Don’t compare your nation with the nations of the West

Distinctive is the nation of the Prophet of Islam

Their solidarity depends on territorial nationality

Your solidarity rests on the strength of your religion

When faith slips away, where is the solidarity of the community?

And when the community is no more, neither is the nation.

(Sir Muhammad Iqbal)1

Verily God will not change [the condition of] a people, until they change what is in themselves.

(The Koran, Shura 13, verse 11)

Since 9/11, international discussions of Islam in Pakistan have focused mainly on the threat from religious extremism and terrorism. In these discussions, a dangerous intellectual mess is often created by the mixing up of words such as ‘extremism’ and ‘militancy’ with the very different concepts of ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘conservatism’.

Long before 9/11, however, much of the discussion of Pakistani Islam, inside and outside Pakistan, concerned whether Pakistan, having been founded as a refuge for the Muslims of South Asia, should or should not be an Islamic state; or, on the other hand, why Islam had allegedly failed to keep West and East Pakistan together, and was continuing to fail to help develop Pakistan as a united and successful society.

On the first point, I have already argued that, while terrorism is obviously present and frightening, Islamist extremism in Pakistan presents little danger of overthrowing the state unless US pressure has already split and crippled that state. The religious barriers to the spread of extremism will be outlined in the present chapter.

The second question is whether or not the state should have an official Islamic character, which will go deeper than the formally Islamic nature it has possessed since the constitution of 1973 (under the government of the ‘liberal’ Z. A. Bhutto) declared Islam the state religion. This is an important issue – but not nearly as central as many analysts have assumed. It makes no difference to the beliefs and behaviour of the vast majority of the population, which are deeply conservative and steeped in different Muslim traditions.

It is worth noting from this point of view that the PPP, generally regarded as a ‘secular’ party, is in fact in some areas of Pakistan partly religious in its appeal, in that many of its local politicians come from the families of hereditary saints, and owe much of their local power and prestige to this ancestry. Of course, though, this is a very different kind of religious appeal from that of the Islamist parties.

The point, therefore, is that the Islam of the Pakistani masses contains very different traditions. The Islamic character of the state would only be a real issue for most of the population if that state were to imitate Saudi Arabia or Iran and try to impose one monolithic version of Islam. However, the Pakistani state is too weak to achieve this even if it wanted to – as Zia-ul-Haq’s failure demonstrated.

A related issue is that of whether a strong formal state commitment to Islam is necessary to hold Pakistan together, as Islamists (and some non-Islamists) claim, or whether, on the other hand, as secular analysts would argue, this has already been tried and failed. Here, many of the analysts and reporters have been looking at the wrong things in the wrong places. Popular (as opposed to official) forms of Islam do in fact play a key role in holding Pakistan together, but often in ways which are very different from those that the forces of Islamist reform (whether moderate or extremist) would wish; just as in India Hinduism plays a far greater role in Indian unity than liberals wish to recognize, but a very different role from the one that Hindu nationalists would wish to create.

As in Europe in the past, even some Pakistani statesmen whose own religious practice has been very lax have wished to promote religion in public life as a way of trying to improve appallingly low levels of public ethics in the state services and among politicians – especially as the Western codes of public service left behind by the British have gradually eroded. This in turn is part of the crucial question for Pakistan of whether it is possible to create loyalties and ethics which transcend those of loyalty to kin. Clearly, Islam in Pakistan has so far failed in this regard, though things would be even worse without its influence.

Closely connected with this unsuccessful role of religion, however, is another, much more effective role of Islam which is hardly noticed outside the country, but should be: that of softening the misery of Pakistan’s poor through charity. Levels of trust in Pakistani state institutions are extremely low, and for good reason. Partly in consequence, Pakistan has one of the lowest levels of tax collection outside Africa. On the other hand, charitable donation, at almost 5 per cent of GDP, is one of the highest rates in the world.

Just how much of this is motivated by religious beliefs cannot be quantified, but, given the religious faith of most Pakistanis, it must be a great deal, in accordance with the commandment in the Koran that:

Righteousness is not that ye turn your faces towards the east or the west, but righteousness is, one who believes in God, and the last day, and the angels, and the Book, and the prophets, and who gives wealth for His love to kindred, and orphans, and the poor, and the son of the road, beggars, and those in captivity; and who is steadfast in prayer, and gives alms.2

Thus the Citizens’ Foundation, the most widespread and effective educational charity in Pakistan (with more than 600 schools and 85,000 pupils), is a non-religious organization, but a majority of its founding members from the business community are practising Muslims – though they come from all the different branches of Islam represented in Pakistan and do not use any religious element in their public appeals.

Charities with a religious character also tend to be more favoured and more trusted by the population. It is also true of Pakistan’s most famous private charitable institution by far, the Edhi Foundation, which is non-religious; however, Abdus Sattar Edhi is himself a deeply religious man, known by the public at large as Maulana (a Muslim distinguished by his piety and learning) even though he is not a Muslim scholar and in fact greatly dislikes being called this.

There is no sight in Pakistan more moving than to visit some dusty, impoverished small town in an arid wasteland, apparently abandoned by God and all sensible men and certainly abandoned by the Pakistani state and its own elected representatives – and to see the flag of the Edhi Foundation flying over a concrete shack with a telephone, and the only ambulance in town standing in front. Here, if anywhere in Pakistan, lies the truth of human religion and human morality.


As to modern Islamist politics in Pakistan, the most important question to be asked is not why they are so strong, but why they are so weak. Think about it. Across much of the Middle East and the Muslim world more widely, Islamist political parties and reformist movements are making progress. Such a party rules in Turkey, and others would probably come to power in Egypt, Syria, Algeria and Morocco if those countries held democratic elections. Iran of course experienced an Islamist revolution, albeit of a specifically Shia kind, as did the Shia of Lebanon.

Pakistan has always had a political system which is far more open than those of most other Muslim states; it has levels of poverty which would seem to cry out for a mass reformist movement in the name of Islam; and it has inherited from India before 1947 one of the leading intellectual traditions of Islamist modernism and reformism. Yet with brief exceptions, the Islamist parties have always performed miserably in the polls, and are no nearer today than they ever were to creating a mass political movement that would successfully pursue a truly Islamist system in Pakistan, whether by peaceful or revolutionary means.

The truth is that, while most forms of Islamist radicalism have ancient roots, they are also modern, and a response to modernity. Most forms of Pakistani Islam for their part are traditional and conservative – far too conservative to support a revolution, and far too diverse to submit themselves to a monolithic version of Islam. This in turn derives in part from the fact that Pakistan remains in many ways a very rural society, where even the rapidly growing cities are still heavily rural in culture, owing to the constant flow of migrants from the countryside.

Islamist radicalism, whether of old or new varieties, has always been a basically urban phenomenon, and derived from old and new patterns of urban society and culture. In Pakistan, the rural masses can occasionally be stirred up to furious panic by the cry of ‘Islam in danger’, as they were in 1947, but only two radical forces have established a long-running presence in parts of the countryside. The first are the Sunni sectarian extremists of the central and southern Punjab, who have succeeded in appealing to Sunni tenant farmers and the lower middle classes against the local Shia elites. Where, however, the landed elites are Sunni, they help prevent the spread of the Islamist parties through their control of the appointment of mullahs to local mosques, which they use to bar anyone with a hint of social radicalism.

The other case of Islamist success in rural areas is the Pakistani Taleban in parts of the tribal areas and the NWFP – a success which is due above all to specifically Pathan factors and traditions, and the impact of developments in Afghanistan. As of 2010, the Taleban and the Sunni sectarians have forged an alliance which is carrying out terrorist attacks across much of Pakistan; but to overthrow the Pakistani state would be quite a different matter, and something of which they are, in my judgement, incapable unless the US indirectly gives them a helping hand.

Theologically speaking, all the Sunni Islamist groups, from the relatively moderate and democratic Jamaat Islami to the Taleban and other extremists, are drawn from one of two traditions: the Deobandi, named after a famous madrasah founded in Deoband (now in Uttar Pradesh, India) in 1866; and the Ahl-e-Hadith (‘People of the hadiths’, or traditions attributed to the Prophet), a branch of the international Salafi (fundamentalist-reformist; salaf meaning forerunner or spiritual ancestor in Arabic) tradition, heavily influenced by Wahabism, and with particularly close links to Arabia dating back to the original foundations of this tendency in the sixteenth century CE.

The Ahl-e-Hadith are more extreme than the Deobandis, and less concerned with questions of modern social justice and development. Both traditions, however, can be broadly described as fundamentalist, in that they advocate a return to the pure teaching of the Koran and the Prophet; reformist, in that they advocate radical reforms to both contemporary Muslim society and much of contemporary Islam; and puritan (in the old Anglo-American sense), in their concern for strict public morality and their dislike of both ostentatious wealth and the worship of saints and shrines.

There is a difference between the two in this regard, however. The Ahl-e-Hadith loathe the Sufi and saintly traditions in general. The Deobandis – whose tradition is largely descended from the thought of Shah Waliullah, himself a member of the Naqshbandi Sufi order – praise the saints themselves (and used to claim miraculous powers for their own greatest Deobandi teachers), but condemn the ways in which the saints are worshipped, and the belief that they can intercede with God.

The Deobandi tradition gave birth to the Tablighi Jamaat, by far the greatest preaching organization in the Muslim world (indeed, in the whole world), which each year draws millions of people to its great rallies at its headquarters in Raiwind near Lahore. The Tabligh was founded in India in the 1920s as a revivalist movement dedicated to strengthening scriptural Islamic practice among Muslims and resisting the efforts of Hindu preachers to draw them back into the Hindu fold. In recent decades the Tabligh leadership has strongly emphasized its apolitical character and has firmly distanced itself from extremism and terrorism; but its networks and gatherings have been used by radicals as a cover for meetings and planning.

However, until recently a majority of Sunni Pakistanis, in so far as they were aware of belonging to any particular tradition within Islam, belonged neither to the tradition of the Deobandis nor of the Ahl-e-Hadith but to that of the Barelvis (who call themselves the Ahl-e-Sunnat, or people of the teaching of Mohammed and his companions), named after a madrasah founded in 1880 in the town of Bareilly – also now in Uttar Pradesh, India. Barelvi religious attitudes, which are linked to those of leading Sufi orders, are far closer to popular Islam as it has usually been followed in South Asia. This popular Islam includes in particular a belief in the intercession of saints with God, the validity of miracles by the saints, worship at the shrines of saints (though not strictly speaking worship of the saints), and local traditions attached to the saints.

The Barelvis therefore might be called Catholics to the Deobandis and Ahl-e-Hadith’s puritans – with the crucial distinction that far from being grouped in one hierarchical organization, the Barelvis are a very loose and fissiparous grouping which cannot really be described as a ‘movement’ at all. Their rivals, though historically fewer in number, have generally had the edge when it comes to organization.

Despite repeated attempts, the Barelvis have never created a large and enduring political party of their own, though they have played a leading part in all the wider Muslim mass movements in India and Pakistan. Barelvi parties formed part of the MMA Islamist alliance which governed the NWFP and Balochistan from 2002 to 2008, and supported that alliance’s calls for the introduction of Shariah law and a variety of Islamic regulations. However, both of Pakistan’s main Islamist parties today, the Jamaat-Islami (JI) nationally and the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) in the Pathan areas, are drawn from the Deobandi tradition.

The greater radicalism, and anti-Westernism, of the Deobandi theological tradition can be traced in part to its urban, social and institutional origins, which differ from those of the Sufi and Barelvi traditions. British rule made little difference to the practice of Islam in the South Asian countryside. Except in the case of the most outrageous abuses, the British never meddled with the shrines, and as long as local pirs did not rise in revolt the British tried to co-opt them.

It was quite otherwise in the cities. As the last chapter, on justice, described, the role of formal Islamic justice in the countryside was always very limited. In the old Muslim states, however, the qazis (Islamic judges) and ulema (Islamic scholars; singular alim) ran the justice and higher education systems in the cities, and played a crucial role in the administration of the Mughal empire and other kingdoms. The destruction of those kingdoms, and the introduction by the British of British systems of law (with the exception of personal law) and higher education dealt a shattering blow to the power, prestige and income of the ulema and qazis. Inevitably, many were radicalized in response.

The decline of the urban clerics from their status under the Mughal empire was highlighted for me by the contrast between the Badshahi (Imperial) mosque in Lahore, and its state-appointed imam or chief cleric. The mosque is Pakistan’s greatest and most splendid architectural monument, and from its completion in 1673 to 1986 was the biggest mosque in the world. Its imam, however, lives in a cramped and shabby lower-middle-class house in its shadow. He sat on his bed while I interviewed him – a burly figure with a booming voice who dwarfed his small bedroom.

His circumstances of course could reflect religious austerity; but other things suggested a man who essentially was a very minor government functionary: the deference he paid to my companion, a local PML(N) politician; the continual repetition – evidently from a very well-worn official record for the consumption of Western visitors – of his commitment to peace, religious harmony, birth control and so on; and his bringing out of a tattered photo album showing his attendance on behalf of the Pakistani state at various international inter-religious conferences. Despite his international diplomatic role, he spoke almost no English, thereby marking his de facto exclusion from all Pakistan’s elites. I’m afraid that I was strongly reminded of meetings with officially sanctioned – and officially controlled – religious figures in the former Soviet Union.

I visited the imam during Moharram 2009. Twenty years earlier, I had also been in Lahore’s inner city during Moharram, to visit young activists of the Jamaat Islami. They all came from the educated lower middle classes. They were a pleasant lot, well-mannered, hospitable and keeping whatever fanaticism they possessed well veiled before a guest. What I took above all from my visit to their homes was the intensity of their families’ struggle to save themselves from sinking into the semi-criminal lumpenproletariat, and the way in which religion – and the Jamaat allegiance and discipline in particular – helped in that struggle. These boys spoke with deep feeling of the lure of street crime, heroin smuggling and heroin addiction. Not far away the Hira Mandi – the red-light district – beckoned as an attraction for men and a fate for women.

Something that one also takes away from visits to the lower and lower middle classes in Pakistan’s cities is the singularly repulsive nature of the semi-Western, semi-modern new culture these cities are liable to breed, especially concerning the treatment of women – a mixture of Western licentiousness with local brutality, crudity and chauvinism. This culture threatens women with the worst of all worlds, in which they are exposed to exacerbated male lust without the protections afforded by traditional culture, and in which their children are exposed to a range of new dangers and temptations. This is why the support of women forms such an important background to many of the Islamist groups, and why all the intelligent Islamist leaders with whom I have spoken (that is, not the Taleban) have stressed an Islamic women’s education programme as a core part of their programme.

In these depressing social and cultural circumstances, adherence to a radical Islamist network like the Jamaat provides a sense of cultural security, a new community and some degree of social support – modest, but still better than anything the state can provide. Poverty is recast as religious simplicity and austerity. Perhaps even more important, faith provides a measure of pride: a reason to keep a stiff back amid continual humiliations and temptations.

Faith also has its physical expression and impact through architecture, as the beauty and grandeur of the Badshahi mosque reminded me. In the blaring, stinking, violent world of the modern ‘third world’ Muslim inner city, the mosque provides an oasis of calm and reflection. The harmonious serenity of its traditional architecture contrasts with the ugly, vulgar clash of Western and Pakistani kitsch which is the style of so many of the elites, let alone the masses. Like the Catholic churches of Central America described by Graham Greene in The Lawless Roads, the mosque may be the only beautiful work of human creation that most people ever see, and the haven not only of beauty but of an ordered and coherent culture, and a guide to living.


On the other hand, the Islamist parties have never been able to break out from their relatively narrow cultural and ethnic bases to appeal successfully to the mass of the Pakistani population. For this a number of factors are responsible. Firstly, their religious culture is in fact alien to that of a majority of Pakistanis. This is changing as a result of social development and urbanization – but the lack of modern economic development, and therefore of truly modern urbanization in Pakistan (as opposed to migration from the countryside which brings rural culture with it), means that this change is not happening nearly as fast as might have been expected. The lack of modern development also means that unlike the Islamist Justice party in Turkey, the religious parties in Pakistan do not have support from modern educated business and technical classes, and have not been able to develop new thinking and new solutions to Pakistan’s myriad social and economic problems.

Secondly, the Islamist parties – or at least the Jamaat, since the JUI has become in effect just another patronage machine – challenge the deeply embedded structures of power, property, patronage and kinship which dominate Pakistani politics and government. This is clearest in their hostility to the hereditary descendants of saints who dominate large swathes of the Pakistani countryside and play an important part in all Pakistani regimes.

Having failed to consolidate real mass support in the population, the Islamist parties have found themselves outflanked from both directions. On the extremist side, their more radical supporters have been drawn away by violent jihadi groups like the Taleban in the Pathan areas, and Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Sipah-e-Sahaba and others in Punjab. Meanwhile, at the moderate end of their spectrum, pragmatic Islamists who wish to share in state patronage have been drawn to support first the military regime of President Zia-ul-Haq and then the Pakistani Muslim League (PML) of the Sharif brothers, both of which promised Islamization of Pakistan without any of the social and economic change for which the Jamaat stand.

The Taleban meanwhile have been led into violent attacks on the shrines of saints and on the pir families who are descended from the saints. They and their allies have attacked Barelvi religious leaders who have condemned them and opposed their takeover of particular mosques. For example, on 12 June 2009 they assassinated a leading Barelvi cleric of Lahore, Mufti Sarfraz Naeemi, who had spoken out against them, and in 2005 had issued an edict against suicide bombings. On 1 July 2010 suicide bombers carried out a massive attack on the famous and beloved shrine of the saint Data Ganj Baksh in Lahore (see below), killing dozens of worshippers and galvanizing Barelvi religious figures into an unusual display of united protest.

Taleban attacks on shrines are motivated partly by religious hostility. The Wahabis have been bitterly opposed to shrines since their very beginnings in the eighteenth century, and first leapt to international notoriety when they captured Mecca and Medina and destroyed the shrines and tombs there, not sparing even that of the Prophet himself. Particular hatred between Wahabis and Shia dates back to the Wahabis’ sack of the great Shia shrines of Karbala, Iraq, in 1802. In Saudi Arabia today, shrines continue to be banned and Sufi orders persecuted.

Taleban hostility to the shrines also stems from the role played by these families in the local elites, which means that the Taleban have to attack and destroy them in order to seize local power. However, as of 2010, the evidence suggests that far from gaining wider support, these attacks have in fact alienated large numbers of people who were initially attracted by the Pakistani Taleban’s support for the jihad in Afghanistan, advocacy of the Shariah and actions against local criminals. As I was told by people I interviewed on the street in Peshawar in the summer of 2009, among Pathans this was especially true of the Taleban bomb attack on 5 March 2009 which damaged the Peshawar shrine of the Pathan saint Pir Rahman Baba (Abdur Rahman Mohmand, 1653 – 1711 CE), who like a number of Sufi saints is revered not only for his spiritual power but as a poet of the local vernacular language and has been called the ‘Pashto nightingale’. Data Ganj Baksh too is beloved by Punjabis and indeed by Muslims all over South Asia.

The attacks on these shrines was therefore a mistaken strategy, which some other Taleban were clever enough to avoid. Thus at the shrine of Pir Haji Sahib Taurangyi in the Mohmand Tribal Agency (some of whose descendants will be described in a later chapter), the local Taleban were careful not to attack the shrine but to co-opt it, stressing that the saint had been a leader of jihad against the British Raj just as the Taleban were fighting the British and Americans invaders and oppressors in Afghanistan, and their ‘slaves’ in the Pakistani government.


In attacking the saints, the Islamist extremists – though they refuse to recognize this themselves – are striking at the very roots of Islam in South Asia. One might say that the beginnings of South Asian Islam were the Book and the Saint. In principle the Saint was the bearer of the Book, but in practice it often did not work out quite like that. The Book is of course the Koran, and to a lesser extent the hadiths, or traditional statements and judgments of the Prophet and stories concerning him, recorded (or invented) and more or less codified by early generations of Muslim scholars.

The Koran is the absolute, unquestionable foundation of Islam, and since Islam’s earliest years every movement seeking to reform Islam from within has been ‘scripturalist’, or ‘fundamentalist’ in the sense of emphasizing a return to the pure spirit of the Koran, just as Christian fundamentalists (for whom the term was coined in the nineteenth century, by the way), have sought to do in the case of the Bible.

The saints were the Muslim preacher-missionaries, mostly from the tradition loosely called ‘Sufi’ (a very complex and often misleading term). In South Asia, the saints are known by the Arab term shaikh, and they and their descendants by the Persian one pir (old man). As much as the great Muslim conquering dynasties, the saints actually spread Islam to many of the ordinary people of South Asia, just as, thousands of miles away, their equivalents were doing in Morocco and elsewhere.

In the process, they, their shrines and their cults took on many local Hindu features, which made them beloved of the local population, but intensely suspect to fundamentalists. The latter have also long accused the cult of the saints of involving shirk, or the worship of figures other than the one God – perhaps the worst sin in the entire Islamic theological canon. Nonetheless, most of the population, especially in the countryside, came to see the saints as embodying the only Islam they knew. Moreover, the saints were usually from families claiming to be descendants of the Prophet (Sayyids), and in some cases had themselves come directly from the Arab world. This gave them immense prestige as bearers of Islam from its source, which continues to this day.

The local and decidedly non-Koranic aspects of the saints’ cults were due not only to the influence of the surrounding Hindu world. They have also reflected what seems to be a feature of almost every human society at one time or another, namely a desire for accessible sacred intermediaries between the human individual and his or her supreme, unknowable God. The Arabic phrase usually translated into English as ‘saint’ literally means ‘friend of God’. In the words of an early twentieth-century British officer:

The general idea of our riverain folk [the traditional settled rural Muslim population of Punjab, which had to live near the rivers to draw water for irrigation] seems to be that the Deity is a busy person, and that his hall of audience is of limited capacity. Only a certain proportion of mankind can hope to attain to the presence of God; but when certain individuals have got there, they may have opportunities of representing the wishes and desires of other members of the human race. Thus, all human beings require an intervener between them and God.3

The legends of the early saints contain many stories of their battles with Hindu priests and kings, in which their superior powers prevail, the priests are routed and the kings defeated in battle or converted. Most of what is now Pakistan was converted to Islam only very slowly, however, and long after it was conquered by Muslim dynasties.

In the words of the great scholar of South Asian Islam, Francis Robinson:

The holy men were ... the pioneers and frontiersmen of the Muslim world, men who from the thirteenth century played the crucial role in drawing new peoples, pagans, Hindus, Buddhists, Shamanists, into an Islamic cultural milieu. According to tradition, nine saints introduced Islam to Java; wandering holy men, we are told, first brought Islam to West Africa. What the holy men did, it appears, was to find points of contact and social roles within the host community. They shared their knowledge of religious experience with men of other spiritual traditions. They helped propitiate the supernatural forces which hemmed in and always seemed to threaten the lives of common folk. They interpreted dreams, brought rain, healed the sick and made the barren fertile. They mediated between rulers and ruled, natives and newcomers, weak and strong. 4

Stories of miracles grew up, first around the saints and then around their tombs and, as in the Christian world of the Middle Ages, the tombs became shrines (khanqahs) and places of pilgrimage, where people hoped to benefit from access to the saint’s baraka (barkat), or spiritual power. The death anniversaries or urs of the saints (from the Persian word for marriage, commemorating their ‘marriage’ with God at death) became great ‘fairs’. As with Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras, the langars (free kitchens) attached to the shrines play an important part in feeding the local poor, as well as pilgrims.

Muslim Pakistan, like Hindu India, is bound together by pilgrimages and allegiances to shrines and saints which stretch across provincial and linguistic boundaries. These bonds can be traced visually by the sayings and symbols of particular saints which often form part of the wonderfully extravagant decoration of the lorries which cross the country from one end to another, creating a ‘sacred geography’ that spans the whole of Pakistan. 5 Sufism and the shrines play a very important part in the popular poetry of local languages, above all in Sindh – where the saint Abdul Latif of Bhit is regarded as Sindh’s national poet – but also in Punjabi and Pashto.

The culture of the shrines thus permeates Pakistan. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto sometimes presented himself to his followers as a divinely inspired guide and teacher, as does Altaf Hussain of the MQM (called by his followers ‘Pir Sahib’). The mausoleum of Zalfikar Ali Bhutto and his daughter Benazir near Larkana is consciously modelled on the shrine of a saint. At PPP rallies, I have seen party supporters shaking their heads violently from side to side in the manner of ecstatic devotees at saintly festivals. Saints have also been pressed into military service. During the 1965 war with India, stories circulated of saints catching Indian bombs in their hands.

As in the Christian world, the shrines grew wealthy on the strength of donations from pilgrims and, above all, land grants from monarchs, noblemen and tribes. However, in the Muslim world there is a crucial difference from that of Christianity (at least since the Catholic Church in the eleventh century began to insist successfully that priests and bishops could not marry): namely, that unlike Christian saints, most Muslim saints married and had children, and that in the world of Muslim saints spiritual power is hereditary. This power ‘is distributed among all the progeny of the saint and harnessed by the few who fulfil religious obligations and meditate on the tomb of the saint in order to perform miracles’.6

Not just the shrines themselves, but the pir families of the sajjada nashins (literally, ‘he who sits on the prayer carpet’) who were their guardians therefore became major landowners, exercising both religious and spiritual power in their neighbourhoods; sometimes performing miracles, often mediating local disputes and interceding with rulers, and occasionally going to war. They attracted whole local tribes as adherents and defenders, and intermarried with other Sayyid families to form powerful networks of kinship and patronage. Once again, in Pakistan it is not wealth alone, but wealth plus either kinship or spiritual prestige, or both, that gives political power.

The shrines and their guardians have therefore always vastly outclassed in prestige the menial and often despised village mullah, just as the shrines and monasteries of medieval Europe cast the humble village priest deep into the shade. The power of the pirs in Sindh and southern Punjab, and their role in combating the Taleban in the Pathan regions, will be discussed in later chapters.

These pir families remain of immense political importance in much of Pakistan, and especially in the PPP; as witness the fact that, as of 2010, the Prime Minister, Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani; deputy prime minister, Makhdoom Amin Fahim; foreign minister, Syed Mahmood Qureshi; and minister for religion, Syed Ahmed Qazmi are all from pir lineages, as are leading party supporters like Syeda Abida Husain. However, members of pir lineages are also to be found in prominent positions in other mainstream parties, like Makhdoom Faisal Saleh Hayat of the PML(Q) and Makhdoom Javed Hashmi, Makhdoom Ahmed Mehmood and, greatest of all, the Pir Pagaro of Sindh, all of whom at the time of writing are supporting the PML(N).

Thus, back in 1988, a PPP politician from the family of the pir of Hadda in Sindh, Syed Parvez Jillani, recounted to me the legends of Hadda, including one which told how the fish of the River Indus would come to worship his cousin the pir (a legend presumably taken originally from the worship of a Hindu river-god). He described the absolute, unquestioning devotion of the murids of Hadda to the pir and his family. Then, as a good PPP politician, he added:

The difference between us and the other pirs is that we are in favour of bringing education to our murids, and that we have always played a democratic role – we were always for the PPP. That is why the defeat of the Pir Pagaro does not worry us. Our people would never betray us, because we have always worked with the masses and spoken for the rights of the poor. And we have always spoken out on Sindhi issues.7

The point is of course that, as this interview clearly indicates, in practice the pirs and their families cannot genuinely advance either local education or local democracy, as this would strike directly at the cultural and social bases of their own power. This brings out again the tragic tension in Pakistan between the needs of modern progress and the needs of social and political stability. The traditions and structures which prevent Islamist revolution and civil war also help keep much of the population in a state of backwardness and deference to the elites.

As these particular PPP pir families also demonstrate, they play a very valuable role in bridging the Sunni – Shia divide and hindering the rise of sectarian extremism. These pir families are publicly Sunni, but are generally known to be in private largely Shia (like the Bhuttos and Zardaris). Many saints, their traditions and their descendants in Pakistan are therefore not bound by the Sunni – Shia divide, but can be Sunni, Shia, or something undefined in between. This makes them very different from the Islamic scholars and judges of the towns, whose entire tradition is concentrated on precise learning and the drawing of precise distinctions on the basis of written sources.

It would be a mistake, however, to see the cults of the saints as purely rural or as purely derived from the past, and therefore – an assumption which is often derived consciously or unconsciously from the other two – doomed gradually to be eclipsed either by Western-style secularism, or by the modernist Islamism of the new urban radicals. Some of the greatest and most ancient Pakistani shrines, in Lahore and Multan, were created by their founding saints in great cities and have large followings among local businessmen (a point discussed further in the chapter on the Punjab). Others were originally in the countryside, but have been incorporated into Pakistan’s mushrooming cities.

Nor are the shrines of Pakistan only about the worship of long-dead saints and their descendants. New local preachers are emerging all the time. Sometimes they emerge from the followers of existing shrines, like Pir Mir Ali Shah, who in the 1930s and 1940s greatly increased the fame of the ancient shrine of Golra Sharif near what is now Islamabad. In several cases in recent decades preachers have succeeded in establishing new and famous places of pilgrimage. A notable example is the shrine of Pir Hazrat Shah at Ghamkol Sharif in the NWFP. Hazrat Shah established himself there in 1951, and gained a reputation for holiness, preaching and miracles which attracted many followers, especially in the Pakistani armed forces.

The network of this shrine extends to large parts of the Pakistani diaspora in Britain. As Pnina Werbner has documented, the growth of this shrine’s following in Britain formed part of a movement which saw the influence of the scripturalist ‘Deobandi’ school pushed back among British Muslims in the 1970s and 1980s.8 The madrasah at Golra Sharif also sends preachers to Britain.

However, there are lots of new pirs unknown beyond their immediate neighbourhoods. Any Muslim can claim to be a saint, on the basis of a vision, or the appearance of another saint in a dream. To make good the claim, however, requires above all personal charisma, natural authority, psychological insight and good judgement in giving advice and solving local disputes. An ability to perform miracles or – depending on your point of view – a lot of luck are definite assets. Most such newly emerged figures never do become more than small local holy men. A few attract much more considerable followings. Often, this will be a process stretching over generations, with an impressive disciple succeeding the original pir and attracting yet more support.

Thus Pir Hasan Baba, a new saint in Lahore, who died in the 1950s, was the chosen successor of a previous shaikh, and Pir Hasan’s prestige in turn was consolidated by his successor, Hafiz Mohammed Iqbal, who died in 2001. Together, they attracted a considerable following in the Lahori middle classes and intelligentsia. Hasan Baba was by origin an Englishman drawn like many others to Sufi mysticism. Their followers are building a shrine for them on the site of the small, ordinary house where Hasan Baba (a small government clerk) lived and preached from the 1930s to the 1950s, and where they are both buried.

Reflecting the class and culture of its devotees, the shrine (which I visited in August 2009) is a beautiful building constructed from traditional materials, and designed by a leading Lahore architect – and follower of these saints – Kamil Khan. ‘Nothing like this has been built in Pakistan or India since the fall of the Mughal empire,’ the engineer, Rizwan Qadir Khwaja, told me. Reflecting the trans-communal nature of the shrines, the overall design is modelled on that of the famous Shia shrine of Ali in Najaf, Iraq, although Pir Hasan Baba was, technically at least, Sunni. As Mr Khwaja told me,

In Pakistan, you often find that a wife is Shia, the husband Sunni. And in the past this was never a problem, but now extremists want to divide us. Sufism and Sufi shrines play a very important role against this, by bridging Sunni and Shia. When someone asks me if I am Sunni or Shia I reply that like my saints I really do not care. It is irrelevant. I think only of the will of God.9

Followers of Pir Hasan and Hafiz Iqbal also went out of their way to stress these saints’ respect for other religions, that Hafiz Iqbal had called Pope John Paul II ‘a true saint’, and so on. ‘A problem in Islam is that the Koran is too explicit and rigorous, unlike other scriptures, so there is less room for flexibility,’ as one of the devotees told me – a statement calculated to cause apoplexy in many more-rigorous Muslims.

This shrine and its followers gave a strong sense of a living and growing tradition, and – like Qawali music – of a very strong cultural and emotional force. Mr Khwaja said, ‘We are not trying to invent something new, but to breathe new life into old traditions,’ and they seemed to have done just that. As to the miracles attributed to these saints, as a modern rationalist I could not help smiling at them – but as a Catholic (however faded) I have to recognize their central place in all religious traditions.

Like these saints, South Asian saints in general belong to one or other Sufi order, and their whole tradition has been called a Sufi one. This can be rather misleading for Western audiences whose ideas of Sufism are derived chiefly from Omar Khayyam (via Edward FitzGerald) and Idries Shah. The idea of Sufism as a vaguely deist, New-Age-style philosophy with lots of poetry, alcohol and soft drugs is also immensely appealing to members of Pakistan’s Westernized elites, whom it permits to follow a Westernized and hedonistic lifestyle without feeling that they have broken completely with their religion and its traditions.

This image of Sufism as representing a sort of latitudinarian and pacific moderation has led to a US strategy of supporting Islamist Sufis in the Muslim world against radicals – whereas in reality a more helpful strategy in the ‘war on terror’ might be to use the FBI to support American Methodists against American Pentecostals. The unpopularity of the US is such among ordinary Pakistanis – including Barelvis and followers of the saints with whom I have spoken – that US moves in this direction are a great asset to radical enemies of Sufism. As to the supposed ‘moderation’ of the Barelvis, the assassin of Governor Salman Taseer, who committed his crime in defence of Pakistan’s blasphemy law, is a Barelvi and was defended by most Barelvi clerics. The Barelvis are in fact deeply conservative reactionaries and are therefore opposed to modern Islamist revolution and to liberalism.

Sufis have often been at the forefront of movements insisting on stricter religious observance and obedience to the Koran, as in those fighting against European colonialism. The famous Qawali form of ecstatic devotional music (brought to Western audiences by great artists like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) stemmed from Sufism and is performed at many shrines – but has been banned by the Naqshbandi Sufi order.

In the sixteenth century, some Sufi leaders denounced the Mughal emperor Akbar’s attempt to create a new syncretic cult. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, others supported the harsh Islamizing policies of the Emperor Aurangzeb. In the eighteenth century, the great Islamist reformer Shah Waliullah (mentioned in Chapter 1) was a member of the Naqshbandi Sufi order and, in the late nineteenth century, followers of his tradition founded the Deoband theological school, whose adherents today form the backbone of Islamist radical politics in Pakistan.

While these are often harshly critical of the shrines and their followers, their madrasahs are believed often to have private links to particular Naqshbandi shrines, showing the persistence of the shrine’s power and influence. As Carl Ernst has remarked, many of the leaders of modern Islamist radicalism came originally from backgrounds heavily influenced by Sufism.10

Shah Waliullah’s tradition of defending Islam against the West has – in their own perception – been continued by the adherents of Pir Hazrat Shah in Britain, who in 1989 helped lead the movement of protest against the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. The classical teachings of all the recognized orders of Sufism have always taught that a knowledge of and obedience to the Shariah are essential if one is to become a shaikh or his murid.

In Pakistan, the cults of the saints, and the Sufi orders and Barelvi theology which underpin them, are an immense obstacle to the spread of Taleban and sectarian extremism, and of Islamist politics in general. This is not because the shrines or the Barelvis have powerful political parties of their own, like the Jamaat Islami (JI) and Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) of the Deobandi tradition. Every attempt at creating such parties over the decades has foundered on the deep rivalries and jealousies between (and indeed within) the great pir families, and also on the fact that, unlike the modern Islamist radicals, the shrines and the Barelvis have no uniting political ideology at all beyond loyalty to their own traditions.

Rather, when it comes to combating radicalism the importance of the shrines lies in two things: first, in the way that the different cults and traditions – especially in so far as they overlap with those of the Shia – make impossible the kind of monolithic Sunni Islam of which the Jamaat in one way and the Taleban in another dream. Second, and equally important, is the way in which the pir families are entwined with and help support and legitimize dominant landowning clans across much of the Pakistani countryside, and parts of the traditional business elites in the towns.

The pirs are therefore an important part of the dense networks of elite power and patronage which have been an immense and so far insuperable obstacle to revolution in Pakistan. Politically speaking, pirs behave in the same way as the great majority of other politicians. They use their network of influence to gain patronage and protection for their followers. Quite contrary to the conventional Western image of Sufism, therefore, one of the most important roles of the Sufi shrines in Pakistan has always been in the eminently practical area of politics.

Pirs with real personal religious prestige are at an advantage in being able to command support beyond their own lineages, and also sometimes to command a more unconditional loyalty. Often a key step in the rise of a newly emerged urban pir is when he gains a local politician as a follower – just as in the past, a saint’s reputation would be made by the public respect of a local prince, or even – in the greatest cases – the sultan himself. Thereafter, the politician and the saint rise (and to a lesser extent fall) together, each contributing to the alliance from their respective spheres. Murids have been known to commit murders on the orders of their pir, either for his own sake or that of one of his political allies.

There are therefore two sides to the pirs and shrines: their political, property-owning and sometimes criminal role co-exists with the beneficial spiritual and social functions described by Lukas Werth, a leading scholar of Sufism:

Many of the new pirs are not frauds. Ordinary people take great comfort from them. They give them an outlook on life, and an inspiration. They create an emotional counterweight against the constant troubles of life here, the calamities that everyone has to face, the sorrow and the sheer mess of life. They provide a place of spiritual rest for the people. They also educate children – which is more than the state does most of the time – calm down local fights, reconcile husbands and wives, parents and children, or brothers who have fallen out.11

A Sindhi intellectual friend drew attention to another side of the cults of the shrines:

The negative side of mysticism and saint worship is that it makes people passive, respectful of their superiors and believing that everything comes from God or the saint and should be accepted. This is especially damaging in Sindh, because we are a traditional, agrarian and backward society and mysticism helps keep us that way. We need an industrial revolution to take us out of this feudal domination of which the pirs are part. But people in Sindh love their pirs, and our whole culture is bound up with them. Even I am deeply influenced by this, though I loathe the political and social role of the pirs.

The pirs and the shrines are therefore also an obstacle to modern reform, democracy and development in Pakistan. It is true that pirs provide at least psychological help for poor people facing disease, when no help whatsoever is forthcoming from the state or the regular medical services. Some shrines are especially popular with women, who often come to pray to be given children, or to be cured of various ailments.

This is especially true of psychiatric problems. These are thought by the mass of the population to be due to possession by devils, and people suffering from them are brought to the shrines to be exorcized. It may indeed be that for disturbed women in particular, the licence given to them at the shrines to defy all normal rules of behaviour by dancing ecstatically and screaming either prayers or demon-induced obscenities does indeed provide an essential therapeutic release from their horribly confined and circumscribed (physically as well as emotionally) lives. On the other hand, it is unfortunately also true that many pirs actively discourage people from seeking regular medical help, telling them to come to them instead. Occasionally ghastly stories surface of small-time rural pirs ordering their devotees to perform black magic and even human sacrifice.


The ‘superstition’ of the shrines and Sufi orders is one reason why radical secular reformers in the Muslim world have been deeply hostile to them; another, as far as modern nationalists are concerned, is that they advance the idea of a loyalty to their leaders which transcends that of the nation-state. Thus in Turkey, Kemal Ataturk launched a ferocious persecution of the shrines and the Sufis, and imposed restrictions which have been lifted only in recent years.

This was an ambiguity of which the British rulers of India were fully aware. On the one hand – like many Muslim rulers earlier – they regarded the shrines and the landowning pir families as forces for stability and potential sources of support for imperial rule. In Punjab, they took care to incorporate the pir families into what they defined (along British lines) as the ‘landowning gentry’, and to reward them with consultation, honours and sometimes new land grants.

The British saw the pirs as barriers to the anti-British revolutionary movements of the Wahabis and some of the reformist Muslim preachers. Successive Pakistani governments have also relied on the pirs for local support and influence. General Zia-ul-Haq, with his personal sympathy for modern Islamist culture, was believed to be hostile to the shrines, but took little action against them, beyond following previous (unsuccessful) policies of trying to regulate and partially control their finances through the Waqf Board (statut0ry body which administers religious endowments).

On the other hand, in their Protestant souls the British shared the Islamist reformers’ views concerning the culture of the shrines, and despised the superstition, obscurantism, corruption and intoxication which they saw flourishing at the shrines and among their adherents; and, indeed, the parallels they drew between popular Muslim worship of the saints and the failings of ‘Popery’ in the West were often quite explicit.

In Major O’Brien’s view, ‘All [Punjabi Muslims] alike are sunk in the most degrading superstition, and are in the most abject submission to their spiritual pastors or pirs.’12 The political needs of imperial rule aside, British officialdom much preferred the scripturalism, legalism and relative modernity of the urban Islamist reformists, and – as the last chapter described – sometimes favoured the Shariah against the local customary law, on progressive grounds.

Certainly some of the great shrines in Pakistan could be described (like Russia’s) as ‘an offence against the Protestant state of mind’. This is especially true of those with large followings of qalandars or malangs (the South Asian equivalent of the dervishes of the Arab world and Turkey), wandering holy beggars with certain affinities to the Hindu saddhus. Much of the contempt felt by the British and the Islamists for the shrines stems from the character of the malangs, and especially the musth malangsmusth indicating a mixture of intoxication and madness.

Like many educated Sufis, Mr Khwaja of the following of Pir Hasan Baba expressed strong disapproval not only of the scripturalist enemies of Sufism, but also of many of the Pakistani pirs and their followers:

Unfortunately, at the lowest level, some of the new saints and many of the malangs are fakes and are just in it for business. There are so many of them out there bringing a bad image on us. Malangs sell drugs, run prostitution rackets and things like that. And the political hereditary pirs are also a problem. They discredit the Sufi tradition with their corruption and politicking. A true Sufi saint cannot be fat, healthy and rich. He has to be poor and simple, and living in poor conditions. But humanity has always worshipped false gods, and Pakistan is no different. Surely if you look at the hereditary pirs, you can see clearly all the false gods that they worship.

Some of the malangs I have met, especially at smaller rural shrines, do indeed tend to support British and Islamist prejudices: filthy, stoned to the gills, and surrounded by retinues of giggling half-naked little boys as degraded-looking as themselves. One malang, however, justified their use of drugs to Katherine Ewing in words some of which could have come from recent reports by medical experts to the British and American governments:

Alcohol works on the outside – it makes a man violent and blinds his senses. Charas [hashish] works in the inside. It makes him peaceful and opens his spirit to God. So a malang should avoid alcohol as he should avoid women. Alcohol will cut him off from God but charas brings him close to God. That is why we malangs use it.13

This is part of the malangs’ proclaimed belief that their exclusive concentration on God and their particular saint requires them to ‘place [themselves] outside the world’ and the world’s normal social rules. The malangs and qalandars therefore are known as the ‘be-shar’ (‘without law’) Sufis, as opposed to the pirs, who marry and have children, and follow (in theory) the rules of the Shariah.

At some of the large urban shrines attempts have been made to prevent the public smoking of hashish by devotees. This is especially true of the clean, orderly shrines round Islamabad and Rawalpindi, with their strong following among officials, others such as Ghamkol Sharif with strong military connections, and all shrines that I know of belonging to the Naqshbandi order of Sufis. At other great shrines, however (especially during their annual urs, and at the sessions of prayer, chanting and dancing that take place every Thursday evening), to refuse to inhale hashish you would have to give up breathing altogether.

This is certainly true of the two great shrines in Sindh – Bhitshah and Sehwan Sharif. On visiting Sehwan, I couldn’t help grinning when I thought of the contrast between the prevailing physical atmosphere and the would-be spiritual atmosphere (one of unutterable official pomposity) which breathed from the booklet about the shrine and its saint, full of pious phrases from ministers, that I had been given by the local government.

Sehwan Sharif is situated on the right bank of the Indus in central Sindh and, like Hadda, is associated with some legends derived from Hindu river worship. A village of low-caste Hindus still exists nearby. Sehwan’s founding saint was Shaikh Syed Usman Marwandi (1177 – 1274), a Persian known as Lal Shahbaz (the Red Falcon) Qalandar, having – according to legend – once turned himself into a falcon to rescue his friend and fellowsaint, Baba Farid of Pakpattan, from execution. Most of the leading saints of Sindh, including Shah Abdul Latif, were from the tradition Lal Shahbaz Qalandar founded. Politicians take good care to honour the saint, and the golden gates of his shrine were donated by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

The first thing that strikes you on approaching Sehwan Sharif (or in my case looking down on it from the guest house where the local government had kindly housed me, situated castle-like on a nearby hill) is the fairground atmosphere. The shrines of the saint and his leading disciples, and many of the streets between them, are lit by thousands and thousands of coloured fairy-lights. The carnival continues in the streets themselves, which are a sort of bazaar-apotheosis – that is to say, a normal South Asian bazaar, but with more of everything: more music, more light, more crowds, more smells (attractive and otherwise), more religious charms and souvenirs, more beggars and more thieves. Twice in the course of my visit I felt a hand steal into one of my pockets, where I had taken good care not to put my wallet or documents.

So in some ways Sehwan is Pakistan- (or India-) plus. Another aspect of this and other shrines however is very different indeed from the normal life of Pakistan, but helps explain the shrines’ popularity and social role: the behaviour of women. In Sehwan, groups of ordinary women pilgrims stride around with extraordinary (for Pakistan) freedom and self-confidence, unaccompanied by their menfolk though often with small children in tow. They even smile at you – without, I hasten to add, being prostitutes, though female and male prostitution is said to flourish around some of the shrines.

The tomb of the saint is surrounded by family groups of women and children praying and chatting. In the courtyard, where the drumming and dancing in honour of the saint takes place, one section is roped off (but not screened) for women. On the evening when I visited the shrine, most of the women were sitting quite decorously with their dupattas (scarves) pulled over their hair, chanting softly and moving their heads gently to and fro in time to the music. In the middle of them, however, three women were swaying and shaking their heads feverishly like maenads, with unbound hair flying around their faces – most probably some of the psychologically troubled people (women especially) for whom the shrines provide a real if questionable therapy.

The rest of the courtyard is packed with dancing, swaying men. At intervals, servants of the shrine force their way through the crowd spraying scented water to cool people down, but the heat is indescribable and the dancers drenched in sweat. In the middle of the courtyard stand huge skin drums, and relays of volunteers come forward to beat them. Rather charmingly, my official guide, a very staid-looking middle-aged government clerk with glasses (and the inevitable pen stuck to the outside of his breast pocket as a symbol of his status), seized the drumsticks at one point and beat out a tremendous tattoo.

Most of the men in the courtyard were ordinary folk, but the front ranks of the dancers are made up of malangs (or dervishes, as they are often called in Sindh), with long, wild hair and beards – thousand-year-old hippies – stretching their arms above their heads and pointing their fingers at heaven, very like at a pop concert. The smell of hashish was everywhere.

The Shia element was very apparent, both in the Shia family groups around the tomb, in the drumming, which was very reminiscent of that I had heard at the great Shia festival of Ashura in Lahore four months earlier, and in the chants of ‘Ya Ali’. Some of the malangs were clearly as crazy as the women dancers. One was draped in chains from head to foot. Another was dressed in women’s clothes, with a headdress made from animal skins and feathers, like a pagan shaman.

Quite what Lal Shahbaz himself would have made of all this we do not know – though above the gates stands a picture of the saint himself dancing, holding a sitar. What we do know is what the spectrum of ‘fundamentalist’ Muslim groups think of this kind of thing – and the answer of course is more or less what seventeenth-century puritans thought about Catholicism, minus the Pope and the bishops. As should be clear, the scenes at some of the shrines in Pakistan contain just about all the elements necessary to make a puritan feel nervous.


There could not be a greater contrast with Sehwan Sharif than the headquarters of the Jamaat Islami party – the only truly national Islamist party in Pakistan – at Mansura in Lahore. Like a number of institutions in Pakistan – the military especially – the appearance of Jamaat offices seems deliberately created to be as different as possible from the general mixture of dirt, disorder, colour, poverty and ostentation that is the public face of Pakistan.

The only hint of fun I have ever seen with the Jamaat has been its younger members playing cricket – and indeed there are aspects of the Jamaat of which Dr Arnold of Rugby would thoroughly have approved; they are clean-living, muscular Muslims. With the Jamaat, everything is disciplined, neat, orderly, plain, clean, modest and buttoned-up: a puritan style, with faint echoes of the barracks and strong ones of the boarding school. Its members also dress and behave in this way – a style which reflects both their ideology and their generally lower-middle-class urban origins and culture.

Jamaat activists certainly dress and behave very differently from the far rougher, largely rural Pathan members of the other main Islamist party from the Deobandi tradition, the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (Council of Islamic Clerics, or JUI). The JUI’s parent party in undivided India, the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind, was founded in 1919 as part of the Khilafat movement against British rule.

The JUI split off in the 1940s to support partition and the creation of Pakistan. In Pakistan, however, the JUI has become an almost exclusively ethnically Pathan party, and so I have dealt with it in a later chapter, on the Pathans of Pakistan. In addition, the JUI no longer has a significant intellectual aspect, and has to a considerable extent become just another Pakistani patronage machine on behalf of its followers – as one of its leaders candidly admitted to me.

The Jamaat Islami is a very different kind of party, much more impressive and in its way more frightening – so impressive indeed that its lack of political success is all the more striking. The Jamaat has excellent Islamist intellectual credentials, having been founded in Lahore in 1941 by Syed Abu Ala Maududi (1903 – 79), one of the leading thinkers of the international Islamist canon. Indeed, in some ways the Jamaat is too intellectual for its own good.

Maududi and the Jamaat were strongly influenced by the Deobandi tradition of hostility to British rule, and attachment to the idea of the universal Muslim Ummah. They also deeply distrusted the secularism of Jinnah and other Muslim League leaders. On these grounds, they initially opposed the creation of Pakistan, preferring to struggle for a more perfect Muslim society within India.

After partition became inevitable, Maududi and his chief followers moved to Pakistan. For a long time, the party kept a strongly Mohajir character (Maududi himself was born in Hyderabad, India). The cultural influence of relative Mohajir openness and progressivism (a key example of the role of migrants in promoting whatever social and economic dynamism exists in Pakistan), as much as Jamaat ideology, may have accounted for the more enlightened and modern aspects of the Jamaat, especially concerning women.

Maududi took his intellectual inspiration from Hasan al-Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen) of Egypt and the Middle East, but carried their ideas considerably further. His plan for the Jamaat was very much that of al-Banna for the Ikhwan: ‘A salafiyya message, a Sunni way, a Sufi truth, a political organization, an athletic group, a scientific and cultural link, an economic enterprise and a social idea.’14

As these words indicate, the Islamist vision of this tradition is an allembracing one, based on the belief that Islam is ‘a system for the whole of human life’. Maududi took this further, developing a reformist agenda with certain socialist elements, strongly condemning modern capitalism and arguing that the Muslim tradition of zakat corresponds to modern Western ideas of social insurance. The Jamaat’s statement on its website (in rather poor English, for the Jamaat) emphasizes above all issues of social injustice, suffering and corruption:

Have a look at our dear homeland injustice and mischief has become order of the day. God created man equal but a handful people have grabbed more land they needed and amassed, money in excess of their needs for, they want to live a luxurious life. And, such people have enslaved other fellow human beings by keeping them poor and ignorant, we have weakened our fellow compatriots by denying them their due rights. And thus have deprived their lives even of trifle joys, Corruption together with adulteration is prevalent. Bribery is must even for a legal thing. Police always acts beyond any norms of decency and emptying the purses is the only way to get justice from a court of law. Standard of the education is all time low and morality and ethics too, are no better. Obscenity is all permeating. The armed forces instead of conquering the enemy have conquered its own nation many a time by declaring Martial Law in the country. Bureaucrats who are supposed to be public servants have become public bosses.15

Gulfaraz, a Jamaat student activist studying political science at Peshawar university and with the neat, Islamic-modern Jamaat look (trimmed beard and spotless kurta) emphasized hostility to ‘feudalism’ and the ‘feudal’ domination of the other parties, as one of his key reasons for joining the Jamaat:

This is the root of all our problems that this small group of feudals and their businessmen allies control everything. It is because India got rid of them through land reform that India can be a democracy today. In all the other parties, the people who say they want change are in fact from within the feudal system, so obviously these parties can’t change anything. That is why we need student unions, trades unions, NGOs that can give rise to new, democratic parties ... In Jamaat, this feudal and dynastic system doesn’t exist. Our leaders are elected all the way down to the student groups, and they never pass the leadership to their children.

My reasons for joining the Jamaat were first religion, and then social justice and democracy. I only did it after a lot of thought. My family are ANP, and I am the only one of my brothers and sisters to join the Jamaat. It happened gradually. I went to college and met Jamaat members and was impressed by them and how they worked. Once you are affiliated, you learn political awareness and organization skills as well as religious awareness. Then as student members you go to other colleges to organize public debates and spread the Jamaat message.16

On the other hand, while the Jamaat has always strongly denounced ‘feudalism’, in practice its support for land reform has wavered to and fro and has never been more than lukewarm at best.

The Jamaat has enjoyed its greatest success among the educated classes, and has made gaining influence in the universities and the media a key part of its strategy – a sort of Islamist version of the reform-Marxist ‘long march through the institutions’. However, this also reflects the party’s failure to appeal to the masses in general, or to transcend the 5 per cent or so of the electorate which has been its average for the past sixty years.

Although its leaders often come from old ulema lineages, the Jamaat remains a party of the aspiring urban lower middle classes, and especially of their educated elements. Apart from the hostility of Pakistan’s dominant classes, and lack of a clan and patronage base, the party also suffers from the fact that its entire puritan and intellectual style is rather alien not just to the mass of the rural population but to the urban proletariat as well, with their vulgar, colourful popular culture, love of Indian movies, extensive use of hashish and alcohol, and surprisingly frank attitude to sex (except of course as far as their own womenfolk are concerned).

The fact that the old urban middle classes are constantly being swamped by new migrants from the countryside casts a certain doubt on whether – as some analysts have predicted – Pakistan’s rapid urbanization necessarily means an increase in adherence to the Deobandi tradition as opposed to the Barelvi, and with it an increase in support for the Jamaat and other Islamist groups. For this to happen, a sufficient number of former migrants and their descendants would have to be not just urban, but upwardly mobile – anecdotal evidence suggests that the influence of Tablighi Jamaat preachers, for example, is strongly correlated with a rise in the social scale from the proletariat to the lower middle class. The problem is that the lack of sociological research and detailed surveys means that this is indeed only anecdotal evidence.

The Jamaat’s disdain for the mass of the population was very evident when I visited their headquarters in the great Punjabi industrial city of Faisalabad to see if they were benefiting from the workers’ anger at power cuts and unemployment. The Jamaat’s district leader, Rai Mohammed Akram Khan, seemed surprised that I thought appealing to the workers was important, and spoke contemptuously of their lack of education and ‘real Islam’, including their love of illicit liquor:

We don’t want to rally the masses behind us, because they don’t help us. They can launch strikes and demonstrations but they are disorganized, illiterate and can’t follow our ideology or stick with our strategy. We want our party workers to be carefully screened for their education and good Muslim characters, because if we simply become like the PPP and recruit everyone, then the Jamaat is finished ... We don’t care if we can’t take over the government soon as long as we keep our characters clean. Only that will help us one day to lead the people, when they realize that there is no other way of replacing the existing system.17

The Jamaat believes that the Koran and Shariah, properly interpreted and adapted, hold the answer to every social, economic and political question. It differs however from other Islamist movements in its acceptance of the principle of ijtihad, which allows the reinterpretation of lessons of the Koran and hadiths (within certain limits) in accordance with human reason and in answer to contemporary problems. The Jamaat shares its belief in ijtihad with the Shia tradition; and indeed, Jamaat leaders have often spoken to me of their admiration for the Iranian revolution and the system it has created, which they say resembles Maududi’s idea of a ‘theo-democracy’. One of the more positive aspects of the Jamaat’s record has been its strong opposition to anti-Shia militancy in Pakistan.

In contrast to Khomeini’s movement in Iran, however (but recognizing Pakistani realities), Maududi’s and the Jamaat’s approach to Islamist revolution in Pakistan has been gradualist, not revolutionary. They have stood in most elections, and condemned the administration of President Zia (which in other respects they supported) for its lack of democracy. This is despite the fact that Maududi imbued the Jamaat with certain aspects of modern European totalitarianism. He was also quite open about the fact that his idea of the Jamaat’s revolutionary role owed much to the Russian Communist idea of the Bolshevik party as a revolutionary ‘vanguard’, leading apathetic masses to revolution. The Jamaat, and more especially its semi-detached student wing, Islami Jamiat Talaba, have frequently engaged in violent clashes with rivals.

The Jamaat’s relationship with democracy is complex. It pursues quasi-totalitarian ends by largely democratic means, and internally is the only party in Pakistan to hold elections to its senior offices – all the other parties being run by autocratic individuals or dynasties. The Jamaat and the Mohajir-based MQM are the only parties to possess really effective party organizations, and the only ones with successful women’s wings. Indeed, I have heard it said that Munawar Hasan’s wife (leader of the Jamaat women’s organization) is ‘the real leader of the party’.

In this, the Jamaat is also close to the Iranian revolution. Its leaders like to emphasize that they believe strongly in women’s education, employment and full rights and opportunities, ‘but in harmony with their own particular rights and duties’. At least in speaking with me, Jamaat leaders strongly condemned aspects of the Afghan Taleban’s treatment of women and the Pakistani Taleban’s destruction of girls’ schools. I got the feeling that this also reflected the disdain of educated people from an ancient urban – and urbane – Islamic tradition for the savage and illiterate Pathan hillmen.

However, while intermittently condemning Taleban terrorism against Pakistani Muslims (though also frequently in private blaming it on the security forces), the Jamaat have consistently opposed any military action against the Taleban. Statements by the party’s amir (leader, or, strictly translated, ‘commander’) on the Jamaat website in December 2009 summed up the party stance very well: ‘Munawar and Liaqat Baloch strongly condemned the suicide bomb attack on the Peshawar press club and termed it an attack on press freedom’; but at the same time, ‘Operation in Waziristan to have horrible consequences, and the nation will have no escape’, and ‘All Islamic and Pakistan-loving forces must unite against America.’18

Without taking up arms themselves, the Jamaat have also shown considerable sympathy for militancy. A large proportion of Al Qaeda members arrested by the Pakistani authorities have been picked up while staying with Jamaat members, though the party leadership strongly denies that this reflects party policy. The Hizbul Mujahidin, a Kashmiri militant group which has carried out terrorism against India, is in effect a branch of the Jamaat. In the course of the 1990s, however, its role in Kashmir was eclipsed by the more radical and militarily effective Lashkar-e-Taiba, and it has never carried out attacks in Pakistan.

The greater radicalism of the Jamaat was displayed during the Red Mosque crisis of 2007. The JUI condemned the actions of the Red Mosque militants and called for them to reach a peaceful compromise with the authorities. The Jamaat by contrast gave them strong backing – while continuing to insist that it stood for peaceful revolution in Pakistan. Moreover, a considerable proportion of the leadership of the Swat wing of the Pakistani Taleban (the former Tehriq-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammedi, of whom more in later chapters) started with the Jamaat, although admittedly they left it because of its insufficient radicalism.

The ambiguities of the Jamaat’s position, and the divisions among its members, were amply demonstrated when I visited Mansura in January 2009. First I spoke with the head of the party’s youth wing, Syed Shahid Gilani. The lights went out during our talk, and he turned on a torch so that I could continue to take notes, making the spectacles of his three co-workers flicker like fireflies in the dark – a pretty reflection of Jamaat intellectualism. While bitterly critical of US strategy and the US ‘occupation’ of Afghanistan, Gilani was also harsh in his condemnation of the Taleban:

We don’t accept the Taleban as a model. The Afghan Taleban offended the whole world; and in any case they didn’t believe in a political system, only in their own rule. Can you imagine the Taleban in power here in Pakistan? Impossible! The Pakistani Taleban mean anarchy – anyone with a couple of hundred men with weapons can take over cities ... So we should fight them, because we have to give protection to the people who are falling victim to their terrorism, and also because we can’t have a state within the state. We can’t accept that Pakistan is split into different zones under different parties. It would mean the end of the country. The writ of the state must run everywhere.19

Perhaps not coincidentally for these views, Gilani is a Punjabi from the great military centre of Rawalpindi. The then secretary-general of the Jamaat (elected its leader a few months later), Syed Munawar Hasan, gave a very different impression when I went on to talk with him. This was a notable meeting in that it was the only time in all my years of meeting with them that I have seen one of the Jamaat leaders – normally so calm and polite – lose his temper, because I had forced him into a corner over the Jamaat’s policy towards terrorism and violent revolution (though let it be said he apologized afterwards and offered me some more biscuits). I asked him repeatedly if the Jamaat denounced terrorism against fellow Muslims and violent revolution. He replied (in response to repeated questions):

It is because of America that these terrorist attacks are happening. America is the biggest terrorist in the world ... I do not fear the TTP [Pakistani Taleban]. I only fear the US ... Before 9/11 there was no terrorism in Pakistan. Once America has left Afghanistan our society will sort itself out ... We are not for the TTP but against America ...20


The Jamaat’s ambivalence towards the violent militants probably reflects not only the party’s own divided soul, but also the fact that the party leadership is worried about being outflanked by those militants, and losing its own younger and more radical supporters to them. The leader of the single most spectacular Islamist action outside the Pathan areas – the creation of an armed militant base at the Red Mosque (Lal Masjid) in the capital, Islamabad – Abdul Rashid Ghazi, had indeed at one stage been associated with the Jamaat Islami, before leaving in protest at what he called their cowardice and political compromises. His whole personal style, however, remained very close to that of the Jamaat – and very different from that of the Pathan Taleban up in the hills. This gave me a very uneasy sense of the ease with which Jamaati activists might shift into violence.

Together with Peter Bergen of CNN, I interviewed Ghazi in April 2007, some two months before his death when the Pakistan army stormed the mosque complex. Ghazi was a slight man of forty-three years, with round spectacles, a spotless white shelwar kameez, and – for public consumption at least – a quiet, reserved and amicable manner. In his youth – a bit like St Augustine – he had initially defied his father’s wish that he study to become a cleric, and took an MSc in International Relations at the Qaid-e-Azam University. He later had a junior job with UNESCO. He seems to have been radicalized by his father’s murder, but even more by the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11.

Although Ghazi was a veteran of the Mujahidin jihad against the Soviets, he was not, on the face of it, the kind of man to go down fighting in a desperate last stand, until you remember that many dedicated Communists in the old days looked just the same. In fact, in the view of a Pakistani journalist who interviewed him not long before the military assault, he himself by the end would have chosen to surrender; but this would have meant that international militants in the building would have been handed over to the USA (eighteen of them were among the dead, according to official figures); and for him this was too much of a humiliation. His brother tried to escape dressed as a woman and was captured, only to be released two years later on the orders of the Supreme Court. Ghazi himself was killed in battle.

Peter and I were taken to the office across the broad courtyard of the complex, crowded with male and female volunteers whom we were not allowed to interview. There were few obtrusive signs of defence, but during the attack on the mosque it was discovered that the militants had burrowed a set of tunnels and concrete bunkers beneath it. The army showed an array of weapons that it had captured there, including heavy machine-guns, rocket-propelled grenade-launchers, sniper rifles and belts for suicide bombs.

The office where we met Ghazi was small and dingy, with grubby cream-coloured walls, a row of computer screens on a long table, and broken, uncomfortable chairs on which we perched awkwardly. It all felt very far from the luxurious mansion where I had lunched that day with a leading pro-government politician – and the contrast was perfectly deliberate. All the Islamist leaders I have met, militant or otherwise, have lived with a kind of ostentatious modesty.

Ghazi’s background helps explain how the movement at the Red Mosque got off the ground so easily, and why the government was so slow to try to stop it. His father, Maulana Mohammed Abdullah, the founder of the mosque, had been at the heart of the Pakistani establishment, and the mosque itself was the first to be built in Islamabad when the site was chosen for the new capital in the 1960s. ‘In those days, around here was just jungle. This mosque is older than Islamabad,’ he told us. In 1998, his father had been shot in the courtyard that we had just crossed, something that Ghazi blamed on the ISI (even as Pakistani liberals were accusing the ISI of backing Ghazi).

The overall line that Ghazi put across to Peter and me was very close to what I had heard from Jamaat leaders over the previous days, and indeed since. His words, in certain respects, also reflect those of the leaders of the notorious anti-Indian militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (see below). Concerning America’s role, Ghazi’s statements would indeed be agreed with by the overwhelming majority of all classes of Pakistani society. This indicates the greatest opportunity for the more intelligent, non-sectarian Islamist militants. This is not that they will be able to win a majority of the population over to their theological and ideological revolutionary agenda, which is shared by only a small minority of Pakistanis. Rather, they may be able to exploit US and Indian actions to mobilize much larger numbers of Pakistanis behind their Islamic and Pakistani nationalist agendas, which have some degree of sympathy from the great majority of their fellow countrymen.

Unlike the JUI, the Jamaat refused to condemn the Red Mosque movement, and the attack on the mosque was one factor in driving the party into more radical opposition to Musharraf. Ghazi’s views also illustrate the very great differences between different strands of Islamism in Pakistan – except on one point: hostility to the US, India and Israel. Thus, like the Jamaat, Ghazi laid great emphasis on his family’s commitment to women’s education, though partly on pragmatic grounds. He said that he had argued with the Taleban in Afghanistan about this:

My father established the first female madrasah in this country. Now, more than 6,000 of the 10,000 students here are women. It is the same education for men and women, but girls have a reduced course of four to six years, while men study for eight. There is a good reason for this. If you educate a man, you have educated only one person; but if you educate a woman you have educated a whole family. In this, we differ from the Taleban in Afghanistan ...

The Taleban were not the right people to rule. They did not have the expertise. All the same, there were many good things to their credit. Under the Taleban, you could travel in safety from one end of Afghanistan to another. The Taleban started as a reaction against the crimes that were being committed in Afghanistan, and then turned into a movement. We too perhaps. We are a reaction to a criminal system in this country. We do not want to rule. But if we are not recognized, then maybe we too will turn into a movement.21

Ghazi denounced the MMA Islamist alliance (while making an exception for the Jamaat): ‘They are opposing us, just like the MQM and other political allies of Musharraf. The MMA are just products of this Pakistani system. They do not stand for real change.’ A few days later, a JUI minister in the MMA government of the Frontier, Asif Iqbal Daudzai, told me in Peshawar that:

We support the basic demands of the Lal Masjid [Red Mosque] group: anti-corruption, the return of democracy, a ban on pornography, and laws based on the teachings of Islam. But we question their credibility as a democratic force and the way they are going about things is wrong. Passing new laws is the business of the parliament and government. Islam doesn’t allow anyone to impose their views by force, and the Constitution of Pakistan already defends both the basic rights of every person and the supremacy of Islam. The point is not to have a revolution, but to implement the existing constitution correctly.22

On the question of support for violence, Ghazi himself appeared to waver to and fro – just like the Jamaat, in fact. And as with the Jamaat and the JUI, whether this was from real doubts and internal conflicts of his own, calculated ambiguity, a deliberate desire to deceive, or a mixture of all three was not entirely clear.

Our view is that suicide operations in Afghanistan and Iraq are halal [legitimate] because they help stop the aggressor from continuing his aggression. After all, US soldiers have travelled thousands of miles to kill innocent people. But such operations should not themselves kill civilians ... And terrorist attacks should not take place in Pakistan. You have to understand, though, that the people who are doing this are doing it from frustration and revenge. It is like a younger brother whose brother has been killed and who runs amok, forgetting about the law.

He gave what seemed a carefully tailored message to the American people:

Americans should think and think again about their government’s policy. If you talk to us and try to understand us, you can win our hearts. But if you come to attack us you will never win our hearts and will also never conquer us, because we are very determined people. How much have you spent on this so-called war on terror? Trillions of dollars. If you had spent this on helping develop Pakistan and Afghanistan, we would have loved you and never attacked you. But this is the stupidity of Bush, I believe, not of all Americans.

Among the various armed militant groups operating in Pakistan by 2007 Ghazi’s was therefore towards the more moderate end of the spectrum. It is notable that like the Jamaat he rejected sectarian anti-Shiism, since this has formed the bridge linking the Taleban among the Pathans with the Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in central and southern Punjab (this alliance will be described further in Chapter 7 on Punjab).

In 2009, these groups contributed greatly to the spread of terrorism from the Pathan areas to Punjab. This included attacks on high-profile military targets which could hardly have been planned without at least low-level sympathizers within the military itself. Militant anti-Shiism has also encouraged parts of the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) to turn against the Pakistani state and ally with the Taleban – though it seems that in 2009 the Jaish split and much of it remains loyal to the Pakistani state. This split is said to have been due to the influence of the Pakistani intelligence services, which after 1988 trained and equipped the Jaish and other groups to conduct armed attacks and terrorism in Indian Kashmir, and which retain close links with them.

Western officials have often attributed the recruitment of militants in Pakistan to the enormous increase in the number of madrasahs (religious schools) during and after the Afghan war. This, however, seems to be in part a mistake. A majority of known Pakistani terrorists have in fact attended government schools and quite often have a degree of higher education – reflecting yet again the basis for Islamism in the urban lower middle classes rather than the impoverished masses. It is true that, as the chapter on the Taleban will explore further, a large number of Taleban fighters have a madrasah education – but that largely reflects the fact that in the tribal areas government schools are very rare. The communities concerned would have supported the Taleban anyway, madrasahs or no madrasahs.

A very large number of ordinary Taleban fighters have had no education at all, and their recruitment owes less to specific Taleban education than to the general atmosphere prevailing in their villages. Concentration on the role of madrasahs by Western policy-makers is not wholly mistaken, but it nonetheless reflects a very widespread mistake in Western analysis: namely, the tendency to look at Islamist groups and their strategies as instruments which can be isolated and eliminated, rather than phenomena deeply rooted in the societies from which they spring.

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