Madrasa Reforms and Interfaith Dialogue: Interview with Maulana Khalid Saifullah Rehmani

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Based in Hyderabad, Maulana Khalid Saifullah Rehmani is one of the leading present-day Indian ulema.  Author of some 50 books, mainly on Islamic jurisprudence, he is a senior member of numerous important Islamic organizations, including the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, the Islamic Fiqh Academy, the Bahrain-based Association of Islamic Banks and the Council for Inter-Sectarian Dialogue, Tehran, Iran.  In this interview with Yoginder Sikand he talks about various issues related to madrasa education in India, particularly the question of madrasa reforms.

Q: Could you tell us something about your academic background?

A: I was born in Darbhanga in Bihar in 1957.  I received my basic Islamic education at the renowned Jamia Rahmaniya in Munger, after which I went to the Dar ul-Ulum at Deoband for higher Islamic learning.  Thereafter, I went to Phulwari Sharif where I completed the ifta course to become a qualified mufti under the well-known Islamic scholar Qazi Mujahidul Islam Qasmi.  I was greatly influenced by Qazi Sahib’s approach and thinking.  He was among the few enlightened and broadminded Indian ulema of his times, seriously committed to dialogue between the different Islamic sects and also open to adopting the benefits of modern knowledge for expressing and interpreting Islam.

From Phulwari Sharif I came to Hyderabad and taught Quran, Hadith, Islamic Jurisprudence (fiqh) and Quranic commentary (tafsir) at the Dar ul-Ulum Hyderabad and the Dar ul-Ulum Sabil us-Salaam, two leading Deobandi madrasas in the city,  This I did for more than twenty years.  Then, in 2000 I established the al-Mahad al-Ali al-Islami, a centre for higher Islamic learning in Hyderabad, which I still manage.

Q: What exactly are you trying to do through this centre?

A: The centre was conceived of as a means for promoting certain much-needed reforms in madrasas.  As of now, it offers a two year course for senior graduates (fazils) of madrasas, where they study a host of disciplines that they might not ever have had to in their madrasas, such as English, Current Affairs, Comparative Religions and Computer Applications.  Students are also made to engage in research work, something that is missing in almost all madrasas.  Till now, over a hundred theses have been submitted by our students, many of them seeking to develop Islamically appropriate responses to various modern issues and concerns.  The students are also taught the importance of working for communal harmony and how to properly relate to people of other faiths and to explain to them what Islam is actually about.

Q: Almost every madrasa is associated with a particular Islamic sect, and sectarian strife is rife among the ulema.  What do you think is the way out?

A: I think the ulema have to realize, as indeed many already do, that these sectarian differences cannot be wished away.  Each sect offers its own arguments and proofs for its position.  God has given humans the capacity to think differently, and so obviously such differences will always exist.  The point is to accept these differences and, despite them, to cooperate with them on common issues.  This applies as much to intra-Muslim sectarian relations as it does to relations between Muslims and Hindus.  We must learn to respect people of other sects and religions and to work together jointly with them on issues of common concern.

Q: What do you feel about the ongoing debates on the question of madrasa reforms?

A: To properly understand the question, one has to keep the basic aim of the madrasas in mind: to produce good, learned, pious and committed Islamic scholars.  It is not to produce graduates for the market whose main aim in life is to make money.  So, naturally, moral training and Islamic subjects should remain the centre of the madrasa curriculum.

At the same time, we live in this world and so cannot afford to be ignorant of its issues, problems and concerns.  This is why I strongly believe that madrasas need to familiarize their students with at least the basics of various forms of modern knowledge, such as English, Computer Applications, Indian History, the Indian Constitution, and natural and social sciences.  Madrasas must conceive of ways to incorporate a basic modicum of these disciplines in their curriculum without this being allowed to harm its basic religious core.

Q: And how do you think this should happen?  Perhaps through the Madrasa Boards?

A: I am opposed to the government interfering in the madrasas through government-appointed madrasa boards, which exist in some states.  But I do admit the need for some sort of mechanism to bring about greater cooperation between the madrasas as well as to facilitate reforms.  In this regard, some private madrasa boards, set up by the ulema themselves and totally independent of the government, have come up in some states.  For instance, the Tahhafuz-e Madaris Committee in Gujarat and the Wafaq ul-Madaris in Bihar.  In 2001 we set up the Andhra Pradesh Dini Madaris Board, of which Maulana Hamiduddin Aqil Husami of the Dar ul-Ulum Hyderabad is the President and I the General-Secretary.  Through this board we are trying to bring about some changes in the madrasas in the state.

Q: What exactly are the activities of this Board?

A: The Board has basically two aims.  Firstly, to preserve the autonomy of the madrasas.  And secondly, to promote reforms and the moral and intellectual environment of madrasas.  Around 150 madrasas in Andhra Pradesh are now affiliated with the Board.  We organize teachers’ training workshops and also regular meetings where we impress upon the ulema to introduce a basic modicum of modern subjects in the curricula of their madrasas, to properly register themselves and maintain proper accounts and so on.

Q: A major part of the existing curriculum in almost all madrasas consists of the teaching of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh).  Many of these detailed rules and laws were devised centuries ago and may have lost their relevance in today’s context.  As someone who has written extensively on modern fiqh issues (jadid fiqhi masail) what do you have to say about reforms in this sphere?

A: I feel madrasas must give much more attention than they presently do to the principles of jurisprudence (usul-e fiqh), because while several minor fiqh details (juzuvi masail) can and do change over time, and hence require new interpretations, these basic principles are unchanging.  Knowledge of these principles is essential for engaging in ijtihad or creative reflection with regard to a host of contemporary issues that were obviously unknown to the early Islamic scholars.

In addition to this, our students, as would-be ulema, also need to have a basic knowledge of modern subjects in order to provide adequate and appropriate fiqhi perspectives on them.  For instance, we don’t want to make them doctors, but surely for them to engage in ijtihad in modern medical matters they must have at least some knowledge of the human anatomy and physiology.  Or, to respond to modern economic developments, they must have a basic understanding of the way modern economies function.

Another way to promote awareness of the need for ijtihad and for reflection on new jurisprudential issues within the madrasas is by promoting cooperation between the ulema of the madrasas and ‘modern’, university-educated intellectuals who are experts in particular fields.  Thus, in the conferences of the Islamic Fiqh Academy, with which I am associated, we invite modern experts and professionals to provide their views and share their knowledge with the ulema, and both learn from each other.  This is a way for promoting ‘collective ijtihad’ that benefits from the different forms of knowledge that these two classes of scholars possess.  A large number of books on new and more contextually-relevant fiqh issues and perspectives have been printed by the Islamic Fiqh Academy as a result of this sort of joint effort.

Q: Madrasas have been given a bad press in recent years, being branded as ‘dens of terrorism’.  How do you respond to this charge?

A: I would say that almost all this propaganda about the Indian madrasas at least is completely false, and has not been proved in the courts.  But if you look at parts of the world where terrorism is rife, no matter what the religion of its perpetrators, you will notice that very often it is denial of justice to vulnerable and victimized groups, often by the state itself, that breeds terrorism.  Obviously, then, terrorism cannot be stamped out without also working to ensure justice to people who are pushed to the wall, who are oppressed by the police and agencies of the state and who do not get any justice from the courts.  Of course, I do not at all mean to condone terrorism, even as a reaction to injustice, for the Quran itself says that the enmity of any community should not lead one to swerve from the path of justice.  It also says that to kill a single innocent being — and here it does not specify the religion of that person — is such a heinous crime as to be akin to slaying the whole of humankind.

I think the time has come for people of all faiths — Muslims, Hindus, Dalits, Christians, Sikhs and others — who sincerely believe in peace and justice to join hands in a joint struggle against terrorism, which threatens to destroy our beloved country.  I am glad that leading Indian ulema have realized the need for this, and are, accordingly, organizing huge public rallies to condemn all forms of terror, including that engaged in by self-styled ‘Islamic’ groups that are misusing and misinterpreting Islam for their sinister purposes.

Muslims in India face numerous challenges, including mounting Islamophobia.  My advice is that we should not respond to hatred with counter-hatred, but, rather, with love and concern and through sincere efforts to reach out to people of other faiths.

Maulana Khalid Saifullah Rehmani can be contacted on <>.

Yoginder Sikand is a freelance writer, working out of Bangalore and Delhi.  Visit his blogs: Yoginder Sikand; Islam, Peace and Justice; and Madrasa Reforms in India.