India: Countering Conspiracy Claims

Islam Interfaith
An interesting article by Yoginder Sikand which refers to the madrasa system.
‘It’s all an evil conspiracy to destroy Islam’, the maulana growled as he stroked his orange-stained beard. A group of madrasa students who sat his feet nodded in full agreement, while I tried to suppress a mocking smile. The maulana had just concluded a long harangue against what he insisted was a global plot to blot out Islam from off the face of the earth.
It all started when I and a woman friend of mine had stepped inside a dimly lit bookshop off one of the many crowded lanes that snake their way out from the sprawling Juma mosque in Old Delhi. As we entered, the maulana looked up from an old, fraying book that he was carefully studying and frowned as he spotted my woman friend without her head suitably covered.

‘Yes, tell me what you want?’, he asked suspiciously, making it amply clear that we were not quite welcome. I explained what I was looking for—a diatribe penned by a Muslim scholar declaring a rival Muslim sect as firmly outside the pale of Islam.

‘What is your name and what work do you do?’, the maulana asked, as he turned round to pluck out the book I had asked for from a dusty shelf.

I introduced myself and briefly told him about the book on madrasas that I was working on. ‘Oh, so you are a non-Muslim!’, he exclaimed, looking me up and down in careful inspection.

‘I guess you could say that’, I answered, not knowing if my reply might make him change his mind about giving me the book that I urgently needed.

‘Hmmm, so you are writing a book on madrasas’, he muttered, beckoning me to a seat. ‘These days everyone is after the madrasas. There is a global Jewish-Hindu conspiracy on to defame them’, he said gravely. ‘The Qur’an says that the Jews are enemies of the faith. Don’t you know that they’ve been plotting against Islam ever since the time of the Prophet himself?’.

I had nothing to do with Jews, I hastened to inform the maulana. I thought it wise not to tell him about the few Jewish friends I had, perfectly wonderful human beings themselves. ‘But you are a Hindu’, he said, ‘and Hindus are today hand-in-glove with the Jews to destroy Islam’. My plea that although I was born in a family only part of which was Hindu, and that I personally did not identify myself with any particular religion or community, fell on deaf ears.

‘Since you are writing a book on madrasas’, he said as he spat into a tin spittoon, ‘let me tell you that it is we Muslims who have provided you with culture, with civilization, with law, with the constitution. Before the Muslims came to India people in this country lived in caves and roamed around half-naked. And yet today you say that madrasas are promoting barbarism!’. He shook his head in anger and disgust.

I had not come to give the maulana a history lesson, although it was clear to me that he urgently needed one. My friend whispered as the maulana stepped out of the shop to shoo away a dog that was howling outside. ‘Let him go on’, she said, ‘I know all this is infuriating, but think of it this way—he’s giving us a peep into his own world and that’s invaluable for your book’.

The maulana returned bearing a tray filled with sweets and savouries and glasses of tea. ‘Hospitality, even towards non-Muslims, is a fundamental Islamic duty’, he explained as he placed the tray before us. It was clear that he was not going to accept us simply as human beings, and that the fact of our being non-Muslim was of particular concern to him.

The conversation turned to the madrasa that the maulana was teaching in. It had been established well before 1947, he said, and had some one hundred students, mainly from poor families from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It followed the centuries-old dars-i nizami curriculum, but of late had introduced some modern subjects. ‘Islam is valid for all times, you see, and so it’s important to keep up to date’, the maulana explained.

I asked him what ‘modern’ subjects the madrasa had introduced. He answered, with evident pride, that the madrasa had recently employed an English teacher, himself a madrasa graduate. What about subjects like mathematics and geography I asked? ‘Oh, yes we teach those as well’, he responded, ‘because Islam is a complete system and has rules for all aspects of life. Everything you will find in the Qur’an itself. There’s no need to look outside it for guidance’.

I coaxed the maulana to tell me more about what he thought the Qur’an had to say about such abstruse subjects as mathematics and geography. ‘The Qur’an talks about the rules for the division of property and inheritance. Now, isn’t that mathematics?’, he replied, to the complete satisfaction of the madrasa students crowding around him.

What did his madrasa teach in the geography class, I hastened to ask. ‘We teach a range of things’, the maulana patiently explained. ‘For instance, the seasons change, and then some of the rules of fiqh change accordingly. So, in summer you use a stone or a piece of mud (dhela) to wipe your private parts after urination in one way and in winter it’s the opposite way. So we teach this, and many other things in the geography class’.

‘Is this geography?’, my friend butted in to ask. She had done her doctoral dissertation precisely on the subject of early Arab geographers, and she found the maulana’s reply clearly distressing. She had all this while kept silent, letting me keep up the conversation, but now she stirred herself to speak. The Qur’an, she said, repeatedly exhorts people to ponder on the mysteries of creation, on the heavens and the earth, referring to them as ‘signs’ (ayat) of God, and this provided the early Muslims with inspiration to explore the world and make many wonderful discoveries and inventions. She rattled off the names of a long chain of Arab geographers and the voluminous tomes that they had penned.

‘Oh, so you’ve read the Qur’an!’, the maulana exclaimed in surprise. He admitted that he had not heard of the Arab geographers she had mentioned, and asked her if she could recommend a book on the subject. The madrasa students beamed with pleasure as they shyly questioned her about her own knowledge of the Qur’an. ‘It is really a pleasure to learn that a non-Muslim like you has more knowledge of our religion than most Muslims do’, they said to her. It became increasingly evident as the conversation proceeded that their geography teacher had clearly been doing a poor job of his lessons. The students did not know the capital of Iraq, although the maulana had in his recent lectures been bitterly castigating America for its recent invasion of the country. Nor had they any idea of which country Istanbul was located in, although they had learnt about what they called the lamentable collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate at the hands of the ‘enemies of Islam’. They had not heard of Mizoram and the Andaman Islands. Nor did they know that Arunachal Pradesh was a state in India. The madrasa’s library did have an atlas, but they admitted that their teacher had not taught them to use it.

Yet, although it was by now amply evident that the ‘modernization’ of his madrasa that the maulana had boasted about had hardly made much of a dent, he refused to concede that any further changes were required to bring madrasas in line with the demands of contemporary times. ‘Our elders had developed a perfect system of education’, he insisted, ‘and that is why the madrasas in the past produced such great scholars who were, at the same time, such pious Muslims’. ‘If only we were to faithfully follow their path, we would be the rulers of the world’, he said, sighing wistfully. ‘All this talk about modernizing the madrasas’, he argued, ‘is actually an American-Jewish conspiracy to destroy Islam. In the name of modernization they want madrasas to stop teaching the Qur’an and Hadith and become ordinary schools that teach permissiveness and loose morals’.

I politely protested, pleading that while some advocates of ‘modernization’ might indeed have precisely that aim in mind, not all could be dismissed as ‘enemies of Islam’. The maulana hurriedly interrupted to dismiss me. ‘No brother’, he said, lowering his voice to almost a whisper, ‘even though you may not like this I must tell you that non-Muslims are enemies of God. There are only two types of human beings. Muslims, or the party of God (auliya-i allah), and non-Muslims, the party of the Devil (auliya-i shaitan)’. He honestly seemed to believe that a well-intentioned non-Muslim was a contradiction in terms.

I remained silent for a moment, taken aback by this sweeping claim. Yet, the maulana went on, buttressing his argument with quotations from the Qur’an but rooting them out from their contexts. ‘Do you know what 786 stands for?’, he asked me. I answered that it was short-hand for the Qur’anic formula ‘In the name of God the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate’. ‘Totally wrong!’, he retorted triumphantly. Each letter of the Arabic alphabet has a numerical equivalent, and the sum total of the numerical equivalents of that Qur’anic phrase added up to 788, not 786, he said. ‘I guess it does not make much of a difference’, I murmured after he had finished that complex mathematical calculation. ‘Oh no, it makes all the difference’, he countered. ‘786 is the numerical equivalent of Harey Krishna. The Jews and Hindus have deliberately promoted and popularized this number in order to Hinduize the Muslims and secretly destroy their faith’, he thundered. He handed me a pamphlet on the subject to substantiate his claim.

I shook my head in disgust and vehement disagreement, and was about to point out that he was insinuating that I and my friend, too, were agents of the Devil when he thrust a cassette into my hand and said, ‘Listen to this, it will provide the answers to all the questions that you are asking’. Titled The Conspiracies of the Enemies of Islam, the jacket cover of the tape depicted a furious looking monster grabbing a hapless Muslim in its claws. ‘Listen to this cassette’, he advised us, ‘and you will realize that all the problems that Muslims face in the world today are a result of a global conspiracy of the enemies of Islam, the Jews, the Christians and the Hindus’.

The conversation was now getting to heated to bear, and so too was the maulana’s smug self-confidence. The call to prayer floated in from mosque next door. ‘It’s prayer time, and I have to go’ said the maulana, obviously much to my relief. ‘But before you leave’, he looked at me in the eye and said, ‘let me tell you that Islam is the only way to salvation. God has chosen Islam as His religion, and if you refuse to accept it you will go to hell’.

‘I’ll pray to God that he may guide you to the right path’, he mumbled as he placed his skullcap on his head. I wish I could have said the same to him, but I resisted the temptation.

Back in my room I turned on the cassette the maulana had given me (at a special discount, I must add!). The speaker was a certain maulana associated with a particularly hardliner sect known for its vehement opposition not just to other religions but also to other rival Muslim groups. His fiery speech consisted of a long tale of suffering, real and imaginary, that Muslims all over the world are today facing, all apparently at the hands of the ‘enemies of Islam’. It seemed that non-Muslims had no other aim in life but to plot to eradicate Islam from off the face of the world. It appeared that Muslims were all innocent lambs, that they could do no harm to others or to themselves.

I would be the last to deny that others are indeed the cause of the suffering of some Muslims in some places and at some times. But who can deny that much of the suffering that many Muslims face is also the handiwork of fellow Muslims? And, likewise, who can ignore the suffering that that many non-Muslims face at the hands of some Muslims? Just as the Hindutva argument that all the miseries of the Hindus are a fall-out of a grand pan-Islamic plot is arrant nonsense, so, too, is the ‘conspiracy’ theory that the maulana so passionately upholds. And just as the Hindutva claim that all non-Hindus are necessarily ‘enemies’ of India or of Hinduism is plain ignorance, so too is the claim that all non-Muslims are necessarily hostile to Muslims or Islam. The maulana’s way of looking at the world, I am convinced after visiting numerous madrasas over the course of the last several years, is a widely shared one among many ‘ulama. No efforts to reform the madrasa system can afford to ignore this vital issue, for it poses a major challenge to the task of enabling the madrasas and Muslims as a community to deal with the manifold demands of contemporary life.