Inside an Indian Madrassa: Peacefully Awaiting America's Fall

For one year from 2007-2008, Amar traveled around the world reporting on how people from all walks of life view the United States through text and video.  The following is one of a number of posts from India. For more, click here.

Malegaon - Mufti Mohammed Ismail, the leading cleric of Malegaon, a 75% Muslim town known for its many madrassas, tells me the religious schools here try hard to avoid discussion of America and global politics but "there's a restlessness among students" who raise difficult questions. When teachers themselves believe "America has a systematic conspiracy to eradicate Islam" how can they explain "America's cruel and violent actions around the world" to curious students without inspiring hatred? The answer, I'm told, is in history and religion: "power is not permanent," "the cruel reap what they sow," and so "America will die its own death." In short, be patient.

Madrassa Tajweed-Ul-Quran lies three miles down East Iqbaal Road outside Malegaon, which itself is two hundred miles from Mumbai, the nearest city. The madrassa houses 150 students ages 7 to 15 for ten months a year. All of their possessions including sleeping mats fit in three-square-foot tin boxes.

Every morning the students wake up at 7:00am and spend the next four hours memorizing the Quran's 6,666 verses, which they usually achieve by age 12. After lunch, they spend four hours on general education: math, English, science. There is no TV, Internet, radio, or newspapers. So after school they use their free time to play on a green patch of land between the mosque and the madrassa before nightfall. The small complex is surrounded on all sides by grasslands littered with hobbling horses whose feet have been tied to keep them from running off.

After eight years of study, the students will go on to be teachers at madrassas, perhaps this same one, imams at mosques, or candidates for higher degrees in theological studies at centers in India or Arab countries like Saudi Arabia. That's usually when the study of world politics might begin, I'm told.

But for the younger ones -- even at the largest, most technologically advanced madrassa in town, which has its own medical college and computer science courses (which I write about here) -- there is no class on comparative politics, no European history or America history. Why? "We are preparing our students to be messengers of humanity…who benefit others," says teacher Mauvli Asif, and "politics is not necessary" for that aim, just "core studies" and "theological studies." He adds that although he has personal views of America, he keeps them to himself. His director says the same, personal views do not represent pedagogical or institutional views.

Madrasas don't call for worldly action, other than helping others, stresses Mufti Ismail. If members of Malegaon's madrassas were to take an active stand against "American injustices around the world," as Ismail does in his political role as leader of the largest party in Malegaon, they would do so entirely through legally sanctioned means outside of school, and would "obey the laws of India and Islam." He feels "no need" for extra-legal action. India does not have a puppet leader and "we are free to practice our faith." Nothing here would lead him to invalidate secular legal structures.

Mufti Ismail continues: "America has converted almost the whole world into a battlefield, but it is not here. Muslim countries don't have the power to match America's military." He distinguishes Indian madrassas from those in Pakistan or Bangladesh, saying he retains faith in government. He further notes that no terrorist has come from an Indian madrassa. The American civil rights movement inspires Ismail, he says, and he has called for a boycott of American and British goods which he says is gaining momentum. But he would not take to the streets.

Despite isolation and a busy schedule, America does seep in and stir the restive minds of his students, young and old. Over holidays they read Urdu newspapers from Mumbai and talk to their families. The reports paint a troubling picture of America. Most recently, for example, the talk is of American helicopters attacking the Red Mosque in Pakistan. And when Muslims are blamed repeatedly for terrorism, often against other Muslims as was the case in a terrible bomb blast last year in Malegaon, there is a growing sense that media, government and foreign powers are conspiring against Islam. With all this suspicion floating, how does one keep a student's attention on the Quran and his heart set on benefiting others?

Mufti Ismail appeals to divine justice to "satisfy" his students, without embroiling them in the turmoil. "Justice will come," he says, but "God will bring it," not you. It's a way of addressing curiosity about America and resentment toward U.S. policies while refusing to retaliate. This is a delicate balance for unhappy imams in Malegaon to maintain, but until understanding improves, a vital one.

IndiaAmar Bakshi