Darul Uloom Deoband and controversy have often gone hand in hand. In fact, whenever fatwa is mentioned it is Deoband that first comes to mind. The most recent fatwa to emerge from this 146-year-old seminary concerns photography. It was issued in response to a query from an engineering student who wanted to pursue photography as a career. In reply, Deoband, the undisputed Islamic authority in India, declared photography to be ‘unlawful and a sin’ and restricted its use only ‘for an identity card or for making a passport’. Mufti Abul Qasim Nomani, the vice-chancellor of the learned institution instructed the student ‘not to do this course’ and advised: ‘you should search any suitable job based on your engineering course’.
Darul Uloom Deoband, the father of the Deobandi creed, has issued a string of such fatwas. It would not matter if these fatwas were mere opinion. But they are treated and projected more as a decree, an order to be followed, and a defining proclamation about what is to be believed and not believed. The controversial fatwas of Deoband not only present Islam as obscurantist but also hinder Muslims in India from critically engaging with the modern world. But the Deobandi school of thought is not confined to India; it is a worldwide movement with global influence. And wherever we find Deobandis we find its fatwas being taken seriously.
The Deoband madrasa was established in May 1866 as a bastion of Hanafism. But like Hanafism, the school of choice for the Abbasid dynasty and the Ottoman Caliphate, it has a long history. Hanafism became dominant as an ‘official religion’ in India during the Mughal rule, thanks to the Hanafi scholars who came along with the conquerors from Central Asia. These scholars relied on the rulings of medieval Hanafi legal treatises such as the Hidaaya of al-Marghinani (d.1196) but also produced their own collections of rulings to address the needs of their time. The most famous of them all was the Fataawa-e-Aalamgiri commissioned by Aurangzeb Alamgir (1618–1707), the sixth Mughal Emperor. It is not just a collection of fatwas, as the name suggests, but a comprehensive legal text of the Hanafi law.