Understanding Islam: A view from the East - Aliya madrasa - Dainikshiksha

Understanding Islam: A view from the East

Mizanur Rahman Khan |

The largest muslim population of the world lives in South Asia which comprises Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. What is most important to remember that the one most single religious seminary that is called ”Deobondi” is considered as the spiritual source to understanding Islam. It is said in a sense they are the real preachers, who could influence the every moslems daily life. They conducted the prayer and pronounce ‘azan’ five times in a day in almost all of the mosques of south Asia. Deobandi is a revivalist movement within Sunni sect of Islam. According to Waxmann (2013), ‘It is centered in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, has recently spread to the United Kingdom, and has a presence in South Africa.’ The name derives from Deoband, India, where the school Darul Uloom Deoband is located and was founded in 1867 in the wake of the failed 1857 Sepoy Rebellion against the colonial British rule. In South Asia, the other kind of main madrasa (religious school) is called Alia.

According to Banglapedia, ‘The Alia Madrasa was founded in Kolkata in 1780 by Warren Hastings, the Governor General of the Fort William in Bengal. The laws, rules and regulations of the government were traditionally printed in Persian. Arabic was also in use, because Muslim Laws were all in Arabic. Thus the east india company government ( they ruled India before the UK’s official takeover in 1858) needed an institution, which would produce students with knowledge in Persian, Arabic and also in English. Aliya Madrasa was thus intended not so much to instruct religious lessons as to provide instructions in secular subjects. The Moulvis and Muftees of the government adalat were required to know English and Bangla. Both these languages were thus taught at the Aliya Madrasa.” Thus the two types of madrasa flourishes in the Indian subcontinent and have been playing the crucial role in understanding Islam till date.

Despite there are broad distinctions between the Deobondi and Aliya madrasa, but many feel it hardly matters when it comes to understanding its role to see the Jihad and to assesses their depth of knowledge about the religious pluralism obviously with some exception. The Aliya madrasa is being functioned under the full government control and funded by the States. But the Deobandis, who widely known as ”Qawmis” (no relation with the Pakistani political party MQM) are still kept them beyond the government control. They have been maintaining their autonomy and refused to receive any state funding for centuries. Unfortunately, the governments and the state machineries of the region were never shown any sincere and desperate move to accommodate them into mainstream way of life and education.

This should be given to address the issues of ”deradicalisation” and ”Islamophobia” in the context of the emergence of ISIS, Talibans and other forces in the name of religion. Islam is increasingly going to be interpreted and understood in these parts of the world through every digital ways of means under the formidable leadership of unsupervised religious institutions, school and colleges. The Deobondi brand of Islam is so far limited mainly in the Indian subcontinent and now the digital era has brought opportunity for them to globalise their line of Islamic thinking.

The nomenclature of the religious schools and institutions may vary but the principal text of the interpretations regarding ”jihad” and other issues that matters for the other faiths are more or less same. And now, we see that there are real chances to spread their version of Islam beyond their territory. The digitalization will embrace Islamisation. So it should be borne in mind that there could be profound impact on the ominous trends to recruit the youths to conduct the ‘jihad’.


What is most important to notice for the world to notice that the Deobondi’s have succeeded in all of three countries (Pakistan, India and Bangladesh) to keep them beyond state founding and most significantly they have compelled Bangladesh government in 2006 to recognize their highest educational degree awarded by them. It is the exactly same arrangement they won which the Pakistan had conceded in 1983 to the same soldiers of Islam. Now there is every possibility to preach Islam as the state recognized preacher o Islam. At the same time the number of Qawmi users in social media is increasing.

No one exactly knows how many madrasas are functioning across the Indian subcontinents. The governments have yet to devise any mechanism to count their numbers and the Parliaments are still reluctant to feel the necessity to discuss the issues like bringing them in the mainstream educational system.

Bangladesh has been continuing to the soft targets of conducting the deadly attacks in the name of religion. The western reports have stated that the ISIS has targeted Bangladesh as their next destination to grow. And in the above mentioned background Bangladesh has witnessed a proliferation of Qawmi madrasas.


In Bangladesh, Aliya madrasas are registered with and aided by the government but there is no government control on the Qawmi, noorani, hafizia, forkania, ahlay hadith and maktabs mushrooming across the country nor do they accept government financial assistance.

Certificates obtained from these unregistered madrassahs have no official recognition.

The first-ever survey conducted by the Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics (BANBEIS) in 2008 showed that the number of quomi madrassahs across the country was 5,250 having over 13,57,505 students. The BANBEIS, an institution under the education ministry, in its latest statistics collected till May 4, 2015 showed the number of Qawmi madrasas was 14,038.

On an instruction from the Prime Minister’s Office in November  2014, the education ministry in December of the same year directed the BANBEIS to collect information from field level.

There are 488 upazilas [sub-districts] under the 64 districts but the BANBEIS received statistics from 484 upazilas. It found more than 14,038 such institutions with nearly 14 lakh students and 70,000 teaching staffs.


Educationist and popular writer Muhammad Zafar Iqbal told newsmen that children from financially insolvent families, orphans, destitutes and dropouts get enrolled in the quomi and other unregistered madrasas.

Zafar Iqbal, who was also an influential member of the committee which formulated the education policy in 2010, observed that most of the Qawmi madrasas have free boarding and food facilities and these are some reasons for enrolment of so many students in such institutions.

Besides, financial assistance from abroad prompted religious leaders to establish more Qawmi madrassahs, he said.

Md. Saifullah, chairman of the Bangladesh Madrassah Education Board told newsmen recently that the students dropped out from the Aliya madrasas sometimes get enrolled in the qawmi madrasas.

He said that the board has no control over the qawmi madrasas but the government has a plan to recognise the certificates obtained from the Qawmi madrasa by bringing some changes to the curriculum and syllabus and establish government control over the institutions.

Mohammad Sajidul Hoque, head of the Rajshahi Bibhag Tanjimul Madarish, one of the 19 Qawmi madrasa boards, claimed to newsmen recently that the government was not actually willing to do anything for the welfare of Qawmi madrasas.


According to a report published the daily New Age on April 18, 2015, the government in early 2015 sought $36 million Saudi grant for qawmi madrasa modernisation

Under a US$36.99 million project, the government aims to establish ‘smart’ classrooms, improve teachers’ knowledge of information communication technology and Arabic language skills, an ERD official said, adding ,`the government sought $36 million from the Saudi Fund for Development while the remaining fund will be supplied by the government.’

Under the education ministry, the Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics (Banbeis) will implement the project.

The ERD on April 6, 2015 sent a copy of the preliminary development project proposal with item-wise cost breakdowns to Yousuf Bin Ibrahim Al-Bassam, vice chairman and managing director of Saudi Fund for Development, Riyadh.

BANBEIS director Md Fasiullah while talking to New Age acknowledged the existence of the proposed project and said the government is working on a plan to recognise the certificates obtained from the Qawmi madrasas by bringing some changes to the curriculum and syllabus, and establishing government control over the institutions.

According to latest statistics, there are more than 14,000 Qawmi madrasas with more than 14 lakh students and 73,000 teaching staff.

 The impact of constitutions

In 1947, the Indian subcontinent was divided into India and Pakistan. It was done by the British on the basis of the so called ” Two nation theory” as advanced by the founder of the Pakistan , Muhammad Ali Jinnah and in fact accepted by his  arch rival senior Indian Congress leadership. It suited the Indian leaders who got not only sizeable Muslim populations but also some of the world famous secular monuments and objects which were erected by the ancient Muslim rulers. The Indians, who always maintains secularism in its constitution ultimately failed to keep them away from embracing the religious political forces. They voted to power the forces who managed to create stronghold among the Indian masses substantially radicalize them to speak against the deeds and misdeeds presumably done by the ”Islamic republic of Pakistan.” The pathological rivalries and wars between these south Asian neighbours over the fate of the muslim dominated Kashmir is another point to understand the global jihad.  When the BJP, whose top leaders are accused for the demolition of historical Babri mosque, came to power in 2014, the most respected Indian nobel laureate Dr. Amartya Sen has stated that ” I don’t want Modi as my PM… He has not done enough to make minorities feel safe.” When he was asked by the press he responded saying ” He (present Indian PM Modi) could have first of all been more secular and he could have made the minority community feel more secure.” Unfortunately, the treatments on the minorities in south Asia by the states are remaining a bone of contention. And it has a definite link to understand the rise and fall of political or millitant Islam in the Indian subcontinent.

There was no such attempt to correct the past mistakes of the history.  The two nation theory was meant that ”nation” should be formed on the plea of religious discrimination. The Hindus will live in Indian nation and the Muslims will live in Pakistani nation. The Pakistan (means holy land, thus they inject a religious fervor) took the name as the ” Islamic republic of Pakistan”.  Like Russia, India is also regarded as the part of ”Islamic world”. The India is now home of roughly 172 million Muslims.


In 1956, the Pakistani constitution declares that they will never pass any law that contradicts the ethos of holy Quran and Sunnah. But they never took any initiative to codify the Islamic laws but the incorporation of such provision in its constitutions gave birth the legitimate Islamic parties and organizations who often preached that if they voted to power they will produce true Islamic state.


However, dispelling the two nation theory, the Bangladesh, home of 160 million Muslims, came into being in 1971 with the help of India and Soviet Union. In 1972, Bangladesh had begun its journey with religious pluralism. The state was based on secularism and even the activities and forming any party in the name of religion was strictly banned.  It has to be noted that the Bangladesh’s founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was known for his tilt towards the USSR. The Communist Party of Bangladesh as vanguard of Soviet system gave its full support to him.

But paradoxically, at the time, it was widely known that the soviet notion towards religion was not conducive to the muslim masses of the region. So Bangabandhu (friends of Bengal) Sheikh Mujibur Rahman cautiously explained to the nation that his secularism should not be seen as the system of without having any religion.


In 15 August 1975 he was assassinated along with his family members (excepting his two daughters, one of them is current prime minister) in a bloody military coup and the plotters rushed to the Radio station to declare that the Bangladesh has become ”Islamic republic.” The public support to this particular declaration was done by only Pakistan with the blessings of Sauds. It was not materialize then but another Military ruler Gen. Ershad, who managed to declare Islam as a state religion in 1988.

The Present Government led by Sheikh Hasina, the surviving elder daughter of Bangabandhu has revived the provision of secularism in 2011 in the Bangladesh constitution. But she has to make concession to General Ershad by keeping him as her special envoy with ministerial status. And moreover, the provision of state religion is also kept intact in the constitution.


It actually symbolizes a reality that how the religion or Islamisation play the role to shaping the political discourse of this parts of the world.

I have gone through certain aspects of the constitutions of the OIC countries. It has 57 member states over four continents. According to constituteproject.org, it is interesting to note that Islam has been mentioned in more than once in only 25 countries out of 57 OIC countries.

And I found only one country that is Iran, who adequately addressed religious diversity. It has stated not only about the religions of minorities but has also vowed to defend the other schools of Islam including Sunnis. Such provision has not been incorporated in other constitutions. Indeed we see the mere inclusion of secularism cannot give us any automatic guarantee to defend religious pluralism, which has paramount importance to prevent hate.

In Bangladesh it is being taught in the religious schools that greatest Jihad is to fight against the ”enemies of Islam.”

But the very constitutional pattern of OIC countries shows that there is a need of greater reform if we want to create a congenial atmosphere which will deter the proliferation of lone wolves and so called Islamic militants.


I found only two countries where their constitution includes the word ‘Jihad’, one is Iran and the other is Afghanistan. I will not be surprised if Iran may rethink about its definition in future. In Iranian constitution, It is stated that ”…. for fulfilling the ideological mission of jihad in God’s way; that is, extending the sovereignty of God’s law throughout the world (this is in accordance with the Qur’anic verse “Prepare against them whatever force you are able to muster, and strings of horses, striking fear into the enemy of God and your enemy, and others besides them” [8:60]).


The constitutional developments among the OIC nations show that they are very much indecisive about what the position of religion should be in their national supreme law of the land.


However, they have an overwhelming tendency to use Islam along the line with the political expediency of the Muslim rulers. Thus the onus to project ”political Islam” must be taken primarily by the concerned States and then obviously by the non state actors.


It is no wonder that the some of the outstanding features like the universally acclaimed proposition of separation of Church from the state has definite similarities to the fundamental fabric of the historic Madina charter apart from Quranic verses and Hadith. So it is time for both of the secular and Islamic politicians and Journalists to study the Quran and Hadith and dispel the massive ignorance and misconception about Islam.


The constitutional position of the kingdom of Saudi has special significance. It has stated that they are an “Islamic State” and possibly they are the only state which declared that they have only one religion. It must have chilling effect and undermine the religious pluralism.


Moreover, the  Sauds to declare again: “there is no God but Allah”. Let me draw your attention to think about its necessity and implications among the Muslims. But I believe the Sauds may have a new realization to bring some changes at least in their attitude.

What is striking to me is that there are only a handful of OIC countries who has declared Islam as their state religion. They are really a brute minority. And also they are still very few who have declared in no ambiguous terms that the only Muslims should be the head of the Government or the state or the members of the parliament. The Muslim opinion leaders and journalists should come forward to create public opinions or to initiate appropriate discussions on whether this kind of conditions are contradictory to the ethos of Islam. It is to be focused that how such provisions could be abused and hurt the religious feelings of other faith.


Having the largest Muslim population, Indonesia has set an example by refusing Islam as a state religion.  However, they have declared carefully that “the state shall be based upon the belief in one and only God.”


While Bangladesh, Pakistan and Malaysia have state religion and it is evidently clear they have done so for the sake of narrow politics, it has no relevance to respecting Islam.

The non uniformity shows that there could be a space to build an international consensus to fix a Universal position regarding the place of religion in the constitutions. The constitution is regarded as the supreme charter. So it should have a profound impact on the mindset and attitude of the masses.


The Role of Russia


Lately, the Russian federation has been engaged sincerely to help the causes of advancement of understanding the true Islam. They are along with some of its ”Islamic” allies having been trying to project the Islam as a religion of peace.

In the backdrop of its own difficult past practices regarding the place of religion in the life, politics and the state, they now increasingly come to in such attitude, which already drew much respectful attention across the continents.

It remind us the long felt necessity to open dialouge among the civilisations, which could thwart the notion of much talked about the so called clash of civilization as coined by Samuel P Huntington.

To me the Russian’s response to the Islam indeed a very constructive response to those who are concerned the possible future credibility of Huntington’s theory. The concepts of the Right, left , centrist, liberal, conservative etc must be redefined.

Bangladeshi scholars now pointed out that the Islamic values are very close to the Russian political philosophy. The justice system that derives from the great October revolution has a definite root to the Islamic justice. The article written by Bangladeshi scholar  Shamsher Ali that has been placed at the conference held in Russia, pointed out the similarity between the Marx’s notion of wealth and the Quranic Verse 59:7 apart from many verses and hadith which has direct bearing on the leftist version of economical aspects of humanity.


The said verse stated that ”wealth should not be a circuitry among the rich people.” Dr. Ali has mentioned that Karl Marx is reported to have borrowed a copy of the Quran from British Library and read it.  I recently found a prestigious publication of Bengali translation of selected hadith in Dhaka. In its preface, it is mentioned that ”these particular compilation of hadiths was done by Mr. Suhrawardy and a copy of the compilation was found in the pocket of the overcoat of Leo Tolostoy when his dead body was recovered at Astapovo rail station.”  Interestingly, Mr. Suhrawardy was the close relative of Pakistan Premier Hossain Sahid Suhrawardy, who was one of the founders of the present ruling party- Bangladesh Awami leauge.

The Muslims should not be obsessed only about the conspiracy theories even if it is credible. They should have priorities to focus why the certain militants and wolves are turning themselves into suicide bombers and falling prey to the conspirators?


To me it is not the time to highlight or give exposure by the Islamic press only to the credible contemporary conspiracy theories or to remind the misdeeds done by the ruthless rulers of other faiths from the ancient history books. It is the time for the mass media and other segments of the civil societies to stand up and try to shed some light on the fact that enough is enough; mixing religion with the partisan politics must come to an end.

In this context, I would like to place some suggestions:


  1. Foreign training is needed for the senior leaders of the Madrasa personnel and the members of media to gather knowledge on curriculum and textbooks of secular and Muslim countries and disseminate and to discuss it accordingly.


  1. The Government agencies and the media should join together to advance the causes of counter narratives in response to any of the cognizable propaganda.


  1. Televisions and Radios should avoid broadcasting speeches of less educated preachers who frequently speak against other religions.


  1. The Government funded think tanks should disseminate information on funding and the activities of religious schools and its teachers, students and their government supervisors, if any.


  1. Media should avoid sensitive words which create hate towards other religions and should concentrate relentlessly to focus on the commonalities between the religions.


  1. Since Russia got an observer status in the OIC, I would like to draw the attention of President Vladimir Putin to take an initiative to encourage the OIC to engage them to think to keep religion in proper place in their respective national constitutions. It is to be noted that the Russian’s constitutions preamble, as one author noted that Orthodox Christianity,Islam, Buddhism, and judaism as inseparable parts of the country’s historical heritage-while elevating the ”special contribution” of Orthodoxy to the country’s history and to the development of its spirituality and culture.”


Islam is the most politically used religion in the South Asia. But it is difficult for the politicians alone to free themselves from it. They need help from outside. And such could be really helpful if the interfaith dialogue could be enhancing across the continents.

I want to conclude with the remarks made by President Putin at the reopening of Moscow’s Cathedral mosque, ” Muslims and above all their spiritual leaders play in strengthening interethnic and interfaith harmony. Their rejection and condemnation of all forms of fundamentalism and radicalism have made a major contribution to the fight against nationalism and religious extremism.”

Mizanur Rahman Khan is the joint-editor of the daily Prothom Alo. 

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