A Deobandi Mullah’s Diatribe Against ‘Modern’ Education For Girls
By Yoginder Sikand
In addition to widespread poverty and indifference on the part of the state, one of the major factors for the dismal level of education of Muslim girls in India is the influence
of large sections of the traditionalist ‘ulama or Muslim clerics. As many ‘ulama see it, ‘modern’ education is calculated to distort and finally destroy Muslim identity and
faith, leading to indifference, if not hostility, to religion. For some ‘ulama this opposition to secular education also stems from a fear that it might result in a challenge to their own claims to authority as ‘spokesmen’ of Islam and the Muslim community and might also undermine the structures of patriarchy that they continue to defend.
Women’s education, for some ‘ulama, is a particularly contentious subject. Education imparted in schools where no provision is made for religion, they believe, will leave girls,
in particular, vulnerable to all manner of immoral influences. Hence, they insist, the only sort of education that Muslim girls should receive is that provided in traditional madrasas, restricted largely to religious education as narrowly defined, in order to prepare them for the only future that they envisage for them, as good wives and mothers. This is the confirmed opinion of large sections of the ‘ulama associated with the influential Deobandi Sunni school of thought.
A good illustration of the Deobandi position on girls’ education is provided in a recently published book by a Deobandi scholar from Bihar and a graduate of the Dar ul-‘Ulum
Deoband, Maulvi Abdul Basit Hamidi Qasmi. The book, a collection of the author’s speeches delivered at various religious gatherings, boasts the pompous title of Nayab Taqreeren: Asr-i Hazir Ke Taqazon Se Hamahang Sulagte Masail Par Mubni Chand Inami Taqriron Ka Majmua , which translates as ‘Rare Speeches: A Collection of Some Prize Lectures on Burning Contemporary Issues’. The book contains short forewords and
notes of appreciation by numerous leading Deobandi ‘ulama, including teachers of the Deoband madrasa and the Jamia Rahmani, Munger, one of the premier Deobandi madrasas in Bihar. Presumably, therefore, the contents of the book reflect a widely-shared shade of opinion among numerous Deobandi ulama.
One speech included in the book, titled Talim ul-Niswan Ka Nizam (‘The System of Girls’ Education’), deals specifically with the issue of what Qasmi believes to be the
‘Islamically’-appropriate form of education for Muslim girls. The author argues that Islam stresses the acquisition of ‘knowledge’ (ilm) for all Muslims, males as well as females. However, in contrast to modernist Muslim scholars, who take this to mean sanction for both religious and secular knowledge, Qasmi argues that here ‘knowledge’ refers only to ‘religious knowledge’ (ilm-i din), or ‘that knowledge through which
one’s religious beliefs and prayer are perfected’. He argues, contending with the modernists, that when the Prophet insisted that all Muslims should acquire knowledge as a religious duty, what he meant was religious knowledge. He thus critiques other Muslims who include ‘worldly’ subjects under the rubric of Islamically appropriate knowledge, arguing that ‘English, History and Geography are not ilm, but, rather, skills (hunar)’. Hence, he claims, what the Prophet intended when he insisted that all Muslims, males and females, should acquire knowledge was that every Muslim should have at least so much ‘religious knowledge’ as to lead a proper Islamic life.
Restricting compulsory knowledge simply to religious knowledge as narrowly defined, Qasmi opposes the teaching of ‘non-religious’ education for Muslim girls. He regards those who advocate this sort of education for girls as ‘blindly imitating Europeans’. He sees ‘non-religious’ knowledge as good only for enabling people to work outside the home, and hence argues that this is un-necessary for Muslim girls because Islam, as he understands it, is against this practice. Earning a livelihood, he insists, is the duty of the man,
not the woman, and it is binding on the woman to observe pardah or seclusion. ‘Reason’, he insists, ‘says that worldly knowledge cannot be had while observing pardah’, thus ruling out such education for Muslim girls. However, he relents and says, under conditions of ‘severe necessity’ there is no absolute prohibition on a woman learning modern subjects, but this must be done in pardah and only after completing her religious studies. For this purpose, he lays down, she must study only from either another woman, or, if this is not possible, then from a mahram male, that is a male relative whom she is forbidden by Islamic law from marrying. In case women have no males to support them
financially, he grudgingly says, it is permissible for them to learn some ‘worldly arts’ so that they can earn their livelihood, but still, he warns ‘they should be experts not in
worldly but in religious knowledge’.
Qasmi insists that ‘worldly knowledge is not good for women but can be destructive for them’, adding that ‘all the problems of women can only be solved through Islamic
education’, by which, presumably, he means ‘Islamic education’ as narrowly interpreted by the Deobandis. He appears to equate modern education with Westernisation, and condemns the latter outright, arguing that ‘Western culture is blind, so how can it provide light to others?’. To bolster this claim he quotes some obscure Western writers, who, he claims, are ‘great intellectuals’, who argue that the right place of women is the home and who are opposed to higher education for them. Interestingly, he does not provide any references for these quotes. Thus, for instance, he refers to a certain ‘Samuel Samails’, whom he describes as ‘the greatest writer in England and possessor of great morals’ , who says that ‘a respectable woman is one who stays at home and spins thread’, lamenting that women today refuse to do so . ‘Samails’ is also approvingly quoted as saying that women should learn ‘only that modicum of chemistry that will help them remove the froth from food cooking in vessels and that amount of geography that will enable them to learn the usefulness of windows and ventilators’. As if this were
not enough, Qasmi quotes another Western scholar, a certain ‘Lord Brain’, who he describes as a ‘Jew’, who insists that woman’s library should possess no book other than the Torah and the Bible, bemoaning the fact that today ‘besides their biological differences, differences between males and females have been erased’. To further reinforce his argument, Qasmi refers to yet another Western writer, described as an
‘American scholar’, a certain ‘Losan’, who argues that ‘women have no capacity for higher education’, because such education is ‘against their nature’.
Qasmi’s opposition to ‘modern’ education for girls stems essentially from the argument, which that many Muslim modernists would furiously dispute, that such education must
necessarily be defined as Western and, therefore, as immoral and irreligious. Seeing traditional Deobandi-style education as normative, he cannot conceive the possibility of a
harmonious combination of Islamic and secular education, something that numerous Muslim modernists have been advocating. ‘Modern’ education, as Qasmi sees it, is bound to lead Muslim women away from the path of Islam. All ‘modern’ educated Muslim women are painted with the same brush. Thus, Qasmi claims, making no room for exceptions, that all such women ‘care nothing about religion, do not distinguish between the permissible and the forbidden, know nothing about the angels, don’t know which angels used to deliver the Divine revelations, or how many famous angels there are and what their names are or the details of the life after death, or the number of heavenly books and which prophet received which book and who the first prophet was, or the
reality of faith and disbelief’. ‘Modern’ educated women, he goes on, ‘have no love for Islam’. ‘They use magic and spells to subjugate their husbands, very few of them know the Prophet’s mothers’ name and are not observant of prayers and are ignorant of the rules of religious purity’. ‘Women today’, he claims, ‘are interested only in fighting, abusing, lying, backbiting, going to the cinema, watching television, and cooking’. ‘They move around without caring for pardah and engage in adultery’. He describes Muslim women who study in colleges and universities as doing so simply in order to ‘become European and English’, and accuses their male relatives who arrange for them to take admission in such institutions as ‘sellers of their conscience’. In short, he says, the have begun to ‘follow Satan’. ‘All this’, he argues, ‘is because they lack religious education’. Due to this, he claims, ‘their actions are not good’.
To remedy this situation, Qasmi says, Muslim girls must be educated only in religious madrasas. This is also crucial, he contends, because if women lack religious education
their children and the future generations of Muslims might be tempted to disbelief and immorality. Ideally, he lays down, Muslim girls should study in their own homes, from older female relatives or, if this is not possible, then from mahram males who have some knowledge of Islam. Brighter girls can be given higher religious education and for the others it is enough to teach them ‘basic religious rules’ and encourage them to observe these. This, Qasmi argues, approvingly quoting the Deobandi scholar Ashraf Ali Thanvi, is the ‘best method’ of girls’ education. If this is not possible then girls can be allowed to study in an all-girls’ madrasa in their own locality. They should not be sent to
co-educational maktabs or madrasas ‘because these are bereft of shame and modesty’. In the maktabs and madrasas girls should observe strict pardah. They should not study with
non-mahram male teachers and must not have any contact with male employees in the madrasas. In addition to religious subjects, Qasmi says, they should also be taught various domestic skills. Significantly, he makes no reference at all to the teaching of non-religious disciplines, thus suggesting that he is opposed to girls learning anything other
Mercifully, Qasmi does not speak for all Muslims or even for all ‘ulama, although his views find a powerful echo among many traditionalist Deobandis. As numerous studies have shown, many Muslim families in India today are increasingly seeking to educate their daughters, providing them with both religious as well as secular education. It remains to be seen if, in the face of this, the traditionalist ‘ulama are willing to relent or, as seems equally likely, will continue in their obdurate opposition to anything but a very
traditional education for Muslim girls, thereby further reinforcing Muslim marginalization.