Arab Today, arab today famed islamic school fights forces of change
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Famed Islamic school fights forces of change

Arab Today, arab today

Arab Today, arab today Famed Islamic school fights forces of change

London - AFP

Life for students at Darululoom Deoband, one of the world's most influential Islamic seminaries, has changed little in the past 150 years, and its staff want it kept that way. A cradle of conservative Muslim thought in north India, Deoband was recently and reluctantly flung into the public spotlight by an internal showdown between a new reform-minded rector and the school's traditionalist old guard. The struggle over the seminary, founded in 1866, was closely watched across the Muslim world. A large number of Islamic schools -- especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan and as far afield as Britain, the United States and South Africa -- are either affiliated or ideologically linked to Deoband. The school curriculum is based on a 17th-century syllabus that focuses on Islamic law, jurisprudence and spirituality, and its 6,000 students follow an austere lifestyle which keeps much of the modern world at bay. "Everything here is for the religion, by the religion, of the religion," said the school's press spokesman Adeel Siddiqui. "This has been our pattern for over a century and we have produced the finest Islamic scholars to guide the world about Islam. Our model is perfect, so where is the need to modernise it?" he said. One person who thought he had an answer to that question was Maulana Gulam Mohammed Vastanvi, an MBA holder, Facebook user and forward-looking educator who was appointed rector of the Deoband school in January. Vastanvi was chosen despite opposition from the Madanis, a family of arch-conservatives whose members have held key positions on the school board for decades His reform plans included improving living conditions in the spartan student dormitories and, more controversially, introducing medical and engineering courses into the almost exclusively Koranic-focused Deoband curriculum. In July, barely six months after his appointment, he was kicked out by the school's governing council. The main reason given was Vastanvi's apparent support for the chief minister of Gujarat state, Narendra Modi -- a hate figure for many Indian Muslims who believe he encouraged communal riots in Gujarat in 2002 that left 2,000 Muslims dead. But Vastanvi told AFP he was the victim of a hardline backlash against his planned reforms. "They expelled me and my ideas," Vastanvi said, adding that his only aim had been to foster "rational and independent thinking" among the students and encourage their all-round development. Some observers say the row over Vastanvi reflected a wider challenge faced by conservative Muslims worldwide in seeking to guard their traditions while adapting to the challenges of the modern world. BarbaraMetcalf, a professor at the University of California who undertook a special study of the Deobandi movement, said Vastanvi, for all his reformist plans, had always remained fully committed to the conservative principles on which the school was founded. "So it is very hard to judge what mattered most in Vastanvi's losing out, and one never wants to underestimate the simple fact of power struggles and vested interests," Metcalf said. "Opponents may have feared his entrepreneurial style and commitment to technical education; he was also of a different regional and class background than earlier rectors had been," she added. Deoband's conservative reputation and the success of its alumni in spreading its teachings abroad have led to accusations in the media of links to radical Islamist groups. Deobandi madrassas in Pakistan have been labelled "Taliban nurseries" but the school has always denied any connection with or support for the radicals in Afghanistan. "We have no links with the Taliban. If they associate themselves with us then tell me what can we do about it?" said spokesman Siddiqui. In 2008, the seminary issued a much-publicised fatwa condemning all forms of terrorism as un-Islamic. Education, food and accommodation at Deoband are all provided free of cost and the institute relies on donations. Students are restricted from watching television or films. They are not encouraged to read anything except religious texts and must adhere to an all-white dress code with skull cap. Admission is very competitive and many aspirants come from poor backgrounds and see an education at Deoband as a life-changing opportunity. "Getting into Deoband is like finding the door to heaven," said Muzamil Haq, 17, one of 3,000 hopefuls preparing to take the entrance examination this year. "Who respects a poor man? But if I become a religious teacher then even the rich will hold my hand, they will call me Maulvi (scholar) and listen to what I say." Many graduates end up travelling overseas to take up teaching posts. "There is a great demand for Maulvis in Europe and in the Middle East. We get jobs quickly as Deoband's education model is regarded as the most authentic and toughest among all the other schools of Islam," said Ahmed Siddiqui, 34, a student. "More and more Muslims want to learn about their religion. It is our duty to take Allah's message far and wide." For an orphan, like 12-year-old Mohammed Aseem, the school can open doors to a future that would otherwise be firmly shut. "My parents died and my uncle decided to send me here. I want to learn to recite the Koran but I also want to be a doctor," said Aseem who sleeps on a torn rug which he shares with four men in a unfurnished room.

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