“Traditionalist” Islamic Activism: Deoband and Deobandis, Ten Years Later

At the time of the 9/11 attacks, commentators trying to analyze Afghan support for Al-Qaeda put a great deal of emphasis on the Taliban’s sectarian orientation as “Deobandi.” Deobandis across South Asia were known for disapproval of what they took to be Sufi or Shia intercessory practices that might compromise monotheism; they also discouraged celebration of ostentatious life-cycle customs. They called for adherence to what they took to be sharia-based individual practices. Deobandis had had a long tradition of influence within Afghanistan. This influence surged with the return of the Taliban leadership, who were, in fact, largely a product of Deobandi schools in Pakistan’s frontier region where they were refugees after the Soviet invasion.

The problem was that commentators took to formulating a simple syllogism: The Taliban were Deobandis. The Taliban had accommodated Al-Qaeda. Deobandis therefore were “fanatical,” “fundamentalist,” “anti-Western,” and “terrorist.”

My goal in the essay I wrote for the SSRC in 2001 was to argue that just as commentators all too often wrongly assumed they could describe Muslim behavior by reference to what were taken as abstract principles of “Islam,” similarly, Deobandis could not be reduced to a single pattern of behavior or political orientation simply by invoking “Deoband.” Deobandi populations varied politically. I particularly wanted to insist that the Deobandis in India, whose leading ulema were widely taken to be spokesmen for Muslim Indians, did not merit these pejorative and dangerous labels. Already subject to widespread discrimination and suspicion in India, Muslim Indians could be harmed by such careless labeling. Instead, I argued, Deobandis in India, as in each of the countries of South Asia, could best be understood as part of the larger political culture in each of their respective national contexts.

Thus, in India, Deobandi teachers, religious leaders, and politicians were actively committed to a secular, democratic polity. Their core leadership had supported the anti-colonial nationalist movement and opposed the creation of Pakistan. In India, there was no national Muslim political party, and although some of the ulema were politically active, it was as part of secular, plural parties with some mix of national, regional, and class objectives. Deobandi activists were in particular committed to preserving “minority cultural rights” in such matters as India’s constitutional guarantee to each religious tradition to follow separate family law. Their primary focus was religious education.

Deobandi ulema in the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam in Pakistan, in contrast, were organized as a distinctive political party, and they participated in the abortive democratic polity of that country. They made expedient, non-ideological alliances in the interest of gaining influence, and some among them were, in fact, regarded as being just as corrupt as any other politician. Many of the Pakistani ulema had been outspoken defenders of jihad in Afghanistan, and Deobandis were particularly supportive of the Taliban, who shared their sectarian orientation. Their goals were not only religious but both nationalist—in giving Pakistan influence in Afghanistan—and national, since commitment to the Afghan jihad could be a model for their own political role. In fact, the ulema had never played a leadership role in the politics of Pakistan, where the military had been in power roughly half the time since independence and were often in control even under ostensibly civilian regimes. The religious parties (with a post-9/11 exception as part of a protest vote against Musharraf in 2002) had never had more than 5 percent of the vote, although their Islamic discourse, especially from the 1980s on, played an ever-larger role in political life.

The Taliban, like the Indian and Pakistani Deobandis, were part of the larger political culture of their country. In the 1990s, they were one of several movements in Afghanistan that utilized an ethnic base to compete for control at the national level in the anarchic conditions following the defeat of the Soviets. They stood out for their insistence on what they took to be legitimate Islamic behavioral practices, but like many other movements, they were prepared to make expedient alliances with those they thought could help them, including Pakistanis looking for “strategic depth,” a link established under the leadership of a woman prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, as well as, for a time, US interests seeking access to oil. They also, fatally, welcomed Al-Qaeda, trading hospitality for material support for their own nationalist goals.

Finally, in my original essay, I commented on the millions who participated in the grassroots Tablighi Jamaat, a program initiated in the 1920s by Deobandis and understood to share their orientation. For them, ideally, there were no politics at all. Across South Asia and everywhere, the goal was one-on-one “invitations,” coupled with periodic mass gatherings, to win nominal Muslims to ritual fidelity, above all to the canonical prayer. The Tablighi Jamaat was not an organization in any formal sense, and its members eschewed any active participation in political life.

Besides emphasizing the distinctive national contexts—apart from Tablighi Jamaat—for these movements, I wanted to underline the multiple motivations for what any of them did apart from the ready assumption that their actions stemmed from opposition to America/“the West”/“Western values.” Instead, I argued for attention to the many elements likely to be in play—Islamic fidelity and hoped-for divine pleasure along with more worldly goals of honor, public support or approval, power, security, companionship, and the like—exactly as would be the case in non-Islamic organizations and movements. What Deobandis do, I wrote, is not always “about ‘us.’”

Hence, ten years later, one might ask whether each Deobandi population continues to define distinctive goals within a national arena and whether, particularly in the face of America-generated wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (spilling into Pakistan), any or all of these groups have moved from national or even regional ambitions to the global jihad focus associated with Al-Qaeda. Again, it is particularly important to underline that the situation is radically different for what is now tellingly called the “Af-Pak” region than it is for India. The emergence of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) in particular suggests a commonality of goals with the Afghan Taliban. Moreover, Pakistani militant organizations in the past decade have demonstrably been linked to actions beyond Pakistan/Afghanistan/Kashmir, notably the devastating Mumbai attacks of 2008 (the militant organization in that case was not Deobandi but linked to another sectarian group). Unquestionably, ten years later, militancy and terrorism in Pakistan, including militancy on the part of Deobandis, has escalated. Every survey, moreover, shows anti-Americanism in Pakistan growing ever greater.

Nonetheless, even in regard to the two Taliban groups, even if in principle they are committed to mutual assistance and coordination, organizational structures remain nationally based, and goals similarly continue to be primarily national. Activity across international borders is often intended to bolster reputation and effectiveness at home. Commentators and policymakers tend to exaggerate the international Islamic dimension of political life in this area, and they underestimate the depth of what can be called virulent nationalism that Islamic rhetoric serves. The drone strikes, the presence of foreign troops, the social dislocations engendered not only by violence but by foreign monetary flows together have fueled a public culture in both Pakistan and Afghanistan that is nationalist and profoundly suspicious of the motivations of outsiders.

Pakistan’s military is well known to be ambivalent in relation to its presumed shared commitment with its American allies to undermine the Afghan Taliban, sections of whom have long been regarded as Pakistani “assets” for continued influence. Army opposition to the Pakistani Taliban, whose goal is to challenge the existing state, is clear enough. Deobandis, like all actors in Pakistan, are caught up in a profoundly dysfunctional political system, with a non-functioning state system, an economically exploitative military, rampant corruption, profound socioeconomic inequality, and a public life obsessed with conspiracy theories and intra-Pakistani violence. There is no hint of an “Arab spring.”

The tendency to generalize imputations of militancy and terrorism to Muslims in general and Deobandis in particular has continued. Almost immediately after 9/11, Tablighis in particular fell under suspicion as a terrorist organization or at the least a “cover” being exploited by terrorists. To have had a Tablighi connection of any kind became prima facie an argument for guilt at Guantanamo, an accusation that defense lawyers regularly tried to counter by invoking the long history and actual behavior of Tablighis, whose overriding goal had long been establishing benign relations with governments in order to allow them the visas and permits they periodically sought for their missionary work. That is not to say that there had not been people with claimed or actual Tablighi connections who had participated in militant activities, but the prima facie argument, given the vast reach of the organization, was flawed.

As for Muslims in India, their situation has also been substantially affected, as has been the case of Muslim minorities worldwide in the decade since 9/11 as stereotypes and fears of Muslim terrorism have spread—and, one must add, been exploited. It thus continues to be a matter of some urgency that commentators and others not assume that Deobandi Indians share the political values or strategies of the more militant among the Deobandis located to their northwest.

Madrasas in India, as elsewhere, have particularly been suspected of harboring anti-national sentiments, and of these madrasas, the main Darul Uloom at Deoband is regarded as the most influential and most important. In part to counter any reputation of subversion, in February 2008 the seminary at Deoband hosted a conference of some ten thousand Islamic scholars from across the nation, who denounced all forms of terrorism, proclaiming that it was un-Islamic to kill innocent people. At the same time, however, the conference also denounced unwarranted blame and “profiling” leveled against Muslims.1 As one commentator put it, they protested “the hounding of Muslim youth and mounting Islamophobic offensives across the world, including India, in the name of countering ‘terror.’”2 Speakers at the conference singled out “Zionists” and “Western Crusaders” as the cause of such problems, a sign that the anti-Americanism evident above all in Pakistan may have increased traction for many Indian Muslims as well. This conference brought strong denunciations of violence on the part of Americans and others in Iraq and Afghanistan—which speakers labeled the real “terrorism”—as well as implications of covert action in oppressing Muslims in places like India as part of a worldwide campaign against Muslims. This emphasis in the Indian case, arguably, has the particular advantage that it serves to identify distant oppressors instead of one’s fellow countrymen with whom there is an overriding need for peaceful relationships.

As is true of some other minority Muslim populations, Muslim Indians serve to crystallize majority nationalism, in the Indian case a role intensified by what may be an implicit conflation of Muslims—typically poor and less educated—with other “polluting” and undesirable lower class/caste groups who increasingly claim rights within the larger society. In the case of Muslims in India, suspicion and disapproval after 9/11 has been further exacerbated by the enduring prejudice that Muslim Indians are “proto-Pakistanis,” their neighborhoods are “little Pakistans,” and so forth. These attitudes have been made worse since 9/11 by alleged and confirmed terrorist attacks, of which the most shocking was the November 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai.

In this past decade, however, it has been India’s Muslims who have primarily suffered from deliberate violence, above all in a coordinated pogrom in the state of Gujarat in 2002, where perhaps two thousand Muslims were killed and hundreds of thousands more were displaced and their means of livelihood destroyed.3 To the government’s great credit, a report commissioned in 2006 by the prime minister, popularly known as the Sachar Committee Report, demonstrated unequivocally the poverty and discrimination that have made the widely dispersed and culturally diverse Muslim population among the poorest in India, underrepresented in education and in public employment of all kinds, as well as in professional and other high-level positions.4

In this context of suspicion and discrimination, Muslim Indian leaders, including Deobandi leaders, have intensified their stance as committed participants in India’s particular style of a secular, democratic state. Indeed, some have argued that given the strength of both explicit and “soft” Hindu nationalism, or “Hindutva,” it is India’s Muslims who are most ardently keeping alive the ideals of the country’s founding “Nehruvian secularism,” committed to the constitution and to legal processes, as their best hope of flourishing as equal citizens.

In one of the most awaited judicial decisions in India’s history, only in September 2010 was there a verdict adjudicating rights to the site of a sixteenth-century Mughal mosque, illegally torn down in 1992 by highly organized cadres of right-wing Hindu nationalist organizations who claimed that the mosque had usurped the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. This cause had soared in the 1980s, demonstrably fueled by cries of “Hindu unity” as a way to neutralize lower caste/class demands. Ignoring the criminality of the demolition (and the ensuing anti-Muslim violence) and accepting as a legitimate basis for a property decision the “un-secular” criterion of Hindu “belief,” the judges strove for a Solomonic division of the property among three contending parties, two of them organized groups of Hindus and one Muslim. That such a decision seemed reasonable to so many underlines the challenges to keeping secularism alive.

Official Deobandi spokesmen regularly affirm their “full support” in this matter for the country’s judicial process—one that allows, as has happened and is currently pending, further appeal. When a far less important mosque was demolished in Delhi earlier this year, as one commentator noted, even poor Muslims demonstrated their “persistent attachment . . . to the rule of law. The language of rights, and more specifically of tenure, is the meeting ground of Muslims of all persuasions, and the principal terrain of their counteroffensive.” He further argued that they were not asking for any special treatment but simply the fair implementation of existing laws.5 Muslim Indians also participate actively in the electoral process, joining other Indians in parties that often cultivate specific caste and class interests; the names of several parties with core Muslim support, like the Social Democratic Party of India, the Welfare Party of India, and the All India United Democratic Front, proclaim their inclusiveness and their secularity.

Some political theorists stress a contrast between a “civil society” focused on “the rights-bearing individual” and a “political society” of those who relate to the state in terms of group interests, most notably in the Indian case the right to religiously defined family law for minorities and affirmative action for former “untouchables” and “tribals.” In fact the distinction turns out to be impossible to map sociologically. Deobandi political leaders engage the political strategies of both. In terms of group interests, in the past decade, they have increasingly emphasized not only their religious community interests but class interests as well. Deobandi and other Muslim political figures are looking specifically now to parties that will meet the increasing Muslim demand for “reservations” of public-sector jobs and educational slots, which initially excluded religious minorities.6 Reservations in India are as controversial as affirmative action is in the United States, but embracing that strategy—as was far less common a decade ago—aligns Muslims with what now is an entrenched dimension of the Indian political system.

If Deobandis and other Muslims are participating in state politics as do other Indians, their small-scale politics also, not surprisingly, share the characteristics of the larger culture. This was encapsulated in the crisis over the leadership of the Darul Uloom school at Deoband that unfolded through the long first half of this current year. In late 2010, the council named Maulana Ghulam Muhammad Vastanvi to be the new “vice chancellor.” At the end of July 2011, that decision was revoked and Vastanvi’s resignation was requested. In many ways this was “an Indian story:” the winning side was of “superior caste,” a family of north Indian, Urdu-speaking, “sayyids,” who thus were part of the north Indian well-born class that has dominated Muslim political leadership. Detractors called the school “a family fiefdom.” Vastanvi, in contrast, was of a rural, trading-caste background from the western state of Gujarat, “a non-forward caste” Muslim, as some described him. The whole episode could be seen as driven by the kind of caste/class and regional competition over institutions that Indians of all religious backgrounds know well. Moreover, sides partly lined up with political party affiliations.

The issue picked up by the media, however, was to make this a story about Muslim “backwardness” characteristic of an always-suspect madrasa. Vastanvi has an MBA and is an alim, an educational entrepreneur who runs schools with high-quality technical training across western India. While favoring the new cause of reservations for Muslims, Vastanvi also stood out for a commitment to technical education and programs to make Muslims more employable generally. He declared himself in favor of the madrasa making fewer public pronouncements through fatwas. What gave fuel to his opponents was a comment he made that Muslims in Gujarat should not dwell on grievances but take advantage of the state’s economic opportunities—for which he gave credit to the chief minister of Gujarat, the infamous Narendra Modi, who is tarred with substantial responsibility for the 2002 killings. To have Vastanvi resign, therefore, became, as one commentator put it, a good occasion for “madrasa bashing.”7

If one can get beyond such “bashing,” it is clear that the decade since 9/11, even in the face of violence and other challenges, has seen constructive debates going on among India’s most important ulema. They are experimenting with a range of political strategies—all of which are core to India’s vibrant and distinctive democratic life. Deobandi political behavior a decade ago was primarily shaped by national context, and that pattern remains today.

In all three countries, the patterns of Deobandi activism sketched out a decade ago have, in a broad sense, not only continued but intensified. If in the Indian context, these constitute in many ways a constructive progression, in the case of Pakistan and Afghanistan it is hard to see anything beyond tragedy.


Barbara D. Metcalf is Professor of History Emerita at the University of California, Davis.

  1. “Muslim Clerics Declare Terrorism as ‘UnIslamic,’” Times of India, February 25, 2008, http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2008-02-25/india/27766462_1_darul-uloom-terror-un-islamic-muslims.
  2. Yoginder Sikand, “Deoband’s Anti-Terrorism Convention: Some Reflections,” TwoCircles.net, March 12, 2008, http://twocircles.net/2008mar11/deobands_anti_terrorism_convention_some_reflections.html.
  3. The estimate is that of the many progressive NGOs that attempted to work constructively in the area. “Gujarat Muslims: The Living Dead,” April 27, 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8011615.stm.
  4. The text is available at http://minorityaffairs.gov.in/sachar.
  5. Laurent Gayer and Chakraverti Mahajan, “Delhi’s Noor Masjid: Tales of a Martyred Mosque,” Economic and Political Weekly, March 5, 2011, 12–15, http://epw.in/epw/user/loginArticleError.jsp?hid_artid=15776.
  6. “Deoband Favours Quotas for Muslims,” January 21, 2011, Outlook India, http://news.outlookindia.com/item.aspx?709180.
  7. Abdul Rashid Agwan, “Call for Madrasa Reform—A Manifestation of Islamophobia,” TwoCircles.net, August 14, 2011, http://twocircles.net/2011aug14/call_madrasa_reform_%E2%80%93_manifestation_islamophobia.html.