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04 May, 2009

The march of the Taliban: lessons from Muslim history


The fall of large swathes of territory in Pakistan’s lawless north-west to the marauding Taliban, who, through an agreement reached with the Pakistani authorities, are now forcibly imposing what they regard as shariah laws in the region, has added a new dimension to the convoluted politics of Pakistan, making that country’s problems even more intractable. At the same time, this worrisome development also highlights the continued and unresolved crisis of traditional Muslim political thought and its fundamental inability to come to terms with the demands of the modern age.

Classical Sunni Muslim political thought, which continues to inspire the bulk of the traditional clerics or ulema, is based on the notion of a pious ruler or amir who rules according to the rules of the shariah. He is to be assisted by a council or shura, consisting of pious men learned in the shariah. However, he is not bound by their advice, for, because of his presumed superiority in terms of piety and knowledge of Islam, he is assumed to know best. It is this fatal assumption that is the Achilles heel of traditional Muslim political theory, for, more often than not, the amir does not turn out to be the saintly personage that he is expected to be. There being no effective check on his powers, by the general public or even by the shura--in contrast to what the Quran would appear to demand--he very often turns into a dictator, who, as Muslim history amply illustrates, can easily twist Islamic injunctions suitably to legitimize acts of tyranny directed at Muslims as well as others. This is precisely why when self-styled champions of Islam like Pakistani Taliban chief and head of the Tehrik-e Nifaz-e Shariah-e Muhammadi, Maulana Sufi Muhammad, set about ruling in the name of the shariah, they inevitably turn into bloodthirsty tyrants. Sunni Muslim tradition, as it developed after the Prophet and began to deviate from his practice, generally acquiesced in tyranny, and leading Sunni ulema even went to the extent of forbidding revolt against a tyrannical Muslim ruler as long as he appeared to respect the shariah. This is one reason why Muslims and others who dare to oppose tyrants like Sufi Muhammad are so easily branded by the mullahs as ‘enemies’ of Islam.

Another major flaw of traditional Sunni political theory, and one amply reflected in the case of Sufi Muhammad and his band of followers, is the ardent conviction that people can be compelled to be ‘religious’ by a pious ruler, through the imposition of law and the threat of fierce punishment. This is reflected in the very name of Sufi Muhammad’s outfit, the Tehrik-e Nifaz-e Shariah-e Muhammadi or the ‘Movement for the Imposition of the Muhammadan Shariah’. True to its name, activists of the movement are now going about forcing people to abide by what they regard as the rules of the shariah, not hesitating to even kill them if they resist this imposition. Obviously, that is no way at all to endear even fellow Muslims to their cause, and is also a sure recipe for generating nifaq or hypocrisy—considered a major sin in the Quran—on a massive scale. In the long run, no regime that is based on forcing people to be ‘good’ can survive, as an experiment similar to Sufi Muhammad’s, the Tehrik-e Mujahidin, launched in the same unruly region bordering Afghanistan in the early nineteenth century by Syed Ahmad Barelvi and his deputy Shah Ismail, lionized as ‘Islamic heroes’ by almost all South Asian Sunni ulema, so tragically illustrates. Like Sufi Muhammad, Syed Ahmad, who styled himself as the amir of the Muslims, claimed to be establishing an Islamic system in the Pathan borderlands. Forcibly imposing his brand of the shariah on the unwilling Pathans, his experiment in Islamic utopianism ended in predictable disaster. The restive Pathan tribesmen joined hands with the Sikh rulers of the Punjab and rose up in revolt against Syed Ahmad and his followers, who were massacred in the ill-famed battle of Balakot, a town not far from where Sufi Muhammad today has set up the headquarters of his self-styled Islamic polity.

A third flaw of traditional Sunni political thought, and one strikingly illustrated in the case of Sufi Muhammad’s Tehrik-e Nifaz-e Shariah-e Muhammadi, is the equation of shariah or the divine path with traditional fiqh or jurisprudence as developed by medieval Sunni fuqaha or legal scholars in the centuries after the demise of the Prophet Muhammad. In the name of the shariah it is the rules of medieval fiqh of the Hanafi that Sufi Muhammad and his tribe of devoted followers are seeking to enforce. Of the values of justice, kindness, compassion and beauty, which numerous Sufis and other Islamic scholars regard as the essence of the divine shariah, there is not even the slightest trace in Sufi Muhammad’s frightening vision of the world. Betraying a tendency so marked in authoritarian Islamist thought, Sufi Muhammad’s brand of shariah has been reduced, in effect, to simply a set of harsh punitive laws.

Ironically, some of these laws that Sufi Muhammad and his Taliban followers are now imposing, derived from traditional Hanafi fiqh, actually have no sanction in the Islamic shariah. One such instance concerns the so-called jizya tax that has been imposed on the hapless Sikhs of the territories that have now fallen into Taliban control. In a recent statement denouncing the levying of this tax, a group of prominent Indian Muslim leaders, including numerous notable Sunni ulema, pointed out that ‘The imposition of the so-called jizya is nothing more than extortion by an armed and lawless gang, which does not constitute a sovereign government or state or even an organ thereof.’ Taking note of the fact that the Taliban had demanded that the Sikhs cough up millions of rupees as jizya, the statement added, ‘As regards the huge amounts in millions reported to be demanded, these are arbitrary and exorbitant as the amount of annual jizya paid by non-Muslims in early Islam was merely one to one and a half dinar, which is 4.24 gram to 6.36 grams of gold. Moreover, this tax was payable only at the end of the year and not in advance.’ Hence, the statement concluded, ‘We regard this as an act of injustice incompatible with the letter and spirit of Islam and the international covenants accepted by all Muslim states.’

As this timely statement by important Indian Islamic scholars denouncing the atrocities of the Taliban committed on the Sikhs in the name of the shariah suggests, the shariah, which forms the basis of the vision of an Islamic society and polity, is itself subjected to diverse, indeed often mutually-opposed, interpretations. If for Sufi Muhammad and his tribe it is a harsh penal code that is to be forced down unwilling throats, to drag people to heaven against their will, as it were, to their Muslim critics, such as these Indian scholars, it is quite the contrary. Being open to multiple interpretations, the shariah is thus the object of heated contestation among Muslims themselves, and has been so ever since the demise of the Prophet. The task before socially engaged Muslims is to craft a contextually relevant understanding of this ambiguous concept so as to wrest it from cynical manipulation by the likes of the Taliban. This internal debate has been going on for centuries, but Muslims who wish to rescue their faith from peddlers of terror like Sufi Muhammad need to make their voices heard even louder today.

Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Social Policy at the National Law School, Bangalore

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