Deoband Madrasa was established a decade after the failure of the 1857 revolt. Islamic scholars had rationalised by then that the loss of Muslim power was Allah’s way of punishing Muslims of the subcontinent for straying from the tenets of Islam. It was felt that if Muslims started following ‘true’ Islam, power and glory would again be theirs. The idea behind Deoband was precisely this: to teach Muslims what these scholars thought were the true canons of the faith.
In order to do so, the madrasa experimented with a host of novel ideas, two of which still remain its pillars. The first was the wholesale change of curriculum by introducing the study of Hadith (recorded sayings and actions of Prophet Muhammad). It is important to understand that Islamic etiquette is not gathered from the Quran which just gives broad guidelines. It is the various hadiths which tell Muslims how to live like Muslims by telling them anecdotes from the lives of the Prophet and early Muslims. Deoband reasoned that in the South Asian context, pure Islamic precepts had become adulterated by the influence of Hindu ideas and practices. It was necessary to purge these Hindu accretions if Islam in India was to return to its pristine glory. Since most Muslims at the time were not literate, teaching them the true meaning of Islam became the fundamental goal of Deoband. In the years to come, hundreds of more madrasas came up with a similar agenda all over the country.
Under conditions of modernity, education becomes one of the important tools of social reconstruction. Mass education itself is a modern phenomenon and in all national projects of social restructuring, education has played a cardinal role. In this sense, Deoband right from its inception is a modern institution since it used education as an ideology of reconstructing a Muslim identity. This ideology served two purposes. First, it created a new kind of Muslim. This new Muslim was preoccupied with a strange and nervous fear: the fear of not being Muslim enough. He started to look for signs and spaces of Hindu influences in his rituals and practices. Possessed by intense guilt, he started purging all the shared signifiers and the signified. Going to the shrine, the many customary practices, the sindoor, geet-sangeet, (practices that were anathema for Deoband) all were to be purged out of the system in order to assert a " Muslim only" identity. It would be plainly wrong to understand Deoband as interested in preserving traditional life and learning. In fact Deoband inaugurated a new kind of politics whose vision could only be realised by vanquishing the old traditional life styles of Muslims. This vision, although primarily directed at ‘reforming’ the Muslims inevitably estranged them from fellow Hindus with whom previously they had shared their life-world.
The second important innovation of Deoband was its treatment of knowledge as synonymous with religious knowledge. Madrasas before Deoband never had such an idea: sciences of the day like geometry and astronomy were taught alongside religious education. To the contrary, Qasim Nanotwi, one of the founders of Deoband madrasa, would declare that there was no merit in learning a western science unless it was done with the express purpose of refuting it. Even philosophy was done away with because it created confusion in the minds of the students! Those who hail the introduction of computers and teaching of English in the madrasa today as signs of progress essentially miss the point. Deoband makes a distinction between skill and knowledge. Knowledge is to be found only in the Quran and the hadiths. In its scheme of things, English and computers are skills which are important today. More importantly, this skill is to be used for the purpose of further refining the religious knowledge. One should not therefore be elated that Deoband uses computers and internet but should understand the uses to which it puts them. If computers are used to learn Islamic calligraphy and internet enables their fatwas to reach millions, does it make them progressive? It was Thomas Acquinas, who merged the classical Greek philosophy with medieval Catholicism and paved the way for great leaps of science and technology that we see today. Without this creative dialogue between the two knowledge systems, Islamic religious epistemology will continue to wallow in depths of orthodoxy. The Islamic religious establishment needs its Acquinas, but for sure he is not going to come from Deoband.
That Deoband supported Indian nationalism and was opposed to the politics of the Muslim League is beyond doubt. But making Deoband the icon of secularism and composite nationalism is a bit too much, especially when its idea of the nation and composite nationalism leaves too much to be desired. Husain Ahmad Madani’s concept of composite nationalism was neither novel nor composite. Much before Madani, Jamaluddin Afghani argued that Hindus and Muslims must come together to overthrow the British. Husain Ahmad would argue the same thing after five decades. A closer reading of his book Composite Nationalism and Islam would tell us that he was not particularly convinced of the idea himself. In his own words, this composite nationalism would be ‘temporary and special’ and would only be required till the ‘light of true religion (read Islam) dispels its (India’s) darkness.’ Shedding further light on his own brilliance, Madani elucidates that ‘composite nationalism is needed only till such time different aqwam (communities) and different religions exist in a country. When the entire nation becomes Muslim, where is the need for it?’ Those in the habit of celebrating Madani as a secular icon need to read him more carefully. A quintessential Deobandi, for Madani the superiority of Islam is unquestionable and his cooperation with the Hindus was premised upon his awareness of the ‘falsity of the truth of their religion.’ Can a composite model ever emerge from this kind of understanding of other religious traditions?
The vision of Deoband has essentially remained the same since it was established. No Vastanvi can change it. At best he would have brought piecemeal changes. The larger politics of Deoband: its mission to replace lived traditions of Muslims with canonical Islam is its very reason of existence and hence cannot change. It can only be made irrelevant by a new Muslim imagination. Alas, that is not going to happen anytime soon.
Dr Arshad Alam is Assistant Professor at Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia and author of Inside a Madrasa: Knowledge, Power and Islamic Identity in India (Routledge: 2011)