A case of competing political theologies

Recent case of mob violence in Sialkot has brought again the blasphemy to the fore. The issue is thought of as extremist violence of fanatic religious mob stripped off of any political depth and meaning in it, which is another instance of an oversimplifying oriental attitude towards South Asian cosmologies. These narratives tend to think of the Asia Bibi case as a turning point even though that was not at all a unique case in the long list of blasphemy cases in Pakistan. To understand the true essence of blasphemy and the associated politics, one must go at least two centuries back in time when the blasphemy wasn’t an established discourse and track how it changed over the years into what it is today. Starting from the pre-colonial period, its history can be tracked in five points
First Deobandi-Barelvi polemic
Second Deobandi-Barelvi polemic
Colonization and Partition
Zia-ul-Haq and The War on Terror
Rise of TLP.
The first Deobandi-Barelvi polemic starts at the beginning of the nineteenth century when Shah Muhammad Ismail – a well-known and respected Muslim scholar, the founder of the Deobandi school of thought, and grandson of Shah Wali Ullah – started questioning the traditional Muslim practices in India. The main point of his project that caused the most controversy was intercession. Ismail was against the belief that the so-called saints, pirs, and even the Prophet can intercede in the verdict of God and somehow can help on the day of judgment. For him, Prophet was himself a common human being and any attempt to present him or other human beings as someone more than a human would be a grave sin and heresy.
This sparked fury in the religious circles of the time and three scholars – Fazl-i Haqq Khayrabadi, Mufti Sadruddin Azurda, and Fazl-i Rasul Badayuni – set on to demolish Ismail’s project. Their argument was that Prophet’s ability to intercede doesn’t affect the sovereignty of God. Khayrabadi gave an example of a King who trusts his Wazir and out love accepts all of his requests, but that doesn’t mean the wazir is sharing the kingdom with the King. He argued that the ability to intercede actually shows that how much someone is closer to God and by exalting prophets, saints, and so on, they get closer to the ones who are closer to God and hence close to God himself.
Moreover, they framed Ismail as a Wahabi and part of a conspiracy against the Sunni Hanafi movement (even though Ismail was a devoted Sunni scholar) and a modern Mu’tazaili who opposes Prophet’s exaltation. This opposition was so fierce that not only Ismail was charged with disrespecting the prophet, but also of being a proto-Ahmadi as it was believed that Ismail’s de-sacralizing of Prophet Muhammad and saints had led Ghulam Ahmad Mirza to claim his prophethood. Moreover, “Khayrabadi accused Ismail of insulting the Prophet, saints, and angels, and judged him as ‘an unbeliever who deserved to be put to death.’”
These were the early instances where the scholars were calling each other wajib-ul-qatl and you’ll see this intensity increasing over time with various internal and external factors.
Back to the point, this first polemic came to a natural end when Ismail died in a war against the Sikhs but the Deobandi school of thought had firmed its roots and the fierce opposition continued in the next generation. The second polemic centered around the concept of heretical innovation (bid’a). Ashraf Ali Thanvi, the leader of the Deobandi school in this debate, argued that the innovations in rituals, like milad celebrations (which were not institutionalized by the Prophet but got somewhat obligatory status in modern times) are a threat to the normative teachings of the Prophet and hence should be abolished. He didn’t mean that it’s a sin to exalt the prophet, but its institutionalization, he argued, was heresy.
The opposing side in this debate was led by the charismatic Ahmed Raza Khan – founder of the Barelvi school of thought. Khan diagnosed that Thanvi’s assumption that after the sacred time of Prophet, the society must be deteriorating in terms of its moral status is false. Instead, he invited them to imagine Islam as a garden whose seeds were sown by the Prophet and now it was up to them to blossom it and by celebrating milad, they are raising a flower in that garden. But Khan didn’t just stop in opposing Thanvi’s views. In 1906, on his second pilgrimage, Khan presented and got support on his fatwa from thirty-three jurists in Mecca and Madina against the heretics of India in which he included names of Deoband scholars like Rashid Ahmad Gangohi, Qasim Nanautvi, Khalil Ahmad Saharanpuri, and Ashraf Ali Thanvi, along with the name of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiyani. This made waves in India and the fierce opposition of these intra-Hanafi disputes peaked in those times.
But were those polemics just theological musings of scholars that had no impact on the real world? SherAli Tareen, the author of a modern classic Defending Muhammad in Modernity, argues otherwise. For him, the underlying struggle in those debates is to define one’s theology as legitimate and hence increase one’s influence in the South Asian landscape. It becomes more apparent when we note that in South Asian traditionalist thought, politics and theology are inseparable because power only gets institutionalized through the law which is and always has been highly influenced by the clergy. Therefore, the dominance over clergy would be the dominance over the political landscape. In the polemics, the subjects of debates like intercession, or heretical innovation have been used as a political tool to trump the discourse and establish dominance and legitimacy. Some parallels can be drawn with western political theorists that just like Marx used political philosophy to mobilize the masses for a new world order, Deobandi-Barelvi polemic was a fierce fight over two competing theologies to bring a new order in place.
However, even with such fierce polemics and decrees of others being subject to punishable by death, the cases of extra-judicial killings were unheard of. That was because during the Mughal period, the charges of blasphemy, just like other disputes, were solved by arbitration in local courts. But during the colonial period, the British powers, in the name of bringing peace and order to the communally tense sub-continent, criminalized offensive acts, writings, and speeches against other religions. By this time, along with sectarian tensions between Deobandi, Ahl-e-Hadith, Barelvi, etc. inter-religious tensions were getting stronger between Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, etc.
In these circumstances, appeared the most heated act of religious offense and in its response religious violence. In 1924, Pandit Chamupati wrote a pamphlet named Rangila Rasul published by Mahashay Rajpal which took the whole Muslim population with anger. To mitigate immense criticism and backlash from the Muslim population, the government banned the pamphlet under Section 153A and Rajpal was put on trial in response to formal complaints. However, the Sikh judge acquitted Rajpal saying that Section 153A was not applicable on offenses against deceased figures. This act of prejudice caused a massive uproar from the Muslim population and throughout the country, from all sects, there were gatherings, protests, conferences, articles, news stories, etc. In this moment of chaos and helplessness, a young Muslim carpenter from Lahore, Ilmuddin, murdered the publisher and was later hanged. What succeeded was the veneration of that man who was now turned into a martyr by the Muslim scholars and maulvis. Talking about its religious legitimacy, while other sects would have tried to find similar cases in Prophet’s time, recall that only Khan would have argued that since murdering the blasphemer is the ultimate form of exalting the Prophet, death sentence on Prophet’s disrespect would be “a flower in Islam’s garden.”
Though, after partition, Pakistan inherited the same Indian Penal code, this religious outrage loosened a little as there were negligible cases during the first couple of decades – most probably because national focuses were on building the newly born state in terms of its structure and operations. However, by the rise of Zia-ul-Haq, the religious right was in a strong position to implement laws of their own choice. On July 9, 1986, parliament’s session to discuss Section 295-C concluded that apart from life imprisonment and fine, punishment of blasphemy should include death also. From the reports of the proceedings, it can be said that each one of the key supporters of the amendment – Molana Gohar Rehman (Deobandi Scholar), Mir Nawaz Marwat Khan (Minister of State of Justice), Liaquat Baloch (Jamat-e-Islami), Begum Nisar Fatima (Jamat-e-Islami), Syed Shah Turab-ul-Haq Qadri (Barelvi Scholar) – were trying their best to outdo the other in their support for it. Consequently, within a day, the bill was passed and Pakistan became one of the strictest countries to punish a religious offender.
When it comes to the competition of masalak, during Zia’s regime, it was the numerically smaller Deobandi sect that received major attention, resources, and state patronage. It was also because, for the War on Terror, the Deobandi sect remained in the front lines and hence received the main spotlight in all discourses. This somewhat sidelined the majoritarian Barelvi sect who believe themselves to be the true believers and lovers of the Prophet and who are always ready to lay their lives for the Prophet.
Till the late twentieth century, Pakistani and foreign forces kept supporting the Deobandi sect as a militia provider for the Afghan wars. However, after 9/11 attacks, things changed when the US took a U-turn and started a war against the same militia that they created. That was also the time when the US think tanks misunderstanding the Barelvi sect as all-Sufi-malangs started advising the govt to counter-terrorism by promoting the “peace-loving” Barelvi sect.
Another push in this discourse came among Barelvis during the 2010s when a Christian woman named Asia Bibi was charged with blasphemy, and the Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer, upon his support for Asia Bibi, was killed by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri who was, reportedly, inspired by the teachings of a famous Barelvi scholar Hanif Qureshi. Taseer’s death was celebrated and Mumtaz Qadri was turned into a hero. Later he was hanged which increased his popularity and turned him into a martyr – just like Ilmuddin. In support of Qadri, one voice that made the most noise was Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s movement called Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, now a political party named Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). Today TLP is the leading group that stands for issues of respect of prophet (namos-e-risalat) and finality of the prophet (khatam-e-nabuwat), with their slogan “Ghustakh-e-nabi ki aik saza; sar tan se juda, sar tan se juda” (the offender of Prophet has only one punishment, beheading, beheading, beheading).
While for a common person, their struggle is just pure raw emotion for the respected Prophet, a wider view of their politics explains how it isn’t different from the intellectual projects of Ismail, Khayrabadi, Thanvi, and Raza Khan. In the first polemic, the subject through which influence was gained was intercession. The second polemic built its foundations on heretical innovations. This current project by Barelvis is of honor of the sacred. Blasphemy is one of those very few subjects which creates the most sensation and hence ensures maximum visibility, which most sects have a consensus on giving capital punishment on, and which is the most sensitive and the trickiest as engaging in a discussion on blasphemy can have one commit blasphemy.
With blasphemy as a subject, distractions and debates that hinder gaining influence such as differences with other sects get eliminated. So, the one with the loudest voice would have the lead which certainly the Barelvi sect has. Hence, the anti-blasphemy campaign is actually a strategic tool used by the Barelvi sect to lead the race of political theology and reclaim their dominance that was kind of lost with the war on terror where Deobandis got the power, funding, resources, and all the attention. In other words, the strategy is that rather than opposing the other sects, let’s amplify the common denominators and use the opposition’s momentum for one’s own support too. So, whatever steps other sects take to own the blasphemy discourse, they end up helping Barelvis (or say TLP).

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