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How fusion of Deobandi ideology and Pashtun Nationalism is driving Taliban 2.0

Darul Uloom, the fount of the Deobandi school in India, has a massive footprint in Afghanistan

One year and eight months after their capture of Kabul, the Taliban 2.0 has painted a picture of Afghanistan that is entwined in an array of contradictions. They are working on a new ideology that is a balanced amalgam of Deobandi Islamism taught in Afghan seminaries and Pashtun Nationalism that the new regime is projecting as a unifying thread among various Pashtun subgroups.

Pashtuns are the majority of Taliban apart from Uzbeks, Tajiks and Balochs.

Old Shura, New Leaders

The Taliban have been led for decades by a leadership council, called the Rahbari Shura. It is better known as the Quetta Shura, named for the city in Pakistan where Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban’s first leader, and his top aides are believed to have taken refuge after the US invasion. Omar died in 2013 and was succeeded by Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who was killed in a 2016 US air strike in Pakistan.

Today, the Rahbari Shura is thought by analysts to oversee the Taliban government’s work, though its precise role is unclear. It is led by Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, who has not been seen publicly in years. Akhundzada is based in Kandahar and thus now the Taliban Supreme Council is also labelled as Kandahar Shura or Kandahar faction when compared with power hierarchy in Kabul. Akhundzada oversees Afghanistan’s executive branch and judiciary today, while undertaking consultations with the ulema (Islamic scholars).

The government is led by a 33-member caretaker cabinet. All ministers are men and are former Taliban officials or individuals loyal to the group. A majority is ethnic Pashtuns, and some are considered terrorists by the United States and are sanctioned by the United Nations. Mohammad Hassan Akhund, who was close to Omar, is acting prime minister. Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who led peace negotiations with the United States, is Akhund’s deputy. Sirajuddin Haqqani — who is acting head of the Haqqani Network, a militant group in Afghanistan’s southeast and Pakistan’s northwest with close ties to the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Pakistan’s intelligence services — is the acting interior minister. Mullah Muhammad Yaqoub, Omar’s son, is acting defense minister. Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi is the acting foreign minister, and Zabihullah Mujahid is the government’s spokesperson.

Islam from Deoband

The Taliban identified themselves as part of a Sunni school of thought that had its origins in the late nineteenth century colonial period of India’s history, a school named after the small, country town northeast of Delhi, Deoband, where the original madrasa or seminary of the movement was founded in 1867. Many of the Taliban are, indeed, said to have studied in Deobandi schools, even though 99% of them have never visited India.

One spokesman for the movement is on record saying that “Every Afghan is a Deobandi.” It means that almost all the madrasas in the country adhere to Deobandi school of theology. This comment may be disconcerting to those familiar with the school in its Indian environment where its ulema — those learned in traditional subjects and typically addressed as “maulana”— were not directly engaged in politics and were primarily occupied in teaching and providing both practical and spiritual guidance to their followers.

Deobandis specially mushroomed in great numbers after late Pakistani dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq helped establish thousands of them in Afghanistan and along Afghan-Pak border during the 1980’s years of mujahideen’s battle against Soviets.

The Lucknow Connection

The Taliban leadership and the majority of their cadres have studied in these seminaries. They have studied the seminarian syllabus known as the Dars-i Nizami curriculum, which was prepared in Lucknow in 1748 by Nizamuddin Sihalivi from the Firangi Mahal Ulama (Islamic scholars) group. They have been trained in classic disciplines studied through Arabic — Qur’an, Qur’anic recitation and interpretation, hadith, jurisprudential reasoning based on these holy sources, and ancillary sciences like logic, rhetoric, and grammar — would sit at the feet of one or more teachers, traveling often from place to place, seeking not a degree but a certificate of completion of particular books and studies.

All Deobandi books, largely published in India and copied in Pakistan and Afghanistan, follow a school of Islamic jurisprudence that is based on the Hanafi school. Notable India-published books taught in Afghan seminaries are Awjaz al-Masalik by Zakariyya Kandhlawi, Faiz al-Bari by Anwar Shah Kashmiri, Fath al-Mulhim by Shabbir Ahmad Usmani, Badhl al-Majhud by Khalil Ahmad Saharanpuri, and Ma’rif al-Sunan by Yusuf Banuri and Fath al-Rahman Fi Isbat-e-Mazhab al-Noman by Abd al-Haqq al-Dehlawi.

All these books play a fundamental role in the judiciary of Afghanistan. Interestingly, the same discipline was followed by previous Karzai and Ghani governments and this has stayed ditto during the Taliban’s second rule thus far.

Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai, Chief Justice of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, is a graduate from Darul Uloom Haqqania, a Deobandi madrasa in Pakistan.

The Taliban declares that its version of Islam is the “genuine local understanding”.

Anti-suicide Attack Dictates

According to Hanafi Islam – the school of jurisprudence the Taliban adheres to – suicide bombing is not permitted as a military tactic. The new Taliban regime has denounced suicide bombings in several of its dictates. The suicide missions, once key weaponry of Taliban, are now modus operandi of Islamic State of Khorasan, their principal adversary.

Rollback of Anti-women Education Edict

The December 2022 edicts on women’s higher education and employment in NGOs stunned the whole world and attracted widespread resentment. It became the moment when the world began to believe that all talks of reforms in Taliban are hogwash and they are all but their old version. However, even some Taliban officials who, dumbfounded by the tough orders they were asked to enforce, asked their bosses to reconsider. Scholars at Egypt’s Al-Azhar University also called for the Taliban to reconsider their decision to ban Afghan women from accessing university education, saying the decision contradicts Sharia. The regime reportedly later clarified that the order stayed withdrawn.

Pashtun Nationalism

The new Taliban government is not driven by religion alone. They are motivated equally, if not more, by the search for Pashtun dignity and identity. While they are not in a position to strictly impose their draconian policies in the entire country, and certainly not the urban areas, they do control large swathes of the rural areas in the predominantly Pashtun provinces of eastern and southeastern Afghanistan. In these hinterlands, their Islamic writ runs large, while in urban areas, their thrust revolves around whipping up Nationalism.

Taliban’s appeal is the group’s ability to couch in religious terminology traditional Pashtun aspirations for dominance in Afghanistan as well as the tribes’ aversion to foreign interference in their land.

Pashtuns, who comprise over 40% of the population of Afghanistan, believe that they are the rightful rulers of the country based on the history of the past three hundred years when Pashtun dynasties (Durranis) ruled Afghanistan most of the time. While the Persian-speaking Tajiks, who form around a quarter of the population, are more urban and educated than the Pashtun tribes and staffed a substantial portion of the Afghan bureaucracy, the ruling dynasties were invariably Pashtun.

What many Pashtuns considered to be the “natural” political order in Afghanistan was radically altered after the Soviet invasion in 1979 and was restored briefly in 1996-2001 during the first Taliban rule. As they face international and local protest over their hardcore religious ideology, Taliban 2.0 are cleverly projecting the Pashtun identity as the dominant Afghan nationalism. In fact, Taliban governors and senior officials in various provinces have sent back orders from Kandahar Shura to reconsider as per regional and traditional customs of the locals that are largely Pashtuns.

The fusion of Deobandi Islamist ideology with Pashtun sensibilities is the current manual of Taliban’s second run at the Afghan throne.

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