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Soon after 1857, Hafiz Sayyid Abid Husain...
Jul 2016


Soon after 1857, Hafiz Sayyid Abid Husain, Maulana a Mahtab Ali and Shaikh Nihal Ahmad started a maktab (elementary school) in the Jami Masjid of Deoband which developed within ten years into a Dar-alUlum, an institution of higher learning. Maulana Muhammad Qasim to whose boldness and energy the Dar-alUlum of Deoband primarily owed its existence, planned to have a net work of maktabs in western UP to serve as feeders for the Dar-alUlum.. The Dar-alUlum was the manifestation of a militant spirit of resistance to the domination of the British and the Western culture.  The Dar-alUlum not only became but was conceived as an intellectual and academic dar-al-Islam, where the doctrines and practices of the Shariah could be kept alive and from where a jihad for observance of the Shariah could be carried on, observes M. Mujeeb (The write up on the institution is based on, among others, on the works of Professor M. Mujeeb and Professor Charles Allen).


The most vital school of ulama in India in the second half of the nineteenth century was that centred upon Deoband, the dar al-ulum (seminary) founded in 1867 about ninety miles to the north-east of Delhi in the Shaharanpur district. The suppression of the Rising of 1857 had scattered the ulama of the North-Western Provinces: many were killed, some migrated to Hyderabad and some, such as Hajji Imdad-Allah (1817-99), left India for good and settled in Mecca. In 1867 Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanotawi (1832-80), a descendant of a jagirdar of Shah Jahan and Rashid Ahmad Gangohi (1828-1905), raised a small maktab (school) at Deoband to a dar al-ulum. They doubtless found an area anti-pathetic to British rule more suitable for a traditional Muslim seminary than British-dominated Delhi or Lucknow.

The ulama of Deband prided themselves (and still pride themselves) on being ahl al-sunna wa'l jama a (people of the practice of the Prophet and of the community), accepting the authority of the four orthodox sunni mazahib (Sunnis schools of Islamic Juris prudence)

Maulana Muhammad Qasim argues for the Asharite doctrine of God's exclusive and immediate sovereignty over His creation, for the subordination of reason to the Tradition of the Prophet, for the Authority of certified reporters of hadith and for the necessity of accepting the ijitihad of earlier scholars and jurists when accepted by ijma. Qasim further argued that that which God commands is good. Maulana Muhammad Qasim also employed his talents as a controversialist against Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism, notably in his Taqrir-I Dil-Pazir. The Deobandi ulama offered practical guidance on daily behavior for those who consulted them. Between 1911 and 1951 it is said that the Deobandi ulama issued 147,851 fatawas.


Deoband became known throughout India as the place where boys could safely be initiated into the old religion of their forefathers. In 1879 the institution assumed the additional name of Dar al- Ulum, the abode of Islamic Learning. By then it was already well on the way to becoming renowned throughout the Islamic world as a centre of religious study second only to the university attached to the great mosque of Al-Aqsa in Cairo. By the end of the nineteenth century Dar ul-Ulum Deoband had founded more than two dozen allied madrassahs in northern India. At the same time the school produced an ever-expanding cadre of graduates who could compete to advantage against all others, outshine critics in public debates, take the lead in public prayers and, above all, disseminate the teachings of the Dar ul-Ulum Deoband school in their own madrassahs.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century these teachings were dignified with the term salafi, or ‘following the forefathers’ based on the ideal of emulating the early fathers as a basis for Islamic renewal first developed by the medieval Hanbali jurist of Damascus, Ibn Taymiyya, and those who followed them became known as salafiyya - ‘followers of the forefathers’. Both words were associated with the Prophet's Companions and the early scholars of Islam.


In 1911 two different outdoor gatherings took place in northern India. One was the Delhi Durbar to celebrate the accession of King George V as King Emperor. Eight months earlier a very different gathering had taken place. It was staged eighty miles to the north of Delhi, on the by then extensive campus grounds of the Dar ul-Ulum, Deoband Madrassah. Billed as a reunion, it was more in the nature of a conference, attended by some thirty thousand teachers and former students, and presided over by the madrassah's rector, sixty-year-old Maulana MAHMOOD UL-HASAN, widely regarded at the most influential cleric in India and on whom the title of Shaikh-ul-Hindi had been bestowed by his admirers.


Mahmood ul-Hasan's rise to religious authority mirrored that of the religious institution to which he had dedicated his life since joining Deoband Madrassah as its first student in 1866. After graduating in 1877 Mahmood ul-Hasan had gone on, with the full support of Deoband's founder Muhammad Qasim, to set up his own organization which he called Samaratut Tarbiyat (Results of the Training). This was a quasi-military body in which volunteers were known as fedayeen, or 'men of sacrifice'. They were taught to prepare themselves for armed Jihad against the British although in practice this preparation was limited to marching and drilling in Khaki uniforms, for weapons carrying nothing more lethal than staves. To the British authorities this body was about as menacing as a cadet corps, and Mahmood ul-Hasan's fedayeen were allowed to parade about freely. With the death of Muhammad Qasim in 1880 the leadership of the Deoband organisation passed first to its co-founder Rashid Ahmad and then, after his death in 1905, to Deoband's first graduate Mahmood-ul-Hasan.


Deobandi seminaries now in existence adhered to the original curriculum and continued to propagate the strict pro-tawhid, pro-ulema, anti-innovation, anti-polytheist, fundamentalist revivalism first initiated  in Syria by Ibn Taymiyya, in Arabia by Al-Wahhab and in India by Shah Waliullah. Deobandi theology reshaped mainstream Sunni thinking in India along more conservative lines.


The formation of the Indian National Congress, attracting support from both Hindu and Muslim intellectuals, led to growing fears among many Muslims that representative government on the British model would lead to Hindu majority rule. One response was the formation in 1906 of the All-India Muslim League, dedicated to the protection of Muslim interests. But Mahmood ul-Hasan and other radicals saw even the Muslim League as playing into the hands of the British authorities by helping them ‘divide and rule’.


It was against this background that Mahmood ul-Hasan stood up before the assembled delegates at the April 1911 Dar ul-Ulum Deoband reunion to announce that the time had come to resume the armed struggle against the British colonial government in India. 'Did Maulana Nanautawi [Deoband's founder, Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi] found this madrassah only for teaching and learning?' he is said to have demanded. ‘It was founded in 1866 to teach and prepare Muslims to make up for the losses of 1857.’

Then in the spring of 1914 he put into execution plans for hijra and jihad remarkably similar to those first drawn up by Syed Ahmad almost a century earlier, even to the extent of seeking to replicate his model of a supply base in the plains and fighting base in the mountains. A group of fifteen volunteers, made up of Deoband old boys under the joint command of two of Mahmood ul-Hasan's lieutenants, Maulana OBAIDULLAH Sindhi and Maulvi Fazal Ilahi, set out for the NWFP with the intention of linking up with other students from Peshawar and Kohat and then proceeding through Mohmand country to join the remnants of Syed Ahmad's Hindustani Fanatics in the mountains. At this point the Great War of 1914-1918 intervened, and with it came the Sultan of Tukey's call for Muslims to unite in jihad against Britain.


The Sultan's call for jihad now lead Mohmood ul-Hasan to change his plans. Obaidullah was ordered to proceed with his student volunteers to Kabul, while he himself sailed to  Jedda. What followed has never been satisfactorily explained, for the very good reason that Mahmood ul-Hasan's bid to replicate Syed Ahmad's holy war was such a fiasco that he and his supporters preferred to keep silent about it. But enough details survive to give the lie to those who claim that the Dar ul- Ulum Deoband was never in the business of promoting armed jihad. Early in 1915 Mahmood ul-Hasan, now calling himself Al-Qayed, The Leader, turned up in Mecca. There he presented himself to Ghalib Bey, the Turkish Governor of the Hijaz, to remain free, they now found themselves high on the Indian Police Special Branch's 'most wanted' list and unable to return to their homeland.


The traitorous activities of Mahmood ul-Hasan and his associates were publicly repudiated by the Dar ul-Ulum  Deoband authorities. They were able to show the British Government in India that they had severed all links with his organization long before the war. From this time onwards, the Deoband movement's political ambitions were concentrated on a new politico-religious party known as Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Hind (JUH), the party of Clerics of Hindustan, formed in October 1920. Mahmood ul-Hasan was freed in time to attend the JUH's inauguration. ‘I gave a lot of thought to the causes of the sorry state of this unmah [the world community of Islam] while in prison in Malta, ‘he declared.’ our problems are caused by two factors: abandoning the Quran and our in-fighting.’ He died a year later, aged seventy, his health broken by his three and a half years' imprisonment.

With the collapse of the Khalifat Movement in the early 1920s many Muslim intellectuals began to look for new Muslim identities. Mawdudi, who had returned to Delhi and became a student at the Dar ul-Ulum Deoband's Fatihpuri Madrassa, (something he never acknowledged in later years). For a time he was closely involved with the Deobandi JUH political movement, now led by Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madani, Mahmood ul-Hasan's successor as rector of Dar-ul-Ulum Deoband. Under Madani's leadership the JHU continued to support Congress and resisted the calls of the Muslim League for a separate Muslim state in the India sub-continent. The JHU also established links with Wahhabi Arabia. In 1921 it sent a delegation of mullahs to Nejd and thereafter continued to maintain ties with Ibn Saud and others.


The JUH'S alliance with Congress led to two splinter groups breaking away to form new politico-religious parties. The first was led by the Naqshbandi Sufi Maulana  Muhammad Ilyar, whose party, Tablighi Jamiat (Preaching Party), followed the teaching of Shah Waliullah but sought to apply them in largely apolitical terms. The second was led by Mawdudi, who began to promote a new political agenda based on his belief that, to survive in the modern world, Islam had to present itself as a viable political and social alternative to both Western capitalism and socialism. Islam, he believed, had to confront non-Islam head on, and out of that ‘Islamic revolution would emerge the modern Islamic state purged of all accretions, a ‘democratic caliphate’ whose citizens would embrace sharia willingly, even those aspects of sharia that were undemocratic. He put together an entirely new political platform based on Islamic revival and separatism, taking on board Deoband’s interpretative reading of Islam but setting aside its sectarian theology in favour of salvation through political action and jihad. These views became hugely influential among Muslim intellectuals in setting a new agenda for Islamic revival. In 1939 Mawdudi moved to Lahore, where two years later he and a number of like-minded individuals founded the Jamiat-i-Islami (JI), the Party of Islamists, in direct opposition to the then pro-Congress JUH.


At the time of partition in 1947 there were approximately two hundred madrassahs on Pakistan's soil. In 1972, of Pakistan's 893 madrassahs, 354 or 40 percent were Deobandi, 144 Ahi-i-Hadith and 267 Barelvi, representing the more moderate school of Sunni Islam. By the end of the 1980s an estimated 65 per cent of Pakistan's madrassahs were directly or indirectly Deobandi. In April 2002 (the first time accurate figure became available) Pakistan's Minister of Religious affairs put the total numbers of madrassahs in Pakistan at ten thousand, of which approximately four hundred were Shia, four hundred Ahl-i-Hadith, five hundred JI - and no fewer than seven thousand Deobandi. Of the 1.70 million students these ten thousand madrassahs accommodated, 1.25 million were receiving a Deoband-based or Ahl-i-Hadith religious education.


Deobandism has been the main repository of ‘Wahhabi’ fundamentalism outside Arabia since the mid-nineteenth century. General Pervez Musharraf, President of Pakistan is  reported to be the product of a Deoband education, and any one who is familiar  with the sub-continent will know which Deobandis are pillars of both Indian and Pakistan society. The same is true of Deobandis and Deoband institutions overseas. Yet it cannot be denied that Deobandis and their more overtly Wahhabi rivals, the Ahi-i-Hadiths, have in their zeal to revitalize Islam in their own image, played the principal role in promoting Islamist extremism in South Asia and beyond.


A well known Pakistani Journalist, Khalid Ahmed, has squarely  blamed the Deobandis for the massive inter-religious and intra-religious killings in Pakistan. In his words, In Pakistan, the hazar (city-dwelling Muslims) have been pushed back by a minority of badu (desert-dweller) warrior linked to Afghanistan. Once again, like Kuwait, there is a Saudi nexus which pushes their hard Deobandi Islam of Salafism. The feeding machine is not badu coming in from outside but Pakistan's madrassa system, spreading more badu thinking.


The two are incompatible. In the Islamic ideal, not only is there no distinction between ‘the things which are Caesar’s’ and 'the things that are God's' (Matthew 22.21) but rather the laws of God in Islam are to replace the purely man-made state. ‘Say’, Muhammad is instructed in Surah 6, Al An' am (The Cattle) at verse 71: ‘Allah’s guidance is the only guidance and we have been directed to submit ourselves to the Lord of the worlds.’


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