The Problem of Multiplicity: Deconstructing “Sufism” and “the Taliban”

By: Annika Schmeding

November 3, 2021

Islam, Politics, and the Future of Afghanistan

When the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021, they also inherited the problem of how to govern religious diversity. While much remains unknown about the newly established government in Kabul, the encounters between Taliban officials and Sufi communities in the 1990s can offer insights into some of these complex negotiations. But to properly shed light on these experiences, we need to first deconstruct the very terms we use, as neither Sufis nor the Taliban are unified groups, despite their dogged attempts—in the case of the Taliban—to portray themselves as unified.

A Multitude of Sufisms

The common shorthand of Sufism as “Islamic mysticism,” which suggests a united, overarching category, is misleading. Sufi communities exist on a contested spectrum, from poor to rich, practice-oriented to erudite, quietist to oppositional or government-aligned. The daily, lived experience of a dervish begging at a shrine, who exemplifies abstinence from materiality and a sole focus on God, is a universe apart from leaders within government-aligned Sufi orders or nationally celebrated Sufi poets. 

Just as their societal standing varies, so does their experience under the previous Taliban regime. Many Sufi poets within Afghanistan’s intellectual sphere found it difficult to sustain their lives under the Taliban in the 1990s. Most chose to go into exile after being targeted and imprisoned for their writing or being prevented from publishing freely.

Sufi communities exist on a contested spectrum, from poor to rich, practice-oriented to erudite, quietist to oppositional or government-aligned. 

Other groups of “political” Sufis who had been officially aligned with previous governments and who created oppositional fighting groups during the anti-Soviet jihad, such as the Mujaddedi Naqshbandiyyah and the Gailani Qadirriyah, only chose to return post-2001, after the fall of the Taliban regime. 

But there is a third category of Sufis who remained in Afghanistan and continually negotiated the space for their existence under Taliban rule in the 90s. The realities they encountered were mixed because the Taliban themselves did not have a unified national policy vis-à-vis Sufi communities. Several cross-cutting issues, from musical expression to gender, as well as Taliban commanders’ personal stances, guided engagement and circumscribed the navigational space that Sufis had for negotiating varying practices. 

Different Streams within the Taliban

While the Taliban were known for their brutality, especially toward women and minority groups like the Hazara Shia community, their idiosyncratic, rural, southern Pashtun practice of Islam had its roots in Sunni Hanafi norms and practices shared by many Sunni Sufis in Afghanistan. The educational and social background of the first generation of Taliban (in comparison to later generations more deeply steeped in Salafi approaches) was influenced by Sufism through both a Deobandi-infused education and the village-based traditions of their religious schooling. Several Taliban officials of the first generation, who had been in power in the 1990s and whom I interviewed in 2018, regarded some forms of Sufi practice as rightfully Islamic while attempting to regulate or delegitimize others.

This sociocultural embedding, with a certain openness toward Sufi practices, stands in contrast to foreign fighters and advisors, largely Salafi/Wahhabi in orientation, who came to Afghanistan during the jihad period in the 1980s and early 1990s. While they called themselves the fedayeen (self-sacrificers), they are commonly known as the “Arab Afghans”—a misleading term as the group was neither Afghan nor entirely Arab. These volunteers were known to clash with their hosts over the widespread Sufi practices and shrine visitation prevalent in Afghanistan. 

The educational and social background of the first generation of Taliban was influenced by Sufism through both a Deobandi-infused education and the village-based traditions of their religious schooling.

As one of my interviewees recounted of their initial arrival: “Arabs came into the jihad. They destroyed shrines, cut flags on the shrines and graves. But sometimes they were faced with strong reactions against them from the people. That’s why they did it at nighttime” [1]. 

While my interviewee saw these as clandestine acts of destruction, other historical narrations document pervasive and open tension between Afghans and these foreign fighters: At least on one occasion, the leader of one of the Afghan Islamist parties, Maulvi Khales, had to travel to Kandahar to mediate a dispute after Afghan Arabs removed flags from a grave.

Governing Zikr Rituals

Most Sufi communities recounted that meditative zikr rituals still occurred during the Taliban era but that the Taliban government was concerned with how these rituals were performed, especially whether they were accompanied by music. The Taliban were renowned for forbidding video, imagery, and music during their rule. This approach was in tension with the longer history of Sufism in Afghanistan, the birthplace of Sufi orders such as the Chishtiyyah, which champions the combination of zikr with music. However, when I asked Mawlawi Pir Mohammad Rohani, a prominent and early Taliban member who had served as the chancellor of Kabul University under the 1990s Taliban, in an interview in 2018 about the zikr of different Sufi orders, he plainly rejected the premise of my question, arguing that there were no Sufi groups who used music with zikr under the Taliban and that these were aberrations found in other countries. The denial of a well-known fact was telling. It simultaneously legitimized the practice of zikr—for it wasn’t the practice he was denying—while de-legitimizing the practice of zikr if accompanied by music.

Most Sufi communities recounted that meditative zikr rituals still occurred during the Taliban era but that the Taliban government was concerned with how these rituals were performed.

Musical accompaniment with instruments was, however, not the only type of zikr that was under scrutiny during Taliban rule. Several Sufi affiliates reported Taliban who restricted the practice of vocalized zikr (zikr jahr), in which the voices of participants alone form the rhythm of the ritual [2]. The rhythmization positioned it too close to music, with a potential of inducing trances that could lead to dancing. Mutasim Agha Jan, the former Taliban finance minister and close confidant of Taliban founder Mullah Omar, argued in an interview that “zikr should be in the heart, secretly.”

Just as the Taliban disagreed about the proper form that rituals and interpretations should take, so did Sufis in how to deal with Taliban restrictions. Some Sufi communities hid certain forms of zikr and foregrounded approved practices as a shielding mechanism. Sometimes individual talibs joined meetings, be it as overseers or guided by their own interest. Engaging in self-censorship, offering de-politicized interpretations, and restricting modes of expression were common responses to keeping communities and practices intact during this time. This was especially true when newcomers who might be sympathetic to the government or who came directly as government intelligence joined Sufi gatherings. Also, importantly, none of the Sufi groups operated female gatherings during this time. 

These strategies proved effective. In the post-2001 period, Sufism in its many varied forms flourished in Afghanistan. But the negotiations did not end. The position of a particular Sufi student, teacher, or community along the social and political spectrum has continued to define their relationship to power—be that the Taliban regime of the 1990s, the quasi-democratic governments post-2001, or the newly formed Taliban government today. 

As the formation of the new Taliban government becomes clearer, we will see whether multiplicity in approaches will also remain a constant or whether a more unified, and possibly less tolerant, Taliban stance toward Sufism will emerge.

At the same time, varying strains of interpretation, personal history, or group affiliation within the Taliban also define their stance toward Sufism and Sufi communities. The past experience of the Taliban with Salafi/Wahhabi foreign fighters, for instance, has injected another frame of reference into the mix. These groups were not hermetically sealed off from each other—the one advised the other; Arab Afghan views have influenced a new generation of Taliban fighters. The Sufi groups I studied in Afghanistan maintain that negotiations with the Taliban over practices remain a possibility. As the formation of the new Taliban government becomes clearer, we will see whether multiplicity in approaches will also remain a constant or whether a more unified, and possibly less tolerant, Taliban stance toward Sufism will emerge.

  1. ​Interview, Kabul, 2017.
  2. Interview, Kabul, 2017; Interview, Kabul, 2018.
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