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The battle of Deobund: a straw in the wind? February 24, 2011

Posted by southasiamasala in : Gordon, Sandy, India, Pakistan , trackback

Sandy Gordon


The battle for control of the large Dar-ul-Uloom seminary at the Uttar Pradesh town of Deobund is likely to represent more than the backwash from a longstanding family feud.  The seminary, founded in 1866/67 and with 4000 students today, represents a conservative brand of Islam espousing Sharia Law and opposed to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence introduced by the Moghuls, who realised they couldn’t rule Hindu-majority India according to strict Sharia principles.

Under the Moghuls, thousands of seminaries had flourished.  Many of them produced well-rounded individuals capable of assisting in the administration of the giant empire, which was part of their purpose.  The mathematical and astronomical achievements of Moghul period scholars are well recorded in history and are evident to anyone who visits Jantar Mantar in Delhi, built by Jai Singh 11 of Jaipur during the Moghul era.

Jantar Mantar in Delhi, representing the acme of Moghul-era mathematical and astronomical learning

The reaction to the pragmatic values of the Moghuls originated as early as the eighteenth century, with the teachings of Shah Wali Allah  (Waliulla). Ironically, it corresponded roughly to Moghul decline under the influence of the British.  And, in fact, there was a connection between the rise of the British and the ‘new wave’ of conservatism in South Asian Islam.  As with the founder of Jamaat-i-Islami, Sayed Abul A’ala Maududi (who in turn influenced the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt), Dar-ul-Uloom’s founders saw the British colonial enterprise as a modernising one that was aimed at the heart of the spiritual values of Islam.  Even today, one can see on the Dar-ul-Uloom web site the following: “. . . in this mean world [of modernism and rationalism] anti-God and anti-Prophet  societies were also to be founded merely for the reason that God is invisible to them through bare eyes.”

The Dar-ul-Uloom syllabus is today derived from one devised by Mulla Nizamuddin in the eighteenth century, reflecting the reaction against Moghul pragmatism described above.  It heavily emphasizes Koranic learning at the expense of modern education.  As a consequence, the values espoused by Dar-ul-Uloom are conservative ones.

This does not mean, however, that Indian Deobundism advocates violence. Unlike elements of the movement in Pakistan, such as the infamous Haqqania seminary at Khuttak, also funded by the Deobundis, Dar-ul-Uloom has never supported so-called violent jihad.  In fact, in 2008, Dar-ul-Uloom sponsored a meeting of 6000 clerics from all over India at Deobund.  The meeting passed a resolution roundly condemning use of violence for religious purposes and said violence had never been part of the Dar-ul-Uloom doctrine.

But, as pointed out by the Sachar Committee, India’s Muslims are in a pitiful state. The causes of this situation are complex and conservative religious education is only one of them.  Others include the fact that, supposedly casteless, Muslims cannot benefit from any of the policies of reservation, except in three southern states, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka.  This is notwithstanding that 75% of them are of low caste origin. They have also suffered from the decline of the crafts, in which they were heavily represented.  And on top of this, Sachar showed that Muslims are badly under-represented in all walks of Indian official life.

The Indian government has tried to rectify the educational situation.  In 1993 it attempted to modernize the curricula of Muslim educational institutions by voluntary means, but this did not work.   In 2007, the Fatmi Committee (named after the Human Resources Development Minister) advocated extra funding to Muslim schools, including a focus on educating Muslim girls.

But the heart of any change must come from within the Muslim community itself, and this is in part what the present struggle at Dar-ul Aloom is about.

The current imbroglio

The struggle focuses on the appointment of a Gujarati, Ghulam Mohammad Vastanvi, as head of Dar-ul-Uloom.  Vastanvi is related through marriage to a family highly influential in controlling the seminary through a proxy head. But the family is split between the brother and son of the man who originally ousted the founding family of the seminary in the 1980s.

When the proxy head died last year, Vastanvi – who’s daughter is married to the brother of the man who ousted the original ruling family – was appointed head of the seminary.  However, there is a current move to oust him.  This move reflects both the split in the family, but more tellingly, the fact that Vastanvi wants to reform the hitherto conservative curriculum to include professional courses such as Medicine, Engineering and Pharmacy – courses capable of uplifting and modernising the Muslim community.  The fact he does not come from the Urdu-speaking mainstream is also held against him.

Unfortunately for Vastanvi, in emphasising the need to engage Muslims in the modern economy, he pointed out that they had done well in Gujarat.  What he evidently meant was that they had been able to benefit from the economic take-off in that state.  However, his statement was interpreted by his opponents to indicate support for the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, who is widely reviled by Muslims because of his alleged role in fomenting the murderous riots of 2002.

On 23 February the governing council of the seminary voted to set up a panel to probe the Vastanvi appointment, effectively putting off any decision to oust him.  Meanwhile, a caretaker head has been appointed.


The Dar-ul-Uloom dispute is much more than a local dispute about the head of an Islamic college in northern India.  Dar-ul-Uloom is one of the most influential and important Islamic seats of learning in the world.  So-called Deobundism has spread its influence amongst conservative Muslims throughout South Asia.

The dispute represents a broader disjuncture within Islam between those who advocate the modernization of the religion and those who wish to cling to the sterner traditions of Sharia Law.  In the former tradition we can count modernizers such as former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir and former Pakistan President Musharraf.  Although they were to varying degrees dictatorial in power, they shared a similar agenda of shaping Islam as a religion that could take its people forward economically in the twenty-first century.

Such an approach differs in essence from that espoused either by the often technically trained leadership of extremist groups like al Qaeda, or men like Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak, who came from a tradition of Arab socialism and nationalism.  Nor is it similar to the philosophy of men like Maududi and al Banna, who saw modernism and Islam as irreconcilably opposed.  Rather, it represents a brave effort to reconcile spiritualism and modernity.

In India, the dispute goes to the heart of how Muslims should relate to that country’s break-neck economic and technological development.  Vastanvi, in citing Gujarat, was doing no more than saying that the best way to uplift the community is to participate in this revolution wholeheartedly, that modern education lies at the heart of this enterprise and that one can still have deep-seated spiritual values while participating in the benefits of modernisation.

The dispute, and the way it is eventually resolved, should resonate in Pakistan, where the stakes in the outcome between what might loosely be called ‘conservative’ and ‘reformed’ Islam are particularly high.


1. Vikas - February 24, 2011

Dear Sandy,

Thanks for the timely article. I would like to add to “The fact he does not come from the Urdu-speaking mainstream is also held against him.” But first an interesting fact. Jantar Mantar was founded by Jai Singh II of Jaipur, the closest Hindu ally of the Mughal dynasty in India. In this he had active encouragement from the reigning Mughal. Jai Singh II was also instrumental in convincing the Mughal emperor to repeal the Jaziya tax law (1720s), which was (re)introduced by Aurangzeb in 1675 (i.e., about 100 years after Akbar repealed it).

A few facts about the Maulana of Vastan:

1. “Maulana Vastanvi is neither a Syed nor a Sheikh and comes from the Gujarati Sunni Bohra community. He is the first non-north Indian V-C since Darul Uloom was founded. What also works against him is the fact that he is not a Qasmi ~ a graduate of Darul Uloom, Deoband ~ but a that of Madrasa Mazahir-e-Uloom, Saharanpur” (see http://www.thestatesman.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=360094&catid=39). Bohras are deep into business.

2. The Maulana is not only a non-North Indian but also supported by non-North Indians like Maulana Ajmal of Assam, who is very ambitious (see http://www.hindustantimes.com/Vastanvi-supporters-start-losing-posts/Article1-661921.aspx). (Incidentally, both Vastanvi and Ajmal made their name not in their home provinces but in economically vibrant Maharashtra.) So, his VC-ship would mean a real power shift. Also, Ajmal is anti-Congress in Assam while his Madni antagonist is pro-Congress (see http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/article1447762.ece).

A more interesting fact is that Maulana Fazlur Rahman, who heads Pakistani Jamiat-ul-Islami, unexpectedly paid a visit to India to bolster the anti-Vastanvi camp (see http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Pak-Jamiat-chief-stirs-up-Deoband-battle/articleshow/7511843.cms). Rahman’s Taliban connections are well-known. So, there is indeed truth in your claim that the current struggle represents a war between the orthodox and reformers.

But the matter of fact is that even if Vastanvi hated Modi and espoused orthodoxy his opponents would have found another excuse because he is a threat to the existing order in the Deobandi world.


2. sandygordon - February 24, 2011


Thanks for that very interesting comment. A slap on the wrists for me on Jantar Mantar. I have fixed the reference. Sandy

3. Merrie - May 5, 2011

Hi Sandy
Interesting article, but small grammar error: “who’s daughter is married” should be “whose daughter is married”. “Who’s” = who is.

Nitpicking ANU graduate.