Ted Thornton
History of the Middle East Database
Deobandi Movement

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South Asia is home to 40% of the world's Muslims.  Millions of these Muslims subscribe to the teachings of the Deobandi movement.  The best known group of Deobandis is Afghanistan's Taliban

The movement takes its name from the Indian town of Deoband, 90 miles north-east of New Delhi where the first Deobandi learning center, Darul Uloom ("House of Knowledge") was started in 1866. 

Darul Uloom was founded by Maulana Mohamed Qasim Nanotyi.  In 1857, Muslims had joined Hindus in the Sepoy mutiny against the British. The British responded by deposing the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar ending four hundred years of Muslim rule on the Indian subcontinent. In its place the British established direct rule of India.  They also shut down Muslim schools. 

Darul Uloom is the world's second largest center of Islamic study, the largest being Cairo's al-Azhar University.  By 2001, Darul Uloom had graduated 65,000 Muslim scholars from the Asian Muslim world, from Saudi Arabia to Malaysia in the south and China to the north.  These graduates operated thousands of madrassas (religious schools) in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Deoband teachings emphasize the veiling of women. Women must not mix with men in public.  Deoband tradition teaches that men are more intelligent than women and that there is no point in educating girls beyond the age of eight.  Students at Darul Uloom may use computers, but may not use the Internet.  They are permitted to watch TV news, but may not watch movies.  However, many Deobandi madrassas outside India ban television watching and the reading of newspapers altogether in addition to all other forms of entertainment (the Taliban banned kite-flying).  The curriculum in these offshoot madrassas is medieval in conception:  reading and recitation of religious texts, mathematics, and some Greek logic. The teaching of Western science (regarded as "un-Islamic") is prohibited.  Most students enter the schools at age five and graduate when they are 25 years old. 

Darul Uloom has been a constant supporter of the Taliban.  When the Taliban blew up the 1,500 year old Bamiyan Buddhas in March, 2001, Darul Uloom defended the act.  Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, Darul Uloom issued a  fatwa ("religious opinion") suggesting that Jews were responsible, including the Israeli Secret Service. 

Darul Uloom, unlike the Wahhabis who are aggressive in their proselytizing and who pour millions into building mosques and schools all over the Islamic world, does not fund madrassas in other countries.  Still, there are more than 15,000 madrassas in Asia that call themselves "Deoband," up from almost 9,000 in the late 1960s.  In 2001, there were 4,000 Deoband madrassas in Pakistan. 

Darul Uloom does not encourage its students to violently defend Islam. Indian Deobandis project a much gentler demeanor, blaming Taliban excesses on the cultural aggressiveness of Pashtun culture, the tribal group from which the Taliban emerged.  82,000 people, almost equally divided between Muslims and Hindus, lived in Deoband in 2001 and had lived together in peace since the Middle Ages.

However, the mix of Deobandi and Wahhabi influences in Pakistan has all but destroyed the mystical Sufi movement there and has made its mark throughout the nation's governmental as well as religious institutions.  One of Pakistan's intelligence agencies helped fund a Deobandi conference in Peshawar in April, 2001 at which delegates heard messages from Osama bin Laden, the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, and Libya's ruler Muamar Qaddafi. Among those Islamists with close ties to the Deobandis was Maulana Mawdudi.

While Deoband teachings do not advocate overt militancy, they do teach students to distrust other cultures.  Deoband teachings, like those of the Wahhabis, are puritanical in tone:  they seek to purge Islam of Western and modernist influences and institutions and to establish the Qur'an and Hadith ("sayings" of the Prophet Muhammad) as the sole guiding lights.  Deobandi schools have sought to purify Islam, as practiced in India, of such popular practices borrowed from Hinduism as the veneration of idols and visits to shrines and graves of saints (the Wahhabis sought to do the same in the Arabian peninsula).  In spite of the challenges from Hindu fundamentalism, India's Deobandi Muslims remain largely apolitical and profess loyalty to the Indian government. 

Sources:  Edward Luce, "Teachers of the Taliban," Financial Times London, November 17, 2001;  Moni Basu, "Backgrounder," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 15, 2001.  (both articles accessed from ProQuest, January 3, 2002.)


 

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Last Revised: January 22, 2007