The beginning of the end of the war of terror has started. Mullahs in India have issued a fatwa unequivocally denouncing terrorism. So far, the international media have failed to notice, which is not surprising: the levers for changing Muslim minds have been a mystery to governments and media alike. The mullahs I speak of are not just any old mullahs: they are Deobandi mullahs.
The name Deoband, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, India, conjures awe and reverence in many Muslim minds. Established in 1866, Darul Uloom ("house of knowledge") Deoband is a religious seminary, second in importance only to al-Azhar in Cairo. The scholars who established it led the 1857 revolt against the British. Over the past century, the institution has played a leading role in fighting all the "isms", from imperialism and communism to neocolonialism. The Deo band brand is associated with standing up to those who seek to oppress Islam.
This made Deoband attractive to all who sought to fight the west for its real and imaginary persecution of Muslims. The "foreign jihadis" fighting in Iraq claim to be inspired by Deobandi teachings. Pakistani militant groups such as Jaish-e-Muhammad and Harkat-e-Islam, accused of kidnapping and suicide bombings, follow the Deobandi school of thought. The Taliban, from both Afghanistan and Pakistan, were educated in Deobandi seminaries. When aspiring terrorists go to Pakistan to study "Islam", they go to Deobandi establishments. Here in Britain, the Deo bandis are the second-largest group of south Asian Muslims. They control numerous mosques, some of which, allegedly, harbour young militants.
What the Deobandi scholars say about terrorism resonates. And this is what they say: "In Islam, creating social discord or disorder, breach of peace, rioting, bloodshed, pillage or plunder and killing of innocent persons anywhere in the world are all considered most inhuman crimes." Those who use the Quran or the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad to justify terrorism are perpetuating a lie. The very purpose of Islam, the fatwa says, is "to wipe out all kinds of terrorism and to spread the message of global peace". Muslims should not co-operate with people who spread the lie of terrorism; and those who do are "committing sin or oppression".
A fatwa is the legal opinion of an individual scholar - and, as such, it can be dismissed by other religious scholars. This fatwa, however, is signed not just by Maulana Habibur Rahman, the grand mufti of Deoband, but also by his three deputies. It comes from an institution and not an individual. "In the theological universe, it is the equivalent of a verdict of a full constitutional bench of a Supreme Court," says Javed Anand, the Mumbai-based Muslim activist.
But the Deoband scholars went further. To announce the fatwa, they organised a conference on "Anti-Terrorism and Global Peace". Held on 31 May at the Ramlila Ground in Delhi, the conference brought together all the main Muslim organisations, such as Jamaat-e-Islami Hind and the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. Vir tually all the Muslim sects in India, including Wahhabis, Sufis and Barelvis, were represented. Estimates of those attending vary from 10,000 to 70,000. One thing is certain: it was the greatest assembly of beards ever seen in India.
The gathering declared that jihad and terrorism have no connection. The very idea of a terrorist glorying in violence and describing himself as a jihadi was denounced as an abo mination. The conference saw terrorism as the greatest threat facing Muslim societies today. Finally, all the mullahs present signed an oath of allegiance: "We are bound by the fatwa of Darul Uloom Deoband and undertake that we shall condemn terrorism and spread Islam's message of global peace."
This fatwa, I suspect, will be much quoted in the coming years. Its importance lies not just in what it says, but in who is saying it. A fatwa, made binding through the oath of allegiance, is in my opinion canny and unparalleled in history. Every mosque in Britain, Deobandi or otherwise, should proudly display the ruling. We should start a campaign to sign up to the oath of allegiance - and proclaim from the rooftops that Islam has within itself the will and resources to end the abomination of violence. I will be happy to be the first to scribble my signature.