Sufi Militants Struggle with Deobandi Jihadists in Pakistan

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 8

Malik Mumtaz Qadri

As Punjab governor Salman Taseer came out of a restaurant in an upscale area of Islamabad, one of his bodyguards uttered the slogan “Allahu Akbar” and fired on the man he was supposed to guard, killing him on the spot. The assassin in the January 4 killing, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, belonged to the Elite Punjab Police, a force specially trained in counterterrorism work and the protection of important individuals (Dawn [Karachi], January 5). Qadri was also believed to be associated with the South Asian Barelvi Sufi movement. The other bodyguards from the elite force did not try to stop him and the smiling Qadri surrendered to his fellow officers after he made sure the governor was dead. He later told the police that he had killed the governor because Taseer had insulted the Prophet of Islam by describing Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws as “black laws.” Within hours of the assassination, Barelvi ulema (religious scholars) and more than 500 leading members of the Jamaat Ahle Sunnat ("The Community of People  of the Traditions of Muhammad," a Barelvi Sufi religious organization) had issued a fatwa against leading the deceased governor’s funeral prayers or even attending his funeral (The News [Islamabad] January 5). When the police brought the assassin to court a day later, hundreds of lawyers showered him with rose petals. There were widespread demonstrations in Qadri’s favor throughout the country. With all opposition to Islamism and jihadism in Pakistan falling silent since, Sufi Islamism has succeeded in doing what Deobandi jihadism had failed in the past.

Pir Mohammad Ilyas Attar Qadri and the Struggle against Deobandism

The most unusual and disturbing aspect of the assassination was that the killer belonged to the Dawat-e-Islami, a Barelvi Sufi group which normally shuns violence and has been in the forefront of the struggle against Deobandism (a conservative Sunni religious movement that has become associated with militancy) and the Ahle Hadith jihadi groups. Founded in 1984 as a small group around Pir (spiritual leader) Mohammad Ilyas Attar Qadri, Dawat-e-Islami grew into a formidable organization by the mid-1990s when more than 100,000 persons gathered at its periodic ijtimahs (conventions). [1] Pir Ilyas Attar Qadri had sensed Deobandi extremism would grow as a result of the Afghan jihad and wanted to organize the Ahle Sunnat to face that challenge. However, Pir Ilyas believed in peaceful resistance. [2] Surprisingly, the Dawat-e-Islami is loosely structured on the model of the Deobandi Tablighi Jamaat (an international Islamic reform movement). All Dawat-e-Islami members, however, are required to wear parrot-green turbans and shalwar-kurta (traditional South Asian clothing) like their Pir.

Pir Ilyas Attar Qadri has sworn bay’at (allegiance) to four of the leading orders in Sufi Islam; the Qadriya, Chishtoya, Naqshbandiya, and Suharwardiya. He, however, took the suffix of Qadri as his title because he had sworn bay’at at the hands of Pir Ziaud Din Ahmed Rizvi Qadri, a successor of Imam Ahmed Reza Khan Barelvi, the 19th century Ahle Sunnat imam who challenged the rise of Deobandism by issuing a fatwa against the movement. As the group grew larger, most of his followers started calling themselves “Attari-Qadri,” turning the group into a mystic sub-order. [3] Like most Barelvi spiritual leaders, Pir Ilyas Qadri places more stress on zikr (devotional acts) and less on shariat (Islamic teachings and doctrines). However, unlike most modern pirs, he does not ignore shariat altogether. In this way, he serves as a bridge between the Barelvi ulema (Islamic scholars) and the pirs (traditional spiritual leaders). This is one of the reasons why he attracts students from the Barelvi madrassahs. Pir Ilyas is called “Amir Ahle Sunnat” by his followers, which reflects his desire to lead the Ahle Sunnat.

Formation of the Sunni Tehrik

Pir Ilyas Qadri’s reluctance to adopt violence against Deobandi jihadi groups led to a mini-rebellion among his followers, particularly those who had studied at Barelvi madrassahs. Consequently, a small group led by Saleem Qadri founded the Sunni Tehrik in 1990. Saleem Qadri wanted to meet Deobandi violence with more violence, as Pir Ilyas Qadri’s “non-violence was not taking the Barelvis anywhere.” [4] However, Saleem Qadri did not break his religious allegiance to Pir Ilyas Qadri even after leaving his group, nor did he ask his followers to break links with the Dawat-e-Islami. This approach worked and soon the ranks of the Sunni Tehrik swelled. The membership of the Dawat-e-Islami and the Sunni Tehrik also overlaps at the lower levels with several other Barelvi groups.

The Sunni Tehrik was the first Barelvi group to articulate the demands of the majority Barelvi sect and to use violence to achieve them. Their four basic demands were:

• The protection of Ahle Sunnat beliefs.

• The protection of the rights of the Ahle Sunnat.

• The protection of Ahle Sunnat mosques.

• The protection of the Ahle Sunnat awqaf (religious endowments), such as shrines. [5]

The Sunni Tehrik was ready to use violence to achieve the last two demands in response to Deobandi groups’ use of violence to take over Barelvi mosques and awqaf property. Soon after its founding, the Sunni Tehrik started using force to take back the mosques the Deobandis had allegedly taken from the Barelvi ulema. [6] The Dawat-e-Islami and the Sunni Tehrik cadres complained bitterly that the state had helped the Deobandi and Ahle Hadith groups and ulema to grow at the expense of the majority Barelvis. One of their most consistent demands has been for Barelvi imams to be appointed to army-owned mosques. [7] The rise of the Sunni Tehrik posed a direct challenge to the Deobandi jihadi groups. Consequently, Saleem Qadri was assassinated in Karachi in early 2001 by Arshad Khan (a.k.a. Polka), a Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan/Jaish-e-Mohammad operative (The News [Islamabad] April 9, 2001).

The Jamaat Ahle Sunnat Challenges the Military’s Pro-Jihad Policies

Before he was assassinated, Saleem Qadri had played an important role in radicalizing the Barelvi youth, though neither he nor his spiritual leader, Pir Ilyas Qadri, were able to provide effective leadership to the ever growing numbers of restless Barelvi youth. This leadership was eventually provided by the hitherto dormant Jamaat Ahle Sunnat, the religious party of the Ahle Sunnat ulema. Dawat-e-Islami and the Sunni Tehrik had played an important part in reviving the Jamaat Ahle Sunnat, which held a convention in Multan on April 1-2, 2000. It was the biggest gathering of Barelvi groups in more than a century. The convention was very critical of the Pakistani military’s pro-jihad policy and support to Deobandi groups. In his speech, Jamaat leader Syed Riaz Hussain Shah came down hard on the military, saying: “If the civil war in Kashmir is the right policy, the government must involve all the Muslims in it. It will be dangerous, as is becoming evident, to arm only a few sects [such as the Deobandis].” [8] However, the most important thing was that the Jamaat Ahle Sunnat had adopted the Sunni Tehrik narrative of a forceful defense of Barelvi interests as its own. The Jamaat Ahle Sunnat emerged much stronger after the convention and began to play a major part in the country’s Islamist politics.

The first opportunity for the Jamaat Ahle Sunnat to show its strength came in the fall of 2005, when Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten newspaper published 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet of Islam as a terrorist. The cartoons created anger among Muslims across the world. The fiercest demonstrations took place in Pakistan, where the Jamaat Ahle Sunnat and other Barelvi groups (including Dawat-e-Islami and the Sunni Tehrik), remained in the forefront of the demonstrations and sustained them for months. Every time the government indicated its intention of amending the blasphemy laws, the Islamists descended to the streets with a vengeance. Again, each time the Jamaat Ahle Sunnat and other Barelvi groups were in the forefront of the protests. The Jamaat Ahle Sunnat also led demonstrations against the release of Aasia Bibi, an illiterate Christian farm worker and mother of five who was accused of committing an act of blasphemy (insulting the Prophet Muhammad) and sentenced to death by a lower court based on the evidence of her lone accuser.


Although the Barelvis are the majority Muslim sect in Pakistan and in South Asia, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), under Saudi pressure, never allowed or encouraged them to take part in the Afghan and Kashmir jihads. When the jihad in Afghanistan started in 1980, the Saudis agreed to match American donations dollar for dollar, but also made sure that only their favorite sects, such as the Ahle Hadith, the Deobandis and the Jamaat-e-Islami, were allowed to take part in it, keeping Barelvis and Shias out of the jihad. Although the Barelvis are more hardline than the Deobandis in some respects, they are not armed like the latter. [9] Neither are they trained in guerrilla warfare like the Deobandis and the Ahle Hadith, who have been actively waging jihad for more than a quarter century. However, the Barelvis can show their street muscle through their numerical strength. The groups discussed in this article make up the backbone of the growing Barelvi/Sufi extremism in Pakistan. While the Dawat-e-Islami prepares the masses and the Sunni Tehrik counters violence from Deobandi and Ahle Hadith groups with more violence, the Jamaat Ahle Sunnat dominates the street with its madrassah-educated cadres to promote Sufi Islamism. The assassination of Governor Salman Taseer shows that Sufi Islamism can be a bulwark against or an alternative to Deobandi and Ahle Hadith jihadism but it is in its own way as great a threat to international security as the militancy of the Deobandi and Ahle Hadith movements.


1. The author was present at several of these ijtimahs between 1997 and 2007,  after which their frequency slowed in view of the threats from Deobandi extremists.
2. Author’s interview with Mohammad Ilyas Attar Qadri, May 2001, Rawalpindi.
3. Author’s interviews with several followers of Pir Ilyas Attar Qadri.
4. Author’s interview with Saleem Qadri, Karachi, February 2001.
5. According to leaflets and flyers distributed by the Sunni Tehrik on different occasions.
6. Based on a large number of reports in the Pakistani press in the 1990s and early 2000s.
7. Sunni Tehrik pamphlets and author’s interviews with a number of Dawat-e-Islami and Sunni Tehrik cadres.
8. The author attended the convention for two days.
9. Barelvis do not say their prayers behind a Deobandi imam while the Deobandis can say their prayers behind the Barelvi imams.