The widening split

Published: April 26, 2010
The escalating feud among Deobandi and Barelvi Sunni clerics may open up yet another dangerous front of sectarian violence.

The escalating feud among Deobandi and Barelvi Sunni clerics may open up yet another dangerous front of sectarian violence.

KARACHI: The escalating feud among Deobandi and Barelvi Sunni clerics may open up yet another dangerous front of sectarian violence.

“If they can burn my effigy, they can also kill me,” says a worried Mufti Muhammad Naeem, the founder of one of the most powerful Deoband madressahs in the country, the Jamia Binoria in Karachi.

Former inspector general police Jehangir Mirza warns that the volatile situation between Deobandi and Barelvi Sunni groups can easily spiral out of control, and inflame sectarian tensions. “Unless either the maulanas start the process of reconciliation among themselves or the government steps in to cool the temperatures, any anti-Pakistan element can exploit the situation to foment sectarian violence among Sunnis in the country,” says Mirza.

Naeem was referring to a rare incident that occurred in the city recently, when dozens of men chanting anti-Taliban slogans stormed out of the New Memon Masjid near the II Chundrigar Road after Friday prayers and blocked a main thorough fare. Their demand: an end to the “centers of Taliban” in the city.

The protesters lumped clerics of Naeem’s Deoband circle, including Mufti Taqi Usmani, Mufti Rafi Usmani, Maulvi Asad Thanvi and Mufti Usman Yar with the Taliban and alleged that all of them were on the payroll of America, Israel and India. Mufti Naeem’s effigy was in fact first ‘hanged’ before it was set on fire by an enraged crowd.

The rally was organised by leaders of the Markazi Jamaat Ahle Sunnat Pakistan (MJASP), one of the 4,000 Sunni Barelvi organisations active in the city. There was some truth in the fears expressed by the Barelvis. Last time a Barelvi cleric, Mufti Sarfraz Naeemi, openly denounced the atrocities of Taliban and their sympathisers in Lahore, he was killed in a suicide attack on June12, 2009.

Deoband vs. Barelvi

Sunnis in Pakistan are broadly categorised into three: the Deobandi, the Barelvi and the Ahle Hadith. “The majority of the Sunni population follow the Barelvi line even when not part of any formal grouping; they visit shrines of revered saints and participate in festivities to mark the birthday of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) with fervour,” says the Barelvi cleric, Maulana Shabbir Abu Talib, who was part of the rally against the Deoband clergy.

The Deoband belief, however, is against any such practices and comes close to the rigid Wahabi ideology, which tracks its roots to Saudi Arabia.

The prominent Barelvi organisations in Pakistan include Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP), Jamaat Ahle Sunnat, MJASP, Daawat-e-Islami and the Sunni Tehrik (ST). According to Shabbir, there are thousands of Barelvi organisations across the country, with many restricted to just one neighbourhood. Even though the numerous Barelvi groups do not operate as a monolith, they take lead from the national-level body, the Sunni Ittehad Council led by Mufti Muneebur Rahman. The Tanzimul Madaris of the Barelvis has more than 6,000 madressahs registered with it.

The well-known Deobandi organisations include Jamiat Ulma-e-Islam (JUI)-one faction led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman and the other by Maulana Samiul Haq; the Jamaat-e-Islami, Tahafuze Khatame Nabuwat, and the Tableeghi Jamaat. The Wafaqul Madaris Al Arabia Pakistan has at least 7,000 Deoband madressahs registered with it, where an estimated 500,000 students study.

The current tension between the Deobandis and Barelvis began with the recently concluded Eid Miladun Nabi celebrations, when massive processions were taken out on the streets across the country, including Karachi and Peshawar. Deoband clerics like Mufti Naeem had criticised the ‘unIslamic’ public rallies held in fervor of the prophet (pbuh). These processions were then attacked in Faisalabad and D.I. Khan resulting in the death of several people, which was blamed on the proscribed militant group Sipahe Sahaba Pakistan (SSP).

Militant streak

Counter terrorism specialist of the Karachi police force Raja Umer Khattab informs that all Jihadi groups involved in terrorism, including the Tehrik Taliban Pakistan, SSP, Lashkkar-e-Jhangvi, Jaishe Muhammad, and Jundullah are ideologically Deobandi or Wahabi. “Barelvi groups like the ST too have a tendency for sectarian violence, but they act in reaction and have to date been involved in incidents like taking over a rival sect’s mosque etc.”

Senior ST leader Allama Khizrul Islam claims “all Deobandis are terrorists”. He disagrees with the claim that the state is no longer backing these elements because the influence of banned outfits like the SSP doesn’t seem to waning. In fact it is gaining strength, he says. The Barelvi cleric then goes on to cite the example of Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah who announced his PML-N party’s intentions to form an electoral alliance with SSP leader Ahmed Ludhianvi in a by-election.

Mufti Usman Yar, the deputy general secretary JUI-Sami, when confronted with these allegations said, “the Deoband groups are being framed.” He admitted that even today the Deoband supported the ‘jihad against foreign powers’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, but “we condemn all forms of terrorism, including suicide attacks that are taking place inside Pakistan.”

Role of agencies

Rivalries between the Deoband and Barelvis are nothing new, says former interior minister Moinuddin Haider, who lost his brother in an attack by extremists.

“During Gen Ziaul Haq’s time the Deoband groups got a boost, especially because most of them supported the jihad against Soviet forces in Afghanistan and provided the foot soldiers. The dictator in fact tried to enforce the Deobandi (version of Islam) as the state religion,” he said.

“Post 9/11, however, we saw Gen Musharraf taking a U-turn on Pakistan’s Taliban policy and with it we saw a clampdown on groups like the SSP and promotion of ‘moderate’ groups such as the creation of the Council for Promotion of Sufism with Chaudhry Shujaat in the chair.”

But is the establishment now promoting the Barelvi forces as opposed to the hard-line Deobandi groups of the Zia years? And, if so, will this shift work? Also, how will we prevent them from becoming monsters?

“The establishment is keeping both options open,” says analyst Ayesha Siddiqa. “They have partially armed some Barelvi groups, but there is no serious deployment. The main reason is that they continue to patrionise the Deoband groups as well. Unless and until there is a decision to abandon all of them forever, nothing will happen. There is no strategic shift so far.”

Battle for urban space

Historian Ayesha Jalal, author of the book Partisans of Allah, sees the current struggle between Deoband and Barelvi forces as a “battle for urban space,” hinting at the frequent clashes between the ST and SSP in cities like Karachi, where the issue is usually about possession of mosques. “The Barelvis are reclaiming the ground lost to the Deoband over the years. They’re interested not only in gaining territory in places like Karachi, but are also now fighting for political space.”

Binoria town’s Mufti Naeem agrees that basically this is all a fight for resources. “This war is for the stomach,” he remarked, while pointing at his own bulging waist. “Barelvis are only interested in the money that comes through charity at madressahs or mosques and to gain recognition by propaganda. But they are fools to believe that people will fall for their ignorant practices.” It is this kind of talk that fuels more fire on the streets of Pakistan.

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Reader Comments (18)

  • Nadir El-Edroos
    Apr 26, 2010 - 7:42PM

    Typical: “The protesters lumped clerics of Naeem’s Deoband circle, including Mufti Taqi Usmani, Mufti Rafi Usmani, Maulvi Asad Thanvi and Mufti Usman Yar with the Taliban and alleged that all of them were on the payroll of America, Israel and India”

    Even if they were on the payroll of America, Israel and India at the same time, does that allow a group of people to kill them, encourage vioelence or take the law in their own hands?Recommend

  • Syed A. Mateen
    Apr 26, 2010 - 10:39PM

    Both the groups should think that first of all they are Muslims and then Deobandis or Barelvis.

    Every Mullah has his own strategy.

  • riaz ahmed
    Apr 26, 2010 - 11:11PM

    nice report. one thing to add that the demise of barelvi sect has more to do with their lesser adaptation with the changing urban and rural conditions. during the 70s and 80s the pace of life generally increased. people now have to work longer hours, have less recreational time and due to this their prayers became less spiritual and more pre-occupied with ‘hardships of life’. not only the style but also the content of the prayers and other religious practices had to change with urbanisation of both rural and urban areas. barelvis and sects similar to them had more roots in the rural society and hence found it difficult to change. the deobandis to some extent and the wahabis to a greater extent fitted more into the life of the people who were forced to work longer or were subjected to greater ups and downs of the markets as the internal and external markets of this country became more integrated to the world market. the fluctuations play havoc with the traders who in the 70s were mostly braelvis but quietly shifted to become, sometimes within a generation, to be deobandi/wahabi as these methods of practicing faith were less time consuming, cheaper and less ritualistic….the spiritual life of the followers already had far lesser spiritual content than the content demanded by the methods of prayers and following barelvi practices….Sunni Tehreek etc are merely a reaction. looking through this perspective its easier to see that it is not Saudis and their funding that had led to spread of deobandi/wahabi sects but it is the urbanisation and marketization of economy that has led to the withering away of barelvis. Recommend

  • Ammara
    Apr 27, 2010 - 12:27AM

    Now this is what the media should be doing instead of crying day and night about the marital affairs of celebrities. A very perceptive but truly needed story. Kudos to the writer for bringing up this issue!Recommend

  • Jibran
    Apr 27, 2010 - 3:19AM

    I disagree with Riaz Ahmed above. Saying that people follow the Deoband sect because the set of rituals it offers is supposedly less time consuming and hence more practical is a bit naive. Braelvi sect offers people more freedom to express their faith and that is why people follow it more. Also Braelvi is not as hardline in its approach as the Deobandis are. And the people of Pakistan are not hardline in their religious views. They are basically moderate people who like to go to mosques and also listen to their music in their cars. Recommend

  • Ehtesham Ali
    Apr 27, 2010 - 3:45AM

    There is a major factual error in this story that needs correction. The Jamaat-e-Islami is certainly not a Deobandi organization as claimed in the article.

    I hope the mistake was just an unintentional slip, rather than the reporter’s lack of knowledge.Recommend

  • Sh Muhammad Musadiq
    Apr 27, 2010 - 9:34AM

    Ultimate result will be collapse of Pakistan Socity, as we see in history fall of Baghdad, fall of Mughal Regime, Fall of Khalafat. It is very hard to live in civilised manner,these calrics have no idea about this.Recommend

  • Clipper
    Apr 27, 2010 - 10:54AM

    The religion of islam requires us to have faith, Amaal-e-sualeh, and obediance to Allah subhanahoowataalah, and Rasool-e-Kareem Sallallaho Alaihi Wasallam.

    The religion is full of ‘Aadaab’. I don’t agree to the word ‘respect’ as a synonym for ‘Aadaab’. It’s one of the basic values which were found among Sahaba-e-Karam. If you eject Aadaab from religion, you loose the noor of religion, you will become blunt in your talk and deeds.

    Truth is not the article of some facinating author, the Truth is what Allah swt has revealed upon Hazrat Muhammad Sallallaho Alaihi Wasallam.

    103-Sura Al-‘Asr In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

    103-001 By (the Token of) Time (through the ages),
    103-002 Verily Man is in loss,
    103-003 Except such as have Faith, and do righteous deeds, and (join together) in the mutual teaching of Truth, and of Patience and Constancy.

    Chanting of hateful slogans, demonstrating the hatred, burning of putlas, is all what is ‘not sought in Islam’, Islam calls Muslims to be united under the spirit of
    La’ Ilaaha Illallaho Muhammadur Rasoolullah.

    Islam calls muslims to beware of Aakhirat, Maut, which comes without prior notice. We all are accountable for our roles, we will be asked not about the deeds of others. Everyone will get his own book of deeds and will be questioned.

    Please pay special attention to the following verses:

    072-020 Say: “I do no more than invoke my Lord, and I join not with Him any (false god).”

    072-021 Say: “It is not in my power to cause you harm, or to bring you to right conduct.”

    072-022 Say: “No one can deliver me from God (If I were to disobey Him), nor should I find refuge except in Him,

    072-023 “Unless I proclaim what I receive from God and His Messages: for any that disobey God and His Apostle,- for them is Hell: they shall dwell therein for ever.”

    072-024 At length, when they see (with their own eyes) that which they are promised,- then will they know who it is that is weakest in (his) helper and least important in point of numbers.

    072-025 Say: “I know not whether the (Punishment) which ye are promised is near, or whether my Lord will appoint for it a distant term.

    072-026 “He (alone) knows the Unseen, nor does He make any one acquainted with His Mysteries,-

    072-027 “Except an apostle whom He has chosen: and then He makes a band of watchers march before him and behind him,

    072-028 “That He may know that they have (truly) brought and delivered the Messages of their Lord: and He surrounds (all the mysteries) that are with them, and takes account of every single thing.”

    And Allah knows the Best
    Wama Alaina Illal Balagh.Recommend

  • Rabayl
    Apr 27, 2010 - 11:33AM

    Very well written and researched! We need more reports like these to be proliferated for a more nuanced understanding of ‘militant groups’. Kudos.Recommend

  • NB
    Apr 27, 2010 - 5:00PM

    As someone pointed out earlier, I, too, was surprised to see JI being labeled a “Deobandi” organization. Needs some verification.
    Well-written article on the whole, puts things in perspective. I especially agree with the point the author makes at the end…this war, like most wars that make fodder of human lives, is an economic war first and foremost…a war for real estate and business, even if “donation” is the only business these people are any good at. Religion is just a tool, a bait to recruit more from the ranks into their war for preservation and advancement of vested interest.
    Unfortunately we have a long history of fighting such worldly wars in the name of religion, a religion that forbids anything of the sort quite explicitly.Recommend

  • rosysblue
    Apr 27, 2010 - 5:52PM

    bit judgemental mr. salman, this wasnt in the opinions section, ‘bulging waist’ or not I sincerely hope you keep your articles more objective and maintain journalistic integrity hereon…having said tht its good tht you’re writing abt this since it is a real issue.Recommend

  • Bilal Raza Qadri
    Apr 28, 2010 - 12:01AM

    State must not patronize a particular sect as in Pakistan Deobandi sect is being supported. Otherwise the result wouldn’t be different than what happened in Swat. And one more thing Jammat-e- Islami is indeed a deobandi organization; it’s not a mistake in article.Recommend

  • Zeeshan
    Apr 28, 2010 - 12:47AM

    I’ve noticed that other news sources inexplicably shy away from making distinctions between religious groups, often describing their rivalries with the blanket term ‘sectarian’. Religious groups play a huge role in the life of this country and will continue to do so; in order to better understand them it is necessary to trace where they’re coming and what their motivations are. This article helps towards that – great job! Recommend

  • Apr 28, 2010 - 8:36AM

    Assalamoalaikum! one of the comments above is very correct that the deobandi approach and way of life is much easier and practical! but this stands as my viewpoint, what i strongly disagree with and disliked also is the approach of our media! i have also commented on your fb page that the media cannot take sides! you can present a report but you cannot draw conclusions or show your dislike and disagreement for anybody… the article wreaked of contempt for deobandis and wahabis… ! how often do you present contemtous views for a pot-bellied barfing drunkard millionaire??? never! plz try and promote tolerance through your articles rather than spread hatred amongst Pakistanis at large…

  • Apr 28, 2010 - 8:55AM

    Agree with Clipper…’Adab’ rather than a resource war like the rest of the world!Recommend

  • Ehtesham Ali
    Apr 29, 2010 - 12:20AM

    @Bilal Raza Qadri: How is Jamaat-e-Islami a Deobandi organization? Maulana Maududi had absolutely nothing to do with Deobandism. In fact many of the Deobandi (and Barelvi) scholars regarded him as someone without any proper training in Islamic scholarship, while he criticized them for being backward minded.Recommend

  • Abdul Hafeez
    May 4, 2010 - 11:25PM

    The deobandis should be banned in the whole world they are preaching fake islam. Recommend

  • khalil
    May 11, 2010 - 10:48PM

    salam.ahl.e.sunnat is those people who lov prophet s.a.w an his companions and friends not those who either hate prophet s.a. or his sunnis are only brailvi school of thought in india.Recommend

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