The Deobandi Movement Revisited

February 7, 2013

I first wrote about the Deobandi movement on this blog three and a half years ago. Since that time, Western interest in the Deobandi movement has increased both in the media and among the security community. I thought it might be helpful if I offered an updated version of that original post.

The Deobandi movement has evolved out of a Sunni reformist tradition. 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 denounce anyone who is 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.

Madrassa

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.

Saudi funding to Islamic groups worldwide was drastically accelerated in the early 1980s as a means to create a Sunni wall  against Iran’s export of its Shi’a revolution. Iran’s funding of Shi’ite groups as well as its call for a global revolution threatened Saudi Arabia’s Islamic leadership role and the Arab world’s Sunni hegemony. The Deobandi movement’s emphasis on the defense and preservation of Sunni norms and law made the funding of Deobandi schools especially appealing to the Saudi regime.

Deobandi schools created close ties to Wahhabi militants in Saudi Arabia, and the creation of new schools boomed throughout the 1980s and 1990s from Saudi funding. 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.

Pakistan has a population exceeding 180 million people, and nearly two-thirds of this population is illiterate. The average Pakistani makes about $450 a year. Deobandi madrasas provide students with shelter, food, and a much needed education. It is sometimes estimated that between 80,000 and 100,000 Pakistanis trained in Deobandi madrasas just between 1994 and 1999.

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.

All Female Madrasa in Pakistan

All Female Madrasa in Pakistan

The post-Deobandi boom  has affected both faith and politics in the Muslim World. Deobandi’s global vision is to establish a Deobandi caliphate, and Deobandi missionaries have brought greater piety, religious divisions, opposition movements, and conflicts. Deobandi schools were first opened in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States in the 1980s.

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.

In the States, Darul Uloom Al-Madania was opened in Buffalo New York in 1986, and Darul Uloom New York was opened in New York City in 1997. In Canada, the Al-Rashid Islamic Institute was opened in Ontario in 1980, and the Darul Uloom Canada was opened in Ontario in 1993.

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