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'Islamic fundamentalism and Western imperialism have often been closely and fatally intertwined'

May 7, 2007
The book is stirring history. It is so colourful and moving that it reads like a novel. Apart from those facts, why would this book interest someone in America who has little knowledge or interest in India and the 1857 uprising against the British in India?

To many Americans, the roots of the Taliban and Al Qaeda movements lie in the austere and fanatical Wahabi movement in Saudi Arabia. They do not know it was in British India, in a place called Deoband 140 years ago, that the madrasas began preaching about creating insular Islamic societies and how the process slowly led the Taliban create the most retrograde Islamic regime in modern times.

5/11, 1857, was quite like our 9/11, and the response of the British to the uprising was very much like the reaction of the Western world, especially the Americans, to 9/11.

You see so many parallels. The evangelical politicians, including George W Bush, cast their opponents and enemies in the role of 'incarnate fiends' as the British did the mutineers in 1857. The Western politicians also conflate armed resistance to invasion and occupation with 'pure evil' as the British did in 1857.

Like the British in 1857, Western powers today are stubbornly blind to the effects their policies have on the wider world, and when they complain of being attacked by mindless, uncivilised fanatics -- as they call their foes -- they are not examining their own policies.

I am increasingly convinced that Islamic fundamentalism and Western imperialism have often been closely and fatally intertwined. There are surely clear lessons for our times -- and the future.

How did the Deobandi movement spread?

The Muslims, especially in the northern Indian states, were divided down two very different, even opposing paths, after the failure of the 1857 uprising and the end of the Mughal dynasty. On one side were those who were with Sir Sayyed Ahmad Khan, who believed the Muslims could revive their fortunes and prestige only by turning to British learning. He founded the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College, which would later become Aligarh Muslim University; on the other side was the powerful movement that turned the madrasas into Wahabbi-like madrasas in Arabia.

The most influential of these new madrasas was in Deoband, and its influence, and aspiration to lead a life in the strictest interpretation of Koran and the rejection of other religious communities, spread across Northern India.

The movement also rejected dynastic rule. It had no appreciation for the pluralism espoused by the likes of Zafar and Akbar. They looked at the likes of Zafar as weaklings who could not protect Islam or their own tottering kingdom.

It also found support in some pockets of what would become Aligarh Muslim University. Religious education at Aligarh, for instance, came to be controlled by Deobandis. It spread across the regions that would become Pakistan in 1947, and, of course, it found a home in Afghanistan.

First published in India Abroad
Image: East India House in Leadenhall Street, London as drawn by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, circa 1817.
Also see: Revisiting India's First War of Independence

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