A Day in Deoband

Yoginder Sikand

Posted Dec 1, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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A Day in Deoband

Yoginder Sikand

A five-hour drive from Delhi, the sleepy township of Deoband, in Uttar Pradeshs Saharanpur district, boasts IndiaҒs largest traditional madrasa, the Dar ul-Uloom. Walking down the narrow, congested lane that leads to the madrasa, I stand out as an oddity in my jeans and T-shirt. All around me are students, neatly dressed in kurta pajamas and skull-caps. An elderly maulvi stops me at the imposing entrance gate and asks me whom I want to meet. Since I do not know anyone in the madrasa, he tells me I should meet the man in charge of media relations and introduces me to Adil Siddiqui.

Siddiqui hardly appears as the obscurantist mullah that the media would make him out to be. He speaks reasonably good English and tells me that he is a retired government servant. He patiently answers all my many queries, and insists that if I want to know more I should meet the rector of the university, Maulvi Marghub ur-Rahman. I am delighted. I have heard much about the Maulvi, who, as head of the Deoband madrasa, represents, in a sense, literally thousands of Deobandi madrasas and maktabs all over India.

Maulvi Marghubs room could hardly be more simple. The aged Maulvi sits on a thin mattress spread out on the floor. A wooden cot and a low table constitute the only furniture in the room. The Maulvi is ill, Siddiqui explains as he introduces me to him, but still he agrees to speak to me, for which I am grateful. I ask him a string of questions that relate to popular representations of the madrasas. No, madrasas are not engaged in training terrorists, he says. He is not opposed to girlsҒ higher education, he retorts when I tell him about a book that I have just finished written by a graduate of his madrasa who argues to the contrary. My own daughter studied in a university and my grand-daughter is doing a degree course at Aligarhђ, he explains. Killing innocent people is forbidden in Islam, he says when I refer to militant organisations in Pakistan and Kashmir that are waging what they call a jihad against India. Some of these groups also claim to be Deobandi, I tell him, but he cuts me short and says that they have nothing whatsoever to do with the madrasa at Deoband. How can we be responsible for their activities? The mainstream Deobandi ulema in India consistently opposed the ёtwo-nation theory and the Pakistan demandҒ, he says.

I refer to the Imrana episode and the fatwa issued by a mufti of the Deoband madrasa declaring the hapless womans marriage dissolved because she was allegedly raped by her father-in-law. Maulvi Marghub clearly does not wish to discuss the controversial issue. ґThe media has a vested interest in presenting Muslims in a bad light, he says. ґThis is why we have decided that if the media wants to seek the opinion of the Deobandi elders on any issue, they should approach not just any mufti or scholar here but me directly. Similarly, he dismisses my question about the sectarianism that is deeply-rooted in the madrasa curriculum. ґWe dont condemn other Muslim sects. We believe that all communities and sects should live peacefully with each otherҒ, the Maulvi insists, not waiting to listen to what I have to argue to the contrary.

The call to prayer rings out from a nearby mosque. I want to continue the conversation but Maulvi Marghub has to pray and I realise he is too tired and unwell to talk much more. I leave his room with mixed feelings. I perceive a certain defensiveness in his arguments. This, to some extent, is understandable, at a time when Muslims, and particularly the ulema of the madrasas, are being hounded and branded by the media. The Maulvis views on Muslim girlsҒ education are a major a revelation, certainly, but I wonder how far they find an echo among the lower-level Deobandi ulema, many of whom continue to rant against modern education for girls. If, as the Maulvi argues, Muslim girls can indeed go in for higher education, I wonder why the Deobandi ulema have never sought to mobilise Muslim public opinion in favour of the issue. I think, too, of the Maulvis vehement opposition to the killing of innocents, including by groups that claim to be Deobandi. I know that he is sincere in his protest, but I wish the Indian Deobandis would be more openly vocal about this. It would certainly help improve their image and combat virulent Hindutva propaganda about the Dar ul-Uloom, and Muslims in general, being soft on ґterrorism. Similarly, I think of the MaulviҒs spirited defence of the madrasas curriculum and his refusal to recognise that madrasas promote sectarian strife. I know he is wrong, but then I could hardly have expected him to admit to the fact, being the head of the largest madrasa in all of South Asia, which is also known to be a key player in inter-sectarian polemics and politics.

As I walk down from Maulvi MarghubҒs room, a different image of the Deoband madrasa unfolds. A series of wall-magazines, written by students in neat Urdu calligraphy, hang on nails from walls. The issues they are devoted to reveal much about the education that the madrasa imparts to its students. Some of this is about various rules of personal deportment, moral exhortations and reminiscences about the Prophet Muhammad, issues about which the dozens bookshops in the vicinity of the madrasa stock literally hundreds of different titles. They reflect the ritualistic and sternly legalistic version of Islam that Deoband is known for.

Some articles deal with allegations against madrasas. One discusses the vexed issue of terrorismђ, and argues that Islam has nothing whatsoever to do with it. Those who engage in terrorismђ are not really Muslimђ, it insists, claiming that Osama bin Laden has been accused of being behind various terrorist strikes without any adequate evidenceђ. Another article deals with reforms in the madrasas. Those who argue for the modernisationђ of madrasas, it says, are either evil-intentioned or ill-informed, it argues. If students are made to study modern subjects in addition to Islamic subjects, it says, they would be so over-burdened that they would be good in neither. The article admits the need for Muslims to produce good lawyers, doctors, engineers and so on, in addition to maulvis, and says that there ought to be a division of labour, with each specialising in his own particular field. It, however, claims that the paths of secularђ and religiousђ education are completely divergentђ, thus brooking no possibility of any significant reform of the centuries old madrasa curriculum in line with what numerous Islamic reformists have been consistently advocating.

As in the case of numerous books produced by the official publishing house of the Deoband madrasa, many articles in the wall-magazines are devoted specifically to proving the DeobandiҒs claim to representing Islamic orthodoxyђ. This they seek to do by damning all the various other Muslim sects as deviant or even as outside the fold of Islam. They condemn the Islamist Jamaat-i Islami as allegedly following not Islam but, in fact, a different religion altogether which they brand as Maududiyatђ, after the founder of the Jamaat, Syed Abul Ala Maududi. They contemptuously refer to the Ahl-i Hadith, the Indian counterpart of the Wahhabis, as a source of great strifeђ and present it as virtually out of the Muslim pale. An article on the Shias insists that the Shias are kafirs and those who doubt their being kafir are kafirs themselvesђ. The Barelvis are presented in similarly lurid colours, as virtual idolaters for their devotion to the tombs of the Sufis. The image that is carefully sought to be conveyed, of course, is that the Deobandis alone represent the one saved sect who the Prophet has prophesied will be destined to enter heaven.

Students I meet and enter into casual conversations with appear to only selectively appropriate these messages. One student, a teenager from Mewat, Haryana, feels the need for the madrasa to incorporate at least some modern education in its curriculum. This way we will be able to express Islam in a manner intelligible to othersђ, he says. His friend, a lad from Gujarat, disagrees. We must follow the path of the Deobandi elders. They knew what was best. And now the Dar ul-Ulum has opened a department of computers and English, so how can you say that modern education is not been imparted here?ђ, he retorts. If we carefully study all that is taught in the madrasa we will have every answer to all problems for all timesђ, he insists. He explains to me that the Deobandi ulema are not opposed to modern education as such. His own brother is studying in a college and he thinks it is a good thing. Heђll specialise in worldly education and I in religious subjects and we can both share our knowledge and benefit from each other, he explains.

Another student I meet at a tea-shop tells me that the madrasa should encourage its students to interact with people of other faiths. ґHere we get to meet only Muslims, and so once we graduate from the madrasa we will naturally be unable to properly adjust to other communities, he complains. He takes me to the sprawling new mosque that has recently come up in the madrasaҒs sprawling compound. It looks like a cross between the Taj Mahal and a Christmas cake. He tells me it was built at the cost of several crore rupees. The Prophet used to say his prayers in a thatched house, and look at this enormous waste of money now! Perhaps the madrasa should have used that money for helping the poor and promoting educationђ, he bemoans. Another student sitting overhears him and interrupts. The madrasa does help the poor by providing free education to thousands of students. So, isnђt this a great sort of social work?, he asks. I have to admit he has a point there. Most of the students in the madrasa come from poor families. Given the governmentҒs apathy towards Muslim education, the role of madrasas such as the Dar ul-Ulum in providing mass free education cannot be discounted.

I spend the night in the madrasas guest-house, the mehman khana. The staff and the maulvis I meet there are model hosts. We talk about religion, a subject I am wary of, but despite our disagreements on numerous points they display a generous courtesy. At night a tin band blares in the lane behind, leading a marriage party that winds its way probably to a would-be brideҒs home. A man, leading the band, bellows into a microphone at a high pitch, to the accompaniment of a dholak and tambourine. Music is haraam or forbidden, according to the Deobandis, I recall. I ponder on the dissonance between theory and practice and then drift off to sleep.