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The War Within Islam ( 29 Jan 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Sectarian Rivalry Also Behind Anti-Vastanvi Controversy?

By Shakil Khan,

As the sordid controversy over Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi’s appointment as rector of the Dar ul-Uloom, Deoband, further unravels, some Urdu papers have begun speculating about the possibility of intra-Muslim sectarian rivalries also being at work behind the campaign to unseat the man. Curiously, the two Delhi-based Urdu papers who are in the forefront of the anti-Vastanvi campaign, Hamara Samaj and the Daily Sahafat, are both owned and controlled by non-Deobandi Muslims, the first by Ahl-e Hadith or self-styled ‘Salafis’ (who are ideologically akin to the Saudi Wahhabis), and the second by a group of Shias. This, some critics are now arguing, may be no mere, harmless coincidence.

The Ahl-e Hadith and the Shias are inveterate foes, each insisting that their own brand of Islam is the only authentic one, branding the other as not just heretics but even as ‘enemies of Islam’ and as wholly outside the Muslim fold. But they are one on the status of the Deobandis, whom they regard as hardly proper Muslims at all. In turn, the Deobandis virulently castigate both the Ahl-e Hadith and the Shias as deviants and even worse. Deobandi mullahs have written dozens of tomes and have issued innumerable fatwas denouncing the Ahl-e Hadith as a dangerous fitna or source of un-Islamic strife, and, therefore, as hardly Muslim. Many Deobandis regard Shias as not just non-Muslims but even as vociferous ‘enemies of Islam’. Ahl-e Hadith and Shia clerics hold similar views about the Deobandis. Given this, some critics are now asking why it is that these two Urdu papers, one run by men affiliated to the Ahl-e Hadith, and the other by a group of Shias, are leading the anti-Vastanvi campaign and are fiercely backing his opponents—specifically, the Madni family that has been treating the Deoband madrasa as its fiefdom for decades, with the blessings of the Congress Party. Is it not curious, they point out, that in order to oust Vastanvi, these two Urdu papers are even projecting the Deoband madrasa as the world’s ‘leading centre’ of Islamic learning, and are fiercely backing Vastanvi’s contenders for the post of rector in order, so they claim, to defend the madrasa and the Deobandi sect, although the Muslim sects that the owners of these papers are affiliated with are vociferously opposed to the Deobandis? Is it not bizarre that all this is happening despite the fact that their own sects and brands of Islam have been consistently condemned as deviant and even worse by the mullahs of Deoband? Daal mai zaroor kuch kala hai, they insist.

In an article published in the 29th January issue of the Urdu Hindustan Express, revealingly titled Zard Sahafat ya Maslaki Jang? (‘Yellow Journalism or Sectarian War?’), Parvez Soheb Ahmed raises the question of the leading role of two Urdu papers (which he leaves unnamed, but which discerning readers can easily identify) whose owners and editors belong to rival Muslim sects that have long since been at odds with the Deobandis in instigating the anti-Vastanvi campaign and backing rival Deobandi mullahs to grab his seat as rector of the Dar ul-Uloom. This campaign, he contends, aims not just to shore up the fortunes of Vastanvi’s contenders—including key members of the Madni family and their cronies, whom these papers are solidly backing—but also to attack the Deoband madrasa and the Deobandi sect and thereby promote their own, rival sectarian interests. In other words, Ahmed argues, the torrent of calumny being heaped on the hapless Vastanvi by these two Urdu papers might indicate that they are bent on instigating what he calls a ‘sectarian war’ by seeking to undermine the Deobandi sect itself, ironically in the name of protecting the Deoband madrasa from what they brand (without any substantiation at all) as the ‘anti-Islamic’ and ‘pro-Hindutva’ Vastanvi.

Pointing out that Vastanvi’s opponents have accused Vastanvi of providing a ‘clean chit’ to Modi and patronizing idolatry (by presenting a memento containing a picture of Radha and Krishna to a minister from Maharashtra), Ahmed argues that these two issues ‘are simply a pretext’, and Vastanvi simply ‘an instrument’, because ‘the real target’ of the two Urdu papers that are leading the anti-Vastanvi campaign ‘is the Deoband movement itself’, which they are hell-bent on ‘defaming’. By stoking the anti-Vastanvi campaign, he continues, these two non-Deobandi Urdu papers want to ‘weaken the influence the influence of the world-famous Dar ul-Uloom, Deoband, by propagating utterly baseless allegations in a grossly exaggerated manner, and violating all standards of journalistic ethics.’ Their real intention, he contends, is to ‘target the Sunni, or, in other words, Deobandi ulema.’ This, he says, is clear indication that these papers are bent on stoking ‘a sectarian war’.

Further exploring the possible sectarian angle behind the anti-Vastanvi campaign being led by these two papers, in league with Vastanvi’s enemies among a section of the Deobandi mullahs, including members of the Madni family, Ahmed writes that they may have entered into ‘some sort of give-and-take’ (len-den) agreement with Vastanvi’s detractors, who want to replace him with a man of their own choice. Whether this ‘give-and-take’ arrangement also involves receiving money for defaming Vastanvi is left unclear, but another article published in the Hindustan Express some days ago does make this claim very explicitly. Interestingly, Ahmed also indicates that senior staff of the same two non-Deobandi Urdu papers earlier attended a meeting at the ‘political residence’ of a ‘famous religious scholar’ to be persuaded not to publish anything against Vastanvi, and adds that they could not arrive at an agreement with those who had arranged the meeting.

Besides this suggestion of ‘give-and-take’, Ahmed indicates that the two non-Deobandi Urdu papers leading the anti-Vastanvi agitation might have reaped rich dividends on another front. ‘Through their mischief, they have also pleased their sectarian bosses (maslaki aqa)’, he writes, by damaging the name of the Deoband madrasa with their scurrilous anti-Vastanvi propaganda and by ‘flinging away the turbans of the respected members of the Deoband’s governing council’ who had elected Vastanvi. Ahmed argues that these papers are hardly different from certain sections of the non-Muslim media that routinely engage in defaming Muslims by projecting them as irredeemably obscurantist. By instigating and leading the anti-Vastanvi campaign, he says, these papers simply want to ‘defame the Dar ul-Uloom, Deoband, throughout the world’. ‘Undoubtedly’, he insists, ‘sectarian prejudice is clearly dominant in this entire controversy in order to give the ulema of Deoband a bad name.’

‘The behavior of these papers’, Ahmed laments, ‘is so despicable as to bring tears to the eyes’, and shows that ‘to promote their own personal interests, they will not hesitate to sully the honour of the Dar ul-Uloom, Deoband, and that, too, in the name of claiming to protect the Dar ul-Uloom.’ ‘What sordid game are they playing?’ he asks in anguish. Implicitly accusing these papers of unleashing a relentless storm of abuse against Vastanvi in return for being paid for this task by Vastanvi’s competitors for the post of rector, he asks that if they had received the money that they had demanded to desist from abusing Vastanvi (a deal, which, he indicates, fell through), would they now instead be singing paeans to Vastanvi, hailing him as a ‘pious believing religious scholar’ (alim ba-amal)? ‘All this is happening’, Ahmed writes in disgust, ‘simply in order to earn money’.

While serving their anti-Deobandi ‘sectarian bosses’ by stoking the anti-Vastanvi stir and thereby ‘defaming the Deobandi school of thought’, these papers, Ahmed argues, ‘are not even loyal to their own sect’, because, for ‘the sake of money’ they ‘do not hesitate to abandon’ their sectarian ‘beliefs and ideology’ by claiming to defend the Deoband madrasa, the arch-rival of their own sects, by insisting that Vastanvi is a menacing threat to it.

Interestingly, Ahmed links this ‘sectarian war’ being allegedly stoked by these two Urdu newspapers that he claims aims to attack the Deoband madrasa and the Deobandi movement and school of thought (in the name of protecting these) to the ardent support they are lending to a leading Deobandi opponent of Vastanvi, an enormously influential political maverick, who is in the forefront to oust Vastanvi from his seat. Unfortunately, Ahmed leaves the man un-named, but those who follow Muslim politics closely will immediately recognize the reference. He clearly indicates that for these two Urdu papers the issue of Vastanvi’s alleged pro-Modi statement and the accusation of his patronizing idolatry are just an ‘excuse’, for if this were not the case, then, he argues, they would also have talked of those opponents of Vastanvi, whom they are defending, ‘whose crimes are even more severe than that of Maulvi Vastanvi, for which they have not asked the community for forgiveness or promised that they will not repeat.’ Ahmed supplies clear hints as to the Muslim ‘leader’ behind the anti-Vastanvi campaign he is pointing at: a person, he says, who calls Gandhi his ‘ideal’, who had a ‘secret meeting’ with Indresh Kumar, the RSS leader who is alleged to have been deeply involved in numerous cases of ‘saffron terrorism’, and who approved of the recent reprehensible High Court decision on the Babri Masjid, which was clearly pro-Hindutva. This person and his likes (whose anti-Vastanvi campaign these the two Urdu papers are solidly backing and whose ‘crimes’, Ahmed says, they are stunningly silent on) have, as Ahmed puts it, consistently ‘bargained away the interests of the community’. These papers, he adds, are ‘silent on secret trips to Israel’ by some such dubious Muslim ‘leaders’ whom they term as ‘respectable’ (mohtaram). At the same time, he writes, they have the gumption to join hands with Vastanvi’s detractors in accusing Vastanvi of being a ‘polytheist’ (mushrik) and a ‘materialist’ (mada parast), without any substantiation whatsoever.

All in all, then, a very sorry state of affairs, which shows the dangerous depths to which sections of the mullahs (backed, in this case, by several self-styled secular parties, including the Congress) and the Urdu press can descend simply in order to feather their own nests, all in the name of Islam.

Shakil Khan is a regular columnist for