The mid-day winter sun shines on Darul Uloom Wakf, Deoband. Only a few students can be seen lazily exiting the mosque, also used as the examination hall, after their half yearly exams.
Most of the students have already left for the hostel that stands right opposite the mosque some yards away. The hostel looks like a popular Mumbai chawl, but is outlined with white tehmets and kurtas that students spread on the clothesline. There are at least 1,000 students living in the campus hostel and approximately 25,000 enrolled students, according to the madrasa authorities.
The 50-bigha sprawling campus is largely under construction.
Apart from a spacious mosque, a small office and a hostel, it consists of a kitchen, an eight-year-old library that is home to a collection of 20,000 books on Islamic education and a semi-built structure of Hujjatul Islam Academy.
Dressed in a black achkan and a well-kept short red beard, Dilshad Ahmad Qasmi, the manager of the Darul Uloom Wakf, Deoband, said: “The students live here in absolute peace. No student is admitted without an entrance exam and the admission is approved only after the verification of all documents. Those who get selected are free to leave the madrasa at any point of time. After the completion of their education here, they are free to do whatever they want to do. But while they are here students are provided with all the basic necessities. Their food and lodging is free at the madrasa.”
Talking about the academics at the madrasa, Qasmi said: “Our madrasa is trying to keep up with the contemporary times. We not only impart Islamic education, but also teach supplementary subjects like English, Hindi and computers,” he said. English is taught till the 5th standard and computer classes begin after the 8th standard, which is also the final year at school. After eight years of Arabic learning, students can opt for three PhD level courses in Tafseer, Adab and Hadith that are a year-long each. Very basic and ancient science is also taught to the students which is different from the elementary science that is taught in schools outside.
While on a tour of the madrasa, Qasmi said, “To explore new possibilities, we established the Hujjatul Islam Academy to specifically focus on Islamic research. It is a first-of-its-kind initiative in India. We have had some great ulema, but their books can no more be understood by a common man because of its tough use of Urdu language. The academy focuses on the works of such ulema and aims to interpret it in easier language making it convenient for modern readers and help people understand Islam in a better light,” said Qasmi.
Mohammad Shehzaad (22), a resident of a nearby town Shamli and a student at the madrasa, said: “I was 14 years old when I was sent to Darul Uloom by my parents. I was sent here to understand deen. This is where I got to know how a Muslim should spend his life. After I leave this place, I’ll continue to spread the word of Allah among other Muslims and this is the only ambition of my life.”
“There is nothing wrong in acquiring the education of the world and in becoming a doctor or an engineer or a pilot and becoming rich. But it is a must to become a pious Muslim first,” he added.
Ismail (20), another student, came to the Darul Uloom when he was seven years old. He is a researcher at the madrasa and is also pursuing his Master’s degree through distance education in English. “I am aiming for BEd after this. I hope to become a teacher in a school or in a college someday,” said Ismail. But why does he want to become a teacher and not an imam in a mosque after years of Islamic education? “All that I have learned here defines who I am. I am a believer who lives his life according to the word of Allah. This will never change. But at the same time, all my deeni taleem (Islamic education) won’t help me secure a handsome job in the world. So, I will acquire both types of education and while I am earning money, I’ll remember what I learned here.”
Mohammad Naushad Qasmi, a scholar at Darul Uloom Wakf, said, “We feel that our certificates in Islamic education, too, deserve UGC recognition. Our students are not illiterate at all, but still they are stereotyped as jahil and face humiliation. If the UGC recognises our Islamic degrees, it would go a long way in supporting the students who will be able to apply for more jobs that they aren’t currently qualified for.”
“We are working in this regard and trying to reach out to UGC to recognise us and also grant scholarships,” he added.
Even as the Darul Uloom continues to grow, it refuses to compromise on certain rules of the madrasa. Various governments have time and again proposed to regulate madrasas across the country, but India’s most revered Islamic education institution stays adamant to their age-old rule of “zero-involvement of government in madrasas”.
At 96 years of age, Maulana Salim Qasmi is the most senior alim or Islamic scholar, of Darul Uloom. Sitting in front of a heater and bundled up in warm layers, he said, “Madrasas were never regulated by the government. There is still no need for them to be regulated by the government. Madrasas have always been independent of political influence because this is our fundamental principle. For 150 years, we have worked without any financial help from the government. We don’t seek any funds from the government as it would mean allowing them to interfere with our system. Madrasas are meant for deeni taleem and not for politics.”
Ashraf Usmani, spokesperson of Darul Uloom, Deoband, said: “Madrasas cannot be regulated by the government because even the Constitution of our country does not permit it. The Constitution allows us to run independent religious establishments. We don’t trust the intention of the government. Wherever the government has intervened in madrasas in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, they have miserably failed. Another reason is that the government changes every few years and every government has its own vested interests. Not to forget that no matter whose government rules, corruption is rampant in public offices and we cannot afford to infect our system with the same.”
Sitting in his office in the old madrasa building, Usmani said, “If the quality is determined by the results, I invite you to research how many students educated at the Darul Uloom are unemployed and how many of them were accounted for heinous crimes in the country. They may be working as maulanas in small mosques or might become high Islamic scholars overseas or work in the private sector, but they do not beg on the streets or create mischief in society.”