The Madrassa Madmen – by Mahim Maher


It was the first time I had seen nervous laughter from a mufti.

Mufti Abuzar and Mufti Abu Huraira who run Jamia Islamia Clifton, a large madrassa in Karachi, seemed to shift nervously when their father, the madrassa’s founder, Mufti Mohiuddin, started to talk about the mistakes America had made.

I happened to be at the madrassa because I got somehow roped in to translate for a group of visiting America-based journalists. Jamia Islamia Clifton is a well-known madrassa which has developed links with the US consulate here in Karachi over the years. In the photo above U.S. Special Representative to Muslim Communities, Farah Pandith, meets Mufti Muhammad Mohyuddin, chairman and Ulema of Jamia Islamia Clifton, on February 10, 2010 at Jamia Islamia Clifton. (Photo US Consulate General Facebook page).
And while I do not necessarily feel that visiting a madrassa needs to be on the agenda for foreign journalists who have come to Pakistan for the first time, I understand the need or curiosity to explore.
Jamia Islamia Clifton is located right next to Mottas store where I sometimes do my groceries. Laraib, a popular music and video store, is just a stone’s throw away. If you didn’t stop and look, you probably wouldn’t even notice the madrassa. I had been inside before on a similar visit, several years ago. Not much had changed. It was strange, however, to see the two special commandos at the gate in addition to the madrassa’s own private security guards. I could not tell if the US consulate or the madrassa or the NGO that had arranged the visit had organised this extra security.

We first trooped into the ‘conference’ room where death by Power-point was arranged. Mufti Abuzar and Mufti Huraira walked us through the history of the madrassa for what seemed like an hour. I tried to interpret as best as I could.

There was just one point where I fumbled, inadvertently. Mufti Abuzar was talking about their courses to train young scholars in how to deliver a Friday sermon. Most madrassas rely on a syllabus that is 1,300 years old, he said, referring to the history of Islam. When the students graduate as prayer leaders they tend to regurgitate this history not thinking that their flock’s contemporary social problems, the crises of today, need to be addressed. But I ended up saying, the history from 1,300 years ago that doesn’t hold any relevance today. Just as the words came out of my mouth, I realized I was close to blaspheming myself. I have never backpedaled so fast in my life.

Jamia Islamia Clifton was set up in 1977 by Mufti Mohiuddin, a tall man, born in Karachi he says, as his parents returned from Hajj. He is surprisingly youthful looking for his age but you can tell his beard and strangely führer-like moustache have been dyed black. The black is a dead black. After our briefing on the history of the madrassa we met him in his home behind the building for a quick question-answer session. The rectangular drawing room was lined with flush velvet upholstered sofas, ornate faux baroque coffee tables in the middle and wannabe Louis XIV armchairs. I found myself seated next to the great man himself. He wore a dazzling white shalvar kameez so starched and stiff that it had a necrotic quality about it. As with most clerics, he has a predilection for the Arab sartorial aesthetic.

Mufti Mohiuddin (pictured left) seemed to be saying that he has stopped working with the madrassa; he now focuses on working with special children. It seemed to me that he had perhaps been sidelined. It became apparent why this could have been the case.

America is making a great mistake, he said towards the end of the session with him. (He saved the best for last, really). America is turning away from Saudi Arabia and turning towards Iran. This will become a huge problem, hundreds of thousands of people will die in this war that will come. No millions will die. For, and wait for it, the Shias (Iran) have a plan to desecrate the graves of the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) two companions, Hazrat Abu Bakr (RA/AS) and Hazrat Omar (RA/AS), remove them from their graves and throw them out because they don’t consider them Muslims. (For the record: I am just writing what he said and do not want to be associated in any way with this kind of thinking; I am merely doing my job as a reporter). “The day the Shias turn their gaze to Madina,” he said, “is the day this will become a huge problem.”

Mufti Huraira and Mufti Abuzar had grown nervous at the back of the room when they heard this. I kept checking their faces to see their reaction. It was hard to believe that they didn’t subscribe to this line of thinking. It was hardcore sectarian hatred. I nearly fell out of my chair when I heard it. I could barely translate it.

What he said was problematic because the two younger muftis had just given us a whole presentation on how they shunned sectarian (Shia-Sunni) differences and taught their students not to engage in hate speech. Their one-year postgrad program to train young ulema or scholars (who have spent 17 years studying all the way to the top) wants to teach them how to prepare the all-important Friday sermon. Friday sermons are important because even Muslim men who don’t usually pray five times a day, make some kind of an attempt to go for the Friday prayer (1pm to 3pm). Their Majlis Saut ul Islam Pakistan (Organisation for the Voice of Islam Pakistan) is a centre that specifically does this work. Mufti Abuzar stressed that they didn’t want the kids to spread hate and that they had regular exchanges with students from other madrassas so that the kids learnt from each other, from other sects etc.

I am obviously cautious; what the founder of the madrassa said doesn’t necessarily translate into the classroom. He is, after all, not involved in the day-to-day workings, as I was told. It would require much more indepth observation and embedding to really find out if Jamia Islamia Clifton is ‘secretly’ teaching sectarian hatreds. Sectarian remember, can refer to Shia-Sunni and inter-Sunni (Deoband-Barelvi etc).
I have not, however, forgotten on incident from long ago. I reproduce here the April 3, 2007 report from Daily Times:

Sunni groups clash over Clifton route

Staff Report
KARACHI: Despite tight security in the city on 12th Rabiul Awwal, reports of a clash between two religious groups (Deobandi and Barelvi) were received from Clifton.
An Eid Milad-un-Nabi procession of the Barelvi group emerged around 3:00 p.m. from Madrassa Dar-ul-Uloom, Nooria, Rizvia Trust, Kehkashan in Clifton block 5. When the procession reached the Boat Basin roundabout, the police, without giving a reason, reportedly changed its route. Along this new route fell Deobandi madrassa Jamia Islamia (located near Mottas supermarket and the DVD shops).
Upon receiving this news, hundreds of members of the madrassa emerged armed with sticks. As the two groups came face to face, they threw stones at each other. The police took control of the situation and separated them and no injuries were reported from either side.
TPO Saddar Town Tahir Naved, who has additional charge of Clifton, said that the route was modified because of some reasons, which he did not want to disclose over the phone. “Please meet me at my office where I will share all the details,” he said. “The matter has been resolved and there is no need to highlight it further.”
The Barelvi procession was organised by the patron chief of the Madaris-e-Qadriya Munir Barkaati. According to a spokesman of Madaris-e-Qadriya, this procession had been organised for the past three years with permission from the city’s administration. “As usual, the procession emerged this year as well but the police did not allow the procession to go to Schon Circle Chowrangi from Boat Basin, and directed it towards the streets leading to Khayaban-e-Roomi,” he told Daily Times. The spokesman added that people from the Jamia Islamia of the Deobandi group came out and tried to harass them and they retaliated. “The police then directed us towards the Teen Talwar Chowrangi from where we continued to Nishtar Park,” said the spokesman. He refuted reports that the procession participants misbehaved.
Nazim of the Jamia Islamia (Deobandi) Mufti Abu Bakr Mohiuddin said that two years ago, a similar incident had occurred when the procession changed its route so that it could pass by the Jamia and chant slogans against them. “When the procession passed by Masjid Farooq-e-Azam (Deobandi) in Boat Basin, they chanted slogans in front of the mosque and we were reported the incident,” he said. They informed ’15’ and the city administration that the procession must not pass the Jamia. “The administration did not take action in time, therefore we had to take the matter in our own hands,” he said. Mufti Abu Bakr said that they did not want to fight with the Barelvi group but if anyone challenged them, they would not tolerate it. “I regret this clash but the administration should plan routes in which these two groups do not have to cross each other’s ways,” he said.
Vice principal of the Jamia Islamia Mufti Abu Hurraira said that their madrassa and its students never took to the streets since its inception in 1970, even when former prime minister Benazir Bhutto sealed their madrassas in 1993. “We have five branches countrywide. Among our students, 850 are boarding students, while 200 are local. However, no foreign student is enrolled in our madrassa but about six years back, students from Malaysia, England and Fiji Islands were part of our madrassa,” he said. After 9/11, he said, American and European ambassadors had visited the madrassa.
Sub-inspector of the Boat Basin Police Station Zulfikar said that the state had filed an FIR no 126/2007 against more than 50 unidentified people. When asked about what route the procession was following, he expressed no knowledge.
Shopkeepers in the area said that when the stick-wielding madrassa students emerged in droves, they immediately pulled their shutters down. This was the first time they had seen something like this take place in Clifton. “The stuff we saw happening in Islamabad appears to be taking place here,” a paan wallah said. “A maulvion ka fauj on the roads appeared out of nowhere. We had no idea that madrassa had so many students.” According to witness accounts, men with guns turned up on the roofs of buildings nearby, including the minaret of the mosque.

I asked Mufti Abuzar about this old incident and he responded with a smile that the other group was didn’t have a permit to bring the procession here. That said, however, there is no reason why young men would need to come on the street to try to prevent it. If the procession was planning to deviate from its authorized route, it would have been the job of the police and Sindh government to stop it.
And so I wondered if the US consulate is aware of this history. Also of the fact that the madrassa has ‘adopted’ an amenity plot meant for a park right next door. This to me just smells of encroachment. No one from the public uses it.

The muftis, I realized, were the most wonderful advertisers of their craft. (Hence my use of the word Madmen). They spun a fantastic ad campaign about their work. But luckily, the patina of eloquent Islamist argument could not cover some realities that spoke louder than their words.

Jamia Islamia Clifton's children, being photographed from behind.

One reality on this visit was the photography of children. I wonder if any Pakistani journalists would ever be allowed to visit an American Sunday school and photograph the children there. But here the journalists were given a tour of the classrooms and they took photographs of the students. The madrassa’s administration permitted it and not a single one of those journalists appeared to feel that this might be unethical. No one had acquired the permission of those children’s guardians.

This turned particularly distasteful for me when we entered the very first class or grade 1. It is a large hall in which the children are divided into square groups. They sit in front of blotter desks and read the Quran in a fashion that is now only stereotypically associated with jihadis: in that rocking motion. The hall was filled with the sound of their rapid reading. The journalists knelt and bent and stooped to take photos. I felt like the worst stereotypes of madrassas were being perpetuated.

Don’t get me wrong. I have very mixed, ambivalent feelings about madrassas. But there was something incredibly wrong, in my opinion, of an adult journalist training their gaze or camera onto a small child who has no idea who they are and where that photo will be seen. The children are defenseless subjects.  I cannot imagine what it is like for strangers to come and point cameras at them and take photos. What does that mean to the children. Did anyone ask them, talk to them about this experience of being viewed as such. Didn’t this perpetuate the extremely problematic relationship or perception they may or may not have regarding foreigners. Perhaps the American lost an opportunity to really show the children and teachers another side or break the stereotypes associated with them. Surely this visit, encounter, interaction, could have been conducted more ethically?

Madrassas are places of learning associated with the worst perceptions of the Islamic ‘world’. I found a rare incisive piece on the way they are even statistically viewed in Pakistan. The numbers, if we wish to measure and ‘manage’ in that very ‘Occidental’ fashion, are fraught. (This is a phenomenon I have seen again and again in my own beat of city government reporting.) For anyone interested in the piece, Madrassa Metrics: The Statistics and Rhetoric of Religious Enrollment in Pakistan, here is the link:

The journalists didn’t really get enough time to really properly interact with the muftis and ask them questions. One of them did ask the obvious question of funding. Mufti Abuzar had a fantastic spin answer: You’d never ask a journalist the source of their news. They’d never tell you where it came from. Similarly you never ask a maulvi the source of his funding. He’ll never tell you.

Well, mufti sahib, with all due respect, you can hardly compare the two. Journalists do give you the source of your news. In fact, our entire job is about exposing wrongdoing and we immaculately source our material. You will always know the source of our news. Otherwise the reader would never trust us. And in the cases when we do not divulge the names of the people who give us information there has to be a good reason. If we don’t source our news, we risk our reader’s trust. We build our reputations on being honest so that when, in some circumstances, we do need to withhold a name, you know that we are always telling the truth. In your case, there should not be a problem over the sources of your funding. If only you didn’t have anything to hide.




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