The fundamentalist Deobandi Muslim sect, widely represented in the Indian subcontinent and among South Asian Muslims abroad, resembles its ally, the Saudi Wahhabi clergy, in many ways. Both claim to “reform” the religion. Like the Wahhabis, the Deobandis preach a distorted utopia of “pure” Islam disrespectful of other faiths and condemning Islamic interpretations with which they differ. Deobandism, like Wahhabism, is harshly restrictive of women’s rights.
There are distinctions separating Deobandis and Wahhabis, aside from those between the idiom, food, dress, and other cultural aspects of South Asia, whence the Deobandis emerged, and Nejd, the remote zone of the Arabian peninsula that produced Wahhabism. Deobandism began in the 19th century in India as a nonviolent, purificationist movement. The failure of the 1857 Indian rebellion against the British convinced the clerics who established Deobandism that peaceful revivalism would better unite the Indian Muslims for resistance against the colonial rulers.
By contrast, Wahhabism emerged in Nejd three quarters of a century earlier, as a violent phenomenon. Wahhabis claimed that the Sunni Islam of the time, centered on the Ottoman caliphate, as well as Shia Islam and spiritual Sufism, represented a return to pre-Muslim polytheism and must be fought to the death.
Deobandism had no command over any government until the mid-1990s, when Deobandi students (“Taliban,” the plural form of the Arabic-Pashto word “talib,” meaning “student”) from Afghanistan took over that devastated country. Until then, many Taliban were medresa pupils in Pakistan, and Islamabad is widely acknowledged to have organized and backed the Afghan takeover by the faction. Wahhabism, however, has been the sole Saudi religion since the formation of the first, unsuccessful 18th and 19th century Saudi-Wahhabi “states” in Arabia. The official standing of Wahhabism was confirmed with the establishment of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.
Their installation as rulers of Afghanistan, originally with Saudi financing, led the Taliban – i.e. the Pakistani-trained Deobandis – to abandon their nonviolent past. They imposed a brutal, repressive regime, originally in Kandahar, that claimed a basis in Islamic law. Deobandi depredations against other Muslims had a precedent in the 1971 Bangladesh independence war, when the Deobandis and their jihadist allies committed widespread human rights violations in the former “East Pakistan.” Early in February 2013, the Bangladesh High Court found one such figure, Abdul Quader Mollah, guilty of murder and rape, as crimes against humanity in that conflict. He was sentenced to life in prison. A.Q. Mollah was a member of the youth organization in the Bangladesh branch of Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI), the most influential South Asian jihadist party. JEI is accused of the main responsibility for depraved actions during the Bangladesh struggle.
Some moderate Muslims perceived in this verdict a victory for non-sectarian justice in Bangladesh. But almost immediately, Bangladeshis came out in the streets in large numbers. They expressed their discontent with the outcome and called for the execution of A.Q. Mollah and a ban on JEI. In January, Abdul Kalam Azad, another Islamist charged with crimes against humanity in Bangladesh, had been sentenced to death – in absentia, since he has apparently fled to Pakistan. More radicals facing trial in Bangladesh for crimes against humanity include, as described by BBC News, Ghulam Azam, the head of the Bangladesh wing of JEI; Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, Bangladesh JEI secretary-general; Motiur Rahman Nizami, originally a Bangladesh JEI youth leader, and Delwar Hossein Sayeedi, a former Bangladesh JEI parliamentarian. [Update: On February 28, Delwar Hossein Sayeedi was sentenced to death. JEI responded with further disorders, resulting in an unconfirmed number of injuries and fatalities.] Although a minor party in Bangladesh, JEI reflects the continuing intrusion of Islamist ideology from Pakistan.
During two weeks of anti-JEI protests in Shahbag Square, Dhaka, after the A.Q. Mollah decision, an anti-JEI blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was stabbed and hacked to death in his house. This intensified the demands of the Shahbag participants for suppression of the JEI.
JEI had demonstrated against the trial before it began and as it proceeded. The Islamist party reacted to the Shahbag Square protests by rioting against the government and journalists, with at least four people killed during an outburst after Friday prayers on February 22. JEI followers accused the Shahbag participants of insulting Muhammad and Islam.
In response to the anti-JEI anger of the Bangladeshi public, Dhaka adopted an amended law that permits the state to appeal the Mollah verdict and hold a new trial. Under the revised legislation, prosecutors may call for the death penalty for those previously convicted and given lesser sentences. The Bangladeshi government will now have the power to indict, try, and punish – even prohibit – political parties like JEI, for crimes against humanity in the 1971 liberation of the land.
The horrors in Bangladesh were perpetrated by Deobandis from then-“West” Pakistan. The center of the Deobandi movement remained at Darul Uloom Deoband in India’s Uttar Pradesh state. Until the second recent Afghan war began in 2001, the Indian Deobandis adhered mainly to their past quietist attitude. The Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Deobandis then radicalized the Indian Deobandis, leading members of the latter element to adopt rhetoric justifying terrorism.
The impact of the Indian Deobandi transformation has been predictable: a series of atrocities in India. Deobandis also founded the preaching movement Tabligh-i-Jamaat (Call of the Community or TJ), which pledges nonviolence though holding to extremist Deobandi doctrines. TJ has had significant success in Bangladesh and in the Bengali diaspora in the West.
Both Deobandis and Wahhabis despise Shia Muslims and have been involved in or have incited violence against the Shias. Unlike the Wahhabis, the Deobandis do not denounce Sufism outright. Yet the Deobandis share Wahhabi prohibitions on some of the practices commonest and most beloved among Sufis, such as milad–an–nabi (celebration of the birthday of Muhammad) and musical performances. Deobandis have further been implicated in the devastation of Sufi shrines in Pakistan and India. Additionally, Saudi Wahhabism wiped out the four recognized schools of Sunni jurisprudence (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali), replacing them with an arbitrary form of Islamic law derived supposedly (and spuriously) from Hanbalism. The Deobandis disagree discreetly with this posture, alleging their loyalty to the Hanafi school, which is traditional for Sunnis in India and, paradoxically, the most open to controversy.
Unlike Saudi Wahhabis, who reject parliamentary institutions and participation in them, and leave governance ostensibly to the monarchy, the Deobandis are involved in Islamist political parties, exemplified by JEI, from Afghanistan to Bangladesh and in Britain, the U.S., and South Africa. Indian Sufi Muslims have complained bitterly and extensively against a bias toward relations with the Deobandis, as representatives of Indian Islam, on the part of the secular Indian government.
In the UK, Deobandis are active in seeking ascendancy over Sunni believers. They pursue this aim through the establishment of Deobandi mosques, the takeover of mosques erected previously by the moderate, conservative Barelvi sect, which supports Sufism actively, and the missionary activities of TJ. In Britain, Barelvi and other conventional Muslims resist the Deobandi invasion. Statistics enumerating Deobandi vs. Barelvi and other South Asian Sunni Muslims in Britain are unreliable; they typically count the number of mosques administered by the two groups, rather than the creed of the believers. Since the Deobandis will declare any prayer space a mosque, they can exaggerate their influence.
In the United States, where people of South Asian origin form a plurality of about 35 percent among Muslims, Deobandism dominates Pakistani-American Sunni mosques. Unlike in Britain, Barelvis in the U.S., although numerous, have been unable to organize their own community institutions. As noted by Marcia Hermansen of Loyola University in Chicago, “most [South Asian Muslim] community organizations were already controlled by anti-Sufi Islamists.”
Wahhabism is more notorious for some of its retrograde and bizarre doctrines, which have produced such limitations on Saudi women’s rights as forbidding their operation of motor vehicles. Thousands of cars and trucks are owned by Saudi females, and while they cannot drive them openly in cities and on highways, it is well-known that Saudi women drive in rural areas. Wahhabism founded the infamous Saudi “morals patrols” or mutawiyin, often miscalled a religious police. The Taliban have created similar “religious enforcement” groups in Afghanistan and Pakistani Deobandis have appealed for their importation into the latter country.
Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz, since he succeeded to the throne in 2005, has taken measures, small but significant, to expand women’s rights and curb the excesses of the Wahhabi clerics and the “morals patrols.” Still, the South Asian Deobandis, as noted, have grown more nihilistic in their outlook and practices.
Deobandis and Wahhabis are dissonant on other matters of little significance. Nevertheless, Wahhabi-Deobandi linkages persist. In 2011, Abdurrahman Al-Sudais, a prominent Wahhabi fanatic and Friday preacher at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, was allowed by India to visit Darul Uloom Deoband in U.P., as well as Delhi and Old Delhi. His mission was to reinforce amity between the sects and demonstrate that together, Deobandism and Wahhabism are expanding their influence in India. His journey to India was permitted although Al-Sudais is barred from Canada and has been criticized in Saudi Arabia for hateful declamations.
According to the American Muslim academic Ebrahim Moosa, who studied at Darul Ulum Nadwatul ‘Ulama, a Deobandi medresa at Lucknow, U.P., the international spread of the ideology, lacking the financial resources of the Saudi Wahhabis, depends on donations by British and South African Muslims.
If there is a single feature the Wahhabis and Deobandis have in common, it is their dedication to the gratuitous issuance of weird and illogical fatwas, or religious opinions. Some of the more ludicrous Saudi Wahhabi fatwas have held, for example, that Wahhabi strictures against gender mixing between unrelated men and women may be evaded if the man drinks the breast milk of the woman, making them, allegedly, members of the same family. A fatwa issued in February called for imposition of the face veil (niqab) on female infants as a supposed protection against sexual abuse.
The proliferation of fatwa websites in Saudi Arabia has been criticized by King Abdullah and senior Saudi clerics, who have sought to regulate such activities. The king and the religious authorities warn that many are directed by self-designated Islamic jurists without credentials, and announce their opinions on whim and a desire for publicity. Unlike Christianity, Islam – except for Wahhabism – does not encourage free-lance preaching by unschooled, “inspired” individuals usurping clerical titles. Even the Deobandis stress a rigorous Islamic education, however deviant their beliefs.
A similarly eccentric spirit of fatwa composition has, withal, overtaken Darul Uloom Deoband. The chief Deobandi medresa has recently promulgated contradictory fatwas that leave Indian Muslims confused, in the words of commentator Shuriah Niazi. In 2010, the Deobandi center released a fatwa forbidding gender mixing in the workplace, an effective bar on any female employment, preventing women from supporting their families. The fatwa against women working alongside men exceeded the bounds of Wahhabism, and was previously unknown in Islamic jurisprudence. Repudiation of the fatwa by Indian Muslim women, Islamic scholars, and media commentators led Darul Uloom Deoband to qualify it by stating that work outside the home is permissible for women if they are covered completely when interacting with men. Even this amelioration reflected a discrimination against women previously absent from Islamic law.
Darul Uloom Deoband emitted more fatwas in 2012, of the same kind. One attempted to bar Muslims and others from submitting to body scans. A leading anti-Wahhabi Indian Sufi, General Secretary of the All India Ulema and Mashaikh Board (AIUMB) Maulana Syed Muhammad Ashraf Kichowchhwi, rejected the fatwa, declaring, “If a scan is necessary for security reasons or to detect or treat a disease then it is not haram [forbidden] or un-Islamic.” Soon, Darul Uloom Deoband caused a new uproar with a fatwa against Shia Muslims. The Deobandis praised Yezid Ibn Muawiya, responsible for the murder of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Muhammad and son of Imam Ali, at the battle of Karbala in 680 CE. This was among the worst insults that could be crafted against the Shias. A later fatwa from Darul Uloom Deoband banned Muslim women from working as receptionists, because the job would require them to forego total body covering.
The Deobandi center ended the year with fatwas against multimedia smartphones and the practice of showing prospective husbands photographs of girls seeking to be married.
Indian Muslims view the fatwa antics of Darul Uloom Deoband much as Saudis have come to regard the similar behavior of Wahhabi “callers to religion.” That is, sensational fatwas are created to gain media attention for the “scholars” that improvise them.
Muslims and non-Muslims in South Asia and elsewhere in the world should understand the identical motive behind the activities of Deobandi and Wahhabi “fatwa factories,” whether originating in medresas or websites. The Deobandis and Wahhabis seek absolute direction over the lives of Sunni Muslims, and, by extension, over all Muslim relations with their non-Muslim neighbors. The aim of “fatwa fanatics” is not religious; it is political and totalitarian.