When I arrived in Deoband as a student of Islam in the late 70s, I had already been living in Afghanistan and the border areas for eight years. I knew Farsi, but no Urdu. Initially, I had to communicate with the teachers of Deoband in Farsi. This immediately endeared me to the teachers in Deoband, particularly the older ones who could remember the pre-1947 years, when Afghan students used to come in great numbers to Deoband, the Mecca of Islamic studies in South Asia, to study Islam and to return to their country as great Islamic scholars.
Being set up in the wake of the 1857 Indian Mutiny by Islamic scholars who had taken part in the uprising, Deoband was also a centre of resistance to British rule. It was seen as a fortress of Islamic knowledge, a bulwark against encroachment of secular, Western ideas. Many subjects sidelined from the Deoband curriculum — history, geography, mathematics, science — had initially made strides in the Islamic world. However, learning in these disciplines had long since receded, as they had come to be associated with the West. From a point of view of Islamic scriptures — which couch Islamic teachings in surprisingly scientific terms — and Islamic history, there was no justification in this sidelining of the so-called ‘secular’ subjects.
The Afghan government, for its part, never allowed institutes of Islamic learning to flourish within its own border. It had adopted wholeheartedly the secular system of education championed by the West and promoted in the Muslim world by leaders such as Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk. To a great degree, this is the basis of the current schism in Afghan society: on the one hand, there is a State that promotes a secular system of education; on the other, there’s a population (particularly the border Pashtun population) who largely prefer religious study. Deprived of centres of religious learning within their borders, Afghans have travelled to India and then to Pakistan in their search for this knowledge.
This distrust of contemporary learning on the part of the madrasa community was sustained in the post-1947 period when the predominant destination for Afghan students of religion switched from India to Pakistan. Travel to India became too complicated, with visa requirements and two borders to be negotiated. It was also comparatively expensive for Afghan religious students to travel to far-flung centres of Islamic learning in Deoband, Delhi and Lucknow. As relations between India and Pakistan deteriorated, travel to Deoband from Afghanistan became a distant dream. Religious students from Afghanistan had to do with the centres of learning in Pakistan: Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar, Akora Khattak, Multan.
But the politicisation of religion implicit in the establishment of a State in the name of Islam turned to radicalisation in the 80s when it suited various governments to promote jihadist ideologies among the border Pashtun tribes — aimed as this jihad was against the Soviet Union. Religious madrasas were not able to remain immune from this politicisation, followed by radicalisation. The world is still living with the consequences of this promotion of militancy and radicalism.
The Karzai government has realised — at least on a level of lip-service — the importance of strengthening Islamic education in Afghanistan. However, in practice, little is being done (although recently the department of Islamic education within the Afghan ministry of education has been upgraded to a deputy ministry. Meanwhile, Pakistan is no longer welcoming religious students from Afghanistan. The last thing one wants is for religious students to become frustrated by not having anywhere to go to pursue their legitimate thirst for Islamic knowledge.
The havens of Islamic learning in India are still intact. They are vibrant, not politicised or radicalised. Some of them are admirably progressive, shunning the traditional abhorrence of secular subjects and incorporating them into their curriculum. Not only would students from Afghanistan be exposed to a progressive strain of Islamic learning if they were allowed to come to India for their religious studies, but they would also see religious education as it once was: learning not to fulfil any political agenda but for the sake of learning itself.
When I was in Deoband recently, teachers were ruing the reluctance of Indian authorities to give visas to foreign students for religious studies. It is time to facilitate passage to India for Islamic education, for the sake of restoring Islamic education in Afghanistan to its peaceful, traditional academic roots.
(John Butt is a British citizen who graduated from Darul Uloom Deoband as an Indian Council for Cultural Relations scholar in 1983. He has established the Islamic university, Jamiyat’al-Uloom’al-Islamiya, in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.)
*The views expressed by the author are personal