The demonstrations that the acquittal of the Christian woman has provoked have made the influence of Islamists in the country clear. What are the movements on the Pakistani political scene?

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:58:05

On October 31, 2018, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered the release of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman and mother who was condemned to death in 2010 for blasphemy following a minor dispute in a countryside village. Nevertheless, the question was not immediately resolved. The Pakistani authorities took several days to remove Bibi from death row, transferring her to an undisclosed location in which she is awaiting the asylum that several western countries, including Germany, France, and Canada, seem prepared to offer her. However, her departure may provoke a serious political crisis, since her release sparked the violent demonstrations of Islamists, who for three days paralyzed the country and initially forced the government to accept a petition to review the sentence, blocking Bibi from leaving Pakistan. On January 29, the Supreme Court rejected the proposal to review, confirming the sentence of acquittal.



The Pakistan paradox: few Islamists, but powerful

Beyond its juridical aspects, the Asia Bibi case has made manifest the influence exercised in Pakistan by Islamist parties, which, despite enjoying little success at the ballot box and being a political minority, manage to impose their will on the state. In 2017, for example, they blocked the principle road axis of the capital, demonstrating violently to contest a small change in electoral law that would have allowed the Ahmadi minority to participate in the legislative election of 2018.[1] Even though the government committed to rectifying the “error,” the Islamists continued their dharna (sit-in) until they secured not only the dismissal of the Minister of Justice, Zahid Hamid, but also the release of their detained activists. This “arm wrestling” went on for another three weeks. In general, concessions such as these compromise the authority of the Pakistani state, which struggles to manage the Islamist factor.



The Islamist context in Pakistan

First of all it is necessary to distinguish Islamists from jihadists. The former generally operate in an institutional framework; they often organize themselves into proper political parties, with policy agendas and registered members, acknowledging the legitimacy of the Pakistani state and accepting the electoral method as the appropriate way of gaining power. Jihadists, on the other hand, are organized into armed groups, which, especially in the more organized groups, have branches dedicated to preaching. They do not recognize the legitimacy of the state and in general do not participate in elections. On their view, violence is the only way of gaining power.


Islamist and jihadist movements are very numerous in Pakistan. There are both Sunnis and Shiites among them. The Sunni are divided into three principal groups: the Barelvis, the Deobandis, and the Ahl-i-Hadith. To this list one can add the Jamaat-e-Islami, a political party untethered to any particular group.


The first three of these groups reflect an historical break within the Sunni Islam of the Indian subcontinent that traces back to the colonial period: the break between reformists and non-reformists. The Deobandis were the first to found a religious movement in Deoband, a small village not far from Delhi, where in 1867 a small Qur’anic school began what would become one of the vastest networks of madrasas in southern Asia. In contemporary Pakistan they control more than 60% of the Qur’anic schools, though they represent only 20% of the Sunni Muslims. The Deobandi school is reformist in the sense that it intends to purify Islam from cultural borrowings originating from Hindus—with whom Muslims have lived side-by-side for centuries—and from the popular superstitions usually related to Sufi deviations, with the objective of returning Islam to its Arabic origins. This interpretation of Islam leads the Deobandis to strongly criticize other Muslims, the majority of whom, today as in the past, exactly adhere to this “syncretic” Islam that they strongly denounce.


The rejection of popular Islam is even more pronounced among the Ahl-i-Hadith. This religious movement, founded around 1860 by a noble Muslim class hit hard by colonization, pushes even further in the direction of reforming Islam. They condemn not only Sufi deviations, but also Sufism itself, which they consider a phenomenon foreign to Islam. The Ahl-i-Hadith reject, furthermore, the four juridical schools of Sunni Islam, since for them the supremacy of the Qur’an and of the hadīths (the deeds and words of the Prophet) is absolute. Elitist, at least in its beginnings, this movement claims few followers in Pakistan. Only 10% of Muslims have adhered to this ultra-rigorist interpretation of Islam. The Ahl-i-Hadith represent the Salafist current in Pakistan.


To protect their traditions and ancestral rituals from the attacks and criticisms of the Deobandis and Ahl-i-Hadith, the supporters of popular/Sufi Islam founded their religious movement at Bareilly, a village near Delhi that at the end of the nineteenth century gave the Barelvi movement its name. Anti-reformists, the Barelvis aspire to preserve Islam in the form in which it has been practiced in the Indian subcontinent and not as it was at its birth in Arabia in the seventh century. They consider the Prophet sacred and cultivate an immense devotion to his descendants. Some of these, elevated to the status of saints, according to the creed of the Barelvis, have supernatural powers that permit them, whether dead or living, to fulfill the prayers of men interceding with God for them, whether in this world or at the moment of the Final Judgment. Many of the rituals practiced by the Barelvis are focused upon the tombs of these saints, often the founders or prominent exponents of large brotherhoods, and whose anniversaries (urs) are celebrated with great religious fervor. Barelvi Muslims, who are the majority in Pakistan, constitute more than 60% of the Sunnis in the country. The Deobandis and Ahl-i-Hadith condemn their creed on account of the fact that worship should be reserved exclusively for God, the sole dispenser of material and immaterial goods and alone able to save souls—a prerogative that does not allow for human or even prophetic interference. Thus, for thinking that the saints possess some divine powers, the Barelvis are considered guilty of shirk (associating someone with God), the supreme sin, especially from the perspective of the Ahl-i-Hadith.



An equally divided Shia Islam

If Sunni Islam is internally divided, neither is Shia Islam very homogenous. It is divided principally between Twelvers and Ismailis, although each group contains numerous more minor subgroups. Politically, the Twelver have been the most well organized. Roughly 15–20 percent of Pakistani Muslims are Shiite.



The principle Islamist parties in Pakistan

The Islamist parties and jihadist movements now raging in Pakistan are structured along the great historical fractures of Sunnism. Yet the Deobandi, Ahl-i-hadith, and Barelvi parties are not monolithic groups. Even as the question of who legitimately represents Islam pits these groups against each other in the social, political, and ideological context, the rivalries internal to the same groups are ferocious, often revolving about questions of leadership and the control of the mosques, madrasas, and preaching societies, as well as the funds that they generate.


Despite the existence of a plurality of institutions, many of which were produced by the splits in the 1980s, on the political plane the Deobandis operate above all through the Jamiat-Ulema-i-Islam (JUI). The most significant political party for the Ahl-i-Hadith is the Markazi Jamiat Ahl-i-Hadith (MJAH), while the Barelvis are active within the Jamiat-Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP). The representation of the Shiites is, moreover, secured by the Tehrik-e-Jafaria Pakistan (TJP). It is important to remember that all these formations are parties of ulama, founded and led by religious men.


Contrary to this, the Jamaat-i-Islami has never been controlled by ulama. Its founder, Sayyid Abul Ala Mawdudi (1903–1979), is one of the great theoreticians of political Islam. The leadership and members of this party do not have much regard for the mullahs, whom they consider responsible for the decline of the Muslim world. For the Jamaatis, learning the modern sciences is just as important as learning the religious disciplines. They maintain, moreover, that the leadership of the Muslim world should not be entrusted to the ulama whose obscurantism is precisely what has led Muslims into ruin. The Jamaat-i-Islami do not claim any particular identity. The party situates itself above the fray and adopts a non-sectarian approach even toward the Shiites, though this does not necessarily preclude the possibility of criticizing them. But what distinguishes it from the parties of the ulama is above all the sacralization of politics. Mawdudi held that a pure faith does not in fact suffice; involvement in the public sphere is necessary for the salvation of the soul. The believer must actively work toward establishing an Islamic order that must in turn give rise to an Islamic state. Political activism is elevated to the status of religious obligation, on a par with prayer and fasting. Ideologically, the Jamaat-i-Islami is closely related to the Muslim Brotherhood active in the Arab world. However, unlike its counterpart, its elitist approach and recruitment criteria limit the number of its members and supporters.


Although all these Islamist parties work for the application of sharia and the establishment of an Islamic state, they diverge as much regarding the interpretation as they do regarding the contours of this Islamic political order they would like to establish someday in Pakistan. While they await its materialization—which in the Pakistani context is unlikely—the Islamist parties compete over a political market that offers them but limited space. With the exception of the 11% vote obtained in 2002 by a political coalition (Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal), the Islamist parties have never succeeded in convincing the voters.



Political actors to deal with

Yet although they are snubbed at the ballot box, the parties are not for that reason less influential: in the first place above all because they hold several seats in the federal parliament, even if their presence is more pronounced at the provincial level. Furthermore, they succeeded in installing themselves in the state structures especially under the military dictatorships of 1977-1988 and 1999-2008. They also have established relations with the army, under whose supervision and with whose collaboration they conducted the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan (1979 – 1989). It was precisely during this period that these parties contributed to the formation of the jihadist movements that have since devastated the country.  The Islamists have, moreover, a vast arsenal of deterrent means, among which stand out for their efficiency incitements to hatred, which in the past has led fanatics to execute targeted attacks, but also and above all demonstrations in the squares, which threaten to paralyze the socioeconomic life of the country and cause serious damage to the government. The Islamists are for this reason feared by politicians.



Blasphemy: fertile soil for Islamist radicalism

Despite competing with and antagonizing one another, these parties are united on the great Islamic questions. Blasphemy is one of these. All the Islamist parties, Sunni and Shiite alike, condemn blasphemy and consider the death penalty for this “crime” to be legitimate. Yet it is not these parties that are at the root of the problems connected with the Asia Bibi affair.


The movement most active with respect to this issue is a newcomer on the political scene, the Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasulallah Pakistan (LTYRP). Founded by a minor mullah who answers to the name of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, this Barelvi movement, marginal up until recently, wants to preserve the honor of the Prophet by persecuting heretics unto death. Due to the effect of its teachings, the cases of lynching of the “impious” have multiplied exponentially. The movement has recently given birth to a political party, the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) which took everyone by surprise in the legislative election of 2018 by winning two seats in the provincial assembly of Sindh—a real exploit seeing as this was the party’s first electoral participation.  Since the announcement of the acquittal and release of Asia Bibi, it is this party that calls for her assassination, the assassination of those judges who remitted her sentence, and a military uprising. At this time an arrest warrant is out for Khadim Rizvi for rebellion and terrorism. But it is unlikely that even his arrest would cause the homicidal fury of his followers to subside. The Islamist question pollutes the social and political life of Pakistan now more than ever.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation
Text translated from French

[1] In Pakistan, the Ahmadis are considered heretics because their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908), claimed to be a prophet, thereby suggesting that Muhammad had not “sealed” the prophetic cycle.

To cite this article

Online version:
Text by Tanzim Butt, “The case of Asia Bibi: a Symptom of the Power of Pakistani Islamists”, Oasis [online], published on 5th February 2019, URL: