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Syed Nazakat in Deoband, India

A fury of dust billowed from the road as we took the 120 km north road for  Deoband, a small town in the heart of Saharanpur district of UP which is  best known for its Islamic seminary Dar-ul-Uloom (House of Knowledge). There   were twenty of us – fifteen American students and their professor from the  Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and four journalists from New Delhi.

One hundred and forty years ago the same road had been followed by one of  the great Islamic scholars of the Muslim world – Hazrat Moulana Muhammad  Qasim Nanautavi to lay the foundation of the Dar-ul-Uloom on May 30, 1866 to   save Islam and Islamic culture from the west and westernization.  The anxiety of the US students is perceptible. After all, many Taliban  leaders reportedly studied at the Deobandi institute Dar-ul-Uloom  Haqqaaniyah at Akora Khattak in neighboring Pakistan. The unrest and growing  fundamentalism in the Muslim world, the recent bomb blasts in Delhi and  Varanasi that hinted at the involvement of Muslim terrorists and the  disturbing news that Muslims in many southern states are joining banned   fundamentalist and militant groups has once again focused attention on the  madrassas, which are considered a major source of radical influence on the  thinking of Muslims.  “This is all propaganda to defame Islam. They blame Muslims for everything,”  said Dilshad Ahmad Qasmi, 52, Nazim (officer in-charge) of the Dar-ul-Uloom.  “Ours is a religious learning institute and we have nothing to do with the  violence and anti-national elements”, he said.

Foreigners particularly Americans visiting the Dar-ul-Uloom is an uncommon  sight, so excitement was obvious. The smiles the foreigners are receiving,  the handshakes, the warm welcome, the food and the hospitality are as   surprising as the questions. “Why there are so many women journalists in the visiting American team” asked a bearded young boy from the audience. As a  journalist from the visiting team began answering the question, the bearded   boy pulls out his cell phone and snaps a photograph of one of the visiting  American woman journalists.

In the conference hall of the Dar-ul-Uloom we meet hundreds of boys, whose  ages range from 7 to 30. Clad in salwar kameez and wearing white caps, the  boys are seated cross-legged on the floor. Old copies of the Quran and   handwritten manuscripts crowd the shelves. English has recently been  introduced at the institute. There are no TV sets and no radios available  here. While computers have been installed recently there is no internet facility. Newspapers are also banned, because as one young student bluntly  says, they carry “sexy” images of women.

What Carry King, 27, a visiting US journalist and his colleagues would have  thought of as high-school and college students are enrolled in an eight-year  course of study that focuses on an interpretation of the Koran and of the   Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad). These students arent actually  learning anything outside of Islam – no maths, no history, art, science, or  social science. And, of course, there are no females at the madrassa.   Every year, upon graduation over seven hundred boys leave the Dar-ul-Uloom with virtually just two things: a surname of Qasmi and a single career  option of becoming an Imam (Islamic clergyman). The students have no formal   education so they have no chance of getting a Government or public sector job. 

 “This is the biggest madrasa in the world after Al-Azhar University of  Cairo,” Moulana Mohammed Farooq Qasmi, a man in his late forties told the  visiting foreign journalist. His dress, his dignity and his calm hinted at his religious background. He is great grandson of Hazrat Moulana Muhammed Qasim Nanautavi, the founder of the Dar ul Uloom. “The books are free. The  food is free. The education is free. We give them free accommodation. In a poor and backward area like this, our madrasas are the only form of  education”, Moulana said after stopping to say a prayer.  Most of the young boys at Deoband seemed to be bright guys but at odds with the system and society.

When, on a visit to the nearby old Dar ul Uloom, I met Mohammed Mehraj, 18,  a bright and personable student from a village of Lucknow district of U.P  who wanted to become doctor but here he is on his way to become Moulana   (theological teacher). “I wanted to become doctor. But then I thought there  is no point in studying worldly knowledge,” says Mehraj proudly. 

It was astonishing, after passion.

But like Mehraj there are others here who wanted to become something but  finally found themselves here in search of faith and ‘some purposeful life’.  It is not that hard to see what lies at the heart of their mind and shifting career choices- unrest.  “We (Muslims) are being defamed, targeted and massacred everywhere. They are desecrating our holy Quran, making blasphemous cartoons of our beloved Prophet, killing our Muslim brethren in Iraq, Afghanistan, everywhere and   when we protest they say we are fundamentals? What is this? There is limit for everything, Mehraj furiously shouted, while his friends sitting around him in the compound of the Dar ul Uloom nod in agreement.

These young boys are not the militants of the Muslim community, they are the self righteous young boys frustrated by a system and society that does   not meet their expectation, eaten up by anger and the geopolitics of the  world in which they are finding themselves at the receiving end. But all this doesn’t make this Dar ul Uloom’s students unique. In the fifty thousand madrassas (the number of government registered  Madrassas is 27,518) all across India and 10,000 thousand Madrassas in the  neighborhood Pakistan or an estimated 6 million Muslims who study in  madrassas around the world, the young Muslims boys are increasing finding themselves at odd with the world.

While in India madrassas have no track record of producing violent  Islamists, and are strictly apolitical and quietist. Even in strife torn  Kashmir where over ninety thousand people died in the bloody conflict in  last 17 years the first militant Commander – Ishfaq Majeed Wani of JKLF – was the pass-out of the Christian missionary school. But as it is hard to intercept the wild career from misfit to Mujahideen precisely because it is so unpredictable, the challenge for Madrassas  authorities can hardly be overestimated. No one knows this gruesome situation more than the Dar ul Uloom authorities themselves.  “It is very hard time for us. But we are trying our best to keep our  students more and more focused on their studies, says Dilshad Qasmi.

 As dusk gathers, the sunlight strikes the grand mosques painting everything  in gold. The students are coming out form their classes. They have finished  their Koran reading. The streets are still choked with carts, and meat still sizzles on open pits. Dilshad Qasmi waves us goodbye and moves towards mosque to offer evening prayer, he is joined by Mohammed Mehraj and other  students and then by Mohammed Afzal.

But before Afzal could waves us final adieu, he asks a last question. “What kind of impression these American’s people got from here. Please tell them (American student) that we don’t hate them.

 (Sahara Time, March 25, 2006)

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