God Bless A. R. Rahman

In 2017 we shall celebrate the 200th birthday of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the Indian Muslim who was declared a kafir by the mullahs of India on more counts than any other person before him or after. Here is a partial list of the reasons why some mullah or other thought Sir Syed was beyond the pale of Islam. He does not believe that wearing Western clothes is against the Shari’a. He believes that Angels and Satan are not real beings and instead believes them to be human powers, as endowed by God, to do good or bad. He believes that the Quran does not mention any miracle attributable to the Prophet Muhammad. He believes that Islam ended slavery forever even during the Prophet’s life. He eats at a table, while sitting on a chair, and uses a knife and a fork. He shares his table with Christians, and also eats at their homes. As countable in his biography by Altaf Husain Hali, the list runs to more than fifty similar accusations.

One of Sir Syed’s most persistent detractors was a Maulvi Ali Bakhsh Khan, a Subordinate Judge in the colonial administration. When Ali Bakhsh Khan went on Hajj he spent more time in obtaining fatwas against Sir Syed and publishing them back in India. Sir Syed’s response was something to this effect: I’m proud of my kufr because it made possible my friend Ali Bakhsh Khan to obtain the blessings of a Hajj. On another occasion, when his detractors fell silent for a while, Sir Syed wrote in his journal, Tahzib-al-Akhlaq, “I feel like that old biddy who was regularly teased by market urchins, and if any day it didn’t occur she would say, ‘What happened to the boys? Has some plague taken them?’”

Until now they used to be my examples of how best to respond to the fatwas that are headlined every other Thursday in the press—issued by some obscure entity eager to seek some easy publicity and written-up by some perfervid newsperson anxious to get into print that day. Now I have a third example, the statement issued by A R Rahman in response to the fatwa issued by Mufti Mahmood Akhtarul Qadri, the imam of Haji Alig Dargah Masjid, in response to a request made by Saeed Noori of the Raza Academy, Bombay. And what a classy response it is!

“What, and if, I had the good fortune of facing Allah, and He were to ask me on Judgement Day: ‘I gave you faith, talent, money, fame and health… why did you not do music for my beloved Muhammad (Peace be upon him) film? A film whose intention is to unite humanity, clear misconceptions and spread my message that life is kindness, about uplifting the poor, an and living in the service of humanity and not mercilessly killing innocents in my name.”

Read it in full; see how a genuine man of faith speaks, bearing witness to the faith that feeds his spirit and the talent he earns his living from, and considering both as gifts from the Divine and thus fully in tune with each other.

The trouble with people like Qadri and Noori is that they have split personalities and have as much stuff to hide as they profess to strut before us. And the news-writers go along out of ignorance—but also due to a lack of genuine curiosity. Qadri earns his living at a mosque attached to a dargah. Now if we went to a Deobandi mufti, he would be happy to issue a fatwa against anyone whose source of income is a dargah, for that is not what the Deobandis allow. For them: no dargahs; no grave-worship; no belief in any miracle-making saint. And the same savant would happily declare Noori a mushrik—one who shares his belief in God with a belief in another god—for Noori, when he goes to his ‘Bareli Sharif,’ bows before the grave of Ahmad Raza Khan, and touches his forehead to it. Likewise, God help the Deobandi who attends a meeting to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet but fails to stand up and sing along with the congregation when the preacher announces the Prophet’s birth. So it goes, and it gets worse every day. This rising sectarianism is to be blamed as much on the silence of the liberals in India, Muslims and non-Muslims—as on the belligerent vociferousness of the mullahs.

I am old enough to remember the time when the same kind of mullahs objected to the use of sound amplification in mosques. Even its use during the sermon part of the service on Fridays and the two Eids was considered an abominable innovation— a bid’a. Now even the tiniest mosque has two loudspeakers on its roof. One of the joys of my childhood in Barabanki was to wake up in the morning and listen to the music of the azaan as it came wafting over the air—in human dimensions. Now the same words turn into a painful cacophony as they blast into the air from at least eight different sets of loudspeakers. So here is a request to the newsperson who next goes to get the details of some fatwa from one of the savants from Bareli, Deoband, Nadva, Firangi Mahal, and so forth: please ask the savant what he thinks of the loudspeakers on his mosque; also ask him if there is not a ruling in several religious texts that no mosque should be built so close to another that its azaan—unamplified, of course—be heard in the other mosque? Then, if the mullah convinces you of the religious sanctity of his two loudspeakers, please move next door to his mosque, but please spare us his blathering calling it a fatwa. Please remember that a fatwa is not an edict; it is not binding on anyone; it can be countered by another fatwa; it dies with the death of the person who issues it; and it is never issued against some specific person. And please always tell us who might expect to gain some money or power from that fatwa.


Originally appeared in Scroll.in on September 17, 2015.

A Matter of History

 C. M. Naim

A Matter of History

A few weeks ago I came upon a blog essay in the Express-Tribune entitled, ‘Allama Muhammad Asad: The First Citizen of Pakistan.’ Its passion and concern for intellectual growth in Pakistan touched me. It also left me worried about the state of intellectual pursuits among young Pakistanis. The writer, Osama Sajid, a student of Economics at LUMS, had not bothered to mention any source for the claims he had resoundingly made. However, later in the comments, he acknowledged that his essay was almost entirely based on certain writings of Orya Maqbool Jan. It only increased my consternation.

According to the Wiki, Orya Maqbool Jan (henceforward OMJ) is ‘a columnist, writer, poet and civil servant from Pakistan.’ Additionally, he has served ‘as director general to Sustainable Development of the Walled City Project in Lahore and as executive director ECO, Cultural Institute, Tehran and information secretary to the government of the Punjab.Jan is also a member of the National Academic Council of the Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad.’  OMJ’s columns are always cheerfully edifying. Not too long ago he was all for reintroducing the gold standard, to the extent even of using only coins made of gold and silver.  Then there have been his frequent reports on the many signs of an imminent Doomsday, the emergence of a mysterious jogi from the caves in the Himalayas, and the promised final conquest of India by the Muslims of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Syria.

Thanks to his fans, OMJ’s columns, both present and past, are available on the Internet in the original Urdu as well as an English translation. It made it easy to trace down the writings that had made such an impression on Mr. Sajid. They consist of three linked essays, entitled, ‘Hamārī Tārīkh ke Dardnāk Aurāq (Tragic Pages of Our History), published (in Express?) on March 14, 17 and 21, 2012.

What had caught my attention most in Mr. Sajid’s piece was the following:

In the Indian subcontinent, ‘madrassas’ were the only educational institutes present [before the arrival of the British] and their significance was that they used to teach religion and worldly subjects side by side. In most cases, there were more courses on the world than on religion, ranging from medicine, pure sciences, logic, philosophy, languages and mathematics to astrology. Before the arrival of Muslims in the subcontinent, such institutes were only present in Taxilla, belonging to Buddhists and they used to focus more on Buddhism with only a marginal presence of material subjects.

An important point to note is that it was the students of these madrassas who went up that ladder of success hardly achieved by others. The reason was their diverse knowledge base, comprising of both worldly knowledge and teachings of Islam, which used to complement the study of the material world. …

History shows that it was an Englishman named Warren Hastings, who in 1781 established a ‘madrassa’ in Calcutta for purely religious studies. This was a turning point, when religious and worldly education was separated, in an attempt to weaken our strong scholastic base.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, after founding the famous Aligarh University, came to a conclusion that religious and worldly education must be taught simultaneously. It was upon his insistence that the first reciprocal exchange program of India was established. Students from Aligarh were sent to ‘Darul Uloom Deoband’ of Sheikh Mahmoodul Hassan and their students came to Aligarh. The importance of this mix of education can be judged from the fact that it was compulsory for students to take part in this exchange program, without which they would not be granted degrees.

The last paragraph, in particular puzzled me, for it was too preposterous to have been invented by a young student.

Here (in my translation) is what OMJ wrote in Urdu in the second installment published on March 17 last year:

The introduction of religious education separate from a general worldly education was also a tragic page of our history. In the madrassas that existed in the subcontinent before the coming of the British the two syllabi were taught side by side. In fact, you will find that the courses of worldly education were more in number than those for religious education. In re Religion, there were the usual few topics related to the Quran and some chapters of Hadith, whereas the rest of the instruction given was devoted to Arabic, Persian, Philosophy, Logic, Medicine, Astronomy—[For some reason, OMJ coins his own word ‘Falakiyat’, instead of using the usual Hī’at.]—Arithmetic, Algebra, and Poetry together with Morphology and Syntax. We find in the subcontinent no trace of a school where these subjects were taught before the coming of the Muslims, except for one, the Buddhist school at Taxila. But there too the teachings of Buddha loomed larger over other subjects. There was a network of madrassas across the subcontinent, and the people educated in them ran the affairs of the state. They occupied highest government jobs, became historians and literature, and ranked as doctors and teachers. The tragic aspect is that the first, purely religious, madrassa was established by the British at Calcutta. And in contrast to it, they created a college for worldly education. Now the graduates from the latter began to get the state jobs, while those from the religious madrassa got confined to the four walls of mosques. …. Our Ulama became so contented with the confines of the mosques that they turned them into their own fiefdoms…. It was with reference to such conditions that Iqbal had said:

mullā ko jo masjid meñ hai sajde kī ijāzat

       nādāñ ye samajhtā hai ki islām hai āzād

The Mulla is permitted to prostrate in the mosque

And so he thinks Islam is free in India.

While the madrassas in mosques continued to change in imitation of the purely religious madrassa set up by the British, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan established Aligarh—[i.e. the M.A.O. College]. Then another man of vision recognized the danger. He was Shaikh Mahmudul Hasan (sic) of Deoband. He started a lengthy correspondence with Sir Syed, with the result that an arrangement was made between Deoband and Aligarh. Anyone getting a degree from Aligarh would come to Deoband for further instruction, and similarly no one graduating from Deoband would get his degree until he had received the [required] instruction at Aligarh. In 1904, Shaikh Mahmudul Hasan (sic) set up scholarships worth Rs. 15/- per month for any student from Deoband to study English at Aligarh. This was the first exchange program for Muslim students in India. It lasted for a while, but then the bossmen of worldly education at Aligarh and the monopolists of religious education [at Deoband] did not let it survive.

It’s true that the old madrassas taught both the manqūlāt—what OMJ would call purely religious—and ma’qūlāt—what he considers purely worldly. But it was not that Astronomy and Mathematics were taught as subjects in the modern accepted sense. Everything, both religious and worldly, was taught in terms of specific books that seldom if ever changed. Teachers were specialists in particular books, not in subjects. The knowledge transmitted was not cumulative; it did not expand from generation to generation, as it does in modern schools and universities. Secondly, the Abbasids may have had an Indian book on Arithmetic translated from Sanskrit into Arabic, but I know of no Indian ‘ālim of the last 800 years who made any effort to gain further knowledge of Indian Mathematics or wrote a new text on the subject for use in the madrassas. For that matter, no ‘ālim in South Asia has yet written a history of Mathematics as practiced by the Muslims. Whatever claims OMJ and his ilk make in that regard are based solely on the efforts of Western scholars.

I’m glad OMJ is aware of Taxila. But he does not know—or cares to know—about Nalanda, or the lesser-known but important centers of learning in South India. Lack of knowledge—in fact, a lack of curiosity—does not, however, stop him from making authoritative statements. Yes, the Calcutta Madrassa was set up by Warren Hastings, but it was not doing anything different from what was already being done at other madrassas. And the college at Fort William was for the education of British civil servants, not Indian children. The fact of the matter is that when a later Principal of the Madrasa ‘Aliya, Dr. Aloys Sprenger, tried to introduce newer ‘worldly’ subjects, the teachers and students of the Madrasa went on strike, refusing to accept any knowledge that came from the new textbooks written in lowly Urdu—the same books that were so successful at the old Delhi College, where scholars like Mamluk Ali and Rasheeduddin Khan taught alongside Master Ram Chander and students like Zakaullah and Nazir Ahmad blossomed. OMJ, of course, does not bother to explain how just one madrassa at Calcutta could become the exclusive model for all the madrassas from Patna to Peshawar and Lahore to Arcot, particularly when there was no worldly gain involved.

OMJ’s claim that in the pre-British times people went for education to madrassas and then became professionals is simply baseless. People learned from their own elders and by apprenticing themselves to established masters. Before the British introduced it in the 1830s there was no educational degree requirement for any job. When Syed Ahmad Khan got his first job it was by becoming an umīdvār at a court, first in Delhi and then in Agra. And one of his first books was a manual that prepared students for the newly introduced test in colonial laws for the post of a Tahsildar.

Finally, we come to OMJ’s biggest fabrication: the ‘first ever exchange program for Muslim students in India,’ which came about after a ‘lengthy correspondence’ between Shaikh Mahmud Hasan and Sir Syed.

Syed Ahmad Khan died in 1898. His final decade was filled with frustrations. He had no say in the affairs of his beloved college by then, which was very much controlled by its English principals and Nawab Mohsinul Mulk, not to mention Syed Mahmud. There exists no record of any correspondence, lengthy or otherwise, between Syed Ahmad Khan and Shaikh Mahmud Hasan. Had it existed it would have been included in the invaluable two volumes of Sir Syed’s letter published from Lahore not too long ago. Further, when Syed Ahmad Khan had tried to seek Deoband’s cooperation in designing a course of religious instruction at Aligarh, none other than Maulana Qasim Nanautavi, the founder of the Darul Ulum, refused to be a part of a committee in which Shi’ah scholars were given equal presence. As for Shaikh Mahmud Hasan, no doubt he began to teach at Deoband after finishing his own studies there—he was its first student—in the 1870s while Sir Syed was still alive, he did not become its director until much later, after Maulana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi.

So what do we actually know about this ‘exchange’ program? Here is what the always dependable S. M. Ikram tells us:

The Shaikhul Hind [Maulana Mahmud Hasan] established in 1906—[eight years after Sir Syed’s death]—an organization called Jam’īyat-al-Ansār, whose sessions were also attended by Sahibzada Aftab Ahmad Khan [of Aligarh]. In that connection, an agreement was made with the Aligarh College so that those English-knowing students who wished to engage in tablīgh would go to the Darul Ulum at Deoband to do Islamic Studies, and the Darul Ulum would make special arrangements for them. Likewise, Aligarh College would make special arrangements to teach English to those who had graduated from Deoband and wished [to learn English]. (Mauj-i-Kausar, p. 203.)


According to Maulana Manazir Ahsan Gilani, the attempt was initiated by Sahibzada Aftab Ahmad Khan when he visited Deoband in 1328 A.H. (1910 A.D.). (Savānih-i-Qāsimī, vol. 2, p. 294.) That was ten years after Sir Syed’s death. In any case, OMJ’s reveling in conspiracy theory and self-pity does not allow him to consider one simple question: if Deoband and Aligarh allegedly failed, why something similar was not undertaken at Lahore, Delhi, Hyderabad, Patna, Dhaka, and hundreds of other sites of Muslim learning across the sub-continent? Or was it another colonial conspiracy?

OMJ’s claims can be best described as ‘wishful history.’ Or, to use a line from Faiz: ‘It wasn’t so; I had only wished it were so.’ Unfortunately, that habit seems to have become very common among sub-continental Muslims, particularly those who feel secure in the knowledge that no better-informed non-Muslim would read them and then raise uncomfortable questions. It was not always the case. Certainly not before 1947. Also, no Urdu newspaper then would have allowed OMJ to quote Iqbal incorrectly. The first line as Iqbal wrote it is: mullā ko jo hai hind meñ sajde kī ijāzat. The error is slight. The shame of it is the fact that a well-established Urdu newspaper in Pakistan did not have anyone on its staff who could catch the error and correct it. (The verse remains uncorrected on the Internet.)

It is depressing that an evidently earnest and sincere young person like Osama Sajid could not find a more reliable mentor than OMJ. OMJ and his kind are a lost cause, but Sajid and thousands of others like him in South Asia, male and female, are not. To them I can offer only one advice. Please take some time out to read just two books, one in English the other in Urdu, before reading anything concerning the history of Muslim South Asia published in the last four decades.

1. Studies in Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment by Aziz Ahmad, first published in 1964. In less than 300 pages it will bring to your attention all the major issues, together with a useful bibliography.

2. The three-volume intellectual history by Shaikh Muhammad Ikram—Āb-i-Kausar; Rūd-i-Kausar; Mauj-i-Kausar—whose final revised version came out in the 1960s. There is also an English version of the latter, but better to read the original.

The two books are richly informative, fair and balanced, and do not indulge in wishful inventions of the kind that OMJ and others shamelessly foist upon their readers in the name of History.

( September 11, 2013)