08/28/2021, 10.02
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Deoband, the Taliban and Islam

by Alessandra De Poli

Researcher Tasnim Butt of the Université Libre de Bruxelles speaks to AsiaNews about the gradual radicalisation of the religious community in Deoband. The Taliban's rigorous vision is intertwined with Pashtun culture and tribalism, while the strategic competition between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam.

Kabul (AsiaNews) - Taliban are Deobandi Muslims. However, in Deoband, India, where this religious movement first originated in the 19th century, Muslims are tired of being associated with these "students" who have just recently recaptured Afghanistan and proclaimed the birth of the Islamic Emirate.

"We are a religious school but we are also Indians. It is shameful to doubt our integrity every time the Taliban spread terror," say some. "Blaming Islam for their actions is even worse," says a 60-year-old farmer who has always lived in Deoband. "No religion in the world teaches killing or maiming; not even Islam does that. The Taliban have done terrible things to women and men that go against Islamic teachings".

Deoband is a village located 150 km from the present-day Indian capital New Delhi. In 1867, during colonization, a group of ulamas founded a madrasa, the Dār al-ʿUlūm (or Darul Uloom), which still welcomes thousands of students from South Asia every year. It was from here that the Deobandi religious movement spread, which, as researcher Tasnim Butt of the Université libre de Bruxelles explains, "initially emerged as a reformist and fundamentalist movement that wanted to purify Islam of its Hindu cultural borrowings". 

Today the Deobandi, as a religious movement and as a political party, are mainly active in Pakistan, where they moved after the partition with India in 1947. Their connection with the Taliban has historical origins. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the mujahideen were joined by various groups of fighters, including the Pakistani Deobandi. 

"During the ten years of war against the USSR, between four and six million Afghan refugees migrated to Pakistan. After 1989, many returned home, but about two to three million remained," says Butt. "The refugee camps were run by different religious organisations, including Deobandi organisations. This is where the future Taliban leaders were instructed. Religious education remains fundamental for the Deobandi movement throughout South Asia. For example, although the Deobandis in Pakistan comprise only 20 percent of Sunni Muslims, they control 60 percent of Koranic schools. 

The Deobandis radicalized from the 1980s. At the start, they were essentially opposed to the Barelvi, who emerged in British India at the same time [their name comes from the village of Bareilly]. They therefore contest popular and Sufi Islam, and in particular the veneration of saints, because according to them it is the sin of shirk, which is to associate someone with God," the researcher continues.

"Even today they insist on returning to the Islam of the origins, that of the 7th century in Saudi Arabia. Are they therefore Salafists? "The main difference lies in the legal school: the Deobandi follow the madhhab of Abu Hanifa, so much so that 'Deobandi' and 'Hanafite' are synonymous in this part of the world. The Salafis, on the other hand, do not follow any school of law and see the Koran and the hadith as the only sources of law for the codification of Islamic law. Nevertheless, both groups are anti-Shiites”.

At this point, it is important to remember that the Taliban's rigour is intertwined with their ethnicity: "We sometimes forget that Afghan society is strongly tribal. Their interpretation of religion cannot be dissociated from their culture, which is bound to the Pashtunwali, a pre-Islamic tribal code of honor that is given preference over religion. Thus, for example, the Pashtuns deny women the right to inherit or seek education, both allowed in traditional Islam even though women inherit only 50% of the family property. So the Taliban ideology rests on two pillars: a radicalized Deobandi/Hanafite Islam and Pashtun ethnic-tribal code”.

Their victory in Afghanistan will now galvanise the other radical and jihadist movements of the region, because they have demonstrated that in twenty years, not only can they win the war, but also create another Islamic State (the first would be the Shiite one of the Islamic Republic of Iran), which also the Taliban of Pakistan will want to replicate in their country. Some branches of al-Qaeda (which has always been close to the "Koranic students" and in competition with the Islamic State of the province of Khorasan, ISKP) have congratulated the birth of the new Emirate. It is now likely that the Taliban will try to suppress the Islamic State cells still present in Afghanistan. Whether and how they will succeed remains to be seen, but "in this case it is all about ideological and strategic competition for control of the country", Butt points out. "Islam has nothing to do with it."

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