A day out with the Deobandis - in Deoband

by - 13th January 2010

I admit I was apprehensive.  The words Deobandi Dar-ul-Uloom had haunted me for years – and here I was preparing to drive there to check it out.

This was the place where Britain’s most radicalised Muslim preachers have historically received their training.  The Taleban were students of Deoband madrasas.  It had been founded in 1867 as a sort of ‘moral rearmament’ strategy following the failure of the ‘Mutiny’ to push the British out of India.  The visionaries behind the controversial ‘megamosque’ in London’s east end trace their ideas back to an oath of jihad taken by their founder’s father – administered at Deoband.

But Indian Muslims are famously hospitable and cultured.  I had been encouraged to get through to a friendly voice straightaway by local phone and my fax had been acknowledged.  Mecca may be off-limits to the infidel – the penalty for trespass is death – but Deoband is not Mecca.

The Indian government is, for sure, on their case.  My blackberry which worked fine from Varanasi to Udaipur, ceased to function as we neared our destination, just 95 miles northeast of Delhi.  Despite both a strong signal, and the evidence of a forest of mobile phone masts, Vodaphone does not seem to ‘roam’ to Deoband right now.  I could neither receive emails, nor transmit calls to the school.

Driving to Deoband is like time travel.  Metroland gives way to the bullock cart.  Inadequate concrete hovels with bullocks penned to feeding troughs open onto the street in increasing profusion.  This is also black burqa-land.

For six hours we negotiated the atrocious roads of Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s four poorest states, through Meerut from where sepoys led the Mutiny in 1857, and where, outside St John’s Church, they publicly butchered the town’s Christians – dragging the altar outside into the street for the carnage, to make an especially vivid point.

The name Deoband means ‘forest of the goddess’ – from devi and bandh – and when eventually we are met by the PRO Mr Adil Siddiqui, he explains the mythical origins of the place.  I get the impression he is doing so, not to exemplify the ignorance, the jahiliyya from which Islam has rescued it, but as a metaphor for the Indianness to which the school makes considerable play of loyalty.  They still call themselves ‘freedom fighters’.  After all these years, British history still affords the litmus of national unity.

We take a wrong turning, and get lost in a maze of alleyways that get narrower and narrower, hemmed in on all sides by men in kurta pyjama and skull caps.  We negotiate a U-turn away from the dust and open drains of the Middle Ages and back onto tarmac, eventually finding the battered green sign that announces – in Urdu and English – that we have arrived.  It sits in a sea of litter.  There is a locked iron gate – which is relunctantly  opened ,and we are waved on across an open concrete space overlooked by smart new accommodation blocks, some still clad in scaffolding, towards a second gate and another medieval alley lined with bookshops and perfume stalls and – to our right - a view that makes us all gasp.

Nothing had prepared me for the site of the new mosque.  It does not feature on any website or brochure.  Even the Urdu scholar Yoginder Sikand uses an outdated picture of the old mosque on his latest reportage from the site – so we had not anticipated what has been aptly dubbed ‘the Taj Mahal of Deoband’.  That’s because no one’s been allowed to photograph it before.  As we discovered, there are multi-lingual signs everywhere forbidding photography.  And yet it cries out to be lauded.  Ethereal, fabulously turreted and domed – rising white, cool and serene out of the buffalo dung and garbage that line its perimeter, the Deoband mosque takes your breath away.

Apparently designed by the school’s Arabic teacher, it combines Mughal and Aryan motifs with Russian and Arabic detail: a star in a crescent adorns many of the surfaces.  Only the twin minarets are oddly out of place, massive, cumbersomely supporting as they do just a few megaphones, and the muezzin anyway sits with his mic in an office somewhere at ground level.

We find the attractive guesthouse, and walk in boldly, up the marble staircase to an open and breezy courtyard where we are greeted with a relaxed smile by a handsome bearded man in a woolly hat who shows us into a windowless room with two beds in it.  I notice the huge bolts and padlock on the outside of the door and my claustrophobia returns with a vengeance.  It is not helped when the lights suddenly go out.

After some long time, sitting in darkness, Mr Siddiqui arrives, an old man in a Jinnah cap, with an almost translucent skin and a compelling warmth in his eyes that twinkle winsomely, especially when fixed on me, as they are for most of the encounter.

‘So good of you to waste your time on our poor place’ he says in delightfully old-fashioned English which he taught at a pre-Independence British school.  ‘Let me answer all your questions, as many as you like.  Let me take you anywhere you want.  You are free to go anywhere at all.  So good of you to come all this way.’

Most surprising of all, he invites us to take whatever pictures we like.

He later laughs at how popular he has become with journalists since 9/11.  ‘No one wanted to come to visit me at all before then.’

Mr Siddiqui disappears for namaz soon after his initial presentation during which we sit politely not wishing to interrupt.  After we’ve had a huge supper, brought to us on a small rectangular table in the guestroom, with an enormous stack of rotis, we begin our questions.

He intones many of his responses, rocking back and forth slightly as if reciting a liturgy.

Why are Muslims generally among the poorest in India?

‘Because of a lack of the principle of zakat [giving alms]’ he shoots back.

Why, if Muslims hated British rule, have so many come to live in Britain?

‘Because they want to propagate Islam throughout the world.’

Is this not reverse colonialism?  We have a culture and a religion of our own.

Mr Siddiqui’s response to this is unclear.

You are responsible for having taught the Taleban.

‘The Taliban simply means those students who had graduated from here.  After graduation they went back to their country and started madrasahs in the same style as this – not that they are connected or have taken anything of terrorism from this institution.’

Why are there no women at this seminary?

‘Islam says that women are a most precious thing and we must respect them.  Islam has given them equal rights and they have full shares.  Islam is against co-education however.

‘Women can’t be so active and their field is very much limited.  They can’t be sent out to defend the country as they have their own role to play.'

I cite some of India’s foremost women – Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Mayawati.

‘Everywhere the administration is very much bad.  No train is going on time!

‘They are very much efficient in education, but they need not be considered as the final authority.

‘The character of the male is quite different from that of women.  The niqab – it is very much necessary for the protection of women.’

What is Deobandi training aimed at?

‘We expect from the student the lifestyle following the teaching of the Holy Quran, what our Prophet has said; that he will follow the same lifestyle of our Prophet Muhammed.  He must follow those principles which are true for each and every time.  There is no need to change them.  He should follow those principles which are everlasting which can be useful in each and every circumstance.’

Does that not mean Islam will forever be frustrated in a changing world?

Mr Siddiqui appears not to understand, and repeats his previous answer.

So that means polygamy?

‘Our Prophet had married so many women.  It was necessary for the Prophet of Islam.  He wanted to come close to those tribals who were against him.  Those women, they were all over age . . .

‘Yes, it is allowed, but not that it’s necessary, or compulsory.’

We absorb this carefully.

Then unexpectedly and in complete contradiction to his earlier recitation he says:  ‘We are changing according to the requirements of the time.

‘This is the age of publicity.  We didn’t believe in publicity.  This is a shortcoming that we are not able to explain ourselves – what is the service we have done to the country and in the field of education.  We believe we have been too modest.’


We are invited to stay overnight – but we have already booked our hotel in Muzaffarnagar, some distance away, in case we’d been refused an audience at the seminary.  Mr Siddiqui said we would be most welcome to return and he would be at our disposal as early as we liked, and for as long as we liked.

We return the next morning at 10am, delayed by a sluggardly breakfast service – and Mr Siddiqui is nowhere to be found.

But we take him at his word, and wander unhindered around the campus, chatting to students, poking our noses into dark candle-lit rooms after a power cut; admiring the rose gardens.  All is calm, the boys lively but uncurious.

There are traditional schools of calligraphy and bookbinding which seem well-subscribed.  There is a computer department, a department of ‘preaching and propagation’ – with a huge train timetable pinned to the wall outside, presumably to facilitate the process.

And there is now a school of journalism. 

I had asked to see inside the mosque – and the chowkidar explained that women have not been allowed in for two years, to discourage 'improper behaviour' with the boys.

Mr Siddiqui suddenly turns up, explaining he has spent all morning ‘researching our whereabouts’.  He had been expecting us earlier.  He waves aside the objections of the chowkidar, and leads us into the mosque, explaining that I am the only non-Muslim woman to have been allowed in since the judge of the High Court of Allahabad.  ‘There are three genders.  Men, women and journalists’, he twinkles.

It is awesome to stand in this place, taking photographs.  Two people are praying against a wall.  Others glance at us, without concern.  This is not a sacred space.  This form of puritanical Islam has no truck with such notions.  But it is an immensely forceful statement of pride at the idea and honour of Islam itself – one that is oddly introverted, invisible from the road.

It took 20 years to build, and £2million of voluntary donations.  ‘The poor farmers are greatly affectionate to this place’ says Mr Siddiqui.

Why is he allowing us such freedom?  ‘Islam is able to accommodate all secular ideas, all religious ideas.  Islam respects each and every religion, but at the same time it wants to be established and to function according to its own ideas.’

It’s a thought I hear repeated several times in India.

The commentator Ashis Nandy believes that Islam is indeed ‘democracy friendly’.

  • The first law minister in Pakistan was a Hindu.
  • Pakistan has brought down military regimes four times (‘This should go in the Guinness Book of Records’.)
  • The first declaration of non-violent opposition to the British Raj by South African Indians was not made by Mahatma Gandhi but by a Muslim.
  • In a 1993 survey of religion in India, 15% of the communities studied said they had more than one religion.

William Dalrymple the much-feted writer on Indian history and religion agrees.  In an interview at his famous farm on the outskirts of south Delhi, he tells me:

‘Muslims are far less uniform than outsiders perceive them to be.  Indian Islam is very particular, but so is Persian Islam or Indonesian Islam.  The degree to which Islam acclimatises itself is very much under-estimated.  It is capable of taking on a Coptic colouring, or an Indian colouring.  At Nizamuddin in Delhi, there are Hindu practices.’

Islam’s problem in Britain he says is ‘generated largely by ignorance; but there’s just about sufficient nutcase activity on the fringe to keep it hot.’

Nandy goes further, believing that the problem with revivalist movements such as Deobandi Islam that go abroad to Britain or anywhere else is the problem of ‘the homeless mind’.

Revival movements not grounded in the community became problematic.

‘When textual literacy takes over from localised faith, you get what I call a laptop version you can carry with you. It is not rooted in any particular place.

‘Believing was never important in South Asian Islam.  It was doing that was important – your religious observance.  It is this question of ‘belief’ that has become the problem.’

This has in part explained India’s almost unique ability to resolve its internal differences over the centuries.  Despite Partition, India still accommodates the world’s second biggest Muslim population of 130million.

Such accommodation should also be possible in Britain says Nandy:  ‘British culture was good enough to accommodate other cultures.  Where was the problem?

‘Things went wrong in Britain the minute you began to count.  This has become the bane of these hi-falutin ideas like multi-culturalism.  The enumeritic principle has gone very far.  In a democracy numbers matter.  But this is vitiated by the media which thrives on conflict and drama, and tends to make the political heroic.’

Nandy adds that the Protestant form of religion – scripturalist, absolutist - has thrown up a model that everyone now wants to follow, and there seems no going back.  He describes it as a religious system geared to promoting a religious consciousness that is compatible with industrialisation and the modern nation state.

‘Nation states love homogenised religion.  How do you handle religion that is totally de-centralised?  States are promoting centralised religion.’  It’s a risky business but one that he believes an open society is perfectly capable of coping with.

‘The openness of the democratic society gives you a lot of play; in a democracy you can’t afford to say, Your belief doesn’t matter.  People have the right to be themselves in public life.  That’s my opposition to secularism.’


Nandy, who describes his ‘tradition’ as Christian, of Baptist and Anglican parentage, lives in Nizamuddin not far from the famous shrine to the Urdu court poet Ghalib, and the huge Tablighi Jama’at world headquarters markaz.

We pay a call and are greeted expansively.  African masks dot the walls of the flat he shares with his diminutive wife, and the plaintive sounds of a female Pakistan Sufi singer drift from the CD. 

Over a tray of coffee, he tells us: ‘I have noticed how the dress of the pilgrims who come here has changed.  In the last ten years all of them come in uniform.  It’s a tragedy to see the loss of diversity in Islam.  They all wear skull caps.  It is a minor tragedy that the diversity of the Islamic faith is being sacrificed to a false concept of Islamic dress code.’

It is ironic, I tell him, that the Islam we fear in Britain is not the Islam of the countries of origin where the old courtesies, and some of the cultivation that Dalrymple admires and describes so poignantly in City of Djinns and The Last Mughal are still in evidence.

Back at Deoband, the very place that inadvertently spawned an often frightening form of Islam remaking itself in the West’s image, something that the world is badly in need of oddly survives intact: a form of observance at ease enough with itself and its traditions to afford an unconditional welcome to a total stranger.

Indeed, at Deoband, I get the impression that they are not particularly bothered with outsiders at all.  British or not, I am not the enemy.

Professor Barbara Metcalf at Michigan University who specialises in Indian and Pakistani Islam distinguishes between the more potent Islamists (the ‘laptop’ version?) and the neo-fundamentalist movements which are pragmatic and have no particular political agenda.  She has written that ‘. . . the goals and satisfactions that come from participation in [such] Islamic movements may well have little to do with opposition or resistance to non-Muslims or "the West”.

'Their own debates or concerns may well focus on other Muslims, an internal, and not an external "other" at all.’


If we cast all Muslims into the shadow of our own anxieties, we deserve what we get.

I move to say goodbye as Mr Siddiqui walks us to our car.  ‘But why are you going when you have not yet come?

‘Madam, please forgive my sins of omission and commission.

‘I wish I had visitors like you every day.’