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A Winning Essay on Mawlana Qasim Nanotwi                                                                by Shoaib Rasheed


Monday, January 7, 2008


Ahmad was born in America to a Muslim family. His parents sent him to a K-8 Islamic school where after years of hard work and study, he graduated with honors. Having attended Islamic school all his life, Ahmad was nervous about going to a public high school where he would be the only Muslim. His old school had about 250 students. Now, he felt like an ant amidst the hundreds of teenagers. He doubted whether he would ever fit in.

After a few weeks, Ahmad grew more comfortable in his new environment. He even made some friends. One day at lunch time, however, his friends finally asked the question he had been dreading: "So Ahmad, what middle school did you go to?" Ahmad paused. Would they look down upon him for being Muslim? Would he lose his only friends in this new place? After a moment's hesitation, he replied, "Oh, just some gay Catholic school."

Muslim Americans are losing their Islamic identity. The forces of peer pressure, fear, and media are pushing them into the melting pot. As the Muslim comedian Azhar Usman said, "We all know a couple of Als formerly known as Alis, Nabeel that are saying, 'Just call me Bill.'" How can we resist these powerful forces, and preserve our way of life? The answer lies in the legacy of one of the greatest Indian scholars: Qasim Nanawtawi.

There is an interesting story in which an English journalist interviewed a Nizam (a member of the Muslim Indian nobility) to research how the small Britain conquered great India. The Nizam glorified the history of India as though trying to impress the Englishman. In the middle of the conversation, the journalist interrupted the Nizam and asked him what the date was. When the Nizam almost sang out the date according to the Gregorian calendar, the journalist said, "No, I meant the date according to your Islamic calendar." The Nizam bowed his head in shame: he had no idea.

This story is representative of the mindset of many Indian Muslims during the colonial times. After the 1857 Rebellion, the British initiated their plans of spreading English culture in India. The first places to be targeted were the educational centers. Many masajid were closed or destroyed, to be replaced with British schools. Slowly, English replaced Urdu as the language of the elite, and students dreamed of traveling to England to study. People like the Nizam were brainwashed into believing that their way of life was inferior to British culture.

We face the same situation today in America. In public schools, students like Ahmad are pressured to assimilate in order to be accepted. They learn about the greatness of Western culture five days a week, and one day of Sunday school is often inadequate to remind them of the superiority of the Sunnah.

Christian missionaries also became more active and widespread after the rebellion. They would often vilify Islam, even in public places such as markets and fairs. The spread of the Qadiani sect also played a part in spreading confusion, and many Muslims were tricked into adopting their flawed ideology.

Today, we face an even more effective way of spreading confusion: the internet. Hundreds of websites display false information about Islam that is taken out of context. Many Muslims today have begun to doubt their faith because of the untruths posted on these notorious sites. Indeed, when one searches "Islam" on Youtube, the first video in the search results in called "The Truth about Islam from an Ex-Muslim Lady."

Mawlana Muhammad Yaqub summarizes the situation of Islam in colonial India: "…it seemed that religious knowledge was about to come to an end…the ulema distracted, books unavailable, tranquility gone."

In 1832, during these turbulent times, Mawlana Qasim was born in India in the village of Nanawta. During his youth, he studied the Islamic sciences, and was exposed to the ideas of Shah Waliullah, the great Indian religious and educational reformer. Mawlana Qasim also attended Delhi College where he lettered in mathematics. After his studies, he began working at Matba-e-Ahmadi, one of the first Indian publishers of hadith books.

At this time, institutions of higher Islamic learning were few; most ulema of the time learned from private teachers. Mawlana Qasim realized the need for an institution to train scholars in larger numbers, so they could guide the people in the midst of their confusion. He spearheaded the project of creating such an institution, with the help of such eminent scholars as Mawlana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi. Mawlana Qasim chose a small village called Deoband, which he judged to be relatively free of British influence, to teach Islam according to the time-tested Nizami Curriculum . The first classes were simply held under a pomegranate tree. As time went by, the school expanded until it became the vast structure that it is today, with red-brick walls, magnificent domes, and spacious courtyards. It is known as Ummul Madaris, the Mother of Seminaries: Dar ul-Uloom Deoband.

Besides Al-Azhar University, no institution in the world has acquired such status as Dar ul-Uloom Deoband. All the greatest ulema of the Subcontinent trace their roots to this seminary. Giants like Muhammad Ilyas, founder of the Tablighi Jamaat; Muhammad Zakariyya, the great muhaddith; Mufti Taqi Usmani, the renown contemporary Pakistani scholar of Islamic economics; and Ashraf Ali Thanawi, considered by several to be the mujaddid (reformer) of his time, all began their education from Dar ul-Uloom Deoband, or other Deobandi madaris. In a sense, the legacy of Mawlana Qasim is not only the seminary that he founded, but the graduates of that seminary as well. Historian Mahboob Rizvi writes: "Hazrat Nanawtawi's greatest and most glorious achievement is the reviving of an educational movement for the renaissance of religious sciences in India."

Dar ul-Uloom Deoband's story is the story of how one man's legacy revived Islam for generations to come. The challenge that Mawlana Qasim faced is the same challenge facing the ulema of today: how to preserve the Muslim identity. The seminary's history contains crucial lessons to the advancement of Islam in the West.

The first lesson is the very founding of Dar ul-Uloom. Before it was established, the great Indian seminaries like Farangi Mahal and Jamia al-Aramiyyah were almost extinct. Dar ul-Uloom Deoband's creation led to the training of new scholars. The absence of qualified scholarship today plays a big role in the confusion of Muslim Americans, and the way to train scholars is to form institutions like Dar ul-Uloom Deoband.

Irshad Manji recounts her childhood experience at the local-masjid weekend school. When she would ask controversial questions to the teacher, Mr. Khaki, he would often cut her short, or tell her to read the Quran. Mr. Khaki was probably a stereotypical "uncle" that we find teaching at many Sunday schools. These people have the desire to learn, but must resort to self-study because they do not have access to an institution of higher Islamic learning.

Accountants and doctors are taking the place of scholars. Most children cannot pronounce the Quran correctly because they learned to read Arabic from some venerable "auntie or uncle" in the community. Perhaps if Irshad Manji had access to traditional institutions, her work today would be much more beneficial.

But having institutions is not enough. The quality of the institution is critical to the students' spiritual development. Several Islamic schools in America go from kindergarten to eighth grade. Some communities even have Islamic high schools. Many of them boast high standardized test scores and state accreditation, but few have strong Islamic studies curriculums. Adab for the instructors is often lacking, and teachers end up spending most of their time trying to keep order in the classroom. Students learn the Quran with shoes on.

The distinguishing factor of Dar ul-Uloom Deoband is its adherence to the Sunnah. Many Deobandi scholars cannot tolerate the sight of paper lying in the street, because paper is a tool of knowledge. They make it a point to wear clothing according to the Sunnah, and have the utmost respect for their teachers. This all stems from their love of Islam.

But the most important part about a Muslim school is the quality of its leaders. Since Allah raises people who are humble before Him, the Baraka of Deoband must have come from Mawlana Qasim. Mawlana Mahmood Abul Hasan described him as "a person who was divorced from the creation." So dedicated was he to preserving his Islamic identity that he did not even use buttons to hold his clothing, considering it an imitation of Christians. He always preferred that Dar ul-Ulooms' funding come from donations of "people who do not expect fame." This is because he understood that the institution's success depended not on the amount of funds, but on Allah's blessing.

Alhamdulillah, there are scholars today that understand the critical situation of Islam in the West, and are making progress. Slowly, American seminaries are opening, and Muslim organizations are growing, and Mawlana Qasim's legacy continues as the scholars of Deoband are spreading their knowledge in America and Europe. If Allah wills, a time will come in which people like Ahmad will not be shy about refusing to eat pork or go to night clubs. They will be proud to say that they are Muslims.

Posted by at-Talib

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