March/April 2017

This advertisement for a primary school in New Delhi offers to educate young Muslim boys and girls to become medical doctors or engineers as well as aalim (religious scholars) in presumably the same institution. While some may argue that there is no harm in keeping one’s religious faith while pursuing a modern career, this particular image reflects the current aspirations of a Muslim community divided between tradition and modernity, an idea that is also highlighted by stereotyped Muslim headgear worn by the children along with professional uniforms and gadgets. Shaheen Bagh, the address where the institution is located, is a dense Muslim neighborhood on the southeastern outskirts of Delhi (image below). And Sir Syed Mission School is part of a series of 100 Islamic schools operating all over India (see website).

It is true that the nineteenth-century Muslim reformer and educationist Sir Syed Ahmed Khan—whose name the institution bears—argued that there was no conflict between science and Islam, and that Quranic teachings were indeed in accord with the laws of nature.1 The ulema (clerics) disagreed with his views on scientism and called him a nechari (naturist), that is one who advocated the supremacy of nature.  Even today, many who use the name of Sir Syed for new institutions appear to have been inspired by the university he set up in Aligarh in 1875.  Such combinations of modern professions and religious outlook seem to be favored by many contemporary Muslims especially in South Asia, and have been promoted by televangelists such as Dr.Zakir Naik who wears a tie and a skullcap during his sermons. His ‘scientific explanations’ for various religious phenomena attract thousands to his speeches, despite criticism from the rationalists.

(Text by Yousuf Saeed. The above image obtained as an advertisement on the website Okhla Times.)

This photo by courtesy of Mohammad Ansar Ansari

1Masud, M. Khalid, Travellers in Faith: Studies of the Tablīghī Jamāʻat as a Transnational Islamic movement for faith renewal,
Leiden: Brill, 2000, xiv.

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