The Overlooked

Owen Bennett-Jones on the Deobandis

Largely because 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the 9/11 attacks were from Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism is often cited as the fountainhead of violent jihadism, but that is to make too much of its significance compared to other Islamic movements, some of them little known in the West. The distinction between Shias and Sunnis is widely understood, and more recently the mainstream press has also discussed groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis, Hizb ut Tahrir and, most recently, Turkey’s alleged coup plotters, the Gulenists, who follow a charismatic, exiled Turkish cleric who lives in rural Pennsylvania. These various movements – and many others – don’t only differ in their interpretations of Islam but also have different functions. Some are strictly scholarly, others more political. While the Muslim Brotherhood aims to achieve political power through election to national parliaments, Islamic State fights for territory and seeks global domination; and while some movements have been inspired by the teachings of a single outstanding cleric – Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, for example – others are more closely associated with a place or a particular institution.

Almost entirely overlooked in the West, the Deobandis are one of the world’s most important Islamic movements. They trace their origins not to an individual scholar but to a madrasa established in 1866 in the town of Deoband, an hour’s drive north of Delhi, and now one of the world’s most influential seats of Islamic learning. The version of Islam it teaches is in many ways similar to Wahhabism – both movements are Sunni, puritanical and highly intolerant of people who disagree with them – but there are also important differences: the two groups follow different schools of Islamic jurisprudence, to take one example, and while the Wahhabis have the money, the Deobandis have the numbers. When, recently, I asked Maulana Abdul Khaliq, the deputy vice chancellor at Deoband, to estimate the total number of Deobandi madrasas worldwide, he assured me that something like a hundred thousand madrasas follow the Deobandi curriculum and teaching method. Even if this estimate relies on a broad definition of the term ‘madrasa’, it’s clear that, around the world, millions of Muslims are imbibing the Deobandi version of Islam.

Deobandis, like Wahhabis, are accused of being a source of contemporary violent jihadism. The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban movements originated in Deobandi madrasas and a study of Pakistani police data on 2344 people convicted on terrorism charges between 1990 and 2009 found that 90.5 per cent of them were Deobandis. The would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid had Deobandi connections, as did the 2006 transatlantic airline bomb plotters and two of the 7/7 attackers. As Deobandis sometimes rather wearily point out, these concerns are not new. In 1875, less than ten years after the movement was founded, Sir John Strachey, a senior British colonialist, asked his colleague John Palmer to infiltrate the madrasa at Deoband and to report back on what he found there. Having taken a look Palmer concluded: ‘there cannot be a better institution of learning than this for the Muslims and I can even go to the extent of saying that if a non-Muslim takes education here, it will not be without benefits.’ Despite that reassuring assessment, the worries have persisted. As a WikiLeaked message from the US embassy in Delhi in 2008 revealed, it is now US diplomats who perceive Deoband as a potential threat. That year there had been a meeting at the madrasa attended by more than ten thousand Deobandis who passed a motion stating: ‘Darul Uloom Deoband condemns all kinds of violence and terrorism in the strongest possible terms.’ Commenting on the vote, a US diplomat suggested channelling some educational resources to Deoband: ‘A little money spent now to show our appreciation for Deoband’s moderate tilt could continue to pay dividends for years to come as we struggle against violent extremism in Islam.’

Deobandis cite both the positive assessments of British colonial administrators and the 2008 proclamation against terrorism as evidence that it is wrong to link the movement with violence. And yet suspicions persist – in part, perhaps, because of the Deobandis’ desire to prove everyone else wrong. To this day, the madrasa in Deoband has departments dedicated to scholarship in service of the rejection of Christianity, Shiism and other Islamic sects. The Deobandis complain that outsiders are interested in the movement only in as much as they see it as a problem. And it is true that since the British left the subcontinent, UK policy-makers have largely ignored the Deobandis; today few British civil servants have heard of them. In the second half of the 20th century only a handful of Western scholars studied the movement, and not from the perspective of security. Barbara Metcalf’s impressive historical accounts of the Deobandis concentrated instead on their religious beliefs, their scholastic excellence and their use of new technology to spread their message so effectively around the world. But after 9/11 security concerns resurfaced.

The Deobandi movement traces its origins to the Indian Mutiny or First War of Independence of 1857. Some Muslims responded to defeat by seeking common ground between Islam and the colonial power, setting up schools that tried to reconcile Islamic practice with modern technology and learning. Others went in the opposite direction, falling back on Islam’s historical and intellectual heritage; seeing Christian missionaries and British colonialists as powerful threats to Islam, and the defeat of 1857 as divine punishment for Muslim decadence, they sealed themselves off from Western influences. Determined to keep the flame of Islamic purity alive, a group of these clerics headed for Deoband, a provincial town well away from the gaze of colonial administrators. For many who study at Deoband the focus has always been on religion. But as the institution’s influence grew, the clerics were inevitably drawn into political issues. Given the Deobandis’ underlying hostility to the British colonialists it was natural that they supported the Congress Party’s demand for independence. In 1919 some leading Deobandi clerics formed a political party, Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind (JUH), which, in line with Congress, opposed the idea of Pakistan. The JUH believed that the creation of new borders was antithetical to the goal of a united Islamic caliphate. Besides, the Deobandi clerics were quite content with a secular state as long as it left them alone to pray and study in peace. But as the anti-British struggle intensified, some Deobandis broke away and in 1945 formed Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI), which swung behind the Muslim League’s demand for partition. JUI still exists as a political party in Pakistan but because of a debilitating number of splits, the flagrant corruption of its leaders and a tendency for Pakistani voters to prefer secular parties, it has never done very well. To add to its problems, in recent decades the Taliban movement has outflanked it: through the last 15 years of insurgency in Northwest Pakistan, the JUI’s commitment to parliamentary politics has made it look increasingly irrelevant to many Deobandis, and the Taliban has repeatedly tried to kill its best-known leader, Fazal ur Rehman.

While the JUI is a relatively unimportant feature of Pakistan’s political landscape, another Deobandi offshoot, the missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat, has been astonishingly successful. There is no official membership list, but the Tablighis claim to have eighty million activists in more than 150 countries. In the UK, a Deobandi mosque in Dewsbury doubles up as the Tablighis’ European headquarters; one of the few times the Tablighis hit the headlines in Britain was when they tried to expand from Dewsbury by building a ‘mega mosque’ with a capacity of seventy thousand in West Ham. After years of wrangling, the application was finally turned down in 2015 on the grounds that there was no need for such a big mosque and the land would be better used for housing. The Tablighis’ main activity is door-to-door missionary work aimed at persuading fellow Muslims to be more devout. Volunteers are expected to spare three days a month for this, but the movement takes over some people’s lives: in Pakistan elderly Tablighis often leave their families and seek spiritual solace in the very basic living conditions on offer at the movement’s headquarters in Raiwind outside Lahore. The Tablighis emphasise self-improvement by living according to strict rules that extend to which foot to use first when entering a lavatory (the left – and the right when leaving). In the UK, Tablighis are advised to keep non-Muslims at arm’s length and are warned about the dangers of celebrity culture, sex outside marriage, alcohol and drugs. There is something like a points system for entry into paradise: points can be earned by good behaviour, including conformity in dress, the idea being that if you look like a proper Muslim there is more of a chance that you will live like one too. To the frustration of many of the organisation’s younger devotees in the UK, the Tablighis are explicitly non-political: if Muslims are suffering, the argument goes, it is a consequence of their failure to live sufficiently observant lives.

As the Tablighis’ quietist attitudes and the JUI’s involvement in parliamentary politics demonstrate, many Deobandis have nothing to do with violent jihadism. But others stress the militant aspect of the movement’s history. According to the website of the madrasa in Deoband, such was the founders’ ‘determination to free India from the English yoke’, after the defeat of 1857, that they made a call to arms. The website presents the subsequent anti-colonial struggle, and the use of both violent and peaceful tactics, as an important element of the madrasa’s development in the 20th century. There is no doubt that leading Deobandis have, at times, considered violence acceptable. In the so called Silk Letter Conspiracy of 1916, the headteacher at Deoband, Sheikh Mahmud al Hasan, was involved in a plan to create an Islamic army to align with Germany and the Ottomans against Britain. The affair came to light when British police in Punjab discovered a letter to Hasan, written on silk, from an anti-British cleric in Afghanistan. British officials took the plot seriously enough to intern Hasan and another senior Deobandi cleric on Malta for the duration of the First World War.

One of the reasons it’s difficult to pin down Deobandi attitudes to violence is that the leadership at Deoband, unlike at the Vatican, doesn’t issue instructions that the worldwide movement has to follow. Deobandis are free to tailor their behaviour to ‘local conditions’ – an approach that appears to be at least to some extent pragmatic. Deobandi clerics in Pakistan say that when they are faced with a new dilemma, concerning, say, the acceptability of a particular mode of social conduct, they write to Deoband for guidance. And guidance is given. But when it comes to more political and controversial matters, the leadership at Deoband can find it convenient not to take a view. When they received a letter from the Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, seeking guidance on how to conduct himself in office shortly after he had conquered most of Afghanistan, Deoband later confirmed not only that it had received the letter but also that it had decided not to reply.

The absence of a unified global policy means that while Indian Deobandis in 2008 rejected ‘terrorism’, some of their counterparts in Pakistan and Afghanistan continue to run full-blown violent campaigns. The Afghan Taliban is fighting foreign forces in its country while the Pakistani Taliban seeks to capture the Pakistan state. Other Deobandi militant groups are mostly concerned with launching attacks on India or killing members of religious minorities. But these distinctions are not hard and fast; young violent jihadists move freely from one part of the movement to another. At senior levels of the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban there is a high level of co-operation. The best-known Deobandi madrasa in Pakistan, the Darul Uloom Haqqania in Akora Khattak near Peshawar, was established in 1947 when Abdul Haq, a Deobandi student who found himself on the Pakistan side of the border during Partition, took on eight pupils. Today, three thousand students study under the guidance of Abdul Haq’s son, Sami ul Haq. One of the best-known clerics in Pakistan and for years a member of the Senate, Sami ul Haq recently published a book in which he laid out his views on global affairs. The Afghan Taliban, he says, provided good government; Osama bin Laden was an ‘ideal man’, and al-Qaida was a figment of the Western imagination. He awarded Mullah Omar an honorary degree, and boasts that many Afghan Taliban leaders are graduates of his. He has repeatedly said that if his students wish to take a break from their studies to fight in Afghanistan, it is not for him to stand in their way.

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Deobandi graduates are encouraged to spread the word by establishing new madrasas. At first most of these were on the subcontinent but in time the Deobandis established a significant presence in Southern and East Africa, and as South Asian immigrants settled in the UK, they gradually became a significant part of Britain’s religious landscape too. There are 1695 mosques in the UK today and more than 40 per cent of them are Deobandi. The man who did most to establish them, Yusuf Motala, the most senior Deobandi cleric in the UK, has given no mainstream interviews and has never appeared on British TV; there is barely a photograph of him to be found on the web. In 2003 he was detained for questioning at Heathrow for seven hours before being released without any further police action – one of the few traces he has left on the public record. It is a remarkable degree of obscurity for a man to whom more than half a million British Muslims look for spiritual and scholarly guidance.

Motala set up his first madrasa in the UK in 1973 in Bury, north of Manchester. It gave other Muslims the confidence to follow suit and in 1981 a madrasa and mosque opened in Dewsbury near Leeds. Bury and Dewsbury run courses lasting six or seven years which qualify students to become imams. There are now many other madrasas in the UK, though precise numbers are difficult to establish; in Bradford, for example, various signs indicate ‘madrasas’, but in most cases, what’s involved is little more than after-school classes in Quran memorisation. Around thirty madrasas in the UK produce fully qualified imams; between them they produce clerics at a far greater rate than Christian seminaries. Over 75 per cent of these domestically trained Islamic scholars are Deobandi; there are now so many of them that they have difficulty finding jobs. Some work as prison chaplains or teachers in the UK’s 13 state-funded Muslim faith schools, or the 150 private day schools and boarding schools that cater to Muslim pupils.

Deobandi preachers are now delivering sermons to significant numbers of British Muslims from a variety of traditions. This isn’t just because there is a ready supply of English-speaking, British-trained Deobandi imams. It is also because Deobandi doctrine, stripped down as it is, has few potentially objectionable accretions. While many British Muslims might find it more conservative and puritanical than they would like, there isn’t anything outright unacceptable about it. Where many Muslims can tolerate a Deobandi-trained preacher, many Deobandis would find the practices of other traditions unacceptable. The result is that some British Muslim parents can find themselves on the back foot when their children, fired up by Deobandi clerics at the local mosque, come home insisting that the household be more observant about prayer times and dress codes. A typical British source of these rules of acceptable behaviour is Al Islah, a magazine produced by a Dewsbury-based Deobandi cleric called Mohammed Pandor. Articles in Al Islah have warned against the bad influence of TV, the World Cup, the internet and Guy Fawkes night; molten lead, it has declared, will be poured into the ears of those who listen to songs. Pandor is on the board of the University of Bradford and is Muslim faith adviser at the University of Huddersfield, but that didn’t stop one article in Al Islah suggesting that male students at British universities should avoid looking at women by keeping their eyes down and restricting their movements on campus to lecture halls and prayer rooms.

Other aspects of British Deobandi sectarianism are more troubling. A Deobandi offshoot called Khatme Nabuwwat organises an annual conference in Birmingham at which Deobandis roundly denounce Ahmedis, of whom some thirty thousand live in the UK. Ahmedis follow the teachings of a 19th-century Punjabi cleric, Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, whose claim to have received revelations directly from Allah clashes with the basic Islamic tenet that Muhammad was the last and final prophet. Some shops in Tooting have refused to serve Ahmedis and Khatme Nabuwwat distributes leaflets calling for their deaths. There have been fewer cases of anti-Shia violence, but in June 2015 leaflets with the title Shiism: A Religion outside of Islam were distributed in Bradford and Leeds. And two Deobandi clerics in Scotland – one in Edinburgh, one in Glasgow – have openly supported the Pakistan-based anti-Shia sectarian outfit Sipah e Sahaba or SSP (also known as Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat). The SSP is a designated terrorist group in Pakistan and the UK and has murdered several hundred Shias over the years.

The dispute over Kashmir has had a far bigger impact than the Deobandis’ sectarian activity on British Muslim thinking. In 1993 Masood Azhar, a Pakistani jihadist who made his name fighting in Kashmir, went on a tour of more than forty mosques and Islamic seminaries in the UK, including Motala’s in Bury. When he arrived at Heathrow he was met by a group of leading British Deobandi scholars. In one sermon he gave he urged young British Muslims to ‘prepare for jihad without delay’. (He is thought to have organised the attack on India’s Pathankot military base earlier this year in which five Indian soldiers were killed.) His UK acolytes included Rashid Rauf and Omar Sheikh. Rauf, who married Azhar’s sister-in-law in 2002, went on to play a significant role in organising the London bombings of 7 July 2005 and the liquid bomb plot of 2006. He was reportedly killed by a US drone strike in 2008. Omar Sheikh, a former LSE student, met Azhar in Waziristan in late 1993 and subsequently carried out a number of jihadist actions including the kidnapping of the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl, who was subsequently murdered. He is currently in a Pakistani prison facing a death sentence which may never be carried out because of the protection he enjoys from the Pakistani state.

In the twenty years that have passed since Azhar’s UK tour, some British Deobandi clerics have issued fatwas condemning terrorism, but there is evidence that the attitudes of other Deobandis haven’t changed. That certainly has been the experience of Ayman Deen. Having once knelt at bin Laden’s feet and sworn an oath of allegiance, Deen switched sides in 1998 and worked as an informant for the British security agencies. Over the next six years he gave talks at more than sixty British mosques, prayer halls and university societies, and also spoke in people’s homes in London, Manchester and Sheffield. He found that some South Asian Deobandis were more sympathetic towards violent jihadism than many Arabs in the UK. ‘The British citizens of Pakistani origin who went to fight jihad in Syria were born into Deobandi families,’ he has said. ‘They grew up with the Kashmir jihad. So that made them susceptible to accept other jihadist ideas.’

Of all the countries with significant Deobandi communities, Pakistan has been the most willing to exploit the movement’s potential for violence. Pakistani officials, with considerable justification, blame the US and Saudi Arabia for financing the expansion of Deobandi seminaries and encouraging them to provide military as well as religious training in an attempt to boost the numbers of anti-Soviet mujahedin. But they tend to pass over the fact that Pakistan was a willing partner in the exercise, and that it continues to support violent Deobandis. In 2007, militants loyal to the Deobandi imam of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, called for the government to be overthrown and for President Musharraf to be killed. Female students at the madrasa kidnapped some women whom they accused of being prostitutes and took them back to the madrasa for ‘re-education’. They then set about destroying DVD shops. After drawn-out, futile negotiations with the mosque’s leadership, Musharraf decided he had to act and there was a full-blown battle in the heart of Islamabad in which at least seventy people died, including Abdul Rashid Ghazi. His brother, Abdul Aziz Ghazi, fled from the compound disguised in a burqa, but the authorities spotted him and, before sending him to prison, made him go on state TV to demonstrate how he put his burqa on.

Today, Abdul Aziz Ghazi is not only out of prison and in charge of the Red Mosque, but is drawing a state salary. It isn’t as if he has changed his view on the need to overthrow the government and impose sharia law: ‘If you think you can change us, forget it,’ he said on a recent documentary, Among the Believers. When he was president, Asif Zardari tried to compensate Abdul Aziz Ghazi for the Red Mosque siege by offering him land to build a new madrasa on the edge of Islamabad. Other Pakistani politicians have links with Deobandi extremists. The current prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, tries to squeeze a few more parliamentary seats out of Punjab by making seat-swapping arrangements with the Deobandi jihadists of the SSP. The administration in the province of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa, which is led by the cricketer turned politician Imran Khan, recently gave a grant of $3 million to Sami ul Haq’s Haqqani madrasa.

When governments are willing to encourage Deobandi violence – whether it’s the Americans looking for fighters to confront the Soviets in Afghanistan or the Pakistanis looking for fighters to confront the Indians in Kashmir – the movement is ready to provide volunteers. In common with many Sunni Muslims, Deobandis respect state power. And states often seem willing to work with them. But India has shown that there is another way. It is striking that, unlike their Pakistani counterparts, Kashmiri students in Deoband steer clear of politics. They are mindful not only of the anti-terror fatwa and the stated view of senior clerics at Deoband that Kashmir is part of India, but also that some Kashmiri students at Deoband accused of involvement in militancy have been given long prison sentences despite repeated protestations of innocence. There are signs that India is hoping to use its understanding of how to prevent Deobandi violence in pursuit of its regional objectives. After years of forbidding foreigners from studying at Deoband, the authorities recently granted visas to some Afghan Deobandi students. Given a choice between having Afghans educated in Pakistani or Indian madrasas, Delhi has decided that the quietists at Deoband are preferable to the sometimes militant clerics in Pakistan.

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It remains unclear what direction Deobandism will take in the UK. For a long time the state almost entirely ignored the movement, focusing instead on more politically engaged clerics aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. But in recent years things have changed. The Cameron government commissioned a study of the Deobandis, though its findings remain classified, and a leaked Ministry of Justice inquiry raised concerns about Deobandi clerics distributing extremist leaflets to prison inmates. In 2014 the Clark Report into the Trojan Horse allegations in Birmingham schools concluded that there was ‘clear evidence that there are a number of people … in positions of influence in schools and governing bodies who espouse, sympathise with or fail to challenge extremist views’. There is growing pressure on Deobandi-run schools that typically forbid TV, unrestricted internet access, newspapers, mobile phones and textbooks that describe reproductive biology. Those who fear high levels of immigration to the UK sometimes hold up the Deobandis as a prime example of a community that is resistant to integration: the British Deobandi madrasas prefer Urdu as their medium of instruction and even if there is little evidence that they actively encourage disdain for non-Muslims, they certainly instil students with a ‘them and us’ attitude that assumes the innate superiority of Muslims in general and Deobandis in particular. Why, the movement’s critics ask, should Deobandis be treated any differently from widely derided Christian groups that promote an intolerant outlook based on a literalist belief in religious texts? External pressure on the Deobandis, however, is likely to be resisted. The tendency for exiles to become more extreme than they were at home is very apparent among elderly Deobandi clerics in the UK. This is especially true in northern England, where many Deobandis live in close proximity; in London, they are part of a more diverse population. Whereas the madrasa in Deoband runs a course in journalism, in the UK that would be considered a dangerous innovation; while non-Muslim journalists are welcomed into Deobandi madrasas in India and Pakistan, in the UK they are told they cannot enter.

Despite such obstacles some younger Deobandi clerics are pushing for change. They want their leaders to be more welcoming to outsiders and to reform the curriculum to give madrasa graduates better job opportunities in the mainstream economy. The current practice of requiring students to learn entire textbooks – some of them hundreds of years old – by rote should, they say, be replaced by a greater emphasis on critical thinking. They wonder whether instruction in Urdu means that some graduates don’t speak English well enough. And they worry that unless British Islam becomes more relevant, the main threat to it will not be theological and pedagogical innovation, but the power of consumerism. For the moment, however, the pressure for orthodoxy is so absolute that these young clerics don’t dare to speak out in public for fear of being ostracised.