Dr Mohammad Ghitreef (Shahbaz Nadwi), a versatile Islamic scholar, Madrasa alumnus, editor, author and director of Foundation for Islamic Studies in a conversation with Mushtaq Ul Haq Ahmad Sikander on his early life, madrasa studentship, Islam, Ijtihad, terrorism and need for reforms in Madrasas
Tell us something about your early life?
I was born in 1972 at a village of Meerut district of Uttar Pradesh. Having committed the Quran to heart, I started Arabic learning at Jamiatur Rashad Azam Garh, then one year taught by my father Allama Shabbeer Ahmad Azhar Meeruthi who had invented his own unique method of teaching Arabic sciences, that was very short as well as a sharp one. I earned my Alim certificate equal to 10+2 from a Delhi based seminary Jamia Islamia Sanabil, run by Abul Kalam Azad Islamic Awakening Center. Then I did my Fazeelat degree from Jamiatul Falah of Azamgarh in 1993 but I am regretted to say, that there wasn’t scholarly atmosphere at Jamiatul Falah, instead they relied only on Maulana Farahi’s writings and on the literature of Jamaat e Islami. To a great extent I was not influenced by my teachers of these seminaries, that is why I am basically a self made person yet my father’s unparalleled erudition had a lasting impact on me. In the beginning I started my readings, along with the books of curriculum into writings of Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi, the founder of Jamaat e Islami (JeI) and extended it to the historical novels of Naseem Hijazi, Sadiq Sardhnwi, Inayatullha Eltamish and others and then shifted to serious reading of Muslim thinkers and scholars, ranging from the traditional Ulama especially Ulama of Deoband school of thought, to modern day jurists like Mohd Abu Zuhra, Yosuf Alqarzawi, revivalists like Syed Qutub, Mohammad Qutub, Muslim writers and scholars like Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, Allama Iqbal, Shibli Numani, Syed Sulaiman Nadwi, Waheeduddin Khan, Najatullah Siddiqi, Dr Mohammad Hamidullah, Mahmood Ahmad Ghazi, my late father Allama Shabbeer Ahmad Azhar Meeruthi, Rashid Shaz to name a few. After that I started to read most of the important figures of Islamic history such as Alghzali and Ibn Tammiyah and others. I tried to learn a bit of English when I was studying in Jamia Islamia Sanabil Delhi and increased my English knowledge when I was in Jamiatul Falah. Meanwhile the demolition of Babri Masjid on 6 December, 1992, led to communal riots and destruction of numerous shrines and mosques in Ayodhya by the Hindu mobs. Hence I volunteered for relief work in Ayodhya.
Later on I was part of the Student Islamic Welfare Society (SIWS), a movement based in Lucknow, working for the intellectual development of students of Arabic madrasas. For field survey and research once I was sent on a tour to visit the great Islamic seminaries and madarsas in different parts of India to study the Arabic Madrasas closely and witness their functioning. I could witness that South Indian Madrasas were very good and doing well, they were quite in contrast to the North Indian madrasas. SIWS was going to establish a unique center of Islamic thought, which was named as مركزاعداد الدعاة basically to train Madrasa students introducing them to new world and its challenges. At this center based on survey, vast readings and study, we prepared a questionnaire and report and sent it to hundreds of madrasas and many prominent and leading scholars for their observations and reactions. But out of hundreds only two scholars gave their feed back. Alas! this center could not be materialized. Though the said rejoinder depicted the apathy of madrasas people and how they were in slumber regarding the happenings around them. They couldn’t be influenced because they have caged themselves behind the four walls of madrasas and were happy in their cozy cocoons. Frankly speaking their plight is pathetic. Growing disillusioned with this state of affairs, I continued my higher studies and earned specialization in Arabic language and literature from Nadwatul Ulama, Lucknow in 1996. In 1999 I did my Masters in Arabic from Lucknow University and after that I earned my PhD in 2006 from Jamia Millia Islamia .
Being a product of Madrasa education, when did you decide to enroll for the ‘mainstream secular’ education?
It was the result of my self study. I never confined myself with the study of course books only, but read whatever stuff I could lay my hands on. This type of study opened new vistas and horizons before me; hence I was not content with madrasa education only.
What were the influences that prompted you to write?
My father Allama Shabir Azhar Meerathi was the biggest influence and inspiration for me as a writer. He was himself a great scholar, writer and exegesist of Quran. Also I was influenced by the writings of other men of letters and scholars. At a tender age of fourteen I began to write and in my early phase of writing I wrote in Urdu on a lot of issues. So far I have penned down 6 books, translated half a dozen from different languages particularly Arabic into Urdu and I have been editor of monthly journal Afkaar e Milli for eight years, besides being associated with Institute of Objective Studies (IOS) and Islamic Fiqah Academy( India) in various capacities. Now I write profusely on contemporary Islam, Muslim world, and on various academic as well as current political and social issues facing the third world, especially Muslim world. Focusing in particular, on unity among Muslims, political Islam, Islamic militancy, Palestinian problem, Muslim non Muslim relations, inter-faith and intra-faith dialogue, coexistence among civilizations, reforms in madras system education etc. I contribute regularly in Urdu dailies, weeklies, periodicals on above said and several other socio-political issues. And nowadays I am writing in English also.
And so far I have Visited several countries including the US, Iran, Kuwait, Pakistan and Nepal and participated in national and international seminars and symposia and presented many papers.
You are also the Founder Director of Foundation for Islamic Studies. What was the need for establishing it and what are its objectives?
During my brief lifetime till now I observed, experienced and witnessed many things, related to Muslim organizations and their cadres. I found the blind following (Taqlid) and its grave consequences, there is hero worship everywhere. If some people think out of box or have different views they are immediately sidelined within the organization and the group. This has happened even with Jamaat e Islami (JeI), wherein with the demise of Mawlana Mawdudi the thinking process has stopped, though reading and writing still continues. Maulana Mawdudi was against the blind following or Taqlid but now within JeI Mawdudi has assumed the status of a hero who is being blindly followed. My father had a vast and deep knowledge of the Quran and Hadith, hence he wasn’t easily influenced by the new scholars. He wrote the exegesis of Quran that was at various points in variance to many exegesis’s of past and present. This and many other things written by him, found no publication house ready to publish them. Hence I felt the need of publishing the books and writings of him after his death, and in the year 2003 I established The Foundation for Islamic Studies, with the primary aim of publishing what my father has left behind.
Another aim of establishing the institute was to write about the new issues and challenges baffling Muslims as well as the whole humanity that need to be seriously addressed and debated.
So how do you raise funds for publishing books?
Ours is a little publishing house, with my own funds I publish the books and most of the books are being received well, hence I raise the funds for other publications, but still our marketing strategy isn’t good. There are several titles with us, prepared to be sent to press but due to shortage of funds they remain yet to be published.
As you stated earlier how your father was sidelined by the Ulama, so what do you think are the reasons as to why the Ulama are afraid of new thinking or what in Islamic parlance is known as Ijtihaad. Why are they afraid of opening the doors of Ijtihad?
The apathy of the ulama is that they are Hero Worshippers. They believe in Akabir Parasti, as if it is a tenet of Islam! Since last many centuries they have self imposed this censorship on themselves.
Still what are their fears of being afraid of Ijtihad?
This fear is due to the changed times. There is a lot of difference between old and new times. In olden days Ulama were being followed by the common people, but now it is mobocracy. The mob wants the Ulama to follow them, and the Ulama too don’t have the leadership capacity and qualities to channelize the mob energy into something fruitful, hence they are facing a dilemma. Now the Ulama want to say what people want them to say! They have lost their indigenous status. If any emotional issue arises the Muslim Ulama will give it legitimacy. The fear of Hindutva and being a vulnerable minority also reinforces their decision of not indulging in Ijtihad.
To add as a matter of fact most of the Ulama aren’t aware of their times and trends, because they don’t take interest in new issues and challenges, as they have no interest in reading. Among Muslim Ulama there aren’t many who take a delight in reading and writing.
Why are the Muslim Ulama not reading?
It has many reasons. The biggest reason being the curriculum of Madrasas known as the Dars e Nizamiyyah. It was formulated a few centuries ago and since then the times have changed, that oblige it must be changed too. But after Deoband adopted it, they haven’t changed it till now, and others are also following their trend. This curriculum is an obstruction towards approaching Quran and Sunnah directly. Hence the ulama can’t engage with the issues and find solutions to them in Quran and Sunnah.
Also the pedagogical practices in madrasas and colleges differ. In colleges there is freedom of debate, questioning the teacher and expressing oneself, and in madrasas it is vice versa. Hence the spirit of creativity and query is killed, with the result that much depends on rote learning and cramming of curricula books. This type of teaching inculcates no love of books and real knowledge among students, hence on completion they have no desire to engage with various issues and challenges baffling Muslims. They are misfits for offering any solution to the contemporary problems.
So do you suggest change is needed in madrasas?
Absolutely. We are lagging centuries behind and we need to fill this gap. New curriculum needs to be introduced along with new pedagogical practices, though in some madrasas now they ushering in a good change in this respect.
About the change in curriculum, most Ulama are apprehensive and say that they can’t teach English and Social Sciences in madrasas as it will hamper the study of Islam and dilute the faith of madrasa students?
With the spread of British colonialism, their missionaries began to come to India, and the Ulama were genuinely fearful about their nefarious designs. When the Aligarh Movement started this fear was looming around, though this time the fear was based on assumption only. Today the interpretation of Islam throughout the world is done mostly by those people who haven’t studied or being trained in madrasas. So this fear of dilution of faith of madrasa students is baseless, otherwise the modern interpreters of Islam would all have turned astray.
But what about the apprehension of Quran and Hadith being curtailed in madrasa curriculum due to the introduction of other secular subjects?
Keep only the obligatory and necessary books and remove others like Logic, detailed complicated grammar and Greek Philosophy. Useless things need to be taken out of the curricula. Instead, social sciences need to be taught then you need not to curtail the Quran and Hadith portion of the curriculum.
Why don’t the madrasas introduce English as a primary language, as Urdu isn’t an elite language anymore?
The madrasa people, with some exceptions, don’t have any skills in other languages except in Urdu. Professionalism isn’t found there. They don’t have any vision, hence are ignorant about the importance of English. To your astonishment, our Ulama have no common sense to the extent that not only in India and Pakistan, but in US and UK too they built madarsas wherein they teach in Urdu. Also the minority psyche of considering Urdu a sacred thing is one of the reasons for their apathy towards English to reinforce it. Still this is an example of hypocrisy of Ulama in sending their own children to English medium not to madrasas, it also depicts their dichotomy. They are well aware of the fact that English is related to economy and worldly gain, hence choose it for their children while keeping the madrasa students ignorant of the same, and expect them to be vanguards of Urdu language.
What is your take on the State and Central Madrasa Boards?
In Bihar, West Bengal and certain other southern states it has been introduced and madrasas are being controlled by the same. It is feared that the government will take over, disturb the curriculum and the product will be wrong. To me it is just an over reaction by the Ulama, because they consider madrasas to be full proof castles where winds of change must never blow. But I think regarding the Muslim mind we have to change only certain things and change them gradually, so that the students can find place in universities. The State Madrasa Board shouldn’t completely comprise of government officials but Ulama must also be its members.
Being a product of madrasa yourself. Do you think Indian Madrasas are involved in terrorism?
There are many allegations, but no madrasas are involved in terrorism in India. The Pakistani madrasas are different. The one flaw with madrasas is that audit and accountability are missing in them, except Deoband and Nadwatul Ulama and some other big madrasas. Audit and Transparency must be there. A huge amount of petro- dollars in the name of madrasas has been siphoned off by various people related to madrasas. Few have been arrested too. To overcome this grave flaw there should be regular audit and administration of madrasas mustn’t be hereditary but should run on the Prophetic Practice of Shura (mutual consultation).
Dr Ghitreef Shahbaz Nadwi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mushtaq Ul Haq Ahmad Sikander is Writer-Activist based in Srinagar, Kashmir and can be reached at email@example.com