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Head Of India's Deoband Islamic Seminary Urges Taliban To Be Pragmatic


Maulana Syed Arshad Madani in Deoband, India

The austere form of Sunni Islam that Afghanistan's Taliban rulers follow is rooted in an Islamic seminary in Deoband, a town in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

It is an interpretation of Islam that is used by the Taliban to justify their clerical government and their goals for a hard-line Islamic system.

The 82-year-old principal of Darul Uloom Deoband, the Islamic school in Deoband, tells RFE/RL he hopes the Taliban will be tolerant, just, and pragmatic. But he says he also supports the Taliban's apparent drive to completely segregate men and women in education.

Maulana Syed Arshad Madani says he thinks the Taliban's seizure of power in Afghanistan was a positive development because the Islamist movement liberated the country from foreign occupation.

"We will welcome them so long as they don't differentiate between the majority and the minority and will protect the life, property, and honor of everyone," Madani told RFE/RL's Gandhara this week.

"[The Taliban-led government] should not have two different yardsticks for the people who are in the majority or minority as Afghanistan is a multiethnic state with Tajiks and Uzbeks living alongside Pashto speakers," Madani said.

Since taking over Kabul on August 15, the Taliban has appointed mostly its senior leaders, predominantly Pashtun clerics, to top positions in the Taliban-led government.

The Taliban-led cabinet has only a few members from the Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara minorities. Notably absent are women, non-Muslim minorities, or representatives of smaller ethnic groups such as Baluch, Nuristanis, and Turkmen.

Likewise, members of other Afghan political groups have little representation in what the Taliban had promised would be an "inclusive" government.

Historical Ties

Madani is adamant that his school has no current connection to the Taliban as none of its leaders was educated in his India-based seminary.

But he says the Taliban has some historical ties to the Deoband Movement, whose leaders were staunchly anti-British and established an exiled Indian government in the second decade of the 20th century.

Its goal was to liberate their country from the British through an armed struggle in cooperation with the Ottoman Empire, the Durrani Amir, and the Pashtun tribes straddling the border of British India and Afghanistan.

After the British discovered the plot in 1916, Madani's father Maulana Syed Hussain Ahmad Madani served a prison sentence in Malta along with his teacher and top Deobandi cleric Maulana Mehmud Hasan.

The elder Madani later allied with Mahatma Gandhi and opposed the founding of Pakistan as a homeland for South Asia's Muslims, arguing that nation states could not be founded on the basis of religion alone.

"Today, those Afghans who call themselves Deobandis are the children or grandchildren of those people who were associated with that movement and their exiled government there," Madani told RFE/RL, referring to the orthodox Sunni sect in South Asia.

Students at Darul Uloom Haqqania, an Islamic seminary in Akora Khattak, Pakistan, which was attended by several Taliban leaders.
Students at Darul Uloom Haqqania, an Islamic seminary in Akora Khattak, Pakistan, which was attended by several Taliban leaders.

Deobandis are a prominent strain among Islamists in modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But unlike most Deobandis in Pakistan, where political parties established by Deobandi clerics engage in peaceful political processes, Afghanistan's Taliban have seized power twice through military conquest during the past quarter-century.

Pakistani Sunni clerics who call themselves Deobandis have little contact with the original Deoband school in northern India.

Still, their schools follow Deoband's program of studies. That program focuses on Islamic jurisprudence, interpretations of the Koran, theology, philosophy, and the life and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.

The major thrust of these studies is what the strict Sunni sect sees as the purification of current Islamic practices of unorthodox additions.

Many, if not all of the Taliban's leaders and foot soldiers, were educated at these madrasahs in Pakistan.

Alumni from Haqqania, one of the most prominent Deobandi schools in Pakistan's northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, hold many prominent posts in the current Taliban-led government.

Two members of the Haqqanis, a prominent Taliban family, are now Taliban ministers.

Some Deobandi madrasahs in Pakistan have received funding from Saudi Arabia since Riyadh became a major donor of the mujaheddin guerillas fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

However, Madani says he has no issue with the Taliban's clerical government.

"There is nothing wrong with a government made up solely of religious people who want to reform their country into a peaceful environment in the contemporary world," Madani told RFE/RL. "If the ulema (Muslim clerics) know Islam's teachings regarding humanity and are able to deal with everyone without discrimination because of their faith, then that is a good thing."

Madani says he supports the Taliban's attempts to segregate men and women.

"They are requiring people to observe the Islamic requirement of hijab," he said, referring to the Arabic word for veil, which denotes the Islamic concept that members of the opposite sexes should not mix if they are not related.

"Allah created women's bodies differently from men," he says. "They must dress in a such a way that does not create fitnah," or temptation.

Crescendo Of Criticism

Since seizing power, the Taliban has faced a crescendo of international criticism and domestic opposition.

That includes protests by Afghan women who oppose the Taliban's restrictions and fear they will be deprived of work, education, mobility, and public life.

The Taliban banned women from education and work during their first stint in power during the 1990s, when women were not allowed to even leave their homes without a male relative to accompany them.

The concerns of Afghan women were reinforced last week when the Taliban delayed opening secondary schools and universities for girls after they allowed boys and men to return to education.

'Our Futures Will Be Ruined': Afghan Girls Fear Denial Of Education Under Taliban
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Madani cites the example of India, where scores of universities and thousands or colleges are attended only by women.

"If it can happen in our country, what is so wrong with the Afghan government wanting to do the same?" he asked. "If the Afghan government can enforce [segregated education], it will mean the door to education for girls has opened."

Madani encourages the Taliban to have peaceful and beneficial contact with the world.

"They should adopt all the ways of living in the contemporary world with honor and dignity," he said. "While embracing their religion, the Taliban should establish relations with the world and aim to develop their country."

Still, Madani says he is not too keen to host Taliban leaders. He says Deoband's school will welcome Afghan students only if they obtain student visas from the Indian government.

He also seems reluctant to visit Afghanistan in order to offer his advice to the Taliban.

"I am an 82-year-old," he told RFE/RL. "I cannot even travel to a mosque. How would I get to Afghanistan?"

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, the editor of RFE/RL's Gandhara website, is a journalist specializing in coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. 

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