National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaisar had barely offered a few words of tribute to Maulana Samiul Haq in the packed hall of Jamia Darul Uloom Haqqania in Akhora Khattak when he was cut short by slogans of ‘Naara-i-Takbeer, Allah O Akbar’, ‘Ustad tere khoon se, inquilaab aayega’ [Teacher, your blood will lead to revolution] and ‘Aasia malaoona ko phansi do, phansi do’ [Hang the blasphemor Aasia!]. It was clear that those gathered, predominantly students among them, were unhappy with the government.
This unhappiness in the very institution that had benefited from generous — nearly 600 million rupees in all — funding by the PTI’s provincial government in 2016 and then in 2018 during its present term. The disbursement was justified on the grounds that it would help the students attending the institution to assimilate better in society. It would also pay for a new academic block. There were also suggestions the funding would go a long way towards de-radicalisation of the curriculum and the students.
As the protests started over Aasia Bibi’s acquittal by the Supreme Court on October 31 — in the blasphemy case that has seen the innocent woman spend nearly nine years in solitary confinement — the head of the institution and his own faction of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Sami (JUI-S), Maulana Samiul Haq joined those condemning the decision. In one particular public statement, he roared to the approval of supporters that he had warned Prime Minister Imran Khan, a political ally, that his government ‘would go’ like Nawaz Sharif’s if any flexibility were demonstrated towards Aasia Bibi.
Remembering the hardline cleric who was dubbed ‘Father of the Taliban’ by the Western media
This was unmistakably the hardline cleric who was dubbed ‘Father of the Taliban’ by the Western media after it emerged that the Afghan Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, and some of his key deputies, had graduated from the Darul Uloom Haqqania. While the Maulana denied that any military training was imparted at his institution — that has some 4,000 students enrolled at any point in time — he responded to a question about being called the ‘Father of the Taliban’ with a smile before saying, “Every movement needs a spiritual figure, perhaps they see me as theirs.” On another occasion, he had said that in the Afghan Taliban government there were some 20,000 of his students in different positions.
While he never acknowledged any such ownership of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in 2014, he was among those nominated by the TTP to negotiate with the government in the talks that failed and were followed by a full-fledged military operation in the North Waziristan Agency and a simultaneous mop-up in the remaining pockets of TTP influence in the remaining agencies of the erstwhile Federally-Administrated Tribal Areas. He expressed great sadness that the talks failed to resolve the issue and more blood was shed.
That he was committed to the Islamist cause was evident in one of his interviews where he refused to be drawn into an adverse comment about the so-called Islamic State (IS). His argument was that, with so many countries particularly of the West arrayed against the group, “it must be doing something right.” Also, even though he clarified more than once that nobody was imparted military training at the seminary, he was unequivocal in his endorsement of the ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan, with all the weapons in the armoury of the Taliban. It was no surprise that the Afghan Taliban were glowing in their tributes to him on his passing and hailed his inspirational role in their struggle. For their part, some figures associated with the Kabul government blamed his ideological indoctrination for the thousands of deaths in Afghanistan.
Retired Brigadier Asad Munir, who was commander of the ISI in Peshawar in the crucial period following 9/11, tweeted: “RIP Maulana Samiul Haq. My personal experience: a very pleasant person, with a sense of humour, a good friend, have known him for ages.” Many journalists who came into contact with the maulana echoed the brigadier’s sentiments and described him as a polite, generous and kind host during their visits to his HQ in Akhora Khattak. Maulana Samiul Haq was a prolific author having written several times on religious issues and also on the Afghan Taliban and their ‘war of ideology.’ Some years back, he compiled into seven volumes all the letters written to him by a wide range of people — such as religious scholars, journalists, officials and friends — for counsel or merely to exchange thoughts.
That he was committed to the Islamist cause was evident in one of his interviews where he refused to be drawn into an adverse comment the so-called about Islamic State (IS). His argument was that with so many countries particularly of the West arrayed against the group, “it must be doing something right.”
At the launch ceremony in Lahore, when speaker after speaker had eulogised him, the humble Maulana took his turn at the mic and said he did not think his own letters in response to the contents of the seven volumes were of such quality that they merited (their copies) being kept, or the audience would have had to read through another seven volumes. He may have made the comment in a somewhat lighter vein, but he lamented that, after the advent of mobile phones, people had stopped writing letters and now merely called to inquire after friends.
The influence and network of religious seminaries in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, particularly those belonging to Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and Maulana Samiul Haq’s JUI-S, grew substantially as they became the training and indoctrination centres for the Afghan ‘jihad’ against the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the withdrawal of the Red Army from Afghanistan — and, along with that, the end to US support — these seminaries continued to get funding from Saudi Arabian and other Gulf benefactors. Maulana Fazlur Rehman was able to build on his father Mufti Mehmood’s legacy in acquiring considerable pockets of political influence and succeeded in electoral politics. JUI-S, by contrast, struggled with electoral politics and only Maulana Samiul Haq served for two terms in the indirectly-elected Senate from 1985.
In the early 1990s, as the mover of the Shariat Bill in the upper house, he was embroiled in a controversy when a woman called Madam Tahira, who reportedly ran a bordello in the Federal Capital, made some outrageous allegations about the religious scholar, claiming he was among her clientele. The scandal made headlines but, of course, no evidence was ever presented. The maulana’s supporters blamed the story on his ally prime minister’s Intelligence Bureau, headed by the wily Brig Imtiaz Ahmad, as they claimed the government wanted to damage the maulana because he was not prepared to water down his Shariat Bill.
While remaining active in forums such as the Difaa-i-Pakistan Council, the renowned Deobandi scholar became largely ineffectual in mainstream political terms in recent years. But whether one saw him as someone whose ideological training led to thousands of deaths in Afghanistan or as a humble, polite and generous man with a sense of humour to boot, perhaps the one thing that he won acclaim from all sides was when he spoke out and gave an edict in support of polio vaccinations. This fatwa and his stance was particularly brave as it came against the backdrop of serious opposition by many clerics in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa who believed that the vaccine was a sinister way to render sterile the male child. This period also saw armed attacks on polio workers.
Whatever perspective you view the Maulana from, one irony won’t escape you. A man who claimed to have had 20,000 of his students in the fierce Taliban hierarchy and each one of whose current 4,000 students would happily take a bullet for him, the 80-year-old Maulana Samiul Haq was all by himself in his final moments as a mystery assassin found a vulnerability to stab him, more than a dozen times, in his own bedroom in his Bahria Town Rawalpindi home. Equally ironic for the man who is said to have thousands of illustrious students he said he was proud of, was that his own brother succeeded him as the head of the Darul Uloom Haqqania; his son now leads his faction of the JUI. Thus, his father’s legacy whom he succeeded remains in the family.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 11th, 2018