Sectarian Influence on Terror Recruitment
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
Issue Net Edition | Date : 12 Sep , 2023

Pakistan is an Islamic state that came into existence after a flawed two-nation theory; a separate homeland for Muslims that would embrace all sects of Islam. Islam in Southeast Asia has a unique flavour of the Hanafi school of the Sunni sect called Deobandi and Barelvi. With 85% of Muslims being Sunni, they enjoy the majority vis-a-vis Shias, not to mention Ahmadiyyas.

The transition from moderate to radical Islam has resulted in a change in sectarian profile…

The country has not been able to separate religion from politics. The divisions within Sunni Islam have repercussions on the country’s socio-political fabric. Even with such an overwhelming majority, Pakistan has had a constant political and religious rivalry between various sub-sects of Sunni Islam for the last few decades.

The transition from moderate to radical Islam has resulted in a change in sectarian profile wherein, Ahl-e-Hadis is systematically taking over the fiefdom, earlier enjoyed by Barelvis, which practiced a much more tolerant version of Islam. This rivalry is linked with sectarian violence and the propagation of radical sects in Pakistan. This article discusses emerging challenges due to sectarian changes in Pakistan and its influence on terror recruitment.

Origins of Deoband and Barelvi Sub Sects.

It is important to understand that Islam follows four schools of thought- Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki, and Salafi. Islam came to the Indian subcontinent in the late 7th century when Mohammad Bin Qasim attacked Raja Dahir, who ruled Sindh, after which Islam spread across the Indian subcontinent. By the late 18th century, Islam in India had seen a transformational shift. The battle of 1857 resulted in the British sidelining the Muslims.

The necessity of revival of Islamic pride resulted in the evolution of Darul Uloom Deoband and that of Deoband by Rashid Ahmad Gangohi (1826-1905) and Yaqub Nanautawi (1833-84), Bareli by Imam Ahmed Raza Khan (1856–1921) respectively on two schools- Deobandi and Barelvi- named after their places of origin.

Religious extremism has been a prime motivating factor for motivating youth to join terror groups with a false notion of Jihad…

Wahabi Islam made a much later entry into the subcontinent sponsored by the Middle East. This Wahabi Islam in one of the most radical form and slowly it’s influence made Deobandi more and more  radical. Radicalism gives birth to extremism and  it is this religious extremism which influences people for Jihad.

Religious extremism has been a prime motivating factor for motivating youth to join terror groups with a false notion of Jihad in Pakistan. There has been a significant rise of Salafi extremism in the last few years in South Asia(Siyech 2020). Descendants of Salafi ideology has a prominent element of elimination of apostates as part of its teachings. The Hanafi School of Islam is the primary school prevalent in South Asia, more so during the time of undivided India even before the British came to India. 

As part of the resurrection of Islam post war of independence of 1857, Deobandi and Barelvi School of Sunni Islam came into existence in India. Comparatively, a tolerant form of Sunni Islam with the Deobandi believing in Insaan e Kamil (the person who has reached perfection)and Barelvis in Insaan e noor and Motivating apostates into acceptance of Islam being the only true faith was the primary thought process. The Barelvis have a concept of Pirsand Murshid too, taking Sufism in its embrace.

The promised Homeland of Muslims i.e., Pakistan saw a major migration of Indian Muslims to Pakistan. The Sectarian profile of Pakistan is as follows(Templin 2015)

Barelvis   50-60%
Deobandis 20-25 %
Shias  15 – 20 %
Minorities plus Ahmadiyya 5%

The initial years till 1974 were times of turbulence for religious definition of Islam with the brunt of violence being borne by Ahmadiyya, as they were declared non-muslims.

The prominence of JUI (Jammat e Islami) and its interference in Pakistani Politics got Deobandis closer to  the political system than Barelvis.

There is a sudden rise in Ahle Hadees seminaries in Pakistan and the radicalisation carried out by them has been one of the prime motivators for youth to join Terror ranks…

Zia-ul-Haq a devout Deobandi Muslim ensured and encouraged the spread of Deobandi Islam in the military and Government to the level of allowing Tablighi jamaat to influence the military units and cantonments. Deobandi Islam found itself as an instrument to create terror groups by misinterpreting the teachings of the Quran and Hadith. These groups became an instrument in the hands of Zia in his war of thousand cuts (Mohanty 2010).

Salafi Islam found its way majorly into the Indian subcontinent with Middle Eastern fighters who came in during the Soviet wars. It was also encouraged by Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in its effort to spread of Islam resulting in the receipt of funds and religious teachers. The middle eastern fighters settled here post-war and never went back.

Ahle Hadees, a sect of extremist Wahhabi Islam is being proliferated by the establishment into society.  There is a sudden rise in Ahle Hadees seminaries in Pakistan and the radicalisation carried out by them has been one of the prime motivators for youth to join Terror ranks (Zahab, 2020).

The Primary sectarian groups to motivate youth to terrorism are Ahle Hadees and Deobandi (Zia’s fame)

Barelvis being the moderate Sect of the three, is not into terror ideology but has always shown its hands in cases of Blasphemy. Salman Qadri’s case is a mute testimony of it.

Modus Operandi:

In these groups, the family is usually introduced to the local Maulana. He tries to persuade the parents that their family’s departure from “the true path of Islam” is the primary cause of their poverty, by worshiping idols and visiting Sufi shrines or attending sermons by Sufi Pirs. The Maulana asserts that turning one or two of their sons over to them would be the surest method for them to convert back to Islam. The Maulana would offer to get these children jobs , work for Islam, and to educate them at his madrassa.

A part of the country that has historically been considered moderate appears to be becoming a lucrative recruiting ground for terrorist groups thanks to funding.

The concept of martyrdom is frequently brought up, and the family is assured that if one or two of the boys are sacrificed, the remaining family and other sons would find redemption, salvation and win over God’s favours. The family is ultimately given an immediate monetary settlement to make up for the sacrifices made for Islam by the family. According to local sources, the going pay for a son is currently around Rs. 500,000 (around USD 6500). According to reports, certain Ahl-e-Hadith clerics in the Dera Ghazi Khan district are also seeking daughters (Dawn 2011).

Method of Recruitment:

In poor areas of southern and western Punjab, a jihadi recruiting network that relies on Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith religious, humanitarian, and educational institutions is expanding its operations. (Dawn 2011) Local, economic circumstances and international. A part of the country that has historically been considered moderate appears to be becoming a lucrative recruiting ground for terrorist groups thanks to funding. Despite being well aware of the issue, the provincial and federal governments seem to be afraid of confronting these extreme groups head-on. Provincial governments in Punjab and Sindh lack the resources to deal with these organizations on their own.

South and west Punjab is predominantly Barelvi from times immemorial and there are a phenomenal number of Pirs and Sufi saints. About 65 percentof the population respects the Pir concept. However, the moderate Barelvi and Sufi community is internally divided into followers of competing spiritual leaders and lacks the financial resources to act as an effective counterweight to well-funded and well-organized extremists.

The data of Pakistan shows a complementary increase in the number of terrorists viz-a-viz madrassas. Ahlehadis has proliferated in Punjab by creating innumerable Madrassa to facilitate terror recruitment.

NACTA Data on Terror Recruitment

The maximum number of terrorists as per the NACTA data hail from Punjab followed by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). Ahle Hadis dominates the number of Madrassas in Punjab and Deobandi is closely followed in KPK.

The Sectarian change of profile would affect the local population to include generic people who would possibly later be recruited in the Military, Paramilitary forces and other departments in the government. This would further radicalize the people resulting in increased influence of sectarian leaders in governance.

Number of Madrassas in Punjab

The equation would slowly become lethal where one brother is a government servant and the other is a terrorist. This could further worsen the terrorist state within Pakistan and in peripheral states.

With the passing of time the country’s democracy would have the third factor of sectarian loyalties other than the army and Political party in running the government, Which may result in :

Number of Madrassa and Masjid in KPK, source:

Resistance To Fight Against Religious Groups: Many times conflict in Pakistan is between the army and Islamist radicals like Maulana Rashid and Aziz Abdullah of the Lal masjid. In such cases, mutiny amongst Ranks and files will go up, as it happened in cases like on board the naval vessel PNS Mehran.

Increased local violence: As the tolerance goes down the local violence and crime will also go up. The present concept of AhleHadis is looking at exterminating Ahmadiyya and killing Shias for starters and the desecration of Shia shrines would also increase(frequent). At certain places, they are even looking at killing Barelvis. The Wahhabi concept does not allow any reverence for anyone but Allah in the Sunni format. Rest must be eliminated.

There is a lot of money that is coming in from the Middle East for the construction of mosques and the promotion of Wahhabi ideology which would further increase their influence in the society and public in general.

In the present state where there is too much instability and all the agencies are focused on the Federal Government this aspect of sectarian violence and terror influence is growing unchecked. The spread after a certain stage would go beyond the control of government and law enforcement.  In the future, it could be too late to put the genie back into the bottle.


  1. Dawn. 2011. 2008: Extremist recruitment on the rise in south Punjab madrassahs. May 21. Accessed July 2023, 09.
  2. Mohanty, Sanjeeb Kumar, and Jinendra Nath Mahanty. 2010. ““Military-Madrasa-Mullah Complex: Promoting Jihadist Islam in Pakistan.”.” India Quarterly 66, no. 2 (2010) 136. Pakistan Army and Terrorism; an unholy alliance.
  3. Siyech, Mohammed Sinan. 2020. What Makes a Movement Violent: Comparing the Ahle Hadith (Salafists) in India and Pakistan. February 04. Accessed July 09, 2023.
  4. Templin, James D. 2015. “Religious Education of Pakistan’s Deobandi Madaris and Radicalisation.” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, Vol. 7, No. 5 (June 2015) 17.
Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col Rahul Jain

Researcher with RRU.

More by the same author

Post your Comment

2000characters left