The Tehrik Labbaik Ya Rasoolallah sit-in at Faizabad has proven a headache for anyone travelling to Islamabad, or between it and Rawalpindi, and has claimed at least one victim, the child who died because he could not make it to PIMS in time, but it has sent out a number of messages, and scored a number of points.

Perhaps the most significant is that it has established followers of the Brelvi school of thought as a major source of street power. Previously, it was assumed that the Jamaat Islami and the Jamiat Ulema Islam enjoyed street power through their student wings, the Islami Jamiat Tulaba, which was strong in ordinary colleges and universities, and the Jamiat Tulaba Islam, which drew strength from Deobandi madressahs, respectively. The 2015 sit-in not only boosted Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehrik Insaf, but also highlighted the staying power of Allama Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehrik, which was Brelvi in inspiration.

The Faizabad sit-in has shown that not only has there emerged a new player in the street power stakes, but a new contender for the position of the wielder of Brelvi street power has also emerged. The touchbutton issues are established as anti-Ahmedi-ism and the blasphemy laws. It should be remembered that the TLYR is a new platform, and mobilises the outpouring of support for Mumtaz Qadri, the police guard who killed Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in 2011, and was ultimately hanged for this crime in February 2016.

This sits ill with the common concept of Brelvis as more peace-loving and tolerant than Deobandis, who are thought to be under Salafi influence, originating in Saudi Arabia and its Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam. It must not be forgotten that Brelvi and Deobandi is a distinction which merely identifies where a particular cleric studied, and which school the founder of that institution attended. To take an example, graduates of the Jamia Haqqania in Akora Khattak are accounted Deobandis because the Founder of the Jamia, Maulana Abdul Haq (father of its present head, Maulana Samiul Haq) studied at the Nadwatul Uloom, Deoband. The late Pir Pagaro claimed that he was neither Deobandi nor Brelvi, because his madressah, the Jamia Rashidiyya in Pir Jo Goth, had been founded before either madressah at Deoband or Bareilly.

Both Deobandis and Barelvis have the same course of study, sharing texts in common. Both belong to the Hanafi school of the Sunni sect, and the only difference lies in attitudes towards Pirs. It is more a question of attitude: Deobandis are as fervent believers in tariqat as Brelvis. It is among the Wahhabi Ahle Hadith that it is denied, even though certain Ahle Hadith ulema are no less rigorous in their spiritual observances.

Because of the commonality of texts, Brelvi scholars do not deny the doctrines of jihad, blasphemy and on Ahmedi-ism. They may not stress them, but they hold them to be correct. Any attempts to make these doctrines confirm to a nonviolent interpretation have to come from individual scholars. It is perhaps one of the strengths of Islam that it possesses no central authority. There is no authority which can command obedience. The only authority was the Caliph, but after the Caliphate was abolished in 1924, even that was no more. This is not to say that some posts are not prestigious, and given more weight than others, such as the Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar. However, a refusal to accept his opinion casts no one outside the pale of Islam; in the way that refusal to accept the Pope’s pronouncement would take a Roman Catholic out of the Church.

Coming to the recent imbroglio, nothing better illustrates the saying originated by Italian dictator’s longtime Foreign Minister Ciano, but revived by US President John F. Kennedy: “Victory has many fathers, but defeat is an orphan.” Though an internal party inquiry has been conducted by a committee headed by Senate Leader of the House Raja Zafarul Haq, and a report presented to party chief Mian Nawaz Sharif, the public stance of the government is that it does not know who is responsible. Law Minister Zahid Hamid denies any responsibility for the offending change in the MNA’s declaration. He piloted not just the legislation of which that change was a part, but also the legislation which reversed it. Zahid Hamid, a former Musharraf-era Law Minister, is one of those rare persons who straddles both Musharraf’s and Mian Nawaz’s governments. The extent to which the matter has gone is shown by his having had to deny that he was an Ahmadi. It should be remembered that his father, the late Brigadier Hamid Nawaz had been a Bhutto-era MNA, his brother Shahid a Punjab Governor in the 1990s, and the question of whether they had been Ahmadis would have been settled by now.

It should be noted that the Anti-Ahmadi riots of 1953 were led by Maulana Abdus Sattar Niazi, who was a Brelvi too. The assumption by outside observers that Brelvis are somehow more amenable to abandoning the use of violence, should not ignore the use of Sufi orders by the Osmanlis in their Janissary corps, and the role of these orders in the 19th century Daghestani resistance, which is symbolized by Imam Shamyl, who was a Sufi master.

The use of the sit-in tactic has two apparent sources. First, there was Imran Khan’s sit-in. Second, there was a sit-in after Mumtaz Qadri’s chehlum in March 2016, by which the TLYR had already been formed. Further, the by-election in NA 120 which followed Mian Nawaz’s disqualification saw a TLYR-backed candidate get more votes than the MML-backed candidate, and both more than the PPP candidate.

The TLYR would thus get votes that would normally go to the PML(N). The TLYR showed in the NA 120 by-election that there were more Brelvis out there than Ahle Hadith. While Ahle Hadith are still a minority, Brelvis are part of the mainstream.

People are not used to think of themselves as Brelvi or Deobandi, probably because they share common doctrines, and are identical in personal law. However, there are certain clear distinguishing features setting apart the Sunni, Ahle Hadith and Shia sects. Nonetheless, all have in common the Quran and a corpus of Hadith (the Sunnis and Ahle Hadith have the same corpus; the Shia have their own sources, but there is enough overlap for them to be followers of the same religion). No matter how one tries to look at it, all three sects prescribe the same rewards for martyrdom, and thus the same fearlessness.

If one was to accept that the PTI had its sit-in scripted, it is easy to see the TLYR one as equally scripted, and by the same scriptwriter. It thus becomes yet another effort to co-opt an important part of the political spectrum. Just as the PTI is meant to erode the PPP, the TLYR is supposed to wear down the PML(N). This is one context within which to see the sit-in, but not the only one.


n            The writer is a veteran journalist and

founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.