Edna Fernandes gains unique access to the ultra-orthodox Deoband madrassa in rural India
Britain's summer of terror scares has yielded to a winter of disquiet about the nature of the evolving threat from imported Islamic fundamentalist movements. Police chief Sir Ian Blair recently warned Parliament that the terrorist threat to the UK is on the rise. His warning followed the publication of a police report documenting the ominous and growing influence in Britain of Deobandi Islam, an orthodox Sunni movement which is the ideological force behind the Taliban.
According to that report Deobandi Islam is now the dominant force in British Islam, controlling 600 of its 1,350 mosques and 17 of the country’s 26 seminaries. That means 80 per cent of Muslim clerics preaching in Britain are Deobandis. Yet despite its reach into the Muslim heartlands, very little is known of the roots of Deobandi Islam or what it stands for.
Few realise the origins of Deobandi philosophy lie not in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, but in the world’s biggest secular democracy: India. The Darul Uloom madrassa, the second most important academic institution in the Islamic world (after Cairo’s al-Azhar), is in a small town of the same name in the poor north-western state of Uttar Pradesh; an island of Islam in a sea of Hindu saffron.
Although Darul Uloom, the House of Knowledge, claims it is a misrepresented keeper of the faith, terrorism-hardened Indian security chiefs see it as a crucible for Islamic fundamentalism in the region. They claim its alumni have gone on to operate across India, Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as, increasingly, the mosques of Europe.
The madrassa is notorious for its rigid Islamic way of life, which is sealed off from the outside world. Access to outsiders is extremely rare, but a couple of years ago I gained entry to learn of their worldview first hand.
As a woman I required special dispensation from the madrassa’s Vice-Chancellor, Maulana Marghoob Rehman, so it was only after months of lobbying that I was finally cleared to meet the teachers of the Taliban.
Darul Uloom is just five hours’ drive from Delhi and yet on entering the Deoband madrassa it feels like a different country. I arrived at sundown with my Sikh driver Mr Singh, a usually unflappable character who was uncharacteristically anxious as we approached the campus. He was well aware of the madrassa’s reputation. A tight nexus of alleys and a medieval-style bazaar surrounded the school itself. Carts, sorrowful-looking mules and skittish goats thronged the dark walkways as crowds of white-capped and turbaned young men filled lanes lined with Islamic bookshops supplying textbooks, literature and copies of the Koran. No women were on the streets.
I was greeted by the madrassa’s official spokesman, Mr Adil Siddiqui, an austere man sporting a camouflage puffa jacket and regulation-length white beard. His favourite catchphrase when introducing me to people was “This is Mr So-and-So. He is not a terrorist.”
During my stay I met with the elderly Vice-Chancellor in his private chamber in the Department for Preaching and Propagation. Wrapped in a floor-length green velvet dressing gown and wearing red velveteen slippers, he spoke in Urdu as his bodyguard sat alongside. The madrassa has 3,500 students from across the world. The aim, he said, was to take uneducated Muslims and create ambassadors of Allah.
The curriculum is centred on the study of the Koran and Sunnah – the habits and customs of the prophet – as well as sharia law and fiqh, or the study and application of the sacred laws of Islam. The students learn practical skills such as calligraphy and bookbinding. By the time they leave they are fluent in at least five languages: Arabic, Hindi, English, Persian and Urdu. The school does not believe in a modern reinterpretation or adaptation of Islam for today’s world; instead it follows the approach of the Sunni Muslims of the 14th century, who declared the “gates of ijtihad” or independent reasoning were closed tight. Scholars must look to the distant past to guide them.
The students join as boys of five or six and leave as men inculcated with a love of Islam and a suspicion of all things Western. The school resists modern life, seeing modernity as the slide into immorality that has debased Western values. With a few exceptions. The madrassa now teaches English and journalism studies as well as permitting limited access to the internet in the interest of spreading the message.
The Deobandi leaders in India stressed to me that Islam was a message of peace and that they believed in religious co-existence. And yet none saw Osama bin Laden as a terrorist who was guilty of orchestrating 9/11. Instead many of the young students believed he was wrongly blamed, that the Taliban was unfairly ousted from Afghanistan and Iraq illegally invaded. To them, these were abuses of Muslim honour.
Deoband’s muftis, arch-executors of sharia judgment, told me many of the battles waged around the world by Muslims were not strictly jihad – a struggle for faith – but “self-defence”. Terrorism was seen as un-Islamic. Indeed, all of them repeatedly condemned terrorism. However, violence in the name of self-defence was permissible under Islam, they said. These were the chilling words of Deoband’s Chief Mufti Zafeeruddin, a man in his eighties whose jolly disposition contrasted sharply with his reputation as one of the most revered and strict Islamic judges in the world: “Terrorism is un-Islamic. Only self-defence is necessary,” he said as he sat cross-legged on the floor, swathed in a threadbare blanket. “To defend themselves, Muslims must raise arms against the enemy. Whether he lives in USA, whether he lives in England, whether he lives in France, whether he lives in Italy or Germany. Wherever he lives, he is authorised to defend himself and for self-defence he can raise arms against his enemies.”
The battle for faith is fought mostly on a mental plane, he explained. But, where necessary, it must also be fought with arms to defend the right to practise Islam. The aim of the school is to equip its students for this, not by broadening the mind but by conditioning it. All knowledge, all inspiration, all understanding is distilled in one book: the Koran. The aim of the school is to return to the year zero. The time of the Prophet.
From the isolated confines of the madrassa courtyards, Deoband has evolved to become much more than just another religious school. It has grown into a global movement which believes in a return to the austerity of sharia.
Deobandi Islam calls for beheadings and amputations for crimes against society, for women to be kept in purdah and to limit their role to the home and child rearing. It shuns Western influences such as film, music and television. The whole Deoband way of life underscores the literal meaning of the word Islam – “surrender” to God’s will.
Since the Chief Mufti’s prophetic words were spoken, the battle has indeed come to European shores. One of the surprising facts that emerged from the bungled Glasgow bombings was that a number of the terrorists were of Indian origin and, indeed, one of the bombers had links to a Muslim revivalist group called Tablighi Jamaat which was founded by a Deobandi cleric in 1926. But the link between Deoband and Britain goes back to the madrassa’s very inception.
Established in 1866, after the 1857 Indian Mutiny, when Muslim and Hindu sepoys fought the British in what Indians view as the first battle for independence, the madrassa was formed as a direct response to provide a refuge of Islamic purity in the subcontinent. Even then, its aim was to shut out Western influences which were seen as polluting.
The movement that began more than 150 years ago as a rejection of imperialist hegemony now resonates again across the Muslim world. While the founding madrassa in India is seen as more moderate than its affiliates on the Afghan–Pakistan border, the sister schools have radicalised the message further, fusing the Deobandi ideology with a militant credo aimed at waging war with the West. It is this militant form of Deobandi Islam that police chiefs fear has infiltrated Britain.
The global reach of this movement was evident even in April 2001 when half a million Muslims gathered in Peshawar, Pakistan, to pay tribute to this madrassa. As wind and rain lashed the tented pavilions during the conference, hundreds of thousands of holy warriors listened to calls for Muslims to rise up against the West. Banners emblazoned with “Death to America and the Jewish State” swayed in a maelstrom of turbaned mullahs and militants, scholars and clerics.
Speakers told the audience to prepare for jihad. While the Deobandis of India preached a moderate message of brotherhood and peace, their entreaty was drowned out by the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, himself a former student at Darul Uloom, who spoke of how the philosophy born in India was made real in Afghanistan.
The meeting ended with a taped message from bin Laden himself, who called on Muslims everywhere to follow the Taliban example and “implement the Islamic system”. Five months later, al-Qaeda’s act of mass terrorism would expose the secluded world of Deoband to world scrutiny for the first time.
Six years on, the British authorities are alert to the threat of radicalisation of UK Muslims by Deobandis. Police have said one of the suicide bombers in the July 2005 terror attack studied at a Deoband seminary in the UK, while another worshipped at a related mosque. Tablighi Jamaat is established in the UK and aims to build a £100 million mega-mosque in east London.
Yet already opposition is mounting to the plan which will promote a way of life that hails from the time of the Prophet. Moderate Muslims – the peaceful majority – have decided to speak out and reclaim their religion from the fanatics by stressing that Islam is a faith of peace, which believes in co-existence. Indeed, Muhammad instructed his followers to respect people of the “earlier revelations” – the Jews and Christians – and held the teachings of Abraham and Jesus in the highest respect.
I was aware of these same conflicting tensions even in Darul Uloom itself. My hosts believed in sharia. The Taliban way was the Deoband way. And yet all the elders stressed a message of religious co-existence. “There is one destination, but many paths,” as Mr Siddiqui put it to me.
My greatest privilege when visiting Darul Uloom was to be granted access to its ancient library. Within this bastion of Islamic orthodoxy there lies a dusty glass cabinet which contains the madrassa’s greatest treasures: ancient gold-leaf illustrated copies of the Koran alongside a copy of the Torah, next to the Hindu sacred text the Ramayana.
It was for me a chastening reminder of one message of Islam that seems to have been lost in the atrocities of history and those of recent weeks in Pakistan. It is the Koran’s message of peace, a message that European Islam needs to recover.
Visit Edna Fernandes' website www.holywarriors.co.uk