reforming’ the madrasas only after the emergence of radical groups, such as the Taliban, which had links to certain madrasas. Many Muslims believe that the proposed Board has little to do with any sincere concern on the part of the Indian Government for Muslim educational advancement, but, rather, is actually a means to clamp down on madrasas, and that, in this, it is being pressurised by America. What do you have to say about this?


A: I can state with full confidence that the Taliban have nothing to do with the Indian madrasas. I can guarantee that not a single madrasa in India provides any sort of terrorist training. Their focus is simply on providing Islamic education. Those who allege that they are ‘factories of terror’ are completely wrong. That said, the situation in Pakistan is different, where, due to locally specific circumstances, certain madrasas were used by the state and other elements for purposes other than providing Islamic education. The error that some people make is to equate Indian madrasas with these certain madrasas in Pakistan, which is a totally untenable proposition.


Certain forces in the West as well as the Zionist lobby have been aggressively promoting the absolutely false thesis of Islam being a religion of terror and of madrasas allegedly churning out terrorists. This poisonous propaganda urgently needs to be rebutted. Lamentably, opponents of the proposed Board are playing into the hands of those who claim that madrasas are dens of terror, who project this opposition as supposed ‘proof’ that the madrasas are not above board, that they have something to hide. In this way, opponents of the Board have only succeeded in further shoving Muslims into a corner.



Q: Given the vehement opposition to the proposed Board from some quarters, do you think the Government will have the political will to go ahead and establish the Board?


A: The ball is now in the Government’s court. I will be retiring from my present post by the end of this November, and it is now for the Government to decide. Some people in the Government have started asserting that the Government will decide about the Board only after a consensus evolves among Muslim leaders on the issue. My answer is that this consensus can never come about. Even at the time of the early Caliphs who came after the Prophet there was no consensus among Muslims, so how can we expect any consensus on this issue now? My personal opinion is that the Government must go ahead and pass a Bill and set up the Board in the larger interests of the Muslims of India and of the country as such. The opposition of a few people must not deter it from doing so because these people do not speak for the Muslims of this country as a whole.


Justice Siddiqui can be contacted on


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



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