Source: Tony Blair Faith Foundation
Yasser Latif Hamdani
The recent execution of Malik Mumtaz Qadri, who assassinated the governor of Punjab, shines a spotlight on Pakistan’s religious puzzle.
The recent execution of Malik Mumtaz Qadri, the police guard who shot and killed Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer in 2011, has once again brought to light deep Pakistani divisions on the thorny issue of blasphemy. Mumtaz Qadri targeted the late governor for describing Pakistan’s rigid blasphemy law as draconian. For many Pakistanis, this in itself was blasphemy. In deciding Qadri’s appeal against his death sentence, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that questioning blasphemy law does not amount to blasphemy, but this did little to assuage the opposition of Barelvis, Pakistan’s largest Sunni group.
At the heart of the blasphemy debate is Pakistan’s sectarian make up. Not only is Pakistan home to the second-largest Shia population in the world, but its Sunni majority is divided into three groups: the Barelvis, the Deobandis and the Ahl-e-Hadith. Barelvi Sunni Islam has long been considered the “low church” of Islam in Pakistan, a softer, popular form of the faith that eschews violence. This is only partly true, however. Consider the fact that Mumtaz Qadri was a Barelvi; so were the majority of people who agitated against his execution.
At the heart of the blasphemy debate is Pakistani sectarianism.
The perception of Barelvi Islam as popular and non-violent goes back to the sect’s founder, Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi (1856-1921), a Sufi Islamic scholar. His main doctrine, at least as far as the British were concerned, was political quietism, a doctrinal withdrawal from politics. He argued that since Muslim religious freedom was assured in British India, Muslims were obligated to live as loyal subjects. His approach to the veneration of the Prophet Mohammed also distinguished Barelvis from other Sunni groups.
Barelvi Islam, often associated with the syncretic Sufi culture of the subcontinent, is considered more permissive than the Deobandi sect, whose followers adhere to a strict code of religious law. The third group, Ahl-e-Hadith, is the South Asian variant of the Wahhabi and Salafi movements. The difference between Deobandis and Ahl-e-Hadith followers is that the latter are ghair muqalid, meaning that they do not follow a tradition of Islamic knowledge. Instead, they apply their own intellect to the Quran and the Hadith, or sayings of the Prophet. Yet another Pakistani variant of Islam is the Ahmadi sect. Many see their beliefs as heretical and Pakistan’s consitution declares them non-Muslims.