Maulana Husain Ahmad Madni - A Biographical Study
D.R. Goyal
Rs : 400 (India), $30 
Pages : 271
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, Kolkata

Routinely reviled as 'dens of terror', India's madrasas, numbering over 35,000, have probably never enjoyed such a bad press before. The demonisation of the madrasas is a project in which much of the mass media, large sections of the state apparatus as well as right-wing Hindu organizations are closely associated and deeply implicated. As they see it, madrasas are a homogenous monolith, all of them being allegedly geared to the task of spreading untold terror and destruction. The shrill voices of a few fringe Islamist groups thus come to be taken as representing the views of the 'ulama of the madrasas as a class, if not of almost all Muslims as a whole.

The Dar ul-Ulum at Deoband, not far from Delhi, is the world's largest traditional madrasa, with several thousand associated madrasas located across South Asia and beyond. Media descriptions of Deoband in recent years have been particularly offensive and hostile, with the madrasa being generally depicted as the epicenter of 'Islamic terrorism' in the region. The fact that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan owed allegiance to the Deobandi school of thought, and that some radical Deobandi groups in Pakistan have been involved in anti-Shia violence and in the self-styled jihad in Kashmir have contributed to the image of the Deobandis as inherently violent and a major threat to national security. Ignoring the fact that divergent political stances have for long been a central feature of the Deobandi tradition as a whole, the political positions and activities of certain Deobandi groups in Pakistan are presented as representative of all Deobandis everywhere.

This well-researched book is a detailed study of one of the most prominent Deobandi leaders of the twentieth century, Maulana Husain Ahmad Madni (d.1957). The importance of the book lies precisely in its forceful challenging of the now commonly-held thesis of the Deobandis, or of the 'ulama as a whole, as by definition being consummate obscurantists, advocates of pan-Islamism, or theoreticians of terror. Based on a close examination of primary sources, mainly in Urdu, Goyal paints a fascinating picture of the Maulana as a pious and committed Muslim, a passionate advocate of India's unity and independence, and a fierce opponent of the divisive politics of the Muslim League.

Born in 1879 in a family known for having produced numerous Islamic scholars, Madni went on to enroll at the Deoband madrasa. The founders of the madrasa saw the institution as working to preserve the Islamic tradition but also to train revolutionaries to challenge British imperialism, taking revenge for the defeat of the 1857 Revolt. It was at Deoband that Madni turned into a hardened anti-imperialist, particularly as a result of his close association with Maulana Mahmud ul-Hasan, rector of the madrasa who was a firm believer in Indian independence. At the same time as Madni became increasingly involved in anti-British politics, he also developed a deep interest in classical Islamic scholarship and Sufism. Consequently, he did not fit the mould of a stereotypical maulvi or Sufi, combining these roles with an eventful career as a social activist and political leader.

Goyal's main interest is Madni's involvement in the anti-British struggle, for he sees this as central to his own task of challenging the myth of Muslim treachery, or of Muslims being, on account of their faith, fiercely committed to a separate Muslim country of Pakistan. Goyal's description of Madni's political career shows how it was indeed possible for many Muslims to work for a united India, consisting of Muslims, Hindus and people of other faiths, precisely because they saw this as an Islamic duty. In this way, Goyal calls for a more nuanced approach to the vexed question of religion and politics. Each religion, including Islam, he shows, can be interpreted in different ways to support different political positions. Thus, if Jinnah and the pro-Muslim League 'ulama saw Islam as obliging Muslims to carve out a separate state for themselves, based on the so-called 'two nation' theory, 'ulama like Madni argued in precisely the opposite terms.

Goyal describes in considerable detail Madni's active involvement in the freedom struggle. He refers to his imprisonment, along with Mahmud ul-Hasan, in Malta by the British after being charged with sedition; his role in the Khilafat and Non-Cooperation movements; his close involvement with the Jami'at ul-'Ulama-i Hind and the Congress and his bitter relations with the Muslim League. Goyal highlights the now long-forgotten fact of the relentless opposition of leading Deobandi 'ulama, including Madni, to the Partition of India, even while Gandhi and the Congress finally agreed to it. After 1947, Madni stayed on in India, and Goyal describes his struggle for securing justice for the country's Muslims, as well as working for promoting inter-communal understanding.

Of particular interest in Goyal's discussion of Madni's political views is the section on Madni's notion of nationalism and its relation to Islam. Madni accepted the proposition that Muslims the world over belonged to a single spiritual community, but that did not mean, he argued, that they formed a single nation, as Islamists, such as Syed Maududi, founder of the Jama'at-i Islami, had sought to argue. In our times, Madni wrote, nationality is determined by the facts of geography, culture and language, and not by religion. Opposing the claims of the Muslim League and other proponents of the 'two nation' theory, he insisted that the Muslims and Hindus of India were members of a single Indian nationality. He sought to adduce Islamic support for this claim, arguing against his detractors that Islam did not forbid Muslims and others from living together as equal citizens in a common polity. The Prophet Muhammad, he wrote, entered into an agreement with the Jewish tribes of Medina.

This book is a treat, and deserves to be translated into as many languages as possible. It is rich in facts, but the prose is at times rather shoddy and drab. Critics might also remark that the book reads more as a hagiography than a biography plain and simple. Goyal deals only very sparingly with the rival claims to speak for Islam as put forward by Madni's detractors. He tends to overlook the fiercely contested terrain of Islamic normativity in which Madni and his rivals (such as the poet Iqbal, pro-Pakistan Deobandi 'ulama such as Shabbir Ahmad Usmani and Ashraf Ali Thanvi, and the Islamist Syed Maududi) all located themselves. Then again, while Goyal is undoubtedly justified in lauding Madni's contribution to the freedom struggle and his opposition to the Partition, he ignores key aspects of the Deobandi tradition that continue to be the subject of considerable debate.

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