Madrassas: behind closed doors

Are south Asia’s Islamic schools causing a surge in extremism?

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Deoband, India

To reach Deoband by road from the vast conurbation of greater Delhi, you must drive through one of the most densely populated regions on earth, past shanty towns, apartment blocks, brick kilns, petrol stations, sugar-cane fields, timber plantations of poplar and eucalyptus and arrays of cow-dung patties stuck to walls or heaped on the ground for future use as cooking fuel.

At first sight, Deoband, a typical town of the dusty north Indian plain, is barely worth the journey. The streets are strewn with rubbish, and the eye is drawn instead to brightly coloured hoardings that advertise computer classes and private schools in a land known for the poor quality of state education. But at the heart of the town is one school that has long made Deoband famous, or infamous, across the world: the Islamic madrassa of Darul Uloom.

We are greeted in this quiet, academic oasis, whose name means the house of knowledge, by the white-robed, white-bearded Arshad Madani. A revered scholar among south Asia’s 500 million Muslims, he goes by the title Maulana (our lord). His forehead is marked with a zabiba, the permanent bruise caused by frequent prostration for prayers, and he learnt the whole Koran by heart by the time he was eight. “It’s easy because God makes it so,” he says.

Yet Madani is immediately defensive after he ushers us into a meeting room for an interview. As hundreds of boys in the neon-lit classrooms around seek to emulate his childhood feat of memory by rocking back and forth on the floors and mumbling verses of the holy book, he launches into a justification of the school’s teachings — before anyone has even mentioned terrorism, or asked about the role of Deobandi adherents in Islamist violence from Afghanistan to Bangladesh.

“We teach our children the value of love above religious sentiments,” declares Madani. He was born in 1941, six years before India’s independence and partition, and is an expert on the hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed. “We train them for peace and love. That’s why they are not involved in any kind of activity that’s detrimental to peace. Students who are educated in other institutions — they are the ones involved in violent activities.”

This outburst is not entirely surprising. Research and interviews by the FT into the madrassa phenomenon across south Asia show that “Deobandi” has become shorthand for a Sunni Muslim extremist, at least among some commentators. The ubiquitous Deobandi madrassas spawned across Asia since the school’s foundation in 1866 were once seen by Muslims as “forts of Islam” amid the westernisation of British India. More recently, however, they have been described as dens of jihadism and violence. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then Indian prime minister and a leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, called religious schools in neighbouring Pakistan “factories of terror” after an Islamist attack on the Indian parliament took the two countries to the brink of war in 2001.

Numbers are disputed, partly because so many madrassas are unregistered, but there are certainly tens of thousands in south Asia today. Wave after wave of Deobandi graduates have gone on to found their own institutions across the region, with a centenary report in 1967 recording the foundation of 8,934 Deobandi madrassas and maktabs (primary schools) in the first 100 years.

In Pakistan, the number has risen from 244 in 1956 to about 24,000 today, most of them Deobandi. In Bangladesh too, they are multiplying rapidly. As for India, Madani says he has “no idea” how many there are, but “there’s not a single city without one. Ninety-nine per cent are Deobandi.” Across the three countries, there are perhaps six million students at madrassas. That is a small share of the Muslim school-going population, but the problem lies with the fact that some of the Pakistani and Afghan graduates are internationally known terrorists and murderers.

Pashtun leaders of the Taliban in Afghanistan, including the late Mullah Omar, were trained in puritanical Deobandi madrassas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border before imposing their joyless, patriarchal regime on the Afghan people in the 1990s. Pakistani Taliban fighters attended Deobandi madrassas in the same region. Two years ago, the US Treasury designated the Ganj madrassa in the Pakistani city of Peshawar as a terrorist training centre for suicide bombers, although the school’s administrator — of the Ahl al-Hadith or Salafi tradition, a version of ultra-conservative Islam slightly different from Deoband’s — insisted that it was a purely religious institution.

From Somali al-Shabaab militants slaughtering Christians in Kenya to the Bangladeshis who murder liberal bloggers with machetes on the streets of Dhaka, the perpetrators of Islamist terror attacks are often said by police to have been the teachers or pupils of Sunni Muslim madrassas. Only last Friday, bombers presumed to be Sunni militants killed 22 Shias in Pakistan and one in Bangladesh during the annual Shia processions for Ashura; dozens were injured.

We join Abdul Qasem Nomani, a graduate and now the vice-chancellor of Darul Uloom, who concurs with Madani in insisting that Deoband has nothing to do with these modern outbreaks of terrorist violence. The madrassa was founded to defend Islam. “Our main mission was to preserve Islamic culture and the Koran,” says Nomani. The result, wrote historian Barbara Daly Metcalf in Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900, was a madrassa 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.

Madrassas had already been in existence for nearly a millennium, with the first in India established in Rajasthan in 1191. But Deoband’s founders made it the centre for a “newfound scriptural conservatism in Islam”, according to Alexander Evans, a British diplomat who visited scores of south Asian madrassas for his research a decade ago. “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 then in Foreign Affairs.

Darul Uloom today is as puritanical and orthodox as ever. The arrival of the FT’s female video producer — a Hindu, what’s more — among the 4,000 male students milling around the mix of modern and Mughal-style buildings attracts knots of curious young men before they are dispersed by the shouts of irritated teachers. She is not permitted even to enter the precincts of the mosque. It is not only Hindus who are shunned. Today’s Deobandi teachers are uncompromisingly hostile to Shia Islam and south Asia’s sometimes heterodox practice of Sunni Islam.

Indians, Madani explains, “absorbed Islam but it took on a different form and meaning — like bowing to the graves [of holy men] and asking for things . . . Islam says that nobody but Allah can give anything. Do not bow before anything.” But surely, he is asked, Islam was changed by coming to India as much as Hindus were changed by the coming of Islam? His answer is unyielding: “Islam cannot be changed, because the foundation of Islam is the Koran and the hadith.”

Isolated in the heart of Hindu-majority India, Darul Uloom itself is not seen as a promoter of contemporary terror. The institution has, in any case, been largely cut off from its south Asian hinterland by the Indian security services, its administrators are under constant pressure to speak out against Islamist violence, and it shies away from politics. It once hosted students from China, Malaysia, Iraq, South Africa, Burma and Saudi Arabia but has now been denied visa approvals for all but 20 or so Afghans currently at the seminary. “The fear is that students’ minds will be poisoned, but we wouldn’t do that,” says Madani, whose rejection of the idea that Deoband should be blamed for the actions of its affiliates abroad implicitly admits that the problem lies with the Deobandi diaspora. “We are not responsible for what they do. But they follow our syllabus . . . There are no jihadis here, because we have full control over what we are teaching.”

Wasim Khan is a 22-year-old student who has been at Darul Uloom for the past six years. He echoes the pro-peace, antiterrorism message, although he adds vaguely that the institution teaches its alumni “to challenge the forces inimical to Islam and give them a fitting reply, to counter those opposed to Islam and those who want to sully its image”. When he graduates, he plans to spread the teachings of Islam, preferably abroad. “I will present the true picture of Islam to the world.”

Dhaka, Bangladesh

Among politicians and Muslim leaders, there are running debates about whether madrassas should be reformed and controlled or encouraged to spread. In India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the institutions are divided between those monitored by the state, which usually also teach official curriculum subjects such as English and maths, and those that remain outside government purview and are more likely to be run by uncompromising Islamists. Officials and moderate Muslims talk constantly of the need to “mainstream” the thousands of unofficial madrassas, many of which are funded by Saudi money either directly or through the remittances of migrant workers in the Gulf.

Take Bangladesh. Syeed Ahmad, a liberal, agnostic blogger and social activist, says that in Dhaka, “in my village, 10 years ago there was only one madrassa. Now there are 19.” Bangladeshi liberals lament what they see as an assault by Saudi-inspired Islamist fanatics on Bengal’s tolerant culture of art, literature and music.

The recent upsurge in Islamist extremism among Bangladesh’s 150 million inhabitants is not only the result of fundamentalist ideas spreading from the Middle East but also tied to the country’s violent politics. While the nominally secular government of Sheikh Hasina harasses the opposition, a new, rural madrassa-based group called Hefazat-e-Islam (Protectors of Islam) has emerged from the shadows. At least 58 people were killed two years ago when the security forces dispersed tens of thousands of Hefazat supporters — which demands nationwide Islamic education and the separation of men and women — who had unexpectedly converged on Dhaka to confront young, secular Bangladeshis deemed to be atheists.

The main Deobandi madrassa in Dhaka is the Jamia Qurania Arabia, founded in 1950 in the teeming streets of the old city. Here the teachers are as insistent as those of Darul Uloom itself that they oppose violence. “Islam is against not only the killing of a man, but even of an ant,” says Mufti Fayez Ullah, who teaches fiqh (jurisprudence) and hadith to the 1,800 pupils. But he is equally adamant about rejecting official attempts to control the curriculum, accuses the government of framing madrassa students over Islamist murders in Dhaka and confirms he is a member of an opposition political alliance. (Like many of Hasina’s opponents, he has been deluged with criminal proceedings — 42 in his case — and says he cannot leave the madrassa for fear of being “disappeared”.) He rejoices in the recent advances made by Islam in Bangladesh. “Islam is going to make further inroads. People have become more pious,” he says.

Jamia Qurania Arabia is highly selective — only 500 out of the 10,000 applicants are accepted each year after an academic test — but tuition is free. It is financed, the mufti says, by rental income from property gifted to the school, by the sale of hides donated after animal sacrifices, and by Bangladeshis living in the UK and the Gulf.

Boys and young men between the ages of eight and 30 are hunched over the Koran and books of Arabic grammar and law. In one classroom, a teacher explains the significance of Muslim holidays and festivals. (The Day of Ashura definitely does not count, says Mufti Taiyeb Hossain — “It’s a Shia celebration. It’s not sanctioned by Islam.”) Fayez Ullah says the madrassa is considering launching science lessons but they would have to be based on Islamic science. He quotes a Koranic verse that mentions the sun, the moon and their orbits. Graduates typically become clerics — there are 200 from this madrassa alone in Qatar, and others in east London and New York state — although some go into the garment business or serve on the supervisory boards of Islamic banks.

Mohammad Borkot, 20, began studying at the madrassa seven years ago when his father, an engineering professor, returned from the UK in order to put his children in religious schools. Borkot expresses admiration for ultra-conservative Salafism and regrets that teachers seem to shy away from discussing jihad. Asked what he wants to do for a career, he says he will probably have to join a business partnership, but “primarily, I just want to be a traveller — philosophy and stuff”.

Lahore, Pakistan

Tahir Ashrafi, the head of the Pakistan Ulema Council

More than 2,000km to the west, in the Pakistani city of Lahore, Tahir Ashrafi, a Deobandi who heads the Pakistan Ulema Council (PUC), an umbrella group of Islamic scholars, defends the original Deobandi ideology as moderate, “un-Salafi” and “very far from extremism and terrorism”. That is important to understand, he says, for Deobandi-dominated countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and even for Malaysia and Indonesia to the east, especially since their inhabitants are mos

tly prevented from going to Deoband themselves by the Indian authorities. Ashrafi says there are two million boys and 250,000 girls in some 24,000 Pakistani madrassas. More than half come under the auspices of the PUC and a quarter offer English and maths as well as religious studies. He once boasted that more than 60 per cent of students at PUC madrassas were “not involved in any training or terrorist activities”, prompting a question as to whether that meant the remaining 40 per cent were involved. “That’s the reality,” he replied.

Ashrafi was educated at madrassas in Lahore, learnt Arabic, and says he was carrying a Kalashnikov by the age of 11, when he went to help the jihad against the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan in the 1980s. There he met Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader, and was trained to use rocket launchers and other weapons by a US colonel called Michael. These days, Ashrafi is a rare voice for moderation and interfaith tolerance in Pakistan, which styles itself as an Islamic republic. He is proud that the PUC was among the first groups to issue a fatwa against Isis last year, and says he has survived six kidnappings and attempts on his life by extremists. “The problem is not the madrassas,” says the heavyset Ashrafi, clad in sandals, a white kurta pyjama and a black turban. “It’s in the mind, the mindset.”

Even so, the most persuasive criticism of south Asia’s hardline, Sunni Muslim madrassas is the narrow scope of what they teach. This issue came to a head in the Indian state of Maharashtra this year, when the government said madrassas that did not teach mainstream subjects would be considered “non-schools”, ineligible for state funds. In the remote villages of Asia, madrassas are at least credited with feeding and teaching poor children to read for free. But curriculums are often fossilised, with some science and philosophy texts dating back to the 13th or 14th centuries.

Most graduates are qualified to do nothing in the modern world except become a preacher or open yet another madrassa. “Even a madrassa teacher has no awareness of the world,” concedes Ashrafi in Lahore. “The world is his room.”

In Bangladesh, government minister H T Imam is talking of the latest plan to bring madrassas under government control: “People from the poorer communities were taught only Arabic — and that defective — and the Koran and Koranic recitation. So what could they do? They could become imams in the mosques or perform religious rites. We are trying to bring them to the mainstream of the population by giving them other languages also. There were madrassas where they didn’t fly the national flag or sing the national anthem. Arabic first, of course, but learn your own language too — Bengali — and English.”

The future

Asked in New Delhi why Islamist extremism is on the rise, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, a moderate Indian Muslim scholar and campaigner for “peace and spirituality”, pulls no punches: “It’s due to backwardness in scientific education.” At today’s madrassas, he says, teachers wrongly believe that democracy and the US are enemies of Islam. “Now we are living in the age of science. Muslims must enter into modern education,” he says. “I was taught in a madrassa. But when I came into society I found that I could not answer the questions of those who were educated in a modern sense. So I decided to study modern thought.”

His daughter Farida Khanam, a university professor of Islamic studies, laments the fact that fellow Muslims call her father a CIA or BJP agent for his positive attitude to the west. And while some Arab-backed madrassas have constructed buildings full of computers, the literature they are teaching is, she says, “still the same, the same mindset: ‘All non-Muslims are our enemies.’ Even my brother, who studied at Birmingham University, thinks all non-Muslims are our enemies.”

Akhtarul Wasey, an expert on the history of Islamic education, says pre-Deoband madrassas had a broader curriculum including the science and literature of the time, and produced doctors and engineers as well as clerics. The first education minister of independent India, he recalls, was Abul Kalam Azad, an Islamic scholar who emphasised the importance of basic education for all, including girls. But in modern, Muslim-dominated Pakistan and Bangladesh, Wasey complains, “majoritarian arrogance” has led to narrow and exclusivist interpretations of the Koran.

Liberal Asian Muslims argue that the problem is not so much one of madrassas training terrorists, but rather of the growth of intolerance in society at large, and the consequent proliferation of bigoted religious schools. “People get rich and the first thing they do is build a madrassa in their village, because they think it’s a pious action,” says Mahfuz Anam, a Bangladeshi newspaper editor and father of the novelist Tahmima Anam. In an echo of western concerns about sexual predators among teachers and Catholic priests, the heroine of Tahmima Anam’s The Good Muslim tries to rescue her nephew from sexual abuse by the master of a rural madrassa. Mahfuz Anam’s Bengali grandparents were very pious but women wore no veils over their faces, he says. Now, with extremists hacking liberal bloggers to death in Dhaka, “it’s becoming a bit like an Islamic state. They pick a Christian or a Muslim and slit his throat and say this is an enemy of Islam . . . There is an underbelly of religious intolerance that has spread through madrassa education.”

In Pakistan, Hafeez Pasha, an economist and former education minister, describes a similar process, with some madrassas radicalising students and corrupt Pakistanis seeking to wash away their sins with religious donations. “Ninety-five per cent of philanthropy in this country goes into the construction of mosques,” he says. When he was younger, there was one call to prayer audible in his neighbourhood at prayer time. “Now I can hear six.”

Islamic leaders retort that the whole point of most seminaries is to train scholars and holy men, and ask why schools whose ultra-conservative curricula have been unchanged for centuries are being blamed for modern-day terrorism. They, and academics sceptical about the “factories of terror” rhetoric, also note that only a tiny proportion of Asian Muslims attend madrassas. Christine Fair, an associate professor at Georgetown University in the US and an expert on Pakistan, delights in debunking misconceptions about the country and its madrassas. Few Pakistanis, she says, actually attend madrassas, and those who do typically only go for a couple of years, while violent extremists are not destitute illiterates but disproportionately well-educated.

Nevertheless, she has concluded that Deobandis are indeed the largest source of violence in the country and that Deobandi madrassas are increasing faster than others. What is more, the latest data collected contradicts earlier conclusions that madrassa attendance is not correlated with terrorism. “They don’t produce terrorists, but what they do is predict support for terrorists,” she says, suggesting that militant parents, including mothers, are more likely to place their children in madrassas. “I’ve had to do a volte-face on this. Just going to a madrassa [means that] you are more disposed to supporting these kinds of groups.”

Students in the marble-floored mosque at the Darul Uloom madrassa

Before evening prayers in Deoband, one of the students, 19-year-old Mohammed Abu Umamah, cheerfully confronts us outside the marble-paved mosque. He repeats Madani’s message of peace. “Some people in Europe are presenting the wrong image of Islam, insisting that Islam is the religion of terrorism,” he tells us. “But Islam teaches peace and Islam condemns the killing of any person.”

Across the region, however, from the Maldives to central Asia, hundreds of millions of moderate Muslims are increasingly alarmed about the spread of violent extremism in their own societies. Deoband may be preaching the importance of peace, but its mosques and madrassas are where many of the most violent militants spent their formative years, and the schools continue to proliferate. “The number of madrassas [in India] has multiplied four or five times in the last 70 years,” says Madani proudly, “and mosques by 10 times.” The signs are that madrassas will continue to multiply in south Asia for years to come.

Victor Mallet is the FT’s south Asia bureau chief

Photographs: Adeel Halim; Victor Mallet

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