ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Voices and Choices of Muslim Women

Scholars of Faith: South Asian Muslim Women and the Embodiment of Religious Knowledge by Usha Sanyal, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2020; pp xvi + 394, `1,496 (hardcover).

Reeling in an ambience of burgeo­n­ing global Islamophobia and the raging controversy over the “hijab” (veil), Usha Sanyal’s, Scholars of Faith: South Asian Muslim Women and the Embo­diment of Religious Knowledge underscores a silver lining. Generally, two discourses about Muslims have a predominating influence on the imagination of people across the globe. One strand of literature conjures up images of “Islamic” fundamentalism and terro­rism, while the other is intrigued by its abysmally low socio-economic development; the yardstick of both being Muslim men. In the aftermath of the grim exposes of the Sachar Committee report, Sanyal posits that in spite of the absence of corroborative data on all counts, one may safely assume that there has been a national upsurge in Muslim girls’ education in India, both secular and religious, as purported by several stu­dies. “Why are South Asian Muslim girls and women seeking opportunities to ­acquire religious learning today?” she inquires. The book reflects upon the inc­reased access of Muslim girls and women to religious education and the purposes sought by them to which they could put this learning.

The study hones its thrust upon ethnographic fieldwork in two institutions of religious learning, namely the Jami’a Nur madrasa in Shahjahanpur, North ­India and Al-Huda International Welfare Foundation, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that offers online courses on Islam, especially the Qur’an and the shari’ah. Sanyal argues that Islamic religious education, today, is thoroughly “modern” and it is this modernity that is reflected in old and new interpretations of Islamic texts, which allows young South Asian Muslim women to evaluate and redefine their place in traditional structures of patriarchal authority in the public and private spheres in novel ways. The “obj­ectification” and “functionalisation” of Islam is a legacy of the colonial government that was bequeathed to posterity as a coherent system of secular mass edu­­­ca­tion. Both the madrasa and the institution (Al-Huda) are representative of this legacy in their own private capa­cities. These are often inferred as an ­outcome of reformist trends in South Asia in the 18th century and symptom­atic of “rationalisation of religious belief and practice.”

Sanyal elaborates the idea of “functi­onalisation” in Chapter 8 where she explores the work of the Al-Huda and the aspect of “functionalisation” ­unfolds in the discourse of Farhat Has­hmi, co-founder of the institution. Hashmi emphasises in her discussions that science and scientific knowledge, she beli­eves, are implicit in specific verses of the Qur’an. A highly loaded term “modern” needs further explication. Sanyal opines that “modernity” in Isla­mic religious education indicated the rupturing of religious authority. It is also attested that in South Asia, Muslims are internally divided along denominational lines and the religious institutions they generate reflect these divisions. Besides, it is heartening to learn that changes in modern Muslim education are a common global phenomenon today. Coupled with this, several studies corroborate that contrary to the belief that the ulama (scholars) had become redundant, they yielded place to change and stepped into their new roles to address the new audiences.

Religious Education as a Choice

In the first part of her book, Sanyal end­eavours to trace the relevance of madrasa education in the lives of Muslim women, particularly the Barelwi women and grapples with several gripping issues that appear grossly anachronistic at times. The optimism displayed by these women in finding practical application of the religious education imparted to them by the madrasa is the bracing factor that endeared this case study to the author. Besides, the importance best­owed upon a better afterlife (life after death) by following the tenets or teachings of the book (the Qur’an) was also a fulfilling and motivating aspect for these women.

In the second part of the book, she focuses on the institute, the Al-­Huda International Welfare Foundation, and in the process, compares and contrasts the related issues, wary of their discrete econo­mic backgrounds, education, and exposure to a wider audience. With the aid of online and onsite classes, Sanyal had the opp­ortunity of getting acquainted with Muslim women across the globe. She harps on the phenomenal impact the internet has had, in enabling this mode of education, and which eventually aided in disintegrating the authority of the ulama, substantially.

The strength of the study unfolds in its holistic treatment of Muslim religious education under the umbrella of the mad­rasas, especially in North India, wherein this school of education is gradually waning for the Muslim male population, as attested by recent research. This was primarily due to its inability to train oneself for the job market since its medium of instruction is Urdu or Arabic. Hence an elementary madrasa education was followed by a transfer to a secular school for the Muslim boy. This, in turn, became the educational refuge of the Muslim girl child, who was once scorned or scoffed at. Sanyal, however, posits that this was indeed no motivation for the Muslim girls to pursue the madrasa education and what could have possibly goaded the leaders to opt for this format of education when girls lagged behind boys alarmingly. Stray voices, which later garnered support, had also appealed for an overhaul of the curriculum to salvage the remnants of its existence. Besides, it has also been ­argued that it was propagated that women should be better wives and mothers. Sanyal took cognisance of two different madrasas in order to have a comprehensive view of the different forms of education in vogue. One had an elevated fee structure and the other catered to the middle- or low-income groups. In both the cases, the phenomenal rise in the number of girls attending madrasas is an important signifier. Sanyal infers that this indicated a continuous process whose origins can be traced to the 19th century reform movement, harping on education as a key to regaining the lost elan, the ulama.

It is also reassuring to learn from Sanyal’s study and other recent works under the purview of this book that the teachings imparted by these educational institutions were not limited exclusively to religious education. On the contrary, even a madrasa located amidst the populous Nizamuddin area catered to a five-tiered education that can be dubbed, largely secular or even inclusive. Besides the training in religion, the inmates rec­eived a fair amount of training in Hindi in a school of national repute and an
exposure to Hindu festivals, like Diwali for inculcating a sense of cultural assimilation. The training in Islamic law (sha­ri’ah) and jurisprudence (fiqh), also evident in the Barelwi madrasa, drew considerable interest since it imparted kno­wledge in civil laws, namely marriage, divorce, and inheritance rights.

In denominational terms, the madrasa has a large section of inmates who are from a rural background, primarily from middle- and low-income groups. Housed amidst a bustling town in Shahjahanpur district (Uttar Pradesh [UP]), it began its journey with 300 boarders and a handful of day scholars in 2003. This is reminiscent of Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s endeavours in the 19th century and Sanyal clarifies that the boarding school helped the girls avoid travelling and an unwarranted gaze from the public sphere. In Chapter 2, Sanyal delineates the commendable role played by some women custodians in administering this institution. Their endeavours, however, received due recognition from the founder father, Sayyid Sahib. There were a few older women who are integral to the madrasa administration. These women were required to play the role of wardens and live at the madrasa with the students for an academic year. Fatima, being one of the favourites and popularly known as khala ammi (aunt mother). “Fictive kinship” is the term used by Sanyal to describe this relationship. Fatima’s indomitable energy and courage in withstanding the odds in personal life won many hearts, including that of Sayyid Sahib and as a mark of appreciation for her services she had been retained as an employee for a sizeable period of time. Sanyal’s personal acquaintance with some of the wardens, like Zeenat, unravelled the hurdles women, particularly Muslim, had to encounter in their daily pursuits and in the process reveals the other side of the story. Some of them, like Safiya, were accomplished women with substantial work experience and were found to be at loggerheads with the management possibly due to their liberal overtures. Sanyal, however, does not elaborate on this aspect. Instead, she draws an interesting contrast between the stories of the teachers and wardens to unveil the discrete patterns evident in society. While the teachers were young women contemplating marriage or alrea­dy married overwhelmed with expectations, the wardens were older women jilted or abused, struggling to regain respect and a livelihood. The crux of the issue, however, was the increasing number of fem­ale students at the madrasas which Sanyal opines should be underscored since that could be inferred as an important signifier for instilling the change in society.

‘Democratising Knowledge’

Harping on the idea of the growing penchant for religious education among Muslim women, she compares and contrasts other schools for Muslim girls with madrasa education. The Islamic Public School, for instance, imparted education on a curriculum certified by the UP Board of Education with specific adherence to the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) books. However, Sanyal’s alumni surveys attest that what endeared them to the school were the lectures on religious education, since they emphasised that these conveyed the idea of a meaningful and disciplined existence. In her concluding remarks on madrasa education, Sanyal analyses this growing trend in its historical context that owed its origins in South Asia in the late 19th century, ind­ucing young women to graduate into educated wives and mothers as a last ­resort in enhancing self-preservation of the community. Sanyal, however, laments the absence of such a united endeavour on part of the maslaks (Deobandi, Barelwi, Ahl-e-Hadith, the Jamaat-e-Islami, and Shia) in encountering the divisive tendencies, unleashed by certain sections of the society, in the context of the present political scenario in the country.

The empowerment of women through religious education constitutes an engrossing section that forms the second part of the book. The Al-Huda International Welfare Foundation imparted lessons on Qur’anic studies in Pakistan which later on spread among the Pakistani diaspora in the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, and parts of West Asia like Qatar. The women were encouraged to internalise the message of Qur’an and use it as a guide for personal transformation. Sanyal argues that the emergence of the Al-Huda International Welfare Foundation at the present historical juncture was part of a broader worldwide phenomenon of women’s movements in the Muslim world. Her study is based not only on her personal experiences as an enrolled online student, but also on the works of three authors who were admonished by the orthodox sections. The founders of this institution owed their intellect to reformist backgrounds. The women, Sanyal was acq­u­a­inted with, were educated and primarily working women who challenged the old order (the ulama), who posed to be the custodians of religion for generations. Comprehending the language (Arabic) was the basic prerequisite for this. The women, mostly South Asian in origin, braved this course with infallible determination—decoded and reread the interpretations of religious texts.

Sanyal’s commendable fieldwork and surveys that illuminate the spectrum of Muslim society depict some heartening vignettes. The positive vibes emitted by the study deserve unequivocal support and appreciation. Despite this, one is tempted to read a nuanced view of religious education imparted by the Tablighi Jamaat and similar institutions in the Indian context that could apparently appear regressive in outlook. The book hones its thrust primarily on illuminating the positive vibes generated by endorsing a progressive education system by specific institutions on the one hand and focuses on madrasas/women who are bestowed with a discerning eye for rereading/reinterpreting the Quranic verses on the other. In its penchant for glossing over the stigmas/superstitions prevalent in Muslim society, it underscores several questions that would refrain from painting an over-complacent picture of a society still grossly riddled in contradictions. Numerous congregations bear testimony to the importance bes­towed upon the purdah (veil); segregation of female and male audience in public gatherings and restrictions on intermingling in the public sphere are recommended as well as propagated. The reformation initiated by the progressive men and upheld by the ulama in the 19th century fell short of equally progressive Muslim leaders in the subsequent period; the cumulative effect of it was evident in the Mohammed Ahmad Khan v Shah Bano Begum (famous as Shah Bano case). The rise in Hindu nationalism has been reciprocated by an equally focused rise in Islamic fundamentalism which, too, has augured ill for the women. In her concluding chapter, Sanyal hints at some of them but evades controversial issues and focuses on the transitions that nurtured the proclivities of “modern” education in fomenting a revolution from below. The optimistic tenor of the book is undeni­ably the need of the hour where evil forces of fundamentalism wreak havoc intermittently, threatening the very notion of India.




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Updated On : 1st Aug, 2022
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