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Deoband of brothers

March 04, 2002

The Asian Age

Deoband of brothers
By Celia W. Dugger

Deoband, Uttar Pradesh: The orthodox Islamic school of thought that came to find its most virulent expression in the Taliban originated in this placid north Indian town, where Hindus and Muslims peaceably coexist to the eternal rhythms of sowing and harvesting.
Along streets ornamented with shrines to blue-skinned Hindu gods, cows, sacred in Hinduism, forage unfettered. Five times a day, the muezzins' calls to prayer sound from the minarets of the 135-year-old Darul Uloom seminary that is famed throughout the Islamic world and teaches the form of Islam known as Deobandism.

But while the Deobandis of India, and India's 130 million Muslims in general, have embraced India's secular Constitution and religious diversity, the Deobandis of Afghanistan and Pakistan sought to impose their fundamentalist brand of Islam by force.

Pakistan, India and Bangladesh have the world's second, third and fourth largest Muslim populations behind Indonesia. Almost one out of every three of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims lives in the subcontinent. So it is important to ask why South Asia's Deobandis have taken such sharply divergent paths. Here in Deoband, the concept of jihad as holy war is simply not taught.

"In our madrasas you will not find even a stick to beat anyone,” said Marghboor Rahman, the elderly vice chancellor of the seminary. By contrast, the Deobandi madrasas of Pakistan became training grounds for holy war and many of the Taliban leaders. Maulana Masood Azhar, Deobandi leader of the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed, is believed to have been behind terrorist attacks on India. And the Taliban, as the Deobandi harborers of Osama bin Laden, posed a mortal threat to the United States.

The answers about the different brands of Deobandism on the subcontinent appear rooted in India's secular, democratic tradition. To step onto the campus of Darul Uloom in Deoband is to step back in time. The 3,500 boys and young men, mostly from peasant backgrounds, attend free of charge. They leave their sandals outside the scalloped doorways of classrooms that are more than 100 years old.

In one, a teacher read by the hour from the Hadith, a collection of the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, while hundreds of students sat on the floor, listening respectfully. Rahman, 86, the school's leader, turns to history when he talks about why India's Deobandis are different from their cousins across the border. He explains that the seminary opposed the creation of Pakistan, a Muslim homeland.

"We are Indians first, then Muslims,” he said, speaking in Urdu. The divide between Deobandis had its origins in the 1947 Partition of the British Indian empire into India and Pakistan, an event that set off cataclysmic violence between Hindus and Muslims and sundered the Muslims of the subcontinent, too.

No longer were devout young Muslims from all over the former empire free to attend the seminary at Deoband, and today the Deobandis of Pakistan who were educated in Deoband itself have largely died out. "They have adopted the same educational syllabus, but beyond that, they developed in a different manner,” Rahman said. "We do not have any relationship with them.”

The seminary in Deoband was founded in 1866. Its teachers imparted to their students a socially conservative vision of Islam purified of folk and Hindu customs and concerned with teaching individuals how to practice their faith properly.

In politics, the Deobandis joined the Independence Movement led by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a Hindu, and opposed the separate Muslim homeland of Pakistan that was ultimately founded by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a secular-leaning barrister.

Secular democracy has proved to be a bulwark against fundamentalism in India. While Pakistan is 97 per cent Muslim — and religion has been routinely exploited there for political gain — India, a much more populous nation with almost as many Muslims numerically, is only 12 per cent Muslim.

"The Muslims of India are scattered all over the place,” said Syed Shahabuddin, editor of Muslim India, a monthly magazine. "Out of 545 parliamentary districts, just 11 have a Muslim majority. How can you make a Muslim political party?” Still, in more districts Muslims form a crucial swing vote where the Hindu majority is often fractured politically by caste. As a result, they have a measure of influence at the ballot box, if not the ability to win outright control.

Deoband is in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where the state election season has been under way. The political parties of the low castes and the peasant castes competed ferociously for Muslim votes. The severest provocation of Muslims occurred here in Uttar Pradesh in 1992, when Hindu fanatics tore down a 16th-century mosque at Ayodhya. Ever since, Muslims have often cast their votes tactically for the party best positioned to defeat the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, whose leaders led the movement to build a Hindu temple on the site of the mosque.

Less than a mile from Deoband is the majority-Muslim village of Labakri. The villagers consider themselves Deobandis, but the purity of Islamic practice expounded by the scholars at the nearby seminary does not extend even this far from the gates of Darul Uloom.

The people continue to follow a caste system that is theoretically forbidden. Like most Muslims in India, their forebears were low-caste Hindus who converted to Islam over centuries. Hindu cultural practices of caste and dowry have persisted. The Deobandi villagers of Labakri, like the Muslims of India, have overwhelmingly chosen to express themselves at the ballot box, not through organised violence.

But in Pakistan, Deobandis, who are Sunni Muslims, have been instrumental in armed Islamic militancies in Afghanistan and Kashmir and in efforts to turn Pakistan into a theocratic state.
A series of powerful players — Pakistani military dictators and democrats, rich Saudis and the American government — tried to harness Islam to their own political and geopolitical purposes. They fed zealotry on a rich diet of money, patronage and arms, creating a fundamentalist force in Afghanistan and Pakistan that no one could control, say scholars and political analysts.

The Pakistani military sought to strengthen its rule through an alliance with clerics and from the 1980s funded thousands of madrasas. The Saudis, many of whom followed their own austere and conservative brand of Islam known as Wahhabism, sought to build a Sunni wall around Shiite-dominated Iran and contributed heavily to Pakistan's Deobandi madrasas, as well.

The Americans poured money into Pakistan to fund Islamic militants who fought the Russians in Afghanistan. The elected government of Benazir Bhutto nurtured the Taliban in the hopes of setting up a malleable government in Afghanistan.

And since the mid- to late 1990s, both Pakistani military rulers and prime ministers have allowed secret funding of Islamic radicals who have fought Indian rule of Kashmir, India's only majority-Muslim state. Notably, with the exception of Kashmiris, the Muslims of India have not joined the war against their own country and often insist, like Hindus, that Kashmir belongs to India.

Even here on the campus of Darul Uloom in Deoband, students admire the exploits of the Taliban, the Deobandis they have never known, but who stood up to the Americans. "Our schools have nothing to do with them, but still, what Americans did to the Taliban was unfair,” said Khalil Rehman, 20.

"They wanted to finish the Taliban because they brought Islamic rule. They tried to implement the teachings of Allah.” But asked whether he would rather live in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, or in secular India, Rehman did not hesitate. "India is our motherland,” he said. "And we love it.”

(By arrangement with the New York Times)

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