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.

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