It is a warm Mumbai afternoon. There is no electricity on the Oshiwara campus of Markazul Ma’arif, but a pleasant breeze blows through the open classroom. In progress is an English composition class. At work are around 30 students, some of them preparing to join the ranks of India’s ulema (scholars of Islam). They are trying to rewrite an essay on the Taqleed movement, which called for strict adherence to established codes and precedents in matters of justice.
A glance through their study material, which includes compilations of essays by authors such as Ted Hughes and Shirley Toulson, brings me to Khushwant Singh’s A Portrait of a Lady. I ask them what they think of the writer. “He is very bold,” whispers someone. Everyone laughs. “But it’s okay,” says someone else, “We don’t ever subscribe to the ideas. We are just reading him to learn the language.” The speaker is 25-year-old Izharul Haque, who came here last year from Basti in Uttar Pradesh and says he considers Islam the ‘natural religion’ of mankind. “Why we learn the language is so that we can preach the message of Islam all over the world,” he says, “We know that that is their culture and we don’t ever follow that. We won’t be confined to just speaking in Arabic or Hindi. Through English, we can spread the message everywhere. Anyway, it’s so easy, you can learn everything in the two years we are here. Try learning Arabic in two years.”
As an institute, Markazul Ma’arif has centres in Delhi, Gujarat and Assam, among other places, and its objective is to give madrassa students an edge in the modern world by teaching them the English language. They read Francis Bacon, write essays on topics such as ‘Real heart of education is the education of the heart’, compare religions, hone their oratory skills, and cover the equivalent of a school syllabus from class 1 to 12 in just two years. The study material draws on the syllabii of Oxford, Cambridge and India’s NCERT.
To gain admission, madrassa students from across India take a common entrance test, held in Delhi, that focuses on their madrassa education (subjects such as Islamic jurisprudence and Arabic, that is). Once admitted, they are taught and encouraged to speak English, which is expected to grant them a wider audience once they return to their careers of religious instruction. “They need to go back and become maulvis (teachers) or muftis (jurists). That’s why we don’t have recognition for [our] universities. We don’t want them to get degrees and run after jobs. We want them to work for the betterment of the religion,” says MB Qasmi, director of Markazul Ma’arif. “Once they leave, they have more knowledge and are better aware of their surroundings. They now know how to wrap religion in a better foil. They can reach out to more people. They are also more liberal—they may not agree with you, but they will listen to your opinion.”
The organisation does not yet have a learning centre for women, but Qasmi says it is on the agenda. “Some of our students also get jobs abroad and earn very well as translators and teachers,” he says, “We have an ex-student who is now teaching English Literature at a university in America. The people taking his visa interview were shocked. But that’s the kind of knowledge they get here. Most people focus only on things they consider conservative about Islam. No one talks about the good things—like, according to Islam, a woman can actually ask her husband to pay her to raise their child. Did you know that? This is what our students do. They go out there and talk about all the good in Islam.”
Debate is encouraged, the director adds, even if students must take a stance contrary to what Islam prescribes. “They are often upset that they have to speak the opposite of what they believe, but it’s necessary to work on their [declamation] skills. They understand that Islam is all about submission to the will of God.”
TILL A FEW years ago, the Sonnets of William Shakespeare were on the study list, but had to be dropped because the Victorian English was proving too hard to understand. In an interview with Qasmi at the time, I had discussed the perils of talking in class about love the way Shakespeare does, and he had dismissed me with a calm smile: “Why edit anything? These kids are smart. When they ask questions, we try and explain as well as we can… they know what Islam prescribes and what it doesn’t.”
Professor Ahmad Kamal Khusro, who teaches at Markazul Ma’arif, says that the syllabus is vetted but is no cause for anxiety. “All the kids know what our culture is and this is not it,” he says, “They don’t get swayed.” Mohammad Inam Qasmi Nadwi, who runs a similar institute in Delhi, also says that students are confident enough of their own civilisation not to have Western literature distort their values: “We know the diktats of Islam and what can be accepted under them. That’s all that matters.”
On the Oshiwara campus, I get a sample of the oratory and persuasion skills of the students. They are keen to speak. There is Mohammad Afzal, for example, who wants to take the Union Public Service Commission examination, and thinks that learning English could help him serve the country. “I want to clear misconceptions about Islam and I can do this through this language, which these days is the one most people understand.” He is keen to address the issue of terror. “Islam doesn’t tolerate violence,” he says, “You can’t even cut a tree. Terrorists who claim to do it in the garb of religion are misinformed themselves.”
The students often write letters to editors of English newspapers in response to reports on their religion that do not go down well with them. They are all articulate men, and they field my questions with concise and clearly spoken answers.
Does reading essays by people such as Khushwant or Bacon broaden their minds? “We are already broadminded,” says Izharul Haque, “When we learn the language, we just find a medium to tell people we are broadminded.”
Why should women, by Islam, be covered head to toe? “Well, they are a different gender and their duties are different. Can a woman do all that a man can do?”
I say ‘yes’. A few students giggle. Haque smiles and continues, “By covering her face, she is protected and respected. Nobody can see [her] with a wrong eye.”
I interrupt again, “But isn’t real purity in the eyes of the beholder? Why does a woman have to cover up?”
“But can you control someone’s bad eye? And there is more bad out there than good. So if you cover yourself, nothing gets through. And that’s what is right. It’s the right path to follow.”
“Paradise. Just worship Allah and all will follow.”