Reli­gious Au­ton­omy of the Tribal Belt

Ti­tle: Fron­tier of Faith Au­thor: Sana Ha­roon Pub­lisher: Ox­ford Univer­sity Press, Pak­istan (Jan­uary 2011) Pages: 258, Pa­per­back Price: PKR 595 ISBN: 9780199060252

Southasia - - Book review -

It is a com­monly held mis­con­cep­tion that the area be­tween Cen­tral Asia and South Asia is in per­pet­ual fric­tion. First, “the Great Game” gripped the re­gion into its ten­ta­cles and now it is “the New Great Game” that con­tin­ues to wreak havoc. The re­sult of these bloody games is con­stant in­sta­bil­ity and war­fare in an oth­er­wise restive re­gion. This tur­bu­lent land en­com­passes Afghanistan, Khy­berPakhtunkhawa and the Tribal ar­eas of Pak­istan. The whole re­gion has tra­di­tion­ally been marked by tribal, eth­nic and reli­gious af­fil­i­a­tions and a con­ser­va­tive mind­set, mak­ing it a hot­bed of mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal machi­na­tions. The other re­mark­able fea­ture of this re­gion is the ex­is­tence of lo­cal­ism. This trend pre­vents the de­vel­op­ment of any le­gal-in­sti­tu­tional author­ity sys­tem. The ab­sence of a le­gal-in­sti­tu­tional sys­tem has con­trib­uted to its alien­ation from the mod­ern con­cepts like na­tion-state, writ­ten leg­is­la­tion sys­tem, global trade re- gime and cen­tral author­ity.

‘Fron­tier of Faith’ con­sists of an in­tro­duc­tion, six chap­ters and an epi­logue. It is sup­ple­mented with maps, bib­li­og­ra­phy, glos­sary and an in­dex. The premise of this book ex­plores how the reli­gious elite has main­tained the es­sen­tial au­ton­omy of this re­gion. Ha­roon at­tempts to also shed light on the con­tem­po­rary ter­ror­ist up­heaval.

The book at­tempts to ex­plore the func­tion of the mul­lah in Pakhtun hin­ter­lands and traces his jour­ney from a syn­cretism of Sufi creed to the or­tho­doxy of hard-line Deobandi be­lief. Tu­rangzai, a mul- lah, em­bod­ies this meta­mor­pho­sis from mys­ti­cism to or­tho­doxy. Hav­ing fought against the British Raj, he has be­come a paragon of fight against for­eign oc­cu­piers. Nu­mer­ous Afghan fight­ers draw their imag­i­na­tive strength from Tu­rangzai’s fight more than a cen­tury ago.

Mul­lahs are vi­tal so­cial ac­tors in the tribal ar­eas. His­tor­i­cally, the Pakhtun of the Tribal Ar­eas were ruled by their tribal code Pakhtun­wali that re­mains in­ter­twined with faith through the agency of the mul­lahs. The mul­lahs were mostly a part of a chain of mys­tics — mostly Qadiriya — who de­cided the mat­ters of Sharia law in the light of their ju­rispru­dence and in def­er­ence to the tribal code. Grad­u­ally the mul­lahs all changed to the Mu­jad­dadiya chain of mys­ti­cism, which meant they be­came mil­i­tant rather than qui­es­cent in the Qadiri tradition.

Mul­lahs were by and large in­volved in agrar­ian-based mun­dane ac­tiv­i­ties: fi­nan­cial transactions, mar­ry­ing within an en­dog­a­mous clan sys­tem and so­cial in­ter­ac­tion. In all these cases, mul­lahs were mainly Pakhtun in her­itage and clan cen­tered in out­look. These mul­lahs de­rived their en­ergy from their knowl­edge of Shariah in the tribal jir­gas. There­fore in so­cial and leg­isla­tive mat­ters, the mul­lah’s influence over­lapped with each


Ahmed Shah Ab­dali ren­dered many changes in the re­li­gio-po­lit­i­cal land­scape of this land. He al­lured the de­scen­dants of Mu­jad­did Alf Sani to move to Kabul af­ter his raid of Delhi in 1748. On their ar­rival and with pa­tron­age from the court of Ahmed Shah, they gained pre-em­i­nence at the Afghan court. They were also granted lands in Kabul, Ko­his­tan, Jalal­abad, Kan­da­har and Herat where the influence of the Naqsh­bandiya-Mu­jad­didiya line grew to its strong­est. It is Alf Sani’s Mu­jad­dadi mil­i­tancy that forms the Pakhtun per­son­al­ity. This mil­i­tancy is still found in the fran­tic frenzy of mil­i­tants re­sid­ing in these ar­eas.

The piri-muridi tradition was strong among the Pakhtuns, un­til an­other great man in the tradition of Naqsh­bandiya-Mu­jad­dadiya chain be­came their pa­tron in chief, Shah Wal­i­ul­lah. This was a pu­ri­tan­i­cal era in the reli­gious con­fig­u­ra­tion of tribal ar­eas. His move­ment was one of eas­ing the or­tho­doxy prop­a­gated by Mu­jad­did Alf Sani. His dis­ci­ples and de­scen­dants waged Holy war against Sikhs to re­vive and es­tab­lish an Is­lamic Caliphate based on Ara­bian model. The roots of mil­i­tant ac­tiv­i­ties can be traced back from that era of reli­gious re­vival­ism.

Akhund Gha­fur set up the throne of Swat and in 1849 put Syed Ak­bar Shah on it as Amir of Swat. Shah was a for­mer sec­re­tary of Syed Ah­mad of Rai Bareilly, but af­ter his death took the throne him­self. He kept contact with the Mu­jad­dadi chief mul­lah of Kabul and de­rived much power from the Kabul throne through the mys­tic sil­sila. His mil­i­tary might was re­spected in the re­gion sur­round­ing Swat.

Ja­maat e Mu­ja­hadeen be­gan in 1915. The roots of anti-colo­nial­ism in the tribal ar­eas did not come di­rectly and this move­ment made anti-colo­nial­ism its main agenda. Anti-colo­nial­ism was in essence the off-shoot of the influence of In­dian Mus­lim po­lit­i­cal dis­course on the ar­eas of Peshawar, Hazara, Bannu, Ko­hat and Dera Is­mail Khan. Tribal ar­eas be­came ac­com­plices of wider set­tled re­gions in that strug­gle against anti-colo­nial­ism.

In post-in­de­pen­dent Pak­istan, students of pol­i­tics and his­tory know what fol­lowed in that re­gion dur­ing the regime of Gen­eral Zia ul Haq. He launched a Ji­had against the ‘evil em­pire’ of Rus­sia at the be­hest of the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment. The army of Pak­istan in con­nivance with CIA gar­nered a world­wide re­cruit­ment for mil­i­tants. It was an era of free trade in ji­hadists. Wash­ing­ton wit­nessed the lib­er­al­iza­tion and dereg­u­la­tion of Ji­hadists across the world. Glob­al­iza­tion of mil­i­tancy took place with­out re­stric­tion and Peshawar be­came the cap­i­tal of global Ji­had. Af­ter 9/11 though, all the Tal­iban fugi­tives from Afghanistan took refuge in these tribal ar­eas. Now these rogue el­e­ments, out of Ji­hadist im­pulse, are wreck­ing vengeance on the peo­ple of Pak­istan.

The book is thor­ough, clearly writ­ten and well re­searched. Its ar­rival in the Pak­istan mar­ket will def­i­nitely help to un­der­stand the reli­gious anatomy of tribal ar­eas of Pak­istan. Pol­icy mak­ers as well as students of his­tory and pol­i­tics can im­mensely ben­e­fit from such a re­source. Ham­mad Raza is an in­de­pen­dent po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst and is cur­rently work­ing on a book on the his­tory of rev­o­lu­tions. He holds a Masters de­gree in In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions from Quaid-e-Azam Univer­sity, Is­lam­abad.

Re­viewed by Ham­mad Raza

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