The rise of a violent political party, now a key actor in Pakistani politics, among the supposedly peaceful Sufi Barelvi movement caught experts by surprise.
by Massimo Introvigne
Article 1 of 7.
After Bitter Winter published an article last month on the problems the Pakistani government encountered when it tried to ban Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a party which was at the center of some of the most violent riots in the country’s recent history, several readers wrote asking where this group, which did not seem typical of “Islamic fundamentalism,” come from, yet is a force the authorities have been unable to stop. TLP is such an important player in contemporary Pakistani politics, and in the violent persecution of religious minorities, that we decided to devote a series to its history.
It is not an easy task, because the growth and prominence of TLP, which originated within the Sufi Barelvi movement, runs counter a received wisdom that dates back to the British colonial scholars of Indian Islam. TLP proves that two common assumptions about political Islam in general, and its activities in Pakistan in particular, are wrong. The first is that Sufi movements are invariably peaceful, and do not generate violent politicized groups. It is certainly true that many Sufis focus on mysticism and personal devotion, are less interested in politics than other Muslims, and reject violence. But this is not a rule without exceptions. Obviously, Sufis feels strongly about the cause of Islam and the Prophet and when they feel Islam is threatened or the Prophet is offended, they may react violently.
Second, British colonial administrators and scholars traditionally believed that it was unlikely that the Barelvi movement in what is today Pakistan might generate viable political movements, one reason being its focus on Sufi mysticism and another its factionalism and conflicts over leadership.
To understand TLP, some general information about the Barelvi is thus needed. Most Pakistani Sunni Muslims belong to one of three movements, the Barelvi, the Deobandi, and the Ahl-i-Hadith. Statistics are in themselves political, but it is assumed that between 60% and 80% of all Pakistani Muslims are Barelvi. Deobandi are between 15% and 25%, and Ahl-i-Hadith between 5% and 10%.
The main question that generated the divisions among the three movements is the attitude towards popular Sufism. Sufi orders are an essential component of Islam in Pakistan. Alongside a more intellectual wing of Sufism, there is a folk Sufism focusing on elements such as pilgrimages to the shrines of the saints, loud chanting, and belief in miracles. Popular Sufism, if not Sufism in general, came under heavy criticism when puritanical movements such as Wahhabism (born in the 18th century in what is today Saudi Arabia, a country to which it gave its official ideology) came to the Indian Subcontinent from Arabia, generating revivalist movements in the 19th century.
In 1866, a seminar influenced by Wahhabi ideas was founded in the city of Deoband, in India, from where came the name of the Deobandi school. Some of the early Deobandi accepted “high” Sufism but condemned popular Sufi practices as heretic. Other Deobandi rejected Sufism in general. If anything, the Ahl-i-Hadith movement was even more opposed to popular Sufism, and emerged as a branch of the global Salafi movement in the Indian Subcontinent.
In the last decade of the 19th century, Ahmed Raza Khan Barelvi (1856–1921), who took his name from his hometown of Bareilly, in India’s Uttar Pradesh, gathered members of several Sufi orders to defend their traditional devotional practices against the criticism of the Deobandi and the Ahl-i-Adith. The movement that took the name of Barelvi was phenomenally successful, and today its membership is estimated at some two hundred million.
Among the popular Sufi beliefs that the Barelvi defended was the idea that God helps humans through the intercession of Muhammad, who is fully human but pre-existed his earthly incarnation in the shape of a pure light (Noor) that was there before the creation of the world. Muhammad watches all the actions of humans, and helps those who deserve it. Several Barelvi celebrations allude to these powers of Muhammad, including the public commemoration of the prophet’s birthday. All this is rejected by Wahhabi, as well as Deobandi and Ahl-i-Hadith, as something putting in danger Islamic monotheism by elevating Muhammad to a status similar to Jesus’ in Christianity.
In the 19th century, the Ahl-i-Hadith and Deobandi excommunicated the Barelvi calling them non-Muslims, and the Barelvi reacted by excommunicating the leaders of the rival movements as blasphemers against the Prophet for their refusal of acknowledging Muhammad’s more exalted prerogatives.
When the Partition of India and Pakistan happened, most Barelvi leaders joined the Deobandi and Ahl-i-Hadith in supporting the creation of Pakistan, demanding that it will become an Islamic state where sharia will be applied (although their view of sharia is different from the other movements’), and asking to limit the rights of religious minorities.
It seemed for a while that political reasons had persuaded the three movements that they should cooperate despite their theological differences. However, soon the Barelvi felt that, while they were the majority of Pakistani Muslims, they were discriminated by the political elite, which appointed primarily Deobandi clerics to lead the religious affairs of the new state. Deobandi (and Ahl-i-Hadith) were better organized, and more politically militant, and by the 1980s the Barelvi had been marginalized together with the political party they had established in 1948, Jamiat Ulema e-Pakistan (JUP). Deobandi also started publishing statistics most scholars regard as false, claiming they had now outnumbered Barelvi in Pakistan.
The successful Tablighi Jamaat missionary movement also originated from the Deobandi, and Deobandi dominated the Pakistani parties representing political Islam. Worse was to come in the 1990s, when both in Afghanistan (where the Taliban were theologically close to the Deobandi) and in Kashmir militant politics came to be dominated by forces hostile to the Barelvi. The latter still controlled large mosques in Pakistan, and built new ones with the money flowing into the country from rich co-religionists who had moved to the West. However, even possession of these mosques was precarious since Deobandi militants started occupying them with the silent and sometimes active support of the Pakistani police.
The Barelvi reacted by forming in 1984 the Daawat-e-Islami (DeI), a missionary organization that was the Barelvi counterpart to the Deobandi-dominated Tablighi Jamaat. In 1990, Sunni Tehreek was founded, as DeI’s political and military branch. It had been created to protect Barelvi mosques and devotees from the violence of the rival movements, but its leaders quickly became independent from DeI.
In 2001 the leader of Sunni Tehreek, Saleem Qadri (1960–2001), was assassinated by Deobandi extremists, inaugurating a decade of violence in which more than seventy suicide attacks killed hundreds of Barelvi leaders, including the whole leadership of Sunni Tehreek.