The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Dust over madarsa text
- Picture protest forces changes in new-look book

Calcutta, July 1: A book on the prophets of the Islamic canon, written by a scholar of Islamic history and Arabic, has landed in trouble by going off the beaten path to be popular among students not yet in their teens.

Chhotoder Ambiya Karem (Prophets for Children) — replete with “sketches” of some of the prophets revered by Muslims and attributing many characteristics to Allah about which the community is not united — has sparked a debate among adults.

Now being taught in classes V and VI of many madarsas affiliated to the West Bengal Madarsa Board, the book, written by Haroon-ur Rashid and priced at Rs 48, has riveted much more attention outside classrooms with its unconventional mode of representing the Islamic canon. The author has been forced to stop press and go for “amendments to avoid the entirely avoidable and uncalled for harassment”.

Rashid, a teacher of Arabic at Calcutta University and Maulana Azad College, sought to portray the prophets’ lives in a manner attractive to children, said publisher of the book M.A. Rashid, who is also the author’s son.

The details that pepper it have irked the conservatives, evident from the protests that have greeted the book in the community’s media, mainly the Qalam, a weekly read by Bengali Muslims.

The first chapter — dealing with the story of creation and the first human beings on earth (Adam and Hawa, the Eve of Bible) — has one such passage. “Which ruler likes a subjectless realm'” it asks, portraying Allah as not feeling too happy with a universe minus subjects. He, therefore, creates farishtas (angels) to “fulfil his necessities”. The Bengali phrase used reads: “nijer proyojon metabar jonyo”.

But Allah gets “bored” with that as well (the Bengali word used is “ekgheyemi”) and then creates djinns. This passage, too, has not been liked by too many, including the ulemas of Furfura Sharif in Hooghly, one of the most important sites of learning for Bengali Muslims.

Publisher M.A. Rashid, however, defended his father. “My father wrote the book after some painstaking research that involved many texts brought from Mecca when he, along with my mother, went there a couple of years back,” he said. “Those who are objecting to it don’t know what they are talking about.” He insisted that Islam did attribute “certain feelings” to Allah.

Some “sketches”, interpreted as pictures by a section of madarsa teachers and students, have done their bit to add to the controversy. One sketch depicts Ma Hawa (the first woman) standing near the tree whose fruit she and Adam were forbidden to eat. Two more sketches — interpreted widely as being those of Yunus and Yakub (corresponding to Jonah and Jacob of the Christian canon) —have come under fire from the ulemas. “Our religion does not have any place for pictorial representations of prophets,” said one of them.

Rashid, however, said there was no caption to the pictures. “No one can prove that they are of Hawa or the prophets,” he said, though the sketches went with stories relating to the prophets. Besides, his father was writing a book for 10- and 11-year-olds. “Which class-V student will want to read a book without illustrations'” he asks.

The author feels a section of purists are “creating a controversy without going through the book”. “They are closed to new ideas,” said Haroon-ur Rashid.

But the purists seem to have won the battle. Rashid said the illustrations were being done away with and “some sentences would be suitably amended”.

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