Many scholars and saintly people, such as the four Sunni Imams, the founders of the Sufi orders, and numerous political and military leaders throughout history are responsible for preserving, codifying, and passing on the Deen that is Islam. Though these people ought to be respected and revered, make no mistake about it. This was the Hand of God directly at work, these were the forms His aid took to preserve and sanctify Islam for us. If it had not been so, in all likelihood the religion would have evaporated within three to four generations after the Holy Prophet (saw).
But who did they pass on the Deen to? There's quite a gap of time, the Islamic Dark Ages which we still find ourselves in, between ourselves and these people. No doubt the responsibility rested on the Ulema, but the sincere image of Ulema harkening back to the first generations was on the verge of extinction soon after the European powers began their Colonial period of expansion.
An excerpt from Islamic Revival in British India; Deoband, 1860-1900 by Barbara Daly Metcalf:
In older schools, like the famous Farangi Mahall in Lucknow, family members taught students in their own homes or in a corner of a mosque. There was no central library, no course required of each student, no series of examinations. A student would seek out a teacher and receive a certificate, a sanad, listing the books he had read, then move on to another teacher or return home. The ulama in such a setting depended primarily on revenue from their endowments and on the largesse of princes whose courts they graced and for whom they trained government servants. Such ulama were part of the larger structure of a Muslim state.
One can easily imagine how such a structure would fare in the world of the 1800s and beyond. In other parts of the Muslim world, particularly the Arab and African regions, Islam was preserved as best it could be culturally. In the Ottoman Empire, it was preserved by the vestiges of state institutions built on the above culture of scholarship. In South Asia, any defenses Islam had against being turned into a plaything, a piece of paper about to be shredded a million which ways, were eroded.
The remaining Muslim scholars of the time were, needless to say, worried.
Let's start with the famous Sufi saint and Islamic scholar, Shah Waliullah Dehlavi (1703-1762). Burhanuddin Qasmi writes:
Shah Waliullah had seen the decline of Mughal rule in India and observed similar degeneration in other countries of Asia and Africa. The last revered and powerful ruler of the Mughal dynasty, Aurangzeb, had already passed away in 1707 and the East India Company had assumed power to rule over a part of eastern India, defeating Sirajud Dawla at Palasi in 1757. Ultimately, Shah Waliullah came to the conclusion that monarchist and imperialist tendencies were the main cause for worsening state affairs. He formulated certain principles, necessary for the revival of human values. In his book "Hujjatullahil Baligha", he laid down these principles, i.e, "labour is the real source of wealth" and "only those who put in the physical and mental labour for the sake of betterment of the society, deserve to possess wealth." People, he believed, are equal and the position of the ruler of a State is no more than that of a common citizen in matter of justice and freedom. Things like right to freedom, security and property, is essential for all, irrespective of religion, race, or colour.This happened before the French and American Revolutions.
In 1803, after the British crown and the East India Company conquered Delhi, Shah Abdul-Aziz Dehlavi, the son of Shah Waliullah and also a Sufi, issued a fatawa, the first edict of its kind against British rule, stating, "Our country has been enslaved. To struggle for independence and put an end to the slavery is our duty."
Maulana Sayyid Ahmad (1786-1831) listened and along with Maulana Muhammad Ismail, founded Tariq-i-Muhammadi and allied with Maharaja Jaswant Rao and Nawab Amir Ali Khan in the first armed rebellion. He later left Amir Ali Khan when he found out the latter was planning on giving in to the British. He continued struggled to preach uprising to the masses. He met with other rebels and in 1827, a provisional Government of Free India was set up with Sayyid Ahmad as its head.
The movement was crushed at the battle of Balakot and Sayyid Ahmad and Muhammad Ismail martyred at the hands of the Sikhs of Punjab who had allied themselves (or more accurately, become subservient to) the British.
In 1857, another major declaration of Jihad was issued. This fatawa carried the signatures of 34 Ulema, including Maulana Qasim Nanotvi (1833-1879), Maulana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi, and Hafiz Zamin who fought under the leadership of their Shaykh, Haji Imdadullah.
The Mutiny of 1857 as it came to be called, failed. It had been massive in scope. Out of 200,000 people martyred during the revolt, over 51,200 were Ulema. Not religious people, or religious-leaning people, or Muslims, but actual Islamic scholars. Edward Timus admitted that in Delhi alone 500 Ulema were hanged.
Tomson, a British Army general who fought in the 1857 Mutiny, wrote in his memoir: "If to fight for one's country, plan and mastermind wars against occupying mighty powers are patriotism, then undoubtedly Molvis were the royal patriots to their country and their succeeding generations will remember them as heroes."
The Ulema realized they needed a new plan in addition to armed struggle. A plan that would also refill their depleted ranks, because at this rate, they'd all be slaughtered before India was ever freed.
They then began to think about the problem of saving the community and action from the onslaught of atheism and Christianity that had come in the wake of the British rule in the sub-continent. They did so in order to prevent the so called ‘modern’ culture and civilisation from distorting their religious beliefs, conduct, actions and ways of thought.Indeed, no need to reinvent the wheel. People who claim 'Molvis' are backwards and opposed to learning and progress need only look to this example where they not only endorsed 'worldly' sciences, but endorsed even the Western institutions of them which were hitherto the leaders of the academic world. If Molvis truly were 'fundamentalist', they would have started adding courses for the physical sciences and other fields/arts directly into the curriculum of their schools, after all, the most senior Muslims of history were pioneers in these fields right along with fields of religious scholarship. The 'Molvis' just choose to keep their own personal lives devoted to preserving only the religious aspect because it is under particular assault.
Hazrat Maulana Qasim Nanotvi (Rahmatullahi Alayhi) and his colleagues together with their spiritual guide Haji Imdadullah unanimously decided that a chain of religious educational institutions should at once be started. It was also decided that the first institution of this kind should be started in the township of Deoband rather than in any big city. It was in accordance with these decisions that the foundation of Darul Uloom Deoband was laid on the 15 th of Muharram 1283 AH ( 21 st May 1866).
At that time it was simply called the ‘Islamic-Arabic Madrasa’ and soon came to be known throughout the world as ‘Ummul-Madaris’ (the mother of Madrasas). The founding of this madrasah led to the establishment of another at Saharanpur. Very soon, a whole chain of Madrasahs came to be founded which included Manz-ul-Uloom at Galauthi, Madrasah-e-Shahi at Murzdebad. One at Thana Bhavan, one at Mau and various others. All these institutions were in some way or other directly related to Darul Uloom Deoband.
In view if the difficult and trying circumstances threatening the very existence of the Islamic faith at that time, it was quite natural that the courses of study at Darul Uloom Deoband be kept very strictly within the confines of religious and theological study.
The Qur’an and Sunnah, Jurisprudence and Islamic Scholasticism were to be the corner-stone of the Syllabus, and other branches of learning such as grammar, literature, logic, philosophy and Mathematics were included only in so far as they helped in the study of the core subjects.
One important consideration was the fact that the learning of many languages and sciences would have a distracting effect on the students. Maulana Qasim Nanotvi said that this was so the student would devote himself to the modern sciences after he has perfected himself in the traditional ones. He clearly stated that the students of Darul Uloom should do well to go on to university or college to receive instruction in Modern Sciences after receiving religious education at Darul Uloom.
Another excerpt from Islamic Revival in British India; Deoband, 1860-1900 by Barbara Daly Metcalf:
In choosing Deoband, however, the founders did not cite these considerations or the amenities of the town as motives. Rather, to them, the decision had had divine sanction. Both Shaikh Ahmad Sarhindi in the seventeenth century and Sayyid Ahmad in the early nineteenth were said to have commented that an “odor of learning,” bu-yi ‘ilm, came from the very ground of the town. Maulana Rafi’u’d-Din dreamed of seeing the Ka’bah located in Deoband’s garden; of Hazrat ‘Ali founding a school whose pupils he later recognized as Deoband’s; and of the Prophet himself giving milk to students there. Such dreams not only endowed the location of the school with sanctity, but gave the founders a self-fulfilling confidence in their mission. It was said that all received simultaneous inspiration actually to found the school there.The influence of Dar ul-Uloom, Deoband outshone all other institutions of Islamic learning, even the famed Al-Azhar in Cairo, Egypt, which had a headstart of several centuries and relied on government support (and thus, suffered from political influence as well at times). It outshone the rest in the manner that the sun blots out all the other stars when it rises. A bit about it's reach today:
The madrasah began modestly in the old Chattah Masjid under a spreading pomegranate tree that still stands. The first teacher and the first pupil, in a coincidence deemed auspicious, were both named Mahmud: Mulla Mahmud, the teacher, and Mahmud Hasan, the pupil, who was later to become the school’s most famous teacher. Despite the timeless atmosphere surrounding this cherished vignette of its inauguration, the school from its inception was unlike earlier madrasahs. Its founders, emulating the British bureaucratic style for educational institutions, in fact eschewed the informal pattern of education that the scene under the pomegranate conjures up. The school was conceived of as a distinct institution, not relegated to a wing of a mosque or home and dependent on the parent institution. As soon as possible, it acquired classrooms and a central library. It was run by a professional staff, and its students were admitted for a fixed course of study and required to take examinations for which prizes were awarded at a yearly convocation. Gradually an informal system of affiliated colleges emerged. Many of the colleges were ultimately staffed by the school’s own graduates, and their students were examined by visiting Deobandis. Financially, the school was wholly dependent on public contributions, mostly in the form of annual pledges, not on fixed holdings of waqf or pious endowments contributed by noble patrons. The school was, in fact, so unusual that the annual printed report, itself an innovation, made continuing efforts to explain the organization of the novel system.
The graduates of Deoband can be seen giving instructions in the excellence of morals and conduct from the mimbars of mosques throughout the world. We can have some idea of the extent of the services rendered by Darul Uloom Deoband from the fact that the number of its Scholars who completed the syllabus exceeds 34,000 including almost 2,000 in the year 2005 alone. That is excluding graduates of the Qari and Mufti classes which mass up to an amazing 106,000.The vast majority of Islamic schools, mosques, and institutions in the West, especially in the UK, are Deobandi-affiliated. Hundreds of thousands of scholars the world over are directly taught or affiliated with the Deobandi schools. Dar ul-Uloom, Deoband itself has given way to the network that arose in Pakistan, naturally due to the latter being an Islamic Republic. Dar ul-Uloom, Karachi retains the largest following and there are hundreds if not thousands of affiliated madrassahs and institutions scattered all over every corner of Pakistan. Karachi today is probably the center for Sunni Islamic scholarship in the world, especially for Hanafis. The (sadly, only religious) equivalent of Baghdad or Damascus during the heyday of Islamic civilization over a thousand years ago.
From across the world for example, Afghanistan, Russia , China, Australia, America, United Kingdom, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, Iraq and many more.
The Tablighi Jamaat was born out of the Deobandi movement through Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Khandalvi and has a following of some millions of people worldwide on every continent. It is the true resurrector of the Sufic spiritual arts.
After reflecting on all this, can one truly say that considering the state of Islam, Muslims, and their lands today, that any of it would have survived at all without that institution in Deoband, Uttar Pradesh, India that started it all?
Back to the topic. With Islam in South Asia now safely anchored to the Dar ul-Uloom, the Ulema returned to their duties of trying to free India from the British. This culminated in the founding of 'Jamiat-Ulema-i-Hind' in 1919. The JUH continued the efforts of the Ulema, in close concert with the Indian National Congress. It was the JUH, in fact, which called for Self-Rule in India in 1917, before Congress or the still-obscure-at-the-time Muslim League. They also moved to the call for a fully independent and free India in 1924, a full five years before the Indian National Congress. Even the 'Quit India' movement was signed by the JUH five days before the Indian National Congress. At the time, the JUH synchronized it's efforts with the Congress party, foregoing armed struggle in favor of a new jihad. One of non-violent struggle, civil disobedience and non-cooperation. The JUH for a while represented all Muslims in the struggle for independence.
The Telegraph India:The Khilafat Movement was the demand by South Asian Muslims for the British to safeguard the Caliphate of the defeated Ottoman Empire. To this point the Muslim League remained distant and uninterested because it simply didn't care for actual religious things. Simple and general, but it's true. Most of its members were affluent, Western-educated and oriented. It wouldn't gain prominence until Jinnah took over and led it, though with increased popularity, the fact that the Muslim League was run by non-Ulema showed in how undisciplined it reacted to politics, and the same went for the Congress party. They fought bitterly and eventually Hindus and Muslims polarized into two camps behind these groups, and this was the biggest boon for the Muslim League. The British only happily exacerbated the situation. The JUH was stuck helplessly between the two sides, calling for Indian unity. It eventually even disassociated itself from the demand for an independent Pakistan and resigned itself to a purely Indian Muslim institution as the Ulema who could were sent to the Muslim League to help guide and lead those Muslims, led by Maulana Shabbir Ahmad Usmani who was the Shaykh-ul-Tafsir at Dar ul-Uloom.
The red-brick seminary nurtured the Jamait Ulema-i-Hind that facilitated Gandhiji’s political engagement with the Khilafat movement and emerged as a counter to the “modern and liberal” Aligarh Muslim University, which was perceived as more congenial to the interests of the British, rightly or wrongly.
The Dar-ul Uloom was the “nationalist” counterpoint to the more expansive vision of the AMU. Over time, the Jamait became an arm of the Congress, though after Gandhi and Maulana Azad, Indira Gandhi was the only Congress leader to visit the seminary — as chief guest for the centenary celebrations in 1980.
Maulana Shabbir Ahmad Usmani influenced Jinnah a great deal but could not convince him to turn Pakistan into literally a Deobandi state, a Hanafi Islamic State. Though Jinnah, who is rumored (by Shi'ites) to have been from a partly Shi'ite family, was personally influenced a great deal and became a 'kattar' Sunni. He had Maulana Shabbir Usmani raise Pakistan's flag on independence day as well as left instructions in his will for his janazah (funeral prayer) to be read by him as well.
The vision for Pakistan itself lent itself to the Ulema's urgings and came at the behest of Allama Iqbal who himself was earlier inspired spiritually and religiously by Allama Anwar Shah Kashmiri, who was the Shaykh-ul-Hadith at the Dar ul-Uloom, and later presided over the JUH as one of its presidents. Dr. Muhammd Iqbal had to the point been no more than a sensual poet, only flirting with Islamic ideas, in fact, even becoming associated with a Qadiyani students movement at one point. He repented at the hands of Maulana Kashmiri and even declared that the past 500 years of Islamic history could not produce another such as him. Like Jinnah, he too became an ardent Sunni, later reviving the long neglected arts of poetry and philosophy, eventually becoming the last truly major Islamic philosopher and Sufi poet in Islamic history to date.
The Ulema who went to guide the creation of Pakistan eventually formed the Pakistani equivalent to the JUH, the Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI). The scholars of Deoband aided the government post-independence and all the Grand Muftis (Mufti-e-Azams) of Pakistan were from among them. These included Mufti Muhammad Shafi who founded Dar ul-Uloom, Karachi and Mufti Mahmud, one of the Ulema opposed to Pakistan at first, who later led the JUI to success in elections, and against the socialist Zulfiqar Bhutto at that, an unrivaled feat.
The tradition of armed struggle and jihad did not die with independence, as the newly created Muslim nation of Pakistan often found itself at odds with, and drawn into conflict with, the mostly Hindu nation of India. Mufti Muhammad Shafi and the other senior Ulema did a great deal to advise the armed forces and government of Pakistan along Islamic lines of waging jihad.
In fact, the tradition of armed struggle against an oppressive occupying superpower reappeared with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Muslims of Afghanistan rebelled, refusing a fate similar to the other Soviet republics of Central Asia, and under the leadership of the Ulema graduating from the vast network of Deobandi madrassahs scattered across Afghanistan and especially in Pakistan, waged jihad once again. Mufti Mahmud co-signed the original fatawa from the Pakistani Ulema declaring an open jihad against the USSR to free Afghanistan. History is witness to the remarkable feat of the mujahideen in Afghanistan.
Regarding Deoband, an agency of the Indian government said in a study:
"One of the main objects of the Dar ul-Uloom was to provide the Indian Muslims with direct access to the original sources of Islamic learning, produce learned men with missionary zeal to work among the Muslim masses to create a truly religious awakening towards classical Islam, ridding the prevalent one in India of innovation and unorthodox practices, observances and beliefs that have crept into it and to impart instruction in classical religion.In response to which the incredulous reaction of one Indian journalist, Arun Shourie, was: "That praise for re-establishing orthodoxy in Islam, for purging it of 'bid'at', a condemnatory word for heretical 'innovation', for purging it of 'religious apostasy' which the study says had crept into it 'under Western or local influences', that approbation is from a publication of our secular government!" Surprising? After all, some Ulema associated with the JUH such as Maulana Azad later went on to hold senior positions in the first Indian government. Their contributions can never be masked from history, no matter how much hindu nationalists and others may try.
The Dar ul-Uloom has achieved this aim to a great extent, having been undoubtedly the greatest source of orthodox Islam in India, fighting, on the one hand, religious innovation (bid'at) and, on the other, cultural and religious apostasy under Western or local influences. It has succeeded in instilling in its alumni the spirit of classical Islamic ideology, which has been its motto. As a matter of fact, Deoband has established itself as a school of religious thought, a large number of religious Madrasahs were founded on its line throughout the country by those who graduated from it, thus bringing classical religious instruction to large sections of the Muslim masses. Some of these schools and colleges have in their own right become reknowned centres of learning..."