Deoband’s battle for survival and relevance

Given new security restrictions and internal obduracy, one of the region’s most important schools of Islam stands at a crossroads.

On a hot, humid July afternoon, 22-year-old Shah Alam is among the thousand-odd Muslim students squatting to work on their final exams in a madrassa in Deoband, in the northern tip of Uttar Pradesh. When he was 14, Alam (see pic below) lost both of his arms in an accident; but he has since learned how to write with his elbows, and has enrolled in an eight-year course to become an alim, a religious scholar. He is among thousands of young Muslim men, from diverse ethnic, geographic and linguistic backgrounds, who have come to school in the small town of Deoband, to study various aspects of Sunni Islam, including logic, Islamic jurisprudence, Quranic studies, the history of literature and the hadiths. Yet despite a century and a half of crucial education work, today Deobandi seminaries find themselves struggling to continue to fund their work, and to prove to prospective students their continued relevance.

The Deoband school of Islam started during 1866, as part of the revivalist movement that was sweeping British India at the time. At the time, the town of Deoband was already a centre of Muslim culture, many families from the area having served in various capacities within the Mughal Empire – proximate as Deoband was to the Mughal capital of Delhi, about 100 miles distant. The founders also believed that the decision to create the new school in Deoband had divine sanction. Other schools of thought were also gaining momentum at the time, however, such as Ahle Hadith and Barelvi, each of which were committed to defining Islamic laws – in slightly different ways – and the Muslim community's relationship to them. Ahle Hadith was the most rigid of these three, while the Barelvi school of thought was far more at ease with the cultural practices of other Southasian communities. Deoband, meanwhile, occupied something of the middle space between these two, set apart by an emphasis on debate and dialogue. Deobandi institutions eventually gained influence in areas that had overwhelming Muslim populations (particularly in the Pashtun belt), whereas Barelvi took roots in the region that had mixed populations.

In 1866, Darul Uloom was founded as one of the first seminaries to train in Deobandi Islam, and has remained its most important institution. For Southasians today, this school is to the region as Al-Azhar University of Egypt is to West Asia. Since Darul Uloom opened, over 5000 Deobandi seminaries have been established throughout India, each of which is modelled on the first. For over a century since, Deobandi scholars have thus wielded considerable influence over the political, social and religious lives of the Muslims of Southasia. Many Deoband-trained scholars also went on to form their own socio-religious organisations. In 1919, for instance, a group of such scholars formed Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind to work for the rights of Muslims, and thus came in contact with other political groups including the Congress party. Tablighi Jamaat was another group started for the reformation of Muslims, which was begun in 1926 in Mewat province by Muhammad Ilyas al-Kandhlawi.

Today, around 35,000 male students are enrolled just at Darul Uloom. (Some of the other seminaries allow female students, though their numbers are relatively few.) While students younger than five can join makhtabs, or elementary schools, at most Deobandi seminaries the average age is 15. Importantly, the vast majority of these students come from less-privileged backgrounds. The fact that Deobandi seminaries offer classes, boarding, lodging and medical expenses free of charge is obviously an attraction. Still, the living conditions and facilities at these schools are a stark reminder of the continued plight of India's Muslim population. As noted in government reports and observations on the ground, this circumstance is in bleak contrast to the rising social and economic profile of India's middle-class urban youths, who are collectively joining the global economy equipped with marketable skills. At most Deobandi seminaries, six students often share a tiny room, while hundreds of students are sometimes taught by a single teacher. More importantly, there are few avenues of employment available to them after their education comes to an end. As such, Deoband's continued relevance will directly depend on how effectively it equips its students with the necessary skills to meet the political, economic and religious challenges of the changing world in which they find themselves.

Autocratic but autonomous
While all would wish for better boarding services and higher teacher-student ratios, such concerns are directly related to the financial health of these institutions, which is precarious. For instance, Darul Uloom's yearly budget of nearly INR 130 million depends almost solely on donations by the Muslim community, including from local farmers who contribute wheat and other food products, as well as from distinguished alumni. Thus, while the current finances are enough to maintain the status quo, they would not be enough to allow for any significant reform or improvement of infrastructure. Most importantly, Darul Uloom and Darul Uloom Waqf, the two leading Deobandi seminaries, accept no financial help from the state, on the worry that doing so would dilute their institutional autonomy and control.

This desire to maintain institutional autonomy comes at a cost, however, and it is one that is inevitably borne by the students. Degrees from institutions such as Darul Uloom, for instance, are not recognised by the Indian government (nor any other government), and therefore act as a hindrance for students hoping to join advanced courses in universities or to get a suitable job. "State recognition is important to open doors of opportunities for the Muslim youth," says Shah Nawaz, a Darul Waqf student from Bihar. "Many of us come here from poor backgrounds, and obviously would like to improve our families' economic conditions after we're done with our studies." The students are not alone in recognising the need for reforms in terms of administrative structure and curriculum. Some scholars, even within Darul Uloom (though they do not want to be quoted), express the hope that administrative changes could someday strike a balance between autonomy and accountability, and allow for greater flexibility in the curriculum used. In particular, they point to the need to include technical courses (for instance, information technologies) for which English-language skills are necessary.

Recently, there has been an attempt to impose a top-down reforms process. The so-called Central Madrassa Board Bill, a draft of which was prepared by the New Delhi government in early October, was an effort to provide all Islamic seminaries with state funding, but subject to the acceptance of a reform package that sought to enhance accountability and introduce new subjects of study in the seminaries. Under the bill, a board would also be set up to standardise all non-theological aspects of the madrassa system, and funds would be provided to board-affiliated seminaries to introduce computers and other technological aids for teaching.

During meetings called by the Ministry of Human Resources Development to discuss the bill and evolve a consensus before the legislation process begins, however, objections were raised by some Muslim parliamentarians. Of the 18 Muslim MPs who attended the meeting, three objected to the draft – the Majilis-e-Ittehadul Muslimmen MP from Hyderabad, Asaddudin Owaisi; Trinamool's Sultan Ahmad, who is also a minister in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government; and Ahmad Syed Malihabadi, an independent. They were particularly critical of a provision that would give power to lawmakers to appoint the panel that would run the Central Madrassa Board, remove any member, and monitor the way that funds are used. Education Minister Kapil Sibal subsequently gave a one-month deadline for Muslims MPs to draw up an agreement on how and in what manner the Board could be constituted. Yet during the early-November convention of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind, members again opposed the proposed Board. They argued that the government had no right to "meddle" with the madrassas, adding that any change made to the existing system was "totally unacceptable".

With specific regards to the Deobandi system, however, debates focusing on autonomy and state regulation in fact hide the inherent flaws that are indeed afflicting the seminaries – and particularly limiting the institutional capacity of each to realise its full potential. For instance, decision-making capacity continues to be severely constrained by the fact that the seminary administrative structures revolve around personalities. The prominent Deobandi institutions are all family run, and there is little incentive to infuse fresh blood in order to democratise the working of these bodies. These schools also need to become more inclusive, by bringing in people from various castes such as Telis, Gujjars and Jats. "It is a fact that the Deobandi institutions are run by upper-caste Muslims such as Ashrafs and Qureshis," notes Maulana Nadeem Al-Wajdi, editor of the Tarjaman-e-Deoband Urdu monthly. Such a backward-looking focus is thus constraining the Deobandi seminaries from fully engaging with their changing context, and the needs of their students.

Luv Puri

New influence
As the debate continues over these issues, the stakes are certainly high. For over a century, Deobandi scholars have played an instrumental role in shaping the political, social and religious lives of Southasian Muslims. Outside of India, the Deobandi school is particularly popular among Pashtun living along the Durand line, in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as in Bangladesh. Over the decades, many Deoband-trained scholars from the Pashtun community have established seminaries in their respective areas. Post-Partition, several such scholars (such as Mufti Mahmood, the father of Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, the president of a faction of the political party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam) migrated to Pakistan, where they went on to become political forces. State patronage for the Deobandi seminaries in Pakistan did not begin until the late 1970s, however, when the Pashtun population became involved in the Cold War rivalry.

Pakistan-based scholars such as Akbar Zaidi have argued that Deoband Islam in Pakistan has over the years become different from its roots in India. This is due to many factors, but including the influence of the strict Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia. Like much of the rest of the population of the Pashtun belt, most of the prominent Taliban commanders have studied in Deobandi institutions – a fact that has been seen with increasing worry in Islamabad. In August 2001, the government of Pakistan likewise created a Madrassa Education Board, and asked all seminaries to register with the government in return for financial benefits. As in India, the intention was to standardise syllabi and to allow a regulatory body to oversee the activities of the seminaries. Yet many seminaries continue to refuse to comply with the order. In 2001, an analyst for the US-based Brookings Institution wrote that there were around 45,000 seminaries in Pakistan, though that number is contested by many Pakistani experts. Either way, of these the Pakistani government recently stated that it had been able to register less than 15,900, and admitted that some seminaries continued to function without registration. Recently, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Babar Awan told the Pakistani Senate that the actual number of madrassas in the country is in fact far greater than those currently registered.

Overall, Deoband's international profile has taken a dip in recent years, and this has been largely due to the security environment in Southasia. Over the past decade, the ongoing conflicts in Pakistan and Afghanistan in particular have resulted in an increasingly restrictive education-visa policy by the Indian government, thus causing a significant decline in the number of foreign students at Deoband. In response, in February 2008, Darul Uloom hosted a conference of Islamic scholars of India to debate the issue of terrorism, after which the scholars unanimously passed a fatwa condemning all acts of terrorism in the name of Islam. "We thought that the time has come for the institution to come out with a strong position against terrorism, and to take a stand against the men who wrongfully invoke the name of Deobandi Islam for committing acts of terror," said Mualana Adil Siddique of Darul Uloom. However, given that the Deobandi scholars have very little interaction with their peers in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Bangladesh, the fatwa is seen as having had little impact in these areas.

Maulana Siddique says that the Indian government's new restrictive policy is bad for everyone. He feels that bringing students from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Deoband would have a sobering influence on them, as they could be educated under the genuine Deobandi curriculum while developing respect for religious diversity. Plus, the Pashtun students who graduate would be good ambassadors for the Deobandi education, which he says emphasises research, contextual interpretation of various religious terms, debate and engagement with non-Muslims, and also believes in peaceful co-existence. This view is contested by some scholars, however, who do not want students to come from 'troubled' areas out of fear that such individuals could 'poison' the minds of young Indian Muslims. This has to do with the way that Afghan, Bangladeshi and Pakistani students have become radicalised, whereas the Deobandi students in India are generally seen as moderate.

Peaceable opportunity
While staying at the seminary, this writer found that the students had strong feelings about the political and social challenges facing the Muslim community. They want to debate and gain a proper perspective on these issues but the curriculum is currently based in such a way that there was hardly any platform to promote critical thinking. Meanwhile, many say they resent the increased security checks of students by police, and also contest the alleged involvement of some Deoband-trained graduates in extremist activities.

Indeed, a few Darul Uloom graduates have already been implicated in extremist actions within India. A Darul Uloom alumnus from Jammu & Kashmir, Sajjad Ahmad Wani, was arrested for his alleged involvement in the serial court-complex bombings in Lucknow, Benaras and Faizabad in 2007, and the state agencies claim that he was member of Harkat ul-Jihad-e-Islami, a Bangladesh-based extremist group. According to the allegations, Wani tapped his Deoband connections for these activities. (Wani's family disputes his involvement with Harkat Jihad-e-Islami.) Another Darul Uloom graduate, Mohammad Waliullah, is likewise alleged by the police to have sheltered a few of his former Deobandi classmates while carrying out the 2006 bombing in Benaras that killed 28 people.

Instead of increased security crackdowns, the solutions would appear to be found in learning effective lessons from the past, as to how Deobandi scholars engaged with social and political issues of the times. From the very start, such intellectuals were aware of India's religious diversity, and they made conscious efforts to engage in dialogue with the non-Muslim population. In the mid-1870s, for instance, Deobandi scholars participated in religious debates that included Hindu and Christian scholars. They also jointly fought with non-Muslims against the British in the Indian freedom struggle, and responded to political and social challenges facing Muslim society. Deoband-trained Pashtun from NWFP also participated in the non-violent freedom movement against British rule under the leadership of Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, who, although he did not study in a Deobandi seminary, was nonetheless instrumental in establishing many such seminaries in the Pashtun belt.

There is thus a potent opportunity available that is currently being overlooked by security-focused policymakers in New Delhi. Due to their immense historic importance, seminaries such as Darul Uloom could today act as a constructive platform on which to debate the political, religious, economic and social challenges confronting Muslims in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, and simultaneously to engage in dialogue with non-Muslims. Likewise, in order to retain their past glory, Deobandi scholars will themselves have to take the initiative to evolve and reform the institutional structures of their seminaries, in order to creatively and effectively respond to the contemporary challenges facing Southasia's Muslims.

~ Luv Puri is a Fulbright Fellow at New York University. He previously reported for The Hindu.

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