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INDIA: Liberals vs reformists at top Islamic university

In a dispute that could have repercussions at other large Islamic universities and seminaries in the Muslim world, a clash between liberal ideas and religious orthodoxy has engulfed India's Darul Uloom Deoband University - South Asia's largest Muslim seminary, which sought to appoint a 'modern' vice-chancellor.

Maulana Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi (pictured), the new mohatmim (vice-chancellor) of Darul Uloom Deoband, regarded as the world's largest and most powerful school for the dissemination and propagation of Islam, was appointed on 10 January.

He was forced to resign within weeks, then retracted his resignation, in a tangled web of allegations and accusations as a dispute between hardline and liberal groups erupted over his appointment.

Only Al Azhar University in Cairo has comparable importance in the Islamic world, with some commentators saying the crisis at Darul Uloom Deoband could lead to Al Azhar emerging as the leading centre for Islamic learning.

Deoband's 300-year-old core curriculum teaches Islamic law, Islamic jurisprudence and traditional Islamic spirituality (known as Tasawwuf, which is the focus of Sufism). However at a time when seminaries in India are portrayed as being out of touch with the modern world, there is a need for reform while assuring preservation of Islamic ethics.

It was felt Vastanvi would modernise education in Deoband. The new vice-chancellor, who holds an MBA, announced plans to acquire 250 hectares of land for medical, pharmaceutical and engineering colleges as one of his first acts in office.

Vastanvi himself had set up a model madrassa (educational institution), Jamia Islamia Ishaatul Uloom, in the west Indian state of Maharashtra, providing modern and technical education alongside religious education.

However Vastanvi has become embroiled in a dispute over comments he allegedly made on the highly emotive 2002 Gujarat violence, in which more than 1,000 Muslims were killed by a Hindu mob. The massacre triggered major controversy among Muslim scholars and students, particularly on the role of the state and police in fanning the violence.

In an interview in The Times of India after assuming office, Vastanvi reportedly called on the Muslim community to move on and look beyond the Gujarat violence.

He was also quoted as saying the Muslim community had become better off during Narendra Modi's rule as Chief Minister of Gujarat state, a comment that caused outrage among Muslims who have not forgiven Modi for his support of Hindu hardliners, seen as the principal instigators of the 2002 violence.

Vastanvi offered to resign over his comments. Later he backtracked, saying he had been misquoted and insisting he had not quit.

The incident has split the Muslim community. Haseeb Ahmed Siddiqui, administrator at Darul Uloom Deoband, feels Vastanv failed to follow the Islamic principles of the university and should quit.

But a section of liberal Muslim clerics said the controversy was "unfortunate". They want Vastanvi to continue. Islamic scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan said Vastanvi "is a liberal Muslim face, who could bring change in the madrassa curriculum".

As a religious school, Deoband has tried to remain apolitical, unlike its followers in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It has denounced the Taliban's extremist political ideology, even though many Taliban were educated according to Deobandi principles.

However, in recent years Darul Uloom has been in the news for issuing controversial fatwas or decrees, like asking Muslim women to refrain from working with men and prohibiting all Muslims to work in banks.

Writer and journalist Rasheed Kidwai believes Vastanvi is not a true reformist. "Darul Uloom Deoband is India's oldest and most conservative seminary. The media labelling of 'reformist' Vastanvi as its vice-chancellor is misleading," he said.

"Vastanvi has been a member of Deoband's governing council - majil-e-shoora - since 1998. So, theoretically speaking, he is party to all measures including the fatwa against terrorism and the disapproval of watching TV even if it means the live telecast of the Haj and wearing of jeans by women."

Kidwai added: "The key point is that as an orthodox religious institution, Deoband has been opposed to the idea of ishtehad [reforms]."

"It is not clear if Vastanvi supports the case for ishtehad, or the clergy's ability to permit any concessions into the way of life as it was practiced 1,400 years ago."

Some say the present crisis has more to do with the politics of the Jamiat-e-Ulema, a body of nationalist Deobandi clerics who have a strong influence over Darul Uloom Deoband, where one faction is intent on ousting an 'outsider' like Vastanvi.

Some Muslim scholars believe Arshad Madani, of the Madani family that has controlled the affairs of Deoband for many decades, is behind the opposition to Vastanvi. It was reported that Madani wanted the job after the death of former vice-chancellor Maulana Margboor Rahman.

Madani and Vastanvi are also at loggerheads over the proposal of the Indian government to improve and modernise madrassa education in India. While Madani is apprehensive of any changes might damage the religious identity of madrassas, Vastanvi has a more accommodating approach.

Vastanvi's fate will be decided by Deoband's executive body later this month. But if the dispute takes deeper roots it could have wider repercussions.

Kidwai said students may be "forced to take a stand and in many cases divide themselves as 'hardliners' and 'moderates' at an impressionable stage of their lives. Subsequently political parties step in, making things go from bad to worse."
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