The Deobandi Movement

August 31, 2009

In my post on the Taliban last week, I explained that the Taliban’s brand of Islamic radicalism has been significantly influenced by the Deobandi movement. Since that post, I have received several requests asking me to explicate on the history of the Deobandi movement itself. 

The Deobandi movement has evolved out of a Sunni reformist movement. It began in the Indian subcontinent, but it’s political expression and ideology were co-opted by Pakistan’s Jamiyyat-i-Ulama-i-Islam (JUI). The JUI are a religious party with a strict, militant, anti-West, and anti-American culture. The JUI also hate anyone who is a non-Muslim. The JUI trained many members of the Taliban in their madrasas (seminaries). These schools were first set up for Afghan refugees in the Pashtun heavy areas of Pakistan during the Afghan-Soviet war.

The Deobandi movement is named for the originating Madrasa established in the town of Deoband in northern India in 1867. This school soon became the model for madrasas established all over Southern Asia. Thousands of Deobandi madrasas now exist in India and Pakistan. And out of all the sectarian orientations in South Asia, those associated with Deobandi have been the most intellectually dynamic and politically the most significant. 

The majority of significant commentaries produced by Deobandi intellectuals have focused on hadith. A hadith is an oral story related to the prophet Muhammad and his customs. Hadith are understood as being important devices in deciding proper Muslim living. And it is important to stress that hadith are attributed to Muhammad as opposed to the Qur’an. Therefore, it is understood by Muslims that hadith are the words of Muhammad and not the word of God. The Sunni cannon of hadith is called the ‘Six major Hadith collections.’ 

Deobandi-scholarship on hadith has encouraged reconsideration of earlier religious positions. Among the goals of the Deobandi brand is the defense and preservation of Sunni norms and law. Defensive arguments within Deobandi, sometimes referred to as jihad, are often accompanied by an unusual degree of openness to departures from past hadith analysis. These departures include a call for a more rigid conservatism while promoting a militant vision and culture unheard-of in classical Islam. 

Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan are typically run by religious teachers who have little knowledge of or appreciation for traditional Islam. The chief task of these teachers is to promote a jihadist vision that is global in scope, intolerant of competing with other Sunni doctrines, and fanatically anti-Shi’a. A main goal of Deobandi schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan is having their pupils spread this form of Islam world-wide.

It is sometimes estimated that between 80,000 and 100,000 Pakistanis trained in Deobandi madrasas just between 1994 and 1999. 

Deobandi schools have close ties to Wahhabi militants in Saudi Arabia and the schools benefited from Saudi funding for many years. In this way, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia are closely tied together, to the dismay of their current respective governments. The criminal networks of militants operating in these countries all have ties to the Deobandi worldview. If world governments are going to overcome terrorism perpetrated in Islam’s name, they will have to better educate themselves in the Deobandi brand of radicalism. 

The British newspaper The Times has claimed that nearly 600 of the 1,400 mosques in Britain are run by Deobandi affiliated scholars, while 17 of the 26 Islamic seminaries follow Deobandi teaching. Significantly, the seminaries produce 80% of Britain’s domestically trained Muslim clerics.

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