The austere form of Sunni Islam that Afghan Taliban leaders follow is rooted in an Islamic seminary in Deoband, a city in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, in northern India.
It is an interpretation of Islam that is used by the Taliban to justify their clerical government and their goals of a hardline Islamic system.
The 82-year-old principal of Darul Uloom Deoband, the Islamic school in Deoband, told RFE / RL that he hopes the Taliban will be tolerant, fair and pragmatic. But he says he also supports the Taliban’s apparent desire to completely separate men and women in education.
Maulana Syed Arshad Madani says he believes the Taliban’s takeover of power in Afghanistan was a positive development because the Islamist movement liberated the country from foreign occupation.
“We will welcome them as long as they do not differentiate between the majority and the minority and protect the life, property and honor of everyone,” Madani told RFE / RL’s Gandhara this week.
“[The Taliban-led government] should not have two different criteria for people who are majority or minority, because Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic state with Tajiks and Uzbeks living alongside Pashto speakers, ”Madani said.
Since taking control of Kabul on August 15, the Taliban have appointed most of their top leaders, mostly Pashtun clerics, to top positions in the Taliban-led government.
The Taliban-led cabinet has only a few members of the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara minorities. Women, non-Muslim minorities or representatives of smaller ethnic groups such as Baluchis, Nuristanis and Turkmens are notably absent.
Likewise, members of other Afghan political groups are poorly represented in what the Taliban had promised to be an “inclusive” government.
Madani is adamant that her school currently has no ties to the Taliban, as none of its leaders have been educated at her India-based seminary.
But he says the Taliban have historic ties to the Deoband movement, whose leaders were fiercely anti-British and established an Indian government in exile in the second decade of the 20th century.
His aim was to liberate their country from the British through an armed struggle in cooperation with the Ottoman Empire, the Durrani Amir and the Pashtun tribes straddling the border of British India and Afghanistan.
After the British discovered the plot in 1916, Madani’s father, Maulana Syed Hussain Ahmad Madani, served a prison sentence in Malta with his teacher and Deobandi religious leader Maulana Mehmud Hasan.
Elder Madani then allied with Mahatma Gandhi and opposed the founding of Pakistan as the homeland of South Asian Muslims, arguing that nation states could not be founded on religion alone.
“Today, these Afghans who call themselves Deobandis are the children or grandchildren of those people who were associated with this movement and their government in exile,” Madani told RFE / RL, referring to the sect. Sunni Orthodox in South Asia.
Deobandis are an important strain among Islamists in Pakistan and Afghanistan today.
But unlike most Deobandis in Pakistan, where political parties established by Deobandi clerics engage in peaceful political processes, the Afghan Taliban have seized power twice by military conquest in the past quarter century.
Pakistani Sunni clerics who call themselves Deobandis have little contact with the original Deoband school in northern India.
Yet their schools follow Deoband’s curriculum. This program focuses on Islamic jurisprudence, interpretations of the Quran, theology, philosophy and the life and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.
The thrust of these studies is what the strict Sunni sect sees as the purification of current Islamic practices from unorthodox additions.
Many, if not all of the Taliban leaders and infantrymen were educated in these madrasas in Pakistan.
Alumni of Haqqania, one of the most important Deobandi schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in northwest Pakistan, hold many important positions in the current Taliban-led government.
Two members of the Haqqanis, a prominent Taliban family, are now Taliban ministers.
Some Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan have received funding from Saudi Arabia since Riyadh became a major donor to the Mujahedin guerrillas fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
However, Madani says he has no problem with the Taliban’s clerical government.
“There is nothing wrong with a government made up only of religious people who want to reform their country in a peaceful environment in the contemporary world,” Madani told RFE / RL. “If the ulemas (Muslim clerics) know the teachings of Islam concerning humanity and are able to deal with everyone without discrimination because of their faith, then that is a good thing.”
Madani says he supports the Taliban’s attempts to separate men and women.
“They demand that people observe the Islamic requirement of the hijab,” he said, referring to the Arabic word for veil, which denotes the Islamic concept that members of the opposite sexes should not mix if they are not related.
“Allah created women’s bodies differently from men’s,” he said. “They should dress in such a way that they do not create a fitnah,” or temptation.
Crescendo of Criticism
Since taking power, the Taliban have faced a crescendo of international criticism and national opposition.
This includes the protests of Afghan women who oppose the restrictions imposed by the Taliban and fear being deprived of jobs, education, mobility and public life.
The Taliban banned women from educating and working during their first term in power in the 1990s, when women were not even allowed to leave their homes without a male relative to accompany them.
The concerns of Afghan women were heightened last week when the Taliban delayed opening secondary schools and universities for girls after allowing boys and men to resume their education.
Madani cites the example of India, where dozens of universities and thousands of colleges are attended only by women.
“If this can happen in our country, what is wrong with the Afghan government wanting to do the same? He asked. “If the Afghan government can enforce [segregated education], it will mean that the door to girls’ education has opened. “
Madani encourages the Taliban to have peaceful and beneficial contact with the world.
“They should adopt all the ways of living in the contemporary world with honor and dignity,” he said. “While embracing their religion, the Taliban should relate to the world and aim to develop their country.”
Still, Madani says he’s not too keen on hosting Taliban leaders. He says Deoband School will only accommodate Afghan students if they get student visas from the Indian government.
He also seems reluctant to travel to Afghanistan to offer advice to the Taliban.
“I am 82 years old,” he told RFE / RL. “I can’t even go to a mosque. How can I get to Afghanistan? “