Whatever the term means, Hafiz Tahir Mahmood Ashrafi is known among journalists in Lahore as a ‘liberal’ maulvi (cleric). His ‘moderate’ stance on issues such as sectarian violence, militancy and suicide attacks has endeared him to many in urgent need of a religious scholar who can provide them with breathing space in today’s Pakistan. He is one of the few religious leaders in the country who have stood up in recent years to denounce violence by extremist organisations and to defend people like the little Christian girl from Islamabad, Rimsha Masih, who was booked on a blasphemy charge.
A graduate of the University of Punjab and the Jamia Ashrafia in Lahore, Tahir Ashrafi gained prominence on account of his active role in the Pakistan Ulema Council (PUC), a platform created by the leaders of Deobandi, Barelvi, Shia and Ahle Hadith schools of thought back in 1988 to promote sectarian harmony amid growing sectarian strife in the country. He has been part of the council since its inception and was elected its chairman by its Markazi Majlis-i-Shoora or central executive committee, in 2007. Ever since, the PUC, a Deobandi-dominated organisation, has under his stewardship issued several (religious) decrees against suicide attacks, honour killings and activities of the militant Islamic State group, and in favour of women’s suffrage and prevention of misuse of blasphemy laws.
On the other hand, Hafiz Ashrafi also has the image of a controversial figure. He has been repeatedly criticised by religious circles for his views and actions and has faced threats to his life from extremist and militant organisations. There have been several efforts to remove him from the chairmanship of the council. The latest such attempt was made by Sahibzada Zahid Mahmood Qasmi last week at a meeting of the PUC Shoora at a Deobandi mosque-cum-seminary in Faisalabad. An announcement made after the meeting said that 500 ulema, who had gathered at Jamia Qasmia, had decided to remove Tahir Ashrafi and replace him with Sahibzada Qasmi, who has the reputation of a conservative and hard-line Deobandi cleric.
“The Markazi Majlis-i-Shoora of the Pakistan Ulema Council has dismissed Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi from the office of the council’s chairman, cancelling his basic membership from its sub-organisations, and elected Sahibzada Zahid Mahmood Qasmi in his place,” the statement said.
“The former chairman has made autonomous decisions on internal and external affairs without consulting members of the Shoora. Some authentic facts and evidence have come into notice of the Shoora that show that Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi has made foreign contacts that were absolutely against Islam, the constitution of Pakistan and manifesto of the Pakistan Ulema Council,” said the statement published in newspapers.
At the heart of the accusations made against Hafiz Ashrafi was the allegation that he had “secretly obtained massive funds from the American and German governments for spying on the students of seminaries in Pakistan” — a charge he vehemently denies.
“I haven’t received any money from any American or German organisation or any foreign government,” he told Dawn. “I was approached by the Americans who planned to set up peace committees here. They wanted me to guide them on different issues. The deal fell through because of difference of views (on the project). Even the Americans and Germans have issued clarifications about these unproven allegations.”
Tahir Ashrafi wasn’t particularly worried about his “dismissal”.
“The people who removed me from the chairmanship of the PUC do not have the mandate to do this. Only a couple of Shoora members actually attended the meeting. Certain elements have long been campaigning against me because they don’t approve of my stance on issues like sectarianism, women’s rights, blasphemy laws, etc.”
Without naming anyone, he said the people opposed to his moderate religious views had tried many times in the past to incite public opinion against him. “When I speak about interfaith harmony, I am asked to shut up. When I call for preventing misuse of blasphemy laws, I am threatened. Recently, I was told that the council should issue a decree against the (missing) bloggers. I refused and told them that I could not support their demand because it was the job of law enforcement agencies to investigate such matters. It is not the PUC’s job to declare every other man and woman kafir (infidel). We must encourage moderate views and respect the rule of law as taught by Islam.”
Some analysts believe that the present rift within the council represents the “struggle for power and recognition between two Deobandi groups”. “The PUC mainly comprising a group of pragmatist clerics does not enjoy a very widespread influence among the followers of Deobandi school of thought. It draws its strength from its role as a bridge between the government and different religious groups — both extremist and moderate — whenever the need arises. In exchange the clerics qualify for different favours,” a political observer said.
“Under Tahir Ashrafi, the council has done its job rather well. The PUC under him did help the government a number of times and issued decrees on issues that no other religious organisation or cleric would agree to issue for fear or otherwise. The council will continue to play its role even if Tahir Ashrafi is replaced. But the authorities would have a hard time getting his replacement to take bold stand on many issues as was the case with Tahir Ashrafi,” he concluded.
Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2017