South Asia

What Does the Death of Barelvi Firebrand Khadim Rizvi Mean For Sectarian Politics?

While the venom he has spewed and hate that he has spread will continue to simmer for foreseeable future, Rizvi will be a hard act to follow.

The death of Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a rabble rousing Sunni cleric, last week, has bookended a particularly virulent phase in Pakistan’s sectarian politics.

Rizvi, who was just 54, is said to have died of an unknown cause. He had delivered a blistering speech, directed mainly at the country’s military establishment, just three days before his demise. Abdullah Hameed Gul, son of Pakistan’s jihadist spy master General Hameed Gul, and a Rizvi ally, suspects foul play.

In that address, Rizvi had spoken for about 28 minutes, including eight minutes of the Qira’t or lyrical recitation of the Quran, without appearing short-winded, coughing or wincing. By his tone and tenor, however, he did appear subdued and out of his element. His own son and now his successor Saad Rizvi, however, attributed the death to a respiratory illness.

Rizvi was known for his fiery oratory in Urdu and Punjabi, peppered with Arabic verses of the Quran, the Hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad), Persian poetry of Allama Muhammad Iqbal, and choice expletives. He was the head of a religio-political party Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a radical grouping of the Barelvi subsect of Sunni Muslims. He literally weaponised Barelvism in a way unparalleled in the post-Partition Indo-Pakistan.

Also read: In Pakistan, Acquittal of Christian Woman Accused of Blasphemy Shines Ray of Hope

His funeral, held at the national monument, Minar-e-Pakistan, was attended by tens of thousands of his devotees. Instant condolences came from the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa and the army-backed Prime Minister Imran Khan.

People gather to attend funeral services for Khadim Hussain Rizvi, leader of religious and political party Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), at the Minar-e-Pakistan monument as the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Lahore, Pakistan November 21, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Mohsin Raza

Khadim Rizvi had shot to prominence a decade ago, when he resigned his government job to lead charge against the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader and governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer. He smeared Taseer for committing blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad and contributed to the chorus calling for the governor’s death. Taseer, who also owned the liberal newspaper Daily Times, was pleading for mercy on behalf a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who was languishing in prison after being wrongfully accused of blasphemy after a petty squabble with Muslim women in her village, and faced a death penalty.

A year later, a policeman from the governor’s security detail, Mumtaz Qadri, shot and killed him. Qadri was inspired by Barelvi clerics like Rizvi, whose war cry is to defend the shan (honor) and Khatm-e-Nabuwwat (finality) of Prophet Muhammad. The apotheosis of prophethood with Muhammad is a fundamental belief among all Muslims, but Barelvis take it to another level, and the trope has served as a rallying point and vector for the political Barelvism.

The TLP mobilised the street against caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad published in European countries. Rizvi’s last act was one such campaign against the French government and President Emmanuel Macaron for defending the free speech.

Also read: To Mock or Not to Mock Religions, That Is the Question

The TLP has served as a useful political force-multiplier for the Pakistan army, over the past several years. It was used effectively to shakedown the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PMLN) elected government in 2017, when Khadim Rizvi and his hordes paralysed Rawalpindi and the next-door federal capital Islamabad, through a sit-in protest. The pretext was a demand for the government to reverse a change in an oath pertaining to the finality of prophethood.

The real motive, however, was to teach the PMLN’s supremo and three-time PM, Nawaz Sharif, a lesson. Sharif had been pushing for civilian supremacy over the army in running the country’s affairs. His government had also brought treason charges against the former army dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, for the 1999 coup d’état.

The army was bitter but unable to mount an overt putsch, it opted for subversion through assorted political proxies like Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) and religio-political ones like Khadim Rizvi and before him another Barelvi cleric, Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri. The TLP was more than happy to oblige.

Khadim Hussain Rizvi of religious and political party Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), gestures to his supporters during a protest against the cartoon publications of Prophet Mohammad in France and comments by the French President Emmanuel Macron, in Karachi, Pakistan November 7, 2020. Picture taken November 7, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Akhtar Soomro

It saw it as an opportunity to gain the Pakistan army’s patronage and regain the political ground the Barelvis had lost to the rival Sunni subsect, Deobandis since the rise of jihadism in the 1980s. Just a few weeks prior to that particular protest, the TLP had also made its electoral debut in a by-election against Sharif’s late wife in his Lahore constituency. The seat had fallen vacant after the former PM had been disqualified on fabricated graft charges. The army had tried to undercut Sharif’s conservative vote bank through deployment of the TLP and another newly-minted party, Milli Muslim League, which is but a front for the Salafist Jama’t-ud-Dawa (JuD).

Kulsoom Nawaz Sharif won that contest but the TLP bagged over 7,000 votes, right behind the runner-up PTI. In the 2018 general elections the TLP was the third largest vote-getter – behind the PMLN and PTI and ahead of the PPP – in Punjab, the country’s largest province, in the 2018 general elections, though it didn’t win any seats there. But the army’s patronage – in full public display – notwithstanding, the TLP Barelvis were playing political catch-up to the Deobandis.

The Barelvi revivalist movement was, in fact, a response to the Deobandi revivalism in 19th-century India, pioneered by Ahmad Riza Khan (after whom Khadim Hussain called himself Rizvi) in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh.

Darul Uloom Deoband. Photo: Public domain

After the shock of British colonial power upending the Muslim rule over India subsided, a political and doctrinal assessment and introspection commenced within the vanquished community. The Muslim population of India was heterodox as any other community of the subcontinent, if not more. Both the analyses and the proposed remedies were as diverse as the sections of the community. The resulting weltanschauung or worldview could be broadly categorised into traditional or conformist, fundamentalist or orthodox, and modernist political interpretation of Islam and its role in the recovery of the sagging Muslim fortunes.

The fourth approach was a secularist orientation of assorted varieties, ranging from liberal and Marxist, to nationalist and militant. There was a considerable overlap, exchange and confrontation among these religious and areligious paradigms.

The Deoband seminary founded in 1867 sought to purify the subcontinental Muslims of what it perceived as the heretical practices that they had adopted over a millennium of interface with the native religions. It represented the fundamentalist vision of restoring the austere Islam of the Prophet Muhammad’s era. While both schools of thought (masalik) subscribed to the Sunni Hanafi denomination of Islam, they differed enough in creed and practice to go on to virtually become adversarial subsects.

The Barelvis consider Prophet Muhammad as the divine light (nur) created by God. In their view, the Prophet, though physically deceased, remains an eternal power in the religious cosmos that grants wishes and intercedes on a believer’s behalf with God not just for salvation in the hereafter but also for mundane day-to-day matters.

The pirs and sheikhs are considered to be the Prophet Muhammad’s agents, acting as a conduit between the devotee and him. In all cases these perceived holy men trace their biological or spiritual lineage (shajrah) to Prophet Muhammad. The Prophet’s honor, sayings and practice, therefore, have not just an overwhelming preeminence in Barelvism but any perceived affront to those is to be defended with force, when possible.

The Deobandi variant of Sunnism holds Prophet Muhammad in high esteem but labels the esoteric Barelvi beliefs and practices as bida’t (heresy and innovation) or even worse, shirk (trespassing on God’s oneness or polytheism).

But the puritans of Deoband were in a numerical minority, and actually remain so to date. The reaction came from Ahmad Riza Khan, who organised the vast majority of traditionalist madrassas (seminaries), ulama (clerics), and pirs (saintly men presiding over shrines and Sufi orders). He enlisted massive help from the Hejazi clerics of Arabian Peninsula, who themselves were facing the spectre of Najdi fundamentalism of Wahhabi variety.

Armed with a battery of fatwas (religious edicts) from over 250 clerics, including Hejazis, Riza Khan – called Ala Hazrat or ‘exalted sir’ by his followers – came out swinging against the Deobandis, in his 1905 book Hussam al-Harmain (Sword of the Two Holy Mosques).

Riza Khan declared the Deobandi triumvirate – Qasim Nanautavi, Rashid Gangohi and Ashraf Ali Thanvi – infidels. He also went after other sects and subsects of Islam, like the orthodox Ahl-e-Hadith, the Shiite, and also the Ahmadiyya, whom both the Sunni and Shia deemed to be outside the pale of Islam. Riza Khan and his disciples also made it a point to assert their numerical majority and used the term Ahl-e-Sunnat-wal-Jama’t (people who follow the Prophet’s Sunnah and are in majority) or Sawad-e-Azam (the largest party or group).

A protest against Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan. Photo: Reuters/File

The rival masalik also had divergent approaches to politics and the freedom movement.

While they were not overtly opposed to the British rule at the outset, they subsequently took different trajectories. The Deobandis eventually developed a formidable nationalist and anti-colonial bent that resulted in formation of the religio-political party, Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Hind (JUH). It joined hands with the Indian National Congress, and both struggled together for independence of the joint Indian homeland.

The Barelvis, on the other hand, maintained a collaborative relationship with the British. Ahmad Riza Khan even pronounced British India the Dar-ul-Islam or a land safe for Islam and the Muslims. They were not able or desiring of organizing into a single political party either. The Barelvi pirs and sheikhs preferred to maintain their local and regional political preeminence by collaboration with the colonial rulers, and later on, the post-colonial ones as well.

They opted to join outfits like the All India Muslim League (AIML) or before that, the Punjab-based Unionist Party. Leader of the AIML and later founder of Pakistan, M.A. Jinnah initially remained averse to the clergymen, mixing of religion and politics, and even dissed Mahatma Gandhi’s use of religious tropes and symbols.

His support base consisted largely of the Islamic modernists of Aligarh variety, in the Muslim minority provinces. Fundamentalist a la Deoband and modernists like Abul Ala Maududi of the Jama’t-e-Islami (JI) lost no love for Jinnah. But all of that was to change after the AIML’s disastrous showing in the Muslim majority provinces in the 1937 elections. Once a secularist, Jinnah set out to actively court and recruit the very same political clergy that he had once despised.

Pakistan’s Islamisation thus started almost decade before its birth, and long before any army dictator or adventurist general came along.

Unfortunately, even many secular Pakistani intellectuals have been remiss in clearly pointing out that watershed moment. For example, the Marxist sociologist, professor Hamza Alvi had written:

“It was not until 1952 that Jinnah’s unworthy successors turned away from that secular ideal and began to exploit the worn-out rhetoric of religion to restore their failing political fortunes. They cried out that ‘Islam was in danger’.”

Alvi and many others have anchored such revisionist claims almost solely in Jinnah’s August 11,1947 speech, in which he indeed spoke about religious and personal freedoms. In the same essay, Alvi went on to rightly blame the army dictators General Yahya Khan and General Zia-ul-Haq for coopting the religio-political forces to seek legitimacy, but with a twist. He wrote:

“Sweeping aside Jinnah’ s clear statement about Pakistan ideology, his successors belatedly redefined it. In 1969 General Yahya Khan’s minister, General Sher Ali, declared that ‘Islamic ideology’ was to be ‘Pakistan ideology’. This solution was projected backwards into the past and historians (in Pakistan and also abroad) have taken up the task of justifying that bogus claim.”

Sadly, Alvi’s own claim is only partially true. As early as 1939, Jinnah was assuring Deobandi cleric Ashraf Ali Thanvi that “religion could not be divorced from politics in Islam”. The AIML’s recruitment drive brought to its fold Deobandis like Thanvi, Maulana Zafar Ahmed Ansari, Maulana Shabbir Ahmed Usmani, and even the school’s founder Qasim Nanautavi’s grandson, Zahir Qasmi.

Through the agency of these clerics, Jinnah was able to turn the tables on the Congress-allied JUH. Shabbir Ahmed Usmani, et al carved the Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Islam (JUI) out of the JUH. The JUI were to declare at its 1945 Calcutta conference that the two-nation theory in origin is the proclamation of the Quran and is not the invention of any man.

“On this ground this conference declares that the 100 million Muslims in the subcontinent of India are a distinct and independent nationality and a nationality of peculiar constitution which is grounded on the righteous principles of the Islamic millat and Shariat and not on the basis of race, colour, geography … This session wholeheartedly supports the demand for Pakistan and the division of India.”

Similarly, the AIML recruited dozens of Barelvi pirs and sheikhs from the Northwest Frontier, Sindh, and above all, the Punjab provinces. Pirs of Manki, Zakori, Makhad, Golra, Taunsa, Sial, Multan, and so on filled the ranks of the AIML. The Barelvi umbrella group, All India Sunni Conference, unlike the Deobandis, did not transform into a political party until after the creation of Pakistan, when the group became Jamiat-e-Ulama-e Pakistan (JUP) in 1948.

Jinnah could also count on massive support from the Shia clergy and assorted other smaller Muslim communities of India.

Whether this massive enlisting of the clerics, theologians and pirs was just realpolitik on Jinnah’s part and he eventually intended to stick to his August 11, 1947 speech, we shall never know; he died a year after that speech. He was not much of a writer and didn’t leave any written treatise about the orientation of the state he founded. His speeches and letters are interpreted by his detractors and admirers according to their own political leaning.

Also read: It’s Time We Absolve Jinnah

But one thing is certain that the outcome of having such a massive religio-political contingent could only be the each one of them jockeying for their brand of Islam become the state’s grundnorm. And this is exactly what happened from the day the country’s first constituent assembly went to work.

Squabbling sectarian cliques and parties have vied for constitutional and political space since. Almost every political party, including the secular ones, have engaged, appeased or allied with the religious outfits. The army, which has directly or indirectly ruled the country for the better part of its existence, however, has remained their chief patron. The mullahs have exacted their pound of flesh when they could.

For example, the secular PPP, supported by the leftist National Awami Party (NAP), the JUI, JUP, JI and PML factions, had introduced the infamous Second Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan, which declared the Ahmadiyya as apostates. The army dictator General Zia-ul-Haq’s rule saw an even larger space ceded to the zealots of all shades. He introduced the blasphemy laws, which became the bane of life not just for non-Muslims but also Muslims in Pakistan, and still remain on the books.

General Zia-ul-Haq. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

While both Barelvis and Deobandis owned this virulent mutation, Zia’s jihad venture in Afghanistan, sponsored by the Saudis and the USA, enlisted manpower and assistance from the JI and a faction of JUI, empowering them tremendously in the process. The domestic fallout of the Afghan jihad and later the army’s Taliban project was domestic sectarian terrorism by the Deobandi, Salafi and assorted other fundamentalist groups. Barelvis, Shias and Ahmadis have remained at the receiving end of the terror unleashed by these outfits.

As for the intra-Sunni Barelvi-Deobandi schism manifesting in the political arena, the two groups have essentially continued along their conventional trajectory. The Deobandis have largely worked the political landscape through the JUI and its various factions and radical offshoots. The Barelvis have gravitated towards mainstream political parties like the PPP, PMLN and even the PTI.

The notable exception had been the JUP under the late Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani, when it won seven national assembly seats from West Pakistan in the 1970 general elections. But after that even the JUP chose politics of alliances and electoral adjustments with both the adversarial sectarian parties and the secular ones like the PPP and the defunct Pakistan Tehrik-e-Istiqlal.

In fact, Noorani had founded and headed a multi-party religio-political conglomerate Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), which included the JUI, JI, Ahl-e-Hadith and a Shia outfit.

Khadim Rizvi’s odious stint was, therefore, an exception to the rule in Barelvi agitation and politics in that he flew solo. He was able to energize the Barelvi rank and file in its traditional stronghold Punjab, flex militant muscle, and extract concessions from the state and patronage from the army. While the venom he has spewed and hate that he has spread will continue to simmer for foreseeable future, his TLP may not remain a viable vector for it.

Rizvi was a vile but hard act to follow.

His son, who has been appointed the party’s new chief lacks the education, experience, oratory and zealotry of his father. It is unlikely that the assorted pirs and sheikhs who had agreed upon Rizvi’s leadership would pledge their allegiance to his son. For all practical purposes, Rizvi was a flash in the Barelvi political pan. His unexpected demise would slow down but not stop the runaway train of fanaticism in Pakistan.

For that to happen, the country and its leaders need to introspect and decide what went wrong, and when.

The writer is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki)