Pakistan’s polity is in a crisis. Its society is in turmoil. And the country is in a state of flux, waiting to survive the deluge and see another day. On top of all that comes the deepening Barelvi–Deobandi divide, which has existed ever since the former was sidelined by Pakistan’s ruling elite in the exercise of forging a nation and the latter, with its puritanical and codified rendering of Islam, was embraced.
Since its inception, the Barelvis had been ranged against the Deobandis in terms of their interpretation of Islam.
As history has recorded, the Barelvis, rising in the Bareilly town of Uttar Pradesh, in India, had supported the formation of Pakistan, heeding the call of the Muslim League led by the Shia leader1 Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Not surprisingly, they form the majority of the country’s population, ranging between 50 to 60 per cent. They are the most predominant in rural Punjab and Sindh.
But Barelvis followed the rise of the Deobandis. The sect was founded by Ahmed Raza Khan in 1880 to uphold the traditionalist practices of Islam in the Subcontinent. The Deoband school of Islam, on the other hand, was born in 1866 at Deoband, also in UP. Six Islamic scholars gave birth to the sect. But both sects follow the Hanafi School of Islamic jurisprudence as opposed to the Salafi code, prevalent in Saudi Arabia and many other West Asian countries.
“¦the divisions between the two sects have continued for more than a century, the current troubles are a watershed because they have burst upon the scene at a time when Pakistan is facing a deep crisis with Islamic radicalism”¦
Since its inception, the Barelvis had been ranged against the Deobandis in terms of their interpretation of Islam. The Barelvis distinguish themselves by deifying Prophet Muhhamad. They consider that he is omnipresent and is not just of flesh and blood but also a “light.” The Deobandis, while revering the Prophet, argue that he is the Perfect Human—but a human.
The Barelvis make the Prophet a semidivine figure with unique fore-knowledge about the world. The Deobandis reject this vision. The former follow many practices of Sufism; they use music in the form of their prayer. They seek the mediatory role of religious teachers. They believe in the ascending, linked and unbroken chain of Pirs (holy personages) leading up to God.
While the divisions between the two sects have continued for more than a century, the current troubles are a watershed because they have burst upon the scene at a time when Pakistan is facing a deep crisis with Islamic radicalism—owing allegiance to the Deobandi–Hanafi or Ahl-e-Hadith-Salafi schools—wrecking the country. The Barelvis, who constitute the majority in the Punjab and Sindh provinces of the country, had become subjects of sporadic attacks by Deobandi militants ever since the mid-1980s, when the mujaheedin war began in Soviet-controlled Afghanistan. In the current phase, the periodic violence culminated in a major attack on 1 July this year at Lahore’s famous Data Darbar sufi shrine—a highly revered place of worship for the Barelvis.
The countrys political leadership seems increasingly incapable of staving off polarisation within the majority Sunni community into two contending camps.
The reverberations of the suicide blast, which killed 35 people and left another 175 injured, could be heard even in early December, when the quasi-political Barelvi outfit Sunni Ittehad Council launched a march from Islamabad to end at Lahore, in front of the wreckage of Data Darbar. The move flustered the provincial government of the Punjab so much that it deployed the police and paramilitaries on the route, commanded them to stop the march and detained those who wished to take part in it. All this was done ostensibly to provide security to the marchers and save them from any egregious attack by the Deobandi militants.
This only pointed at the disquiet in Pakistan’s society, which went beyond the usual cycle of violence perpetrated by the Islamic radicals. Many believe that the well-laid matrix of Pakistan’s political class, based on increasing politicisation of Islam through state support of Deobandi extremism, while being safe in the knowledge that an ordinary citizen of Pakistan would remain unaffected because he is far removed from it all ensconced in the mysticism of Sufism, is coming unstuck.
While it was engaged in bloody battles in the countrys west and northwest against a well-armed and organised insurgency, the political situation was deteriorating as the economic condition of the country headed south.
The country’s political leadership seems increasingly incapable of staving off polarisation within the majority Sunni community into two contending camps. The military, the only institution of Pakistan still standing reasonably unscathed, is so complicit in fanning the Deobandi flames—both for using them in the context of the Indo-Pak dispute and as a policy hedge in Afghanistan—that it can hardly be a neutral referee in the emerging battle.
On the other hand, Pakistan’s army under its current chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, has taken to the stratagem of keeping the politicians as a buffer in the process of governance while it enjoys real power without public accountability. Thus, they now want the anti-insurgency operations in North Waziristan to be launched by the army to be consensually “owned” by the politicians before they move a finger.2
But often, the army loses patience with the political processes. As Wikileaks’ revelations of the cables of the U.S. embassy in Islamabad have shown, the distrust between the army chief, Kayani, and the president, Asaf Ali Zardari, runs deep. While Zardari thinks that he could even get killed, Kayani in a conversation with the then U.S. ambassador, Anne Patterson, talks openly of replacing the president.