I might have been 11 when I first heard the word “Deobandi.” My family had just returned to Islamabad after eight years in New York, where my father served as a mid-ranking official at Pakistan’s mission to the United Nations. A year had passed since military ruler, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, began subjecting Pakistan to his despotic Islamization agenda, and I was being exposed to a lot more than my brain could process. My dad despised Zia for two separate reasons. The first was obviously political. My father was a democrat and a staunch supporter of ousted Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had been executed after Zia’s 1977 coup. The second was religious. Our ancestors were from the Barelvi sect, which constituted the vast majority of Pakistanis at the time and has been the historical rival of the Deobandis, whom Zia had begun to capacitate to gain legitimacy for his regime. For the most part a secular individual, my father had always been passionate about our supposed ancestral lineage to medieval Sufi saints. Deobandis are Hanafi Sunni Muslims like Barelvis, but for him they represented local variants of the extremist brand known as Wahhabism, which originated in the Arabian Peninsula. And with Zia empowering their mullahs, mosques and madrassas, he thought it was his duty to protect his heritage, and I was given a crash course on the sectarian landscape.
While most Islamists in the Arab/Muslim world are more activists than religious scholars, in South Asia the largest Islamist groups are led by traditional clerics and their students. And the Deobandi sect has been in the forefront of South Asian Islamism, with the Taliban as its most recent manifestation. The Deobandis’ influence, reach and relevance in a vast and volatile region like South Asia is immense, yet they are little understood in the West. Western scholarship and commentary tend to be more focused on the movement’s counterparts in the Arab world, namely the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabi Salafism.
Deobandism was propelled by ulema lamenting at the loss of Muslim sovereignty in India. Different dynastic Muslim regimes had ruled over various regions in the subcontinent since the late 10th and early 11th century. The ulema had been part of the South Asian Muslim political elite, but their public role was always subject to a tug of war with the rulers and evolved over time.
They had a strong presence in the royal court from the time of the first Muslim sultanistic dynasty in the subcontinent: the Turkic Ghaznavids (977-1170), who broke off from the Persian Samanids (who themselves had declared their independence from the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad). It was during this era that the role of ulema began to change in that a great many of them from Central Asia invested in proselytization and spiritual self-discipline. This spiritual approach gained ground and distinguished itself from the legalistic approach of the ulema. The former took on a social and grassroots role while the latter continued to focus on directly influencing the sultan and, through his sultanate, the realm at large. Behind both movements were ulema who, to varying degrees, subscribed to Sufism. The difference was between those who swung heavily toward scriptural scholarship and those who were open to unorthodox ideas and practices in keeping with what they perceived as the need to accommodate local customs and exigencies. This divide would remain contained and the ulema would enjoy an elite status, which continued through the era of the Ghaurids (1170-1215) — an Afghan dynasty.
Essentially the ulema provided legitimacy for the rulers and in exchange received largesse and influence in matters of religion. It was under the Sultanate of Delhi (1206-1525) that the ulema were appointed to several official state positions, largely within the judiciary. In addition, a state law enforcement organ called hisbah was created for ensuring that society conformed to shariah, which is the origin for the modern-day agencies in some Muslim governments assigned the task of “promoting virtue and preventing vice.” It was an arrangement that allowed the ruler to keep the ulema in check and incapable of intruding into matters of statecraft.
After the Delhi Sultanate collapsed in 1526, it was replaced by another Turkic dynasty, the Mughals, under whom the ulema were marginalized. In his award-winning 2012 book, “The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam,” Azfar Moin, who heads the University of Texas at Austin’s Religious Studies Department, explains that during the reigns of Akbar (r. 1542-1605), his son Jehangir (r. 1605-27) and his grandson Shah Jehan (r. 1628-58), the ulema would remain in political wilderness.
It was Akbar’s great-grandson, Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707), who not only restored the ulema to their pre-Akbar status but also radically altered the empire’s structure by theocratizing it. His Islamization agenda was a watershed moment, for it created the conditions in which the ulema would eventually gain unprecedented ground. What enabled the advance would be the fact that Aurangzeb was the last effective emperor, leading to not just the collapse of the Mughal empire but also the ascendance of British colonial rule. These two sequential developments would essentially shape the conditions in which Deobandism, and later on, radical Islamism, would emerge, as argued by Princeton scholar Muhammad Qasim Zaman explains in in his seminal 2007 book “The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change.”
Over the course of the next two centuries, an ulema tendency that stressed the study of original Islamic sources and deemphasized the role of the rational sciences gained strength. Started by Shah Abdur Rahim, a prominent religious scholar in Aurangzeb’s royal court, this multigenerational movement was carried forward by his progeny, which included Shah Waliullah Delhawi, Shah Abdul Aziz and Muhammad Ishaq. This line of scholars represented the late Mughal era puritanical movement.
Delhawi, who was its most influential theoretician, was a contemporary of the founder of Wahhabism in the Arabian Peninsula, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. The two even studied at the same time in Medina under some of the same teachers who exposed them to the ideas of the early 14th century iconoclastic Levantine scholar Ibn Taymiyyah. Salafism and Deobandism, the two most fundamentalist Muslim movements of the modern era, simultaneously emerged in the Middle East and South Asia, respectively. According to the conventional wisdom, the extremist views of Wahhabism spread from the Middle East to South Asia. In reality, however, Delhawi and Wahhabism’s founder drank from the same fountain in Medina — under an Indian teacher by the name of Muhammad Hayyat al-Sindhi and his student Abu Tahir Muhammad Ibn Ibrahim al-Kurani. A major legacy of Delhawi is Deobandism, which arose as Wahhabism’s equivalent in South Asia in the late 19th century. Similar circumstances led to the near simultaneous rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East and Jamaat-i-Islami in South Asia in the early 20th century. These connections go to show how the two regions often influence each other in more significant ways than usually acknowledged.
For this clerical movement shaped by Delhawi, Muslim political decay in India was a function of religious decline, the result of the contamination of thought and practice with local polytheism and alien philosophies. Insisting that the ulema be the vanguard of a Muslim political restoration, these scholars established a tradition of issuing fatwas to provide common people with sharia guidance for everyday issues. Until then, such religious rulings had been largely the purview of the official ulema who held positions in the state. This group was responsible for turning the practice into a nongovernmental undertaking at a time when the state had become almost nonexistent. By the time Ishaq died in the mid-19th century, he had cultivated a group of followers including Mamluk Ali and Imdadullah Mujhajir Makki, who were mentors of the two founders of Deobandism, Muhammad Qasim Nanutavi and Rashid Ahmad Gangohi.
Renowned American scholar of South Asian Islam Barbara Metcalf in her 1982 book “Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900” explains how the emergence of Deobandism was rooted in both ideological and practical concerns. It began when Nanutavi and Gangohi established the Dar-ul-Uloom seminary in the town of Deoband, some 117 miles north of Delhi, in 1866 — eight years after participating in a failed rebellion against the British conquest of India.
These two founders of the movement had already tried forming an Islamic statelet in a village called Thana Bhawan, north of Delhi, from where they sought to wage jihad against the British, only to be swiftly defeated. William Jackson explains in great detail, in his 2013 Syracuse University dissertation, the story of how the two formed a local emirate — a micro-version of the one achieved by the Taliban. Their mentor Makki became emir-ul-momineen, the Leader of the Faithful, and the two served as his senior aides — Nanutavi as his military leader, and Gangohi served as his judge. The tiny emirate was crushed by the British within a few months. Imdadullah fled to Mecca, Gangohi was arrested and Nanautavi fled to Deoband, where he sought refuge with relatives.
Realizing there was no way to beat the British militarily, Nanautavi sought to adopt the empire’s educational model and established a school attached to a mosque. His decision would be instrumental in shaping the course of history, ultimately helping to lay the groundwork for Indian independence, the creation of Pakistan and the rise of modern jihadist groups including the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.
In Nanautavi’s point of view, European Christians were now masters of the land long ruled by Indian Muslims. He thus envisioned the seminary as an institution that would produce a Muslim vanguard capable of restoring the role of the ulema in South Asian politics and even raising it to unprecedented levels. His priority was religious revival and, after Gangohi was released from prison, the madrassa at Deoband became the nucleus for a large network of similar schools around the country.
After Nanautavi died in 1880, Mahmud Hassan, the first student to enroll in Dar-ul-Uloom, led the Deobandi movement. Hassan transformed the movement from focusing on a local concern to one with national and international ambitions. Students from Russia, China, Central Asia, Persia, Turkey, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula came to study at the seminary under his leadership. By the end of the First World War, more than a thousand graduates had fanned out across India. Their main task was to expunge ideas and practices that had crept into Indian Muslim communities through centuries of interactions with the Hindu majority.
This quickly antagonized the pre-dominant Muslim tendency that was rooted in Sufi mysticism and South Asian Islamic traditions. This movement started to organize in response to the Deobandis, in another Indian town called Bareilly, and was led by Ahmed Raza Khan (1856-1921). The Barelvis, as the rival movement came to be known, viewed the Deobandis as a greater threat to their religion and country than British colonial rule. This rivalry continues to define religious and political dynamics till this day, across South Asia.
Although the Deobandis viewed India as Dar-ul-Harb (Dominion of War), they initially did not try to mount another armed insurrection. Instead, they opted for a mainstream approach to politics that called for Hindu-Muslim unity. The Barelvis, meanwhile, took up controversial positions that unintentionally helped the Deobandis gain support. In particular, a fatwa by the Barelvi leader, Ahmed Raza Khan, in which he ruled that the Ottoman Empire was not the true caliphate, angered many Indian Muslims and drove them closer to the pan-Islamic, anti-British vision of the Deobandis. In fact, given the success of the Deobandi movement on a sectarian level, it never really viewed the Barelvis as a serious challenge.
While Deobandis and Barelvis were in the making, so was a modernist Muslim movement led by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-98). A religious scholar turned modern intellectual, Sir Syed hailed from a privileged family during the late Mughal era and worked as a civil servant during British rule. From his point of view, Muslim decline was a direct result of a fossilized view of religion and a lack of modern scientific knowledge. Sir Syed would go on to be the leader of Islamic modernism in South Asia through the founding of the Aligarh University. The university produced the Muslim elite, which would, almost half a century after Sir Syed’s death, found Pakistan.
Sir Syed’s prognosis of the malaise affecting the Muslims of India was unique and clearly different from that of the long line of religious scholars who saw the problem as a function of the faithful having drifted away from Islam’s original teachings. The loss of sovereignty to the British combined with the rise of men like him who advocated a cooperative approach toward the British and an embracing of European modernity would lead the founders of Deoband to adopt their own pragmatic approach but one that laid heavy emphasis on religious education. The Deobandis viewed Sir Syed’s Islamic modernism as their principal competitor. In other words, the Aligarh movement also developed around a university — but one that emphasized Western secular education — represented a major challenge, and not just politically but also religiously in that it offered an alternative paradigm.
Barely half a century after its founding, the Deobandi movement had established seminaries across India, from present-day Bangladesh in the east to Afghanistan in the west. Such was its influence that in 1914, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the leader of the secular Pashtun Khudai Khidmatgars movement, visited the Dar-ul-Uloom. Ghaffar Khan, who would later earn the moniker “The Frontier Gandhi,” met the Deobandi leader Mahmud Hassan to discuss the idea of establishing a base in the Pashtun areas of northwest India, from which they could launch an independence rebellion against the British. Harking back to the armed struggle of their forerunners, the Deobandis, once again, tried their hand at jihad — this time on a transnational scale.
With the help of Afghanistan, Ottoman Turkey, Germany and Russia, Hassan sought to foment this insurrection, believing that Britain would be too focused on fighting the First World War on the battlefields of Europe to be able to deal with an uprising in India. The plan was ambitious but foolhardy. Hassan wanted to headquarter the insurgent force in Hejaz, in modern-day Saudi Arabia, with regional commands in Istanbul, Tehran and Kabul. He traveled to Hejaz, where he met with the Ottoman war minister, Anwar Pasha, and the Hejaz governor, Ghalib Pasha. The Ottomans strongly supported an Indian rebellion as a response to the British-backed Arab revolt against them. The plan failed in great part because the Afghan monarch, Emir Habibullah Khan, would not allow an all-out war against the British be waged from his country’s soil. Hassan, the Deoband leader, was ensconced in Mecca when he was arrested by the Hashemite ruler of the Hejaz, Sharif Hussein bin Ali, and handed over to the British. He was imprisoned on the island of Malta.
During the four years that Hassan was jailed, several key developments took place back home in India. The most important was the launch of the 1919 Khilafat (Caliphate) Movement by a number of Muslim notables influenced by Deobandism. As prominent historian of South Asian Islam, Gail Minault, argues in her 1982 book “Religious Symbolism and Political Mobilization in India,” the Khilafat Movement, which lobbied Turkey’s new republican regime to preserve the caliphate, was actually a means of mobilizing India’s Muslims in a nationalist struggle against the British. This would explain why the movement received the support of Mahatma Gandhi in exchange for backing his Non-Cooperation Movement against the British. At around the same time, several Deobandi ulema created Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind (JUH), which would become the formal political wing of the movement – engaging in a secular nationalist struggle.
When Hassan was released from prison and returned to India, Gandhi traveled to Bombay to receive him. Hassan went on to issue a fatwa in support of the Khilafat and Non-Cooperation movements, which was endorsed by hundreds of ulema. Under his leadership, the Deobandis also supported Gandhi’s candidacy for the presidency of the Indian National Congress. The move was in keeping with their point of view that the Hindu majority was not a threat to Islam and the real enemies were the British.
As the Deobandi movement pushed for Hindu-Muslim unity, it underwent another leadership change. Ill from tuberculosis, Hassan died in November 1920, six months after his release from prison. He was succeeded by his longtime deputy Hussain Ahmed Madani, who engaged in a major campaign calling for joint Hindu-Muslim action against the British. With Madani at the helm, the Deobandis argued that movements organized along communal lines played into the hands of the colonial rulers and advanced the idea of “composite nationalism.” A united front was needed to end the British Empire’s dominance. This view ran counter to the atmosphere of the times and, following the collapse of the Deobandis’ transnational efforts, the movement’s nationalist program also floundered.
The All-India Muslim League (AIML), headed by the future founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was growing in strength and steering Indian Muslims toward separatism. At the same time, the Deobandis’ JUH and Gandhi’s Indian National Congress intensified their demand for Indian self-government. The situation came to a head with massive nationwide unrest in 1928. To defuse the situation, the British asked Indian leaders to put forth a constitutional framework of their own. In response, the Indian National Congress produced the Nehru Report, a major turning point for the Deobandis. The report by their erstwhile allies ignored the JUH demand for a political structure that would insulate Muslim social and religious life from central government interference. This led dissenting members of the JUH and among the wider Deobandi community to join AIML’s call for Muslim separatism.
While prominent Deobandi scholar Ashraf Ali Thanvi would initiate the break, it was his student, Shabbir Ahmed Usmani, who led the split. Usmani would spearhead a reshaping of the Deobandi religious sect and play a critical role in charting the geopolitical divide that still defines South Asia today. In 1939, Thanvi issued a fatwa decreeing that Muslims were obligated to support Jinnah’s separatist AIML. He then resigned from the Deoband seminary and spent the four remaining years of his life supporting the creation of Pakistan.
Thanvi and Usmani realized that if the Deobandis did not act, the Barelvis — already allied with the AIML — could outmaneuver them. Better organized and one step ahead of their archrivals, the Deobandis were able to position themselves as the major religious allies of the AIML. It is important to note, however, that many Deobandis remained loyal to Madani’s more inclusive approach. They viewed his stance as in keeping with the Prophet Muhammad’s Compact of Medina, which had ensured the cooperation of various non-Muslim tribes. In contrast, Usmani and the renegade Deobandis had long been deeply uncomfortable with the idea of Hindu-Muslim unity, which conflicted with their religious puritanism. When Usmani established Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI) in 1945 as a competitor to Madani’s JUH, the deep schism within the Deoband movement had reached a point of no return. Usmani’s insurrection came at the perfect time for Jinnah, a secular Muslim politician with an Ismaili Shia background. Jinnah had long sought to weaken JUH’s opposition to his Muslim separatist project; the support of Usmani lent religious credibility to his cause: creating the state of Pakistan.
After partition in 1947, the spiritual home of the Deobandi movement remained in India, but Pakistan was now its political center. When they founded JUI, Usmani and his followers already knew that it was way too late in the game for their group to be the vanguard leading the struggle for Pakistan. The AIML had long assumed that mantle, but it was not too late for the JUI to lead the way to Islamizing the new secular Muslim state. In fact, Jinnah’s move to leverage the Islamic faith to mobilize mass demand for a secular Muslim homeland had left the character of this new state deeply ambiguous. Such uncertainty provided the ideal circumstances for JUI to position itself at the center of efforts to craft a constitution for Pakistan. In the new country’s first Parliament, the Constituent Assembly, JUI spearheaded the push for an “Islamic political system.”
The death of secularist Jinnah in September 1948 created a leadership vacuum, which helped JUI’s cause. As a member of the assembly, the JUI leader Usmani played a lead role in drafting the Objectives Resolution that placed Islam at the center of the constitutional process. The resolution stated that “sovereignty over the entire universe belongs to God Almighty alone and the authority which He has delegated to the State of Pakistan.” It went on to say that “the principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance and social justice” must be followed “as enunciated by Islam.” Adopted in 1949, the Objectives Resolution marked a huge victory for JUI and other Islamists.
By mid-1952, JUI appeared to be on its way to achieving its objectives. Within months, however, the situation soured. Along with other Islamist groups, it launched a violent nationwide protest movement against the minority Ahmadiyya sect, believing that the move would enhance its political position. In response, the government imposed martial law. A subsequent government inquiry held JUI and the other religious forces responsible for the violence and even questioned the entire premise of the party’s demand for Pakistan to be turned into an Islamic state. Nevertheless, in March 1956, the country’s first constitution came into effect, formally enshrining Pakistan as an Islamic republic. Two and a half years later, however, the military seized power under Gen. Ayub Khan, who was determined to reverse the influence of the Deobandis and the growing broader religious sector. Khan would go on to decree a new constitution that laid the foundations of a secular modern state — one in which the Deobandis did not even achieve their minimalist goal of an advisory role.
The Deobandi movement went through another period of decline and transition during President Khan’s reign. It was in the late 1960s under Mufti Mahmud, a religious scholar-turned-politician from the Pashtun region of Dera Ismail Khan, near the Afghan border that JUI experienced a revival. After Khan allowed political parties to operate again in 1962, Mahmud became JUI’s deputy leader. In truth, though, he was now the real mover and shaker of the Deobandi party steering it towards alliances of convenience with secular parties. Pakistani historian Sayyid A.S. Pirzada, in his 2000 book “The Politics of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam Pakistan 1971-1977,” goes into detail on how Mahmud transformed JUI from a religious movement seeking to influence politics into a full-fledged political party participating in electoral politics.
By the time Khan was forced out of office by popular unrest in 1969, socio-economic issues had replaced religion as the driving force shaping Pakistani politics. Another general, Yahya Khan, took over as president and again imposed martial law, abrogating the entire political system his predecessor had put together over an 11-year period. Yahya held general elections in 1970, marking the country’s first free and fair vote. Both secular and left-leaning, the country’s two major parties, the Awami League and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), came in first and second place in the vote for Parliament with 167 and 86 seats respectively, while JUI won only seven seats.
By now the west-east crisis that had been brewing since the earliest days of Pakistan’s independence was reaching a critical point. The Awami League won all of its seats in East Pakistan while the PPP won all of its seats in the west of the country. The military establishment, meanwhile, refused to transfer power to the Awami League. This caused full-scale public agitation in the east, which quickly turned into a brutal civil war that led to the creation of Bangladesh from what had been East Pakistan.
The war, which killed hundreds of thousands, resulted in two major implications that would help the Deobandis regain much of the political space they had lost since the early 1950s. First, it seriously weakened the military’s role in politics and allowed for the return of civilian rule. Second, it helped JUI and other religious parties to argue that only Islam could bind together different ethnic groups into a singular national fabric.
Within days of the defeat in the December 1971 war, Gen Yahya’s military government came to an end and PPP chief Zulfikar Ali Bhutto became president. In March 1972, JUI chief Mahmud became chief minister of North-Western Frontier Province (NWFP), leading a provincial coalition government with the left-wing Pashtun ethno-nationalist National Awami Party (NAP). The JUI also was a junior partner with NAP in Baluchistan’s provincial government. JUI’s stint in provincial power, however, was cut short when President Bhutto in 1973 dismissed the NAP-JUI cabinet in Baluchistan, accusing it of failing to control an ethno-nationalist insurgency in the province. In protest, the Mahmud-led government in NWFP resigned as well. The Deobandi party then turned its focus to ensuring that the constitution Bhutto’s PPP was crafting would be as much in keeping with its Islamist ideology as was possible.
Well aware that the masses overwhelmingly voted on the basis of bread-and-butter issues as opposed to religion, JUI sought to prevent the ruling and other socialist parties from producing a charter that would seriously limit its share of power. JUI and the country’s broader religious right were able to capitalize on the fact that Bhutto was seeking national consensus for a constitution, which would strengthen a civilian political order led by his ruling PPP. He was thus ready for a quid pro quo with the JUI and other Islamists — conceding on a number of their demands to Islamize the charter in order to establish a parliamentary form of government.
Consequently, Pakistan’s current constitution, which went into effect in August 1973, declared Islam the state religion, made the Objectives Resolution the charter’s preamble, established a Council of Islamic Ideology to ensure all laws were in keeping with the Quran and the Sunnah, and established the criteria of who is a Muslim, among a host of other provisions. The following year the Deobandis and the broader religious right won another major victory in the form of the second amendment, which declared Ahmadis as non-Muslims.
By 1974, the government of PPP founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto began to appropriate religion into its own politics. Over the next three years, nine parties with JUI in a lead role formed a coalition of Islamist, centrist and leftist factions in the form of the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) to jointly contest the 1977 elections. The PNA campaign was trying to leverage the demand of the religious right to implement Nizam-i-Mustafa (System of Muhammad).
In an election marred by irregularities, the PPP won 155 seats while the opposition alliance took only 36. After three months of unrest in the wake of the results, Bhutto invited his opponents to negotiate; JUI chief Mahmud led the opposition in the talks. In an effort not to compromise politically, Bhutto sought to appease the Islamists culturally and moved to ban the sale and consumption of liquor, shut all bars, prohibit betting and replace Sunday with the Muslim holy day of Friday as the weekly sabbath. The negotiations were cut short when army chief Gen. Zia mounted a coup, ousting Bhutto and appropriated the Deobandi agenda of Islamization — all designed to roll back the civilianization of the state and restore the military’s role in politics.
Zia’s moves to Islamize society top-down naturally resonated significantly with the religious right. From their point of view, Zia was the very opposite of the country’s first military dictator, Ayub Khan, who had been an existential threat to the entire ulema sector. The Deobandis, however, were caught between their opposition to a military dictatorship and the need to somehow benefit from Zia’s religious agenda. Although he was known for being a religious conservative, Zia was first and foremost a military officer. While the entire raison d’être of the Deobandi JUI was to establish an “Islamic” state, the Zia regime weaponized both the religion of Islam and the ideology of Islamism to gain support for what was essentially a military-dominated political order.
The JUI saw itself as heir to a thousand-year tradition of ulema trying to ensure that Muslim sovereigns in South Asia were ruling in accordance with their faith. Albeit late in the game, it was also a key player in creating Pakistan, and more importantly, worked to ensure that the country’s constitution was Islamic. But now Zia, who had assumed the presidency, had engaged in a hostile takeover of not just the state but the entire Deobandi business model. This explains why Mahmud opposed Zia’s putsch and kept demanding that he stick to his initial pledge of holding elections, which the general kept postponing. Zia’s primary objective was to reverse Bhutto’s efforts to establish civilian supremacy over the military.
By the time Zia banned political parties in October 1979, JUI was struggling to deal with a new autocratic political order that was stealing its thunder. It was also in a state of unprecedented decline. An internal rift had emerged within the party between those opposing Zia’s military regime and those seduced by his Islamization moves. A year later, Mahmud died of a heart attack. Mahmud’s son, a cleric-politician named Fazlur Rehman, was accepted as the new JUI chief by many of the leaders and members of the Deobandi party. But others opposed the hereditary transition. This led to a formal split in the party between Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam — Fazlur Rehman (JUI-F) and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam Sami-ul-Haq (JUI-S), named after Sami-ul-Haq, a cleric whose madrassah Dar-ul-Uloom Haqqania would soon play a lead role in the rise of militant Deobandism. JUI-F continued to oppose Zia’s martial law regime while the splinter Deobandi faction, JUI-S, became a major supporter of the military government.
The same year that Zia was Islamizing his military regime, three major events shook the Muslim world: the Islamist-led revolution in Iran, the siege of Mecca by a group of messianic Salafists and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. These three developments would prove to be a watershed for the Deobandi movement. Deobandis formed a major component of the Afghan Islamist insurgent alliance fighting the Soviet-backed communist government. Many of the leaders of the Afghan insurgent factions like Mawlawi Yunus Khalis, Mohammed Nabi Mohammedi and Jalaluddin Haqqani were Deobandis. From the early 1980s onward, the two JUI factions were involved in dual projects: supporting the creation of an Islamic state in Afghanistan through armed insurrection and the Islamization of Pakistan (though divided over how on the latter).
At the same time, Saudi Arabia supported the Afghan insurgency and began to step up its promotion of Wahhabism in Pakistan, partly as a response to the Mecca siege. The Deobandis benefited financially and ideologically from Riyadh’s support, leading to the emergence of new groups.
Already wary of how Iran’s clerical regime was exporting its brand of revolutionary Islamism, many Deobandis were influenced by the anti-Shia sectarianism embedded within their own discourse and now energized by proliferating Wahhabism. The Zia regime also had an interest in containing Iranian-inspired revolutionary ideas and supported anti-Shia Deobandi militant factions. In 1985, a group by the name of Sipah-e-Sahabah Pakistan was founded as a militant offshoot of JUI. It would later give way to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, named after Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, a firebrand anti-Shia Deobandi cleric. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi remains notorious for horrific attacks targeting Pakistan’s Shia minority.
After a century of being a religious-political movement, in the 1980s Deobandism was increasingly militant. The anti-communist insurgency in Afghanistan and sectarian militancy in Pakistan were the two primary drivers increasingly steering many Deobandis toward armed insurrection. While the end of the Zia regime (with the dictator’s death in a plane crash in the summer of 1988) brought back civilian rule to the country, Deobandism was hurtling toward a violent trajectory.
By the early 1990s the Pakistani military had retreated to influencing politics from behind the scenes and no longer pursued a domestic Islamization program. The die, however, had been cast. The extremist forces that Zia had unleashed were now on autopilot, and his civilian and military successors were unable to rein in their growth. Deobandi seminaries continued to proliferate in the country, especially in the Pashtun-dominated areas of the northwest.
In 1993, another militant Deobandi faction demanding the imposition of sharia law emerged in country’s northwest by the name of Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Muhammadi (Movement to Implement the Shariah of Muhammad) — or TNSM — led by Sufi Muhammad, a mullah who had studied at the Panjpir seminary, which was unique in that its Deobandism was heavily Salafized.
The decade long war in Afghanistan against the Soviets had significantly affected the Pakistani military and the country’s premier spy service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, which was managing the Afghan, Pakistani and other Arab/Muslim foreign fighters. Many ISI officers had gone native with the militant Deobandi and Salafist ideologies of the proxies that they were managing. By the dawn of the 1990s two unexpected geopolitical developments would accelerate the course of Deobandism toward militancy. First was the December 1991 implosion of the Soviet Union, which a few months later triggered the collapse of the Afghan communist regime. That in turn led to the 1992-96 intra-Islamist war in Afghanistan, which gave rise to the Taliban movement and its first emirate regime. Second was a popular Muslim separatist uprising that began in Indian-administered Kashmir in 1989. The Pakistani military’s efforts to leverage both developments exponentially contributed to the surge of radicalized and militarized Deobandism.
In Afghanistan, Pakistan supported the Taliban, a movement founded by militant Deobandi clerics and students. The military also deployed Islamist insurgent groups in Indian-administered Kashmir, many of which were ideologically Deobandi. They included Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Harakat-ul-Ansar and Jaish-e-Mohammed. Toward the late 1990s, when the Taliban were in power in Kabul and hosting al Qaeda, these groups constituted a singular transnational ideological battle space stretched from Afghanistan through India. This was most evident after militants hijacked an Indian Airlines flight from Nepal and landed in Taliban-controlled Kandahar. There, the hijackers, enabled by the Pakistani-backed Taliban regime, negotiated with the Indian government for the release of Jaish-e-Mohammed founder Masood Azhar and two of his associates who had been imprisoned for terrorist activities in Kashmir.
After 9/11, the Pakistani security establishment lost control of its militant Deobandi nexus, which gravitated heavily toward al Qaeda that had itself relocated to Pakistan. The U.S. toppling of the Taliban regime forced Islamabad into a situation in which it was trying to balance support for both Washington and the Afghan Taliban. Meanwhile, just days before the U.S. began its military operations against the Taliban in October 2001, Jaish-e-Muhammad operatives attacked the state legislature in Indian-administered Kashmir. This was followed by an even more brazen attack on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi on Dec. 13. The Pakistanis were now under pressure from both the Americans and the Indians. As a result, Islamabad clamped down on the Kashmiri militant outfits. The decision of Pakistan’s then military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf to first side with the U.S. against the Taliban and then undertake an unprecedented normalization process with India led to Islamabad losing control over the Deobandi militant landscape. In fact, many of these groups would turn against the Pakistani state itself. There were several assassination attempts on Musharraf, including two back-to-back attacks carried out by rogue military officers within two weeks in December 2003. The radicalized Deobandis whom Pakistan cultivated as instruments of foreign policy in the ’80s and ’90s inverted the vector of jihad to target the very state that nurtured them.
Meanwhile, the country’s main Deobandi political group, JUI-F, remained a force. In the 2002 elections, it led an alliance of six Islamist parties called the Mutahiddah Majlis-i-Amal (United Action Council or MMA) that won 60 seats in Parliament — in great part due to the electoral engineering of the country’s fourth military regime. It also secured the most seats in the provincial legislatures in the old Deobandi stronghold of NWFP, forming a majority government there and a coalition government with the pro-Musharraf ruling party in Baluchistan. The Deobandi-led MMA governments in both western provinces enabled the rise of Talibanization in the Pashtun-regions along the border with Afghanistan. By the time the MMA government in the northwest completed its five-year term in late 2007, some 13 separate Pakistani Taliban factions had come together to form an insurgent alliance known as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The Deobandi-led government turned a blind eye to rising Talibanization, partly because it did not want to be seen as siding with the U.S. against fellow Islamists and partly because it feared being targeted by the jihadists. The latter fear was not unfounded given TTP’s several attempts to assassinate several JUI leaders including chief Fazlur Rehman and its Baluchistan supremo Muhammad Khan Sherani.
Militant Deobandism in the form of insurgents controlling territory and engaging in terrorist attacks all over the country would dominate the better part of the next decade. Taliban rebels seized control of large swaths of territory close to the Afghan border. The biggest example of this was the Taliban faction led by Mullah Fazlullah (the son-in-law of the TNSM founder), which took over NWFP’s large Swat district (as well as many parts of adjacent districts).
The Taliban had significant support even in the country’s capital as illustrated by the 2007 siege of the Red Mosque (Islamabad’s oldest and major house of worship). A group of militants led by the mosque’s Deobandi imam and his brother for nearly 18 months had been challenging the writ of the state in the country’s capital by engaging in violent protests, attacks on government property, kidnapping, arson and armed clashes with law enforcement agencies. An 8-day standoff came to an end when army special forces stormed the mosque-seminary complex leading to a 96-hour gun battle with well-armed and trained militants during which at least 150 people (including many women and children) were killed.
The TTP greatly leveraged popular anger over the military operation against the mosque. It unleashed a barrage of suicide bombings targeting high-security military installations including an air weapons complex, a naval station, three regional headquarters of the ISI, special forces headquarters, the army’s general headquarters, the military’s main industrial complex and many other civilian targets, which resulted in tens of thousands of deaths. It took nearly a decade of massive counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations to claw back provincial and tribal territories that had fallen under TTP control. By the late 2010s, Pakistan’s security forces had forced Taliban rebels to relocate across the border in Afghanistan where the U.S., after 15 years of unsuccessfully trying to weaken the Afghan Taliban movement, was in talks with it.
Washington had hoped that its 2020 peace agreement with the Afghan Taliban would lead to a political process that could limit the jihadist movement’s influence after the U.S. departure. The dramatic collapse of the Afghan government in a little over a week in early August of this year, however, has left the Afghan Taliban as the only group capable of imposing its will on the country. The return of the Afghan Taliban to power in Afghanistan has a strong potential to energize like-minded forces in Pakistan, especially with the Islamic State having a significant cross-border presence and trying to assume the jihadist mantle from the Taliban. Further in the easterly direction, rising right-wing Hindu extremism in India empowered by the current government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi risks radicalizing Deobandism in its country of birth, in response to the targeting of the country’s 200 million Muslim minority.
The Deobandis began in India as a movement seeking to reestablish a Muslim religio-political order in South Asia — one led by ulema. After 80 years of cultivating a religious intellectual vanguard and aligning with the majority Hindu community in secular nationalist politics to achieve independence from British colonial rule, a major chunk of Deoband embraced Muslim separatism. Once that goal was realized in the form of the independent nation-state of Pakistan, the locus of Deobandism shifted to Islamizing the new Muslim polity. For the next three decades, the Deobandis tried to turn a state that was intended to be secular into an Islamic republic through constitutional and electoral processes. The ascent of an Islamist-leaning military regime coupled with regional geopolitics at the tail end of the Cold War fragmented and militarized the Deobandi phenomenon whose locus yet again shifted westward. After the 1980s, the movement increasingly reverted to its British-era jihadist roots through terrorism and insurgency. That process has culminated in the Taliban’s empowerment in Afghanistan and now threatens to destabilize the entire South Asian region.
Today, Afghanistan represents the center of gravity of South Asia’s most prominent form of Islamism. The movement that has long sought to establish an “Islamic” state led by ulema subscribing to a medieval understanding of religion has established the polity that its ideological forefathers had set out to achieve over a century and a half ago.
As the Taliban consolidate their hold over Kabul with dangerous implications for the entire South Asian region, my mind wanders back 40 years to when my father — driven by his own sectarian persuasions — first made me aware of Deobandism. I am amazed at just how rapidly this phenomenon has grown before my eyes. Suffering from dementia for almost a decade and a half, my father has been oblivious of this proliferation. I actually don’t remember the last time either he or I broached this topic with the other. Perhaps it is for the best that he is unaware of the extent to which those whom he opposed all his life have gained ground. I know it would pain him to learn that Deobandism has even contaminated his own Barelvi sect, as is evident from the rise of the Tehrik-i-Labbaik Pakistan, which is now the latest and perhaps most potent Islamist extremist specter to haunt the country of his and my birth.