Exclusive Interview With Maulana Ghulam Ahmad Vastanwi
By Siraj Wahab in Makkah
Published on Feb. 22, 2011
MAULANA Ghulam Ahmad Vastanwi was in Saudi Arabia last week. During his stay in Makkah, Madinah and Jeddah, he met a number of high-ranking officials associated with the Saudi government and such prestigious institutions as the Muslim World League and the World Association of Muslim Youth. Dozens of students who graduated from his seminary and are now studying at the Umm Al-Qura University in Makkah and the Islamic University of Madinah also came to visit and felicitate him.
The maulana was thrust into international limelight following his recent appointment as the rector or muhtamim of South Asia's most prestigious Islamic seminary, Darul Uloom Deoband. More than his appointment, it was his reported remarks about Narendra Modi, the man who led the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, which led to an uproar in India and abroad, and calls for his resignation in some quarters.
The Majlis-e-Shoura of Darul Uloom Deoband is meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 23, to discuss his fate. It might rule in his favor or it may ask him to step aside in view of the raging controversy. Maulana Vastanwi spoke to this correspondent at the Marwa Towers in Makkah, a few steps from the Grand Mosque. As I tap on the iPad to record the maulana's interview I notice the impressive Kaaba from the glass window of his room. Sitting next to him is his youngest son Uwais Vastanwi. Following are the excerpts from the interview:
Q: How long have you been associated with Darul Uloom Deoband?
A: Darul Uloom Deoband is the oldest Muslim religious institution in Asia. It has played a key role in South Asia's history. It was established by some of the greatest Muslim leaders. It was started to preserve our religion in South Asia and its founders succeeded in their mission. Any order issued by Deoband is followed by the community in letter and spirit. It is the most important center of religious learning in India and also the most prestigious.
I have been a member of the Deoband Shoura for the last 12 years. The Shoura has 17 members. These 17 members come from all states of India. I represent Maharashtra in the Shoura. All of the Shoura members come from excellent backgrounds. They are chosen on the basis of their work for Islam in their respective regions. All of these members have contributed immensely to the promotion of Islam.
Maulana Marghubur Rahman, who died a few months ago, was the ninth rector of Deoband. He was a great man. He was widely respected by the ulama. Such was his selflessness and devotion to Deoband that he did not take a single penny from the institution that he ran. In fact, he even paid rent for the room in which he stayed. It was Maulana Marghubur Rahman who made me the member of the Shoura 12 years ago. He loved me and I respected him immensely. When he died, it was suggested that I become the acting rector. I did not see myself fit for the post and I politely declined. The Shoura members then persuaded Maulana Abul Qasim Banarasi to become the acting rector. It was a unanimous decision.
A month-and-a-half later the Shoura was convened to elect a new rector. Of the 17 members, four members suggested the name of Maulana Arshad Madani. Two were in favor of the acting rector Maulana Abul Qasim Banarasi. Eight members proposed my name. Three members did not turn up. So it was announced that since eight members are in favor of Maulana Vastanwi he should be made the rector. I objected and said no. I said that if the other members who supported Maulana Arshad Madani and Maulana Abul Qasim Banarasi change their opinion in my favor … only then will I accept this post. I wanted unanimity. They all said yes and added that since most members have now reposed confidence in Vastanwi we too are with him. Everything was settled. A formal announcement was made by the Shoura. There were celebrations. I met with the teachers and other administrative officials and briefed them about various issues concerning the seminary. Students were happy too. I addressed them in the evening. The next day I left for Akkalkuwa where we run a number of madaris and degree colleges.
Q: When did the trouble begin then?
A: As soon as I left Deoband, I got a call that some students were unhappy with my appointment. I was told that they were very few in numbers. Now I don't know who instigated them or who was behind this campaign against me. It came as a shock to me. Just a day earlier everything seemed perfect. The students were happy, the teachers were happy, all Shoura members were happy.
A little later I got a call from the Times of India's Gujarat correspondent. The news was out in the media that I had become the rector of Deoband. He asked me about the Gujarat riots and I told him why was he asking my opinion on something that happened eight years ago. And then I suggested that for us Muslims now education is the most important thing. Our community's focus is education. The report that appeared in the newspaper next day gave an impression that I was supporting Modi and that I gave a clean chit to him. I had told The Times correspondent that cases relating to the 2002 riots are before the courts and it is the duty of the courts to provide justice to the riot victims. I also said that those who are being illegally detained should be released.
Q: But the impression one got from the report was that you have some kind of a soft spot for Modi...
A: Modi is the worst of the worst. Wo zaalim hai ... aur zaalim ki taareef bhi nahin ki ja sakti (he is a cruel man and one is not allowed to appreciate a cruel man). Whatever he did to Muslims we will and we cannot forget that (zaalim ke zulm ko ham maaf bhi nahi kar sakte). Nor can we give him a clean chit. Some people in the media, especially a particular section of the Urdu media, have twisted my statements to create mischief. If you go back to the original report in The Times of India, it is very clearly mentioned that "Vastanwi did not give Modi a clean chit".
Q: There were also reports that Modi invited you as a special guest for Republic Day celebrations in Gujarat?
A: This again was media mischief. Nobody invited me and nor did I go there. This bit of news was absolutely nonsensical. When I first heard it, I immediately issued a clarification. I was in Deoband on Jan. 26.
Q: Those who launched an attack on you are part of our community. They do not belong to other communities. What do you think was their motive? What is your assessment?
A: Whoever has done this mischief of maligning me and whoever is behind this mudslinging campaign ... let me tell them I am not a political man. My work is confined to promoting education. Taalim, taalim aur taalim -- that is my motto and mission. Those who have made an issue out of my reported remarks ... for them, this is a political issue.
Some people took my comments as supporting Modi. Some people saw those statements as anti-Congress. I am not favoring Modi nor am I against Congress. I only say that Muslims work hard in the field of education (musalman apne aap ko taalim me aage laaye). Muslim youngsters are facing unemployment. Our community members are suffering because of stark poverty. I think unless and until we work in the field of education we will not be able to tackle these two major problems facing our community in India: unemployment and poverty.
Q: Can your tell us about your institutions in Akkalkuwa?
A: I completed my early Islamic education at Darul Uloom Falah-e-Darain Tadkeshwar (district Surat, Gujarat). I then worked as an Arabic teacher at Darul Uloom Kantharia (district Bharuch, Gujarat). In 1979 when I was teaching there, we had two students who were from Akkalkuwa, a small hamlet in Maharashtra. At that time, the population of Akkalkuwa may have been 5,000. I am talking about 1980. Muslims were about 50 percent so there were around 2,500 Muslims. At the invitation of those two students (both are now teaching at our institutions) I went to Akkalkuwa in 1980. Wahan kuch nahi tha ... Sirf jahalat thi. There was total ignorance. Muslims were unaware of the teachings of Islam. They were extremely poor. Mosques lay abandoned. No one took care of them. There was no library, no school. So when I visited Akkalkuwa, this thought crossed my mind that I should do something here. Remember, this was just a thought not a dream. Then I wrote to my elders about the situation in Akkalkuwa. They said "baith jaao," start working there. So in 1980 I built a shed that cost us 18,000 rupees. That shed or "jhonpda" still exists today. We started with six students and two teachers -- Maulana Ishaq and Maulana Yaqoob.
Then two residents of Akkalkuwa -- Salman Havaldar and Yaqoob Dada -- each gave us 3 acres of land. So we had six acres. On this six-acre plot we started work in 1983. In two years we got a building constructed. Around this time, in 1986 to be precise, I went to South Africa. There I met Abdullah Omar Naseef who was visiting that country. He was at that time the chief of the World Muslim League. I immediately extended an invitation to him to visit our madrasa. He accepted our invitation. It became big news in India. Omar Naseef was riding the crest of popularity in the Muslim world with his dynamism. The popular reaction in India was "Such a big man, coming to Akkalkuwa!" Omar Naseef is a great man. May Allah bless him. He always thought big. I never heard him saying no. Anybody who went to him, he would say "yes" and "done".
His arrival in Akkalkuwa in 1987 proved to be a turning point in the history of the Muslims of Akkalkuwa. It was a big program from our point of view. However, it was a small program looking at the stature of Omar Naseef. He faced a lot of difficulties reaching Akkalkuwa. There were no paved roads. The best car available then was the Ambassador. And we did not have enough resources. In his speech, however, he said he was overwhelmed by the love of the Muslims of India. "This will remain my most memorable visit." That is what he said. Then Omar Naseef invited us to the Muslim World League and introduced us to people in Kuwait. I always visit him when I visit Saudi Arabia.
So our Jamia Akkalkuwa continued to make steady progress in 1980s and 1990s. The strength rose from six students to 500, 700, 1,000. Today our Jaamia is the biggest madrasa for memorizing the Qur'an in Asia. We have 10,000 students who are currently memorizing the Qur'an in Jamia and other Jamia affiliates. We have more than 100 branches. Every year, 1,500 students graduate from the Jamia after having memorized the Holy Qur'an. At other madaris there are only 200-300 students. In Deoband itself there are only 250 students in the memorizing Qur’an section (tahfeez al-Qur’an). So far, 15,000 students are already hafiz and are working in various parts of the country. In Deoband, the memorizing Qur’an section is not big. There the focus is on the alim studies (alamiyyat). Every year Deoband produces 800 to 900 alims.
Then we realized that in Akkalkuwa there were no opportunities for mainstream worldly education. So we helped the villagers start a high school. We constructed the building for them. At that time it cost us 2.5 million rupees. Then we started our own high school. Then a junior college. The students from the local high school had no opportunity to continue higher studies so they started coming to our junior college. Then we launched a Unani medical college (BUMS). Then we launched ITIs. So far, nearly 2,000 students have benefited from these technical institutes. Since there is a certain criteria set by the government to enlist students, our huffaz did secondary education after completing their memorization courses and got into these technical institutes. But most of the students who came to join our technical institutes were from regular schools, but once they joined the technical institutes run by us we provided them with religious education. That was an incentive for them. They got an Islamic way of life. So a Muslim student at our ITI did not just become a technical expert but a good Muslim too. And those Hindus who enroll in our technical institutes become sympathetic to the Muslim issues.
So now we have a Unani medical college, technical institutes, B.Ed. colleges, D.Ed colleges, polytechnic colleges, D. Pharm College, B. Pharm College and a B.E. engineering college. The most important point in our colleges is that there is no concept of donation. There are hundreds of students to whom we provide free education in our colleges. All this has improved the economy of Akkalkuwa. Akkalkuwa is not what it was when we first visited in 1980. Akkalkuwa has become a proper town. I have now spent 30 years there. I have never faced any difficulty from our Hindu brothers in Akkalkuwa. They have been very helpful. In fact, their students are enrolled in our institutes as well.
I can safely say that after Aligarh this is the largest chain of institutions. [It is worth pointing out that Maulana Vastanwi has helped construct 5,000 mosques in Maharashtra's remote districts. Many of these mosques have cost 5 million rupees and some even 10 million rupees. He has helped dig 4,000 bore wells for drinking water and set up hundreds of primary schools. To date he has set up 2,500 primary Islamic centers]. So far, the Akkalkuwa campus is far bigger than Deoband. But Deoband is prestigious. There is no doubt about that. We have 12,500 students with lodging and boarding facilities. Deoband has only 3,000 students.
Q: What will you say to your adversaries?
A: Let me clarify here, I don't call them adversaries. What I say is that we have to take everybody along -- Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Christians. We have to work together to build the nation. We have to be big-hearted. If we take a communal stand, it will not produce good results for us. We have to cleanse our heart and mind and join the march for the moral and industrial progress of our country. Similarly, I appeal to non-Muslim Indians to provide Muslims with the space they deserve to prosper. Both need each other. And for this attitudinal change we need education.
Q: There is a perception among some people that maulana is being opposed because he belongs to the south.
A: I disagree with that assessment. That is not correct. Members of the Deoband Shoura belong to all parts of India. As I mentioned before, I have been a member of the Shoura for the last 12 years. If they were prejudiced against anybody from the south, then I would not have been made the rector in the first place. They made me the rector. If they had in their minds that they should not make a Gujarati as the head, then they would not have appointed me. So how can they be biased? My appointment as Deoband rector is proof that there is no regionalism there.
Q: It seems you are very upset with the Urdu media?
A: No, I am not upset with them. We need the Urdu media. We need to promote Urdu. We are fighting for Urdu and the government is also working on it. Sahara newspaper is counted among the best Urdu newspapers in India. Then there are Inquilab and Urdu Times from Bombay; Siasat, Etemad and Munsif from Hyderabad. We need good journalists. But it is the responsibility of the newspaper owners to maintain their standards and earn credibility.
Q: There was some controversy about your resignation as well. It was reported that you resigned and then there reports that you did not?
A: Again it was media manipulation. When I heard that some students were agitating against my appointment, I told them that if they did not like me then I will tell the Shoura that since the students do not like me I will resign because a resignation can only be given to those who appointed me. I also said that I will resign if the Shoura is unhappy with me. The media immediately reported that I had resigned. On Feb. 23, when the Shoura meets I will tell them that if my personality leads to problems for Deoband, then they can relieve me. Who wants any harm to come to this great institution? Only Shoura will decide whether I will or will not stay at Deoband. The Shoura's decision will be the final decision. They are the decision-makers.
Q: Some say the current agitation against you is being fanned by the Madani family.
A: Regarding the Madani family, I will not say anything. I respect them. This is a very respectable family. Theirs is a historical contribution. My daughter is married in that family (Maulana Vastanwi's daughter is married to Maulana Arshad Madani's son). My daughter and son-in-law are leading a happy life. I will only repeat that I am not a BJP man. I am a man of education. My only goal is to promote education.
Q: There is also an allegation that you are out to convert Darul Uloom Deoband into a modern institute?
A: Those who are against us allege that we will convert it into a modern institute. Deoband is a religious institution. We cannot and will not deviate from its aims. Though I am the rector of Deoband, I cannot do anything that is not mandated by the Majlis-e-Shoura. It is that simple. At Deoband, I am answerable and accountable to the Shoura for each and every action. These unfounded rumors that are being spread against me that I will dilute the fundamental character of Deoband are baseless. I only have to execute the policies approved by the Shoura. That is the high command. You may not know this, but I cannot even get a student enrolled in Deoband. Those decisions are taken by the Shoura.