Interview with Maulana Sayyed Hamid ul-Hasan
By Yoginder Sikand
Maulana Sayyed Hamid ul-Hasan is the principal of the Jami’a Nazmia, Lucknow, a madrasa catering to the Ithna ‘Ashari Shi’a community. He is one of the leading Shi’a ulama of India, having been educated at Najaf Ashraf under the well-known Shi’a mujtahid, Ayatollah Agha Khui.
YS: What do you have to say about the current propaganda against the madrasas as ‘dens of terror”?
MSH: The madrasa system, as such, is devoted simply to the preservation and promotion of the Islamic tradition. There has been no radical change in the madrasa syllabus in India for decades, if not centuries. So how and why is it that suddenly people have started branding the madrasas as ‘dens of terror? If at all there was any truth in these allegations then how come no one made such allegations ten years ago or before?
YS: Shi’a-Sunni conflicts are still acute in several places, including Lucknow. How can this be solved?
MSH: As I see it, the ‘ulama, both Shi’a as well as Sunni, ought to be in the forefront of efforts to
improve Shi’a-Sunni relations, by promoting serious and peaceful dialogue so that we can understand each other. I strongly feel the need for unity and understanding between followers of the different groups among the Muslims, but I regret to say that the ulama in general have not made any major moves in this regard so far they seem too scared or reluctant to come out of their narrow confines. Now, here at the Jami’a Nazmia, we have tried to reach out to the Sunni ‘ulama, by inviting some of them to come and meet with us and discuss various issues, and I must say that we have registered some success in this regard, although not as much as we would have wished.
YS: How have madrasas responded to the demands being voiced from several quarters for the ‘modernisation’ of their curriculum? In particular, how have they reacted to government offers of financial assistance in return for including modern subjects in their syllabus?
MSH: I cannot speak for other madrasas, but as for the Jami’a Nazmia, we are now teaching both religious as well as modern subjects. We follow the syllabus prescribed by the government-run Allahabad Madrasa Board, which includes both types of subjects. We teach all the modern subjects taught in the regular school system till the sixth grade level. The Board pays for the salaries of some of our teachers. We do not feel that this leaves us open to government interference we at least have not experienced this. Now, as far modernisation is concerned, we have a policy of encouraging our students to simultaneously enrol in regular universities. Almost all the students of our madrasa at the final level have done or are doing a graduation course from Lucknow University, mostly in the Urdu, Persian, Arabic and Islamic Studies Departments. Some of our graduates are now teaching at the Aligarh Muslim University, and others are even working in Islamic centres abroad, including Sweden, Norway and America. Some ‘ulama may think that teaching modern subjects would negatively impact on the faith of the students or trap them in the snares of the world, but I must say that this fear is completely misplaced. Unlike in several other madrasas, we actively encourage our students to regularly read newspapers and magazines so that they know what is happening in the world around them. If they remain ignorant of the world and of contemporary issues, how can they provide proper leadership to the community?
YS: It is often argued that in their teaching of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) madrasas generally focus on issues that are of little contemporary relevance. What do you have to say about this?
MSH: At the Jami’a Nazmia we do use traditional books of fiqh so that the students get a good grounding in traditional methods of dealing with various issues, learning how the ‘ulama of the past interpreted and understood the shari’ah. But we also teach books on modern issues, mostly written by modern Iranian ‘ulama and mujtahids. In the Ja’fari school of fiqh which we follow, the doors of ijtihad have never been closed, and so we insist on the continuing necessity of ijtihad, performed by a qualified mujtahid. Our students are also encouraged to read books written by modern ‘ulama scholars such as ‘Ali Shari’ati and Allama Murtaza Muttahari and so on in order to understand how Islam can be understood and expressed in modern terms. We don’t stick just to old books, as many people wrongly imagine.
YS: What role do you think madrasas and their ‘ulama should play in promoting inter-faith dialogue?
MSH: I feel that religious leaders of all communities have a vital role to play in this regard, particularly since relations between Hindus and Muslims are so strained in our country today. We in India have a purpose and use for every sort of rubbish, but we neglect our most precious resource religion and use it, for the most part, for destructive, instead of constructive, purposes. Now, India is not like Pakistan or Iran, where almost all people follow one religion. We have so many religions here, so we must actively seek to understand our own religions in such a way as to promote inter-communal amity. It is the duty of religious leaders to take a lead in promoting inter-faith dialogue. As for myself, I try in my own small way to do this when I address gatherings.
Recently, in the month of Muharrum, I addressed a ten-day majlis specifically on the issue of jihad, in which several non-Muslims, including the Vice-Chancellor of Lucknow University, participated. I stressed the true meaning of jihad, which is striving in the path of God. Jihad does not mean killing innocent people, as is wrongly supposed. I quoted the Qur’an, which says that if a non-Muslim comes to you and seeks shelter, it is your duty to protect him. You should convey God’s message to him and then send him to a safe place. The Qur’an also says that Muslims should struggle for the rights of all persecuted people, not just of Muslims alone. I gave the example of Hatim Tai’s daughter. When, after a battle, she was arrested and brought before the Prophet, she told him that her father, who had died before the Prophet had declared his prophethood, used to help the poor and distressed, although, of course, he was not a Muslim. This so touched the Prophet that he ordered that she be immediately released. Then again, I quoted the story of the Christian priests of Najran, who came to Medina to debate with the Prophet. If the Prophet had ordered all non-Muslims to be killed, I asked, how come the Christian delegation came to Medina? The Christians debated with the Prophet on various religious matters, but in the end did not accept Islam, and they returned home safe and sound. If Islam really insisted on killing all non-Muslims how and why did the Prophet allow them to return?
In the majlis sessions I insisted that the greatest power in the world is love, not brute physical power. I commented that although religions have their doctrinal differences, their basic message is one and the same that is, there must be no bloodshed of innocents in the name of religion. If at all this happens, you can be sure that the person who such an act is not really religious. I made much the same argument in another meeting I recently addressed, at the Christian College in Lucknow, at a conference on religion and terrorism. I feel that religious leaders must go out and address such mixed gatherings so that the message gets across to a wider audience. We can’t afford to stay cocooned in our madrasas and temples any more, hoping that the world will change on its own.
As I see it, the greatest barrier to inter-faith dialogue is ignorance of each other, which then leads to hatred and misunderstandings. I recently suggested at a meeting held to discuss the communal problem that the government and the mass media must play a pro-active role in promoting mutual understanding between different religious communities. When a religious festival of a certain community is being celebrated, I suggested, television and radio companies must invite leaders from all religious groups and get them to say a few words on the occasion, after, of course, passing this through a censorship board to weed out anything objectionable. We have the National Integration Council which should be doing this sort of work, but actually it’s proved to be worse than useless some sahib on the Council gets a fancy car with a red light on it and the only thing he does is say a few seemingly comforting words after people have been massacred in a riot.
YS: Are any efforts being made in the madrasas themselves to encourage their students to play a role in promoting inter-communal harmony?
MSH: There don’t seem to be any organised efforts as such, but some individual madrasa teachers do play a role in such activities in their own personal capacity, and this naturally impacts on their students. I feel that we must train our students so that they learn how to interact with people of other faiths not simply for the sake of telling them about Islam, but also so that they can work together for a better and more peaceful society. I feel that dialogue is important for its own sake to clear up misunderstandings that people have about each other and their religions, and it should not be motivated by any hidden missionary agenda. So, when I interact with people of other faiths I don’t do so with the intention of converting them or denigrating their religion. Rather, I interact with them in order to learn from them, to look at, their good points. After all, everyone has the choice to follow the religion of his own choice. That’s his own business and his affairs are with God.
I feel that we need to study other religions, because this will go a long way in promoting inter-communal harmony. Thus, when I say that I have studied some of the Hindu scriptures, and on the basis of that have come to the conclusion that Hinduism does stress moral values, I can come closer to my Hindu friends. But if I say that such values are found only in ‘ Islam, not only am I wrong, but I would also provoke hatred and conflict. So, I feel that there is a crucial need for us to study comparative religions, but this should be for the sake of promoting better relations with others, and not for refuting people of other faiths or creating conflicts with them. It is only through decent behaviour and good morals (ikhlaq) and not through heated debates (munazara) that we can actually resolve our differences. When you study other faiths you must first cleanse your mind of preconceived notions, or else you will not really learn anything at all.