Jazba, Restraint and Political Action: New Dimensions of Islamic Politics in Pakistan

Iqbal Singh Sevea (isevea@email.unc.edu) is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
14 January 2021

Charting out the new dimension of politics in Pakistan, Iqbal Singh Sevea describes the rise of the new political party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, with its leader, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, openly supportive of a fundamentalist form of Islam. He encouraged supporters to organise protests against blasphemous acts. On the other hand, Islamic intellectuals such as Javed Ahmad Ghamidi preach a more liberal form of Islam. With the recent death of Rizvi, it remains to be seen in which direction politics in Pakistan will move.

On 15 November 2020, thousands of protesters marched from Rawalpindi to Islamabad to protest against the circulation of caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in France. The subsequent dharna (sit-in) staged by the protesters effectively shut down much of Pakistan’s capital city. They called for the French ambassador to be expelled and for a total boycott of French products, downgrading Pakistan’s relations with France. They also demanded the release of protesters who had been arrested in the course of violent clashes with the police. After four days, the government reached an agreement with the protesters and had seemingly agreed to their demands (Asghar 2020). This protest was organised by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which has organised a number of protests over the past three years over the issue of blasphemy and the need for the state to “protect” the honour of Prophet Muhammad. For instance, in November 2018, the TLP had launched street protests that forced schools and government institutions to shut down, against the decision by the Supreme Court to acquit Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, who had controversially been sentenced to death for committing blasphemy. The TLP’s leadership openly declared that the murder of Asia Bibi and the Supreme Court judges would be wajib-ul-qatal (legitimate killing) (Sevea 2018). TLP leaders even went to the extent of calling on military personnel to mutiny against its “un-Islamic leadership” (Shah, Syed Hamza 2018).

The TLP’s leader, Khadim Hussain Rizvi (1966–2020), regularly called on his supporters to publicly demonstrate their jazba or passion for the Prophet through individual and collective political action. A number of other religious leaders adopted a more measured approach to the issue of blasphemy. The prominent Islamic intellectual and television preacher, Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, questioned the legitimacy of protests such as those described above by arguing that there was no Islamic basis for the punishment of blasphemy and that it was the state of Pakistan that had formulated such a law (Al-Mawrid Official 2018). And, in doing so, the state had claimed the right to legislate on religious matters (Al-Mawrid Official 2019). Ghamidi calls on his followers to refrain from being lured by evocative and emotional statements, and to adhere to a legalistic and textual approach to religion and religious action. 

While we do not claim that the TLP and Ghamidi represent Muslim public opinion; their contrasting positions provide an entry point to new dimensions of Islamic politics and intra-Islamic contestations in Pakistan. In particular, they highlight ongoing debates over the role and powers of the state, the link between piety and political action, and the religious legitimacy of acts of rebellion.

The Rise of Rizvi and Ghamidi

Pakistan has witnessed the emergence of new strands of Islamic discourse with a series of new movements and configurations of sociopolitical order competing in the public arena. This is linked to shifts in patterns of state patronage, the expansion of new social media and digital technology, and the failure of established Islamic and Islamist parties to gain a foothold at the centre. The TLP reflects the emergence of a new form of Barelvi political activism. The Barelvi school of thought is a Sunni reform movement that arose in the Indian city of Bareilly in the late 19th century. Despite constituting the majority in Pakistan, the Barelvis, thus far, have played a limited political role. The realm of Islamic politics has been dominated by their sectarian rivals the Deobandis and Islamist movements like the Jamaat-e-Islami. In contrast to the literalists—the Deobandis, the Barelvis revere Prophet Muhammad and the Sufis, and ascribe to shrine-based religious practices (Sanyal 1996). On his part, Ghamidi may perhaps be seen as typifying the emergence of “post-Islamism.” Scholars like Asef Bayat have proposed that following a phase of experimentation, the appeal and legitimacy of Islamism gets exhausted and Islamists themselves get compelled to reinvent Islamism. This in turn leads to conscious attempts to reconceptualise the means through which Islam can be merged with individual choice, rights and democracy (Bayat 2013). Ghamidi had initially been associated with the Jamaat-e-Islami, an organisation striving to establish an Islamic political structure, but would later denounce the movement’s interpretation of Islam as a sociopolitical ideology.

The expansion of social media and digital technology as well as the prominence of Islamic television channels has spurred the fragmentation of religious authority. Islamic television channels, Twitter and Facebook have now emerged as key sites of religious contestation and have played a key role in facilitating the rise of Rizvi and Ghamidi. Rizvi and the TLP have been particularly effective in using social media, songs and fiery rhetoric to gain a following. The TLP has an active presence on platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Rizvi himself is a charismatic figure whose speeches are circulated via these platforms. It is worth noting here that he uses a mixture of Urdu poetry and colloquial Punjabiwith a generous dose of Punjabi humor and vulgaritiesin his speeches. Indeed, Rizvi’s rise from a government servant to an influential religious and political figure is the result of the astute use of mass agitation and social media. On his part, Ghamidi’s popularity and influence comes primarily from his televised sermons and the circulation of his talks. The latter are generally structured in the form of question-and-answer sessions or debates. A graduate of English literature from Government College, Lahore, Ghamidi is not a part of the ulema, which is a  body of traditional religious scholars.

Changing patterns of state patronage have also had an impact upon Islamic sociopolitical discourse. Various Pakistani political leaders have sought to legitimise their rule by providing patronage to figures and religious movements. For instance, in the 1960s, Ayub Khan appointed the modernist Fazlur Rehman to head the Institute of Islamic Research. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Zia-ul-Haq provided funds and official patronage to sections of the ulema, particularly those associated with the Deoband maslak (Talbot 2009: 250–­­­51). In 2006, Pervez Musharaf launched the “Enlightened Moderation” national programme with the aim of combating militancy at home and demonstrating to the international community that Pakistan was an integral player in the “War against Terrorism” (Musharaf 2004). Two aspects of the “Enlightened Moderation” national programme are particularly important to note here; first, promoting Sufism as the official version of Islam, and second, the reorientation of state patronage towards the Barelvis (Musharaf 2004). In line with these objectives, a Barelvi religious scholar was appointed as the federal minister for religious affairs, and a year later, six Barelvis were appointed to the Council of Islamic Ideology, a constitutional body that advises the legislature whether or not a certain law is repugnant to Islam. Musharaf also appointed Ghamidi to the Council of Islamic Ideology. This, no doubt, helped him gain more prominence.

The state’s willingness to engage and negotiate with the TLP has also played a role in bolstering the movement’s popularity. The TLP had first came into the limelight in 2017 when it organised a three-week dharna that crippled Islamabad. The dharna was launched in opposition to a change in electoral forms that was deemed to water down an assertion of one’s belief in the finality of the prophecy of Muhammad. The TLP asserted that it infringed upon the honour of Muhammad and reflected a desire to legitimise the Ahmadiyya community, who are deemed to be part of a blasphemous movement (Chaudhry 2018). This dharna ended not with a security crackdown but with a signed agreement, brokered by the military between the government and the TLP (Wasim 2017). The amount of support the military extended to the TLP protest remains a moot point. What is clear is that the role of the military and ISI (or Inter-Services Intelligence) in the negotiations served to legitimise the TLP and ensured its prominence amongst Barelvi organisations. Similarly, the above-mentioned agreement between the government and the TLP, relating to its demands for Pakistan to register a strong protest against France, has served to further cement the position of the TLP.

Rizvi and Ghamidi’s political positions are also responses to the failure of established Islamic and Islamist parties to make a mark at the centre. As noted above, Ghamidi had himself been a part of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Rizvi positioned the TLP as a political alternative to other Barelvi political organisations like the Pakistan Sunni Tehreek and the Pakistan Awami Tehreek, both of which have attracted lacklustre support. With its new brand of agitational politics, the TLP emerged as a significant political player in the elections of 2018. While it failed to win any seats in the National Assembly and only won two seats in the Sindh Provincial Assembly, the TLP emerged as the fourth largest single party in Pakistan in terms of its vote share. With 2,234,316 votes, it received more electoral support than any of the established religious parties. Particularly striking is the fact that it actually played an important role in ensuring the defeat of the Nawaz Sharif government in the politically crucial province of Punjab. According to a poll by Gallup Pakistan, 46% of voters in Punjab who voted for the TLP had previously voted for Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). The survey further demonstrated that the PML-N’s defeat was due to it losing 9% of its vote share; 4% of these votes swung towards the TLP (Gallup Pakistan 2019).

 An analysis of the political views espoused by Rizvi and Ghamidi also exposes the inadequate ways in which terms like “Sufi,” “Islamist” and “Salafi” are used by multiple observers. Sufis are commonly presented as apolitical alternatives to Islamists and Salafists. The fact is that Rizvi claimed to represent the Barelvis, a community whose religious practices are centred around Sufi sites and practices that destabilise such myopic views. Such depictions are further complicated by the fact that Ghamidi stresses that Sufism is not a part of Islam and bases his interpretation of Islam on the belief that the Quran is a complete text that has unity of structure and meaning (Ghamidi 2016).

Piety and the Political Sphere

In this section, I will examine two key facets of Rizvi and Ghamidi’s political discourse: the role of the state and individual political action. In relation to these, Rizvi and Ghamidi differ from established religious authorities, including the Barelvi ulema, and Islamists groups like the Jamaat-e-Islami.

The TLP has called for the establishment of a Nizam-e-Mustafa (Order of the Prophet). While the term Nizam-e-Mustafa has been widely used since the creation of Pakistan, there is no unanimity over what it entails. Differing individuals and groups have associated varying political positions and institutions with it (Zaman 2018). Zia-ul-Huq had infamously sought to legitimise his coup by equating his dictatorship with the Nizam-e-Mustafa. Conveniently, his regime officially defined the Nizam-e-Mustafa as a system that called for Presidential rule, centralisation of power, and did not allow for the existence of political parties! The Barelvi ulema have generally used the term to imply a political structure which allows for the implementation of sharia. It should be noted here that despite calling on the state to play a key role in ensuring Muslims live in accordance with Islam, the Barelvi ulema have generally not explicitly engaged with issues relating to political structures. Various political structures have been deemed to be acceptable – given certain caveats. The most important of which was the implementation of sharia. The ulema were also to have a formal role in advising the state. Thus, the state and the ulema must have a role in regulating religious life. The role of the individual in the public realm is envisaged both within the framework of the sharia – as defined by the ulema – and the pir–murid (religious leader–follower) relationship of obedience to authority that undergirds Sufi lineages.

The fact that Rizvi and the TLP differ from most Barelvi ulema is stressing the importance of acquisition of state power. The concern is not merely with the development of mechanisms for the implementation of sharia but also with the notion of the state authority. The acquisition of power and influence is presented as the only way to secure Barelvi religious beliefs and sites. It should be noted here that while other Barelvi leaders speak in terms of representing broader Sunni interests and position themselves as potential leaders of the Muslim community in general, Rizvi and the TLP locate themselves firmly in the Barelvi camp and employ openly sectarian discourse. The Nizam-e-Mustafa, in Rizvi’s view, is essentially one in which a Barelvi political leader provides patronage and protection to Barelvi religions sites. Thus, Pakistan has never had a Nizam-e-Mustafa (Nizam e Mustafa S A W W 2018). For Rizvi, the battle over blasphemy laws is at the core of the attempt to establish the Nizam-e-Mustafa. After all, the reverence accorded to the Prophet and the emphasis on “protecting the honour of the Prophet” differentiates the Barelvis from other maslaks like the Deobandis and the Ahl-e-Hadees (Tareen 2020). This is reflected in the fact that in its political campaign in 2018, the TLP equated defending the honour of Prophet Muhammad, safeguarding Barelvi religious sites and preserving Pakistan’s blasphemy laws (Islamic Hadees (2018).

In its rallies, its leaders openly glorified Mumtaz Qadri, the policeman who assassinated the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, in 2011 in response to the latter’s critique of the blasphemy laws. Such a valorisation of Qadri is not unique to the TLP. A number of Barelvi preachers and organisations have openly valorised Qadri and linked his execution to the state’s neglect of Islam. What makes  Rizvi stand apart was his ability to give voice to a sense of Barelvi victimhood and his assertion that political activism and protest was itself a reflection of individual piety.

Eschewing the legalistic discourses of the ulema and their emphasis on the need to control one’s emotions, Rizvi openly called on his supporters to display their emotions and passion for the Prophet. Individual political action—even if it amounted to murder as was the case with Mumtaz Qadri, a mutiny in the ranks of the military, or a rebellion against the state—was a reflection of one’s jazba. In line with this, Rizvi launched a virulent critique of other leaders who called for moderation and a legalistic response to current controversies over blasphemy. He particularly rallied against the Barelvi leader, Tahir-ul-Qadri, who condemned the actions of Mumtaz Qadri and positioned himself as a “moderate” (Tahir-ul-Qadri 2018). Rizvi attacked him for not “defending the honour of the Prophet” and described him as an instrument of Christian preachers (hafiz hamza 2016).

On his part, Ghamidi sets out to construct what he describes as a “counter narrative.” He rejects the call for the establishment of a Nizam-e-Mustafa as he argues that Islam does not provide a political framework. The message of the Quran is to the individual and as such there is no need for an Islamic state. He asserts that in the contemporary period humanity is divided into nations and that Muslims should abide by muttahida qawmiyyat (composite nationalism). His reference to the notion of muttahida qawmiyyat is interesting. Muttahida qawmiyyat is a concept promoted by the Deobandi ulema, Hussain Ahmad Madani (1879–1957) (Madani 2005). Madani had opposed the demand for Pakistan and argued for the compatibility of Islam and nationalism. He argued that there have been multiple political structures throughout history and that Islam had repeatedly adapted to these. As the nation state was the predominant political structure in the contemporary period, Muslims had to adapt to it. While Ghamidi was extremely critical of the Deobandi ulema, he nevertheless drew from Madani’s view and accepted the legitimacy of various forms of political structure.

For Ghamidi, the contemporary state was to play a minimalist role. It should only have the authority of declaring jihad, collecting taxes, and developing laws. With regards to the religious sphere, the state only has the authority to “forcibly demand from its people to offer the prayer and pay zakah” (Ghamidi 2015). I would suggest here that his formulation of the minimalist role of the ideal state is, in fact, an attempt to limit the power of the modern state structure to define and regulate religion. While he acknowledges that in the current context, the leadership of the state should be chosen by individuals—and he references the existence of the shura (council of elders) during the early period of Islam to substantiate this—Ghamidi does not make the argument that Islam provides for a democratic structure. Multiple political frameworks can be valid. After all, Ghamidi had accepted joining the Council of Islamic Ideology during Musharaf’s tenure.

While Ghamidi seeks to limit the power of the state, he is, however, fearful of the potential implications of “unrestrained” individual political action promoted by Rizvi. The equation of jazba with political action could lead to rebellion and anarchy. He warns his followers that anarchy is a crime according to Islam and such is the severity of the crime that it is punishable by death. Here Ghamidi draws from and locates himself within a long tradition of Muslim scholarship that delegitimizes rebellion and advocates political quietism.

Looking Ahead   

The political visions developed by Rizvi and Ghamidi present new configurations in intra-Islamic debates over the ideal political structure and the future sociopolitical framework of Pakistan. These are likely to continue to play out in the realms of social media, governmental institutions and street protests. Following in the pattern of previous regimes, the Imran Khan-led government, which is facing mounting criticism and a potentially united opposition, is likely to attempt to bolster its position by claiming religious legitimacy. Rizvi’s sudden death on 19 November 2020 has thrown a spanner in the works. It has opened the field of Barelvi politics to a new leadership tussle, and it remains to be seen which direction the TLP and Islamic politics, more broadly, would take in the coming months.  

Iqbal Singh Sevea (isevea@email.unc.edu) is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
14 January 2021