Rival clerics battle for control of seminary that inspired Taliban

Defiant vice-chancellor talks to Andrew Buncombe about how modernisation plans to cut fatwas have led to death threats

One of the world's most important Islamic seminaries, a university whose influence stretches across South Asia and pervades the lives of millions of Muslims, is in a state of crisis.

Amid a dispute over the recent appointment of a modernising cleric as its senior official, the Darul Uloom seminary in northern India has been rocked by protests between different student factions involving the use of firearms. Rival clerics, opposed to the appointment of the man who has a masters degree in business administration as well as a Facebook fan page, have been plotting his downfall. Allegations of idolatry have been levelled and death threats received.

This week, the school's ruling council, or shura, appointed a three-member panel to investigate comments reportedly made by the cleric, Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi, who was elected only last month. The council has allowed Mr Vastanvi, who denies the allegations against him, to retain his official position until the probe has been completed, yet has also appointed another official in a "working" capacity.

Mr Vastanvi is under intense pressure to resign and students have threatened further protests if he seeks to continue as the school's senior official. But in an interview with The Independent – the first full account of his position he has given since the council's decision was announced – the 60-year-old cleric made clear his intention to stay and fight. "I still remain the vice-chancellor and I have all my powers," he said. "I don't care what statements have been made against me [by students opposed to him]. It does not affect me. They can do what they like."

Were this state of affairs limited to the confines of Darul Uloom university, located in the town of Deoband, and its 4,000 students, the matter would be serious enough. But the seminary, home of the Deobandi school of theology, has a global importance. Experts say what is at stake in a dispute that has become increasingly bitter is nothing less than the future direction of the seminary as it confronts the challenges of the 21st Century. "Deoband is the equivalent of the Al-Azhar [Islamic university in Cairo] for South Asia and it has a global network," said Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University in the US and a former student of Darul Uloom. "Deoband in India is the mothership of a movement that is highly diverse."

Darul Uloom was established in 1866 by a group of Muslim scholars seeking to revitalise Islam in India after the brutal suppression by British rulers of an independence movement. The crushing of the 1857 "mutiny" saw the last of the Muslim Moghul rulers jailed, his sons executed and the entire position of Muslims within society inextricably shifted downwards.

Over the years, Deobandism has occupied a complex and often controversial position. While its austerity inspired the thinking of the Taliban, the seminary has always supported India and it opposed the Partition of 1947. Recently it has been criticised for issuing edicts or fatwas, considered by many to be discriminatory towards women, and praised for declaring in 2008 that terrorism was against the tenets of Islam.

Deoband is located in Uttar Pradesh, around 100 miles north-east of Delhi, along rutted roads that pass farm labourers cutting sugar cane by hand and where the air is sweet with the smell of jaggery. By the roadside carts sell this unrefined brown sugar cake by the kilo. The pastel-coloured school, which has long had powerful political connections, has always been controlled by clerics from this area, initially heirs of the main founder and more recently members of the powerful Madani family.

But in January the 60-year Mr Vastanvi was appointed vice-chancellor in what appeared to be a desire by at least some members of the ruling council to take the conservative seminary in a new direction. He came to the job with a 30-year track record as a modernising cleric who had developed a network of educational establishments, or madrassas, that taught not just traditional Islamic subjects but computer studies, pharmacology and engineering alongside them. His madrassas catered for both men and women and produced teachers and doctors as well as Islamic scholars. Upon his appointment, Mr Vastanvi vowed to bring a similar approach to Darul Uloom and said he would moderate the issuing of fatwas.

But critics of the cleric also pounced on other, far more controversial comments he made in which he said Muslims and other minorities in his home state of Gujarat did not face discrimination. His opponents immediately seized on his remarks as a purported endorsement of the state's infamous chief minister, Narendra Modi, who has been accused of failing to prevent the slaughter of hundreds of Muslims in a wave of killings in 2002. Mr Vastanvi claimed his comments had been taken out of context, but the damage had been done.

In an interview, the cleric declined to reopen the controversy, but said he had been misquoted, particularly by the Urdu-language media.

Asked about his vision for Islamic education, he said: "In my madrassas we have taught computer science, English and other things alongside traditional subjects. We also have computer science at Deoband but I am going to take it further."

He said government reports had shown Muslims in India had long been behind when it came to education and other opportunities. "We need to be given opportunities to study and go further in education. The government is also starting to take those steps," he said. "My aim is to try and get more Muslim children educated ... It's not just Muslims, but all Indians – everybody must take education. I feel the most important thing is to try and make sure people bring together education and religion."

Mr Vastanvi said the controversy over his appointment was less about competing visions for Islamic education than it was about "internal politics" and behind-the-scenes machinations by rival groups. "There are some people who do not want to see me in this position. I feel it is because I am not from Uttar Pradesh," he added. A number of experts share his view, even while disagreeing on his statement about Gujarat. Asghar Ali Engineer, a leading Indian theologian and head of the Institute of Islamic Studies in Mumbai, said: "If he had not made the comments about Modi, [his opponents] would have found something else."

At the centre of the opposition to Mr Vastanvi is the Madani family. In the early 1980s, Asad Madani, a senior cleric, manipulated circumstances to seize control of the seminary and after his death in 2006, his family members ensured an ally became vice-chancellor. One of the family members, Arshad Madani, said to be close to India's ruling Congress Party, had been among the other contenders to become vice-chancellor this January, but lost out to Mr Vastanvi.

In Deoband, sitting beneath shade trees, Arshad Madani's son, Amjad Madani, claimed opposition to Mr Vastanvi was not personal and pointed out that the families were linked by marriage. "The main contention is that this is a religious place. Vastanvi is a very political person," he said. "The students here value their life of simplicity. He is trying to change that."

What seems certain is that more turmoil lies ahead. Most students at Deoband declined to discuss the issue this week, but a group gathered around Sajid Mohammed, a young man who said he had been elected head of a student body that had been recently formed to address the controversy.

As he raised his forefinger, he listed a string of reasons why Mr Vastanvi was not welcome at the school. He added: "[If he comes back] we will protest again."

Islamic universities

Al-Azhar – The Islamic University of Cairo

Possibly the greatest of the world's Islamic universities, Al Azhar was established in Cairo in 970 and is Egypt's oldest institute of learning. It is the chief centre of Arabic literature and Sunni Islamic learning in the world. In 1961 non-religious subjects were added to its curriculum. Associated with Al-Azhar Mosque in Islamic Cairo, the university's mission includes the propagation of Islamic religion and culture. To this end, its Islamic scholars render edicts on disputes submitted to them from all over the Sunni Islamic world regarding proper conduct for Muslim individuals or societies.

Islamic University of Medina, Saudi Arabia

Islam's second holiest city, Medina is the burial place of the Prophet Mohamed. The city's Islamic university attracts as many as 6,000 students from around the world. University students can study only Islamic subjects. The university was founded in 1961 as a school for higher education specialising in areas such as Sharia law, the Qur'an, Dawah and Usul al-din, Hadith and Arabic.

Omdurman University, Sudan

Founded in 1901, the leading seat of Islamic learning in Sudan is north of the capital, Khartoum. The college's aim is to promote Islamic teachings, but it also serves other fields such as engineering and agriculture.

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