Given new security restrictions and internal obduracy, one of the region’s most important schools of Islam stands at a crossroads.
On a hot, humid July afternoon, 22-year-old Shah Alam is among the thousand-odd Muslim students squatting to work on their final exams in a madrasa in Deoband, in the northern tip of Uttar Pradesh. When he was 14, Alam (see pic) lost both of his arms in an accident; but he has since learned how to write with his elbows, and has enrolled in an eight-year course to become an alim, a religious scholar. He is among thousands of young Muslim men, from diverse ethnic, geographic and linguistic backgrounds, who have come to school in the small town of Deoband, to study various aspects of Sunni Islam, including logic, Islamic jurisprudence, Quranic studies, the history of literature and the hadiths. Yet despite a century and a half of crucial education work, today Deobandi seminaries find themselves struggling to continue to fund their work, and to prove to prospective students their continued relevance.