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The Ulema, Deoband and the (Many) Talibans

Historical scholarship tends to see a continuity in the ulema of south Asia - from the Deoband seminary in the 19th century down to the Taliban of Afghanistan and north Pakistan today. Such an assessment unfortunately ignores the discontinuities and breaks that have taken place in the traditions of Pakistani Islam. It also ignores the fact that Pakistan is increasingly influenced more by the religious influences to its west than by a south Asian identity.


The Ulema, Deoband and the (Many) Talibans

S Akbar Zaidi

the many forms of the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan, subscribe to a “Deobandiform” of interpretation and practice of Islam. Some scholars even draw the lineage of the new madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan from the founder of the madrasa at Deoband in 1867, Maulana

Historical scholarship tends to see a continuity in the ulema of south Asia – from the Deoband seminary in the 19th century down to the Taliban of Afghanistan and north Pakistan today. Such an assessment unfortunately ignores the discontinuities and breaks that have taken place in the traditions of Pakistani Islam. It also ignores the fact that Pakistan is increasingly influenced more by the religious influences to its west than by a south Asian identity.

S Akbar Zaidi ( is a social scientist based in Karachi.

n assumption is made in much of the academic and scholarly litera ture, usually implicitly and mostly by historians (all eminent and highly respected) that there is a line of continuity amongst the traditions of the ulema (religious scholars) of 19th century south Asia, through the seminary at Deoband (now in the Uttar Pradesh), which links them to the numerous militant movements, which bear the name of the Taliban in the northern regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

I will argue that for far too many reasons, there is little, if any, continuity and there is far greater rupture which rides through any such assumed linkages and formulations. By presenting a different set of arguments, I will also argue that these ruptures also suggest that Pakistan has, finally, separated from many Indian Islamic traditions, and Muslims in India are not a “divided nation” any longer, if ever they were. Moreover, my arguments also question the use of terms such as “ulema” from one context and century to a very different set of conditions. I also argue that the issues and problems related to contemporary developments regarding militant and religio-political Islam in the early 21st century in Pakistan and Afghanistan present very different analyses and solutions than does a more historical and scholarly assessment which creates a link between tradition, learning and religious practice from 19th to the 21st century. By arguing that this is a very different nature of political Islam, analysis and solutions to address contemporary issue of “talibanisation” or militancy will have to be very different.

Time and Context

The two main aspects on which the assumption of continuity is based revolve around the term ulema and the fact that many of those who are said to belong to

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Qasim Naunatvi, arguing that his “vision of a great network of madrasas” meant to “revitalise Islamic society”, seems to have been realised through the hundreds of madrasas across north Pakistan and Afghanistan. This argument is apparently reinforced when scholars emphasise the fact that the Taliban who took over Afghanistan at the end of the 1990s were students (talib singular; taliban plural) of madrasas in the North West Frontier Province in Pakistan.

The use of the term ulema (alim singular) with such ease and with such impunity is, perhaps, far more problematic than is appreciated, and, I think, underlines the main problem with this strand of analysis. Historians of languages and of society and culture are aware that the meanings of words change over time and in different contexts. The term alim, or ulema, in the 1850s and 1860s is bound to have a different meaning and connotation even in the same locality and geographical context a century-and-a-half later. The Islamic religious scholars in British India who were well-versed in literature and traditions of Islam represent a different form and being compared to those who run seminaries in modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan, and even in India. Moreover, the social and cultural context and position of the alim in a primarily pre-modern rural society is very different from that of the religious scholars trained at seminaries today. The all encompassing term “ulema” of the 19th century does not carry the same meaning as the alim or ulema of the 21st century.

There is insufficient recognition of this transformation in the work of some scholars, who link early manifestations of Islam and its institutions – such as the madrasa and the alim – with religious learning and the representation of Islam today. Treating the term ulema largely as an unchanging category or not appreciating the extent of

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change, scholars have continued to use the term comparing 19th century Islam and its representation with Islam today, without sufficiently marking this change. They are using a 19th century category in a completely changed context misrepresenting the meaning of that category. In one case, this has led one scholar to imply that some of the many talibanesque militant movements in Pakistan, many of which, under a different set of definitions, have been called “terrorist” organisations, such as the Sipah-i-Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Lashkar-e-Toiba, are led by the ulema. Clearly, the “alim” of the Lashkar-e-Toiba is not the same as the alim of the 19th or even early 20th century. The alim as a religious scholar is a very different category and entity from the “alim” as politician or jihadi.


Moreover, in some cases, using a largely religious paradigm, in which the notion of the ulema plays a key role, scholars have tried to look at sectarianism in Pakistan, where theoretical or literalist arguments are presented, supposedly suggesting why the Shias and the Sunnis have been at war with each other for some years in parts of Pakistan. While there is no doubt that there are huge religious differences between the Shia and the Sunni in modern Pakistan, the manifestation and form of sectarianism is based less on theological disputation and far more on modern politics, often very petty and localised. In the context of Pakistan at least, and presumably in Afghanistan as well, Shia-Sunni differences, or sectarianism, can be easily understood in their local political, often turf-related, contexts, rather than in debates following the succession of the Prophet of Islam. This is particularly so in parts of the Pakistani Punjab where sectarianism has been particularly violent and brutal, often fought out in running gun battles between “militant” Sunni and Shia armed squads. While the mantle of the alim is often used to spur on such hatred, it is often a political feud which is fought through these means rather than primarily a religious or theological one.

Furthermore, in Pakistan, there is ample documentary evidence which shows quite conclusively, that religious groups are led and run not by the ulema, but by leaders trained by the military. The role of the Inter-Services Intelligence and other covert state actors in fermenting sectarianism and giving financial and military support to numerous jihadi outfits is well known. It is not the ulema who lead or inspire these movements, but arms, money and military training. Of course, one cannot deny the religious zeal and fanaticism which brings young men to such organisations, but it is improbable that it is merely the training given by “religious scholars” which does so. And indeed, if they are religious scholars who are urging their students to wage jihad, they certainly are not the ulema of the 19th century mould.

Flawed Assumptions

The third major problem with this line of analysis has been that it refers to the Taliban and their many off-shoots, as “Deobandi Islam”. Arguing that the curriculum of these madrasas is still based on a form of the 18th and 19th century Dars-i-Nizamiyya curriculum of what later became Deobandi Islam, the suggestion that this tradition continues has made scholars and historians argue that the Taliban are Deobandis. In some, very basic and elementary ways they are right. There are ample traces of the Deobandi form of Islam in the teachings of madrasas in Pakistan, despite the fact that a larger proportion of Pakistanis follow the less austere, Barelwi Islam. Nevertheless, one must recognise that while the different Taliban groups may have had some access and pedagogic training in madrasas, the Deobandi component of whatever training they would have received would have been minimal. From the few studies that have been conducted of madrasas and their curriculum in Pakistan, the evidence clearly shows a hotchpotch of what is taught, ranging from elements of theological teachings originating in the Dars-i-Nizamiyya, but also including “modern” education, as well as what can only be called indoctrination and the spreading of hatred against other religious factions. To call such pedagogy Deobandi is correct only in a very broad, general, sense, and while many of the jihadis may still call themselves Deobandi, the assumption that this type of teaching is related to the original madrasa at Deoband is overstretched.

Moreover, a fact recognised by many scholars, but perhaps not enough, is the impact of the Gulf and especially of Saudi Arabian Wahabi Islam on these jihadi movements. In terms of funding and indoctrination, Wahabi Islam now seems to dominate the more militant elements in the broad spectrum of Pakistani Islam. Again, perhaps it is less the theological part of Wahabi Islam that is transmitted, and the more militant and jihadi characteristics are passed on as knowledge and training.

I will maintain that as Pakistan’s politics and economy have moved towards west Asia and away from an Indian history and past, its various Islams have also been influenced by these trends. Pakistan’s version of Deobandi Islam is affected by Saudi Wahabism, and hence it becomes difficult to argue that these madrasas are still, in any real sense, Deobandi. Moreover, while it is true that many of the Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan were set-up after Partition by Deoband-trained scholars of the 1930s and 1940s, given Pakistan’s and India’s political and diplomatic relationship over the last 60 years. Deobandi Islam in Pakistan today is bound to be very different from Deobandi Islam in Deoband, or anywhere else in northern India.

The final point that needs to be made in any line of reasoning which looks at continuity is the ruptures that have taken place in the form and notion of religiopolitical Islam, from the early 20th century of Maulana Maudoodi or Maulana Abul Kalam Azad to the militant and political Islam of the 21st century of Mulla Omar, Osama bin Laden, or Maulana Mahmood Azhar of the Lashkar-e-Toiba. Islam, even Pakistani and Afghani Islam, is now globalised, Wahabi-ised, as well as affected by geopolitical influences which have a far-reaching impact on local and domestic Islam. In a post-11 September 2001 world and in the region, Islam’s forms, politics as well as its religious and perhaps even theo logical components would have undergone huge change and reinterpretation as well.

The ruptures in the streams of ideas related to the continuities in history need to be rethought and the use of terms better contextualised, if at all one is to learn any lessons from the past.

Economic & Political Weekly

may 9, 2009 vol xliv no 19

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