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Have Pakistanis Forgotten Their Sufi Traditions? (Part I)

International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research IDSS Singapore

By Rohan Bedi, April 2006



1. Historical Shift in Approach 1

2. Pakistani Madrasas 2

. The Saudi Angle

. Quality of Education

3. Indian Madrasas 4

4. Sectarian Violence 4

. Geographical Concentration

. History of Sectarian Violence

. An Experts View


Have Pakistanis Forgotten Their Sufi Traditions?

The institution of madrasas or Islamic schools have a long history in undivided India going back to the sixteenth century as tolerant progressive schools. Their degeneration is a reflection of historical events, US foreign policy in need of reform, and also a lack of institutional alternatives for free public education in Pakistan. Rohan Bedii, author of the PricewaterhouseCoopers Singapore publication Money Laundering Controls and Prevention and senior AML implementation manager of a leading international bank explains. Ii


In the sixteenth century during the Mughal emperor Akbar’s time the curriculum in Indian madrasas blended the teachings of Islam and Hinduism. Hindu and Muslim students would together study the Koran (in Arabic), the Sufi poetry of Sa’adi (in Persian), and the philosophy of Vedanta (in Sanskrit), as well as ethics, astronomy, medicine, logic, history and the natural sciences.

Many of the most brilliant Hindu thinkers, including, for example, the great reformer Ram

Mohan Roy (1772-1833), were the products of madrasas.1

1. Historical Shift in Approach

In 1858, after the deposition of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, the self-confidence of the Muslim community in India was shaken.

Disillusioned scholars founded an influential but Wahhabi-like madrasa at Deoband, a hundred miles north of the former Mughal capital in Delhi. Isolated and dejected, the founders reacted against the perceived degenerate ways of the old elite and went back to Koranic basics.2 The new madrasa rigorously purged all Hindu/ European influences from the curriculum. Unfortunately it was these puritanical Deobandi madrasas that spread throughout north India and Pakistan in the twentieth century. The Pakistani madrasas particularly benefited from the patronage of General Zia ul-Haq and his Saudi allies in the1980s.

Ironically, the US also played an important part in spreading these Deobandi madrasas in order to use the students as soldiers in the Afghanistan jihad (Islamic holy war) against the Soviets. It is reported that the CIA financed the production by the USAID (US Agency for International Development) of some notably bloodthirsty madrasa textbooks filled “with violent images and militant Islamic teachings.” Estimates suggest that the US spent over US$7 billion to create an effective Mujahideen (Islamic guerrilla warriors or jihadists) force. Osama bin Laden the Saudi Billionaire, and the United States shared common objective, in fighting the Soviets. While the Americans were concerned only with winning the war in Afghanistan and defeating the Soviet Union, the Saudis had ideological and sectarian aims. The seed for 9/11 had been planted by the US themselves.In a sub-continent where most of the Muslim population are converts from Hinduism, the mental and cultural gap between the two communities was enhanced through the Deobandi madrasas. ortunately, the Deobandi school did not take a violent turn in India and evolved under the secular traditions of India unlike Pakistan where the schools were used to recruit anti-Soviet fighters.

2. Pakistani Madrasas

The number of Pakistani madrasas has grown from 250 in 1947 to around 10,000 in 2002 with over 1,500,000 students attending them.3 currently there are 13,000-15,000 madrasas with the highest concentration and highest rate of growth in number of schools in Southern Punjab.

The Saudi Angle

The primary reason for the exponential growth of Pakistani madrasas has been the access to foreign funding, primarily from Saudi Arabia but other foreign sources such as the US have also been common. The Saudi largess had more to do with domestic politics than altruism. The internal regimes stability and legitimacy rests in part on supporting local Mullahs (clergy) by funding their projects through the use of Islamic charities. The regimes support rests on one key pillar - the support and propagation of Wahhabi Islam, a fundamentalist form of Islam, both internally and externally. After the oil price boom of the 1970’ s the Saudis were able to support this effort, spending between US$3 and US$4 billion a year to support radical Islamic activities, The Saudis admit that the cumulative support has reached as much as US$70 billion.4. A fellow at the Centre for Security Policy, suggests that as much as three-quarters (75%) of all madrasa funding comes from abroad, and points to Saudi Arabia as by far the largest foreign contributor.5 The support for radicals is not confined to Riyadh. Teheran has also been spending its monies to spread its interpretation of Shiaism across the world, which has lead to a virtual proxy war between Teheran and Riyadh in Pakistan. Funds have also come from Libya, Iraq and several other Gulf countries, creating an intricately nuanced web of conflict. A 2002 study by the International Crisis Group (ICG) adds that Pakistani expatriates are another significant source of cash.

Starting in the 1980's, the four largest Wahhabi front organizations6 - the World Muslim League

(WML), the Al Haramain Foundation, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), and the

International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO) - became the main sponsors of Deobandi seminaries and jihadist organizations in Pakistan, as well as of the most extreme of the Afghan resistance groups and later of the Taliban and alQaeda (al Qaeda was also funded by private donors). The growth in Wahhabi groups in Pakistan continues today, at a very rapid pace.7

‘In Pakistan, so much Saudi money poured in that a mid-level Pakistani jihadist could make seven times the country's average wage. Jihad had become a global industry, bankrolled by the Saudis. US intelligence officials knew about

Saudi Arabia’s role in funding terrorism by 1996, yet for years Washington did almost nothing to stop it. Examining the Saudi role in terrorism, a senior intelligence analyst says, was "virtually taboo." Saudi largess encouraged US officials to look the other way, some veteran intelligence officers say. Billions of dollars in contracts, grants, and salaries have gone to a broad range of former U.S. officials who had dealt with the Saudis: ambassadors, CIA station chiefs, even cabinet secretaries.’ 8 Finally, the Wahhabi/Deobandi symbiosis extends beyond Pakistan. With the help of Saudi money, Deobandi and Jamiat Ahle Hadith clergy and supporters have increasingly taken over the mosques of Great Britain's 750,000 Pakistani Muslims and steered them in an extremist direction. As a result, the United Kingdom has become a major source of funding for terrorist Pakistani groups.9 In Indonesia, the Bali bombings were the work of the Lashkar-i Jihad movement that emerged from a group of Saudi funded madrasas. Saudi-funded charities have been implicated in backing jihadist movements in some 20 countries10.

Sect in Pakistan Population % Madrasa 11 Numbers Madrasas % & Brand of Islam

Shia (Shiite)                   20%          500           4(Mixed tending to Puritanical)

Sunni- Ahle- Hadith (Salafi) 4%        400                 3(Puritanical)(12)

Sunni (Deoban di)          15%          8351        (incl. branches 4(Puritanical)12

Sunni Jamaat-e- Islami 3 No known   700 6             (Extreme) (12)

Sunni (Barelvi)                 60%        1700                 13(Moderate)


TOTAL 13,000 100

While the Wahhabis make up only 2% of the worlds population, they have used their oil revenues to suppress/eradicate the moderate and tolerant Sufi philosophy. The Saudis now dominate as much as 95 per cent of Arabic language media and 80 per cent of the mosques in the US are controlled by Wahhabi Imams (clergy). Saudi oil wealth has both promoted the theological environment that has allowed the ideas of groups such as al Qaeda to flourish,

while also funding them directly.14 As a direct result of this Saudi influence, a growing number of Muslims internationally have been taught a story of Islamic tradition which completely excludes Sufism, justifies violence and breeds a strong dislike towards non- Muslims.

Some 60% of Pakistanis are ‘Barelvis’ who have a moderate and tolerant interpretation of Islam with only 13% of the madrasas Over 70% of the madrasas preach the brand of the 19% ‘Deobandi- Salafi-JI’


Quality of Education

The madrasas are today a parallel education system catering for a significant proportion of Pakistani children. While there are some madrasas in Pakistan that are well-run schools teaching both Western and Islamic subjects side-by-side, a large number have an outdated curriculum. The emphasis is on rote learning rather than a critical study of the Koran. Considerable prestige is still attached to becoming a haiz ie, knowing the Koran by heart These madrasas do not teach the philosophy of Islam, nor the literature but focus on the rules/traditions of Islam and the life/sayings of the Prophet (the Koran, hadith (sayings of the Prophet and his companions) and fiqh (Islamic law). In many the world view propagated is of a Zionist-Christian-Hindu conspiracy to undermine the Islamic world. These conspiracy theories are used to explain away problems without carefully analysing the real roots of the problems, and thereby absolving Muslims of any responsibility in the matter. Most ulema (Muslim Islamic jurists responsible for interpreting the Sharia (Islamic law)) imagine that if a student internalises the Koran and the teachings of the sect, all the personal and social problems would be automatically solved. In some madrasas, the ulema may be blindly translating the Fatwas of a Saudi cleric without taking the social context into account, which would require different responses on a range of issues. These factors, along with the lack of exposure to the social sciences and to the sciences, allows these madrasas to graduate simple minded students, unable to fit into a modern, plural society. Those that do teach some non-religious subjects rely on ancient sources. In some Pakistani madrasas, for example, medicine is taught through a text written in the eleventh century. There are some Sunni-Barelvi madrasas – the Minhajul Qu’ran schools that have dropped the emphasis on religious studies and students can opt for this only after ten years of normal modern education. This is a good model that the government should consider making other madrasas adopt. After the events of September 11, President Musharraf has commenced a reform process of the madrasas backed by US funding, albeit this is a long-term project and for now the Pakistani government is not taking the hard road on many issues. 3. Indian Madrasas While India was originally the home of the Deobandi adrasas, such colleges in India have no record of producing violent Islamists, and are strictly apolitical and quietist. The leader of the campus of Darul Uloom in Deoband, India, said in a 2002 interview ‘We are Indians first and then Muslims’ .However, their educational agendas are in need of reform and the approach of the ulema in ‘looking at all questions and offering solutions simply in terms of theology and jurisprudence, divorced from empirical social realities’ 15 is very much prevalent in most of the puritanical Indian madrasas. Some Indian madrasas can be forward-looking and dynamic. In Kerala, there is a chain of educational institutions run by the jahid group of professionals and businessmen that aims to bridge the differences between modern forms of knowledge and the Islamic worldview.

4. Sectarian Violence

Sectarian conflict in Pakistan is the direct consequence of state policies of Islamisation andmarginalisation of secular democratic forces16. Pakistan is a land of strife between the Shias(20%) and Deobandi/Salafi Sunnis (19%) and also another small sect called the Ahmedisho were declared non-Muslims in the 70s. The 9/11 Commission Report, July 2004 states “The Baluchistan region of Pakistan (KSM’s ethnic home) and the sprawling city of Karachi remain centres of Islamist extremism where the U.S. and Pakistani security and intelligence presence has been weak.” Other regions include the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Waziristan. With 68 per cent of its population living in rural areas, Pakistani Punjab is still a agrarian society. Except for some rural pockets in southern Punjab and around industrial towns such as Gujranwala and Faisalabad, militant sectarianism has not taken root in the villages.

But urban areas are hard hit by sectarianism and awash in jihadi movements. oughly 75% of all members of al-Qaeda captured by the US and its allies since 2001 have been seized in the borderlands through a series of Pakistani military operations.

Geographical Concentration

Deobandi-Sunnis are generally found in the Pashtun belt from northern Punjab, across theNWFP,nd 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 blochistan.

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 arachi) 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 Twelver 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 ooted in a complex web of social, political and economic factors which are both internal and external.

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.



1 The Week, 11 December 2005

2 The Week, 11 December 2005

3 Pakistan: Madrasas, Extremism and the Military, ICG Asia Report

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

(4 ‘The Pakistani Time Bomb’, Alex Alexiev, Center for Security

Policy,Commentary, March 2003

5 "Education and Indoctrination in the Moslem World" Andrew

Coulson, Policy Analysis, March 2004

6 “Contrary to Saudi propaganda and Western reporting, these foundations are not "private and charitable" but invariably statecontrolled and-financed.” Reference – ‘The Pakistani Time Bomb’

(Foot Note 5)

7 ‘The Pakistani Time Bomb’, Alex Alexiev, Center for Security Policy,Commentary, March 2003)

8 The Saudi Connection - How billions in oil money spawned a global terror network, David E. Kaplan, U.S. News, December


9 ‘The Pakistani Time Bomb’, Alex Alexiev, Center for Security Policy,Commentary, March 2003

10 ‘Hearts, Minds, and Dollars’, David E. Kaplan, U.S.News, 25

April 2005

11 The state of sectarianism in Pakistan, ICG, Asia Report No 95,

18 April 2005

12 Around 10-15% overall preach violent Jihad/ a few provide military training

13 The Sunni Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) avoids sectarian tags; its madrasas are the pioneers of jihad Independent (not affiliated to any clergy union)

1349 10 (Unknown)

14 ‘The terror the West cannot face’, William  lrymple, 3 July 2004

15 ‘Madrassa Reforms in India’, The South Asian, January 06 2005

16 The state of sectarianism in Pakistan, ICG, Asia Report No 95,

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

18 April 2005

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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