“We teach our children the value of love above religious sentiments. We train them for peace and love. That’s why they are not involved in any kind of activity that’s detrimental to peace. Students who are educated in other institutions — they are the ones involved in violent activities.” “There are no jihadis here, because we have full control over what we are teaching.” Indeed, “Islam is against not only the killing of a man, but even of an ant.”
However, “Pashtun leaders of the Taliban in Afghanistan, including the late Mullah Omar, were trained in puritanical Deobandi madrassas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border before imposing their joyless, patriarchal regime on the Afghan people in the 1990s. Pakistani Taliban fighters attended Deobandi madrassas in the same region. Two years ago, the US Treasury designated the Ganj madrassa in the Pakistani city of Peshawar as a terrorist training centre for suicide bombers, although the school’s administrator — of the Ahl al-Hadith or Salafi tradition, a version of ultra-conservative Islam slightly different from Deoband’s — insisted that it was a purely religious institution.”
Of course, a “purely religious” Islamic institution can teach that Paradise is guaranteed for those who “kill and are killed” for Allah, as per Qur’an 9:111. Not that this has anything to do with Islam, of course.
…At first sight, Deoband, a typical town of the dusty north Indian plain, is barely worth the journey. The streets are strewn with rubbish, and the eye is drawn instead to brightly coloured hoardings that advertise computer classes and private schools in a land known for the poor quality of state education. But at the heart of the town is one school that has long made Deoband famous, or infamous, across the world: the Islamic madrassa of Darul Uloom.
We are greeted in this quiet, academic oasis, whose name means the house of knowledge, by the white-robed, white-bearded Arshad Madani. A revered scholar among south Asia’s 500 million Muslims, he goes by the title Maulana (our lord). His forehead is marked with a zabiba, the permanent bruise caused by frequent prostration for prayers, and he learnt the whole Koran by heart by the time he was eight. “It’s easy because God makes it so,” he says….
“We teach our children the value of love above religious sentiments,” declares Madani. He was born in 1941, six years before India’s independence and partition, and is an expert on the hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed. “We train them for peace and love. That’s why they are not involved in any kind of activity that’s detrimental to peace. Students who are educated in other institutions — they are the ones involved in violent activities.”
This outburst is not entirely surprising. Research and interviews by the FT into the madrassa phenomenon across south Asia show that “Deobandi” has become shorthand for a Sunni Muslim extremist, at least among some commentators. The ubiquitous Deobandi madrassas spawned across Asia since the school’s foundation in 1866 were once seen by Muslims as “forts of Islam” amid the westernisation of British India. More recently, however, they have been described as dens of jihadism and violence. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then Indian prime minister and a leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, called religious schools in neighbouring Pakistan “factories of terror” after an Islamist attack on the Indian parliament took the two countries to the brink of war in 2001.
Numbers are disputed, partly because so many madrassas are unregistered, but there are certainly tens of thousands in south Asia today. Wave after wave of Deobandi graduates have gone on to found their own institutions across the region, with a centenary report in 1967 recording the foundation of 8,934 Deobandi madrassas and maktabs (primary schools) in the first 100 years.
In Pakistan, the number has risen from 244 in 1956 to about 24,000 today, most of them Deobandi. In Bangladesh too, they are multiplying rapidly. As for India, Madani says he has “no idea” how many there are, but “there’s not a single city without one. Ninety-nine per cent are Deobandi.” Across the three countries, there are perhaps six million students at madrassas. That is a small share of the Muslim school-going population, but the problem lies with the fact that some of the Pakistani and Afghan graduates are internationally known terrorists and murderers.
Pashtun leaders of the Taliban in Afghanistan, including the late Mullah Omar, were trained in puritanical Deobandi madrassas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border before imposing their joyless, patriarchal regime on the Afghan people in the 1990s. Pakistani Taliban fighters attended Deobandi madrassas in the same region. Two years ago, the US Treasury designated the Ganj madrassa in the Pakistani city of Peshawar as a terrorist training centre for suicide bombers, although the school’s administrator — of the Ahl al-Hadith or Salafi tradition, a version of ultra-conservative Islam slightly different from Deoband’s — insisted that it was a purely religious institution.
From Somali al-Shabaab militants slaughtering Christians in Kenya to the Bangladeshis who murder liberal bloggers with machetes on the streets of Dhaka, the perpetrators of Islamist terror attacks are often said by police to have been the teachers or pupils of Sunni Muslim madrassas. Only last Friday, bombers presumed to be Sunni militants killed 22 Shias in Pakistan and one in Bangladesh during the annual Shia processions for Ashura; dozens were injured.
We join Abdul Qasem Nomani, a graduate and now the vice-chancellor of Darul Uloom, who concurs with Madani in insisting that Deoband has nothing to do with these modern outbreaks of terrorist violence. The madrassa was founded to defend Islam. “Our main mission was to preserve Islamic culture and the Koran,” says Nomani. The result, wrote historian Barbara Daly Metcalf in Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900, was a madrassa that “began modestly in the old Chattah Masjid [mosque] under a spreading pomegranate tree”, with one pupil and one teacher, and grew into a large, professional institution teaching Islam as well as law, logic and philosophy….
Indians, Madani explains, “absorbed Islam but it took on a different form and meaning — like bowing to the graves [of holy men] and asking for things . . . Islam says that nobody but Allah can give anything. Do not bow before anything.” But surely, he is asked, Islam was changed by coming to India as much as Hindus were changed by the coming of Islam? His answer is unyielding: “Islam cannot be changed, because the foundation of Islam is the Koran and the hadith.”…
Isolated in the heart of Hindu-majority India, Darul Uloom itself is not seen as a promoter of contemporary terror. The institution has, in any case, been largely cut off from its south Asian hinterland by the Indian security services, its administrators are under constant pressure to speak out against Islamist violence, and it shies away from politics. It once hosted students from China, Malaysia, Iraq, South Africa, Burma and Saudi Arabia but has now been denied visa approvals for all but 20 or so Afghans currently at the seminary. “The fear is that students’ minds will be poisoned, but we wouldn’t do that,” says Madani, whose rejection of the idea that Deoband should be blamed for the actions of its affiliates abroad implicitly admits that the problem lies with the Deobandi diaspora. “We are not responsible for what they do. But they follow our syllabus . . . There are no jihadis here, because we have full control over what we are teaching.”
Wasim Khan is a 22-year-old student who has been at Darul Uloom for the past six years. He echoes the pro-peace, antiterrorism message, although he adds vaguely that the institution teaches its alumni “to challenge the forces inimical to Islam and give them a fitting reply, to counter those opposed to Islam and those who want to sully its image”. When he graduates, he plans to spread the teachings of Islam, preferably abroad. “I will present the true picture of Islam to the world.”
Among politicians and Muslim leaders, there are running debates about whether madrassas should be reformed and controlled or encouraged to spread. In India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the institutions are divided between those monitored by the state, which usually also teach official curriculum subjects such as English and maths, and those that remain outside government purview and are more likely to be run by uncompromising Islamists. Officials and moderate Muslims talk constantly of the need to “mainstream” the thousands of unofficial madrassas, many of which are funded by Saudi money either directly or through the remittances of migrant workers in the Gulf.
Take Bangladesh. Syeed Ahmad, a liberal, agnostic blogger and social activist, says that in Dhaka, “in my village, 10 years ago there was only one madrassa. Now there are 19.” Bangladeshi liberals lament what they see as an assault by Saudi-inspired Islamist fanatics on Bengal’s tolerant culture of art, literature and music.
The recent upsurge in Islamist extremism among Bangladesh’s 150 million inhabitants is not only the result of fundamentalist ideas spreading from the Middle East but also tied to the country’s violent politics. While the nominally secular government of Sheikh Hasina harasses the opposition, a new, rural madrassa-based group called Hefazat-e-Islam (Protectors of Islam) has emerged from the shadows. At least 58 people were killed two years ago when the security forces dispersed tens of thousands of Hefazat supporters — which demands nationwide Islamic education and the separation of men and women — who had unexpectedly converged on Dhaka to confront young, secular Bangladeshis deemed to be atheists.
The main Deobandi madrassa in Dhaka is the Jamia Qurania Arabia, founded in 1950 in the teeming streets of the old city. Here the teachers are as insistent as those of Darul Uloom itself that they oppose violence. “Islam is against not only the killing of a man, but even of an ant,” says Mufti Fayez Ullah, who teaches fiqh (jurisprudence) and hadith to the 1,800 pupils. But he is equally adamant about rejecting official attempts to control the curriculum, accuses the government of framing madrassa students over Islamist murders in Dhaka and confirms he is a member of an opposition political alliance. (Like many of Hasina’s opponents, he has been deluged with criminal proceedings — 42 in his case — and says he cannot leave the madrassa for fear of being “disappeared”.) He rejoices in the recent advances made by Islam in Bangladesh. “Islam is going to make further inroads. People have become more pious,” he says….