Deoband's Battle for Survival

Deoband's battle for survival By Luv Puri

Dawn, 03 Dec, 2009

DEOBAND, INDIA: On a hot, humid July afternoon, 22-year-old Shah Alam is among the thousand-odd Muslim students squatting to work on their final exams in a madrassa in Deoband, in the northern tip of Uttar Pradesh. When he was 14, Alam lost both of his arms in an accident; but he has since learned how to write with his elbows, and has enrolled in an eight-year course to become an alim, a religious scholar. He is among thousands of young Muslim men, from diverse ethnic, geographic and linguistic backgrounds, who have come to school in the small town of Deoband, to study various aspects of Sunni Islam, including logic, Islamic jurisprudence, Quranic studies, the history of literature and the hadiths. Yet despite a century and a half of crucial education work, today Deobandi seminaries find themselves struggling to continue to fund their work, and to prove to prospective students their continued relevance.

The Deoband school of Islam started during 1866, as part of the revivalist movement that was sweeping British India at the time. At the time, the town of Deoband was already a centre of Muslim culture, many families from the area having served in various capacities within the Mughal Empire – proximate as Deoband was to the Mughal capital of Delhi, about 100 miles distant. The founders also believed that the decision to create the new school in Deoband had divine sanction. Other schools of thought were also gaining momentum at the time, however, such as Ahle Hadith and Barelvi, each of which were committed to defining Islamic laws – in slightly different ways – and the Muslim community’s relationship to them. Ahle Hadith was the most rigid of these three, while the Barelvi school of thought was far more at ease with the cultural practices of other South Asian communities. Deoband, meanwhile, occupied something of the middle space between these two, set apart by an emphasis on debate and dialogue. Deobandi institutions eventually gained influence in areas that had overwhelming Muslim populations (particularly in the Pashtun belt), whereas Barelvi took roots in the region that had mixed populations.

In 1866, Darul Uloom was founded as one of the first seminaries to train in Deobandi Islam, and has remained its most important institution. For South Asians today, this school is to the region as Al Azhar University of Egypt is to the Middle East. Since Darul Uloom opened, over 5,000 Deobandi seminaries have been established throughout India, each of which is modelled on the first. For over a century since, Deobandi scholars have thus wielded considerable influence over the political, social and religious lives of the Muslims of South Asia. Many Deoband-trained scholars also went on to form their own socio-religious organisations. In 1919, for instance, a group of such scholars formed Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind to work for the rights of Muslims, and thus came in contact with other political groups including the Congress party. Tablighi Jamaat was another group started for the reformation of Muslims, which was begun in 1926 in Mewat province by Muhammad Ilyas al-Kandhlawi.

Today, around 35,000 male students are enrolled just at Darul Uloom. (Some of the other seminaries allow female students, though their numbers are relatively few.) While students younger than five can join makhtabs, or elementary schools, at most Deobandi seminaries the average age is 15. Importantly, the vast majority of these students come from less-privileged backgrounds. The fact that Deobandi seminaries offer classes, boarding, lodging and medical expenses free of charge is obviously an attraction. Still, the living conditions and facilities at these schools are a stark reminder of the continued plight of India’s Muslim population.

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