The Clash of Academic Civilizations

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India has the third-largest Muslim population in the world, just behind Indonesia and Pakistan. Today nearly 165 million Indians practice Islam – representing more than 10% of the world’s entire Muslim population. Two educational centers that emerged within this gigantic community could easily be included in a list of the most influential academic institutions because of the footprints they have made in world history.

Evgeniy Pakhomov

The debate is still raging over which university was the first in the world. According to one school of thought, the first was founded in Fes, Morocco, in 859 AD, while others argue that the universities of Constantinople or Zaragoza predate it. Whatever the truth, from their very inception, universities played host to clashes of opinions and philosophies. It is hardly a surprise, then, that they went on to provide the backdrop for a clash of civilizations.

It is commonly understood that the Taliban movement was born in the last two decades of the 20th century. But the story really started in India – under British rule – long before the movement emerged in Afghanistan, just as the moderate branch of Islam traces its roots to South Asia. For both movements, academic institutions served as a springboard.

Following the uprising

By the early 19th century, when the British Empire gained de facto control over India, the country was still ruled by the predominantly Muslim Mughal dynasty. In the early stages, the interests of Britain were represented by the East India Company, whose practices brought about the Indian Rebellion (or Sipoy Mutiny) of 1857–1859.

The uprising was triggered by a religious issue. Sipoy units (mercenaries in the service of the British Crown) were issued with new rifles and ammunition. Back then, munitions came wrapped in oiled paper; to open them, the mercenaries had to bite into the paper. But rumors started to circulate that the paper was impregnated with pig fat. Before long, Hindus had joined a Muslim rebellion demanding that the British leave the country.

Naturally, the root causes of the rebellion lay elsewhere. The Mughal elites still held a grudge. Their power had been taken away from them, and the colonial regime ruled the country with an iron fist. But the British understood that many of the country’s problems were colored by religion and that in such an environment any upset could be incendiary.

After the rebellion was quelled, Indian society – including the country’s Muslim community – was faced with a question: What to do next? It was then that two academic institutions first appeared in India which went on to shape the attitudes of the Indian Muslim community toward the British Crown for centuries to come.

The Darul Uloom (or ‘house of knowledge,’ often dubbed ‘the Islamic university’) located in the city of Deoband near Delhi still remains the more famous of the two. It was founded in 1867 by two prominent Islamic scholars of the time, Muhammad Qasim Nanotvi and Rashid Ahmad Gangohi.

Nanotvi was an educated man, who had graduated from a madrasa and then a college in Delhi founded by the British governor General Bentinck. He had excellent command of English and was familiar with the latest Western scientific and technological discoveries of his time. Nevertheless, he became the chief ideologist behind a movement to reject all things Western.

During the Sipoy rebellion, Nanotvi had become what would now be called a warlord, but was captured and sentenced to a lifetime of penal servitude in the Andaman Islands. However, his influential relatives managed to have this punishment commuted to a prison sentence, subsequently leading to his amnesty.

Once released from prison, together with Gangohi, he founded the Darul Uloom in Deoband with the objective of fighting against the British education system and Western cultural propaganda.

The leaders of the new university believed that the Rebellion was a lost cause; India did not have any education centers of its own that could explain the achievements of its home-grown culture. The English, the West, or the ‘crusaders’ (as the British colonial troops came to be known among their opponents) could only be fought with the kind of education that “does not dull one’s patriotism,” they said. Most importantly, the Deoband university preached equality: all students were equal and studied under the same conditions regardless of their background and financial standing.

“We need to strive to achieve the same goals as the Rebellion through peaceful means, ”Nanotvi was quoted as saying. The Darul Uloom quickly gained popularity and influence, teaching modern subjects including natural science. At the same time, the university’s leaders were fully prepared to do away with the English language, European culture, and any ‘corrupting’ Western influence – including clothes and music. Gradually, Deoband became a centre of radical traditionalist education.

This traditionalism served to quickly isolate and radicalize the Deoband school. Though there were Hindu teachers and students at the Darul Uloom, especially in the early days, its Muslim supporters never managed to organize any joint action with their Hindu counterparts. For instance, we know that in the early 1870s Nanotvi met with Dayanand Saraswati, another fighter for Indian independence, who was a devout Hindu. Instead of discussing possible joint actions, they spent several hours arguing the merits of their respective religions.

Another academic institution that came into existence at approximately the same time proved to be an equally influential force among the Muslims of South Asia. This was the Aligarh College located in the city of Aligarh, south-east of Delhi. Another prominent Islamic scholar of the time, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, became its founder and first leader.

Sir Syed was born into a noble Mughal family, yet he encouraged his students to “begin to learn from the British.” His supporters believed that there were positive aspects to the British conquest, such as access to state-of-the-art technologies, science, and the modern world itself. The group gave credit to Britain for brokering peace between local fiefdoms, building roads, developing trade, and putting a stop to blood feuds. The work of Sir Syed and his followers culminated in the establishment of the Aligarh College – today Aligarh Muslim University – in 1864.

Sir Syed truly challenged the supporters of Deobandism, who followed their religious scriptures strictly. He believed that both sharia law and Islamic dogma had to be interpreted in the light of the historical environment, and must not run contrary to modernity. At that time this was an exceedingly bold statement.

The Aligarh College aimed to enlighten the Muslims of India and to familiarize them with advanced ideas and modern knowledge. A new, modern generation of South Asia’s Muslim elite was raised in this school. Some contemporaries subsequently mocked the students of Aligarh in their memoirs, referring to them as young men from good Muslim families who tried to be both Muslim and English at the same time. The mockery was completely misplaced. The Aligarh environment produced many famous politicians and fighters for independence, including: the first prime minister of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan (killed by an Islamic fanatic in 1951); the second prime minister of Pakistan, Khawaja Nazimuddin; Pakistan’s Presidents Mohammad Ayub Khan and Fazal Elahi Chaudhry; India’s President Zakir Hussain; prime minister of Bangladesh Muhammad Mansur Ali; and even the first president of the Maldives, Mohamed Ameen Didi.

The post-independence era

In 1947 India gained independence from Britain, and was divided into two countries – Pakistan and India – based on religion. When the announcement came that the country was to be broken up, British India was engulfed in a disastrous wave of pogroms: Violence erupted against Hindu populations in Muslim-controlled areas, and Hindus responded in kind against Muslims. Mahatma Gandhi called these events “the greatest madness in the history of Indian civilization.” Radical groups hunted down those who practiced ‘the wrong faith.’ Clashes escalated into real battles, especially when waves of refugees collided, and millions of people fled to the farthest ends of the continent.

The governments of the two fledgling nations lost control of the situation. Entire neighborhoods lay in ruins, the streets covered with torn and burnt bodies. According to official estimates (which some researchers believe to be conservative) more than one and a half million Indians lost their lives. Countless others ended up wounded or raped, or lost their homes and property. Some estimates put the total number of refugees and victims of the 1947 conflict at more than 15 million. No other country in history had ever witnessed such a tragic and bloody disintegration.

The circumstances in which the independent India and Pakistan were born left a mark on the subsequent relations between these two nations. The entire region was engulfed in a wave of religious nationalism. Never has this phenomenon manifested itself to the same extent as it did in South Asia. Even India’s early fighters for independence used to say that the country had ‘two main nations’ – the Hindus and the Muslims.

Today, the Aligarh Muslim University offers more than 300 courses dealing with both traditional Muslim subjects and modern sciences. Over 30,000 students from India and the rest of the world take classes there. Students are admitted regardless of caste, religion, or gender. According to the University, it is ranked 8th out of India’s top 20 research universities.

The Deoband Muslim University, on the other hand, is no longer a mere academic institution. Today the very word Deoband has come to signify an entire religious school of thought. Over 15,000 madrasas (Islamic schools) in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan are affiliated with it. There are nearly 3.5 thousand students attending classes at the Deoband – and many more would like to be in their shoes. They study sharia law and ethics, the Quran, the hadiths, Muslim jurisprudence (fiqh), and a number of scientific disciplines.

In recent years, however, Deoband has been the center of attention not just as an academic institution. The Taliban movement (whose name derives from Arabic, and means ‘students’) originated in Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan, in particular among Afghan refugees who absorbed Islamist ideas about confronting ‘infidels.’

The Taliban ideology came as a logical conclusion to the philosophy taught at Deoband. It essentially declared everything that humankind had invented during recent centuries to be ‘unholy.’ The only things that could be considered ‘pure’ were those that existed during the ‘Golden Age of Islam’– the time of the prophet Mohammed and the first Caliphs.

Hence the Taliban desire to ban television and modern music, to force all women to wear burkas, to punish men whose beards were not long enough, and so forth. The Taliban’s strict religious discipline also led to the destruction of the giant Buddha statues in the Afghan province of Bamyan, something no previous Islamic regime had dared do.

The so-called ‘war on terror’ in the region resulted in a backlash. The Taliban did not just appear from nowhere: their beliefs are rooted in tradition; they have their own ideology and rich history; their own heroes and social mythology. The movement, originally born in response to a Western invasion, switched into a higher gear and re-invented it-self when the region’s Muslim community was confronted with the West once again.

The Taliban’s radicalism raised concerns among the religious scholars at Deoband. In 2008 an ‘Anti-Terrorist Conference’ was held at the Darul Uloom Deoband, which condemned all forms of terrorism and declared that “Islam prohibits the killing of innocent people.”

However, the Taliban are not about to give up their struggle. Back in the late 1990s I managed to visit a Deobandi madrasa near Peshawar, called Haqqania, where many leaders of the Afghan Taliban movement had studied in the past. There I met a group of young boys from Central Asia, mostly from Tajikistan. (Later, in the 2000s, Pakistan’s military leader Musharraf banned foreigners from attending the local radical madrasas.) They explained to me, a visiting journalist from Moscow, that when the “real Islam” reigns supreme there will be no poor, because the rich will share their wealth “in accordance with their faith”; there will be no wars, as “all men would be brothers.” They spoke of corruption and lawlessness back home, and thought that only the “real Islam” could make a difference.

The idea that ‘all men are created equal under God’ was preached at Deoband when it was founded, and the dream of a just state continues to attract new followers. It appears at times that a number of radical Islamists in the region simply picked up the banner of ‘equality’ and ‘a brighter future for all men’ that the communists had left behind, and continued the fight.

Looking at the assistance that the West has extended to the region, and to Pakistan in particular, one cannot help but notice that it has come mainly in the form of military aid, and support for a num-
ber of economic programs. However, countries that want to have a positive effect in Pakistan would do well to support the country’s education system more proactively, especially its universities, by developing contacts and exchanges between students. It is often these kinds of institutions that produce the ideologies that the rest of the world ultimately has to come to grips with.

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