Indian Deobandis Against Terrorism: Reiterating a Historical Tradition
by Yoginder Sikand
Following the massive anti-terrorism convention organized by the Dar ul-Ulum Deoband two months ago, literally dozens of such public meetings have been held by Muslim groups, particularly those led by Deobandi ulema, across India. Ulema who have addressed these rallies have insisted that terrorism has no room in Islam, some of them going so far as to issue fatwas to that effect, and also calling for inter-communal harmony. Which is all, of course, to the good, considering the fact that many non-Muslims continue to labour under the impression that there is an inherent link between Islam, particularly the Deobandi expression of it, and terrorism.
The sudden spate of conventions stressing inter-community harmony and denouncing terrorism organized by the Indian ulema have received considerable media attention. However, these conventions have been reported about in the media in such a manner as to suggest that they represent a sudden change of heart, due perhaps to political pressure, on the part of the Indian Deobandi ulema, who have, for years, especially since the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, received a very bad press. It is also being argued in some sections of the media that the anti-terrorism and pro-communal harmony rhetoric of the Indian Deobandis is not really sincere and is simply a means to stave off criticism or state control and that they are secretly wedded to an aggressively ‘anti-national’, ‘communal’ and ‘pan-Islamic’ agenda.
This argument, is, however, deeply flawed, as a reading of the history of the Deobandi ulema will suggest. Keeping in mind this historical context, it appears that the current campaign for communal harmony and against terrorism led by the Indian Deobandi ulema is actually a reiteration of a tradition that has deep roots in Deobandi history, rather than being a new invention meant simply for public consumption. The fact remains, although this, unfortunately, is strictly kept out of our history textbooks, that the majority of the Indian Deobandi ulema in pre-1947 India were strongly anti-imperialist, vehemently opposed communalism, championed Hindu-Muslim unity, and, while insisting on the protection of Muslim (and other minorities’) rights, forcefully opposed the Partition of India. They stressed that there was no contradiction between being Muslim and Indian at the same time. Considerably before the Congress and the Muslim League began talking about full independence for India, leaders of the Deoband madrasa had already not just begun demanding it but also started taking practical measures for it. The then rector of the madrasa, Maulana Mahmud ul-Hasan, was imprisoned by the British in Malta for organizing an uprising that aimed at overthrowing British rule and replacing it by a government consisting of Hindus and Muslims.
Those who, ignorant, deliberately or otherwise, of the strongly patriotic traditions of the majority of the Indian Deobandi ulema, insist that the current campaign of the Indian Deobandis against terrorism and communalism is simply a pious ruse designed to conceal an ‘anti-national’ agenda, would do well to read a recently reprinted Urdu booklet, bearing the revealing title of ‘Hamara Hindustan Aur Uske Fazail’ (‘Our India and Its Glories’), which brilliantly articulates this commitment of leading Deobandi ulema to the cause of composite Indian nationalism and inter-communal harmony.
One of the two essays in the booklet is penned by Maulana Husain Ahmad Madni, then rector of the Deoband madrasa and head of the Jamiat ul-Ulema-i Hind (‘The Union of the Ulema of India’), a major Deobandi ulema organisation. The essay was first published sometime in the early 1940s, in response to the Muslim League’s demand for a separate Muslim state and to counter the claim articulated by many ‘upper’ caste Hindu leaders that Indian nationalism was necessarily synonymous with ‘Hindu nationalism’, thus effectively excluding the Muslims from the Indian nationalist project.. The essay is based on the argument that India has a special, revered place in the Islamic tradition. Hence, it insists, the Muslims of the country should consider themselves particularly honoured to have been born in the country. Because India had been specially blessed by God, it argues, the Muslims must work for the welfare, including the unity of the country. Contrarily, to demand the partition of the country, it suggests, would be to defy the Divine Will itself. At the same time, using the motif of India being specially blessed by God, for which it draws upon resources within the larger Islamic tradition, it seeks to counter the assertion put forward so aggressively by ‘upper’ caste Hindu ‘nationalists’ of Islamic identity being necessarily contradictory to Indian nationalism.
Maulana Madni’s essay, titled ‘Hamara Hindustan’ (‘Our India’), draws upon narratives contained in the works of classical Islamic scholars to illustrate the ‘glories’ (fazail) of India. He writes that Islamic tradition has it that God directed Adam, the first man and the first prophet, to be sent down to earth to India. It was thus from India that the human race sprang from Adam’s progeny. This implies, Maulana Madni argues, that the Indian Muslims must consider India as their ‘ancient home’ (watan al-qadim). In addition, Maulana Madni refers to the Quran as mentioning that God has sent prophets to every nation, and Maulana Madni takes this to mean that prophets must have also been sent to India as well. This, he says, is further suggested by the fact the numerous Muslim saints (awliya-i allah) have ‘discovered’, through ‘spiritual encounters’ (ruhi mulaqat), the graves of various prophets in India. Since, as the Quran says, the religion (din) taught by all the prophets of God, including those who were possibly sent to India, was one and the same—al-Islam (‘The Surrender’), it is obvious that from ancient (i.e. pre-Muhammadan) times onwards Islam has been present in India. In fact, Maulana Madni argues, ‘it is an unchallengeable fact that from the very beginning India has been the land of Islam (islam ka watan)’.
India, Maulana Madni insists, is as much the motherland of the Muslims as it is of other communities in the country. In a rhetorical statement that might appear as somewhat quixotic, Maulana Madni went so far as to claim that Muslims do, or at least should, display an even greater concern for India’s welfare than other communities because while many Hindus burn their dead and throw their ashes into rivers, and the Parsis let vultures feed on their dead, the Muslims bury their dead in the bosom of the earth, in the very soil of their motherland. In contrast to the Hindus and the Parsis of the country, the mortal remains of the Muslims remain in India in their graves and shall remain so till the Day of Judgment. The Hindus believe in reincarnation of the dead, and there is no guarantee that their dead would be reborn in India, while the Muslims believe they shall remain in their graves till the Day of Judgment. Hence, Maulana Madni argues, it is only the Muslims who remain faithful to India even after their death. This itself means, he writes, that Muslims are, or should be, more attached to India and concerned about its welfare than people of other communities.
No community can, therefore, claim a monopoly of Indian patriotism, Maulana Madni insists, challenging Hindu assertions to the contrary. Just as the Aryans, the Huns and the Greeks came to India and settled here and made this their home, he writes, so did the early Muslims. The only difference between the Muslims and the others is that the former arrived in India earlier. In fact, Maulana Madni argues, the Muslims, as a whole, can be more legitimately said to be the original inhabitants of India, since the vast majority of the Indian Muslims are descendants of converts from India’s pre-Aryan aboriginal people. Hence, he asserts, it is completely misleading to claim that India is not the land of the Muslims or that it belongs to the Hindus alone. The welfare of all the communities of India, including the Muslims, depends on the overall welfare of the country, and this is yet another reason why the Indian Muslims must love and serve their country. Maulana Madni insists that the Muslims cannot not leave India and depart for any other country, nor would any other country accept them. The Indian Muslims would have to live and flourish in India itself.
While recognising that the Indian Muslims have a spiritual bond with Muslims elsewhere owing to adherence to a common religion, Maulana Madni argues that this does not come in the way of their patriotism. Nor are the Indian Muslims alone in sharing such spiritual ties with their co-religionists elsewhere. The Indian Hindus, Maulana Madni notes, are linked through a common religion with Hindu communities outside India, such as in South Africa, Mauritius and Fiji. If that does not lead to their patriotic credentials being questioned, he asks, why should the Indian Muslims’ spiritual links with Muslims elsewhere be regarded as suspect?
As head of the Deoband madrasa and of the Jamiat ul-Ulema-i Hind, Maulana Madni enjoyed the support of the majority of the Deobandi ulema, and his legacy continues long after his death. As his essay so brilliantly asserts, he, like most of his fellow Deobandis, was consistently and ardently anti-imperialist and passionately committed to Hindu-Muslim harmony and unity and to the cause of India as a whole. This, one cannot help remarking, was in stark contrast to Hindu extremist forces, such as the RSS and the Mahasabha, who vehemently opposed Hindu-Muslim unity and also played into the hands of British imperialism.
The Deobandi ulema who are now raising their voices against terrorism and for communal harmony are thus not engaging in anything novel. This has been the tradition of majority of the Indian Deobandis right from the late nineteenth century, and they thus seem only to be reiterating this tradition. Such initiatives should be warmly welcomed. If the state and secular non-Muslim forces are genuinely concerned about terrorism and communal conflict, they must explore ways of creatively cooperating with these and other such ulema groups. But then, since terrorism and communal conflict are not issues specific to any community, it is also for non-Muslim, particularly Hindu, religious organisations, to take a cue from the Deobandis and launch similar mass awareness campaigns against all forms of terrorism, including those engaged in by Hindu groups which have unleashed untold violence in recent decades. Sadly, there are little signs of any significant moves in that direction.