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Should Non-Muslims be Invited to Madrassas?

Tufail Ahmad writes on political Islam
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A multi-city edition Urdu daily asked this question to its readers. The response will leave you surprised
Recently, Roznama Rashtriya Sahara, an Urdu-language daily published from Mumbai, Delhi, Patna, Bangalore and other cities of India, asked its readers to debate whether non-Muslims should be invited to attend events organised by madrassas, Islamic seminaries that teach religious education to Muslim children. In India, madrassas are mostly run by committees of local elders in villages and towns where they are situated. In some states like Bihar, madrassas are aided by the government which provides salaries to teachers in lieu of incorporating mainstream subjects such as mathematics and material sciences in their syllabi. However, madrassas are mostly self-financed and some of them own lands gifted by local philanthropists.

The Urdu newspapers' debate was inspired by the post-9/11 global context in which madrassas are being seen as the main institutions responsible for inculcating extremist religious ideas that lead to global jihad at the cost of loyalty to the nation-state. The responses of Indian Muslims to the debate reveal that Muslims are beginning to understand the need for mixing with Hindus and Christians so that the negative image of madrassas could be challenged. Roznama Rashtriya Sahara of 25 November (Mumbai edition), carried a sample of viewpoints. Muhammad Naushad, a reader from Dhampur in Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh, wrote: "In reality, if we invite intellectuals and justice-loving persons of our areas to these madrassas, it will be to our benefit. We can clear the minds of our non-Muslim brothers regarding [misconceptions involving] madrassas. We can familiarise them about the management of madrassas and good things about them."

Abdul Wajid Hussain, a teacher at the Madrassa Arabiya Darul Quran based at Padrain Pura in Bangalore, wrote: "The religious madrassas have been imparting lessons of peace and security to the people of the whole world, but so long as we do not invite non-Muslims, people of all religions, to our functions, misunderstandings will remain." Hussain further urged community leaders who manage the madrassas "to invite non-Muslims within the madrassa and familiarise them about how students live, and teaching and training offered to them." He added: "Those who say that Islamic madrassas cause disorder, madrassas are strongholds of terrorism and incite terrorism, they should remove such ideas from their minds and visit madrassas to see for themselves."

Mufti Muhammad Kamaluddin Ashrafi Misbahi, a teacher and mufti at the Idara Sharia based in the town of Rae Bareilly, responded to the debate arguing that such a move to invite Hindus to the events organised at madrassas will clarify the true picture. He wrote: "People unfamiliar with the teaching system of Islamic madrassas are given ideas that terrorism is taught in madrassas, bombs are made in madrassas and students of madrassa are trained in jihad and sent to wage jihad." Mufti Misbahi noted that baseless allegations have led to any beard-sporting graduate of madrassas being seen with suspicion by the government, local officials and non-Muslims. In order to counter such suspicions, he wrote: "The best thing to do is to invite non-Muslims, along with Muslims, to participate in the religious programs of the madrassas, and not just invite but to make it certain that they attend these events…"

Shamim Anwar Qasmi, a reader from 24 Pragannas in West Bengal, responded to the debate: "Generally, the relations with the brothers of the nation are seen only from political and material standpoint, whereas we consider Islam as a complete system of living. It is obligatory upon us that the broadmindedness of the religion of Islam be conveyed to the entire humanity without distinction of religion and nation." Qasmi cited Quranic teachings and good practices of Prophet Muhammad with regard to non-Muslims, adding: "In the current circumstances in which efforts are being made to cause hate among Hindu brothers against Muslims and to disrupt the national unity, the community leaders should prove to our non-Muslim brothers by practice that Islam is not an extremist religion…"

In Roznama Rashtriya Sahara of 18 November (Mumbai edition), Shagufta Kausar, a reader from Ghazipur area of Delhi, wrote that inviting non-Muslims to madrassas will prove to be a good step. She wrote: "The presence of non-Muslims will be unnecessary in all of the [religious] programs organised by madrassas; but in some events all brothers of the nation should be invited. Or, such programs [of interest to everyone] should be prepared where all religions take part and the purity of the religious madrassas and the reality of Islam are discussed so that misunderstandings regarding madrassas and the religion of Islam can be removed." In his letter, Salik Dhampuri, a reader from Jamia Nagar in Delhi, welcomed the suggestion, stating: "By inviting non-Muslims to religious madrassas and to organise exchange of ideas is the need of the time. This will not only provide us with an opportunity to present our standpoint before them, but it will also remove many misunderstandings of theirs. My view is that Islam does not impose any restriction about this."

Muhammad Dawood Nagina, an elderly reader form Bijnor, wrote that madrassas rarely organise events that could be of interest to non-Muslims, since most of them are of religious nature. "Therefore, the first need is that the events should be on the cultural and reform issues… so that non-Muslims too can benefit from them," he wrote. Nagina added: "When such congregations and events are organised, it becomes essentially that we invite our brothers of the nation and rather give them full opportunity for the expression of their views. When the problems of the common inhabitants of the nation are discussed, then they wouldn't have problem in attending our programs. Islam is a blessing for all human beings and we should have our non-Muslim brothers participate."

Professor Khwaja Abdul Montaqam, a reader from Delhi, expressed caution that such participation of non-Muslims in the madrassa events should not become political. In his letter, Muhammad Abdul Mujeeb, a reader from Aurangzeb Road in Hyderabad, noted a duality that some big madrassas and religious institutions already invite non-Muslim politicians in their programs, but common non-Muslims are not. Mujeeb wrote: "India's famous and old religious madrassas invite non-Muslim politicians, senior officials and select personalities to their events and they do participate in the events. For example, they participate in iftaar parties for the sake of communal harmony. Rather, iftaar parties are also organised by governors and chief ministers."

Mujeeb, stressing the role of common madrassas, explained further: "As per unofficial statistics, there are 35,000 madrassas in our country, which include small and unknown madrassas… In these madrassas, annual congregations and events are organised. However, the management of most of these madrassas have not paid attention to [the need for integrating Muslims in local communities]." He expressed doubt whether non-Muslims will attend the madrassa programs if they are invited, and argued the need for teachers and students of madrassas to create space in the hearts of non-Muslims in the area where their madrassa is situated.

A few points to note about these ideas emerging from within Muslims are: one, the rise of Islamic terrorism in the post-9/11 years and the recent jihadist attacks in the Middle Eastern countries have damaged community relations; two, the role of madrassas and Islam is being widely debated with regarding to growing extremism and radicalisation of Muslim youths in different parts of the world including India; third, Indian Muslims are thinking how to bridge the gulf with non-Muslims and in their view inviting Hindus and Christians to madrassas could generate a sense of security and communal harmony in the country.