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Seminar on theological challenges to Islamic thought and the role of madrasa graduates
The Institute of Religious & Social Thought (IRST) in collaboration with the Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), New Delhi under the auspices of Madrasa Discourses, India organized a seminar on New Theological Challenges to Islamic Thought and the Role of Madrasa Graduates at FTK-Centre for Information Technology, JMI on 23 July, 2019. Vice Chancellor Prof Najma Akhtar inaugurated the seminar.

In her inaugural address, Prof Najma Akhtar said that Islam was not a stagnant religion. "It is dynamic and its appropriate meaning needs to be drawn every time". Many of these topics are constantly moving and evolving. Underscoring the significance of the programme, the VC said that she would be glad to avail the facility to "work as a bridge to understand the issues of madrasas".

Prof Akhtar welcomed the faculties of Madrasa Discourses especially its principal investigator Prof Ebrahim Moosa stating that she was looking forward to more such engagements as it is "need of the hour". We need a better and fuller understanding of Islam and, these discourses will help us in achieving those goals. She expressed the desire to extend her administrative support to such highly academic initiatives.

Noted Islamic scholar and rector of Hyderabad-based Al-Mahadul Aali Al-Islami, Maulana Khalid Saifullah Rahmani delivered the keynote address highlighting the need and significance of research and renewal in Muslim theology. Rahmani said, "There is a need for a bridge between madrasas and contemporary institutions". In Islamic sciences two disciplines are very important: Ilm-ul-Kalam (scholastic philosophy) and Ilm-ul-Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) he said adding that a lot of attention has been paid to Ilm-ul-Fiqh. However, not much has been done about Ilm-ul-Kalam over the last few centuries. All that is taught even in madrasas are just one or two books about it.

Rahmani, who is also secretary of All India Muslim Personal Law Board, said that most of the revivalist scholars that we speak highly about had expertise of Ilm-ul-Kalam. 'Izz al-Din 'Abd al-Salam, Ibn Taimiya, Shah Waliullah and others had deep knowledge of Ilm-ul-Kalam. He asserted that no change can be made in Nus?s or what is proven by the sacred texts. However, their explanations keep changing.

Maulana Rahmani said that the roots of debates of Ilm-ul-Kalam (read philosophy) lie with Europe which witnessed a long war between state and religion (Christianity) in which the Popes claimed to be the deputies of God. But it should be understood that unlike the Papal stand, the Muslim ulama are heirs of the Messenger of Allah and not the deputies of Allah. Christianity intertwined science and all kinds of research with religion, thus any opposition to it was likened with opposition to faith and religion itself. This generated two reactions: One, rejection of God; Two, rationality as the foundation of all kinds of knowledge.

Putting emphasis on the need for new research Rahmani said that there is no contradiction between Islamic creeds and rationality. What is needed though is to learn about the new resources and new methods of knowledge to effectively interpret Islam to the world. He said that our books of fiqh were written in periods of Islamic rule and dominance indicating that the situation has changed. "Fiqh is as deep as the sea and the seas have both precious items as well as superficial things".

To study the East, the West created a new knowledge called Orientalism. Similarly, we need new knowledge and new tools for a deeper study of the West. However, what we also need is to "protect ourselves from crossing the extremes" because everything new cannot be rejected. Likewise, every new thing cannot be accepted without having proper knowledge. Rahmani suggested to include teachers of other disciplines along with ulama for any such programme. Moreover, "We need to practice tolerance, something missing today," he concluded.

Prof Ebrahim Moosa, Co-Director of Contending Modernities Initiative of Keough School of Global Affairs of the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA presented a broad layout of the Madrasa Discourses program stating that he was at pain looking at the problems of Muslims in America post- 9/11. He also saw that most universities in the US do not teach theology considering that theological studies are problematic. However, some universities study religion and theology. Being a Catholic university, the University of Notre Dame also invites research and study of theology and religions.

When I was offered a job as a Professor of Islamic Studies at Notre Dame I came up with this idea of Madrasa Discourses in which we teach Greek and Western philosophy, history and science to a select group of ulama to help understand modern day challenges faced by them because, even after passing out from institutions like Darul Uloom Deoband and Nadwatul Ulama Lucknow, madrasa graduates feel the need for further courses. I felt that the course designed with a mix of ancient and modern history, culture, philosophy and science would help ulama understand Islam better and thus they would be an asset for other Muslims.

Deep studies reveal that even fiqh of the early Hanafi scholars is an advanced form of Ilm-ul-Kalam but it is unfortunate that the ulama of today have forsaken this important knowledge tradition. Today we need an effective narrative. Prof Moosa maintained that there is a need to re-read and revisit the past and revive our knowledge in the light of new knowledge to have a better understanding of the present world.

Earlier, Prof Mohammad Ishaque, Head of the Department of Islamic Studies, JMI shed light on the previous engagement of the Department stating that the present world seems like one where Islamic thought has faded against the modern sciences. He appreciated Prof Ebrahim Moosa for taking the initiative to revive an old tradition.  

In his presidential address, Prof Akhtarul Wasey, President of Maulana Azad University, Jodhpur and Professor Emeritus at the Department of Islamic Studies, JMI, remarked that despite all efforts "if India could not turn into a Spain, the credit goes to madrasas". He said that madrasas in the past did not work on a single line. The post-1857 situations in India made them so. This was then needed; he said but, wondered as to "why madrasas cannot today do what they were doing in the past".

Prof Iqtidar Mohd. Khan suggested that every Muslim child should study in madrasa at least for some time. He said that the debate about ancient and modern education is the result of our own lack and seeking a way out. He questioned as to why we have limited ourselves to few disciplines whereas the Qur'an talks about many ul?m (multiple knowledge). He said that due to our sectarian trend we have been going backward instead of moving forward. Khan emphasised the need for such platforms as the madrasa discourses stating that issues cannot be resolved unless there are practical initiatives.

The programme was coordinated by Dr Waris Mazhari, Indian lead faculty of the Madrasa Discourses program, who also heads the IRST. It ended with a note of thank by Prof Syed Shahid Ali. Ulama, intellectuals, academicians, research scholars and students from JMI and other institutions attended the seminar spread over three sessions.

Manzar Imam is a Ph.D. candidate at MMAJ Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia.

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