War for the soul of Islam in India

Praveen Swami

Deoband’s rejection of the jihad will do nothing to persuade violent Islamists to end their campaign. It has made clear, though, that jihadists enjoy no support except at the polar fringes of Islam in India.

In 1867, under the shade of a pomegranate tree nestled next to Deoband’s Chatta Masjid, Mullah Mahmood gave Mahmood Hasan his first class in theology.

Figures such as Mohammad Qasim Nanautawi, who had for a brief period established an independent Muslim state near Meerut, saw the defeat of the great rebellion of 1857 as a special catastrophe for Muslims. It was, in their reading, the outcome of the corruption of Islam by its contact with an alien milieu. Hasan’s class under the pomegranate tree was an effort to undo this damage, by propagating what its founders took to be an authentic, pure Islam.

Last year, a still-unidentified vandal cut down the pomegranate tree but Deoband’s Dar-ul-Uloom madrassa remains the most important centre for the Islamic right wing across Asia.

The Indian media have often characterised Deoband as an ideological powerhouse for the global jihadist movement: as the theological birthplace of the Taliban and to which organisations like the Jaish-e-Mohammad, Harkat ul-Jihad-e-Islami and Harkat ul-Mujahideen owe allegiance. Ever since February, though, Deoband and other important conservative madrassas have come out with a series of edicts condemning terrorism. So, too, has the principal political party of the clerics, the Jamiat Ullema-e-Islam.

Deoband’s campaign has left jihadists like the perpetrators of the Jaipur serial bombings as well as Islamist politicians like Jammu and Kashmir’s Syed Ali Shah Geelani railing against clerical treason.

Just why, though, are the Deoband clerics mobilising against terrorism now? Neither terrorism nor the social fractures it threatens to engender in India are, after all, new. And how much of an impact will it in fact have?

Arun Shourie’s World of Fatwas and V.N. Shukla’s monumental Constitution of India share space with Sheikh Ismail Bukhari’s classic eleventh century compilation of prophetic traditions on Maulana Khalid Rasheed’s bookshelf. A police guard stands outside, screening visitors.

In February, clerics from across the country first gathered at the Farangi Mahal madrassa — the institution which gave birth to the foundational curriculum of most Islamic seminaries in India, the Dars-e-Nizamia — to discuss the problem of terrorism. As principal of the seminary, which draws thousands of poor and lower middle class Muslims in search of an education, Mr. Rasheed had a ringside view of just what the jihad against India was doing to his wards.

“Since Independence,” Mr. Rasheed says, “India’s Muslims have faced three critical challenges. The first was Partition itself, which communalists leveraged to coerce those Muslims who chose to live in India. Second came the demolition of the Babri Masjid, which represented a full-blown assault on the economic and political future of our community.”

“Now,” says Mr. Rasheed, “terrorism poses a third make-or-break threat”. Economic change, Mr. Rasheed argues, has helped foster a new Muslim middle class. “Private educational institutions do not care what religion their students follow, as long as they pay their fees,” he says, “nor companies who you pray to, as long as you ensure profits.” Young Muslims have, as a result, found new opportunities. But terrorism has been used to generate fear and resentment against Muslims, which in turn could lead to a large-scale drying up of opportunities. “We ullema had to speak out,” Mr. Rasheed concludes, “to make clear that the violence around us had nothing to do with Islam.”

Other key figures in the ongoing clerics’ campaign against terrorism, notably the Jamiat’s Maulana Mehmood Madani, share this position. But how effective will voices like these prove?

Deoband’s association with jihadists was the product of political developments specific to Pakistan — not an organic outcome of its theological posture. Between 1975 and 1979, the Persian Gulf monarchies and Saudi Arabia began funnelling millions of dollars to conservative madrassas in Pakistan. Their objective, scholar SVR Nasr has pointed out, was to “strengthen Islamic institutions and ideology as a bulwark against the Left.” Prime Minister Z.A. Bhutto responded by purging his party of socialists — but the tide of funding to the religious right continued to rise.

While Pakistan had just 137 madrassas at the time of independence, by 1995 the province of Punjab alone had over 8,000. Saudi Arabian funds, routed through organisations like the Rabita Alam-i-Islami, helped the clerics take control of Islamic intellectual life. When the anti-Soviet Union jihad in Afghanistan began, this project acquired a new edge. Madrassas were no longer just ideological fortresses against communism or Shia radicalism but factories for the production of soldiers to fight the war.

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence turned to far-right clerics who were known to have a constituency among ethnic Pashtuns in the North-West Frontier Province. Jamia Uloom Islamia in Karachi’s Binori town area, which went on to give birth to both the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahiba Pakistan, was the most important beneficiary of this project. Its leading luminaries, Nizamuddin Shamzai and Yusaf Ludhianvi — both of whom, ironically enough, were assassinated — funnelled ISI funds to jihadists in Afghanistan and Jammu and Kashmir.

‘New genre of madrassas’

General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq’s regime in Pakistan and its Saudi Arabian sponsors, Nasr has argued, thus “helped create a whole new genre of madrassas that were equally, if not more, concerned with jihad than with religious scholarship.”

Although many of the Islamists produced during this period — and, later, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan — claimed descent from Deoband, the Dar ul-Uloom and its clerics had no real role in this enterprise. In January 1994, Jaish chief Maulana Masood Azhar met with several clerics at Deoband in an effort to recruit their support for the jihad in Jammu and Kashmir. By most accounts, he received little support. Ironically, the Jaish is believed to have had a role in several of the recent terrorist attacks which provoked Deoband’s clerics to condemn jihadists.

It is important to note that even within Karachi’s charged milieu, not all Deoband-linked seminaries backed the jihad. At Maulana Mohammed Taqi Usmani’s Jamia Dar ul-Uloom in Karachi’s Korangi, for example, students were even discouraged from joining jihadist groups. Instead, they were encouraged to focus on proseletysation, and study modern sciences and economics. Notably, the school did not spawn or endorse a jihadist faction of its own.

Mohammad Waliullah, the Phulpur cleric held for helping to execute the 2006 bombing of the Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi, was a Deoband graduate. Harkat ul-Jihad-e-Islami commander Bashir Mir, a key organiser of the November 2007 bombing of three trial-court buildings in Uttar Pradesh, recruited operatives from among Deoband students, including his key lieutenant, Khalid Mujahid. Both men, though, were drawn to Salafi-sect theologians, not the classical work they were taught at Deoband.

For the most part, jihadists inside Deoband — and those outside it — see themselves as enemies of the traditional religious order represented by the Jamaat Ullema-i-Hind. Islam, in their view, is a manifesto for political praxis, not a medium to develop a relationship with divinity. Students Islamic Movement of India ideologues like Shahid Badr Falahi and Safdar Nagar, who gave the Indian jihad its ideological character, drew on the work of a twentieth century scholar-activist who emerged as a seminal ideologue of the modern Islamist movement. Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian radical whose work continues to inspire jihadists across the world, saw the Koran as a map with which to negotiate the challenges of everyday life.

As scholar Roland Nettler has observed, this was a dramatic break from centuries of Islamic scholarship. While classical Islamic scholars had also seen the Koran “as the ultimate source of direction for individual and community, scriptural meanings were derived from and filtered through historical contexts, grammatical analyses and intratextual cross-referencing. These meanings then gained their particular relevance for Muslim life through complex and varied textual traditions.”

‘Moral calamity’

For Islamists like Qutb, though, no accommodation between Islam and modernity was possible. In Qutb’s vision, jahilliya — the state of ignorance — did not represent the pre-Islamic civilisation of the Arab world. Instead, jahilliya signified a semantic space called ‘anti-Islam,’ represented in our times by the conditions of secularism and modernity. Modernity seized control of the world “in the form of materialist thought, which today fascinates humanity just as children are fascinated by colourful cloth.” Qutb described the rise of modernity as “a moral calamity.”

At the heart of the problems of Muslims today, Islamists argue, is the fact that the community and its leadership — including the clerics — have strayed from the order ordained by god. Islamists, therefore, reject the faith of their parents and communities —just as Deoband did a century-and-a-half ago.

It is not for nothing that Kafeel Ahmed, the Bangalore engineer who went on to bomb Glasgow airport in 2007, argued with the Imam of his mosque over liturgical procedure, and its display of festive lights to mark the birthday of the Prophet.

Just as Deoband did a century-and-a-half ago, groups like SIMI, the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Lashkar-e-Taiba are fighting for the soul of Islam in India. In some senses, Deoband failed. Most Muslims in India still practise their rich local forms of the faith, not the version invented by the Dar-ul-Uloom clerics. Deoband’s rejection of the jihad will do nothing to persuade violent Islamists to end their campaign. It has made clear, though, that jihadists enjoy no support except at the polar fringes of Islam in India.