‘Nationalist’ Ulema Of India: Importing Wahhabism? – Analysis


By R. Upadhyay

Syed Babar Ashraf Kachochavi, the spokesperson of All India Ulema and Masheikh Board (AIUMB) in its Mahapanchayat (Conference) held in Moradabad (Uttar Pradesh) on October 16, 2011called upon the Indian Muslims to reject the Ulema associated with Islamic institutions and organizations like Darul Uloom Deoband, Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind (JUH) and Ahale Hadees as they are importing a “foreign ideology” of Wahhabism in India. He said, “they are funded by petro-dollars and aim to grab political power” (Times of India dated October 18, 2011).

Of the three organizations which are accused of importing Wahhabism in India, the Ulema of Darul Uloom Deoband and its political front the JUH were projected as ‘nationalist’ Muslims by the Indian National Congress (INC) when the Muslim leaders of these two organizations supported the national freedom movement against the British. Since Ahle Hadees is a known Wahhabi version of Indian Islam, the accusation for importing Wahhabism hardly need any discussion. These three organizations belonging to the Sunni sect of Muslims believe in Islamic extremism and have strong differences with another sect of Sunni Muslims known as Barelvis. AIUMB is an organization representing Barelvis who make about 80% of Muslim population in India and are the followers of the Sufi tradition of Sunni Islam with tomb worship of Islamic mystics.


In view of the sectarian differences, it has been a routine war of words between them but the allegation against the ‘nationalist’ Muslims for importing Wahhabism, a militant interpretation of Sunni Islam which was propounded by an eighteenth century Jehadi, Mawlana Mohammad Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab for restoration of true Islamic government is shockingly a matter of concern particularly when it is known as ideological mother of the on going Islamic terrorism all over the world.

The first Saudi king had an agreement with Wahhab in 1744 and they had jointly conquered some areas of Arabian Peninsula. Later, the House of Saud established the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 with the support of the British and continued Wahhabism as its political ideology.

Before discussing the merit of the allegation against the Deobandis, we may like to have a peep in the historical background of the Deobandi Ulema.

It is a known fact of the Islamic history that its Ulema establishment in India made the Muslim sociology so complex that the spiritual aspect of the medieval faith became subservient to political power. Factually, Ulema (Islamic scholars) did not constitute a distinct class of men during the life time of the Prophet and his successive four companions but by the eighth century they intertwined the religion and politics befitting to self-seeking interest that led to the split of Muslim society in various sectarian groups and in fight amongst them.

Usually, Ulema operates within close proximity of Muslim society, head various Islamic institutions and social groups and are capable of mobilizing the Muslim population in favor or against the ruler. Their services were also utilised by the Islamist warriors in their conquests in different parts of non-Islamic world. Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran endorsed the importance of Ulema and said, “Only the mullahs (synonymous to Ulema) can bring the people into the streets and make them die for Islam—begging to have their blood shed for Islam” (www.indianmuslimobserver.com) With the establishment of Muslim rule in the Indian sub-continent, a large number of Ulema from various Central Asian countries migrated to this land and settled here under the royal patronage. Claiming themselves as the inheritors of the traditions of Prophet Mohammad, their main job was to advise the ruling class on the principles of Islamic governance and guide the converted Muslim society in India on various rituals based on Arab traditions.

The most unfortunate part of the role of the Islamic priestly class was that they did not hesitate in justifying even the oppressive actions of the ruling class in lieu of royal perks and privileges and thereby strayed from spiritual path. Interpreting the Islamic scriptures according to the likings of the kings, they acquired huge wealth and emerged as an elite land owning affluent Muslim social group in course of the centuries of Islamic rule. They often interpret Islam as a religion of peace but never objected the killings of innocent people by the Islamic marauders.

So long India was under Muslim rule; Ulema had rarely had any confrontation with political power but after the end of Mogul Empire, their intolerance against non-Islamic government showed up and never tried to interpret Islamic scriptures recommending co-existence of Muslims in the government under a democratic and secular constitution.

After the 1857 uprising, the British that brought the entire Indian society including the Muslims under the purview of new criminal laws. Though the Ulema was not prevented from carrying out the task of dealing with Islamic Civil Code and other Islamic rituals, the British interference with Shariat (Islamic laws) on criminal offences and substitution by the new penal codes upset them as this led to the curtailment of their judicial hegemony over the Muslim society.

Since the Ulema lost all hopes to restore Islamic power in the sub- continent, a number of them migrated to Mecca considering India under British rule as Darul Harb (Land of War). But a larger section of them who were the land owning affluent class and living in the most fertile region between river Ganga and Yamuna stayed back and launched the movement for revival of Islamic fundamentalism through institutions. Their movement was focussed more on creating a cultural and an emotional separation of Indian Muslims to have a separate identity of their own and away from other ethnic identities.

Drawing ideological inspiration from hate- Hindu Islamists like Sheikh Ahmad Sarhindi (1564-1624), Shah Waliullah (1703-1762) and Syed Ahmad Barelvi (1786–1831) the Ulema believing in Islamic extremism established a madrasa in Deoband in 1866 which was later known as Darul Uloom Deoband. Since Mawlana Mohammad Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab (1703-1792) and Waliullah had studied together for some time in Medina they also had ideological similarity except for some tactical differences.

Overawed by the British power the Ulema kept away from political activities and started re-organising the Muslim masses by teaching the fundamentalist version of political Islam. Exercising their intellectual power on preventing the Muslims from modern education as initiated by a British loyal Muslim Sir Syed Ahmad, they also remained indifferent to the Indian National Congress for over three decades since its formation in 1885.

The political activities of Deobandi Ulema started only in late 1919 when Mawlana Abdal Bari of Farangi Mahal Islamic institution in Lucknow in association with the Ulema of Darul Uloom Deoband set up Khitlafat Conference to organize the Muslim masses against the British which were instrumental for the end of Ottoman Empire and the institution of the Caliphate. In the same meeting a political association namely Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind was also formed to protect the Islamic identity of Muslims, prevent them from modern education and to fight the battle for political space for Muslims in the region.

Contrary to the concept of Ummah (Entire Muslim community) as one nation, the JUH extended cooperation to the Indian National Congress in freedom struggle on its own terms and conditions. Accordingly, they could successfully mobilize the Muslim masses with the support of the Hindus under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and launched the Khilafat Movement against the British which “was not only based on a wrong and romantic ideology, but was also a landmark in the evolution of a separate Muslim identity” (Mushirul Hasan in ‘Economic and Political weekly’ May 16, 1981).

Since Darul Uloom Deoband and its political front JUH had supported the freedom movement led by the INC and had opposed the two-nation theory of the Muslim League, the Deobandi Ulema were viewed by the Congress as ‘nationalist’ Muslims.

Restoration of the Caliphate, the term which refers to the system of government in Islam with Caliph as the head of the state representing the political unity of the entire Muslim community has been the cherished dream of the JUH ever since the end of this institution in early twenties of the last century. Accordingly, they entrapped the Indian National Congress in Khilafat movement in the name of Hindu-Muslim unity against the British.

The Congress had not then understood the communal game plan of the JUH as the movement it launched was not only against the British but also against the liberal and democratic version of Islam as propagated by Kemal Ataturk of Turkey who led a revolution against the Caliph and his Ottoman Empire. The JUH took the elimination of the role of Ulema in advancement of Turks as a danger signal for them and therefore raised their voice against the first attempt in Islamic history to democratize Islam.

The understanding of the JUH joining hands with the Indian National Congress was never unconditional as it chose its independent path whenever they felt that some issue was not in conformity with the ideology befitting their version of political Islam.

When the JUH failed to save the institution of Caliphate, they started maintaining reservation against the INC on the suspicion that it was an organization of the Hindus. They took the support of the Congress in Khilafat movement but boycotted even issues of national interest like Nehru report in 1926 and agitated against Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 popularly known as Sharda Act on the plea that they were anti-Muslim.

They were cold in countering the growing influence of the Muslim League and adopted a “look the other way policy” when the League exploited the tide of popular uprising based on pan-Islamic ideology of political and religious unity of all Muslims that led to a mass upsurge in partitioning the sub continent.

They opposed the Pakistan movement but were unable to counter the arguments of Jinnah which were based on the same separatist Islamic ideology which was aggressively propagated by them to mobilize the Muslim masses for revival of radical Islamism. Their opposition to Muslim League was a tactical move to prevent the division in the numerical strength of Muslims in the sub-continent which they felt would weaken the main objective of the Deoband to restore the Islamic power and Islamise the region.

The views expressed by Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madani (1879-1957), the chief spokesman of JUH in the turbulent years preceding partition belied the nationalist claim of Deobandi Ulema when he said, “If Dara had triumphed, Muslims would have stayed in India but not Islam. Since Aurangzeb triumphed, both Muslims and Islam were here to stay….According to Maulana, the faith Dara followed was not genuine Islam because Dara wanted to tolerate Hindus. He (Dara) did not insist on the rule of the Shariat”. (Muslim politics in India by Hamid Dalwai 11969 page 71). “For Madani all non-Muslims are the enemies of Islam and Muslims” (Muslim Nationhood in India – Safia Amir, 2000, page 179). Readers can draw their own conclusion on what kind of Islam the ‘Nationalist Muslims’ subscribed to as stated by Madani whose successors have turned both Darul Ulum and the JUH as dynastic organizations.

In 1945 the group which had reservations against INC and its opposition to Pakistan finally broke away and formed a separate organization known as Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and mobilized support in favour of partition.

Had the JUH launched an aggressive campaign against Muslim League in the election held in early 1946, the party could not have secured 425 of 492 seats reserved for Muslims which proved that the Muslims were overwhelmingly in favour of partition and emboldened Jinnah for giving a call for Direct Action which forced the INC to accept partition.

Factually, the uncompromising stand of the JUH on the movement for creating cultural and emotional separation of Indian Muslims from its ethnic identity suggests that their ‘nationalist’ mask was only for managing a political space once the British was ousted.

Mushirl Hassan former Vice-Cancellor of Jamia Milia Delhi and a noted writer in his book (‘Nationalism and common politics in India’ page 35) quoted Peter Hardy, “ the Ulema in JUH expected the Muslim community in independent India to be headed by its appointee Amir-i-Hind who would deal with the leaders of non-Muslims in India as equal partner of a Muslim imperium in India and it would be mandatory for the Muslims to obey him”. Sharing the apprehension of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan that the Congress was striving to establish Hindu rule in India, the JUH leaders also believed that unconditional support to freedom movement was surrender to Hindu-dominated Congress (Ibid. page 160).

A number of Muslim organisations before 1947 vanished after independence in 1947 but the Deobandi Ulema who stayed back in India aligned with the vote-greedy political classes and continued their politics of Islamic revivalism by creating communal conflict by maintaining the same communal policy of Muslim separatism in the name of Muslim identity which was the ideology behind Pakistan movement..

The oil- rich Saudi Arabia is always scared of its stability due to the incredible history of its founder king becoming custodian of the two holiest shrines of Islam which used to be under the care of the Caliph. Accordingly, with a view to export Wahhabism and manage hegemony over the Indian Muslims that constitute the second largest Islamic population in the world it has been alluring Indian Ulema through oil-earned money power. It has been a part of its political strategy to export Wahhabism in India which was possible only through Indian Ulema particularly through those who have been close to the ruling political parties.

Initially, the JUH did not like the role of the Saudi King in the abolition of the Caliphate and becoming the custodian of the two holiest shrines of Islam with the support of the British. But over the years when Saudi Arabia emerged as oil power, its Ulema ignored the Saudi’s anti-Caliphate role and fell in line on the command of the Wahhabi outfits like World Muslim League and Muslim Brotherhood which were basically working as Saudi agents to counter the modernizing zeal of Kamal Ataturk among the Muslims in democratic countries by preaching dogmatic Islam. Ironically, the JUH even ignored the pro-British role of Saudi Monarchy in t ending the Ottoman Empire and abolition of Caliphate and facilitated the import of Wahhabism.

The re-emergence of Ulema-power in the successful revolution in Iran in late seventies of the last century and the rise of Taliban in Afghanistan in its last decade generated a new spirit of anti-modern phenomenon among the Indian Ulema particularly the Deobandis. While following the radical path of Islamism they have even proven to the Islamist world that like their Arab counterparts who are under the process of transforming the ‘Arab spring’ into a sultry summer of their pristine root, they will also not allow the Indian Muslims to integrate in Indian society and continue their movement for a separate identity for the Muslims.


Deviating from the spiritual part of Islam, the Ulema associated with institutions and Islamic organizations like Darul Uloom Deoband, Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, Ahle Hadees, Jamaat-e-Islami Hind and others have surrendered to Saudi-sponsored hard-line Wahhabi Islam for the lure of oil earned wealth and thereby misguiding the Indian Muslims to follow the extreme path of the faith and destroying the ethnic identity of the majority of Indian Muslims. Due to their self-seeking interest they do not want the Muslim society to accept modernism as it will adversely affect their commanding influence over the community. So long the contemporary Muslim society in India does not block the political role of Ulema, the future of this second largest religious group in the country would remain chaotic.

AIUMB, though the representative body of the largest majority of Muslim population in India, in absence of any political support, its appeal to the Muslims to reject the Deobandi Ulema may be a futile exercise. Unfortunately, no political party in the country has made any sincere effort with aggressive challenge to counter the so called ‘nationalist’ Ulema of Deoband for facilitating the import of Wahhabism with the sole agenda to restore a theocratic government and commitment to abide strictly by Saudi interpretation of Quranic code even in this modern age of liberalism.

(The author can be reached at e-mail [email protected])


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

3 thoughts on “‘Nationalist’ Ulema Of India: Importing Wahhabism? – Analysis

  • November 2, 2011 at 1:31 am

    It is unfortunate that Mr, Upadhya continue to publish such false reports. Has he gone through the various intelligence reports on Deoband? Had he gone through the audit records of donations of Deoband? He will find that there is no petro-dollar donations. 90% of the donations are all internal within India.

    Otherwise, there would be air conditioned mosques and students would not be sitting on the ground there.

    And another thing that you have to research is that the Wahabbi ulema in Saudi Arabia are not aligned with Deoband. Infact, both of them have completely different interpreations on many aspect. For example, Deoband school of thought strongly supports Sufism while there is no support for this in the Wahabbi school of thought.

    And for heaven’s sake, please realise that establishing a theocratic govt. is something that is outside of traditional ISlam. This is a modernistic ideology propounded by Syed Qutb and Maududi both of whom had no relation with Deoband. That is the reason why nationalist ulema and JUH sacrificed their lives and opposed the partition of India. Just some basic research without the usual prejudice shown would clear the doubts but is someone willing to do it?

    I wonder if this comment will be posted because some people don’t like reading the truth.

  • November 2, 2011 at 5:29 am

    The author has rightly exposed the Psuedo Mullahs working to fulfill their self interests.

    @Mr. Ahmed ,Have audited Deoband accounts.Even a small Masjid costs 25-30 lacs in todays time and construction of such a huge campus with out foreign money is quite impossible.

    The newly built Deobandi/wahabi Mosque at Muhammad Ali jauhar University Campus at Rampur was also funded by Wahabis, a fact accepted by even Muhammad Azam Khan wahabi.

    Please dont try to confuse matter between JI/Ahle Hadiths.

    we know only one thing that You all Deobandi/JUH/JI/Ahle Hadith/Tablighi Jamaat are united when there is any attack on Wahabism.
    If Deoband has no relation with wahabism ,can Deoband condemn Ibn Abdul Wahab or saudi Govt?

    The truth is that when Wahabi Leaders comes to India all above groups unites and welcomes him with folded hands like in case of Saudi paid Imam of Mecca Al Sudais.

  • November 5, 2011 at 7:37 am

    Jamiat Ahlul Hadees is absolutley different from and have nothing to do with Darul Uloom Deoband & its sister Organizations or Affiliations like the Tableeghi Jamaat, JUH, etc. Deobandi School of thought like the Barelvi school of thought follows the Hanafi Jurisprudence, through the Ma’turidi & Asha’ri intellectual Lineage. Therefore both Schools agree on Taqleed (Blind following of any particular scholar), Concept of pronouncing 3 Talaqs in one session and considering he Divorce to be valid, Tasauwwuf (Sufism-Peeri/Muridi), Ganda-o-taweez (Whereing lucky Charms-Talismns)Denoting numbers to Quranic Alphabets, Shameful concept of Halaala for women who wish o remarry their divorced husbands, etc.

    The Ahle Hadees Scholars have written innumerable books criticizing both the Barelvi as well as Deobandi school of thoughts alike.

    So there is no confusion at all that the Barelvis have a lot of things common with the Deobandis whereas the Ahle Hadees have always maintained a distinct identity for the past 1400 Years through their propagation & practice of their ideology of following the Qura’n & the Sunnah.

    No body is above the divine laws of Kitaabullaah & Hadees-e-Sarware Deen-o-Duniya, Huzuz Purnur, Muhammadur Rasoolullah Sallallaahu Alaihi wa Sallam.

    The Ahle Hadees will condemn & criticize whoever makes a mistake in the light of Qura’n & Sunnah, be it Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab or Ahmad Raza Khan or Qasim Nanotwi or Abdur Rashid Gangohi or any Monarch of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.


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