October 19, 2018 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1418

Barelvi Clerics Threaten Siege Of Pakistan If Christian Blasphemy Convict Not Hanged

October 19, 2018 | By Tufail Ahmad*
Pakistan | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1418

While it has been known that the religious scholars of the Deobandi school of Islam have supported and nurtured the Islamist and jihadi groups, the rise of the wheelchair-bound Barelvi cleric Maulvi Khadim Hussain Rizvi in Pakistan is engendering a new kind of Islamist threat in South Asia. Rizvi belongs to the Barelvi school of Islam, which endorses Sufism and is popular across Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. The new threat led by Barelvi clerics is identical to the Islamism of the Deobandi theological persuasion.

On October 8, 2018, a three-member bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan comprising Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, and Justice Mazhar Alam Khan Miankhel heard an appeal against the execution of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. Aasia Bibi, a mother of four, is convicted of blasphemy under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code for allegedly defaming Prophet Muhammad, which carries the death penalty. The justices reserved their order, which means the judgment will be delivered in coming days.[1]

In an earlier paper, this writer defined the concepts of Islam, Islamism, and jihadism, arguing that insofar as ideas have consequences, an understanding of Islam must account for all myths, beliefs, ideas, and practices that impact the lives of Muslims and non-Muslims.[2] If an idea is consequential sociologically, it cannot be excluded from an understanding of Islam. So, Islam is a corpus of all ideas held by Muslims as well as ideas that are rooted in the Koran, hadiths (traditions of Prophet Muhammad), and the works of Islamic jurists and religious scholars. Insofar as the actions of Muslims advance Islam, Islamism can be called a peaceful methodology by which Islam spreads and jihadism can be called a weaponized version of Islamism.[3]

After the Supreme Court reserved its order on October 8, Barelvi clerics who present a peaceful face of Islam began organizing meetings across Pakistan to mount public pressure on the court to hang Aasia Bibi. Their leader is Maulvi Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the leader of the newly emerged Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) who led a three-week siege of Islamabad in November 2017, forcing then Pakistani law minister Zahid Hamid to resign over an attempt to reform Pakistan's electoral rules that go against the minority Ahmadi Muslims, who are pejoratively dismissed as Qadianis in Pakistan.[4] The TLY emerged in response to the execution of Malik Mumtaz Qadri, an elite commando who assassinated Punjab's liberal governor Salman Taseer in 2011 for speaking in defense of Aasia Bibi.

Protesters In 200 Pakistani Towns Demand Death For Aasia Bibi

In the methodology of Islam, Friday prayers have emerged as a tool of mass mobilization. Most Muslims attend Friday prayers in a mosque. It is then easy for Islamic clerics of all persuasions to organize mass protests after the prayer. On October 12, a Friday, rallies and mass protests were organized by the TLY, led by Maulvi Khadim Hussain Rizvi. According to a report in the Urdu daily Roznama Ummat, rallies were held in 105 towns in all four provinces of Pakistan and in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.[5] The Urdu daily Roznama Jang put the number of towns where protests were held at more than 200.[6]

According to the report, major protests were held in the towns of Peshawar, Islamabad, Lahore, Abbottabad, Rawalpindi, Sargodha, Muzaffarabad (the capital of Pakistani Kashmir), Mardan, Hyderabad, and Karachi.[7] The over 200 Pakistani towns where protests were held included: Nowshera, Swat, Malakand, Charsadda, Mirpur Khas, Sukkur, Larkana, Thatta, Moro, Kasur, Sargodha, Noori Abadi, Sangad, Khuzdar, Hub, Awaran, Mirpur, Kotli, Bhimber, Sialkot, Faisalabad, Sahiwal, Gujrat, Multan, Gujranwala, Attock, and Okara.

The wheelchair-bound cleric Maulvi Khadim Hussain Rizvi addresses a protest rally in Lahore.

The religious clerics associated with the TLY who addressed the rallies in these towns vowed to continue their protests until the Supreme Court delivers its judgment and to oppose any attempt to amend Pakistan's blasphemy laws. Should the court verdict be lenient against Aasia Bibi, they warned of countrywide chakka jaam – laying siege to traffic, a form of protests in South Asia where protesters stop, attack, and burn vehicles – and more fierce protests.[8] The media report said that "the leaders of the TLY movement also took pledges from activists and the public to offer any sacrifice of life and wealth. The TLP leaders said that they can accept death but will not accept amendment in the law against blasphemy of Prophet Muhammad."[9]

During the rallies, a report notes, "the lovers of Prophet Muhammad were seen to be extremely agitated and were demanding that the blasphemer Aasia be hanged."[10] Allama Shafiq Amini, the emir of TLY for Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, told a reporter: "The purpose of this protest is to raise awareness that if any such judgement is delivered in this sensitive case that grants concessions to the blasphemer Aasia, then we will protest all over the country. We will jam [lay siege to traffic] the country and the entire responsibility of it will be on the government."[11]

Amini further said: "Even if the judgment is in favor of Aasia, even if the judgment gives reduced punishment, then too we will protest against it. If despite being a law in the country, a confirmed blasphemer is not punished, then it means it is a bid to make the blasphemy law practically ineffective, which will not be allowed [by the TLY leadership]. We are ready to offer any type of sacrifice for this. We have vowed."[12]

Speakers At Karachi Rally: "The Government Must Reject Pressure From The Christian And Jewish Lobby [Not To Execute Aasia Bibi]"

Strong protests took place in Punjab, the most influential Pakistani province. The main rally moved from the Data Darbar shrine to the Punjab state assembly in Lahore and was led by Maulvi Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the emir of TLY, and Pir Afzal Qadri, the patron-in-chief of TLY. Addressing the rallyists in front of the Punjab assembly building, Rizvi told the crowd: "We will not compromise [any attack] on the honor of the Prophet."[13] Addressing the protesters, Pir Afzal Qadri – the prefix Pir is used to refer to Sufi mystics – warned the Pakistani government: "For the defense of the honor of the Prophet, the lovers of the Prophet will not hesitate [to make] any sacrifice."[14]

In Karachi, the capital of Sindh province, a rally was addressed by Islamic clerics such as Allama Razi Hussaini, Allama Ahmad Bilal Salim Qadri of the Sunni Tehreek, and Allama Ghulam Ghaus Baghdadi as well as by Mufti Qasim Fakhri, a member of the Sindh legislative assembly. Allama Ghulam Ghaus Baghdadi told the rally: "Although the Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah [TLY] is a law-abiding organization, we will not accept any concession to the blasphemer [Aasia Bibi] whatever be the pretext."[15] The speakers at the Karachi rally said: "The punishment for the blasphemers of the Prophet is death"; "The government must reject pressure from the Christian and Jewish lobby [not to execute Aasia Bibi]."[16]

Briefing journalists about the preparations for the October 12 rallies, Pir Ijaz Ashrafi, TLY's central spokesman and the person in charge of its publications, said: "In our view, the hearings that took place this week in the Supreme Court did not fulfil the requirements of justice. Probably, due to a lack of knowledge, the shari'a issues involved were disregarded. Due to this, we suspect that the convict [Aasia Bibi] might be freed."[17] Pir Ijaz Ashrafi said: "We do not need anybody's permission to start a movement or organize a rally. The government should provide security to all these great rallies being organized for the honor of the Prophet."[18]

Aasia Bibi (image courtesy:

According to a report in Roznama Jang, resolutions were adopted during Friday sermons in mosques across Pakistan for the defense of the honor of the Prophet Muhammad.[19] Islamic cleric Safdar Shah Geelani said: "[We are] united for the defense of the Prophet's honor and we consider the sacrifice of life for this purpose to be pious."[20] Other organizations that took part in Friday's protest rallies included World Pasban Khatm-e-Nabuwwat and Alami Majlis Tahaffuz-e-Khatm-e-Nabuwwat.[21] Both the organizations stand for enforcing the belief that Muhammad was the last Prophet of Islam, another tenet considered to be part of the code of the Prophet's honor.

On Thursday, a day before the October 12 protests, a petition was filed in the High Court of Islamabad demanding that Aasia Bibi's name be added to the Exit Control List (ECL) so that she does not leave the country. According to a report, the petitioner, Islamic cleric Hafiz Ehtesham Ahmed, expressed fear that in the event of the Supreme Court delivering a judgment that is lenient toward Aasia Bibi, she might immediately be sent abroad, thereby preventing the parties, i.e., the religious organizations, from seeking a review of the judgment.[22]

The petitioner told an Urdu daily: "European countries are always eager to give asylum to such blasphemers. She will run to them and will never return."[23] He said: "This is a very important and sensitive case that has been through hearings in different courts for about nine and a half years. Due to this case, Salman Taseer was assassinated. And this case also became the basis for the execution of Malik Mumtaz Qadri [the assassin of Salman Taseer]."[24]


Following the assassination of Salman Taseer on January 4, 2011, by Malik Mumtaz Qadri, an elite commando deployed to protect him, Barelvi organizations and jihadi groups in Pakistan defended the assassin. Malik Mumtaz Qadri was a member of the Dawat-e-Islami, one of the numerous Barelvi organizations active in Pakistan and India. The TLY led by Maulvi Khadim Hussain Rizvi emerged in defense of Malik Mumtaz Qadri. However, a Pakistani court withstood the mass challenge from the religious groups and convicted Qadri of assassinating Salman Taseer, giving him the death penalty.

Malik Mumtaz Qadri's death penalty was challenged in the Islamabad High Court by religious groups who argued that killing Salman Taseer was indeed justified under Islamic shari'a. The Islamabad High Court, after a series of hearings on February 3, 4, 6, 10, and 11 of 2015, agreed with the basic contention that anyone guilty of blaspheming Prophet Muhammad must be hanged. The court cited numerous verses from the Koran and hadiths to agree with the Islamic clerics' view that only the Prophet Muhammad could pardon a blasphemer. The religious arguments of the Islamabad High Court have been re-published by MEMRI.[25] However, the court upheld the death penalty of Malik Mumtaz Qadri on a technicality, saying that only an Islamic state, in this case the state of Pakistan, could execute a person for blasphemy.[26]

The Barelvi Islam emerged from the theological works of Imam Ahmed Raza Khan Barelvi (1856-1921). The term Barelvi is derived from Bareilly, a town in northern India. The Barelvi school of Sunni Islam supports Sufism and approves of syncretic practices such as singing and dancing at the shrines of Sufi mystics. Many Muslims in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh follow the Barelvi doctrinal principles. However, it is not the Barelvi clerics, but the Deobandis who have traditionally been courted by governments in these countries. The Barelvis are now asserting their dominance among the masses, thereby seeking to also reduce Deobandi influence.

The rise of the Maulvi Khadim Hussain Rizvi-led TLY indicates that the militant nature of Barelvi Islam will not remain limited to Pakistan. It will certainly percolate to India and Bangladesh, where many already follow the Barelvi school. On the issue of blasphemy, there is no difference between the Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims, nor is there between the Barelvi Muslims and the Deobandi-Salafi jihadis. For example, while the TLY's militant nature might appear to be new on the issue of blasphemy, the two brothers who murdered the editors of Charlie Hebdo magazine were jihadis, not Barelvis. Similarly, Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who ordered the killing of British Indian author Salman Rushdie for his writing of the novel The Satanic Verses, was Shia, not Sunni. In the coming years, it will be the turn of the Barelvi Islam to lurch toward militancy.

* Tufail Ahmad is Senior Fellow for MEMRI Islamism and Counter-Radicalization Initiative


[1], October 8, 2018.

[2] MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1345, Towards A Definition Of Islam And Islamism, September 8, 2017.

[3] MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1345, Towards A Definition Of Islam And Islamism, September 8, 2017.

[5]Roznama Ummat, October 13, 2018.

[6] Roznama Jang, October 13, 2018.

[7] Roznama Ummat, October 13, 2018.

[8] Roznama Ummat, October 13, 2018.

[9] Roznama Ummat, October 13, 2018.

[10] Roznama Ummat, October 13, 2018.

[11] Roznama Ummat, October 13, 2018.

[12] Roznama Ummat, October 13, 2018.

[13] Roznama Ummat, October 13, 2018.

[14], October 13, 2018.

[15] Roznama Ummat, October 13, 2018.

[16] Roznama Ummat, October 13, 2018.

[17] Roznama Ummat, October 12, 2018.

[18] Roznama Ummat, October 12, 2018.

[19] Roznama Jang, October 13, 2018.

[20] Roznama Jang, October 13, 2018.

[21] Roznama Pakistan, October 13, 2018.

[22] Roznama Ummat, October 12, 2018.

[23] Roznama Ummat, October 12, 2018.

[24] Roznama Ummat, October 12, 2018.

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