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Have Pakistanis Forgotten Their Sufi Traditions? (Part 2)

International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research IDSS Singapore

By Rohan Bedi, April 2006



5. Fatwas – Controls Needed 6

6. Madrasa Graduates - Masterminds or Foot Soldiers 7

. Not Masterminds

. Foot Soldiers

7. Religious Beliefs – The Barelvi Angle 9

. The Philosophy of Sufism

. The Barelvis versus Deobandis

. The Shias and Sufism

. The Best Bet

. The Governments Approach to Sufism

. The Governments Approach to Minorities

8. Other Key Issues 12

. Nationalism – Punjabi Domination

. ISI – A Key Player

. Islamic Army


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 18 ‘Ecumenism and Islam’s enemy within’, Himal South Asian,March 2004 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 i.e., after scrutiny, the Hadith occupies the same position and authority as the Koran. The Shias are also divided into sub-sect 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 absurdity20 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.

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: two thirds 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 adrasa 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 f 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 arelvis who have a moderate and tolerant interpretation of Islam based on Sufi beliefs.

The Philosophy of Sufism

Sufism has historically provided Islam with an alternative to orthodoxy and has won it most of its converts The Sufi Islamic traditions evolved over history with a degree of interaction with Hinduism on the sub-continent. It is a school that includes philosophers and mystics. Sufism embraces the Koran and most of Shia and Sunni Islam's beliefs. Sufis believe that Sufi teachings are the essence of every religion, and indeed of the evolution of humanity as a whole. The teachings of Sufis prohibit taking the life of any innocent human being. Sufis generally feel that following Islamic law or jurisprudence (or fiqh) is only the first step on the path to perfect submission; they focus on the internal or more spiritual aspects of Islam, such as perfecting one's faith and fighting one's own ego (nafs). Jihad, according to Sufi beliefs, is purging one’s mind of evils and fighting against them by controlling material desires Sufism is a moderate open-indeed philosophy that does not reject non-Muslims. To quote the view of a staunch Barelvi “The Prophet stressed the rights of one’s neighbours, and these include non-Muslims, and said that he who gives unnecessary sorrow to his neighbour would go to hell”. Another Sufi says “No religion, properly interpreted, allows for killing innocent people”. A Barelvi Islamic scholar says ‘Killing an innocent Hindu just because he isn’t a Muslim is certainly not a jihad’. In a legitimate Islamic jihad non-combatant non-Muslims must not be harmed. Rather, he says, they must be protected. 23 In Pakistan with the spread of Deobandi madrasas, this sort of world-view is being negated. The Sufis focus on personal spirituality. They believe that God can be found in the human heart, an intuition shared by both Muslim and Hindu mystics, that paradise lay within - if you could find it. As the great mystic Jalaluddin Rumi put it: “The heart is nothing but the sea of light… the place of the vision of God.” he Sufis believe that all existence and all religions were one, merely different manifestations of the same divine reality. What was important was not the empty external ritual of the mosque or temple, but simply to understand that divinity can best be reached through the gateway of the human heart- that we all have paradise within us, if we know where to look. The central concept in Sufism is "love". Sufis believe that, love is a projection of the essence of God to the universe. God desires to recognize beauty, and as if one looks at a mirror to see oneself, God "looks" at itself within the dynamics of nature. Since everything is a reflection of God, the school of Sufism practices to see the beauty inside the apparent ugly, and to open arms even to the most evil one. This infinite tolerance is expressed in the most beautiful way perhaps by the famous Sufi philosopher Mevlana: "Come, come, whoever you are. Worshiper,

Wanderer, Lover of Leaving; ours is not a caravan of despair. Though you have broken your vows a thousand times...Come, come again, Come." The Sufis succeeded in bringing together Hindu24 and Muslim in a religious movement which spanned the apparently unbridgeable gulf separating the two religions. For Sufism with its Holy Men and visions, healings and miracles, and its emphasis on the individual’s search for direct knowledge of the divine, has always borne remarkable similarities to Hinduism, and from the beginning the Sufis acted as a bridge between the two religions.25One of the greatest Sufis Ibn Arabi, who lived more than 700 years ago expresses the universal spirit of the journey: 26 “My heart has become capable of every form: It is a pasture for gazelles And a convent for Christian monks And a temple for idols And the pilgrim’s Ka’ba And the tables of the Torah And the book of the Koran. I follow the religion of love: Whatever way Love’s camels take, that is my religion and my faith”


The Barelvis versus Deobandis

The Sufi-minded Barelvis believe that there is no contradiction between practicing Islam and drawing on the subcontinents ancient religions practices. For the Barelvis, the holy Prophet is a superhuman figure whose presence is all around believers at all times. Barelvis emphasise a love of Muhammad, a semi-divine figure with unique foreknowledge. The Deobandis, who also revere the Prophet, argue he was the perfect person, but still only a man, a mortal. The Barelvis follow many Sufi practices, including use of music (Qawwali) and intercession by their teacher. A key difference between Barelvi and Deobandi is hat Barelvi’s believe in intercession between humans and Divine Grace. This consists of the intervention of an ascending, linked and unbroken chain of holy personages, pirs, reaching ultimately to Prophet Mohammad, who intercede on their behalf with Allah. The Barelvis regularly offer prayers to holy men or pirs, both dead and alive. It is a more superstitious - but also a more tolerant – tradition of Islam in the Indian sub-continent. Their critics claim that Barelvis are guilty of committing Prophet lived his life).27” Deobandis reject Sufi approaches and many are likely to describe this school as ‘Mumbo-Jumbo’.


The Shias and Sufism

The Shia’s also having a Sufi tradition (though not as strong as the Sunni-Barelvis because of the influence of the conservative Iranian Shias). The founder of Pakistan Muhammed Ali Jinnah was a moderate Ismalia-Shia. Ismalis are clearly identified with esoteric and Gnostic religious doctrines associated with Sufism. Barelvi Sunnis are generally more tolerant of Shia rituals (than the puritanical Deobandi Sunnis) and even participate in their ceremonies.28 The Northern Areas in Pakistan have an ancient Sufi culture (Shia and Barelvi-Sunni) which is under threat by radicals

The Best Bet

Since Pakistan’s creation, Barelvis, who make up 60% of the population, have been the most effective obstacle against Islamic radicals. Richard Kurin, an American academic, studied life in a Pakistani village and provided some interesting insights into the lesser known and more liberal/tolerant side of the population. Mainstream Sunni Barelvis have been conspicuous by their absence from militant organisations. With rare exceptions, Barelvi groups, as a matter of rule, are non-violent29

The Governments Approach to Sufism

The post-colonial Pakistani government put Sufi shrines under the control of the Auqaf Department (the government department of religious endowments) seeking to weaken the powers of the spiritual heirs of the saints. . The pamphlets published by the department expunged the miraculous from the legends, repainting the lives of Sufi saints in a conservative light. The powers of the department were expanded over time and the same policy remains today. The qaf Department, under then President Zia, preferred graduates of the Deobandi- Sunni School and hundreds of mosques that were being run by Barelvis thus fell into Deobandi hands. . Similarly Deobandis were given preference as preachers in the military. . Distribution of zakat funds were lopsided in favour of Deobandi, Ahle-Hadith and JI madrasas (Zakat, according to Qur’anic injunctions, cannot be used for mosques or educational projects like madrasas) The Auqaf Department and puritanical Deobandi-Salafi-JI Sunni movements have considerably weakened Sufi Islam and its Barelvi component; despite this effort it still has the largest following.

The Governments Approach to Minorities30

The US Department of State’s ‘International Religious Freedom Report’ November 2005. Provides a grim picture of Pakistan’s treatment of minority faiths. The extracts below highlight that a serious problem of discrimination against minorities exists in Pakistan perpetuated by the

Government itself: “The Government fails to protect the rights of religious minorities. Discriminatory legislation and the Government's failure to take action against societal forces hostile to those who practice a different faith fostered religious intolerance and acts of violence and intimidation against religious minorities.”. “Sunni Muslims appeared to receive favourable consideration in government hiring and advancement. All those wishing to obtain government identification documents as Muslims have to declare an oath on belief in the finality of the Prophethood, a provision designed to discriminate against Ahmadis.”. “Religious minorities, including Shia, contended that the Government persistently discriminated against members of their communities in hiring for the civil service and in admissions to government institutions of higher learning. Promotions for all minority groups appeared limited within the civil service.”

. “Members of minority religions volunteered for military service in small numbers, and there are no official obstacles to their advancement. However, in practice non- Muslims rarely, if ever, rose above the rank of colonel and were not assigned to politically sensitive positions.”

. “A chaplaincy corps provided services for Muslim soldiers, but no similar services were available for religious minorities.” “The blasphemy laws were routinely used to harass religious minorities and liberal Muslims and to settle personal scores or business rivalries.” [In spite of this the government has not had the will to push through reforms albeit an attempt was made.]

The above opinion is the official view of the US Government, which regards Pakistan as a key ally in its global war on terror. It is an unbiased view underscoring that the government of Pakistan needs to set a better example of ‘enlightened moderation’. Besides the above, the Pakistani administration has run a ruthless programme from 1988 to turn the Shias into a minority in the Northern Areas through resettling Sunnis from Punjab and the NWFP. The Shia revolt of 1988 was brutally crushed by Musharraf himself purportedly with help from Osama bin Laden31.

8. Other Key Issues

Nationalism – Punjabi Domination

Importantly, the history of Pakistan suggests that most of the secessionist/ autonomy movements whether the Bengalis (Bangladesh), Sindhis, Balochis, Mohajirs, Seraikis or the Pukhtoons are a reaction to the attitude of Punjabi Muslims who have dominated the political landscape and the army. Even Kashmiri Muslims are now wary of Pakistan for the same reasons. This trend needs to be reversed as this environment breeds extremist Islamic parties.

ISI – A Key Player

The ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) is a very powerful Islamic institution that is often accused of being “rogue”. However, its efforts to back the Taliban and to foster the Kashmiri insurgency were state-approved. In neither case was the ISI proceeding without the sanction of the military and political leadership. The fact that many of the senior officers do not work in the organization on a permanent basis, but are seconded from the army, clearly works in Musharraf’s favoured and limits the growth of an institutional ‘ISI view’. Since the ISI was supplying and training Islamic radicals who had been active in Kashmir, there are bound to have misgivings with regards to Musharraf’ s current policies though there is no indication that they are attempting to overturn these policies.

Islamic Army

The Pakistani army is a significant Islamic institution that needs to be de-Islamised. To quote an editorial in the armed forces weekly journal Hilal in 1996: “By Allah’ s grace no other official, semi-official or non-official institution of Pakistan has been so attached and devoted to Islam in thought and action as the armed forces of Pakistan. Throughout the whole world, yes throughout the world, no armed force is so irrevocably devoted to Islam as the Pakistani armed forces.” In March 1996, for example, Hilal ran an item that described the proper role of the ‘The Soldiers of Allah’. It was clear to all those who read Hilal that while some elements of the army remained as modernist as ever, others had the passion and the confidence to advance a radical Islamist agenda. Furthermore, without the support of the top generals, it would be impossible to publish such articles in the Hilal. The ‘beard counts’ at annual ceremonies inducting new officers into the army has been steady at 15 per cent, though many say that at the top of the army only a tiny percentage could be described as having strong religious views and this would remain the case through the process of imination. The radical Islamist sentiment of some former Pakistani soldiers is plain for all to see in the Tanzeemul khwan movement (Islamic movement to introduce Muslim law throughout Kashmir and to prevent Hindu Kafirs from resettling in Kashmir). Based in a madrasa 90 miles from Islamabad, the organization is made up of retired Pakistan army personnel. Furthermore, since General Zia’ s time, the students of Deobandi madrasas were favoured over the Barelvis in the recruitment of preachers in the military and this trend is still visible.32 The implications of such trends are profound. Should there ever be an Islamic-based challenge to Pakistan’s existing system of government the attitude of the army would probably be decisive. If it were ever faced with mass Islam-inspired street protests in Pakistan, some men may not obey an order to fire on the masses and the army might split in this event. This can be a disaster if these factions turn rogue and join the fundamental Islamic groups.



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

21 ‘A Largely Bourgeois Endeavor: Al Qaida-Style Terrorists are not the Type Who Seek out Madrasas’, William Dalrymple, Guardian UK, July 20 2005

22 ‘Can Pakistan Reform?’, Robert T. McLean,, January 5 2006

23 ’Hindu-Muslim Relations in Jammu: Alternative Ways of Understanding Islam’, Qalandar, March 2005

24 Even today many Hindus worship Sufi saints like Sai Baba of Shirdi

25 ‘The Real Islam’, William Dalrymple, TimeAsia Magazine 2004

26 The Mystics of Islam, by R. A. Nicholson, first published in 1914, is a classic and definitive introduction to the message of Sufism

27 on Barelvi Islam 28 The state of sectarianism in Pakistan, ICG, Asia Report No 95,

18 April 2005

29 Pakistan: Madrasas, Extremism and the Military, ICG Asia

Report No 36, 29 July 2002 as amended on 15 July 2005

30 International Religious Freedom Report, US Department of State, and November 2005 31 Musharraf’s Ban: An Analysis, South Asia Analysis Group, 18 January 2002

This paper is written by Rohan Bedi (

Disclaimer: The opinions in this article are the authors own and does not represent the organisation in which he works and is/was associated with. i Rohan Bedi is closely associated with the ICPVTR and has coauthored a July 2005 paper “AML/CFT – New Policy Initiatives” with Arabinda Acharya, Associate Research Fellow and Manager Strategic Projects, ICPVTR, IDSS, Singapore. ii References - this paper is based on facts from the book ‘Pakistan – Eye of The Storm’ (2002) by Owen Bennett Jones and other sources credited separately in the footnotes. The book is a detailed account of the history, politics and religious beliefs of Pakistan and is an excellent and riveting reading. The author of this paper makes no claim on being an Islamic scholar and has used the different sources attributed in the paper to construct an agenda for reform. He believes that the problem of terrorism in Pakistan must be viewed in a historical context with an in-depth understanding of the religious sects and the philosophical beliefs of the majority of Pakistanis.

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