Interview with Maulana Tariq Rasheed Firanghi Mahali
Yoginder Sikand, January 1, 2008

39-year old Maulana Tariq Rasheed Firanghi Mahali is a ninth generation direct descendant of Mulla Nizamuddin Firanghi Mahali, who framed what is known after him as the dars-e nizami, the basic syllabus that continues to be followed by the vast majority of Islamic madrasas in South Asia even today. He is one of the few remaining members of the renowned Firanghi Mahali family of Lucknow who carry on with their family's centuries'-old tradition of Islamic scholarship. A graduate of the Nadwat ul-Ulema madrasa in Lucknow, he is presently Director of the Islamic Society of Greater Orlando, Florida, in the United States. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, he talks about his family's scholarly tradition and its decline and reflects on the dars-e nizami and madrasa education in South Asia today.

Q: Could you briefly describe your family's tradition of Islamic scholarship?

A: We trace our descent from a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, Hazrat Abu Ayub Ansari , in whose house in Medina the Prophet stayed following his migration from Mecca. Our family has, over the centuries, produced leading Islamic scholars. In the early eighteenth century, the Mughal Emperor granted Mulla Qutubuddin, one of our ancestors, a mansion in Lucknow, the Firanghi Mahal, which was earlier used by a European or firanghi merchant, and hence its name. Mulla Nizamuddin, son of Mulla Qutubuddin, prepared an outline for studies, which came to be known after him as the dars-e nizami or the 'Syllabus of Nizamuddin'. This was, for its time, a very relevant syllabus, and soon became so popular all across India that almost all the madrasas that were later established adopted its pattern. And even today most madrasas in South Asia claim to follow the dars-e nizami and so are called Nizami madrasas.

Q: What was so special about the dars-e nizami?

A: For its times, the dars-e nizami provided a well-rounded education. It included subjects such as Mathematics, Astronomy, Medicine, Philosophy, Logic, Geography, Literature, Chemistry and so on, as well as the Quran, the Prophetic Traditions or Hadith, Islamic Jurisprudence or Fiqh and Sufism. Those who passed through this course of study went on to assume a variety of careers, not just as imams and qazis, but also as bureaucrats in the courts of various princely states. And this is why even Shia and Hindu students studied with the ulema of the Firanghi Mahal family. It was not like today, when, in a climate of increasing sectarianism and narrow-mindedness, madrasas are associated with one sect or the other, and often play a key role in fanning inter-sectarian conflicts. They are now unwilling to tolerate each other. What a contrast this is to the ecumenism that characteristic of the early ulema of Firanghi Mahal!

The dars-e nizami, as Mulla Nizamuddin developed it, was not intended to be a hide-bound, fixed and unchanging syllabus, as it is sometimes made out to be today by some maulvis. This is evident from the fact that although Mulla Nizamuddin authored several books, he did not include even one of these in the syllabus that he framed. The syllabus was flexible enough to allow for the inclusion of new or better books. In place of bookish learning, which is characteristic of many madrasas today, Mulla Nizamuddin did not teach entire books to his students. Rather, he taught them only some chapters of each book, and encouraged them to study the rest of these books on their own, so that they could thereby enhance their critical capacities. This was unlike in most madrasas today, where questioning is strongly discouraged.

Q: How did the tradition of learning based in Firanghi Mahal develop after Mulla Nizamuddin?

A: Mulla Nizamuddin did not establish a madrasa in Firanghi Mahal. Rather, students would come to him from different parts of India to learn from him in his house in the Firanghi Mahal. There was no regular, fixed course of study or examinations, as in the case of madrasas today. Students would stay in mosques in the neighbourhood or else rent a place close-by and regularly meet with and study various books from Mulla Nizamuddin or other members of his family. He was also a spiritual instructor for many of them, because he was a Sufi, and a disciple of the noted Qadri saint Shah Abdur Razak Bansavi.

This system of informal learning at Firanghi Mahal was then carried on by several generations of our family. Basically, students came from Muslim elite or ashraf families. The system was a product of the feudal period, and our family, like many other scholarly families of that time, was patronised by the Muslim feudal elite. It was only in 1906 that Maulana Andul Bari Firanghi Mahali, who was a noted Islamic scholar of his times and one of the founders of the Jamiat ul-Ulema-e Hind, established a madrasa, the Madrasa-e Nizamia, inside the Firanghi Mahal. The madrasa continued to function till the Partition, in 1947, when Maulana Abdul Bari's son and successor, Maulana Jamal Miyan, migrated to Pakistan.

Q: The once-grand Firanghi Mahal structure is today in a state of almost complete ruin, despite the fact that several members of the family are well-off. Why this neglect?

A: Partition hit our family very badly. Around half of the Firanghi Mahali family migrated to Pakistan. From there, many of them settled in Europe and America. Most of them, like the rest of the family who remained in India, gave up the tradition of Islamic scholarship and took to Western learning. The family was bereft of feudal patrons in the new set-up, and that was also a major cause for the decline of our scholarly tradition. And then those who are the legal heirs of the structure where the Madrasa-e Nizamia once stood are not interested in refurbishing it, although I tried to do so some years ago. Consequently, the structure is now in ruins, in a state of complete neglect.

The various branches of the Firanghi Mahal family had, over the centuries, accumulated several thousand books and manuscripts. Many of them were taken to Pakistan by those of our family who shifted there. We were unable to preserve the rest, so we donated them to the Aligarh Muslim University's library, where they are safely kept.

Presently, only a few members of our family are carrying on with our centuries'-old family tradition of Islamic scholarship. These are Maulana Hasan Miyan, my cousin, who studied at the Nadwat ul-Ulema, Lucknow, and is now teaching there, my younger brother Khalid Rashid, who has established a new Madrasa-e Nizamia and an Islamic Centre at the Eidgah in Lucknow, and myself.

Q: Some traditionalist ulema argue that the dars-e nizami does not need any change. They claim that it produced good scholars in the past and so can do so today, too. As a descendant of Mulla Nizamuddin and one who knows the tradition well, how do you react to this argument?

A: I strongly disagree with this argument. It reflects a very strange mentality. So rigid are those who argue this way that they easily brand anyone who calls for change as an 'apostate' or an 'agent' of this or other 'un-Islamic' power. Mulla Nizamuddin did not certainly intend that the syllabus he formulated should remain unchanged forever. The point is that the ulema must be kept abreast with contemporary developments, which is not possible if one argues that the dars-e nizami should remain unchanged. How can you be considered to be a real scholar, an alim, if you study books written eight hundred or five hundred years ago, which is the case with the dars-e nizami, and totally leave out modern books? Of course, the Quran and Hadith texts and so on remain the same. They cannot be changed. But the dars-e nizami is overloaded with books on antiquated Greek logic and philosophy, or what are called ulum-e aqaliya or 'rational sciences', much of which is quite irrelevant now. They should be replaced by modern 'rational' subjects, such as English and social sciences, so that would-be ulema know about the present world. Without this knowledge how can they provide appropriate leadership to the community, as 'heirs of the Prophets'? How will they be able to answer the questions that people in the streets are asking? How will they be able to properly deal with new jurisprudential issues (fiqhi masail) if all they learn are issues that the medieval ulema discussed in the books that are still taught in the madrasas that claim to follow the dars-e nizami?

So, this argument that the dars-i nizami should not be revised, on the lines that I have suggested, is completely absurd. I think it should be revised every thirty to forty years in accordance with changing conditions if it is to retain its relevance.

I think a certain hostility to change is deeply ingrained in the mentality of many of our traditionalist ulema. For instance, when I was a child, loudspeakers had just been introduced in India and Mufti Atiq ur-Rahman Firanghi Mahali issued a fatwa declaring their use to be unlawful. Some other ulema also reacted the same way, but later the ulema were forced to change their position. Many traditionalist ulema somehow automatically assume that anything new is haram or forbidden, but, actually, in Islam the right attitude is that everything is permissible if it is not forbidden.

The hostility of some ulema to any significant change in the dars-e nizami has also to do with a fixation with a certain understanding of what Muslim culture is. So, even in North America, many madrasas that have come up insist on keeping Urdu, rather than English, as the medium of instruction, although few young North American Muslims know Urdu, their language now being English. As if Urdu has some special sanctity attached to it! The ulema who run these madrasas might fear that if they were to use English instead, the students would lose their Islamic identity or be secularised, but this attitude is wrong because, needless to say, all languages, including both Urdu and English, are ultimately from God.

Some ulema might feel that including English in the madrasa syllabus will cause their students to be attracted to the delights of the world and to stray from the path of the faith, but I do not think so. English is now the global language of communication, and if the ulema are to address the younger generation or people of other faiths they must know the language. And if they include English and the basics of modern subjects in their curriculum, they may succeed in attracting students from economically better-off families, too. At present, however, madrasas are largely the refuge of the poor, while middle-class parents prefer to send their children to 'secular' schools because there they learn subjects hat would help them get a good job in the future. If the madrasas were to include such subjects in their syllabus, at least to a certain basic level, they would attract these students too. And then, after they finish a basic course that includes both religious as well as 'secular' subjects, their students can choose which line to specialise in.

Q: Some maulvis dismiss even the most well-meaning suggestions for reform as a reflection of what they claim is an 'anti-Islamic' conspiracy, alleging that these are a means to secularise madrasas and rob them of their Islamic identity. What are your views on this?

A: Different people might have different motives when talking about madrasa reforms, but surely the sort of reforms that some younger generation ulema like us, who are genuinely concerned about improving the madrasas, are calling for cannot or should not be branded as a 'conspiracy'! We are not calling for the secularisation of the madrasas or suggesting that they should teach secular subjects to such an extent that their Islamic identity is threatened. Far from it. But surely there should be a revision of some aspects of the dars-e nizami that are no longer relevant and the inclusion of basic English, Social Sciences and so on, while making the Quran and the Hadith the centre of the curriculum, which they were not in the case of the traditional dars-e nizami, which gave more stress to the then current 'rational' sciences. Surely, even many ulema themselves recognise the need for this sort of change or else they would not be sending their own children to English-medium schools or even abroad to study if they can afford it.

Q: The 'mainstream' media often depicts the ulema in a very negative light. Ulema such as yourself are rarely, if ever, mentioned by the media. Why is this so?

A: Yes, unfortunately, there is this tendency on the part of large sections of the 'mainstream' media to portray the ulema as if they were some archaic, monstrous creatures. Part of the reason lies in deeply-rooted historical prejudices. And then there are weird people in every community, and the media often picks on some weird mullah who issues some sensational and irrational fatwas and presents him as speaking for all the ulema, which is, of course, not the case. So, part of the fault also lies with such mullahs. I feel that one way to solve this problem is to encourage what is known as collective ijtihad, through which ulema and experts in various 'secular' branches of learning work together to provide proper responses to people's questions. Only then can the problem of outlandish fatwas, which have given the whole class of ulema such a bad name, be put an end to.

I strongly think that reforms in the curriculum and methods of teaching are essential to help madrasas relate better to others, including non-Muslims, the media and the government, and also to counter misunderstandings that many people have about them. Only then will people come to realise that madrasas are constructive, not destructive, institutions. For that we also need to encourage tolerance for other points of view, for other understandings of Islam and for other religions and their adherents.

Q: There is also considerable debate about the need for introducing vocational training in the madrasas. Some traditionalists are fiercely opposed to this. What do you feel?

A: I think vocational training is very important. Ideally, although this is not always the case, one should choose to become an alim not for the sake of a job but as a religious calling. In other words, ideally, imamat in a mosque or delivering sermons should not be a paid profession. It should be an honorary, voluntary thing. This is how it was in the distant past. For instance, Imam Abu Hanifa, whose school of law most South Asian Sunni Muslims follow, was not a professional alim—he earned his livelihood as a businessman. Today, however, the general feeling is that large sections of the ulema live off the donations of others. If one is dependent on others how will one earn the respect due to him? The ulema can gain proper respect only when they are seen as providing benefits, in terms of proper leadership and guidance, to others, rather than, as now, benefitting from them. And, for that, financial independence of the ulema is a must, and hence the need for introducing vocational training in the madrasas.

Q: As the head of an important Islamic Centre in America, what do you see as the major challenges before the ulema in thepost-9/11 world?

A: The most pressing need today is for the ulema to act as a bridge between Muslims and other communities, rather than to add to on-going conflicts. We have tried to do this in our own small way in the United States. After 9/11, in a climate of increasing hostility towards Muslims and Islam, we began outreach programmes with Christians and Jews, speaking on and answering questions about Islam in colleges, universities and other public places. We also helped establish a group to promote dialogue between Muslims and Jews, which is called "Jews, Arabs and Muslims", or JAMS for short. We plan to have our first big gathering this coming February, and expect some 10,000 people, Muslims, Jews and others, to attend it. Our purpose is to state that the American Muslims are indeed willing to live peacefully with their Jewish compatriots, despite the differences they have.

I think 9/11 came as a major wake-up call for us in America. We are much more active now in inter-faith dialogue and outreach work than we ever were before. Earlier, we adopted the same approach that the ulema in India continue to adopt—we were satisfied living in own little cocoons and not making the effort to reach out to people of other faiths, to listen to them and to speak to them. This is what 9/11 forced us to wake up to. And, based on my own experiences in the field of dialogue in the last few years, I must say that the vast majority of Americans are indeed tolerant and willing to listen to what we say, if approached properly.

Q: Some Muslims argue that America is an 'enemy of Islam'. How do you react to this?

A: I think this is pure hypocrisy. Many of those who make this claim would be the first to migrate to America if they were provided with an American passport or visa! There are numerous fiercely anti-American Muslims, including even some mullahs, whose own children live comfortably in America! I may not agree with some aspects of the foreign policy of the present American government or the attitude of sections of the American media, but nor do millions of non-Muslim Americans. You cannot equate the American government with the American people. The average American on the street cannot be said to be anti-Islam. We have over three thousand mosques in America and enjoy freedom to practise our faith.

I think all of us, Muslims and others, urgently need to shed our parochialism, and seek to reach out to each other if the world is to be saved from catastrophe in the name of religion. Needless to add, there are well-meaning people in every community and in every country, America included, and our task is to work together with them for the sake of our common humanity.

Maulana Tariq Rasheed is the Director of Islamic Society of Greater Orlando and he can be reached at