The place was India. Muslims felt under attack for their faith and took up arms to defeat the imperialist enemy. The battle that ensued resulted in a hardened core of elders retreating into orthodoxy. They founded a madrassa with the aim of fighting 'polluting' Western influences by teaching a purer form of Islam. Their aim: a world returned to the year zero, the year of the Prophet.
The above description sounds all too familiar with our collective memory still fresh with the horror of the Mumbai terror attacks last November. Yet this description does not refer to the post 9/11 world, hut the period in India that followed the 1857 Mutiny, now commonly referred to as the first Indian War of Independence or Great Rebellion.
The two momentous events lie over a century apart, yet they are inextricably linked by an ideology and movement, whose power resonates around the globe.
In 1866, nine years after the Indian Mutiny in which the British crushed the insurgency of Muslim and Hindu soldiers, a group of Muslim elders established a madrassa, or Islamic school, called Darul Uloom, the 'House of Knowledge', in northern India.
Nurtured by a hatred of foreign rule and cultural 'pollution', Darul Uloom promised to be a haven of Islamic purity and learning, based in the nondescript town of Deoband, in what is today Uttar Pradesh. The madrassa's spiritual ideology was forged in the fires of the Mutiny and would become known as Deobandi Islam.
In the 150 years that followed, its influence spread beyond India's borders and today it is seen as the most important Islamic academic institution in the world after Cairo's al-Azhar. Its ideology has been exported, adapted, corrupted and in extreme cases fused with Islamic militancy in sister madrassas on the lawless frontier of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Deobandi Islam is the ideological basis of the Taliban, its most famous alumnus is Mullah Omar and its supporters include Osama bin Laden.
For many years, Indian security chiefs have branded Darul Uloom a university of terror; its supporters, predictably, claim it as a revered seat of Islamic learning.
The influence of the founding madrassa has far exceeded the wildest imaginings of those who conceived its birth in 1866. While the media is awash with opinion on the sources of Islamic extremism today, little is known about the motivation of those men who made it their mission to return to the literalist and purist origins of their faith. What began as a mere ideology in Deobandi Islam in India in 1866 was made all too real in Afghanistan by the turn of the millennium.
So how did it begin?
The spark for the Mutiny, it is widely claimed, was a rumour among a group of sepoys that the British planned to force them to use the tallow of cows and pigs to grease their cartridges. Such an act was hugely offensive to both the cow-revering Hindus and the Muslims who considered the pig to be an unclean animal. This suspected sacrilege was enough to ignite a revolt in which Hindus and Muslims united against their British rulers. These sepoys are celebrated in India as heroes rather than insurgents, who defended the honour of their faith. Ominously, the principle of laying down one's life for one's faith was enshrined in the originating concept of Darul Uloom.
While 1857 ended in defeat for the sepoys, it planted the seed of resistance in the minds of some Muslim elders who realised that their community would be marginalised and punished for its role in the revolt. Disgust at suspected pollution of their faith, anger in defeat and fear of political impotence would lead a group to establish the madrassa in Deoband. The madrassa's official History of the Dar al-Ulum describes it thus: 'The men of Allah at that time, particularly those august men who had passed through this ordeal of blood and iron and had witnessed the corpses of Muslims biting the dirt and writhing in blood, were beset with this thought and anxiety as to where the caravan of knowledge and gnosis should be given asylum and what means should be adopted to take care of the faith . …