Takfiri Deobandi sectarianism unbound – by Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies



‘Tez’, a new channel on the Pakistani Geo TV network, is dedicated to twenty-four-hour news. There is a rapid-fire news bulletin every fifteen minutes: hence the name, Taz, or fast. But even after an endless stream of stories about sectarian violence, terrorist atrocities, suicide bombings, ‘target killings’, ‘load shedding’, political corruption and the defeats of the Pakistani cricket team with mundane regularity, there is still ample time left in the schedule. So the slots between the news bulletins are filled with what they call tazaabi tottas – acidic bits, short satirical skits. In one particular sketch, a man, sitting on a bridge, is about to commit suicide by jumping into the river. He is spotted by a passer-by who runs towards him shouting ‘Stop! Stop!’ The two men then engage in the following dialogue (with minor edits):

‘Why are you committing suicide?’

‘Let me die! No one loves me.’

‘God loves you. Do you believe in God?’


‘Are you a Muslim, or…’

‘Allah be Praised! I am a Muslim.’

‘I too am a Muslim. Are you a Shia or a Sunni?’


‘I too am a Sunni. What is your school of law?’


‘Me too! Do you belong to the Deobandi or Bralevi sect?’


‘Me too! Are you a Tanzihi (pure) Deobandi or a Takfiri (extremist) Deobandi?’


‘Me too! Tanzihi of Azmati branch or Farhati branch?’

‘Tanzihi Farhati branch.’

‘Me too!’ Tanzihi Farhati educated at University of Amjair or Tanzihi Farhati educated at Noor University of Mawad?’

‘Tanzihi Farhati educated at Noor University of Mawad.’

‘Infidel, kaffir! You deserve to die!’

The man who came to help then pushes the suicidal man over the bridge.

The humorous sketch gives us deep insight into the state of the Muslim ummah – the transnational Muslim community. It is simply not good enough to be a Muslim. You have to be labelled Sunni or Shia, and from there on progressively put in smaller boxes right down to which particular institution of learning you subscribe to. And those who deviate one iota, follow a different school of thought, or a different historic tradition, or a different fatwa issuing seminary, are, by definition, kaffirs – infidels who deserve to die.

Just in case you think that the sketch deliberately takes sectarianism to ridiculous lengths, consider how the Deobandi sect describes itself. The institution that established the sect, and from which it takes in name, Darul Uloom, Deoband, which in the words of Faizur Rahman is ‘the undisputed Islamic authority in India’, defines its creed as follows: ‘religiously Darul Uloom is Muslim; as a sect, Ahl-e-Sunnatwal-Jama’at (Sunni); in practical method (of law), Hanafi; in conduct, Sufi; dialectically, Maturidi Ash’ari; in respect of the mystic path, Chishtiyyah, rather comprising all the Sufi orders; in thought, Waliyullhian; in principle, Qasimiyah; sectionally, Rasheedian; and as regards connection, Deobandi’. So it is clear! Deobandis are, in descending order: Muslim, Sunni, Hanafi, Sufi, followers of the classical School of Ashari theology, cohorts of the Indian reformer Shah Waliyullah, and supporters of the ‘principles of some marginal scholar called Qasim and partisans of an even more obscure scholar called Rasheed!’

This absurd sectarianism is not confined to India. The Deobandi creed is just as dominant in Pakistan, Bangladesh and anywhere in the world we find South Asians. In Britain, for example, around 600 out of 1,500 mosques are under Deobandi control, seventeen out of twenty-six Islamic seminaries are run by Deobandis, producing around 80 per cent of all locally trained clerics. Worshippers attending these mosques, and children educated in these seminaries, are indoctrinated to denounce and hate all other varieties of Muslim, Shias, Ismailis, Bralevis (who are just as puritan but more mystical than Deobandis), as defective Muslims or outright unbelievers. Fatwas issued from the factory in Deoband are taken seriously by all those who follow the creed. A recent one forbids Muslim girls aged thirteen and above from riding bicycles. Another one insists that a husband can divorce his wife by simply uttering ‘I divorce thee’ three times; and if this is inconvenient, he can send a text message. In a famous case, a Deoband fatwa forced a woman who was raped by her father-in-law to annul her marriage. These fatwas are not just opinions to be laughed at or ignored. As Rahman points out, ‘they are treated and projected more as a decree, an order to be followed, a defining proclamation about what is to be believed and not believed.’

But these Deobandis are the good guys: in the sketch they are labelled ‘Tanzihi Deobandi’. Tanzih is a technical term regarding the assertion of God’s incomparability. Tanzihi Deobandis believe that God is transcendent and incomparable with no equal, and anyone who does not follow this ‘pure’ understanding of God, or believes in immanence, such as the Sufis, are polytheists. On the whole, Tanzihi Deobandis refrain from violence and limit their vitriol to denunciations. Indeed, Deoband has issued a famous fatwa denouncing violence and terrorism.

Takfiri Deobandis, on the other hand, actively engage in ‘jihad’ against their fellow Muslims. A takfiri is a Muslim who accuses another Muslim of apostasy. And as far as Takfiri Deobandis are concerned, all other Muslims are apostates and a legitimate target for violence. Recent history has seen brutal acts of violence at the hands of Takfiri Deobandis against Shias, Ahmadis and other Sunnis, not to mention Christians, as well as those who stand up to defend them. Indeed,Takfiri Deobandi doctrine is so in flexible, so violent that it does not even spare moderate Deobandis themselves. A string of Takfiri Deobandi organisations in Pakistan, with names likeTehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (Army of Fighters), and Sipahe Sahaba (Soldiers of the Companions) have engaged in terrorist activities against their fellow Muslims for decades.

Where does this unyielding religious rigour of sects, which in its extreme form manifests itself in murderous totalitarian intent, come from? The simple answer is that we find it right at the formative phase of Islam. Islamic history is replete with the sectarian violence of the worse kind: from the homicidal tendencies of the Kharjis, the battle of Kerbala, the Shia/Sunnic onflict, to the cruel clamp down on the Ashari theologians by one Abbasid Caliph to the equally ruthless suppression of their philosophical and theological opponents, the Mutazalites, by another Abbasid Caliph. Sectarian violence led to the murder of three of the four ‘Rightly Guided Caliphs’: Umar, Othman and Ali. Islamic history, as Ebrahim Moosa argues, is not as rosy as most Muslims think.

The Kharjites emerged almost immediately after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. They believed that history had come to an end after the revelation to the Last Prophet. From now on, there could be no debate or compromise on any question: the decision is God’s alone. To be a Muslim, they argued, is to be in a perfect state of soul. Someone in that state cannot commit a sin and engage in wrong – doing. Sin, was therefore a contradiction for a true Muslim – it nullified the believer and demonstrated that inwardly he was an apostate who had turned against Islam. Thus anyone who did any wrong, and that included believing in the wrong dogma, was not really a Muslim. He could thus be put to death. Indeed, the Kharjites believed that all non – Kharjite Muslims were really apostates and therefore a legitimate target for violence. They denounced everyone who disagreed with them; and are implicated in various sectarian murders, particularly the murder of Ali, the fourth Caliph. The Kharjites led several rebellions during the Abbasid period (749–1258), although they were eventually suppressed, but their thought has reoccurred in Islamic history with cyclical regularity.Their influence can clearly be seen on ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328), the great grandfather of Wahhabism, and one of the most influential political scientists of Islamic history. Kharjite thought is also evident in the ideas of Muhammad ibn Abdel Wahhab (1703–1787), the founder of the Wahhabi sect. It shaped the outlook of Syed Qutb (1906–1966), the chief ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood. The extremist Muslim sects of our time, such as the Takfiri Deobandis, Hizb-ut-Tahrir and al-Muhajaroon, are essentially neo-kharjites.

Adapted from: Critical Muslim