By Nihal Khan
August 26, 2015
Choosing to Study Islam
I consciously decided to pursue Islamic studies at a full-fledged level in my last year of undergrad at Montclair State. I was initially planning on pursuing law school as a career path; I can happily say I found my niche in the academic study of religion, more so of Islam. Though generally the eastern and western traditions of studying Islam have been at odds with each other ever since the days of British colonization, I found that in today's day and age there is a dire need to synthesize both of these philosophies to an extent in which they become workable realities.
In summary, the eastern study of Islam is focused on classical textual understanding in which the soul of Islam is understood and envisioned as absolute truth—commonly taught in madrasas and Islamic universities in the Muslim world. The western study of Islam is focused on orientalist analyses of the religion, anthropological, historical, and sociological factors that affected the adherence of Islam in those frames. This form of study is common in western universities that teach religion in a deconstructionalist form while ignoring the matter of absolute truth.
I had already been looking at Nadwatul 'Ulema prior to pursuing Islamic studies as a research career. I was seeking spiritual gratification through the traditional Islamic sciences. After being accepted into the Hartford Seminary's Master's in Islamic Studies program, I decided to make this a full-time endeavour.
But why Nadwa?
Nadwatul 'Ulama: Why Did I Chose to Study Here?
Firstly, being an overseas citizen of India (OCI) and possessing a lifetime visa to the country had made my task of studying 75% easier. The biggest issue students of the sacred Islamic sciences face with studying overseas is constantly getting a visa renewed. Though the Hartford Seminary had accepted me and allowed me to pursue extracurricular research, they were not funding my trip nor had I asked them to do so. With the OCI, I did not need to do specific field research where the contingency of my visa's validity was dependent upon a university, nor was I really eligible to spend a large chunk of time in any other country due to the visa issue. With the OCI, I can enter and exit India as I please.
Secondly, Nadwatul 'Ulema seemed like the easiest institution to be admitted into for a foreigner while not having to worry about an unstable political climate and tough admission guidelines. Madinah University, Jāmiʿat Umm al-Qura, Imam Muhammad, Qaseem, and the other Saudi universities are acceptable options as places to study as a student who has an idea of Islamic thought, but admissions take a year (sometimes even more) and there is no guarantee that I would get in. The Islamic University in Madinah also has a strong population of American students, which is a huge plus to keep a student from a Western country socially engaged (though Nadwa is lacking in this regard and can significantly negatively affect someone, I came here knowing this). Sadly Yemen, Syria, and Egypt have all fallen into a great amount of political turmoil in recent years which deterred/prevented me from studying over there, so Dar al-Mustafa, Al-Azhar University, and Abu Nour Institute were all out of the question.
Due to my Indian ethnicity and the post-2008 politics between India and Pakistan because of the Mumbai bombings, Jamia Darul Uloom Karachi, Jamia Binoria Almiyah, Jamia Ashrafia or Ashrafia Islamic University, the International Islamic University of Islamabad, and all the other Pakistani institutions became very limited choices for me. The only places left were maybe some universities in Jordan or the Qasid Institute, the International Islamic University of Malaysia, the European Institute of Islamic Sciences in France, or Darul Uloom in England or the United States. I did not look into universities in Jordan much; Qasid seemed to be mainly focused on Arabic and did not have a complete Islamic studies program (someone can correct me if I am wrong here), Malaysia was not on my radar since I did not know anyone from there at the time. I got word from people that the EIIS in France was not at its peak that it was known for, and because I am a former student of the madrasa system within America, I wanted to get a different experience of studying Islam outside of that environment (England is included here).
There were also some institutions in the gulf countries such as Qatar and Kuwait, but I was not too interested as the curricula were not my cup of tea for what I needed. Not to mention I wanted a feel of what it was like to live outside of the United States —which I would not have achieved by living in a Gulf country that looks, feels, and operates very much like America. But some places like the Qatar Institute of Islamic Sciences seemed to show an advanced curriculum with famed Muslim philosophers as visiting professors such as Dr. Tariq Ramadan and Dr. Jasser Auda.
Thirdly, Nadwatul 'Ulema has quite a jubilant history within the subcontinent in the areas of unity within the Muslim community, academia, comparative studies, all while rooted in the traditional textual understanding of Islam. In the late 1800s, some forty to fifty years after the Great Mutiny (the Indians call it the First War of Independence) where thousands of Indians—regardless of religion, were massacred at the hands of British imperialists, Muslims were figuring out what direction they wanted to take their educational institutions. In a nutshell, India's largest and most influential Muslim educational institutions at the time—Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and Darul Uloom Deoband presented two approaches to preserving Islam which each side disagreed with. AMU was more concerned about teaching the secular sciences within a Muslim shell, while Deoband was entrenched in understanding, teaching, and preaching the textual tradition of Islam.
In the midst of these two schools, a conference of scholars from each side (and from outside these two groups) formed a think tank of sorts called the Nadwatul 'Ulama (the conference of scholars). They had a conference which eventually blossomed into the institution which we have today in Lucknow. The premise was to be open and inviting to Muslims of all backgrounds, schools of thought, associations–be it Deobandi, Ahle Hadith (Salafi), Sufi, Hanafi, Shafi, Hanbali, Jamaat-e-Islami, and others–as well as recognize the academic needs of the time and provide solutions for them. This sense of unity and functionality within the subcontinent really struck me in a positive light, as this institution preserved the Muslim community at a time of great strife and turmoil while not limiting their intellectual abilities of growth. I have studied in various traditions throughout my short life and learned to be critical of whatever religiously-political reactionary establishment of Islam that I had taken from. Hence, Nadwa just seemed like the right fit for me. I felt these similar values are what American Muslims are in need of, hence after visiting in 2014; I applied and got into Nadwatul 'Ulema.
There are various streams at Nadwa to study from according to the student's liking. All of these streams fall under the traditional Dars al-Nizami curriculum with some tweaks from the institution. Though foreign students are usually not turned away, officially you need to have a valid visa to stay in India to be given admission, A student should be able to converse either in Urdu or Arabic (you can learn either during your stay) so that you are not placed in the first year of the program. (Though my personal recommendation, it is better to get a good grounding in your basics back home before coming to large institutions where you are not given individual attention due to the large volume of students). Though a “section” is the English rendering, the following are all technically traditional 'Alimiyyah programs with respect to the curriculum. Here is the breakdown:
The 'Aaliyah Section (BA Equivalent)
This section is four years long and is Nadwa's main stream. Many students that study here usually come from another madrasa branch of Nadwa in India, have studied before the beginning of the first year of this program, and are given the most attention from the BA equivalent streams. The strong points of this section and the Khusoosi are Arabic, Fiqh, and Hadith. This section is taught fully in Urdu
The Khusoosi Section (BA Equivalent)
Though similar to the 'Aaliyah section, the Khusoosi is mainly for students that are coming from a high school (10+2) or BA program. Basically, the students here have not studied in a madrasa for a majority of their lives (do not forget that India has very clean-cut delineations for students studying specific majors. What you study is what you will be working in for the rest of your life). I have a lot of respect for many students in this section as they went from studying commerce, finance, or engineering to Islamic studies. This section also has a large amount of students who may be in between certain milestones in their life, so many may not stick around for next year. Some are studying in this program because they failed other majors in college and are trying to establish themselves in a completely different field. Students spend three years here and then automatically transfer into the 'aaliyah section in the last two years. This section is also taught fully in Urdu.
The Arabic Section (BA Equivalent)
This section mainly caters to foreigners who do not have a stronghold in Urdu. All subjects mirror the Khusoosi section, except that all classes are taught in Arabic, Shafi'i fiqh is learned by the students instead of Hanafi Fiqh, and there is much more emphasis on Hadith over Fiqh. I initially took admission here but transferred into the Urdu section later as I felt the studies were stronger in terms of academic rigor in the latter. At the same time the students in the Urdu section were much more inclined towards in-depth study as their environments and teachers sought to do that much better. Do not think you will not learn Arabic in the other sections, rather I have seen better Arabic speakers come from the Urdu section compared to the Arabic section. As mentioned before, the only plus advantage is that all classes are taught in the Arabic language.
For those wondering, there is no dedicated one year for Daw rah al-Hadith (a complete reading of all six books of Hadith) at Nadwatul 'Ulema in the BA Equivalent ('Alimiyyah) sections. Though you begin studying the six books of Hadith, Nadwa wants you to finish the Fadeelah program if you would like to finish Bukhari and Muslim, the two main canonical works of Prophetic traditions in Sunni Islam.
The Fadeelah Section (MA Equivalent/Takhassus/Specialization)
This is probably the crux of Nadwa's academic offerings. After completing one of the above sections and having a grasp in Urdu and Arabic, students are given the choice of specializing in a science —Prophetic traditions (Hadith), Quranic exegesis (Tafsir), Islamic law (fiqh), Islamic evangelism (Da’wah), completing the remaining portions of the collections of Bukhari and Muslim, and learning to research texts, write articles, and the like. This is a two year program and comes highly recommended by many people such as Shaykh Akram Nadwi of the United Kingdom.
Nadwa definitely has the environment needed for a student of Islamic sciences to progress in whatever they are studying. These are the base programs. Students are expected to read books outside of class, engage in short research projects, as that is the actual point of coming to Nadwa in the view of all the teachers. Though it takes time to break in to the culture, food, and people, once you get into the swing of things you will be able to drink from the wells of knowledge therein. My own personal out-of-class educational endeavours took me to Mazahir al-Uloom in Saharanpur where I sat with Shaykh Yunus Jaunpuri (India's most senior scholar of Hadith) for two days, Darul Uloom Deoband, and various madrasas in Gujarat. Just to show how big of a deal Shaykh Yunus is, Shaykh Akram Nadwi is also currently in the midst of authoring a book on him and his accomplishments in the sciences of Hadith.