KHYBER Pakhtunkhwa Governor Iqbal Zafar Jhagra receives Imam-i-Kaaba Saleh bin Ibrahim at Peshawar’s Bacha Khan airport on Thursday.—INP
KHYBER Pakhtunkhwa Governor Iqbal Zafar Jhagra receives Imam-i-Kaaba Saleh bin Ibrahim at Peshawar’s Bacha Khan airport on Thursday.—INP

KARACHI: In the Pakistani political milieu, few parties have strong pre-partition roots, apart from the various Pakistan Muslim League factions, which nearly all claim to channel the spirit of the grand old party that gave birth to this nation. Most mainstream parties are relatively young: the Pakistan Peoples Party was formed in the late 1960s; the Muttahida Qaumi Movement began its journey in the 1980s while the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf came later still, in the mid-1990s.

However, two significant exceptions are the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam. While JI was formed by Maulana Abul Al’a Maududi in the early 1940s, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind — the spiritual forebear of the JUI — was formed in 1919. And to mark the centenary of the JUH’s founding, the JUI-Fazl will be kicking off a three-day programme in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa town of Nowshera on Friday.

The guest list of the JUI-F programme is impressive: headlining will be one of the imams of the Masjid al Haram in Makkah, as well as the Saudi religious affairs minister, a scion of the Aal al Shaikh, the family of Mohammad bin Abdul Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism/modern Salafism.

Stars of the Deobandi firmament from across the subcontinent are also due to attend.

Perhaps this notable list of invitees signifies the clout JUI-F yields both internationally and locally; while it may not quite give the mainstream ‘secular’ political parties a run for their money come election time, Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s outfit is also one that cannot be ignored, and over the decades has been a key player in Pakistan’s power games.

But first a little history.

The JUH was an outfit formed by united India’s Deobandi divines, with a distinct alliance with the Indian National Congress. The ulema within its ranks were of course not supportive of the idea of Pakistan.

However, according to American scholar Dr Haroon K. Ullah in his book Vying for Allah’s Vote, in 1945 there was a split within the JUH, with pro-Pakistan clerics forming the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam under the leadership of Maulana Shabbir Ahmad Usmani.

Hence, technically speaking, what is being celebrated today is the centenary of the JUH — that too according to the Hijri calendar — and not the JUI. But since the JUI is the direct spiritual, if not political, offspring of the JUH, Maulana Fazl & Co may be in the clear.

JUI after independence: For a number of decades after independence, the JUI was hardly an electoral force. However, by the 1970s the party’s fortunes began to change as it matured into a politico-religious outfit of some merit, captained by the late Maulana Mufti Mahmud, Fazlur Rahman’s father. The party’s standing would also rise with the beginning of the anti-Soviet Afghan Jihad, as the West and the Saudis poured in weapons and money to give the USSR a bloody nose.

This, to paraphrase scholar Mariam Abou Zahab, was the age when the “donor-funded maulvi” arrived on the scene. And suffice to say, the JUI was a natural platform for such clerics.

The Islamist constituency

Both JI and JUI took part in the Afghan Jihad, while the latter also had a strong relationship with the Afghan Taliban. However, in the spectrum of Pakistani religio-political parties, both outfits have been miles apart. Jamaat-i-Islami has always been a very centralised outfit with a committed ideological core and pan-Islamist vision. The JUI-F, on the other hand, has been described by some as a party that “exists for elections”.

Moreover, while JI’s support base can be described as mostly urban and educated, the JUI’s supporter is largely rural (though it has also established a presence in the cities through madressahs) and mostly has only a basic education. While JI is notoriously choosy about who it allows into its inner circle, JUI, through its mosques and madressahs, keeps its doors open to the masses.

Few would argue with the fact that the JUI-F is the most powerful Deobandi political outfit in Pakistan, with street power even the mainstream parties would find difficult to match. It would not be wrong to say that the JUI-F can mobilise thousands of seminarians at short notice to take to the country’s streets should it so wish.

The politically agile maulana

Like many other political forces in Pakistan, the JUI has suffered from factionalism. Apart from the Fazl-led faction, the only significant JUI offshoot is the one led by Samiul Haq, known for his influence over hardliners, including the Afghan Taliban, more than his political prowess.

About a decade ago, the JUI’s Nazaryati (ideological) faction broke away in Balochistan, reportedly over the central leadership’s lack of support for the Afghan Taliban. But last year most of the leading lights of the Nazaryati faction decided to mend fences with Fazlur Rahman and rejoined the mother ship.

Clearly, Fazlur Rahman’s is the most powerful faction and this is due to its chief’s pragmatism and political savvy. Maulana Fazl is a gifted and astute politician, and has mastered the art of staying in power, or having enough nuisance value to matter in Pakistan’s power calculus.

The maulana is equally at ease with Western diplomats and dignitaries, explaining to them his ‘moderate’ credentials, as he is with seminarians — his natural constituency — promising to keep the struggle for the supremacy of what he considers the Islamic system alive in Pakistan. Moreover, Maulana Fazl has formed provincial governments, served as opposition leader during Pervez Musharraf’s time, and has made a place for himself or his party men in numerous federal cabinets.

However, while the JUI has become a fixture of mainstream politics, it should not be forgotten that some of this country’s most militant and sectarian characters were either once its members, or affiliates. The name of Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, one of the founders of Anjuman Sipah-i-Sahaba, comes to mind.

Yet Fazlur Rahman himself has called for sectarian harmony; for example, the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, the alliance of religious parties he helped cobble together, had representation from all major Muslim religious groups in Pakistan: Barelvi, Deobandi, Ahle Hadith as well as Ithna Ashari Shia.

It will be interesting to see how the JUI-F deals with future challenges, especially rampant militancy, as hardline groups seek to overthrow the system and establish what they consider to be an ‘Islamic state’, especially as Fazlur Rahman has chosen to work within the system.

Published in Dawn, April 7th, 2017