The Christians who run a Delhi madrasa

by - 31st October 2012

As Islamophobia Awareness Month starts on Friday 2 November at the London Muslim Centre, here’s an example of Islamophilia, sent me by a Muslim friend, that might cheer things on a bit. 

Christians in Delhi are running a madrasa for girls in a slum district.

They’re not just any old Christians either.  They’re the inheritors of the extraordinary legacy of the Cambridge Brotherhood  (since renamed Delhi Brotherhood Society) who founded St Stephen’s Hospital and St Stephen’s School – alma mater of Rajiv Gandhi.

They also have the benefice of the first Anglican church in Delhi – built by the swashbuckling ‘White Mughal’ James Skinner of Skinners Horse after he nearly died in battle.

These brothers were originally all Cambridge dons and priests, the elite of the British church, who went out to India to teach and study Indian religion, and help generate more understanding and fellow feeling.

They were not what are often dismissed as missionary do-gooders, but men of letters committed to finding common cause with a people whose thought they profoundly admired.

The good works which were not part of the original plan followed. 

The last remaining British brother, Father Ian Weatherall, 90 this year, founded a leper colony in the 1950s when local lepers asked him to conduct a funeral for one of their number.

Today they do things like combating female foeticide; or running a slum newspaper; or a night shelter – whose lads actually run the monastery kitchen – or AIDS programmes, or an old people’s home.

And evidently one madrasa.

The story concerns an old Muslim lady now in her nineties, who was divorced by her husband 80 years ago.  Saleeman Bi had moved to Delhi, and started the tiny madrasa about 30 years ago out of her meagre savings, in hopes that by providing education for poor girls, God would forgive her sins and take her to heaven when she died.

About three years ago, the madrasa fell on very hard times, and the old lady’s health deteriorated. 

She was on the verge of destitution, and there was no one to take care of her, says the local newspaper that reported the story.

It was then that the St Stephen’s Hospital Community Health Centre found her on a routine round of door-to-door medical check-ups.  She was in a pitiful condition, full of bed sores, with lice in her hair, and very unhygienic.

Dr Amod Kumar who runs the clinic took her under his wing, and ‘since then she became Amma to all the medical staff’, says the cutting.

What’s more, the madrasa has been re-opened with money from the local Congress leader and now teaches Arabic, Urdu and Quran to 30 girls.

St Stephen’s bears the costs of a new teacher’s salary and Saleema’s meals, and local people come now to seek her blessing and ‘dua’ – outreach – which is considered healing.

Dr Kumar meanwhile says the clinic tried to help 20 years ago. 

‘We tried to contact local Muslims to take care of the madrasa but no one agreed because of differences of opinion among them. 

‘Finally we decided to look after and care for this madrasa ourselves,’ he says.