Islamic Studies Deoband Madrasa
SherAli Tareen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 March 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0019


The Deoband Madrasa is one of the most influential reform movements in modern Islam. It was established in the North Indian town of Deoband, Uttar Pradesh, in 1867 by a group of prominent Indian Muslim scholars (‘Ulama’). More specifically, the charismatic scholars Rashid Ahmad Gangohi (d. 1906) and Qasim Nanautvi (d. 1877) set the foundations of this educational institution of religious learning that has impacted the intellectual, social, and political history of South Asian Islam in profound ways. In the early 21st century, with its parent institution in India, the Deoband school boasts the largest network of satellite madrasas all over Pakistan, Bangladesh, neighboring countries in Asia and beyond, and as far afield as the Caribbean, South Africa, Britain, and the United States. Deobandi madrasas account for approximately fifty to sixty thousand institutions on the Indian subcontinent alone, with the largest concentration by far in India. However, it is important to stress here that although innumerable madrasas in various parts of the Muslim world call themselves “Deobandi,” their ties to the founding school in Deoband, which continues to exist in the early 21st century, may well be only tenuous or even nonexistent. This is an important point because it shows that quite apart from the physical institution of the madrasa, the term “Deobandi” also connotes a certain ideological strand of thinking, or a particular thought-style within Sunni Islam in the modern world. A staunch commitment to the canonical authority of Hanafi law and a renewed emphasis on the study of Hadith are arguably the two most defining elements of the Deobandi tradition. The curriculum of study followed at most Deobandi madrasas is known as the Dars-i Nizami, a corpus of texts introduced into the ’Ulama‘ traditions of South Asia by the influential 18th-century scholar Mullah Nizam al-Din Muhammad (d. 1748), founder of the Farangi Mahall School in Lucknow. The pioneers of Deoband systematized this very flexible curricular template according to their own ideological needs and sensibilities; most notably they deemphasized texts dealing with logic and philosophy and amplified the significance of Hadith studies. It must be stressed here that there is no such thing as a uniform and monolithic Deobandi tradition. In fact, historically and more recently perhaps the greatest strength of the institution has been the remarkable diversity of ideological temperaments, styles of argumentation, and projects of reform that populate its intellectual history.

General Overviews

The first major monograph specifically devoted to the institutional and intellectual history of Deoband was Metcalf 1982. This book is largely focused on the early years of the madrasa. It contains a rich array of information on the ideological foundations, the social context, and the lives of the institution’s pioneers. Metcalf 1982 attempts to present the cultural milieu in which the early luminaries of Deoband flourished as scholars and to explain the various modalities of religious reform that they sought to advance in the Indian public sphere. The next major intervention in this field was Zaman 2002, which in many ways is a paradigm-shifting work not only in the study of ‘Ulama’ traditions in South Asia but also in the field of contemporary Islam as a whole. Reetz 2006 is another important work that analyzes the contestations between various Muslim reformist groups in colonial India (from 1900 to 1947 more precisely), including Deoband, on competing conceptions of an ideal public sphere. A highly accessible and informative work that covers both early Deoband history and some of the late-20th- and early-21st-century intellectual trends found in the institution is Sikand 2005. This book mostly focuses on postcolonial India and treats a wide range of themes, including madrasa reform and the politics surrounding the association of madrasas with militancy. Moosa 2010, in Rethinking Islamic Studies: From Orientalism to Cosmopolitanism, represents a rare inquiry into the thought of Qari Tayyab (d. 1983), a major Deoband scholar who was also the grandson of one of the school’s founders, Qasim Nanautvi. Much work remains to be done on the various modalities of Sufism found in the Deobandi tradition. However, Kugle 2007 is an important contribution on the thought of Haji Imdadullah (d. 1899), the Sufi guru of Deoband’s pioneers. Part of a larger work on Sufi understandings of the body, the chapter on Imdadullah analyzes one of his seminal texts on meditation practices and exercises. For a historical treatment of the involvement of certain Deobandi scholars in the mutiny of 1857, Jalal 2008 on jihad in South Asia is a useful source. An excellent primary source on the contours of Deobandi ideology is Qarri Tayyab’s ʿ‘Ulama’-yi Deoband ka Dini Rukh awr Maslaki Mizaj (Tayyab n.d.). This compact yet detailed book tries to project Deoband as an ideology of moderation that is a composite of various knowledge traditions in Islam. The language of the text is quite simple and lucid. Zaman 2012 is a comparative transnational study of intra-‘Ulama’ debates and perspectives on contentious ethical and political questions in contemporary South Asia and the Arab Middle East. This book is a rare inquiry into the religious thought of major yet less known contemporary Deoband scholars.

  • Jalal, Ayesha. Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

    A study of various Jihad movements in colonial South Asia. It includes a chapter on the 1857 mutiny that will be of interest to students of the Deoband movement.

  • Kugle, Scott. Sufis and Saintsʾ Bodies: Mysticism, Corporeality, and Sacred Power in Islam. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

    A cross-regional and multitemporal work on conceptions of the body and religious authority in Sufism. Contains a chapter on the thought of the Sufi guru of the Deoband pioneers, Haji Imdadullah.

  • Metcalf, Barbara. Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860–1900. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.

    A pioneering study of the institutional, intellectual, and social history of the Deoband Madrasa, with a focus on its first few decades.

  • Moosa, Ebrahim. “History and Normativity in Traditional Indian Muslim Thought: Reading Shariʾa in the Hermeneutics of Qari Muhammad Tayyab (d. 1983).” In Rethinking Islamic Studies: From Orientalism to Cosmopolitanism. Edited by Carl Ernst and Richard Martin, 281–301. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2010.

    An analysis of the Deoband luminary Qari Tayyab’s work Ijtihaq aur Taqlid (Independent reasoning and authority) that seeks to theorize the agonistics of law, temporality, and history in Islamic legal theory more generally and in the thought of Deoband ‘Ulama’ in particular.

  • Reetz, Dietrich. Islam in the Public Sphere: Religious Groups in India, 1900–1947. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    An in-depth study of the various currents of contestation between the major Muslim reformist groups in colonial India.

  • Sikand, Yoginder. Bastions of the Believers: Madrasas and Islamic Education in India. New Delhi: Penguin India, 2005.

    A survey of Muslim traditions of learning in India. Largely focuses on the institutional history of madrasas in postcolonial India and the various challenges they face from both within and outside of Muslim communities in South Asia and beyond.

  • Tayyab, Qari. ʿ‘Ulama’-yi Deoband ka Dini Rukh awr Maslaki Mizaj. Deoband, India: Shuʾba-yi nashr wa ishaʾat, n.d.

    A systematic representation of the Deobandi ideology by Qari Tayyab, the former principal of the school and the grandson of one of its founders, Qasim Nanautvi.

  • Zaman, Muhammad Qasim. The ʿ‘Ulama’ in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

    A critically important monograph on ‘Ulama’ discourses in colonial India and Pakistan. Conceptualizes the agonistics of tradition and modernity in various texts and contexts, with a focus on the religious and political thought of Deobandi ‘Ulama’. It addresses the question of how the ‘Ulama’ of Deoband (and contemporary ‘Ulama’ more generally) articulate, contest, and defend their religious authority through various discursive and nondiscursive means.

  • Zaman, Muhammad Qasim. Modern Islamic Thought in a Radical Age: Religious Authority and Internal Criticism. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    A study of intra-Muslim scholarly debates and discourses on pressing contemporary question such as religious education, women’s rights, socio-economic justice and terrorism that focuses on South Asia and the Arab Middle East.

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