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John Mohammed Butt: The hippy who became an imam

Published

By Nadene Ghouri from BBC News
Deoband, India

John Butt

Forty years after following the hippy trail to South Asia, John Butt is still living in the region, and still spreading a message of peace and love – though now as an Islamic scholar.

As our car turned around the bumpy Indian road, a gleaming white marble minaret came into view. My fellow passenger, John Mohammed Butt, could barely contain his excitement.

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“Can you see it?” he asks. “It’s like the Oxford University of Islamic learning. For me these minarets and domes are just like the spires and towers of Oxford.

Darul-Uloom Deoband
John Butt is the only Westerner to have graduated from Darul-Uloom Deoband

“It’s been almost 30 years since I was last here and I am still getting the same thrill. This is my alma mater.”

The alma mater in question is Darul-Uloom Deoband, South Asia’s largest madrassa, or Islamic school.

Driving through the madrassa gates, we entered a world rarely seen by Western eyes.

Deoband was built in 1866 by Indian Muslims opposed to the then British rule. Little has changed since – winding streets and tiny courtyards lined with stalls selling fragrant chai, bubbling pots of rice and paintings of Mecca.

Everywhere are the Talibs, religious students, young men with dark-eyed fervent expressions carrying books or quietly reciting the Koran.

And in another scene reminiscent of Oxford, students riding bicycles.

A chai seller recognises John and runs towards him. “John Sahib, John Sahib.”

The two had not seen each other in decades, yet the man remembers him instantly. “John Sahib was the only student I ever saw who used to go jogging.

“There was only one John Mohammed – unique,” he laughs.

That is perhaps not so surprising, when you learn that John Butt remains the first and only Western man ever to have graduated from Deoband.

He showed me his old dormitory room, a windowless cell where he spent eight years in a life of virtual seclusion, living under a regime of prayer and Koranic study.

Imposing figure

But that is just one facet of this man’s extraordinary life.

A map showing India, Pakistan and Afghanistan

Aside from his time at Deoband, he has spent most of the past 40 years living among the fierce Pashtun tribes, who inhabit the lawless hinterland between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

He went there in 1969, he says, as a dope-smoking young hippy and never came home.

He laughs. “When people call me an ageing ex-hippy, I always reply that I am ageing maybe, but I’m certainly not ex. I’m still a hippy.”

John Butt cuts an imposing figure.

At 6ft 5ins (1.9m) tall, he sports a long white beard and alabaster skin that is almost translucent.

Dressed in flowing white ethnic robes, he reminds me of a Benedictine hermit monk or a Victorian explorer, swashbuckling straight out of the pages of an historical novel.

He tells me he adores the Queen, Stilton is his favourite cheese and that football is his passion.

Yet among the border tribes, he is regarded as a native Pashtun and revered as an Islamic scholar.

FIND OUT MORE
Nadene Ghouri profiles John Butt in It’s My Story: The Imam of Peace
Monday, 24 January, 2011
2100 GMT BBC Radio 4
Or catch up afterwards on BBC iPlayer

Home for him, until recently, was a tiny village in Pakistan’s Swat valley.

Swat was once a popular tourist destination but is now the scene of regular battles between the Pakistani military and the Taliban.

But back in 1969, the young John was hooked from the moment he saw Swat, describing to me snow-capped mountains, rivers like flowing jewels, forests and alpine pastures.

It was, he says, “like Tolkien’s Middle-earth, magical and other worldly” inhabited by tribal people who were “very pleasant, big-hearted, tolerant, easy-going and welcoming”.

When his fellow hippies grew up and went home to become accountants and lawyers, John stayed on – becoming fluent in the Pashto language and studying Islam.

But John’s world changed in the late 1980s, with the arrival of jihadists, who came to the border areas from all over the world to fight the war against the Russians in Afghanistan.

“I saw the rural, religious Pashtun way of life I had come to love so much being diluted, contaminated and poisoned, in particular by Arabs from the Middle East,” he says.

“The way they practise Islam is very different to the tribal areas, but they used money and influence to impose their own set of values.”

So he decided to fight for his adopted culture.

Peaceful Islam

In the early 1990s, he joined the BBC World Service Pashtu service and helped to set up New Home New Life, a now Iconic Afghan radio soap opera, known as The Archers of Afghanistan.

I’ve hired some of the best Islamic scholars in the region – pious, good and brave men

Six years ago, he set up a radio station which broadcasts across the Afghan-Pakistan border and which tries to promote tribal traditions along with peace and reconciliation.

More recently, John has switched his attentions back to Afghanistan and is spearheading the formation of a new Islamic university in the predominantly Pashtun city of Jalalabad.

“It makes perfect sense. There is currently nowhere in Afghanistan where a young man can do higher Islamic studies. They go to Pakistan, where as we know some of them have become radicalised,” he says, emphasising that his university will give a platform to moderates.

But this promotion of peaceful Islam by the English former hippy has set him on a collision course with militants. His beloved Pakistan has now become too unsafe for him.

Swat valley

“Swat is a militarised zone and people I see as foreigners there now treat me like I’m the foreigner, even though I lived there for 40 years.

“It’s hard to work out who is who any more – who is Taliban, who is criminal. The waters are very muddy.”

Last year, waters of another kind finally put paid to his idyll, when his house was washed away in the floods which devastated the area and killed thousands.

“It was a relief in some ways. When I lost the house, I knew I’d never go back there.”

Afghanistan has also become increasingly perilous after Taliban death threats.

The Taliban have delivered so-called night letters – notes hand-delivered in secret and at night for maximum impact – warning students not to study at the university and denouncing John as a Christian missionary or an “orientalist”.

Death threats have also been made to his teachers and staff.

“I’ve hired some of the best Islamic scholars in the region – pious, good and brave men,” he says. “They know this is for the benefit of Afghanistan and they insist they will stay working with me despite the dangers.”

As I said goodbye, he was planning to travel to Jalalabad on the local bus. We talked about the possibility of him being attacked and he admitted he could easily be killed.

But when I asked if he was scared, he brushed me off with a shrug. “You only die once. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow.”

Catch more of his story on BBC Radio  Jan 24th as

Nadene Ghouri profiles John Butt in It’s My Story: The Imam of Peace
Monday, 24 January, 2011
2100 GMT BBC Radio 4

Or catch up afterwards on BBC iPlayer

Keep supporting MuslimMatters for the sake of Allah

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Hena Zuberi is the Editor in Chief of Muslimmatters.org. She leads the DC office of the human rights organization, Justice For All, focusing on stopping the genocide of the Rohingya under Burma Task Force, advocacy for the Uighur people with the Save Uighur Campaign and Free Kashmir Action. She was a Staff Reporter at the Muslim Link newspaper which serves the DC Metro. Hena has worked as a television news reporter and producer for CNBC Asia and World Television News. Active in her SoCal community, Hena served as the Youth Director for the Unity Center. Using her experience with Youth, she conducts Growing Up With God workshops. hena.z@muslimmatters.org Follow her on Twitter @henazuberi.

22 Comments

22 Comments

  1. Abu Umar

    January 22, 2011 at 5:58 PM

    As I began to read the article, I was feeling very impressed mashaAllah by the dedication of this revert and his studies at Darul Uloom Deoband, which is the Al-Azhar of the subcontinent and an unrivaled bastion of Islamic learning.

    However, towards the end where it mentions that he thinks the solutions to Afghanistan’s problems lie in just setting up an Islamic university where “moderates” can flourish made me question his motives. Is the definition of “moderate” an Afghan who supports the drug-trafficking, corrupt, American poodle Karzai? The overwhelming majority of Afghans want foreign occupation forces out of their country as well as the present mix of corrupt warlords and criminal narcotics smugglers ala Karzai and his band of thugs. That is why the resistance continues to grow day by day; it could never flourish in a vacuum if it did not have local support.

    John Muhammad needs to understand that regardless of how pious his intentions are to promote Islamic learning, they will only bear fruit when there is peace and security in Afghanistan, when people are not terrorized by brutal warlords or bombarded by drones and B52 bombers. When Afghan people no longer have to walk their streets with fear of being gunned down by occupation troops or having their doors knocked down in the middle of the night or imprisoned and treated like animals in notorious torture centers in Bagram, Kandahar and elsewhere (as documented by the Red Cross and other organizations). Only when Afghans are free and have peace and security can all these noble projects like building Islamic universities take root. It’s like an ambitious young student wanting to get a PhD but without even learning how to read and write; undoubtedly, such endeavors are bound for failure.

    • PakistaniMD

      January 23, 2011 at 1:29 PM

      Side-stepping the question of whether or not the Afghan resistance or NATO occupation is legitimate, the fact is that the Taliban and AlQ are more dangerous than the coalition forces. It is Taliban and AlQ forces that kill and maim innocent civilians and kidnap numerous foreigners, not all of whom are military personnel. Numerous Taliban and AlQ factions also intentionally target civilians and those of minority ethic groups/sects. The Coalition does not intentionally kill civilians; there is a justice system in place to voice grievances against them. Currently, the only justice the Taliban and AlQ will receive is in the hereafter.

      The way I see it, a relatively corrupt, but functioning national Afghan gov’t is better than the backward ways of the Taliban + AlQ.

      What Imam John is doing is great, and I pray + hope for his success.

      • Abu Uumar

        January 24, 2011 at 1:44 AM

        Salam PakistaniMD,

        Rather than address my post, you turned to rave and rant against the Taliban. No one is asking you to agree with Taliban’s “backward” ways as you put it. Even they agree that they made mistakes the first time round, but at least there was peace and security in the country and drug smuggling was banned, which even the US grudgingly admits. So peace, security, Islamic law in place and no poppy cultivation is “backwardness” in your dictionary whereas corruption, nepotism, cooperation with occupying forces, repression, torture of prisoners is all ok and acceptable? I just hope you don’t use such a myopic standard of analysis when treating your patients, Doctor Sahib…

        And for your info, the resistance against occupying brutes involves all segments of Afghan society, not just Taliban. Hekmatyar was no Taliban ally before but his forces are also fighting to liberate their homeland. Your shameless sell-out attitude reminds me of those Muslim Indians of the past century who stooped to Sikh occupation in the Punjab and later on the British for so long that they lost any sense of chivalry and honor and bequeathed the same enslaved mentality to their children, who went on to form the “educated” class of Pakistanis.

        Fortunately, however, Afghans, by contrast, always kicked out their occupiers rather than lick their toes. They did that with the might British empire, later with the Soviets and the Yanks are headed down that same fate and they know it; hence the scramble for a negotiated exit.

        The fact that you question the right of an occupied people to resist their occupiers regardless of whether the resistance has faults or not (something guaranteed by all religions and legal systems and mandated especially by Islam about which there is no dispute in fiqh) shows the depths of your current state of confusion. Please learn the Quran and Hadeeth with its translation and know what is the truth and what is falsehood. May Allah remove the veil from your eyes and allow you to see the truth as truth.

        Last question: despite the corruption, evil actions and atrocities done by Pakistan in East Pakistan, do you think it was ok for India in 1971 to butt in and invade East Pakistan? If that was unacceptable then for the “Land of the Pure”, how can the presence of AlQ justify the wholescale invasion and occupation of an entire Muslim country for more than 9 years now? Is Afghan blood cheaper than Pakistani blood, Doctor Sahib? Search your soul and may Allah guide you away from the trap you have fallen into.

        • Hazara

          January 24, 2011 at 3:30 PM

          Did they admit that it was wrong to murder our people? All I see from Taliban apologists is that we were treacherous and therefore deserve to be wiped out from the face of the Earth. How do you explain that?

          People here again think oppression is okay as long as their beloved Taliban are doing all the oppression. What a joke you are.

          • newboy1331

            January 25, 2011 at 11:46 AM

            I agree Hazara – how the Taliban treated the Hazara was wrong, through blame could fall on both sides. However, is it fair to dismiss the Taliban as a whole because of these unfortunate incidents? During the Ottoman empire, the Armenians were treated far worse, bordering upon genocide in the latter years and yet we still find ourselves wishing that they were back. Numerous other such incidents could be pulled from Islamic history. We cannot dismiss the Taliban as a whole – their work is too important. However, we can find a way to expose and help the plight of the Hazara people – including (if anyone works in the region) talking to the resistance about the issue.

      • Omar

        January 24, 2011 at 1:53 PM

        It is quite odd, naive, and frankly ridiculous, to say the coalition does not intentionally kill civilians. They do, time and time again. They just have a powerful media spin machine at their disposal to hide it, or relabel it “regrettable collateral damage”. Even Karzai was angered by their complete disregard for civilian lives, killing close to a 100 villagers in a single strike just for a chance of getting a Taliban guy or two.

        Not to mention the inhuman practices by some coalition soldiers involving collecting Afghan fingers and body parts as trophies.

        • Mantiki

          January 24, 2011 at 5:27 PM

          I think that the US Government does not intentionally target civilians, however the US military seems to have a callous disregard for “collateral damage” dating back to Vietnam (think “they’re only gooks or ragheads”).

          As individuals, US marine recruits are pretty much from redneck or poor socio-economic backgrounds and are trained to be tough and that the locals are automatically to be suspected. I have in my book collection an account from a deserter from the Iraq conflict which details the callous disregard for local inhabitants he particpated in until he could no longer maintain self respect. This included the mid-night raids trashing houses of innocents looking for weapons, using heads of bomb victims as soccer balls, and tragically, what he suspects was the murder by fellow troops of a nine year old Iraqi girl who befriended him during periods he was on guard duty. Someone shot her head off with a high calibre round when she was walking across a road towards him.

          Its little wonder US troops have squandered any chance of support.

          • Omar

            January 25, 2011 at 9:40 AM

            And yet we never heard of these incidents you mention Mantiki. And when we do hear, they are somehow not too credible. Because of the all powerful spin machine that hides them, with government complicity.

            The problem is the public, including Muslims, subconsiously believe the information they have is “complete”, and don’t pay attention to the egregious selection bias, that 90% of Muslim crimes and only 10% of coalition crimes reach them through mass media. And somehow they conclude in the back of their mind “sure they invaded, but at least the coalition is civilized”

            A small wikileak showing horrible American crimes in iraq caused a stir. For a fair assessment, you need continuous wikileaks.

    • Mantiki

      January 24, 2011 at 4:36 AM

      There is no question in my mind that the USA has no legitimate business remaining in Afghanistan. The Americans have not respected the local villagers as a result of their brutal military training.

      But the tactics of resistance have been the cause of the continuing occupation. If the resistance had cooperated with the puppet Government of Karzi, the USA would have withdrawn forces years ago leaving the locals free to overthrow the Government or negotiate an end to corruption etc.

      • newboy1331

        January 24, 2011 at 1:01 PM

        @ Mantaki,

        Not here to say that the Taliban do everything right, but they do continue to talk to the Karzai governmnet, as Karzai himself said in an interview that he engaged in ‘countrymen to countrymen’ talks with the Taliban. The Americans didn’t like it. The ‘peace jirga’ set up by the Americans and Karzai’s government was created to try to induce the Taliban to surrender rather than have a negotiated peace. Abdul Saleem Zaeef – former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan – has been under the Afghan government’s protection when he was released from Guantanamo and has been involved in many regional peace initiatives. However, when he was approached to be a part of the ‘peace jirga’, he refused as he saw what the Taliban saw – jirga was never meant to create a stable negotiated peace, but was created to try to split the Taliban and weaken them. This was seen when American bombardments and night raids never decreased, but rather increased even when the jirga was created.

        Now there is talk that the Americans want to remove Karzai or ‘clip his wings’ because he is being overtly friendly to the Taliban and slightly hostile to the Americans.
        http://atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/MA25Df02.html

        • Mantiki

          January 24, 2011 at 2:45 PM

          I agree Newboy. Nothing is simple in the Middle-East (or anywhere for that matter). The Afghanis seem to have a choice between servitude, corruption or a medaevil interpretation of Islam.

          Putting myself in the shoes of American interests, there is no way they could avoid occupying Afghanistan given the Taliban refusal to handover Bin Laden following the twin tower atrocity. Now, it suits their interest to keep the region unstable until they can foster governments that guarrantee access to energy resources and that can contain possible expansionism from Russia and China.

          There is a win-win scenario if truly democratic governments (including democratic Islamic governments) could rise from this mess, but unfortunately the US seems to prefer despots whose loyalties can be bought.

          Also, the general population remains uneducated and seem to need or want “strong” leadership to keep order and stability.

          • newboy

            January 24, 2011 at 4:11 PM

            Well, you have to realize that most of us are uneducated about the nature of the insurgency as well. We allow the media with its assumptions and prejudices to give us the narrative without doing much research ourselves.

            True, the Taliban made mistakes and are still making them – no one is denying them, not even the taliban themselves. However, there are factions within the Taliban, from the radical to the more modern, and both are united in getting the foreign forces out of their country.

            http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/nov/26/taliban-afghanistan-occupation

            I came across this on CNN, while reading some of their archives – its dated Sept, 16 2001 – and Bin laden says “I have been living in the Islamic emirate of Afghanistan and following its leaders’ rules. The current leader does not allow me to exercise such operations,”

            http://articles.cnn.com/2001-09-16/us/inv.binladen.denial_1_bin-laden-taliban-supreme-leader-mullah-mohammed-omar?_s=PM:US

            Not to say that they are totally free of blame, but the US refused any offers from the Taliban to give Bin laden a fair trail, where the majority of the offers were quite reasonable.

            Some one had slapped an imperial power, and the imperial power needed destroy whoever did.

  2. Sarah

    January 22, 2011 at 7:18 PM

    MashaAllah, great read! JazakiAllahu khayrn for sharing.

  3. akhan

    January 23, 2011 at 12:42 AM

    That is some dedication. May Allah reward him for it.

  4. Kwame Madden

    January 23, 2011 at 7:05 AM

    Beautiful article a amazing human being I would say.John being the only Westerner to graduate from Deoband really surprise me I always thought there at least a dozen who graduated from this great insitution of higher learning.

  5. Nayma

    January 23, 2011 at 7:32 AM

    May Allah help him fulfill his dreams.

  6. Mansoor Ansari

    January 24, 2011 at 9:41 AM

    John Butt is the only Westerner to have graduated from Darul-Uloom Deoband

    I don’t think this is true. The masjid that I live close to has a Imam who graduated from Darul-Uloom Deoband. He did mention that while he was studying there, there were abt 1/2 dozen westerners who were studying there. By westerners, he meant white ppl who came from the west not desis who were western citizens. I m sure there some before his time & some after his…

  7. Pingback: John Mohammed Butt: The Hippy Who Became An Imam « The Muslim Voice

  8. repcrac

    January 25, 2011 at 7:11 AM

    At the end of the BBC programme about this Imam we hear that he has a wife and a baby child. Does this mean that he married for the first time at the age of about sixty? Just out of curiosity I’d like to know if he’s been married and / or had children before. Does anybody know?

    • Charlie Roots

      July 4, 2016 at 9:55 PM

      John Butt was married to a lady from London, around about 1990, not sure how long the marriage lasted but they had a child a girl.

  9. mudaser

    February 6, 2011 at 4:22 PM

    Afghans have done great service for islam in the past and i hope now and in the future it will be the Afghans who keep the light of Islam and show the zeal that they have shown for centuries. Afghanistan land of Men

    • Burogumsho

      March 8, 2012 at 12:00 PM

       …and women, its land of men and women

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