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Pakistan Under New Wave Of Sectarianism – OpEd


Sectarianism is the principle source of terrorists’ activities in Pakistan. The current wave of target killing of Shia and Brelvi Muslims in Karachi, Quetta and Kohistan has become a source of concern. There is no official data on sectarian identity as the State prefers to paint a picture of religious homogeneity to justify adopting Islam as the official religion. Nevertheless, by an unofficial estimate, 75 to 80 percent of the Muslim population is Sunni and 20 to 25 percent are Shias. Sunnis can be divided into four sub sects which are Barelvis, Deobandis, Ahle Hadith and revivalist, such as Modernist movements like Jamaat-i-Islami. The first three Sunni sub-sects emerged as religious educational movement in India during the nineteenth century.


Jamaat-i-Islami came into being in 1940s by Abul Ala Maudodi, he stressed the need to borrow Western technology to cope with Western worlds, and thus Jamaat-i-Islam is more modern than any of the other orthodox religious organizations. Ahle Hadith is a small sect which is inspired and influenced by the Saudi Wahabism which does not follow any Sunni school of jurisprudence. In the words of Dr Tariq, “Whabi used the term Jamaat Ahl-i-Hadith for themselves and appealed to the government of India that the term Wahabi should not be used for them. The government ordered in 1886 that the term Wahabi should not be used in official correspondence. It is still used by many people in Pakistan”.

The Deobandis movement started by establishing the Madrassa at Deoband, a small town in Uttar Pradesh province of India, and was founded by Maulana Mohammad Qasim Nanautawa (1833-1877) and Maulana Rashid Ahmed Gangohi (1826-1905). Before this there was no well organization of establishing Madrassas. But at Deoband there was a Rector (Sarparast), a Chancellor (Muhtamim) and the chief instructor (Sadr mudarris). The curriculum was based on Dards-i-Nizami, which was evolved by Mulla Nizam uddin Sihalvi at Farangi Mahal, a well reputed family of Islamic scholars in Lucknow. The Dars-i-Nizami stressed gaining knowledge through human reasoning and at Deoband the emphasis was given to traditional science. In Pakistan, the Deobandi school of thought emphasized more on Hadith than what the Dars-i-Nizami had originally prescribed.

The Brelvi movement was inspired by Ahmed Raza Khan of Bareilly. According to Dr. Tariq, he defines the Barelvis, “the Brelvis justified the meditational, custom-laden Islam, closely tied to the intercession of the Pirs of the shrines. They believed that Prophet Mohammad (Peace be upon Him) was made of divine radiance (Noor) and had knowledge of the unknown (Ilm ul Ghaib). Both these beliefs were challenged by the Deobandis and the Ahl-i-Hadith ulema”.

The followers of Shia Islam are called Shia or Shias, which means the followers of Hazart Ali. Like other Muslim sects Shia also follow the teachings of the holy Quran and the Hadith of the Muhammad (PBUH). The Shia sect considers Hazart Ali as the rightful successor to Muhammad (PBUH), and the first Imam. Shias believe that Muhammad’s (PBHU) family, the Al-e-Muhammad (PBUH) or Ahl-al-Bait and certain individuals among his descendants, who are are Imams, with special spiritual and political authority over the community. In this regard Shias prefer Hadiths attributed to the Ahl-al-Bait.

What is commonly called the Shia – Sunni conflict is actually between Shia and Deobandi in which Deobandi appropriated the term Sunni for them to get support from Ahle Hadith. Because of the long practice of Madrassa education and their sophisticated organizational structure, Deobandi consequently became dominant over the Sunni school of thought. However, the divide between Sunni sects remains as wide as between Sunni and Shias. In fact all political religious organizations have their own Madrassas and their educational curriculum based on the principle of exclusion of other sects and their predation in Madrassas based on how to refute other sects through arguments, and there is no tradition of teaching books of other sects. The sectarian hatred among Madrassas education is so great that a member of a banned organization says “The external enemy is know his intentions against Islam and Muslims are no secret. But the internal enemy posing as Muslim, as Shias and other do, is more dangerous to stopping internal enemies is our priority”.


According to estimates, Pakistan has as many as 245 religious groups in which 100 focus on external Jihad and 82 on sectarian issues. Each group has had one or more militant outfits at different times to wage the internal (sectarian) or external jihad.

The situation of sectarianism is Pakistan was so bad that after the military coup by military, President General Musharraf warned several religious organizations. As part of government’s efforts to control sectarianism in the country, the President, on August 14, announced a ban on sectarian militant groups, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Muhammad. On August 22, 2001 some 200 members of groups fighting against Indian rule in Occupied Kashmir were arrested, as they defied the government’s ban regarding fund-raising.

The above shows that threat of sectarianism was felt sever enough for the policy makers of Pakistan that before the event of 9/11, Pakistan had taken steps to end the menace of sectarianism. After the event of 9/11 when the US asked Pakistan for its support in the war against terrorism, Pakistan with the help of international community found an opportunity to fight against this menace. After the event of 9/11, Pakistan put a ban on a number of extremist organizations; it also strengthened anti-terrorist courts and anti-terrorism laws. It froze bank accounts of more than 50 extremist organizations suspected of links with sectarianism or international terrorism. It also hunted down and arrested remnants of the “Al-Qaida” network in Pakistan and put a ban on “hate speech” during Friday prayers. It also established special anti-terrorist task force.

In spite of taking a number of steps, the government is incapable of curbing sectarianism in the country. If we look at the only last five years we will find that the intensity of the killings related to sectarian attacks has increased. In 2008, 97 sectarian attacks took place and took 306 lives of innocent people. Likewise in 2009, 106 incidents happened and killed 190 people. In 2010, 57 attacks took the lives of 509 people. In the year of 2011, the religious extremist targeted 30 places with specific planning and killed 203 people. So far in 2012, 18 attacks have occurred only in the last two months (January and February) and have taken 85 innocent lives of different sectarian groups. According to estimates the majority of the targeted people belong to Shia and Brelvi sects.

Many scholars believes that the sectarianism is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan as even before Zia’s era there existed sectarian differences — but the difference is that at that time these sectarian groups were not armed, whereas now they are and they are killing one another. There exists a strong link between Madrassa education and sectarianism because Madrassas teach maslak (i.e. ideology of sub sect), so they refute the views of other sects. Madrassas are exposed to the rhetoric of power, injustices, and some are armed and trained to fight. The militants who are involved in sectarianism are often from the same militant groups who are maintaining a low intensity conflict in Kashmir. In this way they are given a free hand and blessed by the Pakistan army.

As it is clear from the facts that Musharraf government finds itself incapable of controlling the menace of sectarianism in Pakistan. If we have a look over the facts and figures collected by International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), we find that during the last couple of years sectarianism in the country increased in terms of casualties resulted in sectarian violence. The Musharraf government hasn’t made any significant contribution in curbing sectarianism, while the current democratic government has not shown any positive steps against the banned extremist organizations, so that they are easily targeting the innocent citizens of Pakistan.

The new wave of sectarian violence by old players of violence is under way. Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, an offshoot of Sipah-i-Sihaba Pakistan now called Ahl-i-Sunnat Waljamaat, is once again active in targeting the Shia and Barelvis in Pakistan. This organisation has a notorious background and is famous for initiating sectarianism in Pakistan. Their attacks have become more lethal and brutal, which is an alarming sign for our new generation. There is need of full attention of our respectable leaders and the heads of institutions, otherwise the situation could lead to civil war.

Dr. Imran Ali Sandano

Dr. Imran Ali Sandano is an author of "Sufism and Peace: A Counter Strategy of Extremism" and "Separatist Movement of Balochistan: A Non Traditional Security Threat" books. Currently, he is working as Senior Research Fellow at Nontraditional Security and Peaceful Development Zhejiang University, Hangzhou, China. His areas of interest are nontraditional security issues, terrorism, and conflict resolution, diplomacy, and Sufism. Dr. Sandano is a regular writer of different newspapers and weekly magazines. He holds PhD degree in Nontraditional Security Management, M.Phil degree in Peace and Conflict Studies, Masters in International Relations. He can be reached at [email protected] Tweeter iiimran110.

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