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Resentment in response: Deoband

People were now exposed to new technology, cameras, radio, telegraph and the postal system, loudspeakers and the printing press. The onslaught of European medicines, bakeries, modern schools, European dress, food and eating style made them nervous and it seemed to them as though their world was falling apart.

After the defeat in the War of Independence in 1857, the Muslim community suffered politically, socially and economically.

Destruction of the cities of Delhi and Lucknow devastated culture, prominent families became scattered all over India and an atmosphere of disappointment, disillusionment, helplessness and insecurity prevailed.

The despair was further aggravated when the British administration introduced changes which were against traditions and customs, hence creating a new environment which the community was unfamiliar with.

Initially, the Muslim community responded by establishing a madressah at Deoband in 1868 in order to protect its religious identity. Both the founders, Maulana Qasim Nanotvi and Maulana Rashid Gongohi, belonged to the noble families of northern India. The project was funded by rulers of the Muslims states and rich individuals of the community.

In the beginning, the madressa remained distant from politics confining its services to imparting religious education to Muslim children. Its curriculum consisted of studying the Quran, Hadith, Islamic jurisprudence and logic. Social sciences and humanities were excluded from the curriculum while studying philosophy was especially prohibited.

A proposition to provide vocational training to students in carpentry or shoemaking was opposed and regarded by most as undignified. Learning calligraphy was readily accepted. However, structured on modern lines, the madressa had different departments, a library, hostels and an examination system of its own.

It was not just an educational institution, but the harbinger of a religious movement aiming to maintain a sense of religious identity among the Muslim community and to keep a check on the process of modernisation. The main department of the madressa was jurisprudence where Muslims from all parts of India could seek information for their social, political and religious issues in view of the transforming society.

As a result, every year, a collection of the fatawa or the religious edicts was published reflecting the problems of the Muslim community and their concern on how to retain their traditions.

For example, there was a religious opinion in regard to listening to radio, sending money by money order, photography, painting human figures, using English medicines and eating biscuits or cakes. The Deobandis at the time believed that modernisation was a serious threat to religion and efforts were made to separate and isolate the community and safeguard its traditions and culture.

The main thrust of the movement was to preserve and protect orthodoxy. In this sense, it was revivalist and a puritan movement. Therefore, all those sects which had different religious interpretations were condemned as heretics. Cultural relations with Hindus were condemned, and Shias were considered unacceptable as belonging to a Muslim sect. They preached for revival of all religious traditions which could not be practised during the Mughal period.

By the middle of the 20th century, the policy of the madressa changed under the leadership of Maulana Mahmudul hassan. In 1919, he founded the Jamiat-ul-ulama-i-Hind, a political party, which engaged in nationalist struggle against colonialism.

The Deoband madressa became a bastion of orthodoxy in India.

After partition, the policy of the followers of Deoband changed. In Pakistan, their policy was to establish an Islamic state. In India, they favoured secularism, which they believed was best system that suited the Muslim community there.

The other Muslim response to colonialism was by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, whose main concern was to rehabilitate the Muslim community after 1857. He was the first in India who presented a progressive interpretation of Islam. He made attempt to re-adjust religious teaching according to the modern demands of the changing world.

He founded the Aligarh Muslim Oriental College which provided modern education to Muslim youth. He was not in favour of indulging in politics and encouraged the Muslim community to acquire modern education and become a part of government structure.

These two trends played an important role in shaping the mindset and attitudes of the Muslim community which continue to the present day.

By Mubarak Ali :

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