Not quite the school of terror
“Welcome to the school of terror. Let me show you our terrorists, 3,800 in all,” jokes 70-year-old public relations officer Adil Siddiqui, pointing to students milling around a notice board in the main courtyard of Darul-Uloom, Deoband.
Siddiqui’s humour borders on sarcasm: “Had it not been for bin Laden, you would not have come visiting us.”
This seat of orthodox Islam, some 90 miles north of Delhi, has seldom laughed off insinuations — that it had once inspired the Taliban — like this. It still cringes at the very mention of the Taliban, which owes spiritual allegiance to Darul-Uloom’s revered maslak or “tack” (school of thought).
The birthplace of Deobandism — a very puritanical ideological strain of Islam followed around the Muslim world, from UK to Afghanistan — is today trying to reconcile the religion to new realities. It wants to dissociate Islam and terrorism. Half-truths such as “Islamic terrorism”, it says, compelled it to come out with a fatwa (edict) against terror last February.
Yet, inside the school, people remain highly guarded. “Why are you photographing us? What will you write about us?” asks Mussadiq Hussain, a student, referring to a fatwa that banned photographs, saying it was a form of idol worship.
The edict, signed by one of Hussain’s teachers and the head of the controversial Darul Ifta or fatwa department, Maulana Habibur Rahman, stated: “Burn all your pictures. Burn pictures others have. If they don’t part with them, buy them and then burn them.”
The fatwa allowed photographs for official purposes and hence the permission for our staff photographer. This is my fourth visit.
“We had to break our silence. The fatwa became necessary because we have to fulfil the ahed (religious pledge) of Darul’s founders taken during the freedom struggle to protect our motherland from all threats,” Maulana Qari Mohammed Usman, former vice-rector claims, speaking in Urdu. “We did not create the Taliban. The US did,” he adds.
Spread over nine acres and with an official budget of Rs 9 crore annually, Darul-Uloom is in fact a tourist attraction for many Muslims, for it houses a personal scarf belonging to Prophet Mohammed. The relic, a gift from the government of Turkey, is housed in its finance department.
To step into the historic campus is to step back in time. Day begins early when the muezzin’s pre-dawn call to prayer breaks through the minarets of the imposing main mosque with a distinctive Mughal-era facade.
“Discipline is critical to the study of Islam,” says Qari Abdul Hasan Azmi, who teaches students how to recite the Quran. Before anything else — even their morning tea –- the students offer the first namaaz of the day.
Haunting chants of Quranic verses ring out from its crowded classrooms, where men with beard and in spotless skullcaps hunch over religious texts under the tutelage of some 250 teachers.
In the final year class, a teacher reads out notes over a microphone as he interprets the Quran for the 800 students who are some four months away from their degree. If they pass the exam, they will be called alim, or literally a scholar.
With this degree, they become certified clerics, a globally valid qualification that will allow them to work as imams in mosques or set up madrassas.
The graduation degree is a 13-year course, with five years of primary education. The main subjects of primary education are Hindi, Urdu, Persian, History, Geography, General Knowledge and Mathematics. The two-year compulsory English course, surprisingly, comes in the later stages of graduation.
In the English department, professor Syed Anwar throws an unexpected challenge: “Talk to them in English. Test them.”
Siddiqui, the public relations officer, in fact, claims Darul fulfils key objectives of the National Education Commission: “free education, free meals and universal education”.
At 10 am, a student steps out of a classroom and sounds the 100-year-old gong in the main courtyard with hammer that has a padded head.
The morning shift that started at 6.30 am has ended. The next shift that begins at 3 pm will start with computer classes in the three-room computer lab, which also doubles up as the Internet centre.
Students huddle around professor in-charge Mauhammed-ullah, who is surfing the BBC’s Urdu website. At another computer, a student takes printouts of requests for online fatwas. These will then be translated into Urdu and entered into the fatwa logbook before being sent to Ifta department.
“Look at this one,” says Mauhammed-ullah, as he prepares to upload a fatwa that has just come in from the Ifta department. A man, suffering unrequited love, had requested help. “Pray to Allah so that the girl you love will reciprocate your feelings soon enough. If things don’t progress, ask your Lord to make you forget her soon enough. Surely, Allah knows best,” the fatwa with the sign and seal of the Ifta head states. On an average, Mauhammed-ullah gets 300 such requests for online fatwas a day.
Darul-Uloom runs entirely on donation and its finances are audited by a government-approved chartered accountant after which the balance-sheet is presented to the government. Its granary stores a full year’s stock of all essential food items, apart from wheat.
Let alone terror, there is nothing explosive – not even signs of anger or revenge on anyone’s face — here. For someone out to find shooting classes and karate lessons, al-Qaeda style, it will be a huge disappointment.
“These are qualities of Satan,” Nizam, one of Darul’s cook, says. The students here are a bunch of disciplined, devout people whose mission is to “submit to the will of Allah”.
Vice rector Abdul Khaleque Madrasi says Darul acknowledges that “global terror is changing minds and Muslims can be used”.
Top clerics at Darul-Uloom first felt the need to speak out against terror after allegations that madrassas were grooming terrorists and were being put under surveillance.
However, the clergy’s first step towards the fatwa — an anti-terror declaration read out on February 25 — was not easy to accomplish.
The decision was strongly opposed by many from within. “There were serious challenges. People felt that by coming out with a fatwa, we would be indirectly admitting that Muslims could be involved in terrorist activities,” says Qari Usman.
He says the fatwa was a step fraught with some risks. If it did not go down well with the community, the entire top clergy at Darul-Uloom could have faced the flak.
“But it (the fatwa) was necessary,” says Qari Usman, “because terror was harming Muslims more. If there are blasts, Muslims die too. If there are blasts in temples, Muslims are arrested. There is a conspiracy to widen the Hindu-Muslim gap. The fatwa is to pre-empt anarchy in the future.”
In all of this, it is the political astuteness of the clergy that stands out. At the heart of the seminary’s initiative lies a worry that silence could be construed as endorsement of terror.
To arrive at Darul Uloom’s present requires a walk through its past. The linking of its fatwa with patriotism is in line with its nationalist heritage, says Qari Usman. Darul’s founders had joined India’s freedom struggle and fiercely opposed a separate homeland for Muslims.
In the aftermath of the 1857 uprising, founding cleric Maulana Qasim Nanautvi was one of the 34 clerics who had declared jehad (religious war) against the British and fought British soldiers at Shamli field in UP’s Saharanpur.
Qari Usman says it is an irony that when so-called liberal, Western-educated Muslims like Mohammed Ali Jinnah advocated a separate state for Muslims, Deobandis put their foot down.
Clerics are deeply aware of this legacy. “People forget all this history and brand all Muslims terrorists,” says Azghar Alam, a student.
In its scalloped classrooms, terror is seldom officially discussed. However, privately, clerics feel if Muslims did not come out strongly, there could be all-out persecution in the name of terror.
The establishment at Darul wants to take its anti-terror fatwa to its “logical conclusion”. “Terrorists use religion as a tool. We will use it to demonstrate our love for this country,” says Qari Usman, as he parts with a gift, a two-volume history of the seminary published in 1980.
Deoband’s clerics have often panned India’s national song on the ground that it enjoins Indians to worship their motherland, a concept that negates the core Islamic creed of worshipping Allah alone.
Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind, an organisation of Deobandi clerics, endorsed the fatwa in its November 3 conclave, setting off a fresh round of controversy.
Darul Uloom remains rooted in an utterly conservative ideology and its education may have little relevance beyond Islam. Yet, for many of India’s poor Muslims, it is a passport to lifetime income from the business of religion.