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A Fatwa against Fatwas

By Zaigham Khan

June 5, 2017

It is a fatwa against Fatwas. Responding to a fatwa issued by 31 prominent religious scholars, Maulana Sami ul Haq has repeated the arguments that form the core of the terrorist narrative in Pakistan and around the world. The fatwa and its rebuttal manifest the battle of ideas raging within the Muslim world. It also shows how the emasculated ruling elite end up supporting the wrong side of the divide.

The International Islamic University in Islamabad organised a national seminar last week that concluded with the issuance of a fatwa by scholars affiliated with various Muslim denominations. Condemning extremism and terrorism, the fatwa declares the supporters of suicide bombing as traitors, defines jihad to be the purview of the state and disallows the use of force to compel obedience to Islamic laws.   It is our strange times that make this fatwa stand out. Otherwise, it can be seen as a mere reiteration of the orthodox Islamic injunction that lay emphasis on obedience to the state to guard against social and political anarchy.

Maulana Sami ul Haq lashed back at the fatwa saying that the meeting of the US and Saudi leaders in Riyadh and the subsequent Ulema conference in Pakistan was an attempt to block jihad. He pointed out that the religious scholars who met in Islamabad had claimed that jihad could not be declared without permission of rulers. He argued that the rulers of the Muslim world were puppets of the West and could not declare jihad against their masters.

An international research institute has identified six narratives used by Al-Qaeda to justify their violence. The Maulana’s statement carries within it at least half of these: “1) There is a war going on against Islam, and the West is a major enemy; 2) Muslim rulers are agents of the West; and 3) Muslims have a duty to wage violent jihad in order to achieve justice.

Maulana Sami ul Haq is a leading religious scholar of the Deoband denomination. He is head of Darul Uloom Haqqania, one of the largest and most influential religious madrasas in the country. He is also head of a religio-political party (JUI-S) that has seen good days. However, his fame mainly relies on his links with the Taliban – both the Afghan and the Pakistani variants. He calls the Taliban his children and expresses pride on their link with his madrasa.

What I am trying to analyse here is the dynamic interaction between the three roles Maulana Sami has tried to negotiate – the scholarly, the political and the militant. Maulana Abdul Haq, father of Maulana Sami, taught at Deoband for five years (1943-1947) before moving to his native town, Akora Khttak in KP to set up his own madrasa. With the rise in the power and prestige of the madrasa, the Maulana got involved in politics from the platform of the JUI and was twice elected to the National Assembly. Maulana Sami inherited both roles from his father. He broke away from the JUI led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman to join Ziaul Haq and became a part of his unelected Majlis-e-Shoora.

By the 1997 elections, his party and political ambitions had almost been reduced to ashes. Thanks to 9/11 and support from Parvez Musharraf, his political fortunes was revived. He founded the Defence of Afghanistan Council in reaction to the US military attack on Afghanistan, which later transformed into Difa-e-Paksitan Council (Defence of Pakistan Council). This alliance also gave birth to the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal that won 63 seats in the National Assembly in the 2002 elections and formed governments in KP and Balochistan.

Though the MMA has been disintegrated and the Maulana has lost his eminence in electoral politics yet again, he is still the head of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (Defence of Pakistan Council), an umbrella coalition of more than 30 political and religious parties including a number of banned sectarian and militant organisations.

The website of Darul Uloom Haqqania states five objectives of the institution. While its first objective is to produce religious scholars, its second stated goal is to produce “men of action who can wage jihad against infidels for greatness of the word of God”. The fifth is to produce “such political activists/politicians who could confront oppressive rulers and save the nation from slavery of Jews and Christians.”

It appears like a burdensome mandate for a religious seminary. Luckily, the institution enjoys complete backing of “the oppressive rulers” who are “stooges of West”. Our interior minister is known for his defence of the Defence of Pakistan Council and his friend from Aitchison, Imran Khan, has granted Rs300 million to the Haqqania seminary through his government in KP (according to the World Bank only 44 percent schools in KP have basic facilities).

According to Imran Khan, the grant is meant for mainstreaming. So what is being mainstreamed here? A well known columnist was sued by Imran Khan when he wrote that Imran Khan has mainstreamed extremism in the country. The column is titled ‘The man who sold Pakistan’. I think it is unfair to single out Imran Khan here. It is the whole clean-shaven (and moustached) power elite that has sold us to people like Samiul Haq for narrow political objectives and warped ideas of security.

The narrative propagated by people like Sami ul Haq has proved disastrous and extremist groups have used it to justify violence and mayhem. We are just coming out of a bloodbath and cannot afford state patronage of such groups and their ideas.

While Sami ul Haq considers the ruling elite to be stooges of the West, terrorists consider most religious scholars stooges of the ruling elite and therefore stooges of the West. While Sami ul Haq has remained safe, a number of Deobandi scholars have been killed by their Taliban students.

I have no way of judging which set of Ulema are more pious and giving us the true interpretation of the sacred text. However, I know that I am citizen of a state called Pakistan and it is my right to demand safety, security and wellbeing from my state, its institutions and those at the helm of affairs.

After counting seventy thousand bodies, the state of Pakistan is still pondering about the counter-narrative. The chief of Nacta has given us the good tiding that the counterterrorism narrative will soon be ready. Thanks, but no thanks. The chief of Nacta should share the newly-minted narrative with his boss and he may share it with his childhood buddy. They need it more than the people of Pakistan.

We can do with two simple narratives used by all modern nation-states. The first is based on Weber’s idea that the state has monopoly over violence and no one can use force or pick up a gun without an explicit legal authority from the state.

The second is based on the social contract theory that binds state and citizens into an unwritten (and written in the form of the constitution) agreement. The social contract demands citizens to obey all lawful commands of the state while the state is required to work for their security and wellbeing.

PS: According to a recent report, out of 64 organisations banned by the government, 41 have a presence on Facebook. They happily operate 700 pages and groups, apart from individual user profiles. I wonder why 23 of these organisations have no presence on social media. Why can’t the cyber wing of FIA help them set up their social media accounts? They are after all no godless seculars or critical traitors.


Zaigham Khan is an anthropologist and development professional.