Deobandi ʿulamāʾ and Violence in Pakistan (part 1 of 2)


On December 16, 2014, a little after 10 am, seven Ṭālibān insurgents stormed a military-run public school in Pes̲h̲āwar. Armed with guns, explosives stretched to their bodies, they opened fire at students and teachers, killing 144 people including 134 children, and burning teachers alive. It was one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in the history of Pakistan. Taḥrīk-i Ṭālibān Pakistan (TTP or Pakistani Ṭālibān) proudly claimed the responsibility for this attack as part of their Jihād against the Pakistani state.

Since 9/11, the Pakistani state and particularly Pakistan’s Pas̲h̲tūn-majority Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) have become the victim of these terrorist attacks after hundreds of militants took refuge there after the collapse of the Taliban government in Afghanistan. The foreign and local militant groups created an umbrella organization Taḥrīk-i Ṭālibān Pakistan to fight the Pakistani state owing to Pakistan’s decision to be the front-line state in the war against terror. TTP carried out suicide attacks on schools, mosques, and public places since then. These areas were already neglected in terms of resources and development plus the presence of hundreds of militants and several military operations in these areas have disrupted the traditional dynamics of this region.

Deobandi ʿulamāʾ has been able to strengthen their authority beyond the interpretation of the scripture, and leading prayers in these Pas̲h̲tūn-majority Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and KPK province since the birth of Pakistan and have developed a considerable influence on the population through direct engagement in politics and social movements (Haroon, 2008). During the Afg̲h̲ān resistance against Soviet invasion and later during Ṭālibān’s first rule, majority of Pakistani Deobandi ʿulamāʾ of this area and the population had been outspoken supporters of the Afg̲h̲ān Ṭālibān. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Afg̲h̲ān Ṭālibān have enjoyed ideological and ethnic support from these areas.

With this background in mind, many policy, and security analysts regard these militant attacks as a byproduct of the Deobandi theology and its religious education institutes (madrasas), the sectarian denomination of the majority population of FATA and KPK (Kamran, 2016). Based on the majority of Pakistani Deobandi ʿulamāʾ’s role in providing legitimacy and material support to the Afg̲h̲ān mud̲j̲āhidīn against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and later for Afg̲h̲ān Ṭālibān’s rule, Deoband tradition is presumed as an ideology for Islamist militancy. Such approaches understand Ṭālibān as part of a perceived notion that Deobandi theology eventually leads to the formation of terrorist organizations (Kamran, 2016). These studies attempt to explain the relationship of the Deobandi ideology with terrorism with reference to the Afg̲h̲ān Ṭālibān. They use this simplistic logic that the Afg̲h̲ān Ṭālibān were associated with the Deobandi educational institutes (madrasas) and therefore the Pakistani Ṭālibān also belong to the Deobandi madrasas and thought. This simplistic reductionism ignores the specific and complex local milieu and political histories that shape and continues to influence the evolution of the Deobandi thought.

Furthermore, this narrative fails to grasp the theological bases of Deobandi ʿulamāʾs commitment to the state of Pakistan. More importantly, it overlooks the struggles and sacrifices against these militant groups of those Deobandi ʿulamāʾ who belong to the tribal areas of Pakistan. Taking further the discussion started by Rüdiger Lohlker (on the RaT-blog), in this essay, I intend to give an overview of the complex, ever-evolving diversity of the Deobandi thought. Another goal of this essay is to cite important denunciations of violence by Deobandi ʿulamāʾ’, highlighting that their teachings, writings, and political struggles do not provide legitimacy to any kind of violence in Pakistan. I argue that the majority of Deobandi ʿulamāʾ not only condemned the violence but also fought against it and became its victim.

The origins of Deobandi thought

To give a definition, the term Deobandi is usually referred to as the affiliates of the historic madrasa, Dar al-ʿUlūm located in Deoband, a local municipality 100 miles north of Delhi, India. These affiliates can be institutions such as madrasas, political parties, ʿulamāʾ councils, and individuals such as ʿulamāʾ, mufts, students, and alumni of the Dar al-ʿUlūm Deoband. This affiliation is not limited to the graduates of Dar al-ʿUlūm Deoband but includes countless madrasas in the sub-continent linked themselves to Dar al-ʿUlūm Deoband through what Metcalf calls “the circles of influence”, also identify themselves as Deobandi (Metcalf, 1982).

The century-old web of Deobandi individuals and institutions is so widespread that it makes Deobandi thought internally diverse. The scholars of Deoband have shown different strands of thoughts and practices on the issues ranging from interpreting a ḥadīt̲h̲ to political matters of the 20th century. Deoband has a deep commitment to the Islamic intellectual tradition, and a strong living relationship with the heritage at the academic and pedagogical level, at the same time it has an approach to deal with modern tendencies with adaptability and inclusivity. Deobandi madrasas are institutionalized on the British bureaucratic style for education, separate classes for students of different levels, a well-defined academic year, annual examinations, and networks of affiliated schools (Zaman, 2002). Deobandi ʿulamāʾ have shown an awareness of temporal and intellectual changes in the world and are not just capable of, but also willing to adapt to these changes and have shown flexibility in thinking, reasoning, and strategizing. Even though the major goal of madrasa education is to defend the norms of the Islamic law, their approach is accompanied by an unusual degree of openness to exegetical departures from more conventional approaches (Robert W. Hefner, 2010).

The Deobandi thought understands and addresses the different levels of religious consciousness (rational, spiritual, formal, and imitative) and diversities of religious audiences and avoids making any particular tendency as the primary or absolute element of disposition or identity. As an example, Tablīg̲h̲ī j̲amāʿat is a transnational apolitical movement while j̲amīʿat ʿUlamāʾ-i Hind and j̲amīʿat ʿUlamāʾ-i Islam are two political entities of India and Pakistan with entirely different goals and all of them refer themselves as Deobandi. This Deobandi thought has produced diverse scholarship that works for different and sometimes conflicting goals simultaneously. Deobandi scholars have adopted and struggled for two conflicting positions on the partition of the subcontinent while both sides of scholars were teaching at the same Deoband madrasa. More recently, muftī Taqi ʿUt̲h̲mānī, a strong advocate of Islamic banking in Pakistan and has written extensively on its legitimacy, is a student of Sālim Allāh k̲h̲ān who considers Islamic banking as un-Islamic and strongly opposes Taqi ʿUt̲h̲mānī.

The Deobandi thought has the flexibility of interacting with rival orientations to fulfill collective responsibilities while simultaneously protecting their own distinctive identity. During the last one and a half centuries, a number of Deobandi ʿulamāʾ have interpreted and drawn different and conflicting inspirations from the Deobandi tradition which undermines the monolithic and reductionist presentations of this thought.

Violence in Pakistan

During the last two decades, Pakistan has suffered tremendously from terrorist attacks, especially it’s Pas̲h̲tūn-majority area. After the fall of the Ṭālibān’s rule in Afghanistan, a number of multinational fighters took refuge in the semi-autonomous tribal areas of Pakistan. As part of Pakistan’s fight against terror, Pakistan’s army was deployed in these areas to stop the cross-border harbor of terrorists. In response, these multinational fighters with the help of locals started challenging the writ of the Pakistani state by crossing the border and engaging in criminal activities such as kidnapping, killings of civilians, and attacking military posts in the tribal areas. In December 2007, Taḥrīk-i Ṭālibān Pakistan (TTP) was established by multiple militant groups engaged in violent confrontations with Pakistan’s army in the tribal areas.

Before the formation of TTP in 2007, two brothers Abdul ʿAzīz G̲h̲āzī and Abdul Rasheed G̲h̲āzī (G̲h̲āzī brothers), custodians of Lal masd̲j̲id (Red Mosque) also took arms in the heart of the capital city, Islamabad in the name of Islam against the state. These groups consider Pakistan an unIslamic, transgressing, and disbelieving state and urge rebellion against the state as a religious obligation. They questioned the Islamic identity of the state and believe that the Pakistani constitution is based on kufr (disbelief) and wanted to make Pakistan an Islamic state implementing their brand of s̲h̲arīʿa. Although TTP is an umbrella organization of militant groups belonging to different religious orientations with different interpretations of Islamic thought, the G̲h̲āzī brothers were exclusively associated with the Deoband school of thought.

Deobandi ʿulamāʾ’s position

Deobandi ʿulamāʾ condemned the 9/11 attacks and said that it is against the s̲h̲arīʿa to target innocent civilians. Some of them were not even convinced that these attacks were carried out by al-Ḳāʿida (al-Qaeda) and the Ṭālibān (Akram, 2014). At the same time, the majority of Deobandi ʿulamāʾ were of the consensus that western powers are unjustly invading a Muslim country (Afghanistan). Pakistani Deobandi ʿulamāʾ were also against the state’s decision to support the US-led war against the Afg̲h̲ān Ṭālibān and had a sympathetic relationship with the Afg̲h̲ān Ṭālibān. However, when it comes to violence in Pakistan there is no single thought that represents Deoband’s discourse. In 2001, a prominent Deobandi scholar Niẓām al-Dīn S̲h̲āmzaʾī issued a fatwā declaring Pakistan’s participation in War on Terror against s̲h̲arīʿa. S̲h̲āmzaʾī insisted if a Pakistani military soldier gets killed in this war, he is not s̲h̲ahīd (martyr). He argued that Jihād to save Ṭālibān’ rule in Afghanistan is obligatory on every Muslim. Some other Deobandi ʿulamāʾ such as Nūr al-Hudā, Hameed alī allāh jan also agreed with his fatwā.

Later in 2004, a fatwā with over fifty ʿulamā signatures was issued from Lal masd̲j̲id, arguing that Pakistan’s military operations in against these violent movements in haram. The fatwā said “Accepting and obeying any order of the ruler of the time which is against the s̲h̲arīʿa is not permissible at all, it is forbidden. Therefore, if the ruler of the time orders his subjects or his army to kill or arrest an innocent person, compliance to this order is not permissible at all. Since the government’s actions against Muslims in Wānā are against s̲h̲arīʿa, it is not permissible for the army to participate in this action. Therefore, Muslim soldiers are required to refuse to participate in any such action against their Muslim brothers. Otherwise, they will also be equal participants in this crime”.

However, the majority of Deobandi ʿulamāʾ represented by wifāq ʿul Madāris (the biggest organization of madāris), j̲amīʿat ʿUlamāʾ-i Islam (the biggest political party of Deobandi ʿulamāʾ) and hundreds of ʿulamāʾ associated with Deobandi thought has strongly denunciated violence in Pakistan. Not only they articulated their discourses on violence, and suicide bombing, and differed from these violent groups in manyfold ways but also lost precious lives in their struggle against violence.

Next, we will examine how Deobandi ʿulamāʾ have diverged from militant groups in terms of their beliefs on Pakistan’s state identity and the use of violence to achieve orthopraxy.

Deobandi ʿulamāʾ supported and struggled for Pakistan during partition with a vision that it will be an Islamic state where Muslims could live according to s̲h̲arīʿa and will be free from the political control of non-Muslims. S̲h̲abbīr Aḥmad ʿUt̲h̲mānī, a Deobandi scholar, and protagonist of an independent Pakistan, used Pakistan and Medina interchangeably in his public speeches. The idea was to establish a state governed by the teaching of the Qurʾān and Sunna. However, they were pragmatic in their approach and noted that it will be a gradual process to make Pakistan an Islamic state. ʿUt̲h̲mānī used the Medina analogy to describe his vision for Pakistan. He said the prophet’s Pakistan (Medina) had reached its pinnacle gradually (Dhulipala, 2015). Deobandi ʿulamāʾ contributed in the making of the constitution and they believed that Pakistan is an Islamic country.

Deobandi ʿulamāʾ believed that the Islamic ethical ideals and orthopraxy are vital in the making of an Islamic state however they are not intertwined with the religious identity of Pakistan. They used the analogy of s̲h̲ahāda, when utter with conviction, a person becomes Muslim. Muslim’s wrongdoings do not make him kāfir or murtadd (apostate). Deobandiʿulamāʾ believed in achieving orthopraxy through politics, social gatherings, education, rellies, pressure groups, and public pressure. However, for them, taking arms or violent means to achieve these goals was un-Islamic (Saif, 2020). So whenever, somebody took arms in the name of s̲h̲arīʿa in Pakistan, Deobandiʿulamāʾ condemned and asked them to shun violence. Long before 9/11, In 1995, in the Malakand division, ṢūfīMuḥammad, a religious scholar from Jamaat-e-Islami, led ‘The Movement for the Implementation of Muhammadan Sh̲arīʿa’ (Taḥrīk-i Nifaz-i s̲h̲arīʿat-i Muḥammadi) and had a few clashes with the army and Deobandiʿulamāʾ condemned it (Qasmi, 2016).

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Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

RaT-Blog Nr. 04/2023 1/2

  • Muhammad Bilal, a Madrasa graduate from Pakistan, is pursuing his Ph.D. in Islamic Studies at Vienna University. His research focuses on Islamic religious education, intellectual history, and global jihadist movements. Bilal holds a master's degree in History from Central European University, having written his thesis on 19th-century jihad movements in North Africa.

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