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Have Pakistanis Forgotten Their Sufi Traditions? Part – 2


By Rohan Bedi

April 2006

Geographical Concentration

Deobandi-Sunnis are generally found in the Pashtun belt from northern Punjab, across the NWFP, and into northern Balochistan, and also have a significant presence in urban Punjab and Sindh. Ahle-Hadith (Salafi) adherents are concentrated in Punjab. Sunni Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) adherents are generally found in urban centers.

Rural Punjab and Sindh are the domain of the shrine and saint culture represented by the Barelvi-Sunnis where they are dominant.

The Shia population is more moderate than the Sunni-Deobandis. Large Shia communities are found in Karachi, Southern Punjab and the Northern Areas (a part of the undivided state of Jammu & Kashmir, annexed by Pakistan in 1947-48. The Shias are dominant for now.) and parts of Balochistan.

History of Sectarian Violence

Some of the sectarian conflict can be seen as a class problem. Shias are a landlord community and the poor landless workers on their farms are mostly Sunnis. The Shia’s are not a single community - the Athna Ashari sect (the Twelvers) dominate Pakistan's Shia minority. Smaller variations of the Shia school include the Ismailis, Daudi Bohras and their rivals Sulemani Bohras.

The sectarian violence began with the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and the transformation of the secular Pakistani state by General Zia ul-Haq. The previously apolitical Shia community was galvanized by the events in Iran, while the Sunni community was empowered by events in Pakistan as well as foreign influences, Afghanistan and the US support for anti-Iranian Sunni groups. Iran has tried to counter Saudi influence through the funding of Shia madrasas in Pakistan.

Since most of the Taliban fighters in Afghanistan were Sunni’s from Saudi funded madrasas, this has led to sectarian violence against the Shia community that built up after the Afghanistan war was over - in Punjab, in Sind (Karachi) and Balochistan (Quetta). This is because the end of the war created bands of ideologically motivated and armed fighters looking for a cause.

While there is an anti-American element in the Shia community, most of the militancy and political activism is primarily a defensive response to Sunni-Deobandi militancy. More than 70 per cent of those killed in sectarian violence since 1985 have been Twelve Shias, whose religious rituals and gatherings are prime targets of terrorist attacks.

The sectarian violence in Pakistan is not due to any inherent intolerance, but is a form of foreign proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, led by some extreme clergy/ followers funded respectively by the regional champions of their respective brands of Islam.

Religious minorities like Hindus and Christians also complain of discrimination and have periodically been subjected to violent attacks by extremists. The extremist violence is beginning to impact intra-Sunni factions such as the Deobandis and Barelvis. This may also be a result of the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) policy of divide and rule in the Sindh.

Hence, sectarian violence is rooted in a complex web of social, political and economic factors, which are both internal and external.

17 The state of sectarianism in Pakistan, ICG, Asia Report No 95, 18 April 2005

An Experts View

Yoginder Sikand, a leading Islamic scholar, states “To say it like it is, much of the responsibility for fanning intra-Muslim sectarian strife rests with the traditional ulema of the madrasas. Unlike Christianity, Islam has no place for an official priesthood that can lay down the official doctrine. The ulema of the different sects can easily use the absence of a central religious authority that lays down the official doctrine in order to promote sectarian rivalry to advance their own vested interests. By dismissing other Muslim sects as aberrant they put forward their own claims of being the authorities of the sole authentic Islam tradition. Much of the focus of the fatwas (legal pronouncement in Islam issued on a specific issue) and the literature (eg, in the curriculum in the madrasas) that the ulema of the different sects produce is also geared to branding other Muslim groups as virtually un-Islamic.” 18

The financial aid given by Saudi Arabia, and other Arab countries, to madrasas (based on sectarian considerations) has proved to be the key in fuelling the process of sectarian violence. In some Sunni-Deobandi madrasas jihad (Holy War) against Shias is as much a religious duty (if not more) as jihad against non-Muslims. A culture of dialogue simply does not exist in such madrasas.

5. Fatwas – Controls Needed

Islamic law (Sharia) is not a monolithic body of rules and regulations. There are four Sunni schools of law (Hanafi (Barelvi, Deobandi); Maliki; Shafi; Hanbali (Wahhabi)) classed together as Ahle-fiqh. Although the Barelvis and the Deobandis follow the Hanafi school of Sunni jurisprudence, their interpretations of it radically differ. Barelvis represent oral orthodoxy cushioned by devotional practices; Deobandis represent literate orthodoxy with a strict adherence to the classical texts of Islam. 19 A later development is the Ahle-hadith school that believed that it is not Fiqh but the sayings of the Prophet which should be enforced as they are, since they contained fundamental and unchangeable law ie, after scrutiny, the Hadith occupies the same position and authority as the Koran. The Shias are also divided into sub-sects. Because Islamic law is based upon the hadith, rejection of some Sunni hadith (sayings of the Prophet and his companions) means that the Shia version of the law differs somewhat from the Sunni version. The Shia Hadith also includes the sayings of the Shia Imams who are considered to be divinely inspired. Shia legal interpretation, in contrast to Sunni interpretation allows more space for human reasoning.

The absurdity 20 of some of the Fatwas issued by the ulema in South Asia suggests that there is a need to reform the process of such Fatwas being issued and who is eligible to issue them. The Fatwa system concentrates power with the ulema who, depending on their background and the madrasa they were educated in, can issue Fatwas which in many cases are not based on the facts of the case, and do not reflect a modern view of situations. Depending on whether Islamic law is in force or not, the controls on issuance of Fatwas differ across countries. In Europe, the recent Fatwas issued after 7/7 reflect a modern approach in condemning the acts of violence, this should continue.

The Pakistan Ulema (scholars) Council is currently the top mainstream religious body that includes senior clerics from all branches of the majority Sunni sect. Its earlier Fatwas include jihad against America and its allies if they attacked Afghanistan.

In Pakistan, some Fatwas are reported to be issued under governmental pressure and direction, for example the Fatwa of May 2005 against suicide attacks on Muslims in Pakistan. However, the decree did not apply to those waging jihad and running freedom movements in places like Palestine, Iraq and Kashmir.

18 ‘Ecumenism and Islam’s enemy within’, Himal South Asian, March 2004

19 The state of sectarianism in Pakistan, ICG, Asia Report No 95, 18 April 2005

20 The book 'The World of Fatwas'by Arun Shourie, 2005 highlights the absurdity of many Fatwas

Without proper controls on the quality of Fatwa’s being issued, to ensure a modern and moderate Islamic viewpoint, there is the obvious danger that orthodox and radical Islamic ideas get perpetuated.

6. Madrasa Graduates - Masterminds or Foot Soldiers?

Not Masterminds

The 7/7 bombings in London were widely thought to be a result of brainwashing of the three Pakistani bombers in madrasas. However, according to news reports quoting sources at the Prime Ministers offices in Downing Street, there is no evidence that any madrasa was visited by any members of the cell at any point on their journey. So it may not be the case that madrasas are responsible for “brainwashing” the trio. There is considerable proof that the trio were radicalized in Yorkshire through the Islamist literature and videos that were available beneath the counter of their local Islamic bookshop. When they arrived in Pakistan, they were probably fully brainwashed and used their time making contact with al Qaeda and Pakistani militant groups to train in explosives. “Indoctrination” also occurs at local mosques and not just at madrasas.

A number of recent studies have emphasized the point that there is a fundamental distinction to be made between madrasa graduates – who tend to be pious villagers from impoverished economic backgrounds, possessing little technical sophistication – and the sort of middle-class, politically literate global jihadis who plan al Qaeda operations around the world. Neither Osama bin Laden nor any of the men who carried out the Islamist assaults on America or Britain was trained in a madrasa or was a qualified alim, or cleric. The French scholar Gilles Kepel says that the new breed of global jihadis are not the urban poor of the third world so much as the “privileged children of an unlikely marriage between Wahhabism and Silicon Valley, which al-Zawahiri (bin Laden’s chief of staff) visited in the 1990s. They were heirs not only to jihad and the umma (‘family’ of believers) but also to the electronic revolution and American style globalization”.

There are also other similar viewpoints. A fairly sophisticated analysis of the global jihadis is: Understanding Terror Networks by a former CIA official, Marc Sageman. Sageman examined the records of 172 al Qaeda-linked terrorists. His conclusions have gone against the conventional wisdom about who joins jihadi groups: twothirds of his sample were middle-class and university-educated; they are generally technically-minded professionals and several have a PhD. Islamic terrorism, like its Christian and Jewish predecessors, is a largely bourgeois enterprise with professionals spearheading it.

David Leppan the CEO of World-Check states - “A review of our suspected terrorist database underscores that the al Qaeda-type terrorist is very much an educated professional with a sophisticated network, including links with some Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs) in certain countries, to support their operations.”

Peter Bergen of John Hopkins University recently came to similar conclusions when he published his study of seventy-five Islamist terrorists involved in anti-Western attacks. According to Bergen, 53 percent of the terrorists had a university degree, while "only 52 percent of Americans have been to college."

The above analysis underscores some key points. By and large, madrasa students simply do not have the technical expertise necessary to carry out the kind of sophisticated attacks we have recently seen led by al Qaeda. Instead the concerns of most madrasa graduates remain more traditional: the correct fulfilment of rituals, how to wash correctly before prayers, and the proper length to grow a beard. In contrast, few al Qaeda agents seem to have more than the most basic grasp of Islamic law or learning. In reality, al Qaeda operatives tend to be highly educated and their aims, explicitly political.

The men who planned the September 11 attacks were not products of the traditional Islamic educational system, even in its most radical form. Instead, they are graduates of Western-style institutions. They are confused but highly educated middleclass professionals. Mohamed Atta was an architect; Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s chief of staff, was a paediatric surgeon; Ziad Jarrah, one of the founders of the Hamburg cell, was a dental student who later turned to aircraft engineering; Omar Sheikh, the kidnapper of Daniel Pearl, was a product of the London School of Economics. Faisal Devji of the New School, New York points out just how deeply unorthodox bin Laden is, with his cult of martyrs and frequent talk of dream and visions, all of which derive from popular, mystical, and Shia Islamic traditions, against which the orthodox Sunni ulema have long struggled.

Foot Soldiers

While the above is true of the al Qaeda leadership, it is not true of the foot soldiers that made up its ranks especially in the Taliban movement. Many of the Taliban who took control of Afghanistan in 1996 had emerged from Pakistan's madrasas. The 9/11 Commission report highlighted Pakistan’s deep involvement with international terrorism. The history of modern day al Qaeda terrorism can be traced back to the training camps of the Pakistanis in Afghanistan to fight in the Kashmir cause. This was fuelled by the Soviet occupancy of Afghanistan which led to the US funding of the jihadis.

The recent 2005 National Geographic Channel program ‘Inside 9/11’ leads to the undeniable conclusion that this process along with the climate of extremism bred in madrasas in Pakistan created the atmosphere for a few key terrorist leaders to emerge causing the events of September 11. While 15 of the 19 suspected hijackers (the implementers) were Saudis, the events of September 11 can be traced back to a few key Pakistani terrorist figures as the masterminds to the evil idea.

Whether the new lot of terrorists who are graduates of Western universities actually attend a madrasa is not very important, they are certainly influenced by the ideas of radical Islam bred in these institutions that are then exported/ publicized through the media/ mosques. The ranks and officers of the Pakistan army are also under a similar influence.

More directly, the Haqqania, one of the most radical of the madrasas in the NWFP was the training ground for many of the Taliban leaders, including Mullah Omar. Whenever the Taliban put out a call for fighters, the Director would simply close down the madrasa and send his students off to fight. In 1994 many of the Pakistan fighters in Afghanistan were religious students of the madrasas in Balochistan and NWFP, both lawless areas. A significant proportion of the madrasas in existence in Pakistan today are run by, or connected to, the radical Islamist political parties such as the MMM of the NWFP. ‘It is estimated that as much as 15% of Pakistan’s madrasas preach violent jihad, while a few have been said to provide covert military training’ 21 . Other estimates put the figure at 10% 22 . In any case with 100,000-200,000 students being educated at madrasas with links to Islamic militants, Pakistan is a virtual factory for producing Islamic extremists. Arabinda Acharya of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, IDSS Singapore says “ Many of these schools may not be open in preaching violent jihad and do so in small groups out of the limelight.”

The madrasa system is in need of reform as in Pakistan it is perhaps the only means by which much of the poor can get a free education.

7. Religious Beliefs – The Barelvi Angle

There is a tendency to view the Muslim community (and its segment of radicals) as a monolith, acting as a common unit with a common agenda and little dissent. This is far from the truth even though all sects follow the five pillars of Islam and believe in the six pillars of faith.

In Pakistan, the tenor of religious belief has been radicalized: the tolerant Sufi-minded Barelvi form of Islam is now out of fashion, overtaken by the sudden rise of the more hard-line and politicized reformist Deobandi, Wahhabi, and Salafi strains of the faith – propagated through their madrasas and through media reporting on their activites. For example, in late 2000 young religious students encouraged by radical madrasa teachers and local mullahs ordered the burning of television sets, video players and satellite dishes in a number of villages in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). ‘This is an ongoing process,’ said one mullah who helped organize a TV bonfire. ‘We will continue to burn TV sets, VCRs and other similar things to spread the message that their misuse is threatening our religion, society and family life.’

However, General Musharraf has never shown any sympathy for the Deobandi mindset. His claim that only 10 to 15% of the Pakistani people opposed his decision to align Pakistan with the US rested on the fact that some 15 per cent of Pakistan’s population who are Sunni Muslims consider themselves part of the Deobandi tradition.

Compared to the Deobandis, a far greater number some 60% are the Barelvis who have a moderate and tolerant interpretation of Islam based on Sufi beliefs.


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