A few weeks before Abdul Rashid Ghazi died in a shootout with Pakistani special forces, he told me about a young woman who had asked him to make her a suicide bomber. I was drinking tea with Ghazi, the deputy leader of Islamabad's radical Red Mosque, in his small office just off the mosque's main entrance. Outside, a man a boy really, with barely a beard paced nervously, an AK-47 gripped tightly in his hands. Inside, one of Ghazi's assistants updated the mosque's website, which promoted his campaign to spread Shari'a, or Islamic law, throughout the land. Another assistant was affixing labels to a stack of newly burned DVDs portraying American "aggression" in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was these heinous acts, said Ghazi, that inspired his young female acolyte to seek martyrdom. "Had I wanted to use her, I could have, because she was completely ready. But I sent her back, saying we don't need her, inshallah [God willing]."
On July 3, Pakistani forces laid siege to the mosque complex, which had housed some 5,000 students, teachers and clerics plus a host of heavily armed militants. On the eighth day, after many had fled or surrendered, the soldiers raided the compound. Ghazi was killed, along with 11 soldiers, some 80 militants and a dozen women and children who may have been used as human shields. (The Red Mosque remains a magnet for violence: last Friday, a suicide bombing at a restaurant behind the mosque killed at least 13.) After the July 11 assault, the President, General Pervez Musharraf, addressed the nation. This was not a day of celebration, he said: "We have been up against our own people ... They strayed from the right path and became susceptible to terrorism." Then Musharraf posed wider questions meant for Pakistan but relevant, too, to the rest of South Asia: "What kind of Islam do these people represent? What do we want as a nation?" Today, 60 years after partition created Pakistan and India, Islam on the subcontinent is in the grip of a crisis whose central dilemma is the religion's place and role in modern society. It is a crisis 150 years in the making.
On the afternoon of March 29, 1857, Mangal Pandey, a handsome, mustachioed soldier in the East India Company's native regiment in Barrackpore, near Kolkata, attacked his British lieutenant with a musket, then a sword. At his trial Pandey swore that he acted alone, but his hanging a week later sparked a subcontinental revolt known to Indians as the first war of independence and to the British as the Sepoy Mutiny. Retribution was swift, and though Pandey was a Hindu, it was the subcontinent's Muslims, whose Mughal King nominally held power in Delhi, who bore the brunt of British rage. The remnants of the Mughal Empire were dismantled, and Bahadur Shah, the last Indian Emperor, was exiled to Burma. Five hundred years of Muslim supremacy on the subcontinent was brought to a halt.
Following the 1857 war, Muslim society in India collapsed. The British imposed English as the official language for both education and communication. The impact was cataclysmic. Muslims went from near 100% literacy in Urdu to 20% within a half-century. The country's educated Muslim élite was effectively blocked from administrative jobs in the government. Between 1858 and 1878, only 57 out of 3,100 graduates of Calcutta University then the center of South Asian education were Muslim. In the 1880s, only one Muslim was enrolled for every 25 students at the British-run colleges. While discrimination by both Hindus and the British played a role, it was as if the whole of Muslim society had retreated to lick its collective wounds.
From this period of introspection two rival movements emerged to foster an Islamic ascendancy. Revivalist groups blamed the collapse of their empire on a society that had strayed too far from the teachings of the Koran. They promoted a return to a more pure form of Islam, modeled on the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Others embraced the modern ways of their new rulers, seeking Muslim advancement through the pursuit of Western sciences, culture and law. From these movements two great Islamic institutions were born: Darul Uloom Deoband in northern India, rivaled only by al-Azhar University in Cairo for its teaching of Islam, and Aligarh Muslim University, not far from New Delhi, a secular institution that promoted Muslim culture, philosophy and languages, but left religion to the mosque. These two schools embody the fundamental split that continues to divide Islam in the subcontinent today. "You could say that Deoband and Aligarh are husband and wife, born from the same historical events," says Adil Siddiqui, information coordinator for Deoband. "But they live at daggers drawn."
The campus at Deoband is only a three-hour drive from New Delhi through the modern megasuburb of Noida. Strip malls and monster shopping complexes have consumed many of the mango groves that once framed the road to Deoband, but the contemporary world stops at the gate. Lost, my translator and I wander the campus in search of the guesthouse that Siddiqui indicated would be our meeting point. The courtyards are packed with bearded young men wearing long, collared shirts and white caps. The air thrums with the voices of hundreds of students reciting the Koran from open-door classrooms. My translator's requests for directions are met with averted eyes, vague gestures and mumbled responses. Finally we get an answer, but as we turn a corner, a voice calls out, "You are not supposed to be here; women are not allowed." That's not entirely true later that day Siddiqui takes me on a tour through the same courtyard but Deoband practices strict segregation between the sexes, and does not offer education to women. "They have their own institutions," says Siddiqui, waving vaguely in the direction of the gate.