Indian journalist and filmmaker Vivek Sinha’s novel Chip in the Madrasa is the heartrending and all-too-familiar tale of how the serene, progressive stream of village life in a rural, modern-day Indian village is gradually and insidiously poisoned by the influence of Saudi-backed Wahhabism.
Available on Amazon, Chip in the Madrasa is set in the village of Basera, where a learned maulvi sahab (religious scholar) wants to teach science, mathematics and computers at his madrasa. He sees himself as a faithful representative of the basic tenet of Islam, which is to seek and spread knowledge. Instead of demanding respect, he commands it from both the old and young inhabitants of his village.
His son’s plan to introduce computers to the local madrasa even wins the backing of members of the management committee and some community leaders. But it isn’t long before Basera and the adjoining villages become laboratories on which Wahhabi strategists test their game plan: bringing the learned men of the villages with their progressive interpretation of Islam and their penchant for development into dangerous conflict with theocratic ideologues vying for control over both political parties and the definition of Islam.
As the maulvi sahab realizes, his struggle is for Islamic reformation – a struggle in which Muslims who know about the history of Islam engage in a battle of ideas and ideals to reclaim it from the clutches of Wahhabi thugs and their virulent version of Islam.
The novel charts the slow and steady change through which younger men become increasingly assertive, while the more moderate older and wiser ones fearfully rein in their activities. A dilapidated rustic tea shack owned by a local named Chacha undergoes refurbishment (with an injection of Saudi cash) and bubbles with business and prosperity, all an investment to spread the Wahhabi tentacles across the region and to insinuate it into everyday village life.
Frequented daily by illiterate or semi-literate laborers who lack the tools to reason out the extremist rhetoric, the tea stall becomes the locus of the Islamist influence. Their strategy is to deprive Muslims of modern education while simultaneously keeping the “Muslim victim” leitmotif spinning, thus allowing Wahhabis to gain control by posturing as noble saviors of the population and representing themselves as spokesmen for “Muslim victims” everywhere.
Meanwhile, the educated and rational Muslims like the book’s protagonist maulvi sahab are marginalized, thus removing the most qualified rivals to the Islamist propaganda. Having mobilized Muslim resentment, the next phase sees the village’s infiltrators exploiting the most vulnerable daily wage-earners from the lower social strata and turning them into pawns while instilling the importance of following sharia law within the community. The extremists explain to them that all of peoples’ ills are the result of impiety, a model drawn directly from Kashmir.
At election time, the Muslim victimization mantra becomes the singular winning formula. Central to the story is the impact of these changes on women and girls. The author is blunt in his exposition of how the men who posture as champions of chastity and modesty for women simultaneously remain fixated on sexuality and turn even young girls and female relatives into bargaining chips to be traded for their own political cache or into sex slaves to feed their perverse misogynistic fantasies.
It isn’t long before the humble maulvi sahab and his madrasa become a bone of contention, since he is one of the few critical thinkers in the village with the education to see through the deceptive game plan being woven by the Wahhabists in the name of Islam.
Sinha’s book, like its central character, draws on extensive research about Islam and Islamic scriptures. It details the 18th century history of how Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahab’s extremely narrow view of Islamic teachings became a tool for the imperial designs of the tribal chief of a small town in Saudi Arabia (Muhammad Ibn Saud) and became the template for territorial expansionism across the Arabian Peninsula.
Through the eyes of Anil, a university student from Kerala who was introduced to the pro-Islamist Party’s ideology at university (but who later saw how the ideas espoused in public were openly flouted in practice), the hypocrisy of Islamist ideologues is laid bare. While cursing Western imperialism and decadence during the day, the party cadres are pictured sipping whisky and wine in five-star urban nightclubs by night and constantly using prostitutes.
The maulvi sahab is the one antidote to their poison, the most competent Islamic scholar in the village who knows that the new arrivals from Saudi Arabia do not follow the spirit of the Holy Quran. While the visiting religious “scholar” is festooned with accolades and given a marketing blitzkrieg for his lecture before a pious congregation of Basera villagers, maulvi sahab is among the few present who knows that, contrary to Kamran’s proclamations, nowhere in the Quran is it explicitly mentioned that women must cover themselves or that men are permitted to hurt, abuse or offend a woman.
To counter the rhetoric of these self-proclaimed custodians of Islam and their Urdu newspaper, Allah-e-Niyamat, the maulvi sahab begins to pen articles with the help of his son’s start-up newspaper, Mudaakhilat (“Intervention”). Despite the start-up’s relatively low circulation, the maulvi sahab commits his energies to explaining in Mudaakhilat how man-made sources have been used to derive sharia laws and to elaborate on the Holy Quran, beyond anything coming from Allah.
In a very tangible way, Vivek Sinha’s book is itself an intervention, a vivid reminder that religion is a potentially powerful instrument of political power that does not necessarily promote human progress or the flourishing of human beings.