- Associated Press - Thursday, March 3, 2011

NEW DELHI | One of the world’s most revered schools of Islamic learning, with strict interpretations of the Koran that inspired the Taliban, is facing a revolt against its newly appointed reformist leader - an MBA with a Facebook fan page.

Guns have been fired, accusations of idolatry tossed about, and the student body of 150-year-old Darul Uloom in the northern Indian town of Deoband has been riven into rival factions.

The turmoil was to have come to last month, when the council that named Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi to lead the legendary seminary just in January will decide whether to fire him. The council has yet to announce a decision.

Mr. Vastani, who has promised to modernize the curriculum and rein in hard-line religious edicts, is facing a determined campaign by opponents who want to take control of the powerful institution for themselves and have hammered him for comments that appeared to praise a Hindu leader loathed by Muslims.

“People are angry with Vastanvi,” said Arif Siddiqi, secretary of the powerful Islamic organization the Jamiat Ulema-I Hind, which is confident it has the votes to oust him.

Raging power battles are not unprecedented at the institution, which has 4,000 students and, as the center of the Deobandi school of Islam, is seen as the spiritual light for thousands of other schools across the Middle East, Britain, the United States, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Much of the Taliban leadership attended Deobandi-influenced seminaries in Pakistan.

It was founded in 1866 by Mohammed Qasim Nanautawi to preserve Islamic culture in India and preaches an austere form of Islam its founders regarded as authentic.

The school’s legacy is complex. While it has inspired many anti-Indian groups, it has been strongly pro-India itself, with some of its leaders even serving in parliament.

It has courted controversy with recent fatwas - religious edicts - barring women from working with men and forbidding the purchase of insurance policies. Yet it also earned praise for its 2008 ruling that terrorism and the killing of innocents violate Islam.

For much of its history, the school was controlled by Nanautawi’s heirs, until the early 1980s, when a rival cleric, Asad Madani, orchestrated a virtual coup and installed an ally to lead the school.

After Madani died in 2006, his brother, Arshad, and his son, Mahmood, split in a bitter rivalry. When the cleric who led Darul Uloom for three decades died in December, the family fight enabled Mr. Vastanvi - whose daughter is married to Arshad Madani’s son - to win election as his replacement.

Mr. Vastanvi, 60, himself has strong credentials as a modernist reformer, having started another Islamic educational institution in western India more than three decades ago. With a philosophy of combining modern education with Islamic studies, it churns out hundreds of doctors, teachers and engineers as well as Islamic scholars every year.

After being named head of Darul Uloom, Mr. Vastanvi announced plans to establish medical, engineering and pharmaceutical schools to supplement Islamic education. He also said he would maintain tighter control of fatwas.

Barbara Metcalf, former president of the American Historical Association and a leading scholar on Deobandi Islam, said Mr. Vastanvi seemed to be “a breath of fresh air” among an old guard too focused on old issues, including Muslim victimhood and defense of Urdu, the language of many in India’s Muslim minority.

“He comes in addressing what a new generation is saying are the real interest of Muslims: education, employment, integration into the mainstream,” she said.

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