Deoband and resistance to the Raj


By Shahid Siddiqui

The 1857 war of freedom brought together different strata of society to liberate India from foreign rule. A number of religious leaders, who were descendents of Shah Waliullah, took an active part in the freedom struggle.

Maulana Imdadullah Makki, Maulana Rasheed Ahmed Gangohi and Maulana Qasim Nanautvi fought the war of freedom at Shamli. One of their colleagues, Hafiz Zamin, laid down his life fighting against the British. The war of independence ended with the apparent victory of the British who brutally killed the freedom fighters with their more sophisticated weapons and trained army. The freedom fighters had a strong passion for freedom but lacked central command, training and modern weaponry.

The post-1857 period was thus a nightmare for the forces of freedom. A large number of Indians were killed during the war while hundreds of them were captured and hanged publicly. And a large number of freedom fighters were put behind bars or sent to the Andaman Islands. This situation was bleak and discouraging for those who wanted freedom. The voices of dissent were completely silenced and there was no room for setting up a political party or openly challenging the British Raj.

In this state of despair and dejection, the group of religious leaders that participated in the 1857 war got together and came to the consensus that resistance to the Raj had to be revisited. They decided to set up an educational institute and prepare students ideologically to confront the British.

Darul Uloom Deoband, 1950. Shaykh Husain Ahmad Madani teaching Bukhari to the advanced students.

Thus, nine years after the war of independence Darul Uloom Deoband was established at Chatta Masjid in Deoband in 1866. Deoband town is situated in the south of Saharanpur, around 90 miles from Delhi. Haji Abid Hussain was instrumental in collecting funds from people. Maulana Mehmood alias Mullah Mehmood was appointed as the first teacher at Darul Uloom Deoband on a salary of Rs15 per month. The first student of Darul Uloom Deoband was Mehmoodul Hassan, who was later given the title of Shaikhul Hind.

By the end of the first year the number of students increased to 78. The first head teacher was Muhammad Yaqoob who was appointed on Rs25 per month. The first administrator was Syed Abid Hussain. For the proper running of Darul Uloom Deoband a majlis-e-shoora was established. Maulana Qasim Naunotvi’s role in the darul uloom is central; his futuristic vision could see a bright future for Darul Uloom Deoband. It was on his suggestion that a much more spacious new building was constructed to house a larger number of students. The construction of the new building was started in 1875, nine years after its humble start at Chatta Masjid in 1866.

Darul Uloom Deoband’s distinction was that it did not get a single penny from the government. It also refused to accept funding from rich people. Funds could, however, be accepted from ordinary people. This was a conscious decision – to have an independent policy as Darul Uloom Deoband was not an ordinary madressah and was meant to be a centre for revolutionary forces.

The imposing entrance of Darul Uloom Deoband, circa 1950.

There was a conscious effort to have a curriculum that was directly linked to real life. A conscious decision was taken to take out philosophy from the curricula to make it more practical. Besides curricula, pedagogy played a very important role. The teachers, besides teaching religious knowledge, infused a passion of freedom in the students.

Though there was an obvious difference in the approaches of Aligarh and Darul Uloom Deoband, there was a mutual relationship of respect. It was proposed that the students of Darul Uloom Deoband would go to Aligarh to study English and the students of Aligarh would come to Darul Uloom Deoband to study Arabic. That programme, however, could not be sustained.

The outcome of the teachings at Deoband paid off and a number of graduates of Darul Uloom Deoband played an active role in the freedom struggle. Maulana Mehmoodul Hassan, the first student there, played a vital role in the independence struggle. He is known as the architect of the ‘Silken Letters’ movement which was aimed at gathering the support of different countries to liberate India from the British Raj.

Maulana Mehmoodul Hassan, Maulana Hussain Ahmed Madni and Maulana Uzair Gull were caught and sent to Malta. After his release from Malta, Maulana Mehmoodul Hassan joined the Jamiatul Ulema to join the struggle for freedom. In 1926, the Jamiatul Ulema announced complete freedom from India.


Postage stamp in the honour of the great Maulana Madani

Maulana Mehmoodul Hassan also advised his disciple Maulana Ubaydullah Sindhi to move to Kabul; the latter stayed there for seven years and met with important people to muster support for freedom. A blueprint was made for a provisional government of India.

The experiment of Darul Uloom Deoband was important as it gave hope to the dejected Muslims after the 1857 war of independence. The religious leaders had felt that the time was not right for direct war. The resistance mode was changed and Darul Uloom Deoband’s establishment provided a platform for those who wanted to study Islam.



The oldest section of Darul Uloom Deoband Masjid Qadeem during Dhuhr prayer circa 1950. It still stands today.

Darul Uloom Deoband, however, was not a traditional madressah. Apart from Islamic teaching, it was also a vibrant institution that would inculcate love of freedom among its students. Besides its modified curriculum of Dars-e-Nizami, the pedagogical approach linked the studies with the socio-political situation of India. As a result, the students of Darul Uloom Deoband were not just exposed to religious subjects but were also trained to have political awareness. That is why a number of its graduates dominated the political scene of India in terms of the struggle for liberation of India from the British Raj.

Darul Uloom Deoband thus pioneered the trend of putting up resistance against hegemonic structures through education. This strategy was later followed by a number of Indian national leaders who used educational institutions to resist the British Raj.

Darul Uloom Deoband 21.3.1980  Stamp and First Day Cover


The writer is an educationist.