A look at 150 years of India’s Deoband seminary, Darul Uloom

Moin Qazi
Moin QaziApr 06, 2017 | 13:38

A look at 150 years of India’s Deoband seminary, Darul Uloom

The silhouette of the large mosque, brick-like but for a bulbous dome, looks blurry in the downpour past the minarets as the imposing wide red brick gates herald you into the hallowed precincts of an  institution - one of the most influential Islamic institutions in the world that frames Islamic discourse in the subcontinent. The occasional rain is heavy, lending a sparkle to the green paddies and the scent of moist earth to the air.


This is Darul Uloom, the hallowed seminary, now in its 150th year. It is the spiritual lodestar for South Asia’s 500 million Muslims and considered a “citadel of Islam” amid the westernisation of the sub-continent.

The town is Deoband, a placid north Indian habitation where Hindus and Muslims peaceably coexist to the eternal rhythms of sowing and harvesting. Inside room after room, students wrapped in shawls against the winter chill and wearing crocheted skull caps sit cross-legged on carpets, reading from Qurans that lay open before them, resting on low wooden bookstands.

They are supervised by teachers, most of them respected elders, with shaved upper lips and heavy beards, many of them dyed with henna. Every waking hour of the day is geared to a learning called tahfiz - learning the Quran by heart. A Muslim who has memorised all 6,236 verses of the Quran earns the right to be called a hafiz.

Darul Uloom was founded on May 30, 1866, and stands on the following ideological legs:

(1) Conformity with Islamic law (Sharia)

(2) Sufi-inspired self-purification and the search for spiritual perfection (suluk-i batin)

(3) Conformity to the principles that guided the Prophet and his companions (sunna)


(4) Reliance on the Hanafi law school

(5) Certitude and stability in true beliefs with reference to the Hanafi theologian al-Maturidi

(6) Removal of unlawful things (munkirat), and especially the refutation of polytheism, innovations, atheism and materialism

(7) Adherence to the principles personally embodied by the founders of the school, Muhammad Qasim and Rashid Gangohi 

Darul Uloom’s genesis lay in preserving the Muslim identity and heritage in the face of British imperialism, which had replaced the rule of the Mughals. Feeling that their backs were against the wall, the madrasa’s founders reacted against what they saw as the degenerate ways of the old elite.

The result, writes historian Barbara Metcalf in Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900, was the foundation of a madrasa that “began modestly in the old Chattah Masjid [mosque] under a spreading pomegranate tree”, with one pupil and one teacher, and grew into a large, professional institution teaching Islam as well as law, logic and philosophy.

The madrasa system is a 1,000 years old. The first major academic institution in the Muslim world, however, was founded by Nizam al-Mulk Abu Ali al-Hasan al-Tusi (1018-1092), the celebrated Persian scholar and vizier of the Seljuk Empire.


Later, Nizam al-Mulk established numerous madrasas all over the empire that, in addition to providing Islamic knowledge, imparted secular education in the fields of science, philosophy, public administration and governance. The earliest recorded South Asian madrasa was established in Ajmer (in India) in 1191.

Madrasas have played an important role in the history of Islamic civilsation. They have been powerful nodes in the learning system and have been harbingers of several revolutionary achievements in fields as diverse as jurisprudence, philosophy, astronomy, science, religion, literature and medicine. It was only when the Golden Age of Islam began to decline that the madrasas lost their academic and intellectual purity, and ceded prime space to western-oriented education.

The spread of madrasas played a key role in the consolidation of doctrinal positions and legal thinking which now form the dominant position among Sunnis. In time, the Shias developed their own religious seminaries, called hawzas, which play a similar role. Some of the most famous madrasas are the Deoband in India, al-Azhar in Egypt, Hawzas of Qum in Iran and the Zaytunia in Tunisia.

From the 18th century, large parts of the Muslim world engaged with modernity, in its colonial form - an encounter that transformed almost all aspects of Muslim societies. Modern schools, higher education institutions, new official languages, and, above all, a new epistemology was introduced. Madrasas continued to provide religious instructions, though in the process they went through remarkable transformations in form, teaching and, to some extent, content.

The First War of Indian Independence of 1857 marked a division of the composite madrasa education into secular and religious spaces. This division can be seen in the Deoband and Aligarh traditions, where Sir Syed Ahmed Khan emphasised the development of an educational system according to the need of the time while Deoband insisted on preserving religious values and tradition in the Indian subcontinent.    

The social composition of madrasas began to change, becoming less affluent and more rural, with the more inspirational Muslims joining western educational streams. The madrasas lost intellectual vitality and the teaching became pedantic with hardly any scope for creative, mental or intellectual development.

Madrasas no longer retained the cutting-edge educational philosophy. The most important change was the shift from imparting knowledge of ma’aqulat (rational sciences) to rote learning and interpretation of manqlat (received religious texts).

The Darul Uloom educates 3,500 students for the 13 years it takes each to graduate; 800 are chosen for admission each year from 10,000 applicants. There are no tuition fees. The boys have rigorous Islamic studies, but also bookbinding, IT proficiency.

The Deoband seminary is also famous for its fatwas which it sends to the world in English and Urdu – and other languages, including Arabic. But with even clerics preferring to send their children to mainstream schools, madrasas attract mediocre talent. The quality of scholarship is also declining.

The madrasa curriculum that was standardised across the Indian subcontinent for well over two centuries was designed by the 18th-century scholar Mulla Nizamuddin Sahalvi. Thus, the curriculum was named after him as “Dars-e-Nizami”.

Policymakers need to be more sensitive to the sentiments of Islamic clerics and attempts must be made against allowing the discussion to get reduced to “secular versus non-secular” and “pro-Hindu versus anti-Muslim” debates. Photo: Reuters

When the East India Company purchased the right to collect revenue in the Mughal provinces of Bengal, Orissa and Bihar from Emperor Shah Alam, one of the clauses in the purchase agreement was that the British company will not change the legal and administrative systems in those provinces.

Obliged by the need to train judges and administrators to run those systems - mostly operating under Hanafi Muslim laws - the company needed to devise a curriculum for the schools that it wanted to set up for its prospective employees. The British schools also adopted this syllabus.

This syllabus was an adapted version of the original Dars-e-Nizami devised by Abu Ali Hasan ibn Ali Tusi - known as Nizam al-Mulk - for the higher education institutions he set up as the prime minister of the Seljuk Sultans 1,000 years ago.

The Deoband leaders went back to Quranic basics and rigorously stripped out anything Hindu or European from the curriculum. Deoband’s founders made it the centre for a “newfound scriptural conservatism in Islam”, according to Alexander Evans, a British diplomat who has researched on south Asian madrasas.

“The foundation of Darul Uloom also marked a closing of doors to modern knowledge, which was now seen as polluting because of its association with the British,” he wrote.  In present times also children are given only a small sprinkling of social and natural sciences.

“Our main mission is to preserve Islamic culture and the Quran,” says Maulana Qasim Nomani, the present vice-chancellor or rector of Darul Uloom. He rules out any compromise in the present syllabus at Deoband or its affiliated madrasas. “Those who want the alternative education should go to institutions which impart them but we will be aligned to our original mission,” he insists.

More than 3,000 madrasas affiliated to the seminary have already spurned government assistance. “We are for ‘deen ka ilm’ and ‘deen ki hifazat’ (religious teachings and protection of religion). For other modern subjects, there are other institutions,” says Nomani. “I will continue with the traditions of Darul Uloom,” he says wryly. “I take my inspiration from my predecessors and follow the traditional path,” He asserts.

Maulana Nomani is at pains to point out the patriotic zeal of the seminary’s early leaders. Maulana Mahmood-ul-Hasan [widely regarded as the first student and who later taught at the seminary] was a part of the nationalist government-in-exile set up in 1915 in Kabul which was headed by Raja Mahendra Pratap and had Maulana Barkatullah as foreign minister in what is known as the Silk Letter Conspiracy. Deoband’s early leaders such as Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani and Maulana Ozair Gul were arrested and kept under detention on the island of Malta for a number of years. 

Mahmood-ul-Hasan gave the fatwa of “tark-e-mawalat (boycott of goods)” to boycott every English product. “This was one of the effective instruments against the colonial rulers which later even Mahatma Gandhi adopted,” he says.

Critics often charge the madrasa system of anachronism, citing its insistence on the supreme pedagogical value of the old texts. The traditionalists argue that, apart from connecting students to the canonical tradition, the “Nizami curriculum” enhances the student’s mastery of every discipline and enables scholars to solve any contemporary problem.

But one of the most accomplished modern products of madrasas, who had a very close association with the Deoband seminary, Ebrahim Moosa, avers: “Few have been able to rebut the charge that the texts used are redundant and at times impenetrable, save to a few scholars who have spent their lives mastering them. Indeed most texts are frustratingly terse, forcing teachers and students to scour commentaries and super-commentaries for help.”

He further argues: “For decades critics have petitioned for more lucid texts. But inertia has turned the texts and syllabus into inviolable monuments to the past. The result is that students are poorly prepared and lack the confidence to engage the tradition critically to meet the needs of a changing world. At its worst, the system recycles intellectual mediocrity as piety.”

The issue of reforms is however quite complex and the adoption of state-led modernisation has a complex interplay of several factors such as trust, financial incentives, the impact of state-led policies on the functioning of madrasas and its implications on the community resources which the madrasas are now accessing for their finances, and of course the faultiness within Islam that are manifested in the various strains of Islamic thought that pervaded the faith.

Islam is not a monolith and madrasas owe allegiance to diverse schools of thought which are hybridising into further new strains. The government’s understanding and strategy on dealing with madrasas need to evolve and transform from a black-and-white perception to a more wholesome one.

Policymakers need to be more sensitive to the sentiments of Islamic clerics and attempts must be made against allowing the discussion to get reduced to “secular versus non-secular” and “pro-Hindu versus anti-Muslim” debates. The deep reservations of madrasa managers about the government are all not ill-founded and several of the duplicitous actions and policies of the state give enough ground for a creeping skepticism.

What we should attempt is to make new madrasas as well as universities to be patterned on ancient Samarkand or Bokhara and rather than stressing only on madrasa modernisation, let us take madrasas centuries back in history to their glorious traditions of the Islamic Golden Age. That may be more successful in winning hearts and minds of the custodians of madrasas.

The oldest and greatest of all the madrasas, the al-Azhar university in Cairo, has a good claim to being the most sophisticated school in the entire Mediterranean world during the early Middle Ages. We should strive to make these new madrasas religious seminaries as well as universities, like al-Azhar.

Indeed the very idea of a university in the modern sense - a place where students congregate to study a variety of subjects under eminent scholars - is generally regarded as an innovation first developed at al-Azhar.

Meanwhile, the students and teachers at Deoband’s Darul Uloom, who proudly love to be called “Deobandis”, are clear about one conviction - ''India is our motherland, and we love it.''

Last updated: April 06, 2017 | 13:38
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