While Darul Uloom Deoband has stood as beacon of Islamic learning in South Asia, Al-Azhar University in Egypt has carried the light of learning through many centuries. The two educational institutions carry a profound message, which reaches beyond their borders to the wider Muslim population who look to these institutions for guidance on matters related to faith, identity and religion. Deoband and Al-Azhar have shaped the destiny of millions of Muslims and have paved the way for the Islamic renaissance and advancement. Together, these institutions represent the importance of knowledge, learning and dialogue in Islam. Syed Nazakat in India and Gehad Hussein in Egypt worked together to examine what is the voice of Islam that comes from the two historical Muslim seminaries. They were awarded Henry Luce Foundation fellowships to promote excellence in global religion coverage through the International Centre for Journalists, which paid for their travel and research.


Inside the Deoband

Syed Nazakat in Uttar Pradesh, India

It’s 7pm, and this small town situated in India’s biggest state, Uttar Pradesh, is still abuzz with energy. Along narrow streets shopkeepers are calling potential customers.

At one corner of the road, cows and sheep forage unfettered. A couple of yards away, dung dries atop the walls for use as fuel. Along the street there are students and young men everywhere with fervent expressions carrying prayer beads or quietly reciting the Quran. A few women hurry past a garment shop; draped in black veil.

In Deoband, the streets overwhelmingly belong to men. At the edge of a street, barricades prevent traffic from proceeding farther down the street, which leads to Darul Uloom (House of Knowledge) Deoband, which is the most influential seminary of Islam in South Asia.

Situated 150km northeast of Delhi, Deoband attracts students from different parts of the world. I followed some of them to find out what draws young men from faraway places like Africa and America to this remote dusty Indian village – and what ideas they will take back to their societies.

To enter into the campus of Darul Uloom Deoband is to step back in time.

Inside the seminary, in the basement of the large beautiful mosque, students shrouded in white salwar kameez and wearing skull caps are seated cross-legged on the floor. Old copies of the Quran and handwritten manuscripts crowd the shelves.

“Bismi-llahi r-rah.mani r-rah.im,” they mutter, hands cupped in supplication, shuffling under the dim light. They are reciting the hadith, a collection of the sayings of Prophet Muhammad, as their teacher listens carefully. After every recitation, the teacher explains a hadith to them in Urdu, an Indo-Aryan language spoken mainly in South Asia.

What many in the America and Europe would think of as college-age students are enrolled in an eight-year course of study that focuses on the interpretation of the Quran and of the hadith.

The oldest of those attending Deoband – the post-graduates – are enrolled in the ”mufti course”. A mufti, in Islam, is a cleric who is qualified to give authoritative legal opinions, known as fatwa, or religious rulings.

The majority of the students are Indians but some have come all the way from Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States to acquire knowledge about Islam.

Public donations

At Deoband, I went to see Maulana Abdul Khalique Madrasi, a deputy rector of the seminary. Maulana Madrasi came to Deoband first as a student in 1968 and then later as a teacher in 1982. He has been teaching at the Darul Uloom since the mid-1980s.

“When the Quran begin to be revealed to Prophet Mohammad (PBUH),” said Maulana Madrasi as he stroked his long white beard, “the first word of its first chapter was Iqra, which means ‘read’. Thus Islam makes education a sacred duty.”

The mission of the Darul Uloom, he continued, is to spread education. “There is no need for all Muslim children to go to full-time madrasas to become ulama (scholars). However, some children must do so in order that the tradition of religious learning is kept alive.”

Darul Uloom Deoband was founded in 1867 to propagate Islam and to train well-educated ulama dedicated to scriptural Islam. Such ulama would become prayer leaders, writers, preachers and teachers and thus disseminate their learning in turn.

The students are trained in specialities such as the study of hadith, the study of the Al Quran and the study of the rationality, jurisprudence and Islamic law called fiqh. The most popular course at Darul Uloom Deoband is the eight-year Fazilat course, starting at Arabi Awwal and culminating at Daura e Hadith.

At present, more than 3,000 students are enrolled from all around the world and every year some 10,000 students apply for the admission against 1,000 vacancies. The education is free and seminary is completely run on public donations. That was done, as Maulana Madrasi said, to build association between people and the Darul Uloom.

“It was Deoband that kept the light of learning alive through the turbulent times of the 1800s,” said Maulana Arshad Madani, 72, a professor of hadith in Darul Uloom Deoband and a member of the Indian Parliament.

Maulana Madani is himself a product of Darul Uloom Deoband. “You know what happened in Spain,” he asked, and before I could reply, he said: “Muslims ruled that country for 800 years and when they lost power they were oppressed and mosques were converted into churches,” he said.

“In the 1800s we were facing almost similar situation in India after thousands of Muslim scholars were killed by the invading British forces, and later by the Sikh Army in a place called Balakote (now in Pakistan).”

After the double defeat, Muslim scholars feared that Islam was in danger in India. “Darul Uloom Deoband, in many ways, was a knee-jerk reaction to the colonial British rule,” said Sheikh Showkat Husain, a political analyst and a professor of law at Kashmir University.

Two views

Within Indian Muslims, he said, there were two views about the education. “One section was of the opinion that religious education is the solution to all the problems and this thought took the shape of Darul Uloom Deoband.

“Others believed modern education is the key to progress and this thought took the shape of Aligarh Muslim University which is now a world class university.”

Darul Uloom Deoband remained confined to its conservative vision of Islam. Its classrooms are still being run traditionally and every student still prefers to go straight from the classrooms to mosques in a faraway village or town, to preach and propagate Islam. Though an optional English language course has been introduced for the students, the main syllabus remains unchanged.

“I really don’t believe in this talk of modernisation,” said Maulana Madni. “You certainly cannot modernise the Quran and the hadith. Some people argue that madrasas teach some outdated centuries old texts and logic. But we must also note that modern universities also teach centuries old English classics.”

It is this opposition to veneration that makes Deoband a distinct style of Indian Islam that emphasis the diffusion of scripturalist practices. On the political front, Deoband never took part in elections. But it was never far removed from the politics either.

At the time of the partition of India, it threw its weight behind Jamiat Ulama-I-Hind, which joined the independence movement led by Mohandas Gandhi, a Hindu, and opposed the separate Muslim homeland of Pakistan because Deobandi scholars believed that there was nothing Islamic about a secular Muslim state.

“Had there be no partition, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh would have been one country,” said Maulana Madani. “The condition of Muslims would have been much better.”

The partition, however, didn’t weaken the Deobandi movement. It instead it gave it more space and made it more widespread with the Deobandi movement spreading beyond India, first to neighbouring countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan and then to Europe and America, where many Muslims now follow the Deobandi school of thought.

When on a visit to the dormitories, I met a 15-year-old boy, Suliman. He wanted to join a public school and to come an engineer, and dreamed of having a big house and an expensive car. But then his father wanted him to serve the cause of Islam.

“I was not happy to come here,” Suliman, a resident of the state of Rajasthan in India, told me candidly. “But then I realised that ‘dahwah’ (the preaching of Islam) is no less important work.”

When I asked him what he will do after he completes his education at the Deoband, he replied instantly: “There is so much work to do in the way of God.”

I heard echoes of that conversation everywhere in Darul Uloom Deoband.

Of Al-Azhar, Deoband and the Islamic doctrine

By: Gehad Hussein in Cairo, Egypt

For centuries, Al-Azhar has been the most moderate and most heard voice of the Islamic world. Like Darul Uloom Deoband in North India, it started out as a mosque, then it took the shape of a madrasa and then became a world-renowned university.

Al-Azhar was established around 970 AD by the Fatimids and is today the oldest Islamic university in the world and the oldest degree-granting institution in Egypt.

Until today, students from all over the world stream to Egypt every year to join the university. Some 450,000 students study at Al-Azhar and every year 70,000 of them graduate from it. With its headquarters in Egypt, Al-Azhar has its faculties scattered all over the country’s governorates.

Though girls and boys are not taught on the same campus, the university offers a number of specialisations, ranging from Islamic studies, rhetoric and law, science, pharmacy, medicine, dentistry and engineering, to linguistics, agriculture and accounting.

“The institution of Al-Azhar became important because of its countless scholars, wrote Ibrahim El Houdaiby, a researcher on Islamic movements and development studies who is currently doing a Masters in syariah.

“…And rigorous teaching methods that produced competent students. Al-Azhar, therefore, became distinguished for its doctrine more than the institution, and the mosque not the university, because since the beginning its teachings were received and accepted by the nation.”

Al-Azhar has become so much more over the years. Today, it is an institution of remarkable weight in almost every pillar of the country.

With no clear attempts of domination, the opinion of the institution on political and social matters has become a sought-after and respected pillar on any issue on a micro and major scale.

For instance, if ordinary Muslims are seeking advice on how to manage the details of their lives according to Islamic values or are confused about whether they are acting in the right manner, Al-Azhar has a hotline to release ‘fatwa’ – a legal opinion or ruling issued by an Islamic scholar – in order to resolve the issues that the caller has.

Taking in the larger picture and looking at the semi-major scale of Al-Azhar’s worldwide influence, it is easy to find more than one aspect where the institution plays a significant role in Egypt’s decision-making.

Jan 25 Revolution

From a political view, Al-Azhar also had its significant role to play, especially since the Jan 25 Revolution in 2011 – which resulted in the ousting of Egyptian president Mohamed Hosni Mubarak – and during the rule of deposed president Dr Mohamed Morsi, who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

More than once, the sheikhs and scholars of Al-Azhar joined protests, denounced violence carried out against demonstrators and even defied and refuted the announcements of extremist groups, which stated that demonstrating against Morsi is heretic.

There have been several points of tension between Al-Azhar and the Muslim Brotherhood, with some blaming the Muslim Brotherhood of trying to control the institution. Today, Al-Azhar has four representatives in the 50-member committee drafting Egypt’s new constitution, one of whom is the Grand Mufti.

In a recent television interview, a professor of syariah at Al-Azhar University, Ahmed Karima, argued that Al-Azhar, despite all its political importance, believes in secularism.

“Politics is a civilian matter,” Karima said. “For instance, Al-Azhar should not be asked about the appointment of ministerial posts – even though this has been going on for over 20 years. To be the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar is not a political post, but a religious one.”

Nevertheless, the University of Al-Azhar has turned into a ground for violence in the past months due to the political situation.

Students who support ousted president Morsi and demand the reversal of the power-shift that occurred in July 2013 have been demonstrating on the university grounds, and as security forces interfered to disperse the crowds, violence ensued.

A sixth-year medical student was shot dead in the dorms of Al-Azhar University recently, although he had not participated in ongoing demonstrations.

Omar Shoeib, a student at Al-Azhar University, says that the violence began in mid-September. Security forces were deployed outside the university, and some of the demonstrators left the campus to provoke them by chanting slogans, condemning and insulting the Ministry of Interior.

The reaction came in form of tear gas, and some even say bullets. Consequently, the forces entered the university campus and started dispersing the crowds and clashes erupted.

“They were peaceful demonstrations, until the tear gas was fired,” said Omar Shoeib. “Then everything just became violent and has remained that way ever since.” What aggregated the situation, he said, was the aggressive reaction of the security forces.

The associate professor of psychology at the American University in Cairo, Dr Anne Justus, says violence is a vicious cycle that breeds more violence.

“When violence erupts at universities, it is a red flag that the youth feel misunderstood, misrepresented, unheard and repressed,” said Justus. “In itself, this is cause for great alarm as they are the next generation and the future leaders of the country.”

Global prestige

Al-Azhar enjoys global prestige and historical authority on matters related to the Islamic faith. It built networks and associations worldwide to serve the cause of education. At Darul Uloom Deoband in India, scholars recall a long association with Al-Azhar.

President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt visited Deoband when he was the general secretary of an Islamic organisation and likened it to the light house (of knowledge) created for the benefit of Muslims. A delegation was sent from Jamiat Al-Azhar to teach and study at Deoband for two years.

This association led to the promotion of the writing of Islamic books in Arabic for the consumption of the wider Islamic readership. On one of his international visits, Egypt’s Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa visited India in January 2011 – right before the Jan 25 Revolution.

He also paid a visit to Deoband and gave a speech, in which he condemned the attacks of 9/11 and their effects on Muslims worldwide, while calling for unity in the Islamic world.

“Islam is no stranger to Indian soil even though Muslims are a minority,” Ali Gomaa said. “This minority is still double the population of Egypt. Muslims have integrated positively in India. We see them in the highest political offices.

“In Egypt, we regard the Indian Muslim community as a role model. It is important to revitalise cooperation between Indian and Egyptian Muslims.”

One of the main reasons why the two leading Islamic institutions – Al-Azhar and Darul Uloom Deoband – have not built stronger association is because of the differences in their educational structure.

The main difference lies in the base of all their teachings. Al-Azhar follows the Ash’ari dogma (AlAqeeda AlAsh’aria), a widely spread Sunni belief, whereas Deoband is relying on the Hanafi doctrine (Mazhab ElHanafeya). In Islam, a dogma is “stronger” than a doctrine, as Mazhabs are considered interpretations of Aqeedas.

Then the style of teaching is also different. Al-Azhar had shifted from being a school based on small-scale teacher-student relationships to an academic entity with several departments and faculties in several fields.

On the other hand, Deoband still relies on the traditional madrasa way of teaching. In the madrasa system, the sheikh lets his knowledge trickle down to the students, without greater academic systems or frameworks, according to Amr ElWirdany, a Fatwa Trustee and Director of Training Programmes at the Dar Al-Ifta (Al-Azhar’s Fatwa House) of Al-Azhar.

Wahabi influence

ElWirdany went to Deoband in December 2009 as a guest-of-honour, on behalf of former Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Muhammad Sayed Tantawy. He believes what has shaken Deoband’s educational system are the scholarships it got from the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia.

“The welcoming of scholarships from the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia drove a lot of students to set foot on the Wahabi path – an ultra-conservative branch, or sometimes even referred to as a “sect” of Sunni Islam,” he argued. “This direction centralised more and more.”

Something similar had taken place in Al-Azhar some time ago, when a lot of students and sheikhs used to complete their studies abroad and came back with Wahabi-influenced principles.

ElWirdany elaborates: “Initially, Deoband is a doctrine or ‘Mazhab’-based school, but their way had changed in a passive and unintentional manner, as they let more and more influence from the aforementioned countries affect their students. Publicly, they heavily deny this, but it has become obvious.”

However, the main pillars of the curriculum remain almost equivalent in both schools. What might bring the two influential institutes closer is the bilateral diplomatic relationship between India and Egypt.

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, on a recent visit to India – his first foreign visit after he took over, met his India counterpart, Salman Khurshid and now there are reports that both countries are looking at the ways to sustain the momentum of ties to proceed with the setting up of a Centre of Excellence in Information Technology at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo.

It is not clear whether Darul Uloom Deoband will have any role in the centre. “We want both countries to have strong relationship. We want more people-to-people interaction. We want more cooperation between our educational institutes,” said Fahmy.

So, no matter how deep the differences are, Gomaa’s words at Darul Uloom Deoband back in 2011 resonates: “Islam and Indian civilisations have distinct value systems. Respect for our differences is a foundation for co-existence, and never for conflict.”

And, fortunately it seems, both countries are sticking to this guideline.


SYED NAZAKAT is an Indian journalist based in Delhi. He is a special correspondent with The Week and as a broadcast, print and online journalist, he has reported from 21 countries. More recently he reported from South Sudan on the raging civil war there.

GEHAD HUSSEIN is an Egyptian-German journalist based in Cairo. She is editor-in-chief of Egypt Business Directory, freelance editor at Ahram Weekly, and editor at ErfolgX.



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