HomeNewsEnglish News Articles

The Moral Crisis of Pakistani Barelvism by Stephen Schwartz « Islamic Pluralism

Folksmagazine [India] October 24, 2011 The week ending 23 October has been replete with complex events. They include the violent end of Mu’ammar Al-Qa

Folksmagazine [India] October 24, 2011
The week ending 23 October has been replete with complex events. They include the violent end of
Mu’ammar Al-Qadhdhafi, the death in hospital of Saudi Crown Prince Sultan Abd Al-Aziz, the first
democratic vote of the Arab reform wave in Tunisia, and the abrupt declaration by president Hamid
Karzai that Afghanistan would side with Pakistan in a conflict with the U.S. The last came after Karzai had
spent several days criticizing Islamabad for its soft attitude toward the Taliban and then signed a security
agreement with India. Pakistan itself, meanwhile, has seen controversy over a development that
must be unsettling to all those in the world who seek a way for Islam to flourish in pluralistic
In January 2011, Salman Taseer, the secularist governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, was
assassinated by a member of his personal guard, Mumtaz Qadri. Moderate Muslims, and many
non-Muslims with a positive view of traditional and pluralist Islam, were dismayed to learn that the
killer, who proudly confessed to the crime, was an adherent of the Barelvi sect of Islam, which is
said typically to be followed by a majority of Pakistani and Indian Muslims.
Barelvis are considered moderates and are known for their attachment to spiritual Sufism. They are
an object of ferocious hatred by the Deobandi sect, which inspires the Taliban, and Sufi shrines
administered by Barelvi clerics have been attacked by terrorists across South Asia, with homicidal
Sufis are not a homogeneous phenomenon. Some are jihadist (notably Qadiri Sufis who have a
long history of association with the Barelvis). Others are “peaceful, but not pacifist,” in the
description of the outstanding Western historian of Islam, Bernard Lewis. Some Sufis are Sunnicentric
and despise Shia Muslims; others claim to have surmounted the Sunni-Shia divide. Some
are strictly observant of Islamic shariah law; some refer to “shariah” only as the external practice of
religion; some disregard Islamic law, as, for example, the Turkish and Kurdish Alevis, who
originated in Shiism. Most, however, are open to dialogue with believers in other faiths.
Taseer represented a distinguished South Asian Muslim heritage. As noted in Pakistani media, he
was the son of Dr M D Taseer, believed to be the first South Asian to earn a doctorate in English
literature from a British university, and was close to Allama Iqbal, the great 20th century Muslim poet
and philosopher. His mother was the sister-in-law of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the Urdu-language Sufi and
leftist poet. In 2002, Taseer established the leading Pakistani newspaper, the Daily Times.
According to the slayer’s own statements, Qadri killed Taseer to express the guard’s disgust with
Taseer’s opposition to Pakistan’s “blasphemy” laws, which have discredited Pakistan in the eyes of
many Muslim observers. Qadri’s anger was inflamed particularly when Taseer opposed the
“blasphemy” trial of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman. Qadri faces two death sentences, for murder
and terrorism.
But while the Qadri case was understandable shocking to Muslims and others who view Sufis as a
bulwark against radical Islam, and especially Islamist violence, more was to come. Mumtaz Qadri
has brought the main extremist party in Pakistan, the Jamaat-e Islami (JEI) founded by Abu’l Ala
Mawdudi, the most prominent jihadist in modern South Asian history, together with their presumed
foes, the Sunni Tehreek that coordinates Barelvi groups.
A mass demonstration calling for Qadri to be amnestied and freed clogged the streets of Karachi
on Saturday, October 22. Although summoned by the Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC), a religious group,
the participants seemed to reflect as much anger at the international order and American
involvement in the South Asian anti-terror war than fanaticism in defense of Qadri. The “crowd
outbursts” – too inchoate to be called “protests” – that have swept the cities of Europe and the U.S.
under the rubric of the “Occupy” movement appear to have found an echo in Pakistan. On the same
day as the pro-Qadri assembly in Karachi, an “Anti-Capitalist Front” convoked another large
assembly, with members carrying portraits of, among other “heroes,” the late Al-Qadhdhafi.
In this regard, the rage in Pakistan also resembles the underlying cause of the warmly-welcomed
but now disappointing “Arab Spring.” These expressions of discontent among ordinary people are
products not of social development in conflict with despotic rule, but of the snapping of the links of
the international political and social system under the intolerable pressure of global financial
And so the JEI, the SIC, and Sunni Tahreek joined together in demanding mercy for a cold-blooded
killer who, they say, acted out of religious conscience. The attitude of Sufis in India has been
markedly different. On October 16, the All-India Ulema and Mashaikh Board (AIUMB) called a mahapanchayat in Moradabad, U.P., drawing 100,000 (one lakh) participants. There, Maulana Syed Mohammad Ashraf Kichowchhwi, a prominent Sufi and AIUMB general secretary declared, “When an extremist turns up at your door seeking your support, when anyone tries to recruit you into terrorism, hand him over to the nearest police station… Let us take a pledge that we will never support Wahhabi extremism — not today, not tomorrow. Let us take a pledge that we will
work for the unity and integrity of our motherland.” Kichowchhwi and other speakers at the assembly
denounced Indian government representatives for excluding the Sufis, who claim the majority
among Indian Muslims, from consideration, and concentrating their attention on Wahhabi infiltrators
backed from the Arab Gulf, as well as on the Deobandis. The mahapanchayat was boycotted and
ignored or treated with hostility by the Indian Urdu-language media, which are read by Muslims.
While the most serious troubles continue to afflict Afghanistan and Pakistan, the consequences of
Barelvi abdication in the face of JEI and Deobandi support for the terrorist act of Mumtaz Qadri will
be felt around the world. Since the Barelvis are viewed as the main representatives of Sufism in
Pakistan, their surrender to the fundamentalist offensive will undermine the life-affirming image they
have enjoyed in many countries, as a Muslim alternative to the Wahhabi-inspired campaign of Al-
Qaida in the attacks on America of September 11, 2001.
Many Muslims, to emphasize points I have previously made in these columns, wish to blame all the
problems of the Islamic lands on America. America stands accused, according to them, for helping
expel the Russians from Afghanistan, since U.S. strategy was based on an alliance with Saudi
Arabia, then a hardline Wahhabi state. America is further assailed for removing Saddam Hussein
from power in Iraq, after which that country experienced a “second invasion” of Wahhabi terrorists
from Saudi Arabia, as well as violent provocations sponsored by neighboring Iran. And America will
now be reproached for “interfering” in Libya by helping free that country from Al-Qadhdhafi, even as
the leading role in the Libyan intervention was assumed by France and Britain, backed by Qatar
and the United Arab Emirates.
America has even been impeached for supposedly causing aggression against Sufis,
notwithstanding nearly 300 years of Wahhabi attacks on them, by allegedly “favoring” one kind of
Islam over another. Yet American strategic thinking has seldom taken the distinctions within Islam
into account, and has ignored the Sufis, in great part. The American Republic did not yet exist when
Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, founder of the eponymous doctrine, declared that Sufi practices
were a basis for declaring the spiritual Muslims apostates worthy of death. In South Asia, some
hatred of America must disguise an unadmitted anxiety that the U.S. will soon leave Afghanistan to
the Taliban.
According to Sunni Tahreek chairman Sarwat Izaj Qadri, the Pakistani release of Raymond Davis,
an American charged with killing two Pakistanis in Lahore while engaged allegedly in investigating
Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) justifies absolution for Mumtaz Qadri. LET – the so-called “Army of the
Righteous” – is the Al-Qaida auxiliary responsible for atrocities and conspiracies in Kashmir,
Afghanistan, Britain, the U.S., and, not least, India, where it carried out the Mumbai assault of 2008.
The same argument was put forward to the marchers in Karachi by Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat (JAS)
chief Amir Maulana Allamaa Shah Turabul Haq Qadri, who claimed that the conviction of Mumtaz
Qadri for murder violated Islamic law. But Qadri’s act defied two principles of Islamic law: the
prohibition on murder and the sanctity of a personal oath given by a guard.
Pakistan, in its slide toward failure as a state, is undergoing a deep moral crisis. Naturally, in such a
situation, the group most affected by the failure of will that brings about such a collapse will be those
who have previously represented a positive moral example. In approving of Mumtaz Qadri’s crime
and agitating for his pardon, the Barelvi leadership in Pakistan demonstrate they lack the ability to
keep their heads in a situation of conflict, which should be a primary virtue of Sufis. But they are
abandoning the challenge of resisting those who wish not to argue with them, but to kill them – the
radical fundamentalists of JEI, above all. The Barelvis of Pakistan should not forget that in addition
to the blood of their martyrs at fundamentalist hands in the subcontinent, their mosques have been
usurped in Britain and their community prevented from establishing a public organization in the U.S.
The adoption of an extremist posture on the Taseer murder by the Barelvis – as well as that of an
Indian-patriotic attitude by Sufis in U.P. – may be qualified by some observers as nothing more than
rhetorical excess, reflecting irresolvable tensions between the two biggest South Asian powers. It is
a matter of irony that Pakistani Barelvi calls for Qadri’s amnesty, and an appeal by Sunni Tahreek
chair Sarwat Izaj Qadri, summoning all religious groups to stand by Pakistan’s army, coincide with
negotiations for trade liberalization between the two countries, under the “South Asian Free Trade
Agreement,” or SAFTA. Both countries, of which India is particularly important as one of the BRIC
emerging economies with Brazil, Russia, and China, are confronted with a global society breaking
down, and the disintegration of institutional controls.
It is to be hoped that in such a condition of human torment the Sufis would offer useful examples to
the Muslim lands of spiritual discipline, devotion to good deeds and mutual understanding between
differing religions. In the aftermath of the Taseer case, the Barelvi leaders in Pakistan have shown
that such hopes may be no less fragile than those in religion in general, as well as the various
philosophical schemes (including socialism) advanced for the improvement of the life shared by all
believers in justice, mercy, and compassion.
Sunni Tahreek and other Barelvi groups in Pakistan have signaled to the world that they are weak in
their determination to combat violence. The same message is conveyed to the enemies of the
Barelvis and other Sufis, who will see the pusillanimity of the victims of terrorism as an
encouragement to blow up more shrines, seize more mosques and madrassas, and kill more
Barelvis, along with innocent people.
In recent years, through the rise of aggression by the Deobandis, expressed in attacks on Sufis in
South Asia, as well as in the controversies over Islamic leadership in the UK and U.S., the Pakistani
Barelvis made a uniquely significant contribution to resistance against radical fundamentalism. That
they have now been transformed into allies of those who wish to annihilate them may be a turning
point in the fall of Pakistan. As standard-bearers for a spiritual and clean Islam, the Barelvi leaders
must stop and take account of their actions. Truth is, after all, an essential Sufi value. The future of
South Asian Islam, regardless of international political intrigues, may rest in Pakistani Barelvi