BBC focus on British Deobandi, how should you respond?

[3:110] You are the best Ummah ever raised for mankind. You bid the Fair and forbid the Unfair, and you believe in Allah.

In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.

As-salāmu ‘alaykum wa-rahmatullāhi wa-barakātuh

Letters received by numerous Deobandi institutes this week from the BBC News & Current Affairs department has stirred a great deal of interest and frenzy on social media. In light of these letters we would like to point out that the matter is being discussed amongst the ‘Ulama and responses to the BBC are being formulated.

Whilst we are unable to make the contents of these letters public at this time as they are under response, we would like to make a few observations and comments, to bring factual and accurate representation of Deobandi scholars and institutes, as well as to remind Muslims on how they should respond.

Although the letters don’t contain the details of the program, we think that the program is entitled ”The Deobandis” to be aired in 2 parts with the first part going live on Tuesday the 5th of April 2016 between 9.00am-9.45am. We encourage Muslims to tune in to both parts and to listen in.

Understanding the nuances of the term “Deobandi”

Darul ‘Uloom Deoband which is the full name that is often shortened to “Deoband” is an institute of higher Islamic education in a town called Deoband in India that was established in 1866 to preserve the heritage of religious learning. Today, it remains one of India’s largest and oldest seminaries where Muslims not only from India, but countries like Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Bangladesh etc., as well as from the Middle East and East Asia attend to gain undergraduate and post-graduate degrees in Islamic Studies (‘Alimiyyah, Ifta, Tafsir, Hadith etc.).

Those associated with Darul ‘Uloom Deoband have played a crucial role in promoting a pluralistic society within India. During his speech at the World Sufi Forum (Delhi) on the 17th of March 2016, the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s acknowledged this role and paid tribute to the Scholars of Deoband stating:

The tallest of our leaders, such as Maulana Azad, and important spiritual leaders, such as Maulana Hussain Madani, and millions and millions of ordinary citizens, rejected the idea of division on the basis of religion.

Islam does not have a central religious authority, unlike for instance The Pope in Catholicism, and has always had a rich tapestry of diverse mutually-existing emphasis and interpretations of the sources of the religion – the Quran and Sunnah. In that context, it was up to scholarship to investigate and interpret the sources, and thus to establish normative Islam. These efforts very early in Islamic civilisation led to the establishment of centres of learning where both religious knowledge and subjects like Astronomy, Medicine, Chemistry, Geography, Logic, Philosophy etc. where taught. It became customary for scholars to take the name of the place they were from (or most known to be from) as suffixes in their names. And sometimes they would take multiple names. For example, the term “Al-Qurtubi” has been used for scholars from Cordoba in Spain, “Al-Azhari” for scholars from the institute of Al-Azhar in Cairo, “Al-Khwarizmi” for scholars from Khwarizm in Uzbekistan, and so on. The closest to this tradition in UK is the custom of showing the university one attained their degree from, such as the designation “Oxon” for Oxford or “Cantab” for Cambridge.

The use of the term “Deobandi” derives from this tradition, and refers to scholars who have either learnt, or studied with teachers, from Darul ‘Uloom Deoband. However, with time, as the number of graduates increased and became widespread, the term “Deobandi” came to be used much more loosely, particularly by non-scholars, often as throwaway labels of religious identity in antagonism to other religious identities. The growth of such attitude has meant that it is very easy, in a highly un-nuanced way, to categorise just about any Muslim as “Deobandi”. For instance, it is often the case that if you have friends who frequent so-called “Deobandi” institutes it is possible then you too could be known as “Deobandi” simply by virtue of association.

Contextualisation plays a significant role in traditional Islam, jurisprudence and derivation of (Islamic) rulings. It is therefore self-evident that a traditionally trained Deobandi scholar in Britain while using the same processes and methodologies may arrive at a different ruling to a Deobandi scholar in India. The origin of Deoband is in India and the Muslim community in India is a minority. In contrast, the Muslim community in Pakistan is in majority and therefore more assertive in nature. There are some similarities between the British Deobandi model and the Indian Deobandi model due to both communities being minorities. However, since British Deobandi community is unique in its context, it has evolved differently and its successful contribution and integration within the British civil society (across local communities, hospitals, prisons, charity organisations etc.) is evident. British Deobandis are successfully running close to 40% (or more) of Mosques in Britain independently, without resorting to government funds or support. It is a success story which is to be admired and appreciated.

Yet, the overwhelming majority of Muslims who might get labelled as “Deobandi” are of course not the least bit versed in the theological minutia of “Deobandi” scholars, which remain academic in nature. The term “Deobandi” unwittingly thus takes only the meaning of a religious identity. And unfortunately, disinterested Muslims are most guilty of misappropriating the term in this way, particularly those entrenched in religious dissension who fail to recognise that theological debates should be left to scholars. This in turn perpetuates completely unnecessary division within communities. Finally, “Deobandi” itself is not a fixed term. “Deobandi” scholars – both past and present, themselves have different interpretations on many matters, which is in tune with the wider tradition of normative Islamic scholarship throughout all periods. ”Deobandi” is nothing but traditional law.

What is the position of Deobandi scholars of Britain on terrorism, British values and integration?

Deobandi scholars:

  1. Fully endorse and are signatories to the many fatwas and conferences in 2008 & 2009 condemning in the strongest terms all forms of hate speech, violence, radicalisation, and involvement in terrorism, whether home or abroad. They have also endorsed and are signatories to the letter to Baghdadi.
  2. Explicitly, categorically and strongly condemn, and have no links to, terrorist organisations.
  3. Promote British values (such as such as democracy, rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths and beliefs or of none) and teach that they are completely complimentary to Islamic values. The largest and leading Deobandi seminary in the UK is an independent school which has been rated “Outstanding” by Ofsted in 2014, and has repeated been found by inspectors (as recent as 2016) to promote British values and balances secular curriculum with Islamic education.
  4. Are against sentiments that are not conducive to integration and community cohesion in Britain.
  5. Take immense pride engaging in dialogue with faith and non-faith groups, as well as using faith to inspire Muslims to add value to society through achieving excellence in their jobs and workplaces, trades, charities, volunteering etc., so as to play their full part in British society.

Why should the letters to Deobandi scholars and institutes be of a concern to us?

The recent letters to Deobandi institutions are mostly generic in nature, and are being responded to by the institutes concerned. However, in some of these letters, the BBC programme makers have not asked for clarification but seem to have concluded that senior Deobandi scholars and institutes are associated with the Taliban. It appears that an attempt is being made to frame Deobandi scholars as somehow supporters of terrorist organisations by virtue of an implied “guilt by association”. Such assertions are deeply ill-informed and unsubstantiated. It is disconcerting that a public broadcaster like the BBC should attempt crude sensationalism, as it clearly belies the BBC’s high standards and defames the peace-promoting “Deobandi” scholars and institutes.

The methodology of being “guilty by association” is a tactic which is being liberally used against all Muslims, particularly those already in or seeking to enter public life. Many high profile Muslims and Muslim organisations who are fully engaged with the democratic and civic traditions of our country have also been unfairly slurred in part due to their Islamic identity. The source of such concerns could be as flimsy as being a Facebook friend with a former extremist, attending a university where radicals also studied, or having encouraged others not to co-operate with police. These broad brush character assassinations are seriously worrying.

With regard to the relationship with the Taliban, there has no doubt been an evolution in the collective stance of the UK and USA. For example, in the period 2001-2004 the Taleban had a number of official diplomatic-level visits to the USA meeting up with the then Vice President Joe Biden, which culminated in the White House officially confirming that the Taliban were not the enemy. Here are two examples of White House policy on Taliban, in 2001 and then 10 years later in 2011.

In light of this, finding Deobandi scholars today guilty by historical association is a crass standard of journalism. If it were an acceptable standard of journalism, it would mean that the many Foreign Secretaries who met and supported the likes of Saddam Hussain, Muammar Ghaddafi, Jerry Adams (Sein Fein) and others who were once supported but turned out to be terrorists or dictators etc., should all be found guilty by association. British relationship with the Sein Fein has  evolved over decades from being considered terrorists to (now) a legitimate political party involved in the British democratic process. Political relationships are fluid, influenced by policies and evolve.

Such approach does not take into account the changing nature of geo-politics and the adjustments and responses people, institutes and governments make.

How should British Muslims react when faced with slander?

The Quran provides a clear way forward for Muslims: “The good deed and the bad deed cannot be equal. Repel (the bad) with one which is better, then surely between whom and you there was enmity, will become as though he was a close friend.” (Quran, 41:34). The Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) taught the companions: “You have been raised to be easy on people, not to be hard on them” (Al-Bukhari).

This means that even when fear, prejudice or stereotyping become widespread, particular if intended to defame or discredit Muslims, Islamic traditions (or infact any law-abiding civilised society), it is important to respond with convincing arguments and compassion, with something better as the Quran clearly states.

Advises Muslims to:

  1. Always seek consultation with parents, elders, scholars, imams and community leaders.
  2. Refrain from unnecessary commenting on this subject unless you have something beneficial to say as it is a matter for the institutes that have received the letters.
  3. Refrain from bad choice of words and language, or showing disrespect to the BBC or anyone, on social media or otherwise.
  4. Understand that the use of the term “Deobandi” has nuances that are usually overlooked. Whilst differences will always remain, and are a mercy to us, they should not be allowed to cause disunity. We should have the maturity and understanding to show good relations and manners (adab and akhlaq) to one another. We remain a part and parcel of British society and must show solidarity to play a key role in discharging our obligations and being in service (khidma) to others.
  5. We will further advise on how to write to the BBC to convey your thoughts about how the BBC should act to resolve not to make untrue and sensationalised assertions.

Finally, we pray and sincerely hope that the BBC producers will play a positive role in community cohesion to bring hearts and minds together and to maintain the high standards of journalism.

جزاك اللهُ خيرًا

Wifaqul Ulama

is an Islamic organisation and attempts to provide answers to issues and queries pertaining to Islam which are subsequently posted for public view for educational purposes. We bear no responsibility for circumstances and situations where the answers are misinterpreted, applied incorrectly or taken out of context. We reserve the right to revise and update content as and when needed and required. Please feel free to contacts us on

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Halal meat being eaten by millions without them knowing it

Beef cattle in Devon

Halal, is it meat you’re looking for? Much as I’d like to, I can’t claim credit for that gag, a Lionel Richie parody given a new airing this week alongside the hashtag #halalhysteria, as British Muslims once again found their dietary customs at the centre of a moral panic. Other minorities have learned that same survival strategy when a collective finger is pointed menacingly in their direction: better to laugh, otherwise you’ll cry.

Besides, laughter feels an appropriate response when Radio 4’s Today programme reports on the discovery that supermarkets and high-street restaurant chains have been serving halal food to unwitting, non-Muslim customers by asking if this is on a par with the horsemeat scandal. How else but with a chuckle should we react to the Sun headline “Halal secret of Pizza Express,” revealing information so classified it had previously only appeared on the Pizza Express website?

But perhaps we should not be flippant. Perhaps we should accept that the source of the alarm is no more than a noble concern for animal welfare, as non-Muslims worry that they are inadvertently eating meat whose passage from farm to plate has involved needless cruelty.

If this is hard to accept it’s partly because, as Giles Fraser argues, , death is the least of it: if the Mail and Sun were concerned about welfare, they would be exposing the desperate state of animals’ lives long before they are slaughtered. Yet that kind of ill treatment passes without a murmur. But they don’t.

Even if it’s animal-killing that’s the point, here too the concern is curious. For what’s presented as the crucial welfare issue is whether the animal is stunned before its throat is cut – and 90% of halal meat is indeed “pre-stunned”. In other words, the halal meat that has sneaked its way on to the shelves at Tesco or Morrisons, or the menu at Subway, is no different to – and no more cruelly produced than – the rest of the food on offer.

In which case, something else is at work here. What might it be that explains this recurrent angst about halal’s presence in the national food supply? And, make no mistake, it is recurrent. “Top supermarkets secretly sell halal: Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose and M&S don’t tell us meat is ritually slaughtered” was a Daily Mail headline in September 2010, the wording almost identical to the story it led with on Thursday.

A clue comes from across the Channel. Emboldened by victories in this spring’s local elections, the Front National party of Marine Le Pen has moved to ban state schools from serving halal and kosher food in the 11French towns it now rules. No longer will there be an alternative when pork is on the menu. Instead, Muslim and Jewish children will be faced with a choice: eat pig or go hungry. Le Pen doesn’t claim to be acting for animal welfare but rather for the sake of secularism. Not many are fooled. Food is the weapon, but the goal is surely to isolate and intimidate France’s Muslim and Jewish communities. Encapsulating the atmosphere, the FN mayor of Hayanges has proposed a “pork fest” to “liven up” the town.

Elsewhere – in Denmark, Belgium and Finland – pork has been used in the same way, to taunt and threaten those deemed alien. It’s not new: I remember the shock felt at the synagogue of my boyhood when a pig’s head was attached to the railings. But it is nasty.

Food wars have tended to take a different form here. I spoke with the governor of one inner London school who told me no issue had been more “toxic” than the proposal by a group of Muslim parents that all meat served at lunchtime be halal. Over half the pupils at the school are Muslim, but the non-Muslim parents objected passionately. They didn’t worry that halal was cruel. Their fear was that by serving halal they’d be branded a “Muslim school”.

There is a huge difference between the reaction of those non-Muslim parents (or those alarmed by halal chicken at Nando’s) and the venom of Le Pen and her mayors. In Britain, those objecting are saying: “We can tolerate special arrangements for Muslims and others – but not if we have to change our own habits.” In France and elsewhere, the far right are saying, “We will not tolerate special arrangements for anybody – on the contrary, we will force Muslims and others to live like us.”

These are different stances and should not be conflated. The first is a declaration of the limits of multiculturalism: up to here and no further. The second is a declaration of war on multiculturalism, a refusal to accept difference at all. Nevertheless, there are few grounds for smugness on Britons’ part. For even that limited tolerance is under strain. The undertone to this week’s halal shock stories, with their lurid talk of “ritual slaughter”, is a kind of dog whistle – a pig whistle, says one observer – to those already whipped up by Ukip talk of immigration and foreign languages on commuter trains: a summons to believe the country is changing out of all recognition, becoming alien and no longer “ours”.

What’s more, there are those who would go further than stopping halal chicken being covertly available at KFC. They would deny strictly observant Muslims and Jews from having religiously approved meat at all. The new head of the British Veterinary Association wants to follow Denmark’s lead and stop all slaughter that does not involve pre-stunning: that would bar the strictest halal and all kosher meat. He says “an outright ban” is not a long way off.

It’s gratifying that Muslim and Jewish groups, often at odds, have come together on this issue. But so far their arguments have tended to be on welfare grounds, either noting that much of halal does involve pre-stunning or arguing that the kosher method, an instant cut using a surgical instrument, itself counts as stunning by rendering the animal insensible to pain. These advocates argue forcefully that it is non-halal and non-kosher slaughter – stunning animals by electrocution, gassing or a bolt to the brain – that is truly cruel.

Still, I can’t help feeling this is dodging the core issue. We know that this week’s furore is less about animal welfare than it is about the strains of a fast-changing, ever more diverse society. The response should be on those terms, too. Muslims, Jews and all those who value a varied, plural society need to have the confidence to argue that yes, animal welfare matters – but so too do inclusion and religious freedom. We don’t want animals to suffer, but nor do we want to inflict the pain of ostracism and exclusion on minorities. We are judged by how we treat animals but also by how we treat people, especially those who are different from the rest.

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