Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (585)
Al-Azhar goes to India
A team from Al-Azhar visited India in 1936 to spread Islam, especially among the untouchables. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk says how the scholars fared
That Al-Azhar should be a source of knowledge is only normal. For it to have drawn Muslim scholars from around the world is also understandable, given the ancient Islamic university's long and illustrious history and given the stability and traditions in Egypt that have enabled this institution to grow and develop, as is evidenced by the many sections that have been added over the years to accommodate a large and diverse student body. But that Al-Azhar would play a religious role in India, and among a class of non-Muslim peoples at that, comes as a surprise.
The people in question formed what was formerly known as the untouchables. In India's once rigidly structured caste system there were four closed, hereditary classes, or Varnas, that were traditionally proscribed in social dealings with others. In this system, "untouchable" did not designate a fifth caste but rather a general class of people abhorred by the higher social orders. The untouchables were regulated to the basest most unclean occupations, such as street sweeping, and were thus considered as a polluting people. They were therefore forbidden to touch persons of the four Varnas, to enter their homes or temples and to use their wells, and, in public occasions, they were supposed to sit well apart. In some areas, even touching the shadow of an untouchable was considered polluting, requiring the defiled member of the upper order to immerse himself immediately in water to purge himself of the impurity.
By the mid-1930s Mahatma Gandhi had become the symbol of Indian pacifist resistance to the British occupation. In 1934 he ceded the chairmanship of the Congress Party to Jawaharlal Nehru so that he could devote himself full-time to social reform. One of Nehru's major concerns was the plight of the untouchables. As part of his campaign to end their stigmatisation, he proposed renaming them Harijan -- the children of the god Hari. The untouchables themselves opted for a name with a more political ring: Dalit, which in Hindi means "the persecuted". Also, inspired by Gandhi's campaign on their behalf, many believed they could free themselves of their stigma by embracing one of the major religions of the subcontinent, such as Hinduism or Islam. As the latter was more readily open to converts, many turned to this divinely revealed religion, which explains why Al-Azhar now felt it its duty to send a mission to that vast and populous land.
The first report on the Al-Azhar mission to India appears in Al-Ahram of 9 September 1936. After learning of the situation of the untouchables in India, the newspaper relates, a group of Al-Azhar scholars decided to send a delegation to India "to make contact with the untouchable classes and then submit a report stating its opinions on the procedures followed by the members of these classes in their conversion to Islam". The delegation consisted of four senior members of the venerable Islamic university: Ibrahim El-Gibali, Abdel-Wahab El- Naggar, Mohamed Ahmed El-Bedawi and Mohamed Habib.
From the outset the members of the delegation realised that theirs would be a delicate mission. No sooner was the news of their mission out than they were cautioned that their arrival in India would spark animosity between Hindus and Muslims because their mission would be seen as an attempt to openly proselytise for Islam. The rector of Al-Azhar wisely thought it best to defer the departure of the delegation until he could better ascertain the situation.
A week later, another Al-Ahram item underscored the potential difficulty of the mission. Al-Azhar officials, it writes, "have received an alarming letter from the head of a major Muslim society in India, stating that the Hindu sects are working round the clock to collect money and produce the publications necessary to combat this delegation. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of donations have already been collected. The members of the delegation are greatly apprehensive that their arrival in India under such circumstances would be too risky."
No further news was heard for more than a month. During this time, however, continued inquiries of Al-Azhar officials led them to the conclusion that the reports were exaggerated. Suddenly, on 24 October Al-Ahram reports that the rector of Al-Azhar applied to the British Consulate in Cairo for travel permits for the members of the expedition.
After yet another month without news, Al-Ahram reports on 23 November that all obstacles had been overcome and that the mission would be departing on 2 December. Its purpose: "To contact Islamic universities and academic institutions in diverse parts of India in order to promote cooperation in the spread of Islamic culture. It will then study the situation of the untouchables who are disposed to embrace Islam and consider the most suitable procedures for effecting their conversion."
The day before the mission was due to depart, its leader, Sheikh El-Gibali held a lengthy interview with Al-Ahram reiterating the objectives of the mission, which included "determining how Egypt can best contribute to spreading Islam among [the untouchables]". He also informed the newspaper that the delegation's mission in India would last three months.
At 11.00am on 1 December, the Al-Azhar delegation boarded the train from Cairo to Port Said. On hand to see them off was a large gathering of Al-Azhar officials -- the rector, the deans of the university's three faculties and the heads of Al- Azhar's other academies -- and students from Al-Azhar and the Egyptian University. At 5.15pm that same day, the delegation members boarded ship bound for Suez, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and their final destination, India, with its population of millions, among whom were the object of their mission, the untouchables.
As was its custom with such important events, Al-Ahram attached a correspondent to the mission. His first report was from Bombay: "There is a constant flow of Muslim leaders to the hotel throughout the day and into the night, eager to discuss general Islamic issues, the status of Al-Azhar in the Arab world and its responsibility to the Islamic nation at large.... Their reverends performed Feast of the Sacrifice prayers with no less than 40,000 worshippers in Bombay's largest square, which had been equipped with amplifiers to broadcast the sermon and the speech of the head of the delegation." The correspondent also reports that the delegation's leader delivered a lecture in Bombay University's Faculty of Languages and Literature on the history of Al-Azhar. Culminating his overview of the successive eras through which the famous Islamic university passed was a discussion of the modern revival during which the university was divided into three faculties -- theology, Islamic law and Arabic -- and these in turn into diverse departments of specialisation.
In early January 1937, the delegation left Bombay bound for Delhi, which it reached on the fourth of that month. Continuing its programme of establishing communications with Islamic universities and institutions, the delegation visited an Islamic school attached to a mosque. "One of the mission members told me that the mosque and its school resembled Al-Azhar as it was some 20 or more years ago, the only difference being that Al-Azhar had many more students," wrote the Al-Ahram correspondent.
Also in Delhi the delegation engaged university professors in long and fruitful discussions on matters of concern and benefit to the greater Islamic community. The next stop was a mosque built on the ruins of a Buddhist temple and its embellishments, therefore, incorporating a blend of Buddhist and Islamic motifs. More important, however, was the visit, on 7 January, to Aligarh. The tour of this Islamic university, founded in 1875, took the delegation members through the Arabic language and theology departments, and then to the mosque where they met with both Sunni and Shia professors of theology, after which they were introduced to the history department, in which they sat in on a lecture on how to achieve world peace. In the evening, the Egyptian visitors were shown a wing in the boarding school where students eagerly rained them with questions on student life in Al-Azhar. The following day, after Friday prayers in the university mosque, the head of the delegation delivered a lecture to an assembly hall packed with students from the Arabic language and literature department on reviving the glory of Islam. The lecture, Al-Ahram reports, "was greeted with loud and enthusiastic applause".
Disturbed that he had to rely exclusively on Al-Ahram for information on the mission, Al-Azhar Rector Mustafa El- Maraghi instructed the head of the delegation to keep him updated. Sheikh El-Gibali's reports started coming in towards the end of January when, as he pointed out in his first report, the delegation had completed only a quarter of its time in India. He adds: "So enthusiastic has the response been to our mission that we have repeatedly had to readjust our travel plans so as to extend our stays and expand the scope of our visits. I cannot tell you how many hundreds of times officials, journalists and ordinary visitors have asked us why Al-Azhar delegated us to visit this country. Our answer has been that Al-Azhar, that venerable university of the Orient, sought to strengthen the bonds of friendship and affection with Muslims of distant countries in order to promote intellectual and scholastic cooperation... And how often we have conferred with distinguished well-wishers among the Muslim community, of whom we have many in India, over the question of spreading the Islamic call and expanding the scope of its message. We will soon apprise you in detail of the many opinions we have received in this regard."
El-Gibali's letter helps to clarify the Al-Ahram correspondent's silence on the second task of the mission, which was to spread Islam among the untouchables. The issue was clearly so delicate that the delegation members felt they could only discuss it under conditions of confidentiality with leaders of the Indian Muslim community whom they felt they could trust.
Throughout the remainder of its trip, the delegation adhered to its policy of openly seeking to promote closer educational and cultural bonds with Indian Muslims while keeping its proselytising interests under wraps. In subsequent reports, therefore, we read only of the many religious and academic institutions they visited on their tour.
In Rampur, a Muslim state that was incorporated into Uttar Pradesh in 1950, the Al-Azhar team visited the private library of its prime minister, which contained 20,000 Persian and Arabic manuscripts, and Rampur's historic festivities palace, the venue for celebrating three annual events: Eid Al-Fitr after Ramadan, the Feast of the Sacrifice and the birthday of the ruler. They also took in the Islamic college "which now follows the theological pedagogy that has been in practice in Egypt for decades", and the Husseini Mosuq, which contained "a tomb made of pure silver on the model of that in Karbala" and "a spacious hall for the celebration of the Day of Atonement".
Back in Delhi they visited the Noamaniya school for religious studies and the Red Citadel "which served as the headquarters of the rulers of the glorious Islamic eras until just before the great Indian mutiny in 1858". They then went to Amritsar "where they met its president and discussed the state of Muslims and Islamic education in that city", after which they travelled to Lahore. Apparently, word had quickly spread of their visit to this city, for when they visited one of its mosques, they found it filled with thousands of people who had come especially to see the delegates from Al-Azhar. After prayers, El-Gibali graciously obliged and addressed the large gathering.
To Al-Ahram correspondent the visits to Lahore and then Karachi were one of the highlights in the tour. The cities in what was then known as Sind had a majority Muslim population. In what had been administratively subordinate to Bombay until only a few months before the Al-Azhar mission arrived and the delegates were accorded a warm and enthusiastic welcome. "The mission arrived in Karachi at 8.30am on Wednesday 17 February to find the station platform packed with people to meet them in spite of the early hour of the day. As the members stepped off the train they were greeted by cheers of 'God is great!' and presented with wreathes. They were then escorted to automobiles in which they were escorted in procession to the Hotel Bristol."
The following morning, the delegation was taken to an elementary through secondary school for girls founded by a wealthy merchant of Karachi, after which they went to Sind Madrasa, the city's major Islamic school, and then to a religious college modelled on the old Al-Azhar structure.
But beneath all these educational and religious visits were political currents. There was, for example, the meeting with Sir Mohamed Iqbal. Once a foremost supporter of Hindi- Muslim solidarity, he became in 1930 head of the Islamic League and one of the first proponents of the establishment of an Islamic state. Although he died in 1938 and therefore did not live to see the fulfilment of this dream in 1947, Pakistanis regard this politician, thinker and poet as the spiritual founder of their state and commemorate him annually on the anniversary of his death on 21 April.
The meeting took place in his home at 3.00pm on 10 February. The topic of conversation, as reported by Al-Ahram 's correspondent, was a project for founding a higher level school for girls, on which subject "the members of the Egyptian delegation were asked to explain the system used in Egypt for primary and secondary religious education for girls." Our suspicion, however, is that the members of the delegation also took this opportunity to raise the question of their other mission in India, which was to promote Islam among the untouchables.
Another meeting, in which the political undertones were unmistakable, was with Mahatma Gandhi. The meeting took place in Wardha, a town that, in spite of its small size, acquired great symbolic importance in India because, as Al-Ahram 's correspondent relates, "this is the town in which Gandhi chose to establish his residence and, therefore, it has become a frequent destination of Indian politicians eager to seek out the leader of India for his views and advice." He also informs us that only two days before the Al- Azhar delegation arrived, Indian political leaders who were members of the Congress Party had just left "after having come here especially to consult him on policy questions following the recent sweeping electoral victory of the Congress Party in most districts".
On the meeting itself, the correspondent recounts: "The Al-Azhar mission made an unscheduled stop in Wardha. It arrived at the city's train station last night and was put up in the government rest house. Soon after the delegates reached the hotel, they were contacted by Gandhi's secretary and the mystery of this unscheduled stop was solved. The following morning -- 2 March -- Gandhi's secretary escorted the delegation members by car to the village in which Gandhi had taken a humble but immaculately clean hut, his home for himself and his two daughters. The Mahatma was clearly delighted by the visit and I learned that he told the delegation leader, 'If you hadn't made this call I would have had to scold Al-Azhar.' In the course of the long conversation that followed, Gandhi presented the delegation with a block of sugar which, he said, the Indians made from the sap of a certain type of palm tree. In presenting it he said, 'This keepsake will help you understand my principles. The tree was once useless to us, but now we have succeeded in extracting sugar from it and, therefore, no longer have to buy it.'"
Following the meeting, the delegation visited the model school "which seeks to overcome the differences that separate Muslim from other communities". They also toured "the industrial institutions espoused by Gandhi and that all rely on manual labour and require little capital investment".
As Hyderabad had close relations with Egypt because it regularly sent students to Al-Azhar and the Egyptian University and because it had a 30,000-strong Arab community, there was a political substance to the visit to this city as well. Even so, the promotion of educational and cultural bonds was still billed as the purpose of the visit, as can be discerned from the Al-Ahram correspondent's description of its ruler: "His Highness Ali Khan, the seventh in line of the Khan dynasty, is an ardent promoter of Islamic studies and the study of Arabic language, literature and culture. Towards this end, he has lavished enormous efforts and expenses in order to create the institutions that will entice Arabic-speaking scholars to his country. The University of Hyderabad is reputed the best school in all of India in which to study Arabic language and literature and Islam."
Arriving in Hyderabad on 4 March as personal guests of the ruler, the delegation members met with several top officials who, Al-Ahram notes, were well informed about Egypt in general and Al-Azhar in particular. "The minister of education lauded Egypt's contributions to science and education in the ancient and modern eras and he spoke at length on the history of Al-Azhar, demonstrating his thorough familiarity with both the past and present circumstances of this venerable institution."
Information on the progress that the delegation was making on its mission would only be revealed following its return to Egypt, and then only after some time. They arrived in Alexandria on 19 March 1937, having chosen to return by plane via Iraq rather than ship. The flight went smoothly, Al-Ahram relates, "although during the last leg of the journey the plane was buffeted somewhat by the wind causing Prof El-Bedawi some discomfort".
Egyptians were naturally eager to learn the results of the mission, for which reason Al-Ahram 's correspondent in Alexandria was on hand at the airport to interview them. El- Gibali's response to his question on his mission's work among the untouchables would not satisfy readers' curiosity. These people, he said, were to be found throughout the length and breadth of India. His team had succeeded in learning much about their circumstances and the contempt with which the Hindu people hold them. The delegation added that it had met one of the three untouchable leaders. The Al-Ahram correspondent could only comment vaguely, "It appears that the members of the mission have acquired a thorough understanding of the curious situation of these people."
Information was not more forthcoming in the parliament meeting of 13 April 1937 during which MP Ahmed Thabet Marafi asked the minister of awqaf about the purpose of the Al-Azhar delegation's visit to India. The minister said no more than that the purpose of the mission had been made public in advance of its departure and that he was now waiting for the delegation's report.
Egyptians had to wait three months until the newspapers published the delegation's report to the rector and senior ulama of Al-Azhar. The delegates declared that they had been successful in "establishing bridges between religious and secular scholars, eliminating barriers between Muslims and organising Indian study missions to Al-Azhar". With regard to the untouchables, the report recommended establishing "cultural and information centres in various locations, such as Surat in the state of Bombay, Dakafi in Bengal Minor and Nagaur in central India." It further recommended that Al-Azhar invite five untouchables to complete their religious studies in Egypt, furnish financial aid to the League of Ulama in exchange for which that society would accept 20 untouchables into its religious education programme, and to offer financial aid to the Islamic Association in Nagaur to enable it to open new classes for outstanding students from the untouchable community. These were some very modest recommendations when compared to the mission's original ambitions and the fanfare that surrounded it.