Being born & brought up in a Muslim family in the Northern Indian city of Muzaffarnagar which is barely 25 kilometers from the town of Deoband, I have felt the impact of Deoband Movement over the lives of the common Muslim masses from the close quarters. One question which really stimulates is; what are the circumstances that led to the transformation of Deoband Movement as one of the largest sect in Islamic world? In Islamic world as well as outside the impact of Deoband as a reformist Movement was always debated. In recent years there is a new curiosity among scholars to understand Deoband & its teachings in the aftermath of 9/11, as Taliban were one of its most infamous followers & also different militant groups based in Pakistan.

The questions that I would like to enquire about are; what were the reasons & the circumstances under which Darul-uloom Deoband was established? Its impact on social structure of Muslim community at that time if there was any. How much politically active was this movement & if it was then what was their ideology and affiliations? Relation with the colonial power at that time also needs to be inquired upon.

As Syed Mehboob Rizvi points out in his book Tarikh-e-Deoband, prior to British rule in India educational institutions Maktabs, Madarsas etc. were state funded. Different Nawabs, Princes or Mughal kings provided Ulemas with Jagirs or different gifts for their services. There were no schools on western model rather students would learn from one teacher through oath of allegiance, no proper classroom, syllabus or examination pattern used to be there. This is one model we see at famous Firangi Mahal, of Lucknow. In the aftermath of the failed rebellion of 1857, as Mughal dynasty formally ended Schools of Delhi also suffered. In this way funding and establishment of Madarsas also got a severe jolt. Under these circumstances, in 1866 at Chatta Mosque of Deoband classes were started with only one student, Mahmud Hasan, who later headed this Madarsa. This institution was innovative as well as modern in more than one sense. As Barbara Metcalf in her essay, ‘The Madrasa at Deoband: A Model for Religious Education in Modern India’ writes that this was a breakaway from old system of education in India and was highly organized over the English bureaucratic style. Teachers were professionals & separate building for classrooms, library & hostels were acquired as soon as it was possible. First time fixed syllabus & time period for the course were stipulated, annual examination was also one such innovation.

 It was the first time that any educational institution was being setup in South Asia with the help of Public donations until then educational institutions were setup only on the royal grants from Kings, landlords etc. Successful manifestation of this idea has had a huge impact not only on religious education but also on other institutions which dealt with western modern education. On the same lines within six months we see another Madarsa Mazahir ul uloom in Saharanpur and importantly enough it is this model of public donation which was later adopted by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan to build AMO College later to be developed into Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).  As Mufti Izhar puts it, public donations made it possible for Darul-uloom that common masses can identify themselves with the Madarsa more than the earlier institutions as people from all sections of the society have donated for it no matter how meager amount it was but still it gave them this feeling of ‘our own institution’. Also, it was this reason which made sure that never any elite family or class has taken hold of it because of their standing in society & only Ulema were entitled to administration of the institution.

This was the first time that Urdu became the medium of instruction instead of Arabic or Persian. This was again a step which brought the religious learning to the common masses as Persian and Arabic were languages which were supposed to be out of reach of the non elite & Urdu was the language of the masses. Rather we see that books written by Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi, which were the first book on religion for masses and were written in Urdu, are actually used as reference by majority of the Muslims in India till today as they could not understand Arabic texts in the original. Thus, it played a major role in bringing Islamic education to the common Muslims in India. On the other hand it also leads to the spread of Urdu outside the limits of Delhi, Lucknow etc. As, students from across the subcontinent used to study and still do study here in Urdu medium of instruction it spread the language to the far off cutting across the barriers of dialects & languages. In a way it helped in the rise of Urdu more than AMU as thought in popular notion.

One of the Maulana at Deoband says that it was this introduction of Urdu as the medium of instruction that led to the Muslims apart from Syeds, Shaikhs and other elite communities to come to the forefront of the Islamic education. Allegedly Muslim elite tried to maintain their supremacy by producing texts and imparting education only in Arabic & Persian. Thus, helping in upward mobilization of the educationally backward sections of Muslim community in Indian subcontinent. Moreover Deobandi institutions modeled on Darul-uloom were opened across the subcontinent and even overseas spreading this reformist form of Islam across the globe.

Question, which is the most stimulating for most of us is how politically active this Deoband Movement is, and if it is then, what ideology does it follow? Political participation or activity of Darul-uloom can be divided into three broad periods till the independence of India since its inception in 1866. First period starts with 1857 itself, when both the noted founders of Darululoom Maulana Qasim Nanautwi & Maulana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi took up arms in rebellion against the British forces under the command of their teacher Maulana Imdadullah Muhajir Makki. These rebels took over the town of Shamli in Muzaffarnagar from British forces but as rebellion failed all were prosecuted and Rashid Ahmad one of the founders even had to serve imprisonment. This tells us that right from the beginning Deoband School was not aloof from the politics of the subcontinent & used to harbor an anti colonial feeling. With the inception of school Ulema of Darul-uloom shied away from the active politics for some time to evade the hostility of the British. They had had the view that community need to be strengthened first and only then reigns of political power should be taken over. Barbara Metcalf in her book points out at the political passivity of the Deoband Movement, probably because she takes into account the period till 1900. But at the turn of the century as Mahmud Hasan came to prominence (he is the same Mahmud I mentioned earlier as the first student of Darul-uloom) politics also comes back in the form of a militant movement to the Ulema of Deoband movement. He with many of his aides conspired to overthrow Colonial rule from India with the help of Turkey, Germany, Afghan tribes and other princely states. Messages were distributed on silk cloths, that is why it was later known as ‘silk cloth conspiracy’. Conspiracy was discovered and in World War Turkey & Germany also fell. Mahmud Hasan was arrested & along with Maulana Ahmad Madni, another later head of Darululoom, were sent to jail in Malta. As Turkey fell Deoband again became active part of Khilafat movement and supported non cooperation movement this can be termed as the third phase where Deoband worked along with Indian National Congress through democratic process. An organization for political agitations was formally floated which was named Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind. Its political activity can be gauged from the fact that it declared goal of self independence much before INC in 1917 at its session in Peshawar. This organization adhered to the ideas of INC and opposed the formation of a separate Muslim state. During the time of partition in 1947 it appealed to the Muslims to vote for INC.

In present times, JUH is not a force but still it uses to appeal to Muslims on political matters. Darul-uloom right from its inception has treated Muslims as community, which needs to be strengthened but they were not in favor of Islamic state like Muslim league and believed in mutual co-existence of different religions. As we can see from the fact that at the time of its inception Darul-uloom was open to non-muslim students also, not only it was open there were some Hindu students enrolled there. When Mahmud Hasan conspired, Raja Mahendra was chosen as the head of the provisional government of India. Neither Darul-uloom opposed the English or Modern education for Muslims. All these facts points to the political and social idea of Darul-uloom. They were for a secular state but, where they can have total freedom of practicing own religious belief.

Another socio religious impact that Darululoom has had on Muslims in the sub continent is by introducing system of individual Fatwa. Before this Mufti gave fatwa to the Qazi or Judges as the guidelines but as Muslim empire subsided people need to be guided directly. Hugely debated topic of fatwa in present form is also an offshoot of this Deoband Movement which was later adopted by others also. Fatwa has had a great impact on general masses and helped people in mobilizing politically and socially at times.

There is no doubt that Deoband Movement, which started in a small town of Deoband in North India has now taken a shape of a major sect in Islam through its network of affiliated institutions across the world and the Tablighi Jamat. There were debates in recent past over its militant affiliations, its links with Taliban & other groups. But, what we tried to look at is the way it started & worked in the beginning. This is another matter of debate if Darul-uloom has deviated from its earlier discourse or if its control over its affiliated institutes outside India is limited. What makes this Movement interesting is the way it affected people not only in North India but in the whole subcontinent & how it crystallized a language of masses, Urdu, into a language of religion by bringing it into the teaching of Islamic studies. How they mixed opposition to colonial rule with Islam. Deoband movement right from its inception was seen as a modern approach to Islam.

(Author is a well known Historian)