The JUI-F’s significant influence in key regions such as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan grant it unique political leverage | White Star


The JUI-F has long established itself as a religio-political force to be reckoned with, but its electoral fortunes have suffered in recent years.
Published October 29, 2023

Imran Mahir is filled with sorrow and a deep sense of unease when he recalls the July 30 suicide bombing at the political rally he was organising. He is a senior leader of the Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s (KP) Bajaur district and knew nearly all of the 56 party workers who were killed in the bombing. Over 150 others were also injured. 

“It was a catastrophic day, not just for our party, but for all of Bajaur and former tribal areas,” says Mahir, who miraculously escaped unharmed from the bombing. Just a few weeks later, Hafiz Hamdullah, the JUI-F’s central leader, was severely injured in another suicide bombing in Balochistan’s Mastung district.

Mahir, who is also the JUI-F’s candidate for Bajaur’s provincial assembly seat, further adds, “Despite the loss of around 20 of our leaders and workers in targeted killings in Bajaur in the past three years, we did not expect a suicide bombing targeting a political rally. Because of security threats, we have scaled back our election activities, despite the general election being just three months away.” 

The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), the regional affiliate of the transnational militant group Islamic State (IS), has claimed responsibility for the two suicide attacks on the JUI-F leaders, along with the previous killings of the party’s leaders in Bajaur.

This spate of killings, along with the JUI-F’s growing prominence in Pakistan’s political sphere, leads to a whole host of questions.

The JUI-F has long established itself as a religio-political force to be reckoned with, but its electoral fortunes have suffered in recent years. What are the rifts within the party? How is it strengthening its political hand? Why is it under attack from militants of the so-called Islamic State? And can its leader Maulana Fazalur Rehman lead a resurgence of the party for the next elections?

Why does the JUI-F hold immense significance within Pakistan’s parliamentary politics, particularly in the realm of Islamic parties? Why is its significant presence in the region characterised by diverse militant ideologies, including those involved in sectarian conflict and the affairs of neighbouring Afghanistan? Why has the ISKP chosen to specifically target this particular Islamist party? And where does this group position itself for the upcoming general elections?

This piece aims to address these pressing questions.


After claiming the Bajaur suicide bombing, the ISKP released a detailed 92-page critique of the JUI-F, examining its post-Partition politics, links with the military, its stance on the jihadi movement — particularly the Afghan Taliban and Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — as well as its international ties, including with the United States, China and Russia.

This detailed critique, published in Pashto, included a thorough analysis of the party’s social media accounts from the ISKP’s perspective, and cited publications from 1947 onwards.

The principal of a JUI-F-affiliated madrassa says, “The ISKP seems to have conducted extensive research on the JUI-F, reflecting a deep interest and understanding of the party. It is quite scary and concerning.”

In many ways, the origins of the ISKP’s animosity towards the JUI-F date back to a time when the ISKP had not even formed. According to Riccardo Valle — director of research at The Khorasan Diary, an Islamabad-based research platform that monitors militant groups — TTP factions that used to criticise the JUI-F for its involvement in Pakistani politics eventually merged with the ISKP in 2014.

Valle further explains, “The ISKP has framed a complex narrative, which draws from IS’s global, anti-political parties ideology, as well as an enmity against the Afghan Taliban, whom the JUI-F is considered a close supporter of. Hence, since the JUI-F supports democracy and the Afghan Taliban, the ISKP perceives the political party as being at the forefront of an ideological conflict aimed against the IS and its ideology.”

JUI-F leaders privately admit that, over the years, almost all militant groups — including the TTP, certain factions of the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and now the ISKP — have targeted the JUI-F and killed several leaders because the party has “never openly supported violent jihad and sectarianism” and “valued democratic practices.”

The aforementioned madrassa principal further adds, “The party’s refusal to join jihadi alliances such as the Difa-i-Pakistan Council, despite immense pressure, also shows the party’s prioritisation of democratic values over banned jihadi groups and sectarian parties.”

However, local JUI-F leaders in regions bordering Afghanistan align with local Taliban dynamics, regardless of the party’s central policy. Experts say that this has led the ISKP to believe that the JUI-F is “an ally of the Afghan Taliban” in Pakistan.

“For instance, in Balochistan’s Pakhtun region,” Muhammad Israr Madani, an Islamabad-based researcher studying Islamist movements in Pakistan and Afghanistan says, “most of the JUI-F leaders and those of its splinters, such as the JUI-Nazaryati [Ideological], are allied with Taliban leaders in Kandahar on their own, without necessarily representing the party’s central policy over the Taliban.”

“The JUI-F’s Bajaur leaders,” Madani continues, “wield their personal influence in Taliban matters in [Afghanistan’s] Kunar province and are targeted by the ISKP due to these connections. In KP’s southern and former tribal districts, numerous JUI-F leaders had personal ties to both the TTP and the Taliban, notably the Haqqani Network, due to their shared history of living and studying together in the region.”

Madani notes that the ISKP has again emphasised its Salafi identity and criticised the rival Deobandi school of thought in the recent issue of its Pashto magazine Khorasan Ghag. According to Madani, the ISKP considers the JUI-F — the main Islamist force in Pakistan that represents the Deobandi school of thought — to be its enemy.

Unlike the Jamaat-i-Islami and Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, the JUI-F is unique in its ability to form provincial governments and secure positions in federal cabinets, despite varying degrees of electoral success in KP and Balochistan over the past several elections. This influence grants the party valuable resources and power.

 The JUI-F strategically deploys its extensive madrassa and mosque network to mobilise support, thus managing to further expand its base |  White Star
The JUI-F strategically deploys its extensive madrassa and mosque network to mobilise support, thus managing to further expand its base | White Star


The JUI-F stands as a leading Islamist political force in Pakistan and wields substantial influence in the provinces of KP and Balochistan, especially in the Pakhtun belt along the Afghan border.

The JUI-F is one of the Islamist parties operating as electoral entities in Pakistan. However, unlike the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, the JUI-F is unique in its ability to form provincial governments and secure positions in federal cabinets, despite varying degrees of electoral success in KP and Balochistan over the past several consecutive elections. This influence grants the party valuable resources and power.

The origins of the JUI-F can be traced back to the pre-Partition era, originating from the Jamiat-i-Ulema Hind (JUH). Following the tragic events of the 1857 War of Independence, which saw the killing of tens of thousands of Muslims, a group of politically inclined clerics in 1866 established Darul Uloom, a madrassa in Deoband (now in Uttar Pradesh, India). This institution became a nucleus for a revivalist religious movement emphasising the ‘purification’ of Muslims, and facilitated the spread of the ‘Deobandi’ movement throughout the Indian subcontinent.

Because of political and cultural setbacks under British rule, some madrassa clerics formed JUH in 1919 to engage politically, to lobby for the preservation of the Ottoman caliphate, and to advocate for Indian independence. As the prospect of independence grew and the Muslim League, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, pushed for Partition and the creation of Muslim-majority Pakistan, JUH found itself compelled to take a stance on Partition.

While some JUH leaders aligned with the Indian National Congress opposed the formation of a separate Muslim state, dissenting voices, such as those of Shabbir Ahmad Usmani and Maulana Azad Subhani, believed Partition offered the best opportunity for Muslims to regain religious and political influence. This difference in opinion led to a split within the party in 1945, resulting in the formation of a new group, called Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam (JUI).

After the creation of Pakistan, Usmani collaborated closely with the Muslim League and played a significant role in the enactment of the Objectives Resolution of 1949, which provided the Islamist framework for Pakistan’s future constitutions. 

JUH members that opposed Pakistan pre-Partition were unfavourably viewed in the newly formed country and derogatorily labelled as ‘Congressi Maulvis’, leading them to maintain a low profile. However, Maulana Ahmad Ali Lahori, Maulana Ghulam Ghaus Hazarvi and Mufti Mehmood (the father of JUI-F chief Maulana Fazalur Rehman) revived the JUI in the country in 1956. In 1968, Mehmood took over the party leadership. 

When Rehman took over the leadership of the JUI in 1981 after Mehmood’s death, the party was divided over the leadership and split into the Fazalur Rehman and Darkhawasti factions. Several years later, the factions merged, but Maulana Samiul Haq, a key leader, chose not to join and formed his own faction — the JUI-Sami. This led to the main JUI becoming known as the JUI-F, even though the Election Commission of Pakistan renamed it to just JUI in 2020 at the party’s request.

Over the years, the JUI-F has solidified its political influence in Pakistan through a series of strategic manoeuvres rooted in Pakistan’s historical and socio-political context. The party strategically deploys its extensive madrassa and mosque network to mobilise support, thus managing to further expand its base. At present, JUI-F leader Rehman serves as the patron of the Wifaq ul Madaris Al-Arabia — a board comprising Deobandi madrassas nationwide, totalling more than 21,000 seminary institutions.

According to Madani, the prevalence of entrenched cultural norms, respect for Islamic clerics and their role in providing essential social services — such as leading prayers, conducting funerals, teaching children in mosques and madrassas, and resolving local conflicts — in KP and Balochistan led to the formation of loosely connected religious and political groups within the JUI-F. This made the party stronger and more appealing to the population there than other Islamist parties, such as the JI, despite the latter’s central structure, huge resources and educated urban cadres.

“The party also benefits,” Madani says, “from leaders who are local clerics, with influence extending beyond the party. Originating from modest backgrounds and educated in madrassas, they operate independently, connecting effectively with ordinary citizens.”

During the 1970s and 1980s, the JUI-F’s growth was significantly augmented during the US-, Saudi-, and Pakistani-backed war against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. This period not only broadened its outreach but also facilitated access to state resources, strengthening its position in national politics.

After a three-decade hiatus, the JUI-F is making efforts to regain its foothold in Punjab. In August, the party revamped its provincial structure, bringing in new leaders affiliated with the Jamiat-i-Talaba Islam, the party’s student wing. The party has also begun talks with the ASWJ for a possible merger or electoral alliance in Punjab.

 The ISKP has carried out several targeted attacks against the JUI-F, such as the one pictured above, which took place in Mastung on September 14, 2023 | Pakistan Press International
The ISKP has carried out several targeted attacks against the JUI-F, such as the one pictured above, which took place in Mastung on September 14, 2023 | Pakistan Press International


On October 14, the JUI-F held a large rally in Peshawar amidst heightened security. Although the rally was organised to show its support for Palestinian Muslims during the recent Israel-Hamas conflict, experts and the JUI-F leaders said that the party had used it to kick off its campaign in the province for the upcoming elections.

Munir Ahmed Shah, a journalist and researcher specialising in Islamist parties, says that the primary purpose of organising the Peshawar rally was to boost the morale of party workers, who had become apprehensive following the Bajaur suicide bombing.

The JUI-F maintains a strong presence in KP’s southern districts, the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and Hazara division’s Pakhtun districts of Battagram and Toghar.

At the national level, and especially in KP, the JUI-F and PTI have been fierce rivals since the 2013 general elections. Their top leaders, Rehman and Imran Khan, have frequently exchanged accusations of corruption and have even labelled each other “Maulana Diesel” and “Jews’ agent” respectively, reflecting the intensity of their political rivalry.

Lehaz Ali, a Peshawar-based journalist covering electoral politics, says, “Despite PTI’s victories over major political and Islamist parties, including the Awami National Party [ANP], JI, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz [PML-N], and the Pakistan Peoples Party [PPP] in the last two general elections, the JUI-F has retained its stronghold, albeit with a reduced seat count.”

He also notes that the JUI-F put up a decent performance in the recent local government polls, as compared to other parties.

Leveraging the crackdown on the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) after the May 9 incidents, the JUI-F urged its local leaders to bring electables or influential figures into the party. Ali states, “As part of the new central strategy, the JUI-F’s leadership comprises clerics, but electoral tickets are given to electables.” 

Ali cites a recent Senate election as an example where, despite having the strength of 17 MPAs in the KP Assembly, the JUI-F’s provincial chief, the cleric Maulana Gul Naseeb, received only nine votes, the lowest, and lost. In contrast, the party’s wealthy candidate, Talha Mehmood, secured the highest votes, 19, and became a senator. According to Ali, “Both were contesting elections on the JUI-F ticket, but the victory of Mehmood highlighted the party’s preference for a businessman over a cleric in the Senate polls.”


Until the mid-1980s, the JUI-F held a significant position in Punjab, as illustrated by Mufti Mehmood’s victory in the National Assembly seat from Dera Ghazi Khan in the 1977 general elections. 

After Mehmood’s death, however, the JUI in Punjab was split over the party’s joining of the anti-Gen Zia Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) and over the appointment of Rehman, Mehmood’s son, as the party’s secretary general. However, experts and party leaders attribute the JUI’s actual decline in the province to the emergence of the virulently sectarian Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP).

In the mid-1980s, Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, the JUI-F’s Punjab deputy chief, separately formed Anjuman-i-Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (ASSP), drawing emotional JUI-F members towards its hard sectarian lines. Despite this, Jhangvi contested elections from Jhang against independent candidate Abida Hussain on the JUI-F’s ticket and ranked second, with a difference of only 8,000 votes.

Following the assassination of Jhangvi in 1990, the SSP (renamed from the ASP) became more active in Punjab. In that year, the SSP’s leader, Maulana Aisarul Haq Qasmi, won a National Assembly seat from Punjab but was assassinated before a provincial by-election in 1992.

In the subsequent 1992 by-elections, the SSP’s Azam Tariq emerged victorious on both seats. Through strategic alliances, particularly with the PML-N, and by bolstering its presence at the local level, the SSP’s influence in Punjab grew, thereby limiting the JUI-F’s reach in the region.

In 2002, the SSP opted out of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, an alliance of six Islamist parties, because of the inclusion of Tehreek-i-Jafaria Pakistan, a hardline Shia party. Azam Tariq contested and was elected independently from Jhang. The SSP, later renamed Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) after a ban in 2001, could not secure a victory in Jhang until 2016, after Tariq’s assassination in 2003.

When ASWJ’s Masroor Nawaz Jhangvi, son of the SSP founder Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, won Jhang’s provincial assembly seat in 2016, he joined the JUI-F. However, in the 2018 general polls, the ASWJ contested the elections in Punjab and the country’s other parts, including Karachi, through its electoral front, the Pakistan Rah-i-Haq Party (PRHP). Tariq’s son, Maulana Moaviya Azam, won Jhang’s provincial assembly seat as an independent candidate. His success led to renewed ties between the JUI-F and the ASWJ.

After a three-decade hiatus, the JUI-F is making efforts to regain its foothold in Punjab. In August, the party revamped its provincial structure, bringing in new leaders affiliated with the Jamiat-i-Talaba Islam, the party’s student wing. The party has also begun talks with the ASWJ for a possible merger or electoral alliance in Punjab.

In September, the JUI-F chief Rehman met the ASWJ leader Maulana Aurangzeb Farooqi in Karachi to send a signal about these efforts. Rehman was invited as a chief guest to the ASWJ’s event in Jhang in October, and his name appeared on event posters alongside ASWJ leader Maulana Ahmed Ludhyanvi. However, Rehman sent a delegation in his place.

JUI-F leaders admit that other political parties, such as the PML-N, exploit the ASWJ’s structure and support base in Punjab to their advantage in general elections.

Political parties of various ideological orientations have formed local-level alliances with the ASWJ in order to increase their vote bank, according to Niloufer Siddiqui, a political scientist and author of Under the Gun: Political Parties and Violence in Pakistan.

“This has involved giving ASWJ members party tickets,” Siddiqui says, “campaigning with sectarian leaders, or engaging in seat adjustments.  

“Particularly in urban constituencies of Punjab and Sindh, the local appeal of sectarian groups is in challenging the traditional power of long-standing feudal elites and weakening biradari ties. To win in these constituencies then, parties can make inroads through such partnerships.”


In Balochistan, particularly in Pakhtun-populated areas, the JUI-F has conflicting stances on supporting the Taliban and the insurgency in Afghanistan.

While some party leaders, such as the late Maulana Abdul Ghani, Maulana Asmatullah, the late Maulana Fazl Muhammad Baraich and the late Maulana Hanif openly endorsed the Taliban, others, including long-time provincial chief Maulana Mohammad Khan Sherani, have refrained from such support. This divide led to a significant split in 2008, resulting in the formation of the JUI-Nazaryati. Many JUI-Nazaryati leaders returned to the JUI-F before the 2018 elections, while the party also expelled Sherani.

Currently, the JUI-F has set its sights on forming its own government in Balochistan and appointing its chief minister, a historic first for the party in the province.

“With 11 seats in the 65-member Balochistan Assembly in the last parliament,” Shah says, “the party plans to increase its count to 20-25 seats by expanding beyond its Pakhtun-populated strongholds and attracting influential figures from the province’s Baloch-populated districts.”

Notable personalities, including former chief minister Nawab Aslam Raisani and other former ministers, such as Mir Zafarullah Zehri, Ghulam Dastagir Badini and Mir Amanullah Notezai, have recently joined the JUI-F, strengthening its position.

According to Shah, “The JUI-F also required the inclusion of Baloch figures in its ranks, considering the historical precedence of Baloch leaders holding the position of chief minister in the province.”


In Sindh, particularly in the province’s northern districts, the JUI-F has been gaining support and increasing its voter base over the past few years, mainly because of its blend of local politics and religion with Sindhi ethno-nationalism. In Karachi, the party is primarily led by Pakhtun clerics. However, unlike in KP and Balochistan, the JUI-F has not been able to establish itself as a significant parliamentary force in Sindh.

Contrary to the widespread perception that the JUI-F has gained prominence in different parts of Sindh in recent years, political experts point out that the party has historical roots in the province dating back to the pre-Partition JUH and movements such as the Reshmi Rumaal Tehreek. Out of the 25 clerics that participated in the original JUH formation meeting, five were from Sindh. 

According to Riaz Sohail, a journalist who has covered Sindh’s politics extensively, when the JUH was formed in 1919, clerics in Sindh associated with the movement also formed the Jamiat-i-Ulema Sindh at the same time, and participated in the movement to separate Sindh from the Bombay Presidency, an important Sindhi ethno-nationalist campaign.

Similar to the past elections, the JUI-F has once again been spearheading an anti-PPP electoral coalition in Sindh. This alliance includes the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) and the Grand Democratic Alliance, with ongoing discussions to involve Sindhi ethno-nationalist groups, including the Sindh United Party and the Qaumi Awami Tehreek.

“Similar to the PPP,” Sohail explains, “the JUI-F also plays the Sindhi ethno-nationalism card in Sindh. In order to fill the vacuum of an alternative party in Sindh, the JUI-F is mixing religion with Sindhi ethno-nationalism.”

Recently, when the JUI-F chief Rehman strongly criticised the crackdown on Afghan refugees, it gained widespread attention. However, the party’s Sindh secretary general, Rashid Soomro, disagreed subtly, providing an explanation in a more subdued manner, to prevent upsetting the party’s Sindhi support base.


The JUI-F stands as a multifaceted and influential entity within Pakistani politics that is able to mix Islamist principles with practical electoral politics. Its extensive and dedicated support base, coupled with its extensive madrassa and mosque network, and adept voter mobilisation strategies, position it not only as a major player in Pakistani politics, but also within the realm of Islamist political movements.

The party’s significant influence in key regions such as KP and Balochistan grant it unique leverage, especially concerning various militant groups, making it a potential contributor to regional stability.

The targeted attacks by the ISKP on the JUI-F highlight the party’s perceived threat to extremist ideologies due to its democratic stance, its close ties with the Pakistani state, and its influence within jihadi circles.

Looking ahead to the upcoming general elections, the JUI-F is poised to play a substantial role. Its electoral performance will be influenced by dynamic factors, notably the military establishment’s handling of the PTI in KP following the May 9 violence and the broader national security landscape.

Despite these challenges, experts anticipate the party securing a considerable number of seats in the National Assembly, potentially enabling it to play a pivotal role in forming a coalition government.

The writer is a journalist and researcher.
He has written for The New York Times and Nikkei Asia, among other publications.
He also assesses democratic and conflict development in Pakistan for various policy institutes. Email: X: @zalmayzia

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 29th, 2023