Prof. Akhtar-ul-Wasey on Islamic Studies in India
Yoginder Sikand, April 27, 2008

Profesor Akhtar ul-Wasey is the head of the Department of Islamic Studies and the Director of the Zakir Husain Institute of Islamic Studies at the Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, he reflects on the functioning of the various Islamic Studies Departments in universities across India.

Q: How do you see the role of the Departments of Islamic Studies in those universities in India that have such departments?

A: Very few Indian universities have such departments. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that those universities that do have different names for departments that teach broadly the same subject. So, Lucknow University has a department of Arab Culture, in Calcutta University it is called the Department of Islamic Culture, while in Aligarh, Jamia Millia, Jamia Hamdard and Kashmir University it is called the Department of Islamic Studies. Then, in Aligarh they also have the two Departments of Sunni and Shia Theology. I think there should be some clarity in this issue of nomenclature.

While departments of Islamic Theology are meant to be more concerned with the study of Islamic texts, departments of Islamic Studies are supposed to focus particularly on the study of the historical interface between Islamic texts and changing social contexts. The point is that no text can be properly understood without understanding the broader historical context. I feel that the intellectual crisis and chaos of the Muslim world today owes largely to the lack of a proper appreciation of the need for contextual understanding of the textual tradition and of the changing social, political, economic and cultural realities.

Now, to come to your question, yes, our Departments of Islamic Studies in various universities in India have been trying to do what was expected of them, but I cannot deny that there are still many weaknesses that need to be addressed. To be honest, we have tended to become ritualistic in our approach to our curriculum, not reflecting the necessary dynamism and paying less than sufficient attention to promoting inquisitiveness and the culture of questioning among our students.

Q: Does this also have to do, at least in part, with the sort of students who typically opt for Islamic Studies as a course of study in universities?

A: I think that most students who join Departments of Islamic Studies do so just for the sake of the degrees they get. But in this they are not exceptional, of course, this being the case with other departments, too. Also, it is clear that many students who opt for Islamic Studies do so because they do not possess enough marks to enter other streams. Since the attitude is that they have to do some course or the other, they choose Islamic Studies, which they feel is easier to get admission in. But, then, at least some of our students, say a fifth or so, join our Department out of real interest.

Q: Are these students mainly from madrasas or schools?

A: Both. A good many of our students, perhaps half, come from madrasas, because the Jamia Millia Islamia is one of the few universities in India to recognise the degrees of selected madrasas. In this regard, I must, however, mention that the doors to the universities have not been opened to madrasa students so that they can join to study Islamic Studies, Urdu, Arabic and Persian, as is, unfortunately, generally the case. The fact of the matter is that they tend to join these departments because it is easy for them to score well there because of their madrasa training. But I don't suppose they learn much, because, if they have received a proper training in their madrasas, they would already have learnt much more there than they would in these Departments.

Enabling madrasa students to join universities is, of course, a ood thing, but this must be so that they can join other social science and humanities departments, so that they can improve and widen their vision. Combining their religious training and the social science orientation that they receive from the universities, they can go on to become effective leaders of the community and country. But, sadly, that is not happening on a significant enough scale.

Q: What would you recommend to address this issue?

A: I think that Islamic Studies and Arabic should be allowed only as optional or subsidiary papers for madrasa graduates who join universities, so that they are encouraged to join other social science departments instead. They should study subjects like Political Science, Sociology, Economics, History, or English, Hindi and other languages. I think this would also prove to be crucial in helping develop more context-sensitive understandings of religion and would enable madrasa students to play a more effective social role than at present. I am sure that madrasa graduates can do well in these other departments because in the madrasas they are taught to work very hard.

Q: How would you consider the research output of your Department?

A: The quality of the theses submitted to our Department is, of course, mixed. The Islamic Studies Department in Jamia was established in 1975, and some thirty doctoral theses have been submitted to it so far. More than half of them have been published.

Q: There is a distinct lack of a tradition of empirical research in the Departments of Islamic Studies in India. The focus is almost wholly on texts and Muslim history. Very little attention is actually paid to the study of the lived realities, including religious, of Indian Muslims in their contemporary context, which, as you said at the outset, should also be a focus of the Departments of Islamic Studies. What do you feel about this?

A: That is, unfortunately, true, although I must say here that several of our students have, in their theses, focused on issues of contemporary concern, such as women's rights, inter-faith dialogue, the West and Islam and so on. One student of ours recently did a field-based study on empowerment of Muslim women, based on her experiences in Kashmir and Delhi. That. However, was an exception.

Needless to say, we need much more research of this sort too, but this is hampered by the lack of funds for field research. Most of our students come from lower-middle class families and cannot afford this themselves, and there is little or no funding from the University Grants Commission for this sort of research for our students. The Department also does not have resources for this. Nor has the community thought of doing anything about this.

Q: In this regard, what do you feel about the fact that while there are literally thousands of institutes for Islamic Studies, including madrasas and maktabs, in India, there is not a single Muslim social science research institute in the entire country that does serious research on the empirical conditions of India's Muslims?

A: Sadly, that is true. I think this has to do, in part, with the very low level of social consciousness in the Muslim community. Almost all our organizations and jamaats are concerned with promoting sectional, sectarian and personal interests. Indeed, in many cases, jamaati and personal interests are one and the same, since jamaats often act as personal properties and are controlled by particular families.

I think that the Aligarh Muslim University and the Jamia Millia Islamia should have taken the lead in promoting serious social science research on the Indian Muslims, because this is part of their mandate. Sadly, they have done little in this regard, although of course in the past they did produce some brilliant scholars of Indian Muslim history and politics. Their various social science departments could have taken up Muslim social issues in the form of research projects, both at the micro and the macro level. I think one reason for the reluctance to do so is the fear of being wrongly accused by communal forces of pursuing a particular 'agenda'. It also has to do with indifference and lack of vision. And sheer laziness, too. So, you have the situation, and I think in some ways it is also heartening, that better social science as well as journalistic writing has been done on the conditions of the Indian Muslims by non-Muslims than by Muslims themselves. Yet another reason is the widespread view that giving money for madrasas and mosques is a means to acquire a place in heaven, while donating to a school or a hospital or a social science research centre is not so! That also explains the lack of such efforts on the part of the community.

I think one needs to understand all this in terms of the anxieties about threats to their religious identity, real as well as imaginary, that many Indian Muslims perceive, which, in turn, means that institutions such as madrasas and mosques receive more importance than social science research or community development as priorities for the community. And, then, the so-called Muslim Ashraf or self-styled 'upper' caste elite have generally cared but little for the woeful social and economic conditions of the Muslim masses, whose issues are not on their agenda but only get lip-sympathy.

For the sort of serious social science research you are talking about one needs social awareness and true organic intellectuals. But, sadly, the Indian Muslims suffer from a lack of this on all fronts. We have made polemicists, not real thinkers, our leaders. And, generally, our leaders do not realize that there is often a fine line between bravery and stupidity. In the name of bravery they often lead Muslims to perdition.

Q: Could you elaborate on this a little more?

A: At the risk of generalization, one can say that the Muslim political leadership has fed Muslims only half-truths, which are more dangerous than blatant lies. So, they tell them that iron can be broken with iron, which is true, but only partly so, because they do not tell them what sort of iron needs to be used for this. Hot iron can only be broken with cold iron, not with hot iron, but they conveniently leave this unmentioned or else tell them to combat hot iron with another piece of hot iron! What I want to say is that they have unnecessarily got Muslims involved in heated controversies in response to the attacks of adversaries.

For its part, the Muslim religious leadership explains that all that befalls us comes from God. This is, of course, true, but they do not also say that, as the Quran explains, God does not grant us anything without our having to strive for it, and that one has to strive and work hard and leave the rest to God.

So, as a result, what Muslims have been doing is that they have been trying to do whatever is actually God's work themselves, while the work that they should have been doing they have left to God! Naturally, that has caused chaos and has put us in the unenviable position that we are in today.

Q: Let's come back to the question of serious social science research on the Indian Muslims.

A: Yes. I want to add that government-funded academic institutions such as the University Grants Commission, the Indian Council for Historical Research and the Indian Council for Social Science Research should seriously consider special academic programmes and research on these issues. They must remember that this is vital not just for the Muslims alone but also for the future of the country's peace, development, social justice and communal harmony as a whole.

The community also has to come forward to set up institutions to sponsor this sort of research. These must be independent, free of political strings and economic bondage. The future of the community is not going to be determined by the beauty of the Taj Mahal or the grandeur of the Red Fort or the height of the Qutb Minar that the Muslims of the past built, and which we never tire of glorifying, but its intellectual capital.

Now, this is in line with the work of God. According to the Quran, when God created Adam, the angels protested. God asked the angels to tell Him the names of things, but they could not whereas Adam could, and so the angels bowed before Adam, as God commanded them to. This means that God has decided that those who do not know must accept that those who truly know are above them. This is Allah's sunnat and Muslims should understand this. So, if Muslims are to be spared bowing before others, there is no other way than seeking knowledge, and, of course, the sort of social science research and knowledge that we are discussing about is part of this.

Muslims must also remember that the future of Islam is joined with that of the future of Muslims, and that the future of Muslims is not separated from that of the future of others. Questions that confront Muslims, such as poverty, illiteracy, inequality and injustice, are problems that afflict other communities too, as these do not recognise barriers of religion. So, in addition to the important social science research that you have mentioned, I would also say that it is crucial for Islamic scholars to seek to reflect on what answers Islam can provide to these common social problems and issues that afflict all communities. This will also provide a firm basis for good inter-community relations.

Indian Islamic scholars must play a more pro-active role in promoting inter-community dialogue, not because Muslims are a minority in India, but because Islam demands so. We should remember that this is, or, at least, should be, the age of dialogue, not conflict and polemics. The Prophet came to communicate, and communication is the solution. So, one thing that are students of Islamic Studies in our universities must do, although this has not really happened on a significant scale at all in India, is to get involved in seeking to communicate, through words and deeds, with people of other faiths, to work together with them for the common good based on their religious commitment. Minorities need to compensate for their numerical weakness by working extra hard, including even in this regard, but I regret to say that instead of being hard workers, most of our scholars and so-called 'experts' are 'hardly-workers'.