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The War Within Islam ( 9 Feb 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Deoband: Smash These Idols

By Arshad Alam for

National English newspapers have recently been consumed by la affair Vastanwi in Deoband. If the assumption behind this is that Deoband represents Indian Muslims, then it is plainly wrong since Deoband only represents a minority sect within the Sunni Indian Islam. However, if the attempt is to showcase the murky world of North Indian Muslim politics by taking the recent controversy in Deoband as an example, then it is salutary.

 Ghulam Vastanwi, the man at the receiving end of the current controversy, was extremely unwise in the manner in which he talked about Modi. But the controversy should have been laid to rest after he apologized. It was, however, not in the interests of the entrenched powers in Deoband who have become used to treating this age-old institution of Islamic learning as their family backyard. Vastanwi was being berated as an idol worshipper even before he made that infamous remark about Modi and Muslims. Clearly then, there were forces who thought their political applecart would be toppled with Vastanwi being at the helm of affairs.      

 It is a known fact that the Madani family has exerted immense influence over Deoband. Husain Ahmad Madani, the architect of composite nationalism in India, was associated with the institution all his life. After him, Asad Madani and Arshad Madani have formed important power blocks within this madrasa. As presidents of Jamiat Ulama e Hind, the apex body of Deobandi Ulama in India, and as Deobandis themselves, they have seen to it that this Islamic seminary does not slip away from their hands. Deobandi sources affirm the presence of ‘Madani hand’ behind the agitation against Vastanwi. Only this time, it is the younger Madani, Mahmud, who is calling the shots from behind. Sources say that Mahmud Madani wants to kill two birds with one stone. If Vastanwi quits, then Arshad Madani would become the top contender for the rector’s post. This will mean that Arshad Madani would have to resign from Jamiat, as according to the Constitution of Deoband, he cannot hold two administrative posts at one time. If this happens, Mahmud Madani would become the undisputable leader of the Jamiat. The argument makes sense because Mahmud Madani has had a long running fight with his uncle Arshad Madani over the president-ship of Jamiat. Thus apart from removing a nagging rival from within the Jamiat, this move will also secure Deoband within the family. There was talk of reconciliation between the two Madanis some time back. It seems that this reconciliation will come at a price: Deoband would be bartered and change will again become a distant dream.

Vastanwi has worked most of his life in Maharashtra. Starting off with establishing a madrasa in the 1980s, today he runs a network of schools, colleges and technical institutes, most of whom offer mainstream education. Besides being an obvious educational entrepreneur, he has made his name as someone who is not rigid and orthodox and someone who has brought modern education to Muslims. It was his credentials of a doer and changer which saw him get most votes from the Deoband shura, most of whose members were anyway incensed by the high-handed attitude of Arshad Madani. Backed by another powerful shura member and an MP from Assam, Vastanwi was given a mandate to expand the madrasa and bring in new courses, like the ones he had done in Maharashtra. Not surprisingly then, Vastanwi’s first remark after taking charge as the rector was precisely this: that he would try and make Deoband more relevant to the modern demands of life. Soon after the controversy erupted, in a bid to position himself as a traditionalist, Vastanwi proclaimed that there was nothing wrong with Deoband and there was no need for any change. Clearly then, he had buckled under pressure from the no-changers.

Let me add a caveat here. I am not arguing that Vastanwi will or would have brought some kind of a revolutionary change in the seminary. The politics of Deoband -- its being antithetical to lived Islamic traditions and therefore anti-pluralism--will continue irrespective of Vastanwi or anyone else. Yet there are three important reasons why I think Vastanwi should be allowed to continue as the rector of Deoband. The first is that even piecemeal reformist change within the institution is welcome and Vastanwi had the potential as well as the experience to do that. The second is that he symbolizes a wider Muslim discontent over the fact that a large number of important Muslim institutions have been monopolized by few prominent Muslim families and individuals. The third and related reason is that Vastanwi comes from the Islamic periphery and by his mere presence makes Muslim politics more inclusive. His presence is a signal that the fate of Indian Muslims need not be tied to the fate of feudal and decrepit UP Muslim elite.     

Signals are that Vastanwi would not give up without a fight. It is great news that a section of students and teachers have rallied behind him. If this is a sign of internal churning within Muslims for meaningful change, then it is most welcome. Muslims in the Arab world have had enough of their dictators. It is time Indian Muslims in general and Deoband students in particular start articulating a similar demand and start smashing the living idols within their community.

Arshad Alam teaches at the Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia. He can be reached at