A Winning Essay on Mawlana
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.