"Yah isayi padiri hai. Isayi padri apni zindagi ko waqf kar dete hain.” (“He is a Catholic priest. Catholic priests make their life an endowment [waqf] in the service of God.”)With these words Maulana Muhammad Islam Qasmi introduced me to his students. Maulana Qasmi teaches the students who are in their final year at the madrasa Darul Uloom Waqf, one of the most important Muslim religious training schools in India Waqf is a very rich word in the Islamic tradition. Literally it means standing, stopping or halting. As used in Islamic law, the word indicates the dedication of property to charitable use or the endowment of belongings to the service of God. Such an endowment is perpetual in nature. What has been given cannot be taken back. I was overwhelmed that a Muslim religious teacher would use this word, which is so close to the hearts of Muslims, to characterize a Christian priest’s commitment to God and people.
Deoband, a small town in western Uttar Pradesh, in the central region of India, is the site of several of the important madrasas in India. At Darul Uloom Waqf, about 1,500 students are enrolled. Most hail from the Indian states of Bihar, Bengal, Assam and Uttar Pradesh; a few are from the central and southern states of the country. The ulema (teachers) belong to the Hanafi School of Islamic thought, the most liberal and flexible of the Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Half of the world’s Muslim population follows this school of law.
Tulaba or talib-i-’ilm (students) spend nine years in the madrasa for their religious training. The first two years are spent learning basic Arabic and reading Urdu and the Koran. They then memorize the Koran, a process that takes three years. Those who commit the whole book to memory are called hafiz. Muslim families consider it a great honor if one of their sons becomes a hafiz; it is something like a son or daughter becoming a priest or joining a religious order in Catholic families. The tulaba continue their study with hadith (the detailed account of the Prophet’s teaching and actions) and fiqh (Islamic law). They also study a number of tafsirs (commentaries on the Koran).
In a madrasa one can listen to the recitation of the Holy Koran by the students on different occasions. Every program begins with tilavat, the recitation of a few verses from their holy book. They recite the verses with utmost respect and attentiveness; reading the Koran is a form of prayer for them, and it is moving to witness. Their devotion challenged my own commitment to prayer using the Christian Scriptures.
The madrasa gives only partial financial support to its students. They get bread and meat from the community kitchen and prepare a simple meal in their rooms.
Sharing meals is an integral part of Muslim spirituality and life. Muslims consider food to be God’s gift; it has to be shared. By sharing a meal, Muslims establish and deepen relationships. At the madrasa the students and I ate together from the same plate. One student told me: “We eat together like this at our home. It is the mark of being together as one family. You are a member of our family. It is a sign of our trust for one another.” As I shared meals with my Muslim friends, I felt close to the way Jesus related to people. For Jesus a meal was a symbol of life and relationship. Through a simple meal he built up an everlasting relationship between his friends and his Father. “Yak hi tali se khane se muhabbat bartha hai,” a student said. “When we eat from the same plate, our love for one another is deepened.” Sharing meals in this way helped me to feel more deeply united with them and to understand the joys and agonies of their lives.
Madrasas are often accused of preaching secessionism, sowing seeds of violence and jihad. Unfortunately, the madrasas of some movements, especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan, provide grounds for such concern. Recently the Uttar Pradesh provincial government asked the madrasas to get an anti-terrorism certificate from the police authorities in order to be eligible for a government grant. But too often accusations are of a general nature and hence unjust and offensive.
The students certainly are aware of how they are treated in the media. The depressing exposé of madrasas in the media hurts them. One said to me, “The beard of a Sikh is a symbol of his religious conviction; the beard you have is a sign of a social activist/writer. The beard I have is considered an outright sign of terrorism.” What surprised me was their inner strength to wade through the troubles with great trust in God. They are convinced of the Islamic way of life. They explicitly mentioned that what they want is peace and harmony.
The Christian community tends to be rather prejudiced against Muslims and has a bias against them. But during my stay I never heard any anti-Indian comment from any one of the students. Their commitment to the country is as strong as that of any other group. They genuinely feel that Islam and ist tahzib-ul-akhlaq (refinement of character) is part and parcel of the Indian ethos. A Christian friend of mine wrote asking me if I wasn’t frightened of staying with “those mullahs.” This makes me realize how far we still need to go to understand our Muslim brothers and sisters.
At its 34th General Congregation, held in Rome in 1995, the Society of Jesus described interreligious dialogue as “a work desired by God.” And indeed, Jesus made relationship and communication the basic foundations of the kingdom he proclaimed. He taught that only through loving our neighbor can we love God. In the interfaith journey we learn to love the other who is different from us. We are purged of our own narrow-mindedness, bigotry and intolerance, and led to work together for peace. It is a journey of love and commitment and a work desired by God.