Iakob Trofimov, Ph.D. (Philos.), professor at the Karaganda “Bolashak” Institute of Actual Education (Karaganda, Kazakhstan)
Islam is the state religion of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (IRA). Its Constitution guarantees freedom of conscience for the followers of all other religions, but it restricts lawmaking to laws that do not contradict Islam. In fact, the Constitution merely confirms de jure the de facto status of Islam under the Taliban.
It is the religion of about 98 percent of the country’s population. There are over 15,000 mosques on its territory (545 in Kabul alone). The absolute majority of Muslims (80 to 85 percent) are Sunnis; over 15-20 percent are Shi‘a. The remaining 2 percent of the population follows other religions (Hinduism, Sikhism, and Christianity). They have no temples or other devotional buildings: the Shari‘a bans the public performance of other religious rites.
Sunni Islam is the religion of the majority of the Pashtoons, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Baluchis, Aymaks, Arabs, etc. The Hazaras, Persians, and some Pashtoons and Tajiks follow Shi‘a Islam. There are also Ismailites: “In Afghanistan there are two large Ismailitic communities: the Hazaras headed by hereditary pir Sayid Shah Naser Nodiri and the Ismailites of Afghan Badakhshan (Darwaz, Shugnan, Ishkashim, Wahan, Munjan) headed by hereditary pirs. The Hazaras mainly live in Hazarajat, in the district of Doshi of the Baghlan Province and in Kabul.”1
Naqshbandiyya and Qadiriyya, two Sufi orders, have their followers among the Afghans; the cult of saints and holy places plays an important role in their religious life. “There are about one and a half thousand mazars (burials) and shrines (ziyyarats), the most popular of them being the Rawze Sharif Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif, the supposed burial place of Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, one of the most revered Islamic saints (especially popular among the Shi‘a), as well as the holy building Sakhi Jan in Kabul, where Ali supposedly spent a night. One of the Kandahar mosques exhibits what is described as the dress worn by the prophet himself; the burial of Ahundzade near Jalalabad is another holy place.”2 Typically enough, all the shrines survived the Taliban intact.
For several reasons, today neither the Sunnis nor the Shi‘a have authoritative spiritual leaders. First, Islam in Afghanistan is split into ethnic groups. The Hazara Shi‘a stand opposed to the Pashtoon and Qizilbash Shi‘a; the same is true of the Sunnis. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the leaders of the anti-Western coalition, made an eloquent statement: “I am a Pashtoon first and a Muslim second.” It seems that this sentiment is fairly widespread in the country. Second, both Hekmatyar and Mullah Muhammad Omar are Sunnis, Pashtoons, they fight both against the troops of the counterterrorist coalition and against each other. The same is true of all the official Sunni and Shi‘a alliances.
There are over 80 political parties in the country, most of them (over 90 percent) are Islamic-oriented (they are either Sunni or Shi‘a); the names of many make their Islamic affiliation absolutely clear, yet they fought (and continue fighting) among themselves (they include the Islamic Society of Afghanistan, the Party of Islamic Justice of Afghanistan, the Islamic Union for the Liberation of Afghanistan, the Party of Islamic Unity of Afghanistan, etc.).
The fact that the word “Islamic” is used in the names of many parties demonstrates that Art 35 of the Constitution: “The formation and functioning of a party based on ethnicity, language, Islamic school of thought (madhab i-fiqhi) and region is not permissible,” applies to the non-Islamic religions alone.
All sorts of Islamic trends are represented in the new parliament: Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, a sheikh of Naqshbandiyya, is Speaker of the Meshrano Jirga (Senate), Sayyed Ahmad Gailani, a pir of Qadiriyya, is Vice-Speaker of the Senate, and pir Sayyed Ishaq Gailani, cousin and son-in-law of Sayyed Ahmad Gailani, is deputy of the Wolesi Jirga (lower house).
There is a Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs in the republic, the influence of which on the religious situation is negligible. In July, the president of Afghanistan agreed with certain religious leaders that the country needed the religious police (earlier disbanded), an intention supported by Acting Chief Justice of Afghanistan Fazl Hadi Shinwari, Minister of Hajj and Religious Affairs Nematullah Shahrani, and a number of National Assembly deputies. According to the published information, “the police would fight moral crimes.”3
In February, the Imam Ali Mosque was reopened after reconstruction in the capital’s eastern district. Today it is called Men’s and Women’s Mosque. The women occupy the second floor, which can hold 150. Ro Afza, spokesman for the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs, described this event as historic: “It was at the women’s request that a female mosque was opened. This is a historic milestone. This is the first mosque of its kind in Afghanistan.”4
The cartoon controversy caused by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten echoed in Afghanistan with mass protest rallies probably provoked by the Taliban. Political analyst A. Ahmad described the riots: “From time to time, there was an exchange of fire with the police, homes and shops were looted. The word ‘death’ in the slogans shouted by the demonstrators was immediately followed by the words ‘Denmark,’ ‘Norway,’ ‘Europe,’ ‘America,’ and, to complete the list, ‘Russia.’ This compelled the European embassies to remove the nameplates from their office doors. The NATO bases and coalition troops across the country were attacked with hand grenades. The disturbances took the lives of 12 demonstrators, while dozens were wounded. The police and foreign military had their share of injuries as well.”5
On 9 February, the Taliban offered a reward of 100 kg of gold for the lives of the cartoon authors, while the lives of servicemen from Denmark, Norway, and Germany (the countries in which the cartoons appeared) were valued at 5 kg of gold each. It was sheer provocation.6
The local Muslims took the speech given by Pope Benedict XVI in Regensburg (Germany) much more calmly; there were no mass riots, although the authorities and the Taliban responded negatively to the quote from Byzantine ruler Manuil II Paleolog: “Show me what innovation brought Muhammad and you will find malicious and brutal things, such as orders to propagate religion with the sword.” In its special statement, the Afghan parliament demanded apologies from the Pope, the Foreign Ministry supported the demand by saying, in particular: “These words demonstrate misinterpretation of Islam and serve the basis of our demand that the Muslims, the followers of the religion of peace and reconciliation, be given an apology.”
A man who presented himself as the movement’s press secretary informed some of the Pakistani media that on 15 September, the Taliban, in turn, had condemned the Pope and demanded an apology.7
In 2006, the first clash occurred between Sunnis and Shi‘a in the post-Taliban period. A. Ahmad described it in the following way: “On 8 February, the Day of Ashura, when the faithful mourn the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Imam Hussain, one of the migrant camps on the Iranian border hoisted a banner that said ‘We express our condolences in connection with the death of Umar and Imam Hussain!’ According to historical records, 1 Muharram is the day when Caliph Hazrat Omar perished; and 10 Muharram is the day when Imam Hussain was killed. The first date has never been marked as important. According to information that arrived from Herat, the insulted Shi‘a removed the banner; clashes with the Sunni followed. Over 50 were wounded, over 100 reported missing, and about 30 cars, 2 markets, and several houses were burned down.”8 We should bear in mind that Iran has a lot of influence on the Shi‘a of Afghanistan.
Today confrontation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, two neighboring countries, has developed into one of the key aspects of their religious life. There is the common opinion among the Afghans that their neighbor should be blamed for the wave of terror in their country. This explains why, after the 16 January terrorist acts that claimed 21 lives, over 5,000 gathered on the border to chant “Death to Pakistan!” “Death to al-Qa‘eda!” and “Death to the Taliban!” They marched in columns in some of the border towns on the Afghan side.9 On 23 September, when speaking in Canada, President Hamid Karzai mentioned the rallies and called on the world community to liquidate those Islamic religious schools, the heads of which approve of terrorism (he had in mind the madrasahs of Pakistan). The president voiced his conviction that the madrasahs were planting hatred instead of teaching religion and that they said there were people who should be hated and destroyed. He was obviously convinced that the Afghans and the rest of the world would have to sacrifice a lot “to remove these places that operate in the name of religious schools, which actually preach hatred and the destruction of people, and encourage and mislead young people to go and kill,” meaning they were in fact raising suicide bombers.10 The statement caused mixed feelings in the West and the Muslim world.
It is commonly believed that Mullah Muhammad Omar survives somewhere on the border between the two countries. In 1996, he was made Amir al-Muminin (Leader of the Faithful, that is, the Caliph). In the past, he studied at a madrasah in Kandaharia and later at a Hakkani madrasah. Today, he has supporters in both Afghanistan and Pakistan; the Hakkani madrasah is proud of its former student. In Peshawar, numerous legends can be heard about the mullah’s past exploits in the fight for justice against mojahedin violence and his efforts to set up a united Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. His enemies, however, dismiss him as nothing more than an ISI agent.
In 2006, the Taliban relied on suicide bombers more than before: by the end of the year, the number of such terrorist acts topped 100, while Mullah Dadullah Akhund, a Pashtoon Taliban leader and “ruthless fanatic, has developed an almost mythological status among his compatriots, which is partly why he was dispatched by the Taliban leadership to head the current recruitment campaign for jihad in the seminaries of northern Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province. Dadullah boasts that he has 200 suicide bombers awaiting his orders, as well as 12,000 combat-ready fighters.”11
In Afghanistan, freedom of conscience is interpreted according to Islam, which means that the faithful cannot convert to other faiths: this is interpreted as high treason and punished with death. This was recently amply confirmed by the case of 41-year-old Abdul Rahman arrested in February when his own family accused him of converting to Christianity. When facing a possible death sentence, Abdul Rahman held firm to his convictions: “They want to sentence me to death and I accept it,” said he. “I am a Christian, not an unfaithful fleeing from justice.”12
The case stirred up negative responses from the United States, Germany, Italy, Australia, Canada, the U.N., and religious and public figures in the West, which forced the Afghan government to reckon with them. On 27 March, he was acquitted of apostasy and released from prison. He emigrated to Italy, even though the parliament continued to insist that he should be kept behind bars for the rest of his life.13
The Afghan authorities look askance at attempts by foreign missionaries to enter the country. On 9 August, the government ordered that the South Korean Christians who arrived to take part in the Peace March in Kabul be deported. Interior Ministry spokesman Yousuf Stanekzai accused the Koreans, who arrived on tourist visas, of violating visa conditions because they had arrived with obviously different plans.14
These are what I believe to be the most important religious events and processes in Afghanistan in 2006. They show that Islam is being exploited both by the pro-government and opposition forces. The Taliban is regaining its former weight, since the five years without it have brought the people neither peace, nor stability, nor affluence. The foreign military presence is another disturbing factor.
It seems that nothing much will change in 2007 in Afghanistan’s religious and sociopolitical life, at least under the present leaders; the country needs new leaders and new approaches to the old overdue problems.
1 S. Shokhumorov, “Ismailism: Traditions and the Present Day,” Central Asia and the Caucasus, No. 2, 2000, p. 136. Back to text
2 Istoria Afghanistana, available at [http://www.afghanistan.ru/print/?id=103], 10 January, 2006. Back to text
3 [http//www.afganistan.ru/print/?id=6305], 26 November, 2006. Back to text
4 [http://www.centrasia.ru/newsA.php4?st=1139482560], 9 February, 2006. Back to text
5 [http://www.centrasia.ru/newsA.php4?st=1140915180], 26 February, 2006. Back to text
6 See: [http://www.centrasia.ru/newsA.php4?st=1139548920], 10 February, 2006. Back to text
7 See: [http//www.afganistan.ru/print/?id=6752], 26 November, 2006. Back to text
8 [http//www.afganistan.ru/print/?id=6821], 26 November, 2006. Back to text
9 See: A. Ahmad, “Novye igry na starom pole. Afganskoe pravitel’stvo—tozhe …NPO,” available at [http://www.centrasia.ru/newsA.php4?st=1140915180], 26 February, 2006. Back to text
10 [http://i-r-p.ru/page/stream-event/index-2912.html?NTHOSTSEEID=200fa8603992], 19 January, 2006. Back to text
11 [http://www.afghanistannewscenter.com/news/2006/july/jul22006.html] 2 July, 2006. Back to text
12 V. Korgun, “Afghanistan prokhodit test na demokratiu,” available at [http//www.afganistan.ru/print/?id=5448], 26 November, 2006. Back to text
13 See: [http://www.centrasia.ru/newsA.php4?st=1143648480], 29 March, 2006. Back to text
14 See: [http://www.centrasia.ru/newsA.php4?st=1155107820], 9 August, 2006. Back to text