Home/Daniel Larison/Wahhabi, Deobandi, Hanafi, Whatever; Bush Might Say: “I Thought The Afghans Were Muslims”

Wahhabi, Deobandi, Hanafi, Whatever; Bush Might Say: “I Thought The Afghans Were Muslims”

What is immediately in the news is the resurgence of Taliban power. Substantial Taliban elements are attempting to reinstitutionalize the articles of orthodoxy in their Muslim Wahhabi faith, which includes chopping off the fingers of women caught using nail polish. And Afghans, especially in the southern provinces, have been observed welcoming these moves toward a restoration of the Taliban. ~William Buckley

In a generally glum assessment of the situation in Afghanistan (for even gloomier assessments, see this week’s Economist leader and article), Buckley makes this statement.  Now what’s wrong with it?  Nothing, except that the Taliban are not, by and large, Wahhabis.  That is a term normally reserved for Arabs, usually Saudis, and the people who are exposed to Saudi-funded Islamic schooling who adhere to the Islamic revivalist tenets of Wahhab. 

Pashtun tribesmen in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, a large percentage of Pakistanis and a majority of the Taliban typically follow the Deobandi school, which is similar to modern Wahhabism and, separately, the teachings of Sayyid Qutb, intellectual godfather of the Muslim Brotherhood, in its fundamentalism and anti-Western impulses, but it is not the same thing.  It is a phenomenon specific to Indian and Pakistani Islam and it is not some latter-day, exceptional branch that is unrelated to the main body of Islam in Pakistan, nor is it a foreign import of recent vintage, but is the main trunk of Pakistani Islam: 

The Deobandi interpretation holds that a Muslim’s first loyalty is to his religion and only then to the country of which he is a citizen or a resident; secondly, that Muslims recognise only the religious frontiers of their Ummah and not the national frontiers; thirdly,that they have a sacred right and obligation to go to any country to wage jihad to protect the Muslims of that country.

The Deobandi interpretation of Islamic teachings is widely practiced in Pakistan. The Deobandi movement in Sunni Islam, was founded in response to British colonial rule in India and later hardened in Pakistan into bitter opposition to what its members views as the country’s neo-colonial elite. The Islamic Deobandi militants share the Taliban’s restrictive view of women, and regard Pakistan’s minority Shiia as non-Muslim. They seek a pure leader, or amir, to recreate Pakistani society according to the egalitarian model of Islam’s early days under the Prophet Mohammed. President Musharraf himself, is a Deobandi, actually born in the city in India, where the school took it’s name. 

The tremendous influence of this understanding of Islam, dominating Pakistan as it does, is something that must be grasped if we are to have realistic goals of combating enemies such as the Taliban. 

Of course, Al Qaeda Wahhabis who worked with the Taliban in the past and received sanctuary from them do collaborate with these Deobandis, but they are still clearly distinct, albeit interrelated, groups with their own traditions.  Wahhabism and “Deobandism” have become interconnected and Taliban Deobandis have been influenced by Wahhabi ideas, yes, but it remains the case that they are not, strictly speaking, the same. 

Perhaps someone will say that I am being too pedantic here, but it seems to me to be important that we strive for precision not only so that we do not lump together groups and regimes that have nothing to do with each other under generic, misleading names of “Islamic fascist,” but so that we have a clear sense of the distinctions and cleavages between different movements within Sunni Islam that will at the very least make it easier to understand what we’re up against and possibly to recognise any fault-lines that might someday be exploited.  Presumably you would not try to understand conflict in the Balkans without appreciating basic historical differences between Croat and Serb, Catholic and Orthodox (unless your name is Madeleine Albright), so you also would presumably not want to try to understand Islamic militancy in South and Central Asia without even having command of the necessary vocabulary of different forms of Sunni Islam.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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