Famed Islamic school riven by battle for control

One of the world's most revered schools of Islamic learning, whose strict interpretations of the Quran inspired the Taliban, is facing a revolt against its newly appointed reformist leader — an MBA with a Facebook fan page.

Guns have been fired, accusations of idolatry tossed about and the student body of 150-year-old Darul Uloom in the northern Indian town of Deoband has been riven into rival factions.

The turmoil will come to a head Wednesday when the council that named Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi to lead the legendary seminary just last month will decide whether to fire him,

Vastani, who has promised to modernize the curriculum and rein in hard-line religious edicts, is facing a determined campaign by opponents who want to take control of the powerful institution for themselves and have hammered him for comments that appeared to praise a Hindu leader loathed by Muslims.

"People are angry with Vastanvi," said Arif Siddiqi, secretary of the powerful Islamic organization the Jamiat Ulema-i Hind, which is confident it has the votes to oust him.

Raging power battles are not unprecedented at the institution, which has 4,000 students and, as the center of the Deobandi school of Islam, is seen as the spiritual light for thousands of other schools across the Middle East, Britain, the United States, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Much of the Taliban leadership attended Deobandi-influenced seminaries in Pakistan.

It was founded in 1866 by Mohammed Qasim Nanautawi to preserve Islamic culture in India and preaches an austere form of Islam its founders regarded as authentic.

The school's legacy is complex. While it has inspired many anti-Indian groups, it has been strongly pro-India itself, with some of its leaders even serving in parliament.

It has courted controversy with recent fatwas — religious edicts — barring women from working with men and forbidding the purchase of insurance policies. But it also earned praise for its 2008 ruling that terrorism and the killing of innocents violated Islam.

For much of its history, the school was controlled by Nanautawi's heirs, until the early 1980s when a rival cleric, Asad Madani, orchestrated a virtual coup and installed an ally to lead the school.

After Madani died in 2006, his brother, Arshad, and his son, Mahmood, split in a bitter rivalry. When the cleric who led Darul Uloom for three decades died in December, the family fight allowed Vastanvi — whose daughter is married to Arshad Madani's son — to win election as his replacement.

Vastanvi, 60, himself has strong credentials as a modernist reformer, having started another Islamic educational institution in western India more than three decades ago. With a philosophy of combining modern education with Islamic studies, it churns out hundreds of doctors, teachers, engineers, as well as Islamic scholars, every year.

After being named head of Darul Uloom, Vastanvi announced plans to establish medical, engineering and pharmaceutical schools to supplement Islamic education. He also said he would maintain tighter control of fatwas.

Barbara Metcalf, former president of the American Historical Association and a leading scholar on Deobandi Islam, said Vastanvi seemed to be "a breath of fresh air" among an old guard too focused on old issues, including Muslim victimhood and defense of Urdu, the language of many in India's Muslim minority.

"He comes in addressing what a new generation is saying are the real interest of Muslims: education, employment, integration into the mainstream," she said.

Controversy erupted almost immediately, when Vastanvi was quoted as saying that Muslims were prospering in his home state of Gujarat — one of India's wealthiest regions. His words were instantly interpreted as praise for Gujarat's chief minister, Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist accused of stoking an anti-Muslim rampage that killed about 1,000 people in 2002.

Vastanvi denied that was his intention. But it gave his opponents an opening in their fight to retake control of the powerful and wealthy school, said Mushirul Hasan, director general of the National Archives of India who has written extensively on Deobandi Islam.

"This a stick they wanted to use to beat him with," he said.

As anger grew, his opponents piled on, accusing Vastanvi of distributing idols of Hindu gods.

"We have photographs in our possession. We can prove that," Siddiqi said.

Ishaq Vastanvi, the Deobandi leader's brother, denied such an incident ever occurred.

Vastanvi's background has also generated opposition. He is the first Deoband leader to come from outside north Indian Islamic heartland, to not belong to a prominent family and to have studied elsewhere.

"They don't want an outsider," Ishaq Vastanvi said.

Vastanvi's proposed modernization of the school has also raised concerns.

Only a fraction of Muslims get educated in seminaries, and their curriculum shouldn't be changed, Siddiqi said.

"The remaining 98 percent of Muslims can get modern education elsewhere. We have no problems with that," he said.

Ishaq Vastanvi denied his brother was planning a major shakeup.

"He doesn't want to change the Islamic system of education at Darul Uloom, which has produced scholars of eminence. He is in favor of things like imparting computer education to the students, which is a must in today's world," he said.

The fight has stirred deep passions.

Rival factions are holding gatherings ahead of Wednesday's meeting to try to drum up support. In one meeting two weeks ago, gunshots were fired, though no one was injured, said Brij Lal, director general of police in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

In the closed world of Deobandi politics, neither side called the police. It was left to a concerned neighbor to report the gunplay, Lal said.

Adbul Khaliq Madrasi, the deputy leader of the school, denied any violence. School officials have barred the media from the campus until after Wednesday's meeting of the school council. Media reports said the Madanis had joined forces to try to push out Vastanvi.

M.J. Akbar, a Indian journalist who writes extensively on the Muslim community, said the changes Vastanvi was expected to bring were bound to create conflict.

"He is basically expanding the horizon of the institute," he said. "The time has come to take another quantum leap forward."


Associated Press writers Ashok Sharma and Biswajeet Banerjee contributed to this report.