chapter  3
16 Pages

MAKING MUSLIMS: Identity and difference in Indian madrasas


The present chapter is an attempt to understand the formation of contemporary Muslim identity in India. The central tool through which understanding is sought is, in Clifford Geertz’s words, ‘the master institution’ of Muslim society, the madrasas, or centres of Islamic learning. Scholarly works on madrasas in India have largely had a historical focus. Metcalf has shown how Deoband madrasa was central in the articulation of Indian Muslim identity during the nineteenth century (Metcalf 1982). Similarly Sanyal’s work has shown how the Ahl-i Sunnat wa Jama’at, through the writings of Ahmad Riza Khan constructed its identity against that of the Deobandis and the Ahl-i Hadith (Sanyal 1999). Both these works have been central in identifying that there has never been a single monolithic Muslim identity in India. Rather Indian Muslim identity itself has been a site of contest, among different social groups and different interpretations of texts. However, partly owing to the historical nature of their works, neither tell how this identity is actually formed. What are the processes and mechanisms that go into the making of this identity? In other words, what is missing from their analyses is the process of identity formation. It is these processes and mechanisms which are the central focus of this chapter. In this chapter, I enquire into Muslim identity formation by looking at a madrasa and the kind of educational strategies adopted therein for the inculcation of a Muslim identity. In other words, I ask how this construction of identity takes place. The chapter is divided into three parts. The first part looks at the prescribed syllabus and the books therein which are taught to the students and how they impart a certain identity to an average madrasa student. The second part is concerned with those books which are not part of the formal syllabus, but are nevertheless prescribed for self-study and are important for the self-identity of the students. The last part describes the institutionalized performance of constructing identity and creating difference. The chapter is largely the outcome of fieldwork conducted during 2004 and 2005 in which I made use of the methods of observation and interviews. Most of the observations in the chapter relate to a Barelwi1 madrasa called Ashrafiyya. But for the purposes of further clarity, I have occasionally

contrasted it with a Deobandi madrasa called Ihya al-Ulum. It is therefore important that we should start with a brief history of both these institutions.