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Syed Nazakat in New Delhi, India

I don’t remember when exactly I start attending the Quran classes. But I vividly remember I along with my two brothers kneeling on the bare floor of the room which was a neighbourhood madrasa (religious school) in Srinagar, a summer capital of Indian administrative Kashmir, repeating the sayings of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh): “The best of you is he who learnt the Holy Quran and taught it to others.”

Education in Islam is a sacred duty. The significance of education in Islam can be understood from the fact that one of the first things the Prophet (pbuh) did after Quran was revealed to him was to establish Maktab (religious school) in the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia. Since then, for centuries, boys and girls have gathered at Islamic madrasas to quietly study Islamic texts that have been handed down unchanged through the ages.

I completed my first reading of Quran by age 16. I was enrolled part time at the madrasa to learn to read Quran and understand the basic teachings of Islam. Our forefathers had travelled many centuries ago from Saudi Arabia to Central Asia then to Lahore (then part of united India) and some of them travelled further down and settled in Kashmir. They adopted the path of tasawwuf (or spirituality) to seek God’s divine presence and blessing.

I remember being attracted by our neighbourhood mosque which was named after a 13th-century Persian Sufi sheik, Shah-i-Hamdan. Every day, at five different times, the music of Islam’s call to prayer stirred soul of every devout Muslims. It began with the same Arabic couplets Muslims have used for nearly 1,400 years, Islam’s melodic prayer to the Creator.

“Allah . . . u akbar,” the faithful sing out.

“Allah. . u akbar!—God is great!”

The term itself, Islam, is an Arabic word meaning “submission to God,” with its roots firmly planted in salam which means peace. That may come as a surprise to many, whose perceptions of the Islamic faith have been shaken by terrorists, many from the Muslim countries, whose barbaric acts in the name of Islam has taken so many innocent lives.

My journey to Islam began quite early. As kids we were too eager to recite adhan prayer from our neighbourhood mosque in Srinagar, a capacity city of Kashmir. It always fascinated us to hear our voice over microphone which was mounted atop the mosque’s minarets to call people for prayers. Sometimes, when we felt especially daring, we would reach mosque before sun rise and give the first prayer call of day. Every day after school, we would attend the evening classes at the local madrasa.

I was still in 6th class when first bomb exploded in Kashmir in 1989.

It was a start of the armed rebellion. Frustrated and angry by the years of misrule, a group of Kashmiri young men had decided to fight against India. Young Kashmiri boys would cross the border to reach Pakistan where they were trained by the Pakistan Army. Soon Pakistani and Afghan insurgents joined the fighting in Kashmir.  There were daily bomb blasts, killings and the military crackdowns. In nearly two decades of insurgency in Kashmir more than 50,000 people have died, according to the government figures. The human rights groups say the figures are much higher. And the figure does not include hundreds of people who disappeared in the custody of the police and the military.

Today when I look back I think it was sheer luck that my brothers and I survived the violence and dark face of the conflict. There is hardly a family in our neighbourhood which has not suffered due to the conflict. One of my teachers was disappointed when I told him that I’m leaving Kashmir, but he grudgingly understood why I’m leaving. I was deeply disturbed by the daily violence and tragedies, mostly because I was no more a detached observer. As a young reporter I was now covering the daily mayhem. Over the next couple of years my pursuit for higher education and journalistic career would take me to new stories and places.

It was the post 9/11 world.

The atmosphere was filled with hate and Islamophobia. Islam was generally seen as supportive of violence and a monolithic bloc. Madrassas, which were part of Islamic history since the first such seminary was established in Saudi Arabia some 1400 ago, were denounced as breeding grounds for terrorists.  This, irrespective of the fact that terrorists who planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks, as well as the secondary planners identified by the 9/11 commission, all were product of the Western universities. The mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed studied engineering in North Carolina.

The 9/11 tragedy resulted into the invasion of Afghanistan. It was in Afghanistan I met one of the founders of Taliban, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef in Kabul in 2008. After he was released from Guantanamo Bay, Zaeef was living in Kabul’s Pashtun-dominated Khush-Haal neighbourhood. Our meeting took place only after negotiating a cordon of intelligence officers.  Over Afghani tea and bread, he spoke softly, praising God in nearly every sentence. “I was a teacher at madrasas and I was very keen to continue to teach students and spread the world of Quran,” he told me. His book, My life with the Taliban, arguably the only memoir of its kind by a founder of the Taliban, is, in many ways, a counter narrative to much of what has been written about the role of madrassas in the formation of Taliban. Had the Afghan Mujahidden and warlords lived in peace after they defeated Russian there would have been no Taliban militia today. And had American not abandoned Afghanistan after defeating Russia, Al-Qaeda would have never been able to establish its training camps in Afghanistan.

I met Zaeef again in 2011 and this time he seemed more pessimistic about the situation. He told me that he is keen to start a madrassas and that he would include English and science chapters in the syllabus. “We [Taliban] made mistakes because we were not well versed with modern education. We had no worldview. My aim is to educate our children so that they can build a better and peaceful Afghanistan.”

Taliban’s ideological roots can be traced to Deoband, a dusty town in the heart of India. It is here a seminary was set up in 1867 to spread the Islam. The founders of Deoband had realized that the Muslims in India should concentrate on their own style of learning to be able to withstand the British cultural onslaught.  The West, for them, was immoral. The Westerners drank alcohol, song and dance and engaged in sex outside of marriage. Deoband’s solution was isolation.  Yet Deobandi thought gained popularity and attracted students from different corners of the world.

Why has the Deoband become such an influential Muslim body in South Asia? And more curiously how were the Taliban affected by the Deobandi thought and teaching? It was questions like these which took me to Deoband, one winter morning last year.

When it comes to religious outlook very little has changed in the last one hundred years at the Deoband. Students still read the same text, the administration is still run by Mullahs’ and Deoband’s doors remain closed for girls. Most of the students still come from poor families who send their children to the madrasa, where they get accommodation and three meals a day, and a Quran-based education—for free. The Deoband’s apolitical nature, its focus on religious education and missionary zeal has made Deoband an influential Muslim body.

In the absence of state patronage, Deoband multiplied its institutions and whosoever graduated from the Deoband established another madrasa. That explains its global spread and influence. And unlike many other seminaries it enjoys close relationship with India’s leading political party, the Indian National Congress mostly because Deoband was among the first organizations that stood firmly on the side of the Indian nationalist forces and resolutely opposed the two-nation theory espoused by the Muslim League which demanded Pakistan, a separate country for Indian Muslims.

Deobandi scholars, in principal, were totally against the creation of Pakistan. But later as partition of sub-continent became eminent, many of its scholars migrated to Pakistan.  The ties between its scholars who migrated to Pakistan and those who decided to stay back were mostly limited to occasional visits. In India, Deoband repeatedly distanced itself from religious extremism. It was the first seminary to issue a fatwa (or edict), against terrorism.

In Kashmir I went to see Dr. Sheikh Showkat Husain, an expert on education who has obtained his PhD in Law from Aligarh Muslim University which was founded on the Oxbridge model by the great 19th-century Muslim reformer, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan. Unlike traditional and theology based education system of the Deoband, Khan pursued the case of English language, modern education and Western sciences to uplift the condition of Indian Muslims.

“Both Darul Uloom Deoband and Aligarh were knee jerk reactions to the British colonisation of India,” said Dr. Showkat. “While Deoband perceived Western education as an attempt of proselytization, Aligarh saw the Western education as sole solution to the problem of backwardness of Indian Muslims.”

Unfortunately, Khan pointed out, that Deoband was not able to modernise its old curriculum called Dars-i Nizami [Dars-e-Nizami was first started in Bagdad in 1065) and followed the old doctrine without any new interpretation. “Deoband, therefore, created a reaction to itself in the form of Barelvi thought of Islam.’

Majority of the Muslim population in South Asia today follows Barelvi thought. They are more shrine-oriented and influenced by traditional folk Islam practices of the South Asia. “It is interesting to note that while Deobandis are considered hardliners but it was Barelvis who among others were the foremost campaigners for the Pakistan Movement,” said Dr. Showkat.

I asked him about his assessment for the future of madrassas. “I’m very anxious,” he said. “The madrasas educational system has reached the point of collapse. We just don’t need so many madrassas which basically teach isolation.” Isolation, he continued, is not the solution.

I’ve had echoes of similar thought in the birthplace of Islam – Saudi Arabia. During one of my earlier reporting assignments, I met religious scholars in Riyadh in 2011.  They were concerned about rising violent views among the Saudi youth. Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Hadlaq, director general of Ideological Security Directorate of the kingdom, was in particular concerned about the ideological extremism among the Saudi youth. Dr Al-Hadlaq told me that the Kingdom had sacked 353 radical imams and some 1,300 clergymen have been placed on suspension. The kingdom rehab program is remarkable as it has successfully rehabilitated over 3,500 suspected terrorists. I found wider agreement that the concept of welfare state is not the way forward. The new generation has to be given best education so that they can stand on their own.

Back in Deoband, the question remains as to what sort of role the seminary wants to play to serve the cause of education. At dusk, as the sun start slowly disappearing, students were still in classes. In one of the class, a teacher encouraged them to maintain their spiritual purity through prayer and study. Some of them want to become hafiz (one who memorizes all 114 chapters and 6,346 verses of the Koran). Others want to become Imams and lead prayers in mosques. Some want to return to their villages to start their own small businesses. Everyone seems to have a plan for the future. As I left Deoband, my thoughts were occupied by scenes of joyful skull-caped students. For a moment, I thought of my childhood, my school and neighbourhood madrasa.  What if I had not been to Madrasa? Or what if I had not been to school? It was not the case of one choosing over other. It was experience of embracing the past and seeking future. Both were indispensable.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist based in New Delhi. He was awarded Henry Luce Foundation fellowship to promote excellence global religion coverage through the International Center for Journalists, Washington, which paid for their travel and research.

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