There are around 800 students enrolled with the madrasa, out of which 250 are girls. The madrasa also has residential facility for 50 students
A family of Bani Israel (Sons of Israel), running one of the oldest madrasas in India may sound unbelievable. But in Sambhal district of West Uttar Pradesh, a nondescript locality, Hilali Sarai, boasts of such a seminary run by a family that has roots in ancient Israel.
Madrasa Sirajul Uloom, named after Maulana Siraj Ahmed Israili, who was a renowned aalim of his time and among few Islamic scholars who backed Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the founder of a modern madrasa (later Aligarh Muslim University), is run by Mohammed Mian Israili Qasmi, the representative of living generation of his family.
The madrasa is affiliated to UP Madrasa Board and runs both traditional Dars-e-Nizami syllabus and modern curriculum prescribed by the board that includes compulsory study of maths, english, hindi and science. Such madrasas are also called ‘model madrasas’ as they are following the government model of madrasa modernisation.
The Israili family traces its lineage to the Jewish companion of Prophet Muhammed, Abdullah bin Salam, who had converted to Islam during the lifetime of the Prophet. Nevertheless, the family has been maintaining its Bani Israel cultural identity all through history.
“The historical records say that our ancestor Abu Ishaque Abul Aja’ib Shah Muhammad Hilali came to India during the time of Mughal Emperor Akbar when the latter started Deen-e-Ilahi and a horde of Islamic scholars descended from Arabia to guide the ‘misguided’ Emperor. Historian Abdul Qadir Badayuni has mentioned Shah Hilali. He initially settled in Fatehpur Sikri near Agra and later on the insistence of Akbar himself, he moved to Sambhal. Thus, this place came to be known as Hilali Sarai. He had established his maktab (school) here, as was the tradition of the time that scholars used to start learning centres wherever they settled. Since then, our family has been running an educational house here,” says Mian Israili Qasmi, detailing the family history of the Israilis.
A research paper in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies by researcher on Jews in South Asia, Navras Jat Aafreedi, proves the authenticity of Mian Israili’s claim.
“There is a Sunni Muslim clan called Bani Israil in Sambhal (District Mo-radabad) and Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh, members of which consider themselves to be descendants of a Jewish sahaabi (companion of the prophet Muhammad) Hazrat Abdullah Ibn-i-Salaam. They claim that their ancestors settled in India a millennium ago to propagate Islam. Members of this clan generally use Israili as their last name. They reside, in both Sambhal and Aligarh, in a locality, each called Bani Israil Mohalla or Mohalla Bani Israilaan. Many from this clan migrated to Pakistan after its creation in 1947…” writes Aafreedi.
Similarly, one more scholar Joshua M. Benjamin, the author of The Mystery of Israel’s Ten Lost Tribes and the Legend of Jesus in India (2001), mentions having met an Aligarh Muslim University Professor with the Hebrew sounding name Shimoni Israili, a member of this clan.
Similarly classical historian Abdul Qadir Badayuni, writer of notable Muntakhab-ut-Tawarikh, the history of early Mughal period, mentions Shah Hilali Israili as a renowned Islamic scholar of Mughal period. Shah Hilali in Sambhal in fact taught him in the same maktab, which is today Sirajul Uloom.
Narrating more history of the madrasa, Mian Israeli says that as the Mughal rule went into sunset, the madrasa was patronised by Nawab of Hyderabad. The patronage lasted till the fall of Nawab’s Niza mat after the Partition of India.
“Meanwhile, one notable change took place. When Maulana Siraj Ahmed Israeli refused to sign a fatwa against Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, he became very pleased with Maulana and offered him to join as faculty in newly opened Mohammedan Anglo Oriental (MAO) College. Maulana didn’t go himself but sent his son Maulana Khalil Ahmed Israeli to join the college as Professor of Arabic. Maulana Khalil was later conferred the title of Shamsul Ulema (a coveted honour) by the Colonial British government for this contribution in the field of education.
While at MAO college, Maulana established the madrasa in a formal registered body in 1902. Since then, it’s been running in a similar fashion,” says Mian Israeli.
Mian Israeli maintains that the madrasa has always maintained a progressive outlook and has guided the Muslim community in very practical way.
“The scholars and patrons of the madrasa have always taken the lead in advising Muslims of siding with rationality and minimising both personal and social conflict. That’s you will not find any controversy ever attached with this seminary. In fact, the stellar history of the madrasa has remained obscured because we haven’t chased limelight and few curious minds have cared to know the silsila (lineage) of scholarship,” says Mian Israili.
Mian Israili lists Moulana Muhammad Manzoor Nomani, Moulana Muhammad Hayat Sambhli, Ghazi Muhammad Aazam, and freedom fighter politician Maulana Ismail Sambhali, among other notbales of the madrasa.
Maulana Ismail Sambhali was a noted figure of Jamiat Ulema- e Hind, a body of Indian Islamic scholars who were against division of India on religious lines. Maulana Ismail even fought 1946 election against Muslim League candidate and was among the chosen few who won on the Congress ticket from a reserved Muslim seat.
Maulana Manzoor Nomani, however, however, adopted a different way. He is credited to have turned Syed Abul Ala Maududi, who was a progressive and modern Muslim journalist-writer, into Maulana Maududi, a hardcore religious figure and both of them floated Jamaat- e-Islami. Manzoor Nomani also emerged as one of the tallest Islamic scholars of India in 20th century, and is regarded as an authority on Hadith. Unlike Maududi, he didn’t go to Pakistan and got himself attached with Lucknow-based seminary Nadwatul Ulema. In late 1970’s and 1980’s, his books on Ayatollah Khomeini and Islamic Revolution created a storm in the Indian Muslim community and they are said to be one of the causes of sectarian violence in Lucknow.
Mian Israili did not comment on Nomani’s views, as “they were personal to him.” “As I said, our seminary has always propagated the route of bridging gaps and persuading people to come closer rather than splitting apart. People can do anything in their individual capacity and scholarship,” says Mian Isarili.
He insists that the seminary must be viewed through his views on burning subjects such as triple talaq, halala, etc. So, what are his views? “I think the arbitrary manner of triple talaq is absolutely contrary to the spirit of Quran and is malignant. Halala is haram,” he stresses.
Coming back to the history of the madrasa, Mian Israili says that after the end of Hyderabad’s Nizamat, the madrasa was recognised by the government of India. “However, it was only in 1990’s that it was properly affiliated to the UP-Madrasa Board and it started getting government aid as slated for the seminaries,” says Mian Israil.
According to him, as part of the Madrasa Board, the seminary has to teach compulsory subjects like hindi, maths, english and science. “As part of the Board affiliation, the government also appoints 12 teachers for primary and junior high school level. All these teachers have to have knowledge of Urdu as compulsory as the medium of the madrasa is Urdu,” he says.
When reminded that how come the students taught in Urdu medium compete with those being taught in Hindi or English mediums, he says that keeping this in mind, the teachers are urged to teach Science and Maths in English so that students who want to pursue further studies in a science subject and they might join other schools. Only those who want to pursue religious studies and languages such as Arabic and Persian may stay in the seminary.
“Most of our students pass out after Class 8 and opt for mainstream education in regular government and private schools. Only those boys and girls who want to pursue Theology and languages go for further classes,” says Mian Israili.
According to Israili, there are around 800 students enrolled with the madrasa. Out of them, 250 are girls. The madrasa has residential facilities for 50 students.
“For a modern madrasa, the basic requirement is resources. As being a government-aided institution, we certainly get some teachers on government pay scale, but we don’t get other facilities like building, hostel, classroom, ground and other facilities. For that, we have to depend on chanda (collection and donation from the community),” says Mian Israili.
(Anas Mohammed is a Delhi-based journalist, specialising on issues related to Muslim Affairs. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)