[Reader-list] Interview with Maulana Kalbe Sadiq, India's Top Shia Cleric

Yogi Sikand ysikand at gmail.com
Wed Aug 8 08:52:45 IST 2007

Maulana Kalbe Sadiq, one of India's leading Shia Muslim scholars, is
the Vice-President of the All-India Muslim Personal law Board
(AIMPLB). He has a Ph.D. in Arabic from Lucknow University and runs a
chain of schools and colleges in Uttar Pradesh. In this interview with
Yoginder Sikand, he talks about his vision for the Muslims of India
and reflects on crucial international developments.

Q: While being a religious scholar (alim), you are also engaged in
promoting modern education among Muslims. What role do you feel the
ulema should play in the field of education?

A: I think one of the most crucial challenges facing the Muslims of
India is that of education. We must make that one of our foremost
priorities. There may be some ulema who do not recognize the
importance of modern education, but, increasingly, the ulema, both
Shia as well as Sunni, are realizing it. Imam Ali, the son-in-law of
the Prophet, said that he who doesn't know about something, he becomes
its enemy. Likewise, there may be some maulvis who know nothing about
modern education or science and, therefore, oppose it. However, these
are increasingly becoming a smaller minority.

But on the other hand, this saying of Imam Ali also applies to those
who have 'modern' knowledge but know nothing about religion, and so
they also begin to oppose it or neglect it, thinking that it is a sign
of 'backwardness'.

Personally, I see myself as in between these two extremes. I feel that
our survival depends critically on excellence in modern education. But
I also stress the importance of religious knowledge. Through science
and technology you can control the world, but true religion means
control over oneself, one's soul. And so you find big scientists
spending their lives inventing machines to destroy human beings
because they have no faith in God. So, I keep stressing, what we need
is both 'modern' as well as religious education.

The Sachar Commission report has brought out the fact that Muslims are
behind even Dalits in terms of education and in many other fields.
Hence, my appeal to Muslims is, for God's sake, open your eyes. This
time is not for building palatial mosques, but, instead, for using our
resources for setting up schools, colleges, polytechnics and research
institutes. I also say that much of what is being taught in the name
of religion has nothing top do with true religion or spirituality.
True religion inheres in values, not just rituals. But, unfortunately,
much of what is imparted in the name of religious education is
ritualism, without the foundational values of true religion.

Q: What do you feel about the government's proposals for intervening
in the madrasas in the name of 'reform'?

A: Muslim opinion on this is divided. Some Muslims favour this and
others oppose it. So, I can't really give any opinion on the matter.
But the point is that merely installing two or three computers in a
madrasa and teaching basic English and mathematics will not lead to
any substantial change. Madrasas need to change their basic approach.
They need to adopt modern ways of approaching a host of issues. We
urgently need to exercise creative reflection (ijtihad) in order to
meet contemporary challenges.

Q: In the Jafari Shia school of jurisprudence, which you represent,
ijtihad is allowed for, while many Sunni ulema argue to the contrary.
What do you have to say about this?

A: Yes, in our school ijtihad has always been open, so our leading
clerics or mujtahids are able to creatively respond to contemporary
issues through ijtihad. But even among Sunni scholars today many are
calling for the 'gates of ijtihad' to be re-opened. This will probably
happen soon, if not today, then tomorrow, because it is not possible
to have a stagnant jurisprudence (fiqh) for a constantly and rapidly
changing world.

Q: In India today, a growing number of ulema are setting up 'modern'
schools, which provide both 'modern' as well as Islamic education. How
do you see this?

A: I think it is a very positive development. However, many of these
schools are of mediocre standard. A person should do what he or she is
trained for or capable of. But many of the ulema who run these schools
seek to tightly control them even though they do not have any 'modern'
education themselves. This, I think, is wrong, and only results in
poor standards. In my own case, I have been associated with the
setting up of numerous schools and colleges, and even a medical
college in Lucknow, but I have left the management of these
institutions to a professional team and do not interfere in their
day-to-day functioning. Unfortunately, many top-ranking mullahs who
control institutions are victims of enormous egoism and that is why
they want to treat their institutions like their own private

Q: Muslim education, in India and elsewhere, is characterized by an
extreme dualism, between the ulema of the madrasas, on the one hand,
and the 'modern' educated middle class, on the other hand. How can
this dualism be bridged?

A: Rather than term it as dualism, I would prefer to see this as
representing two channels of education. Only if and when these two
channels meet can our woeful educational conditions really change. At
present, there is hardly any communication between the two groups, as
a result of which there are great apprehensions, misgivings and
misunderstandings on both sides. We must appreciate the good points in
both systems of education and seek to bring them together.

For this, too, we need to take recourse to ijtihad so that our
approach, in the field of education, as elsewhere, is based on the
ethical values of Islam, rather than on empty ritualism. Imam Ali told
his son, Hazrat Muhammad bin Hanafiya, that when one goes to some
other land one should not isolate oneself. He advised that one should
abide by one's values and yet adopt the good things that one finds
among the people one lives with. So, in the field of education, as in
other fields, Muslims should take good things from others and there is
nothing wrong with that.

Q: What do you think the state should do for Muslim education?

A: Muslims expect a lot from the government, but the government is so
corrupt. We don't have real democracy in India. Real democracy means
the protection of the rights of the minorities, not brute majoritarian
rule. But, sadly, in India minorities are not given their due. But
then, expecting that the government alone should shoulder the
responsibility of solving Muslims' educational problems is asking for
something that even God does not allow for. In the Holy Quran God says
that He does not change the conditions of a people unless they make
efforts to change these themselves. So, those Muslims who demand that
the government should change its policies but are themselves unwilling
to change or to do anything positive and constructive for the
community are living in a fool's paradise. In other words, Muslims
have to take the initiative themselves, while, of course, the
government also has to abide by its duties. Unless Muslims themselves
make efforts to promote education in the community nothing is going to

Q: What role do you feel the ulema could or should play in promoting
inter-sectarian and inter-communal harmony in India?

A: I think that in this regard their first responsibility is to
refrain from inciting Muslims to take to violence under any condition.
They must also seek to promote dialogue and unity between the
different Muslim sects. In this they must focus on the things that the
different Muslim sects share in common—which, if I have to quantify
it, would be over 97%--and refrain from using the 3% things on which
they differ in order to divide them.

As for inter-religious dialogue, I think the Muslim ulema and
religious scholars from other religious traditions need to take it up
with great seriousness and urgency. This is the only way to solve
inter-community disputes. I have read about other religions and have
come to the conclusion that while they differ in matters of ritual, if
one goes to their core and studies them in-depth, one finds that many
of them share the same spiritual basis. We need to build on that
shared spirituality.

Q: What efforts are being made to promote inter-sectarian dialogue,
especially between Shias and Sunnis?

A: Although this is very important, in India there are no organized
efforts to promote inter-sectarian dialogue between the ulema of
different sects. I think this is really very unfortunate. However,
despite this, the demand for dialogue and unity is being voiced from
various quarters, although some extremist, false mullahs might oppose
this. In India, groups like the Jamaat-e Islami, the All-India Muslim
Personal law Board and the Milli Council have repeatedly stressed the
need for unity between the different Muslim sects.

Q: What about efforts to promote Shia-Sunni dialogue in other countries?

A: In Pakistan, a Deobandi scholar, Maulana Ishad Madani, recently
challenged anyone who can justify the denial of the need for
Sunni-Shia dialogue. A leading Indian Deobandi scholar, Maulana Khalid
Saifullah Rahmani, recently wrote a wonderful article stressing the
need for Shia-Sunni unity and dialogue. In Iran several efforts are
being made in this regard. For instance, every year the Iranian
government celebrates the 'Unity Week' (hafta-e wahdat), and invites
Sunni and Shia ulema and activists from different countries to
participate together and to stress Muslim unity.

Q: But some hardliner Sunnis would argue that this is not a sincere
effort and would claim that this is a 'pretence', referring to the
Shia notion of taqiyya or dissimulation.

A: Let these critics say what they want. But I know that the
government of Iran is indeed serious about this. After all, in Iran,
where Shias are an overwhelming majority and Sunnis a small minority,
there is no Shia-Sunni problem. Likewise, in Iraq, where Shias account
for 65% of the population, although fringe groups like Al-Qaeda are
targeting Shias and their holy sites, the Iraqi Shia religious
leadership has constantly warned the Shias against falling into the
American trap by retaliating against the Sunnis. They have stressed
the need for Iraqi Shias and Sunnis to be united and stand up against
the American occupying forces. This is surely a sign of a very great
and mature leadership. America is trying to set Sunnis and Shias
against each other in Iraq and elsewhere, and Muslims should see
through this sinister game.

Q: What role has the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, of which you
are the Vice-President, played in promoting Shia-Sunni dialogue?

A: The issue of Shia-Sunni dialogue is not within the purview of the
Board, whose focus is only the 1937 Shariat Application Act. However,
the fact that Shias and Sunnis have representatives on the Board is
itself of considerable significance. But, still, I do feel the need
for an organized forum here in India, as well as elsewhere, to bring
the ulema of the different Muslim sects together. We should move away
from the past and think of our common future. It is pointless talking
about what happened between Shias and Sunis in the past. What's
happened has happened, and that we cannot change. But we can build a
better common future if we work together. Instead of thinking of the
welfare of just our own sects, we should think in terms of general
Muslim welfare and interests.

Q: In Lucknow, where you live and work, there have been cases of
conflict between Shias and Sunnis. What role have local Shia and Sunni
ulema played in defusing this tension? Do they visit each other's
institutions and madrasas to exchange views?

A: There is a tremendous communication gap between the ulema of the
different Muslim sects here. I think I must be one of the only ulema
in Lucknow who visit the institutions of other sects. I have visited
the Nadwat ul-Ulema, a leading Sunni madrasa in Lucknow, several times
and have interacted with students and teachers there in a very
friendly atmosphere. I have visited another major Sunni madrasa in
Uttar Pradesh, the Madrasat ul-Islah in Sarai Mir, in Azamgarh, a
couple of times. I was also invited to the Ahl-e Hadith mosque in
Malerkotla, Punjab, where I delivered three lectures, which were well
received. I have good contacts with leading Sunni ulema.

Q: Some extreme anti-Shia groups, such as some official Saudi Wahhabi
ulema, have gone to the extent of claiming that Shias are non-Muslims.
How do statements like these impact on efforts to promote Shia-Sunni
dialogue and unity?

A: The Saudi government is a slave of the United States. It instigates
these mullahs to issue such fatwas against the Shias in order to
protect its own interests as well as that of America. Some Saudi
mullahs have declared that Muslim holy shrines in Iran and Iraq, which
the Shias particularly revere, should be bombed. Likewise, Tom
Tancredo, the US Republican Party's presidential hopeful, recently
announced that America should, if need be, bomb the Muslim shrines in
Makkah and Madinah, which all Muslims hold in great regard. You can
see how the perverted logic of both is the same. I would appeal to all
Muslims, Sunnis as well as Shias, to see through this game and not
fall into efforts to divide them.

Q: In your speeches, you constantly refer to the need for the ulema to
be more socially engaged. You yourself are engaged in a number of
community projects, especially in the field of education. What role do
you envisage for the ulema in this regard?

A: The Holy Quran tells us to leave aside those things that don't give
any benefit to people. So, we need to develop a socially engaged
understanding of Islam that enables us to help people in concrete
ways. Otherwise, the youth will ask us why we are building fancy
mosques but doing nothing for the poor, when the essence of Islam is
to help those in need.

This means that the ulema must be more socially engaged than they
presently are.. They must come out of their mosques, madrasas and
khanqahs and move among the masses, understand their economic and
social problems and seek to solve them in practical terms. They must
raise their voice against oppression, no matter what the religion of
the oppressor is. However, unfortunately, most ulema have forgotten
this responsibility and restrict themselves to leading prayers and
giving fatwas.

Q: You, along with some associates, have recently taken over the
management of the Urdu daily Aag. What do you have to say about the
Indian Muslim media, particularly in the light of your own experiences
in this field?

A: The Indian Muslim media is not very effective. There is no
electronic Muslim media, besides one or two religious channels. The
Urdu print media leaves much to be desired. Urdu papers tend to focus
on emotional issues, ignoring positive news and developments. If many
of our Urdu editors are ignorant and not well-educated, what else can
you expect? Now this sort of emotional rhetoric can, of course, boost
their sales but it will have a very negative impact on the future
Muslim generations. After all, our problems can be solved only through
dialogue and wisdom, not through emotional sloganeering. Further, much
of the Muslim media is obsessed with the past, wallowing in the past
Muslim glory.

Through Aag, we want to steer a new course in Urdu journalism,
focusing more on positive and constructive issues, and staying clearly
away from empty emotionalism. In a few months' time since we took over
Aag, it has become the single largest circulated Urdu paper in Lucknow
and we hope to launch a Delhi edition soon, too.

Q: You yourself have studied in leading madrasas in Lucknow, the
Madrasat ul-Waizin and the Madrasa Nazmiya. How do you see the
increasing attacks on madrasas in the media today?

A: I can say with full confidence that no madrasa in India, whether
Shia or Sunni, is engaged in providing any sort of terrorist training.
There are indeed some in Pakistan that are doing this, but this does
not apply to India at all. I think this talk of Indian madrasas being
allegedly engaged in promoting terrorism has been deliberately
engineered by communal parties and outfits. These groups do not want
to see the truth, so even if we try to explain the reality of the
madrasas to them, they will not listen or cease their anti-madrasa
propaganda.  I think they are deliberately doing this so that Muslims
devote all their attention to defending madrasas, thus leaving them no
breathing space to focus on modern education. It is a means, actually,
to perpetuate Muslim educational marginalisation.

Our madrasas are open for all to see. They impart the message of
humanity, not terrorism. Anyone can come to the madrasas and see this
for oneself. And in the case of the Shia madrasas, I can confidently
say that we give equal stress on worship of God and the service of
God's creatures. Shias believe that you cannot, under any condition,
give up your own life unless it is to save the life of an innocent
person, irrespective of her or his religion.

Q: What do you have to say about the demonisation of madrasas in the
Western media?

A: This is part of the larger Western design to demonise Islam. The
West needs an enemy to survive, to seek an excuse for its
imperialistic offensives. And if such an enemy does not really exist,
it has to conjure up a ghost and use it to scare people. So, following
the collapse of communism, the West and Zionist forces, desperately
searching for an enemy, decided to project Muslims as the new foe.
They began claiming that Islam presents a danger to the world and in
this way sought to create hatred against Islam and its adherents. And
while their are terrorists among Christians, Jews and Hindus as well,
the media only refers to Muslims when it talks of terrorism. This is
part of a well-planned strategy.

We must be dispassionate when discussing the issue of violence in many
Muslim countries. The West needs to look at the causes of this unrest.
Address and remove the basic causes if you are seriously interested in
solving the problem. In fact, it is primarily the West, and its client
state, Israel, that have created conditions for this unrest. The
oppression and denial of the rights of the Palestinians, the invasion
of Iraq and so on—all these have naturally created conditions of
unrest among Muslims, who wish to retaliate. After all, even if you
pinch a little ant, it seeks to defend itself by biting back.

Q: Since you refer to Iraq, what are your views about sectarian
conflicts raging there, between Shias and Sunnis?

A: This sort of thing never existed in Iraq before the American
invasion. There was never any sort of terrorism there before the
Americans invaded. My mother was from Iraq and I know the country and
its people well. There was never any Shia-Sunni problem in Iraq, and
even though Shias are in a majority there relations between Shia and
Sunni Iraqis were cordial. It is true that Saddam persecuted Shia
leaders and arranged for many of them to be killed, but he also
persecuted many Sunnis and caused their deaths, too. Before the
Americans invaded, Iraqis rarely thought of themselves as Shias and
Sunnis or as rivals on the basis of sect. There was never any communal
riot there. All this started and flared up after the Americans invaded
Iraq in the name of bringing 'peace' and 'democracy' to that country.
And I think the Americans are deliberately trying to stoke sectarian
rivalry in Iraq and prolong the civil war so that they can divide and

Q: Some Muslims argue that America is anti-Islam or anti-Muslim, and
see its invasion of Iraq, among other developments, as proof of this.
Do you agree?

A: One has to distinguish between the American people and the current
American government. I am not saying that all Americans are
anti-Islam. This is not true. However, the Bush administration
certainly is anti-Islam. This owes, in large measure, to the power of
the Zionist lobby in America. Pro-Zionist Jews control large banks,
many industries and much of the media in America, and if they leave
America, the country will collapse. And it is this lobby, in addition
to the extreme right-wing Christian lobby, that is behind the clearly
anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim policies of the Bush government.

On the other hand, I must also say that many Americans are indeed
open-minded. However, they are easily swayed by the media, and the
dominant Western media, as I mentioned earlier, has a vested interest
in whipping up anti-Muslim hatred. I strongly believe that if we are
able to reach out to the American people with the truth, many of them
will indeed listen to us and will also agree with us.

Q: There is much talk now of America allegedly planning to attack
Iran. What do you think the Iranian, or general Shia, response would
be if this happens?

A: I don't think the Americans will be so foolish. Hizbullah taught
the Americans and the American-backed Israeli army a fitting lesson in
the defeat it inflicted on the Israelis in Lebanon. The Shias are a
different people. We are not terrorists but we will not run away if
challenged. The Americans managed to get some traitors in Iraq to
collaborate with them. The history of Iraq is full of tales of such
betrayal and intrigue. But in Iran things are very different. All
Iranians, even those who have differences with the regime, will
solidly unite to oppose any American aggression. And the price of an
American attack will be borne not just by America but also by its
client regime, Israel.

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