The Taliban's Deobandi Islam Comes From India, Not Afghanistan The Taliban's ideology has distant links to India. Scholars say Afghanistan's new leaders might listen to clerics in the birthplace of Deobandi Islam, though the clerics deny ties with the Taliban.

The Taliban's Ideology Has Surprising Roots In British-Ruled India

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The Taliban follows an austere version of Islam, which is reflected in some of its past policies - right? - burkas for women, less schooling for girls, attacks on minority faiths. But the roots of the Taliban's ideology don't come from Afghanistan. They don't even come from the Middle East, not even from a Muslim country. NPR's Lauren Frayer traveled to the 19th-century birthplace of the Taliban school of thought in Northern India.


LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: The town of Deoband is about 90 miles north of India's capital. It's a lot like other small towns in the area - a bit scruffy, packed with rickshaws, tea stalls and open sewers - except that towering over it all is a huge, glittering white dome framed by marble minarets.

AMAN AZEEM: You can see. It looks like Taj Mahal (laughter).

FRAYER: Very beautiful, sort of mini-Taj Mahal.


FRAYER: The dome is part of a Muslim seminary, where Aman Azeem is one of about 4,000 students. He grew up in Delhi, where there are lots of Muslim sects. And he came here seeking what he calls a more pure form of Islam. The seminary's rules are strict - no music on your headphones, for starters.

AZEEM: The music - the music is haram in Islam. That's why I don't like.

FRAYER: What about women? Are there women in your classes?

AZEEM: No, no, no, no, no. Just for men.

FRAYER: The seminary has been here since the mid-19th century, but it feels older.


FRAYER: This feels like an old medieval complex where they ring this gong every hour to tell you the time. And there are these, like, narrow passageways, and off on either side, there are classrooms and lecture rooms and hundreds of pairs of shoes outside each one. Like a sea of white skullcaps in these carpeted rooms.

UNIDENTIFIED MUEZZIN: (Speaking non-English language).

FRAYER: This is the birthplace of what's known as Deobandi Islam. It was founded in 1866 after India went from Mughal Muslim rule to British colonial rule, says researcher and columnist Luv Puri.

LUV PURI: The British have taken over. The Mughals have been vanquished. The Muslim glory has faded away. So there comes a kind of a state of despondency within the Muslims. Then they decide, you know, like, it's time to, like, get back the glory of Islam. And let's start a movement.

FRAYER: The movement they started later supported Mahatma Gandhi's freedom struggle. Deobandi Muslims also set up seminaries on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. And that is where the Taliban was born. Deobandi Muslims here say they have no links to the Taliban. But the seminary's principal, Maulana Arshad Madani, says he does have one thing in common with Afghanistan's new rulers.

MAULANA ARSHAD MADANI: (Speaking non-English language).

FRAYER: "The Taliban say they're doing what we did in India," the 80-year-old cleric told me in an hour-long interview at his office. "The way we kicked the British out of India - that's what the Taliban are doing in Afghanistan. They're kicking out outsiders - first the Russians, then the Americans."

MADANI: (Speaking non-English language).

FRAYER: That is where the similarities end, he says. The Taliban call themselves Deobandi Muslims, but security expert Soumya Awasthi says their path has diverged from the Deobandi Islam practiced here.

SOUMYA AWASTHI: The brand which you see in Pakistan or in Afghanistan is not really pure Deobandi. The Indian Deoband is classical, whereas the one which is in Pakistan and Afghanistan is Neo-Deoband. I call it Neo-Deoband because it's walking away from the true tenets of Deoband Islam, and it has a strain of Wahhabism in it.

FRAYER: A strain of Wahhabism - Saudi influence. Saudi Arabia has funded these seminaries in Pakistan and Afghanistan. There, Deobandis have attacked more moderate Muslims and others. But in India, Deobandi Islam has existed overwhelmingly peacefully for more than 150 years. Still, the Taliban's association with Deobandi Islam - well, that makes Deobandis here pretty nervous, and we had trouble finding students willing to talk.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: You have to talk with our teachers.

FRAYER: We have an appointment at 10:30.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: If they give you permission.

FRAYER: They have good reason to be nervous. Muslims in India are already beleaguered. The country is currently ruled by a Hindu nationalist party. In recent years, there's been an uptick in attacks on Muslims. And just around the corner from the seminary is an office used by a Hindu extremist group. Inside, Vikas Tyagi chants praise to a Hindu God.

VIKAS TYAGI: (Chanting in non-English language).

FRAYER: For him, the Taliban's Deobandi roots - it just fuels his long-held suspicions.

TYAGI: (Speaking in non-English language).

FRAYER: Some Indian Muslims may be conspiring against their country, Tyagi says. He's been writing letters to politicians, demanding the Deobandi seminary be shut. Recently, the government said it would open an anti-terrorism center here. That might not be necessary, says the researcher Puri. Because while Islamist radicals have attacked India, most of them have come from outside the country. Very few have been from the local Deobandi community.

PURI: More or less, they have escaped this wave of radicalization. There may have been one or two incidents, but it's not rampant. It's much more disciplined. There's a lot of caution how these seminaries are run. Definitely they have been law-abiding.

FRAYER: It's a testament to India's pluralism and democracy, he says. Instead of being a threat, scholars say India's Deobandi Muslims could possibly even help negotiate with the Taliban. India is already talking to the Taliban. Awasthi, the security expert, says, why not include Deobandi scholars in those talks?

AWASTHI: You know, we can play a very positive role in pacifying them - the Talibanis, I mean. We must use our religious leaders to interact. We can help them change their syllabus. We can help them with better understanding of religious text.

FRAYER: The Taliban might not listen to the U.S. or other outsiders. But it might just possibly listen to a group of Muslim clerics in this tiny town in Northern India, with whom they share a distant history. The seminary's principal, Maulana Madani, told me he's never had any contact with the Taliban, but he's willing to start.

MADANI: (Speaking non-English language).

FRAYER: "I'm weak, and I'm old," says the 80-year-old cleric. But he says he would go to Afghanistan if India asks him to on a mission to urge the Taliban to be peaceful and just.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, in Deoband, India.


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