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The War Within Islam ( 22 Jan 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Deoband’s Internecine War Takes a New Turn

By Yoginder Sikand,

January 24, 2011

The fate of Ghulam Mohammad Vastanvi, the newly-elected vice-chancellor (muhtamim) of India’s largest madrasa, the Dar ul-Uloom at Deoband, hangs in the balance as a storm of protest gathers momentum against a controversial remark that he made some days ago. Vastanvi may not have provided an unqualified ‘clean-chit, as his detractors allege, to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in an interview given to the Times of India, but by appearing to overlook the various forms of discrimination that Muslims in Gujarat continue to labour under and by even going so far to naively claim that Muslims were prospering unhindered under Modi’s rule, Vastanvi committed a major goof-up. Although he subsequently issued an apology, his remarks set off a loud chorus of protest in his own Deobandi circles.

Vastanvi’s remarks about Modi are now being added to by a host of other allegations levelled by his opponents among his fellow Deobandi mullahs, including rivals for the post of vice-chancellor of the Deoband madrasa, to further galvanise the movement for his dismissal from his new post. One such allegation, which an influential section of the Urdu press has quickly lapped up and is now highlighting with much exaggeration, sensation and alarm, is that Vastanvi is ‘guilty’ of the sin of ‘distributing idols’. Since idolatry is a heinous sin in Islam, this charge very directly questions Vastanvi’s credentials as a sincere Muslim to make him out to be simply unfit for the job as the head of the world’s most influential madrasa. This allegation has even prompted Vastanvi’s critics to approach important Islamic organizations in India affiliated to the Deobandi school of thought for a fatwa on the matter. The fatwas they  received, condemning the act of ‘distributing idols’ (without mentioning Vastanvi’s name), have been widely publicised in some sections of the Urdu press and is being added to Vastanvi’s remarks about Modi to further press the demand for his immediate resignation.

The allegation about Vastanvi’s ‘involvement’ in what is termed by these Urdu papers as ‘idol distribution’ relates to an Eid Milan function held in October last year in the town of Beed, in Maharashtra. The papers that are now agog with news about the event do not supply many details of it. A photograph now being circulated through email on Muslim e-networks shows a smiling Vastanvi handing a large framed picture to a man, whom sources identify as a Hindu Minister from Maharashtra. The picture is itself blurred, but it is said to be that of the Hindu deities Radha and Krishna cavorting together. This picture is what is now being described (technically speaking, erroneously) as an ‘idol’ (but).

Soon after this event, it is said, murmurs of disapproval of Vastanvi’s action were expressed by some Muslims in Maharashtra. It seems that Vastanvi was able at that time to silence his critics who felt that he might have appeared as patronizing Hindu idolatry. The issue then went largely unremarked in the Urdu press, particularly outside Maharashtra. The mullahs of the Dar ul-Ulum at Deoband either seem to have remained ignorant of it or else to have thought it to be simply too trivial a matter to get worked up about. This is suggested by the fact that several months after the event, the majority of the members of the madrasa’s majlis-e shura or governing council cast their vote in Vastanvi’s favour. Obviously, they would not have had they considered Vastanvi’s action a heinous sin.

Now, however, in the wake of Vastanvi’s remarks about Modi, the issue of what his critics are raking up as his ‘crime’ of ‘idol distribution’ is being sensationally highlighted to justify his dismissal. Influential sections of the Urdu press, that thrive on heated controversy and wild sensationalism, are raising a deafening din over the matter, insisting that the person they are now going so far as to unfairly call a ‘patron of idols’ (but nawaz) has no business being the head of the world’s most influential Islamic seminary. They have been quick to contact Muslim leaders across the country for their views on the ‘idol distributor’. Not surprisingly, many of them have insisted that because of his alleged involvement in ‘idol distribution’, in addition to his remarks on Modi, Vastanvi must now go.

A quick scan of just one of India’s leading Urdu newspapers, the Daily Sahafat, simultaneously published from Mumbai, Delhi and Lucknow, indicates that the ridiculous allegation of Vastanvi being an ‘idol distributor’ (buton ko taqsim karney wala) and a ‘patron of idols’ is now being aggressively propagated to whip up Muslim sentiments and to force the governing council of the Deoband madrasa to dismiss him immediately. A cover-page story in the paper, titled ‘Promoting Modi and Idolatry Are Unacceptable Actions’, quotes ‘Maulana’ Khalid Rashid Firanghi Mahali, Imam of Lucknow’s Eidgah, as declaring that Islam does not permit Muslims to ‘distribute idols’, and that if Vastanvi was guilty of that ‘sin’, it was ‘condemnable in the extreme’. The paper quotes ‘Maulana’ Mumtaz Ahmad Qasmi, deputy president of the Punjab and Haryana unit of the Deobandi mass organisation, Jamiat ul-Ulema-e Hind, as insisting that ‘a man who distributes idols can never be the vice-chancellor of the Dar ul-Uloom, Deoband. The reins of power over the madrasa can never be given to a patron of idols.’ It refers to ‘Maulana’ Jalaluddin Umri, head of the Jamaat-e-Islami, who stresses that ‘distributing idols’ is ‘a violation of the shariah’. It also quotes Abdul Wahhab Khilji, former head of the Ahl-e-Hadith, and senior member of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, as declaring that the Prophet Muhammad had instructed Muslims to ‘destroy idols (but shikni), not to patronize them’. Khilji adds that Vastanvi’s action is diametrically opposed to the practice of the Prophet, and that, therefore, it is ‘completely unacceptable’.

The Daily Sahafat has also carried a number of full-length articles on the ‘idol distribution’ controversy. One of these, by a certain Mumtaz Alam Rizvi, denounces Vastanvi for what he calls ‘an act that leads a Muslim to infidelity’. Another article, bearing the alarmingly sensationalist heading ‘Will Idols Now Be Distributed From the Dar ul-Uloom, Deoband?’, absurdly suggests that if Vastanvi is not forced to step down at once, he might even conspire to convert the Deoband madrasa into a centre for promoting idolatry.

Along with certain other allegations, the charge of being ‘pro-Modi’ and a ‘patron of idols’ is being pushed by many of Vastanvi’s critics to claim that his appointment as head of the Deoband madrasa is the result of what they call a well-planned ‘conspiracy’ by un-named ‘anti-Muslim’ organizations to destroy the institution. In this way, it appears, according to some reliable sources, that Vastanvi’s opponents are desperately seeking to deflect attention from the fact that the mounting opposition to the man is, in fact, being stoked by elements within the Deobandi mullah community who themselves aspire to control the madrasa. The image of an alleged ‘anti-Muslim’ conspiracy, which is routinely invoked in mullah discourse, is in this case a convenient means to disguise the fact that the ongoing battle against Vastanvi is being spearheaded by these rival mullahs themselves. Numerous articles published in the Daily Sahafat parrot the wholly ridiculous claim that Vastanvi is an agent of Modi and the RSS. One such article claims that ‘It is clear that Modi’s men (modi ka banda) are now stationed in responsible positions even inside the Dar ul-Uloom, Deoband’. In a press release that the newspaper quotes at length, the General-Secretary of a little-known, and probably letter-head, outfit, the Tanzeem Mohibban-e Dar ul-Uloom Deoband (‘The Organisation of the Lovers of the Dar ul-Uloom Deoband’), announces that Vastanvi’s statement on Modi and his involvement in the ‘idol controversy’ have ‘clearly torn off the veil that hides his face. […] Vastanvi is a political man, not an intellectual or religious person [..] and has falsely clothed himself’ in the garb of religion.’ ‘Now, it has become clear’, he argues, ‘that Vastanvi has reached the Dar ul-Uloom, Deoband, as part of a very grave conspiracy hatched by anti-Muslim organizations.’

In order to project the beleaguered Vastanvi as a heretic for his alleged patronage to idolatry, and hence as completely unqualified to head the Deoband madrasa, some of his opponents (whom theDaily Sahafat leaves unnamed) approached leading Islamic institutions in India for a fatwa on the matter, without naming Vastanvi as such. Their request for a fatwa (istifta) was framed as follows:

‘A man, who is very religious (deendar) and knowledgeable (sahib-e-ilm) and possesses high qualifications (sanad yafta), is very involved in social activities and has much social influence. At a particular function, he presented a picture of Radha and Krishna to a non-Muslim politician. It does not need to be mentioned that non-Muslims worship Radha and Krishna, and, we seek refuge from God (nauzubillah), they give them the status of God.’

After setting out the matter in this way, they asked the following questions:

‘1. What, according to the shariah, is the status of this man’s action?

2. Will this action be regarded as tantamount to ‘assisting in sin’ (ta’avun al al-ism)?

3. Is it permissible to present such pictures to politicians with the purpose of making the work of our community institutions smoother?

4.   Is it permissible for such a person to be appointed to a responsible post (zimmedar) of a madrasa or to be made a trustee thereof?

5. Should such a person be required to renew his faith (tajdid-e iman)?’

Question Three was a reference to Vastanvi’s involvement in running a vast chain of educational institutions, the insinuation being that he had presented the ‘idol’ to the Hindu Minister from Maharashtra in order to curry favour with him for the sake of the numerous educational institutions he runs, many of which are located in Maharashtra. Question Five dealt with the issue of whether a Muslim who had committed the act that the questioners had described was guilty of such infidelity that he had become a heretic or even possibly an apostate, which required that he renew his faith in Islam.

The Daily Sahafat provides only some basic details about the fatwas that were delivered in response to this istifta. The Dar ul-Ifta, or ‘department of fatwas’, of the influential Deobandi organization Imarata-e-Shariah of Bihar, Orissa and Jharkhand, termed the action that the questioners had described as wrong and unacceptable in the shariah and a ‘cause of sin’. The person guilty of such an act, it said, was required to repent (taubah karna) for this and to completely avoid similar acts in the future. However, it also added that such a person had not, by this act, ‘gone out of Islam’ (kharij az islam), and so there was no need for him to renew his faith or, if he was married, to renew his marriage.

A fatwa from another such institution, whose identity the Daily Sahafat seems to deliberately leave confusing, expressed a somewhat different position. The 19th January issue of the Daily Sahafat quoted the fatwa as declaring that a person guilty of the act that the questioners had described was definitely tantamount to ‘assisting in sin’, and that to present pictures that ‘symbolise polytheism (shirk) and infidelity (kufr)’ was not permissible for Muslims. A Muslim who committed such an act it said, was not qualified to hold any responsible post in, or even to be just a member of, any Muslim religious institution. His act was, it added, definitely supportive of ‘polytheistic’ (shirkiya) and ‘infidel’ (kufriya) symbols. Hence, such a person must renew his faith, and, if he was married, renew his marriage as well. The 22nd January issue of the Daily Sahafat added that the Mazahir-ul-Uloom, Saharanpur, Vastanvi’s alma mater, had announced that if the person guilty of presenting such ‘polytheistic’ pictures ‘had reverence and respect in his heart for those idols and had presented such a picture for this reason,’ then he had turned into an ‘infidel’ (kafir).

By soliciting fatwas, deliberately framed in such a way as to elicit responses that they could then use to question the hapless Vastanvi’s religious beliefs and even his credentials as a proper Muslim, it appears that his opponents are marshalling every excuse they possibly can to force him to step down. According to informed sources, this is simply a sordid game of Vastanvi’s opponents, whose are vying for his seat, and who, they say, will not hesitate to stoop to any sort of calumny to defame him, levelling all sorts of completely absurd accusations against him simply in order to force his ouster.

All in all, it seems that Vastanvi’s days in Deoband are now numbered, unless he manages to effectively counter the calumny being heaped on him by his rivals among his fellow mullahs. And with that, the nasty internecine war in the Dar ul-Uloom, Deoband, or what the Deobandis bombastically call the ‘mother of all madrasas’ (umm ul-madaris), seems to be becoming murkier with every passing day.

A regular columnist for, Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.