The Taliban were known for their oppressive rule. They ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, at which point they were pushed out of power by U.S. and British troops. Under the Taliban rule, religious minorities and other Muslims who did not share their fundamentalist understanding of Islam were not tolerated. The Taliban also severely restricted the rights of women and girls.
As scholars who research ethno-religious conflicts in South Asia, we have studied the origins of the Taliban's religious beliefs. The roots of this ideology — Deobandi Islam — can be traced to 19th-century colonial India.
Deobandi Islam emerged in India in 1867, 10 years after a major Indian nationalist uprising against the rule of the British East India Company.
Two Muslims clerics, Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanautavi and Maulana Rashid Muhammad Gangohi, were behind the setting up of the Deobandi school. Their aim was to indoctrinate Muslim youth with an austere, rigid and pristine vision of Islam. At its heart, Deobandi Islam was an anti-colonial movement designed to revitalize Islam.
This school of Islamic thought had a very particular understanding of the faith. The Deobandi brand of Islam adheres to orthodox Islamism insisting that the adherence to Sunni Islamic law, or Sharia, is the path of salvation. It insists on the revival of Islamic practices that go back to the seventh century — the time of the Prophet Muhammad. It upholds the notion of global jihad as a sacred duty to protect Muslims across the world, and is opposed to any non-Islamic ideas.
The first madrassa — or Islamic school — to educate Muslim youth in the Deobandi tradition was set up in the north Indian state of present-day Uttar Pradesh toward the end of the 19th century.
In the years and decades after the independence of Pakistan, Deobandi madrassas spread across Pakistan, and one of their principal causes of political activism became India's treatment of Muslims in the Indian-controlled portion of Jammu and Kashmir.
According to one estimate, by 1967 there were as many as 8,000 Deobandi schools worldwide and thousands of Deobandi graduates mainly in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Malaysia.
The CIA's covert involvement in the war fueled Islamic militancy and inadvertently helped organize and orchestrate a resistance movement mostly composed of ardent religious fighters. A substantial number of these Afghan fighters were drawn from the Deobandi madrassas, especially the Pashtuns, who played a leading role in the resistance.
During that time, the Deobandi madrassas also gained financial assistance. This assistance, as scholar Thomas Hegghammer writes, came mainly through American aid dollars meant for Pakistan and money from Saudi Arabia.
Driven out of their homes in Afghanistan, the dispossessed young Afghans thrived in the refugee camps, in part due to ties of ethnicity as Pashtuns. Drawn to a religiously based offensive against what they deemed to be an infidel, or foreign occupier, they became ready recruits to the anti-Soviet cause.
Many of the Taliban's key leaders and fighters, including Mullah Omar, the founder of the organization, had studied in the Deobandi seminaries in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
When Afghanistan plunged into a civil war in 1992, various factions of the anti-Soviet resistance vied for power. Among them was the Northern Alliance, a group that India and Russia had backed and was under the leadership of an ethnic Tajik, Ahmed Shah Massoud, who resisted the Taliban and acquired an almost mythic status.