Deobandi Radicalization – From Political Activism To Terrorism

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Yasser Latif Hamdani*


(Maulana Ataullah Shah Bokhari of Majlis-e-Ahrar-e-Islam and Maulana Mufti Mahmood of erstwhile Jamiat-e-Ulema-Hind (and later Jamiat-e-Ulema-Islam) are two Deobandi religio-political figures from our history who were most active in providing ideological and intellectual basis for Islamisation, sectarian radicalization and militancy in Pakistani society. The searing irony is that both of them were doggedly opposed to the creation of Pakistan, calling it variously the greatest mistake by Muslim India, “Kafiristan” and a “sin”. Secondly, and this is significant, both of them represented the Deobandi school of thought and were championed as freedom fighters in India.

On the demise of Maulana Ataullah Shah Bokhari, no less a person than Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru declared, lauding his services, that Bokhari was a great gift to the subcontinent. It has often confounded students of partition and independence struggle to read about the deep amity and connection between the Secular Indian National Congress and extreme right wing religious Islamic parties. In this article I argue that they were part of a larger trend in Muslim politics of South Asia, which began in earnest in the nursery of secular nationalist Congress but which has spawned Islamist extremist and militant movements in both Pakistan and India. Finally, I argue that it was the Afghan War, and Saudi funding that aided its evolution in Pakistan from political activism to militancy and terrorism. – Author)


Expressing his reservations over the Women’s Protection Bill passed by the Punjab Assembly, Maulana Fazlur Rahman of Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (Fazl) declared that they would stop all attempts to make Pakistan a secular state. Ironically the same week, across the border, Maulana Arshad Madni of the Jamiat-e-Ulema Hind, while attacking the Modi government, declared that they would not hesitate in dying for secularism in India.

Why this disparity over the idea of secularism between likeminded religious divines of the same Deoband school? It must be remembered that Fazlur Rahman’s JUI-F is not the ideological successor of JUI of Shabbir Ahmad Usmani which had broken away from JUH in the 1940s to support the creation of Pakistan. Fazlur Rahman’s father Maulana Mufti Mahmood remained the strident opponent of the creation of Pakistan and threw in his lot with Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Maulana Azad. He merged the remaining JUH left in Pakistan with JUI in 1949 and by 1956 controlled the party. In 1971 when East Pakistan separated, Mufti Mahmood famously declared that he was not part of the “sin” of making Pakistan. Therefore it stands to reason that ideologically JUI-F is the successor party of JUH in Pakistan, completely aligned with the latter’s religio-political ideology.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that Deoband’s religious divines have different standards for places where Muslims are in a minority (like in India or the US) and where Muslims are in a majority (as in Pakistan). JUH and JUI are not alone in this. Majlis-e- Ahrar-e- Islam was perfectly sanguine with the idea of a united and secular India ruled by a Hindu majority calling the very idea of Pakistan Kafiristan. After partition however the same Ahrar pressed for a theocracy in Pakistan and attacked Shias and Ahmadis. Of course one must also pierce the veil and understand what kind of secularism is acceptable to these religious divines? In pre-partition India, starting with the Khilafat Movement, the Sunni Ulema found Gandhi more acceptable to Mohammad Ali Jinnah for the following reasons: First, Gandhi was ready to give the Muslim religious clergy a role in mobilizing the masses which Jinnah was trenchantly opposed to. The second reason was that Jinnah was a Shia and a secular minded lawyer. Gandhi’s politics afforded the Muslim clergy an opportunity to lead the flock of the faithful in a sea of kufr. For their part Gandhi and Nehru were ready to accept any Muslim who agreed to play second fiddle to them and not challenge their leadership of the Congress. The Ulema, starting with Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Maulana Hussain Madni, were more than ready to play that role. In other words sectarian and doctrinal disputes within the Muslim community over leadership and the role of religion in politics determined Deoband’s wholehearted support to – paradoxically – the secular ideal of Indian nationalism. Their attitude may be summed up as: Better Hindus to lead us than Shias or secular minded lawyers.

Therefore it is clear that Deoband’s allegiance to a secular ideal in India is purely tactical in nature. In India, secularism for them means absolute dominance over the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, the officially recognized and sanitized representative Muslim civic body which determines matters of personal law and influences the government on its policies pertaining to Muslims. Shias and Ahmadis are excluded from this board. It also means the perpetuation of injustice to Muslim women that was done in the aftermath of the Shah Bano case in India. To recap, the Supreme Court of India had ordered alimony for a 62 year old Muslim divorcee. The secular Congress led Indian parliament overturned the decision through the Muslim Women(Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986. So when secularism in India means denial of rights to Muslim women, and Islam in Pakistan means precisely the same, is it any wonder that in India, the JUH supports secularism and in Pakistan JUI supports Islam? The battle therefore is not between Islam and secularism as ideals but between those who want to use or misuse these ideals to keep a systematic institutional control over the populace and those who want their societies to live peacefully and develop as progressive societies. The objective of the Deoband Ulema in particular and Ulema in general around the Muslim world is to control the thoughts and actions of Muslims and to keep them slaves to the diktat issued by medieval and reactionary religious leaders. This keeps their religious shop a going concern. All voices calling for reform and progress are therefore denounced in harshest terms possible. In Pakistan, those who want to protect women against domestic violence are berated as “secular” and “anti-Muslim” by JUI -F. In India those voices calling for equal rights for Muslim women are denounced as “anti-secular” and “anti- Muslim” by JUH. Such are the ironies of the subcontinent’s religious politics. To understand this better we must examine this politics from the start of their involvement in the independence struggle.

1919-1947 JUH, Congress, Khilafat Movement and the Muslim League

Deobandis, despite their rejection of Western education and colonial masters, were not considered a major threat to British rule. The British were initially very happy to indulge them.

Dietrich Reetz writes that “the Deoband school was not considered to be a radical or politicized educational institution well up to 1909, when the British governor Sir James Meston (1865–1943) visited it to participate in the grand convocation ceremony in which turbans were conferred on successful graduates.”1

Sana Haroon writes: “The political wing of the Darul Ulum Deoband, the Jamiyatul Ulama Hind [JUH], had been established in 1919. The JUH had entered Indian politics on the back of the khilafat movement, but then, motivated by both a concern for mobilising the Muslims of India, and the greater anti-colonial Indian nationalist cause, the Jamiyatul Ulama Hind sought to secure Muslim presence in the emerging political space and devolution of powers within India.Ulama of the JUH took up communal issues and proposed the ulama as leaders and political representatives of the Muslims of Hind. They also spoke strongly in favour of maintaining separate electorates for Muslims and Hindus (seats reserved for Muslims and Hindus in proportion to population in legislative assemblies), and a system of legal adjudication under ‘customary law’ which privileged the ulama as spokesmen for the principles of the faith. These efforts were inherently a means of circumscribing the Muslim community of India and establishing the authority of the ulama over it.”2

The Congress on its part, consistently starting with the Pan-Islamic Khilafat Movement, used the religious clergy in an attempt to undercut legitimate Muslim concerns and demands for a share in political power. In a remarkable piece of self-analysis, Achyuth Patwardhan, a Congress leader and a freedom fighter wrote the following lines:

“I am inclined to think that some kind of partition had become inescapable in 1947. It is, however, useful to recognise our share of this error of misdirection. To begin with, I am convinced that looking back upon the course of development of the freedom movement, ‘the Himalayan Error’ of Gandhiji’s leadership was the support he extended on behalf of the Congress and the Indian people to the Khilafat Movement at the end of the World War I. This has proved to be a disastrous error which has brought in its wake a series of harmful consequences. On merits, it was a thoroughly, reactionary step. The Khilafat was totally unworthy of support of the progressive Muslims. Kamal Pasha established this fact by abolition of the Khilafat. The abolition of the Khilafat was wisely welcomed by enlightened Muslim opinion the world over and Kamal was an undoubted hero of all young Muslims straining against Imperial domination. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was one of the earliest to welcome the Turkish revolution led by Kamal Pasha. But apart from the fact that Khilafat was an unworthy reactionary cause, Mahatma Gandhi had to align himself with a sectarian revivalist Muslim leadership of Muslims and Moulvis. He was thus unwittingly responsible for jettisoning sane, secular, modernist leadership among the Muslims of India and foisting upon the Indian Muslims a theocratic orthodoxy of the Moulvis. Maulana Muhammad Ali’s speeches read today appear strangely incoherent and out of tune with the spirit of secular political freedom. The Congress movement which released the forces of religious liberalism and reform among the Hindus, and evoked a rational scientific outlook, placed the Muslims of India under the spell of orthodoxy and religious superstition by their support to the Khilafat leadership. Rationalist leaders like Jinnah were rebuffed by this attitude. This is the background of the psychological rift between Congress and the League.

It is these two policies based on (1) our pathetic faith in the magic of class solidarity, and (2) our mistaken support to anti-modernist Muslim divines, which prevented the Congress from securing for the Muslim masses the leadership of more progressive and modern Indian Muslim intellectuals. It may be true that numerically this type has been less effective and vocal in Muslim community than among Parsis, Christians and Hindus. But they are nonetheless there and they have not sought leadership or lime light in the emotionally surcharged climate of our political life. Rationalism has thus been on the retreat in the Muslim community for far too long a number of years.”(Emphasis added)3

This attitude continued during the Pakistan Movement, where instead of coming to a compromise with the All India Muslim League, the Indian National Congress remained wedded to religious divines who were willing to do the Congress’ bidding.

“There was something peculiar about a ‘secular’ nationalist party counting on the vocal support of anti-imperial cultural relativists of Ahrar and Madani to claim a Muslim following. A spate of pamphlets published by Jamiat-e-Ulema Hind and Ahrar delighted in exposing League’s lack of Islamic credentials, pointing to Jinnah’s emphatic assertions about Pakistan being a democracy in which Hindus and Sikhs would have an almost equal population. Substantiation that pro-Congress Muslims did much to weaken the Muslim League’s case on equal citizenship rights is the rejection by Jamiat-e-Ulema Hind and Ahrar laity of any possible equation between a democratic and an Islamic government. Throughout the run-up to the 1945-1946 elections and beyond, Punjabi leaders like Shaukat Hayat and Mumtaz Daultana not to mention Iftikharuddin and Communists tried reassuring Hindus and Sikhs that their citizenship rights would be protected in Pakistan. They had considerable backing from the Punjab League and the Press…

“Yet it (Ahrar) felt no pangs of conscience spreading sectarian hatred amongst Muslims. While Bashiruddin Mahmud was excoriated for being a ‘drunkard’ and a ‘womaniser’, Ahmadis were ‘warned’ that they would cease to exist once the British quit India. Mazhar Ali Azhar’s threat to restart the Madha-i-Sahaba against the Shias of Lucknow aimed ‘at retarding Muslim League by creating internal religious differences.’… Hailing Dr Khan sahib’s Congress ministry as a step in the direction of Hukumat-e-Illahaya, Ahrar demanded more emphatic evidence of Shariat rule in the province. The Frontier Jamiat-e-Ulema-Hind also claimed to be the only representative Muslim party. It believed that ‘Hindus and Muslims belonged to the same race” but it still wanted the Congress to sanction a department of Qazis to prove its Islamic credentials…

“He (Madani) recalled how the lawyer turned leader of India’s Muslims had consistently watered down Shariat bills in the Central Assembly. During the debate on Child Marriage Act, Jinnah had supported the right of educated Hindu and Muslim youth to contract a civil marriage. He had dismissed the contention that this was contrary to the principles of Islam, noting that laws were constantly being passed which ran counter to the Quran… Intrepid in the face of his religious opponents, Jinnah’s attitude is a reflection of the crisis of moral authority in the Muslim community. Hoping to lead it in some unison on the negotiating table, he was not ready to give quarter to men who could live the contradictions in the Congress but not with those of a political party trying to extract maximum benefits for Indian Muslims.”(Emphasis added)4

The Congress backed Ulema, including Maulana Madni, the great proponent of composite nationalism, attacked Jinnah for being a Shia and having Ahmedis in the Muslim League. In Lucknow, Maulana Mazhar Ali Azhar used the Madh-e-Sahaba to divide the Muslim vote along sectarian Shia and Sunni lines. Time and again the Congress backed ulema used the sectarian card to create dissentions between Muslims. While on the one side Congress criticised the British for using the policy of divide and rule, it used the same policy to attempt to break up the Muslim League. There was no ambiguity about the allegations either. Congress’ ulema claimed that the Muslim League had betrayed Islam by undermining the Shariat Bill in the Indian legislature. Another complaint was that the Muslim League had supported the Khula Bill, which gave Muslim women the right to seek khula (marriage annulment) as a matter of right. The Congress backed ulema also claimed that the Muslim League had opposed such Islamic legislations as the Qazi Bill, which had sought to introduce Islamic Qazi courts. They also claimed that the Muslim League had repeatedly forwarded bills aimed at diluting Islam and pointed to fatwas by the ulema on these bills. The Congress backed ulema especially took exception to the fact that Jinnah had supported the Civil Marriage Bill, which would have allowed intermarriage between Muslims and non-Muslims despite the fact that such marriages contravened the Quran. Every progressive action by Jinnah or the Muslim League was paraded as proof of their anti-Islamic credentials. In other words, it was Congress that took the lead in playing the “Islam in danger” card for its own purposes.

That Congress was using Maulanas aggressively against the Muslim League at this point is well documented in the book “Creating a New Medina” by Venkat Dhulipala, by no means a sympathetic account of the Pakistan Movement.5

Dhulipala writes: “More Maulanas from the Congress side were pressed into the campaign. Thus, while Congress employed its message of a mass contact programme, the rhetoric of the ulema was also being utilised to fortify that message.”6 Dhulipala mentions an incident where a letter from Nehru to Rafi Kidwai purporting to bribe mullahs with favours and money was delivered by mistake to Barrister Rafiuddin Ahmad, the Muslim League candidate from Jhansi. Despite such flagrant use of religion by the Congress, the Muslim League’s lawyer candidate trounced the Congress candidate by a large majority. The UP Muslim League won four out of five by-elections beaten only by Hafiz Ibrahim, who had earlier won on a Muslim League ticket. Religion, however, was very much part of the campaign on both sides: Congress utilising its Deoband and Ahrari heavyweights to which the Muslim League responded by bringing in its own ulema. Another significant fact that seems to have been underplayed in the afore-stated book but which strikes one as significant is the fact that while Jinnah remained completely aloof from the UP election campaigns, Nehru, the socialist secularist, was directly involved with them and therefore must have sanctioned the use of Islam by his Maulanas himself. To this end, Dhulipala writes “Nehru again campaigned intensively in all three campaigns, even as Jinnah stayed away.”7 At another point he refers to a poster with an appeal to Islam by Jinnah, which turned out to be a fake. He further mentions how Congress’s Maulana Madni gave a fatwa that not only was it najayaz (impermissible) to vote for the Muslim League in the elections but was maujab-e-azab (worthy of divine retribution). Congress mullahs further declared that voting for Congress meant divine paradise in the afterlife. Outlining the deeply sectarian nature of the campaign by Congress backed divines, Dhulipala writes: “Seoharvi also sought to provoke majority Sunni sentiment by indicating that Muslim League leaders were predominantly Shia. He ridiculed Jinnah, a Shia barrister, for doubling as a mufti. Seoharvi further bemoaned that Jinnah’s followers, such as Sir Zafrullah Khan, a Qadiani and the Raja of Mahmudabad, a Shia, were held up as conscientious Muslims.”8

1970s: JUI, NAP, PPP and the “defeat” of secularism in Pakistan

Pakistan’s first real experiment with Islamisation came under the short-lived Mufti Mahmood ministry in 1972. He formed the government with the help of Wali Khan and his so called secular National Awami Party (NAP). NAP was also allied with Mufti Mahmood and his JUI when in 1974, the Ahmadis were declared Non-Muslim by the Pakistani parliament through the second constitutional amendment. At a time when Pakistan People’s Party led the Pakistani government and NAP was a major opposition, the NAP chief Wali Khan declared that secularism was dead and that he would not press for secularism again.9 Mufti Mahmood, speaking as the Chief Minister of NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) said:

“Our objective is national unity and the welfare of the state, and we will pay any price to protect this. …The most important issue at hand is to order our personal lives in accordance with the code of Islamic conduct. We will not be able to regularise an Islamic way of life throughout the country until such a time that an Islamic system is instituted…As far as the NWFP is concerned, we have begun the work of bringing the NWFP’s laws in line with Islamic law…We want that [such an] Islamic system should become prevalent not only in our own province, but throughout the country.”10

Mahmood was deadly serious as soon enough laws were passed to enforce Purdah in the province, forbid alcohol, ban dancing girls and to ensure an end to interest. The enforcement of these laws was only thwarted by Mahmood’s resignation next year. Nevertheless this gave the Deobandi Ulema enough confidence to speak at a national level. Sana Haroon writes:

“The passionate and weighty theological discourse of the Deobandis was now brought to the fore. Preparation began for what would become the 1973 constitution of Pakistan, with the ulama positioned to contribute their vision in parliament. Abdul Haq and Mufti Mahmud made grand and eloquent speeches in support of key ‘Islamic’ issues: notably, the point that Pakistan was an ‘Islamic republic’ and a permanent council of ulama should be constituted within the Senate and all legislation referred to it. Concurrently with the preparation of the constitution, the anti-Ahmedi campaign was restarted. Mufti Mahmud made a speech to the annual Katam-i Nabuwwat conference in Lahore in 1972. He highlighted the ambiguity of Pakistan’s national principles and emphasised that the constitution would have to institutionalise Pakistan’s Islam in order to effectively bar non-Muslims from the position of head of state and make ‘apostasy’, in this case renunciation of orthodox Sunni principles of the faith, a capital offence. Mahmud also proposed that the Ahmediyya be declared non-Muslim and that members of the community be compulsorily registered by the state in order to cut their beliefs out of the mainstream of Pakistan’s Islam.

Unlike the 1953 agitations during which politicians differentiated the will of the ulama from the will of the people, the movement started afresh in 1972 was represented by the ulama as a political imperative which Abdul Haq grandiosely referred to as the consensus of the Muslim umma. From their position of political power, the ulama were finally able to effect lasting and considerable recognition of ulama authority. Pakistan was declared an Islamic Republic and a Council of Islamic Ideology was created by constitutional decree. By these provisions, the laws of state had to be in accordance with religious injunction. Opinion on how to do this was to be provided by the council of ulama, which itself had no direct control over legislation, but provided religious interpretation and opinion, both solicited and unsolicited, to the national assembly. In 1974 the anti-Ahmediyya provisions were accommodated and the constitution was amended to declare the Ahmediyyas non-Muslim and hence a minority community. These provisions were not only symbols but a recognition by the state of both the independent authority of Deobandi scholars like Mufti Mahmud and Abdul Haq, and the relevance of the Deobandi position and authority over the Pakistani state. The constitution of 1973, unlike those of 1956 and 1962, would remain the basis for the Pakistani state (although for the greater part in abeyance under military governments). Islam became inextricably bound to affairs of society and state, and hence to politics.” (Emphasis added)11

It is a great irony that a parliament where the leader of the house was a secular left leaning politician and where the leader of the opposition was also a secular left leaning politician promulgated a constitution that provided for an Islamic Republic, a state religion and the repugnancy clause. Pakistan’s secular politicians felt, despite having won the elections hands down in 1970, that they needed to use religion to legitimize their politics. Such is the hold of religion on the people of Pakistan, especially after the departure of Bangladesh, which had been the hub of Pakistan’s secular intellectual tradition.


The role of Majlis-e-Ahrar is the most significant when it comes to radical political Islam in the subcontinent. This was a pre-partition body of Nationalist Muslims who had sided with the Congress throughout the independence movement and had been part of satyagraha. At the time they believed in secular nationalism and secular India and in 1931 formed themselves as a Indian Nationalist Muslim body, separate from the Congress, but always in support of it and in staunch opposition to the Muslim League. This body was created at the suggestion of Maulana Abu Al Kalam Azad and the name was also provided by him.12

Ahrar started its anti-Ahmaddiya movement in 1933 when it clashed with All India Kashmir Committee – a rival organization fighting against Dogra Rule in Kashmir. Besides Dr. Muhammad Allama Iqbal the AIKC consisted of Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud – the second caliph of Jamaat Ahmaddiya; the rivalry of these two organizations turned Majlis-e-Ahrar-e-Islam against the Ahmadis altogether. The Majlis-e-Ahrar was part and parcel of the Quit India Movement launched by the Congress and denounced the Muslim League for not taking part in it. Majlis-e-Ahrar’s greatest propaganda was against Mohammad Ali Jinnah who they denounced as “Kafir-e-Azam”. Maulana Mazhar Ali Azhar wrote the famous couplet: “Ik Kafira kay peechay Islam ko chora, Yeh Quaid-e-Azam hai kay Kafir-e-Azam” Repeatedly Pakistan was described as “Palidistan”, “Kafiristan” and “Khakistan” by the Majlis-e-Ahrar. In 1946 its candidates were soundly defeated by the Muslim League’s candidates. Samina Awan writes:

“The MAI campaign was based on an anti-Pakistan and anti-Qadiani rhetoric. Most of the Ahrar candidates, in the elections of 1946, were nominated from Muslim urban constituencies, and their nominations were due to their individual popularity and recognition within their respective constituencies… Only one candidate from UP Muslim rural constituency was elected, whereas the AIML won 453 Muslim seats.”13

This is when Maulana Mazhar Ali Azhar famously told the Congress Party that “Madhe Sahaba can be a weapon against the League”. When the Muslim League launched its Direct Action, especially in Punjab, against the Unionist government, Majlis-e-Ahrar-e-Islam logically remained completely aloof from it. The creation of Pakistan and partition of India in 1947 came as a complete shock to the Ahrar leadership.They went underground, resurfaced in May 1948, announced that they were disbanding as a political party and would continue as a religious group only. They also declared that in political matters they would take Muslim League’s lead but refused to join it on account of “unIslamic views” of Sir Zafrullah and Mian Iftikharuddin. In Pind Daddan Khan in 1949, they raised two significant demands:

  1. Ahmadis be declared Kafir.
  2. No Non-Muslims should be allowed to hold positions in the new state’s government.14

The irony is that this was the same group that was advocating a United Secular India and was completely fine with Hindus or any other group ruling India.

In the same year Sahibzada Faiz-ul Hassan from the Majlis-e-Ahrar declared that:

  1. All women without Purdah- especially Raana Liaqat Ali Khan-were prostitutes.
  2. Muslim women were raped in East Punjab because Quaid-e-Azam wanted to be the governor general of Pakistan.15

By 1950, Majlis-e-Ahrar-e-Islam began to reinvent itself politically. Their objective was to gain state power and for this purpose alone they formed Majlis-e-Amal which raised again the demand that:

  1. Ahmadis be declared Non-Muslim
  2. Zafrullah, being a Non-Muslim, should be thrown out of the government.

By 1953 they gave Khawaja Nazimuddin – the Prime Minister and the leader of the Muslim League – an ultimatum – either accept the demands or face civil disobedience i.e. “Raast-Iqdaam”.

The Munir Report is the most significant document in Pakistan’s history. It establishes the roots of Anti-Ahmaddiya movement in the erstwhile anti-Pakistan forces amongst the Muslim clergy who now used the age-old dispute to weaken the new state. It also exposes the opportunism of politicians like Mumtaz Daultana – a feudal politician with otherwise a largely secular and left-leaning world view and a Punjab Leaguer – who encouraged the Ulema to strengthen his own position and then even had the audacity to suggest that it was happening because of Ahmadis’ attitude and because Pakistan had a vague religious basis for creation which gave too much power to the Mullahs. The Munir Report tracks the resurgence of the Majlis-e-Ahrar post-1947 and conclusively shows that the whole anti-Ahmaddiya sentiment was manufactured to weaken the Muslim League government in Karachi. In 1953, there were men of the calibre of Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar and Khawaja Nazimuddin who refused to buckle under the clergy’s pressure. Nishtar especially deserves to be recognised for his ironhanded role against Ahrar propaganda.

To understand the full impact of Majlis-e-Ahrar on the proliferation and propagation of Deobandi radicalism as well as subsequent evolution of the Deobandi radicalism into militancy, one must quote the following from Tahir Kamran, Professor and Chairperson of the History Department at Government College, who writes:

“Deobandis in the contemporary Pakistan constitute the most important Muslim segment which exercises enormous control over the religious seminaries (madaris). Around 65 percent of the madaris belong to this school of thought and are the most militant in their demands for the Pakistani state to become truly Islamic–as they would define it. Deobandi faction had been in the vanguard of the movement against Ahmediyya community that eventually was declared non-Muslim in the 1970s and also have orchestrated anti-Shia sectarian violence in the 1980s and 1990s. Jamiat-ul-Ulema-eIslam (JUI) is the largest Deobandi political outfit which gave rise to the terrorist organizations like Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HM), Jaish-i-Muhammad (JM), Sipah-eSahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ). Not only these organisations have been active in Kashmir and other parts of India but subsequently they also challenged the writ of Pakistani state. In July 2007, Deobandi clerics’ stiff armed resistance to the state agencies from Lal Masjid, located in the very heart of Pakistani capital, Islamabad, demonstrates their potential to pose a challenge to the state. Ironically, all the above mentioned organizations had a very strong link with the Punjab. It, therefore, becomes imperative to contextualize the emergence of Deobandi organizations and assess their impact on the area.

The protagonists of the Deobandi thought owe a good deal to Majlis-i-Ahrar that acted as an instrument of political articulation for them in the Punjab. Ulema like Maulana Ahmed Ali Lahori, Maulana Qazi Ehsan Ahmed Shujabadi and Ataullah Shah Bokhari demonstrated their anti-British political activism through Majlis-i-Ahrar during 1930s.

Therefore, Ahrar also finds a niche in the paper for better understanding of the evolution of Deobandi influence on the province’s politics.Deobandi creed proliferated after the Partition of India as is evident from the study of Deobandi literature with respect to its evolution in the Punjab. The major emphases of the paper would be devoted to the important Deobandi ulema from the Punjab, who set up their madaris, and the impact they engendered on the political and social formation of the province.” (Emphasis added)16

Political activism turns militant

This evolution from political activism to militancy was aided along, especially after 1979, by the Afghan War, Pakistani state’s strategic depth policy and the nexus that these created with Saudi pockets. It was this policy that essentially armed Deobandi radicals with the weaponry that has helped them wreak havoc in Pakistan. Much of this has to do with the mushrooming Deobandi Madrassahs all over Punjab and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Syed Vali Nasr has written in some detail about the impact of these Madrassahs on Pakistan’s fragile sectarian balance. I quote the following lines from his paper:

“This was especially the case when it came to the support of madrasahs and Islamic education projects. Here links between Saudi and Pakistani ulama, and Sunni activists—as was also the case between Shia madrasahs in Pakistan and Iranian ulama—and their respective educational institutions were largely voluntary, and produced strong religious and intellectual bonds that became embedded in institutional contacts and networks of patronage. In 1996 of the 2,463 registered madrasahs 1,700 were receiving financial support from outside Pakistan.

The linkages also fitted into Saudi Arabia’s larger agenda of controlling Islamic intellectual and cultural life across the Muslim world through such institutions as Rabitah Alam-i Islami (Islamic World League), and to promote its own vision of Sunnism through patronage of Islamic education in the Muslim world. That the recipients of Saudi support in Pakistan were Sunni madrasahs would in time make the patronage also relevant to Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iranian regional policy.

The Afghan war in the 1980s too was important in this regard as it once again raised the prospects of communism reaching the shores of the Arabian Sea. The response of Persian Gulf states was very much the same: providing generous support for all manner of Islamic activities to strengthen Islamic identity in Pakistan, and this time also to help train activists who would be willing to fight in the war. These funds found their way to madrasahs, and, as will be seen below, helped create a whole new genre of madrasahs—ones that were equally if not more concerned with jihad (holy war) than with religious scholarship.

In addition, the increase in the numbers of Pakistanis who worked in various Persian Gulf states following the rise in the price of oil in 1974 translated into generous zakat (alms tax) and other contributions to madrasahs, or Islamic organizations, preachers, ulama, and lay Islamist activists who would funnel those funds into existing madrasahs or found new ones. There exists a direct link between socioeconomic changes that labor migration brought about and the transformation of the sociopolitical role of madrasahs.” (Emphasis added)17

The Afghan war thus proved to be the catalyst for dormant Deobandi sectarian extremism to arm itself with latest weapons. In Afghanistan, it was to lead to the creation of Taliban. In Pakistan, it ultimately led to the creation of TTP and other sectarian organisations.

There was also the domestic sectarian militancy. It was in 1985 that the Sipah-e-Sahaba was formed by Haq Nawaz Jhangvi and Azam Tariq. This group shot to fame because of its extremist activities and targeted killings of Shias. Lashkar-e- Jhangvi was another variant of the Sipah-e-Sahaba which was founded by Riaz Basra.18 Riaz Basra met his end at the hands of the state in 2002. His successor Malik Ishaq was also ultimately dispatched by the state in 2015.

Other variants of Deobandi militancy are anti-India groups like Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Both Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar consider themselves devotees of Syed Ataullah Shah Bokhari but the twist of fate have brought them to a point where they are targeting India, the very country to which Bokhari was beholden.


Deoband school owes its pre-eminent position in the Muslim politics of the subcontinent to Congress Party which engaged it with a view to fight the British and to drive them out of India in the 1920s. The emotive issue of Khilafat was exploited by Gandhi and the Congress leadership to reinforce their non-cooperation movement. Gandhi encouraged the JUH to take a lead in the Muslim community because Gandhi believed that they were better suited to lead the Muslims than secular minded Shia lawyers like Jinnah in the Congress and pro-British Ismaili notables like Aga Khan in the Muslim League. Maulana Abu Al Kalam Azad and Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madni were more than willing to play the role of pliant pro-Gandhi Muslims within the national struggle. In 1929 the Majlis-e-Ahrar-e-Islam was formed as nationalist counterweight to the Muslim League. It brought forth a new crop of radical leaders like Ataullah Shah Bokhari. The Ahrars soon turned their guns on the Ahmadi community after the latter’s attempt to organize a Kashmir committee to fight constitutionally against Dogra Raj in that state.

Meanwhile the Congress party continued to prop up the Ahrar and JUH against the Muslim League especially in the aftermath of 1937 elections as a means to contest Muslim League’s claim to be the authoritative representative of the Muslims of India. Ahrar and JUH used religion in the most profane manner to attempt to divide the Muslim League along sectarian lines. The Madhe-Sahaba movement started by the Ahrar was done with the express objective of dividing Muslim League ranks in Lucknow. Meanwhile the JUH attacked Jinnah and the Muslim League leadership for their lack of Islamic credentials and their support for legislation that was deemed unIslamic by JUH. The irony that JUH and Ahrar did so while simultaneously supporting a secular nationalist albeit Hindu majority body like the Congress is not lost on historians of this era. Despite all attempts by the Congress to shore up anti-League Muslim bodies in the Muslim community, Muslim League swept the Muslim seats in 1946 elections. After the failure of the Cabinet Mission Plan and the creation of Pakistan, Ahrar went underground for a while in Pakistan. Meanwhile JUH remnants, like Mufti Mahmood, switched over to Shabbir Ahmad Usmani’s JUI which they managed to take over completely in the 1950s. Ahrar pretty much was wiped out after the 1953 riots in which they had agitated against the Ahmadis and called for their excommunication. Mufti Mahmood and his JUI however experienced a resurgence in the 1970s when after the separation of Bangladesh, Pakistan’s secular politicians like Bhutto and Wali Khan needed the religious right wing for legitimacy. 1970s saw some of the biggest compromises made by otherwise secular politicians with the religious right wing. Wali Khan and his NAP supported Mufti Mahmood’s Islamising efforts in NWFP(now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). For the first time in Pakistan’s history, a state religion was introduced. In 1974 the PPP government, along with the entire opposition including Wali Khan and the NAP, voted to amend the constitution in order to declare Ahmadis Non-Muslim. In 1977 again, a ragtag alliance of religious and secular parties managed to create the conditions for the military takeover by General Zia ul Haq. General Zia’s Afghan policy and efforts to Islamise the country further legitimized the Deobandi faction’s hold over the religious discourse in the country.

Meanwhile foreign funding from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries helped Deobandi scholars set up Madrassahs which also emphasized Jihad as a major doctrine of Islam. Holy warriors coming out of these Madrassahs were used against the invading Soviet forces in Afghanistan. After the Afghan war was over, the Jehadi soldiers returning from Afghanistan shifted their efforts to Kashmir and thus Kashmir jihad was born. It is no accident that the leading organizations engaged in Kashmir jihad are all Deobandi in orientation. The 1990s also saw the rise of Taliban who were also Deobandis.

While in India the main Deoband school i.e. Darul Uloom Deoband and its political wing the JUH has shunned militancy and has allied itself with secular forces (albeit for tactical reasons and with suitable caveats), JUI-F and other Deobandi organisations in Pakistan have spawned a network of militant sectarian and even terrorist organisations all over Pakistan. While Congress led by Gandhi made Deoband and its Islamist leadership a factor in South Asian politics, it was the Afghan war and the Kashmir Jihad (aided by Saudi funding) that converted them from political activists to armed militants, sectarian killers and terrorists.


  1. Reetz, Dietrich, The Deoband Universe: What Makes a Transcultural and Transnational Educational Movement of Islam? Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Volume 27, Number 1, 2007, pp. 139-159 (Article)
  2. Haroon, Sana, The Rise of Deobandi Islam in the North-West Frontier Province and its Implications in Colonial India and Pakistan 1914–1996JRAS, Series 3, 18, 1 (2008), pp. 47–70 C The Royal Asiatic Society 2008 doi:10.1017/ S1356186307007778 Printed in the United Kingdom
  3. accessed on 17 March 2016
  4. Jalal, Ayesha, Self And Sovereignty, pp 457-460 Sang-e-Meel Publications 2007
  5. Dhulipala Venkat, Creating a New Medina, Cambridge University Press 2015
  6. Pp 86-87 Ibid
  7.   Pp 93-94 Ibid
  8. Pp 309-3010
  9. Daily dawn
  10. Mufti Mahmud, Provincial Address, 14 August 1972, in Shujabadi, Khutbat-i Mahmud, pp. 167–171-
  11. Haroon, Sana, The Rise of Deobandi Islam in the North-West Frontier Province and its Implications in Colonial India and Pakistan 1914–1996JRAS, Series3, 18, 1 (2008), pp. 47–70 C The Royal Asiatic Society 2008 doi:10.1017/ S1356186307007778 Printed in the United Kingdom
  12. Kashmiri Shorish, Syed Ataullah Shah Bokhari Sawanah wa Ifkar, pp244, Maktaba Chatan July 2012 edition
  13. Awan, Samina, Political Islam in Colonial Punjab, Majlis-e-Ahrar 1929-1949,oxford university press 2010
  14. Munir Kayani Report
  15. ibid
  16. Kamran Tahir, Evolution and Impact of Deobandi Islam on Punjab, p2
  17. Nasr, S. Vali, The Rise of Sunni Militancy in Pakistan: The Changing Role of Islamism and the Ulama in Society and Politics Modern Asian Studies 34, 1(2000), pp. 139–180. 2000 Cambridge University Press Printed in the United Kingdom

*The author is a practicing lawyer based in Lahore. He is also author of the book: “Jinnah; Myth and Reality.” His email address is