Traditionalist Islamic Activism: Deoband, Tablighis and Talibs


Article by Barbara D. Metcalf


…When the Afghan Taliban entered into the international spotlight at the end of the 20th century, no image was more central than what seemed to be their rigid and repressive control of individual behavior justified in the name of Islam. They set standards of dress and public behavior that were particularly extreme in relation to women, limiting womens movement in public space and their employment outside the home. The Taliban enforced their decrees through public corporal punishment. Their image was further damaged, particularly after the bombings of the East African American embassies in 1998, when they emerged as the ‘hosts’ of Usama Bin Laden and other ‘Arab Afghans’ associated with him.


Many commentators described the Taliban by generic, catch-all phrases like ‘fanatic’, ‘medieval’, and ‘fundamentalist’. The Taliban identified themselves, however, as part of a Sunni school of thought that had its origins in the late 19th century colonial period of India’s history, a school named after the small, country town northeast of Delhi, Deoband, where the original madrasa, or seminary, of the movement was founded in 1867. Many of the Taliban had indeed studied in Deobandi schools, but one spokesman for the movement in its final months went so far as to declare: ÔEvery Afghan is a Deobandi. This comment may be disconcerting to those familiar with the school in its Indian environment where its ulama those learned in traditional subjects and typically addressed as maulana were not directly engaged in politics and were primarily occupied inteaching and providing both practical and spiritual guidance to their followers. (The comment might also be disconcerting since it was suggestive of a regime shaped by ideals more than reality, given, for example, the substantial Shia element in the Afghan population.)


Another movement linked to Deoband came to international attention at the same time: an a-political, quietest movement of internal grassroots missionary renewal, the Tablighi Jamaat. It gained some notoriety when it appeared that a young American who had joined the Taliban first went to Pakistan through the encouragement of a Tablighi Jammat Missionary. This movement was intriguing, in part by the very fact that it was so little known and, despite not having any formal organization or paid staff, it sustained networks of participants that stretched around the globe.


The variety of these movements is in itself instructive: clearly, not all Islamic activisms are alike, and each of these movements deserves attention on its own. However, for all their variety, these Deoband movements were, in fact, alike in one crucial regard that set them apart from other well-known Islamic movements. What they shared was an overriding emphasis on encouraging a range of ritual and personal behavioral practices linked to worship, dress, and everyday behavior. These were deemed central to sharia divinely ordained morality and practices, as understood in this case by measuring current practice against textual standards and traditions of Hanafi reasoning. The anthropologist Olivier Roy calls such movements ‘neo-fundamentalist’ to distinguish them from what can be seen as a different set of Islamic movements, often called ‘Islamist’. Limited, as he puts it, to ‘mere implementation of the sharia‘ in matters of ritual, dress, and behavior, Ôneo-fundamentalist’ movements are distinguishable from Islamist parties primarily because, unlike them, they have neither a systematic ideology nor a global political agenda. A more precise label for them is, perhaps, ‘traditionalist ‘ because of their continuity with earlier institutions, above all those associated with the seminaries and with the ulama in general…”


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Traditionalist Islamic Activism: Deoband, Tablighis and Talibs

  • September 18, 2013
  • Zaharudin Nawi
  • Lesson / Penyelidikan

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