Cradle of Chaos: On the Deobandi sect
How an Islamist movement born in Deoband, a little known town in Uttar Pradesh, became a weapon for radicals trying to create a Sunni-dominated subcontinent
By Kamran Bokhari
While most Islamists in the Arab/Muslim world are more activists than religious scholars, in South Asia the largest Islamist groups are led by traditional clerics and their students. And the Deobandi sect has been in the forefront of South Asian Islamism, with the Taliban as its most recent manifestation. The Deobandis’ influence, reach and relevance in a vast and volatile region like South Asia are immense, yet they are little understood in the West. Western scholarship and commentary tend to be more focused on the movement’s counterparts in the Arab world, namely the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabi Salafism.
Deobandism was propelled by ulema lamenting the loss of Muslim sovereignty in India. Different dynastic Muslim regimes had ruled over various regions in the subcontinent since the late 10th and early 11th centuries. The ulema had been part of the South Asian Muslim political elite, but their public role was always subject to a tug of war with the rulers and evolved over time.
They had a strong presence in the royal court from the time of the first Muslim sultanistic dynasty in the subcontinent: the Turkic Ghaznavids (977-1170), who broke off from the Persian Samanids (who themselves had declared their independence from the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad). It was during this era that the role of ulema began to change in that a great many of them from Central Asia invested in proselytisation and spiritual self-discipline. This spiritual approach gained ground and distinguished itself from the legalistic approach of the ulema.
The former took on a social and grassroots role while the latter continued to focus on directly influencing the sultan and, through his sultanate, the realm at large. Behind both movements were ulema who, to varying degrees, subscribed to Sufism. The difference was between those who swung heavily toward scriptural scholarship and those who were open to unorthodox ideas and practices in keeping with what they perceived as the need to accommodate local customs and exigencies. This divide would remain contained and the ulema would enjoy an elite status, which continued through the era of the Ghaurids (1170-1215).
Essentially the ulema provided legitimacy for the rulers and in exchange received largesse and influence in matters of religion. It was under the Sultanate of Delhi (1206-1525) that the ulema were appointed to several official state positions, largely within the judiciary. In addition, a state law enforcement organ called hisbah was created for ensuring that society conformed to shariah, which is the origin for the modern-day agencies in some Muslim governments assigned the task of “promoting virtue and preventing vice.” It was an arrangement that allowed the ruler to keep the ulema in check and incapable of intruding into matters of statecraft.
It was Akbar’s great-grandson, Aurangzeb, who not only restored the ulema to their pre-Akbar status but also radically altered the empire’s structure by theocratising it. His Islamisation agenda was a watershed moment, for it created the conditions in which the ulema would eventually gain unprecedented ground. What enabled the advance would be the fact that Aurangzeb was the last effective emperor, leading to not just the collapse of the Mughal empire but also the ascendance of British colonial rule.
These two sequential developments would essentially shape the conditions in which Deobandism, and later on, radical Islamism, would emerge, as Princeton scholar Muhammad Qasim Zaman explains in his seminal 2007 book The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change. Over the course of the next two centuries, an ulema tendency that stressed the study of original Islamic sources and deemphasised the role of the rational sciences gained strength. Started by Shah Abdur Rahim, a prominent religious scholar in Aurangzeb’s royal court, this multigenerational movement was carried forward by his progeny, which included Shah Waliullah Delhawi, Shah Abdul Aziz and Muhammad Ishaq. This line of scholars represented the late Mughal era puritanical movement.
Delhawi, who was its most influential theoretician, was a contemporary of the founder of Wahhabism in the Arabian Peninsula, Muhammad ibn Abdal-Wahhab. The two even studied at the same time in Medina under some of the same teachers who exposed them to the ideas of the early 14th century iconoclastic Levantine scholar Ibn Taymiyyah. Salafism and Deobandism, the two most fundamentalist Muslim movements of the modern era, simultaneously emerged in the Middle East and South Asia, respectively.
According to the conventional wisdom, the extremist views of Wahhabism spread from the Middle East to South Asia. In reality, however, Delhawi and Wahhabism’s founder drank from the same fountain in Medina—under an Indian teacher by the name of Muhammad Hayyat al-Sindhi and his student Abu Tahir Muhammad Ibn Ibrahim al-Kurani. A major legacy of Delhawi is Deobandism, which arose as Wahhabism’s equivalent in South Asia in the late 19th century.
For this clerical movement shaped by Delhawi, Muslim political decay in India was a function of religious decline, the result of the contamination of thought and practice with local polytheism and alien philosophies. Insisting that the ulema be the vanguard of a Muslim political restoration, these scholars established a tradition of issuing fatwas to provide common people with sharia guidance for everyday issues. Until then, such religious rulings had been largely the purview of the official ulema who held positions in the state. This group was responsible for turning the practice into a nongovernmental undertaking at a time when the state had become almost nonexistent.
Renowned American scholar of South Asian Islam Barbara Metcalf in her 1982 book Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900 explains how the emergence of Deobandism was rooted in both ideological and practical concerns. It began when Muhammad Qasim Nanautavi and Rashid Ahmad Gangohi established the Dar-ul-Uloom seminary in the town of Deoband, some 117 miles north of Delhi, in 1866—eight years after participating in a failed rebellion against the British conquest of India.
These two founders of the movement had already tried forming an Islamic statelet in a village called Thana Bhawan, north of Delhi, from where they sought to wage jihad against the British, only to be swiftly defeated. William Jackson explains in great detail, in his 2013 Syracuse University dissertation, the story of how the two formed a local emirate—a micro-version of the one achieved by the Taliban. Their mentor Imdadullah Mujhajir Makki became emir-ul-momineen, the Leader of the Faithful, and the two served as his senior aides—Nanautavi as his military leader, and Gangohi served as his judge.
The tiny emirate was crushed by the British within a few months. Imdadullah fled to Mecca, Gangohi was arrested and Nanautavi fled to Deoband, where he sought refuge with relatives. Realising there was no way to beat the British militarily, Nanautavi sought to adopt the empire’s educational model and established a school attached to a mosque. His decision would be instrumental in shaping the course of history, ultimately helping to lay the groundwork for Indian independence, the creation of Pakistan and the rise of modern jihadist groups, including the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.
In Nanautavi’s point of view, European Christians were now masters of the land long ruled by Indian Muslims. He thus envisioned the seminary as an institution that would produce a Muslim vanguard capable of restoring the role of the ulema in South Asian politics and even raising it to unprecedented levels. His priority was religious revival and, after Gangohi was released from prison, the madrassa at Deoband became the nucleus for a large network of similar schools around the country.
After Nanautavi died in 1880, Mahmud Hassan, the first student to enroll in Dar-ul-Uloom, led the Deobandi movement. Hassan transformed the movement from focusing on a local concern to one with national and international ambitions. Students from Russia, China, Central Asia, Persia, Turkey, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula came to study at the seminary under his leadership. By the end of the First World War, more than a thousand graduates had fanned out across India. Their main task was to expunge ideas and practices that had crept into Indian Muslim communities through centuries of interactions with the Hindu majority.
Although the Deobandis viewed India as Dar-ul-Harb (Dominion of War), they initially did not try to mount another armed insurrection. Instead, they opted for a mainstream approach to politics that called for Hindu-Muslim unity. The All-India Muslim League (AIML), headed by the future founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was growing in strength and steering Indian Muslims toward separatism. At the same time, the Deobandis’ Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind (JUH) and Gandhi’s Indian National Congress (INC) intensified their demand for Indian self-government.
The situation came to a head with massive nationwide unrest in 1928. To defuse the situation, the British asked Indian leaders to put forth a constitutional framework of their own. In response, the INC produced the Nehru Report, a major turning point for the Deobandis. The report by their erstwhile allies ignored the JUH demand for a political structure that would insulate Muslim social and religious life from central government interference. This led dissenting members of the JUH and among the wider Deobandi community to join AIML’s call for Muslim separatism.
While prominent Deobandi scholar Ashraf Ali Thanvi would initiate the break, it was his student, Shabbir Ahmed Usmani, who led the split. Usmani would spearhead a reshaping of the Deobandi religious sect and play a critical role in charting the geopolitical divide that still defines South Asia today. In 1939, Thanvi issued a fatwa decreeing that Muslims were obligated to support Jinnah’s separatist AIML. He then resigned from the Deoband seminary and spent the four remaining years of his life supporting the creation of Pakistan.
Thanvi and Usmani realised that if the Deobandis did not act, the Barelvis—already allied with the AIML—could outmanoeuvre them. Better organised and one step ahead of their archrivals, the Deobandis were able to position themselves as the major religious allies of the AIML.
It is important to note, however, that many Deobandis remained loyal to Hussain Ahmed Madani’s more inclusive approach (After Hassan’s death in November 1920, he was succeeded by his longtime deputy Madani). They viewed his stance as in keeping with the Prophet Muhammad’s Compact of Medina, which had ensured the cooperation of various non-Muslim tribes.
In contrast, Usmani and the renegade Deobandis had long been deeply uncomfortable with the idea of Hindu-Muslim unity, which conflicted with their religious puritanism. When Usmani established Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI) in 1945 as a competitor to Madani’s JUH, the deep schism within the Deoband movement had reached a point of no return. Usmani’s insurrection came at the perfect time for Jinnah, a secular Muslim politician with an Ismaili Shia background. Jinnah had long sought to weaken JUH’s opposition to his Muslim separatist project; the support of Usmani lent religious credibility to his cause: creating the state of Pakistan.
After partition in 1947, the spiritual home of the Deobandi movement remained in India, but Pakistan was now its political centre. When they founded JUI, Usmani and his followers already knew that it was way too late in the game for their group to be the vanguard leading the struggle for Pakistan. The AIML had long assumed that mantle, but it was not too late for the JUI to lead the way to Islamising the new secular Muslim state. In fact, Jinnah’s move to leverage the Islamic faith to mobilise mass demand for a secular Muslim homeland had left the character of this new state deeply ambiguous. Such uncertainty provided the ideal circumstances for JUI to position itself at the centre of efforts to craft a constitution for Pakistan. In the new country’s first Parliament, the Constituent Assembly, JUI spearheaded the push for an “Islamic political system.”
The death of secularist Jinnah in September 1948 created a leadership vacuum, which helped JUI’s cause. As a member of the assembly, the JUI leader Usmani played a lead role in drafting the Objectives Resolution that placed Islam at the centre of the constitutional process. The resolution stated that “sovereignty over the entire universe belongs to God Almighty alone and the authority which He has delegated to the State of Pakistan.” It went on to say that “the principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance and social justice” must be followed “as enunciated by Islam.” Adopted in 1949, the Objectives Resolution marked a huge victory for JUI and other Islamists.
Gen Zia-ul-Haq’s moves to Islamise society top-down naturally resonated significantly with the religious right. From their point of view, Zia was the very opposite of the country’s first military dictator, Ayub Khan, who had been an existential threat to the entire ulema sector. The Deobandis, however, were caught between their opposition to a military dictatorship and the need to somehow benefit from Zia’s religious agenda. Although he was known for being a religious conservative, Zia was first and foremost a military officer. While the entire raison d’être of the Deobandi JUI was to establish an “Islamic” state, the Zia regime weaponised both the religion of Islam and the ideology of Islamism to gain support for what was essentially a military-dominated political order.
The JUI saw itself as heir to a thousand-year tradition of ulema trying to ensure that Muslim sovereigns in South Asia were ruling in accordance with their faith. Albeit late in the game, it was also a key player in creating Pakistan, and more importantly, worked to ensure that the country’s constitution was Islamic. But now Zia, who had assumed the presidency, had engaged in a hostile takeover of not just the state but the entire Deobandi business model. This explains why Mahmud opposed Zia’s putsch and kept demanding that he stick to his initial pledge of holding elections, which the general kept postponing. Zia’s primary objective was to reverse Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s efforts to establish civilian supremacy
Over the military.
After a century of being a religious-political movement, in the 1980s Deobandism was increasingly militant. The anti-communist insurgency in Afghanistan and sectarian militancy in Pakistan were the two primary drivers increasingly steering many Deobandis toward armed insurrection. While the end of the Zia regime (with the dictator’s death in a plane crash in the summer of 1988) brought back civilian rule to the country, Deobandism was hurtling toward a violent trajectory.
In 1993, another militant Deobandi faction demanding the imposition of sharia law emerged in the country’s northwest by the name of Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Muhammadi (Movement to Implement the Shariah of Muhammad)—or TNSM—led by Sufi Muhammad, a mullah who had studied at the Panjpir seminary, which was unique in that its Deobandism was heavily Salafised.
The decade long war in Afghanistan against the Soviets had significantly affected the Pakistani military and the country’s premier spy service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, which was managing the Afghan, Pakistani and other Arab/Muslim foreign fighters. Many ISI officers had gone native with the militant Deobandi and Salafist ideologies of the proxies that they were managing. By the dawn of the 1990s, two unexpected geopolitical developments would accelerate the course of Deobandism toward militancy. First was the December 1991 implosion of the Soviet Union, which a few months later triggered the collapse of the Afghan communist regime.
That, in turn, led to the 1992-96 intra-Islamist war in Afghanistan, which gave rise to the Taliban movement and its first emirate regime. The second was a popular Muslim separatist uprising that began in Indian-administered Kashmir in 1989. The Pakistani military’s efforts to leverage both developments exponentially contributed to the surge of radicalised and militarised Deobandism.
In Afghanistan, Pakistan supported the Taliban, a movement founded by militant Deobandi clerics and students. The military also deployed Islamist insurgent groups in Indian-administered Kashmir, many of which were ideologically Deobandi. They included Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Harakat-ul-Ansar and Jaish-e-Mohammed. Toward the late 1990s, when the Taliban were in power in Kabul and hosting al Qaeda, these groups constituted a singular transnational ideological battle space stretched from Afghanistan through India. This was most evident after militants hijacked an Indian Airlines flight from Nepal and landed in Taliban-controlled Kandahar. There, the hijackers, enabled by the Pakistani-backed Taliban regime, negotiated with the Indian government for the release of Jaish-e-Mohammed founder Masood Azhar and two of his associates who had been imprisoned for terrorist activities in Kashmir.
After 9/11, the Pakistani security establishment lost control of its militant Deobandi nexus, which gravitated heavily toward al Qaeda that had itself relocated to Pakistan. The US toppling of the Taliban regime forced Islamabad into a situation in which it was trying to balance support for both Washington and the Afghan Taliban. Meanwhile, just days before the US began its military operations against the Taliban in October 2001, Jaish-e-Muhammad operatives attacked the state legislature in Indian-administered Kashmir. This was followed by an even more brazen attack on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi on December 13.
The Pakistanis were now under pressure from both the Americans and the Indians. As a result, Islamabad clamped down on the Kashmiri militant outfits. The decision of Pakistan’s then military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf to first side with the US against the Taliban and then undertake an unprecedented normalisation process with India led to Islamabad losing control over the Deobandi militant landscape. In fact, many of these groups would turn against the Pakistani state itself.
There were several assassination attempts on Musharraf, including two back-to-back attacks carried out by rogue military officers within two weeks in December 2003. The radicalised Deobandis whom Pakistan cultivated as instruments of foreign policy in the ’80s and ’90s inverted the vector of jihad to target the very state that nurtured them. Dr Kamran Bokhari is an author and a scholar on national security and foreign policy. This article has been edited by the publication from its original form.
The Deobandi Movement
The Islamic revivalist movement within Sunni Islam called Deobandi was formed in 1866 around the Darul Uloom Islamic seminary in the town of Deoband, Uttar Pradesh. Founded by Muhammad Qasim Nanautavi, Rashid Ahmad Gangohi, and several others, the seminary’s goal was to preserve Islamic teachings during the period of colonial rule. The Deobandi movement’s political wing, Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, took birth in 1919.
Aurangzeb not only restored the ulema to their pre-Akbar status but also radically altered the empire’s structure by theocratising it
Shah Waliullah Delhawi, who was the late Mughal era puritanical movement’s most influential theoretician, was a contemporary of the founder of Wahhabism in the Arabian Peninsula, Muhammad ibn Abdal-Wahhab. The two even studied at the same time in Medina under some of the same teachers.
Rise and Rise of the Deobandis
Deobandism was propelled by ulema lamenting the loss of Muslim sovereignty in India. The ulema had a strong presence in the royal court from the time of the first Muslim sultanistic dynasty in the subcontinent: the Turkic Ghaznavids (977-1170), who broke off from the Persian Samanids.
By the time Muhammad Ishaq died in the mid-19th century, he had cultivated a group of followers, including Mamluk Ali and Imdadullah Mujhajir Makki, who were mentors of the two founders of Deobandism, Muhammad Qasim Nanautavi and Rashid Ahmad Gangohi.
Deobandism began when Nanautavi and Gangohi established the Dar-ul-Uloom seminary in the town of Deoband, some 117 miles north of Delhi, in 1866.
A major legacy of Shah Waliullah Delhawi, one of the prominent scholars who represented the late Mughal era puritanical movement, is Deobandism, which arose as Wahhabism’s equivalent in South Asia in the late 19th century.
Barely half a century after its founding, the Deobandi movement had established seminaries across India, from present-day Bangladesh in the east to Afghanistan in the west. Such was its influence that in 1914, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan visited the Dar-ul-Uloom.
During the four years that Deoband leader Mahmud Hassan was jailed, the 1919 Khilafat (Caliphate) Movement was launched by a number of Muslim notables influenced by Deobandism.
In 1939, prominent Deobandi scholar Ashraf Ali Thanvi issued a fatwa decreeing that Muslims were obligated to support Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s separatist AIML. He then resigned from the
Deoband seminary and spent the four remaining years of his life supporting the creation of Pakistan.
When Usmani established Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI) in 1945 as a competitor to Madani’s Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind (JUH), the deep schism within the Deoband movement had reached a point of no return. Usmani’s insurrection came at the perfect time for Jinnah, who had long sought to weaken JUH’s opposition to his Muslim separatist project; the support of Usmani lent religious credibility to his cause: creating the state of Pakistan.
After partition in 1947, the spiritual home of the Deobandi movement remained in India, but Pakistan was now its political centre. When they founded JUI, Usmani and his followers already knew that it was way too late in the game for their group to be the vanguard leading the struggle for Pakistan.
The death of Jinnah in September 1948 created a leadership vacuum, which helped JUI’s cause. As a member of the assembly, the JUI leader Usmani played a lead role in drafting the Objectives Resolution that placed Islam at the centre of the constitutional process of Pakistan.
It was in the late 1960s under Mufti Mahmud, a religious scholar-turned-politician from the Pashtun region of Dera Ismail Khan, near the Afghan border, that JUI experienced a revival. After Ayub Khan allowed political parties to operate again in 1962, Mahmud became JUI’s deputy leader.
JUI’s stint in provincial power, however, was cut short when President Bhutto in 1973 dismissed the NAP-JUI cabinet in Baluchistan, accusing it of failing to control an ethno-nationalist insurgency in the province.
While the entire raison d’être of the Deobandi JUI was to establish an “Islamic” state, the Gen Zia regime weaponised both the religion of Islam and the ideology of Islamism to gain support for what was essentially a military-dominated political order.
After a century of being a religious-political movement, in the 1980s Deobandism was increasingly militant. The anti-communist insurgency in Afghanistan and sectarian militancy in Pakistan were the two primary drivers increasingly steering many Deobandis toward armed insurrection.
By the early 1990s the Pakistani military had retreated to influencing politics from behind the scenes and no longer pursued a domestic Islamisation programme. But the extremist forces that Zia had unleashed were now on autopilot, and his civilian and military successors were unable to rein in their growth. Deobandi seminaries continued to proliferate in the country, especially in the Pashtun-dominated areas of the northwest.
By the dawn of the 1990s, two unexpected geopolitical developments would accelerate the course of Deobandism toward militancy. First was the December 1991 implosion of the Soviet Union, which a few months later triggered the collapse of the Afghan communist regime. That, in turn, led to the 1992-96 intra-Islamist war in Afghanistan, which gave rise to the Taliban movement and its first emirate regime. The second was a Muslim separatist uprising that began in Indian-administered Kashmir in 1989.
In 2002, Pakistan’s main Deobandi political group, JUI-F, led an alliance of six Islamist parties called the Mutahiddah Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) that won 60 seats in Parliament—in great part due to the electoral engineering of the fourth military regime. It also secured the most seats in the provincial legislatures in the old Deobandi stronghold of NWFP, forming a majority government there and a coalition one with the pro-Musharraf ruling party in Baluchistan.
The Deobandi-led MMA governments in both western provinces enabled the rise of Talibanisation in the Pashtun-regions along the border with Afghanistan.
By the time the MMA government in the northwest completed its five-year term in late 2007, some 13 separate Pakistani Taliban factions had come together to form an insurgent alliance known as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The Deobandi-led government turned a blind eye to rising Talibanisation.
Today, Afghanistan represents the centre of gravity of South Asia’s most prominent form of Islamism. The movement that has long sought to establish an “Islamic” state led by ulema subscribing to a medieval understanding of religion has established the polity that its ideological forefathers had set out to achieve over a century-and-a-half ago.
By the end of the First World War, more than a thousand graduates had fanned out across India. Their main task was to expunge ideas and practices that had crept into Indian Muslim communities through centuries of interactions with the Hindu majority.
In Afghanistan, Pakistan supported the Taliban, a movement founded by militant Deobandi clerics and students. The military also deployed Islamist insurgent groups in Indian-administered Kashmir, many of which were ideologically Deobandi.
Courtesy : TNIE
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