For over a decade now, Muslims in Britain have been under intense media scrutiny with doom and gloom stories abound in the media about the faith, its adherents, places of worship, and religious and cultural practices.
In the run up to the recent elections, sensational stories about halal food and alleged Muslim takeovers in British schools have kept our media machines on overdrive as aspects of Islam and the way Muslims in Britain live came under the microscope. Many Muslims have become thick-skinned, shrugging when they hear such stories and--with a stiff British upper lip--wondering what next. Only last week, the BBC's Innes Bowen, writing in the British conservative magazine, The Spectator, added to the gloom and doom with an article that Islam in Britain is dominated by an illiberal and conservative version of the faith--the Deobandis (hear the Hammer Horror music in the background).
Bowen, a journalist by profession who has recently published a book on Muslims in Britain, argued that the Deobandis are the largest single group that gives Islam in Britain much of its character. She writes that the Deobandis control a significant portion of UK mosques and nearly all of the UK-based training of Islamic scholars. With references to the Deobandis' supposed suppression of women and origins in anti-colonial activities during the British Raj, the picture that Bowen paints is grim. Anyone who doesn't know the Deobandis will probably be left wondering when these zombie-like characters will crawl out from behind wheelie bins to haunt Middle England.
As with numerous academics and journalists who have written on the Deobandis within the framework of Islam in Britain, Bowen stumbles several times in her narrative. These writers often link the UK's Deobandis to the 1857 Indian Mutiny, anti-colonial activities during the First World War, the establishment of madrasahs in Pakistan post-Partition and the Taleban, and then attempt to fit Britain's Deobandis into some grim and universally unpatriotic mould with a spattering of misogyny and supposed Deobandi dislike for Sufism for taste.
How far is that from the truth? Bowen would have augured better if she dug just that little deeper to properly understand the UK's Deobandis when writing her doom and gloom Spectator article. She is not the first to stumble--numerous academics on British Islam continuously do the same even after being guided the other way. All of the Deobandi UK-based training of Islamic scholars has origins not in Pakistan but in the west Indian coastal tract of Gujarat, a region that never saw tensions during the Indian Mutiny and Partition, unlike other parts of North India, and came under the sway of the East India Company rather peacefully. Gujarat's madrasahs generally catered for students from simple rustic farming communities across Gujarat with no political aspirations except a zeal to worship God and serve mankind--those of the Islamic faith and otherwise. It is this ethos that shapes the Deobandi UK-based training of Islamic scholars.
Bowen also presents an idea that the Deobandis are misogynist and unpatriotic and cites the worse example--the position of women in war-torn Afghanistan (hear again the Hammer Horror music in the background). Perhaps, a reading of the life of Sultan Jahan Begum (1858-1931), one of the more celebrated female monarchs of the Muslim princely state of Bhopal and a loyal and patriotic protectorate of the British Raj until Indian independence, would provide Bowen with a more positive and holistic understanding of her subject.
Sultan Jahan Begum was, as documented by her great grandson, Shahryar Khan, in his book The Begums of Bhopal, a Deobandi. She was, in fact, a disciple in Sufism of one of the leading scions of the Deobandi movement, Maulana Rashid Ahmed Gangohi. Khan writes that while Sultan Jahan promoted the Deobandi school, she also entertained a deep desire to bring education, enlightenment, liberalism and modernization to Bhopal, especially its women. Khan writes that her "greatest contribution was in leading the women of Bhopal--and indeed of India--towards education and progress. Her pioneering efforts were recognised by her election as Chancellor of Aligarh University and Chairperson of the All-India Women's Conference on Educational Reform."
Reminisced as a great reformer, Sultan Jahan established free and compulsory primary education, founded several important educational institutions and had a particular focus on public instruction, especially female education. She also played a pivotal role in the field of public health through her pioneering work in inoculation. In his final assessment of the Begums, Khan writes that "Bhopal's rulers were devout Muslims, veering towards the orthodox, pristine standards of orthodox Islam of the Deoband school." Yet, in spite of that, the Begums enjoyed relations with the British, something that formed an essential part of the history of Bhopal. Sultan Jahan--whose adherence to the Deoband school was very overt--is remembered by Khan as the "most loyal to the British Crown". Despite being in purdah, Sultan Jahan attended the Coronation Durbar of Edward VII in 1901, received Viceroy of India Lord Curzon in 1902 and was awarded the Grand Cross of the Indian Empire in 1907. She, in 1906, also entertained the Prince of Wales who later became King George V and struck up a friendship with Princess Mary. As a result, she was subsequently invited and attended King George's Coronation in London in 1911.
There is so much more that could be written about Sultan Jahan, her patriotism and inclination towards the Deobandi school. The horror stories that our press--with the support of academics on Islam in Britain--are weaving are steeped high in sensationalism with a shallow understanding of their subjects. The Deobandis are not the Frankenstein or zombie-like creations of the popular press. There is more there than meets the eye. Ill-conceived reports such as The Spectator article simply contribute to the demonising of an immensely tired and much maligned British Muslim community. When will the doom and gloom stories end?