The Taleban’s ‘religious police’ are back in force, leaving many Afghans fearing a return to the notorious brutalities of the Taleban’s 1990s Amr bil-Maruf ministry. Yet, two decades on, argues guest author Sabawoon Samim* (with input from Roxanna Shapour), Taleban views on the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice have evolved, as has Afghan society. While the Taleban still believe it is an Islamic state’s duty to actively police public morality, he also traces the emergence of a new generation of Taleban leaders, some of whom are less conservative, and asks whether they may take a softer approach to policing public morality than their predecessors.Amr bil-Maruf officials in their white uniforms keep watch during a demonstration in Kabul after videos allegedly showing Afghan refugees being beaten by Iranians went viral. Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP, April 2022
As when they were first in power, in 1996-2001, ‘promoting virtue and preventing vice’ has emerged as a top priority for the new Taleban administration. In their view, it is one of the requirements of an Islamic system of government. The Taleban re-established the Ministry of Dawat wa Ershad Amr bil-Maruf wa Nahi al-Munkar or Invitation and Guidance on Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice – often referred to by the shorthand ‘Vice and Virtue’ or ‘Amr bil-Maruf’ – when they announced the first appointments to their post-takeover cabinet on 12 September. In the same announcement, they abolished the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Its building was turned over to Vice and Virtue (see here). The move raised questions as to whether, despite the many changes in Afghan society since the 1990s, the Taleban intended to return to the unforgiving social policies of their first period in government when they banned women from leaving the house without a close male relative and without wearing a burqa, outlawed activities such as playing music and watching TV and imposed harsh punishments for those violating their code, including public beatings.
Drawing on 45 interviews with Taleban officials, fighters, tribal elders, teachers and others in five provinces, plus the capital, Kabul, conducted before and after the Taleban captured power this report looks at Amr bil-Maruf in the two Taleban administrations twenty years apart. It considers the religious injunction that Muslims should hold each other accountable by promoting virtue and discouraging vice. We take a look at what was problematic about Amr bil-Maruf in the Taleban’s first Emirate and how it changed during the insurgency. We relay ideas generally among the Taleban about what policing public morality should involve and at the re-established Amr bil-Maruf ministry – at how and why it has differed, so far, from the 1990s. In particular, the author looks at what sets at least some members of the new generation of Taleban leaders apart from their predecessors, and at how this might influence the Taleban’s approach to policy and practice when it comes to policing public morality.
What is the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice?
Amr bil-maruf wa nahi an il-munkar is one of the tenants of Islam under sharia law, both Sunni and Shia, and is rooted in the Islamic principle of hisbah (accountability), which makes it incumbent for the umma (community of Muslims) to ensure public law and order and preserve community morals by taking steps to enjoin people to do what is good (maruf) and forbidding people from doing what is reprehensible (munkar). One of the aims of such actions in promoting order is to protect Muslims from fitna, social disorder or chaos, which can itself facilitate sin. ‘Fitna’ has many meanings within Islamic thought, but in the context of Amr bil-Maruf, interviewees used it to describe how the normalisation of munkar in a Muslim society would lead to fitna, to social disorder and sin.
For the most part, the Taleban interviewed for this report insisted that it is not enough for people themselves to observe the rules of sharia in their daily lives; Muslims are also obliged to look the part of good Muslims by ensuring that their outward appearance adheres to Islamic conventions of attire and grooming. While nearly all Muslims believe amr bil-maruf to be an obligation that helps keep the faithful on the straight and narrow, there have been centuries-old debates among Islamic scholars over the proper mechanisms for its enforcement and to what extent it should be allowed to infringe on the privacy of community members. Just a few Muslim countries have formalised amr bil-maruf as a state institution to police the lives and behaviour of their citizenry, notably Iran and Saudi Arabia (with sharply curtailed powers since 2016).
Importantly, it was not the Taleban who first formalised amr bil-maruf as a state institution in Afghanistan. According to the Ministry of Justice’s official website, the Directorate of Ihtisab (accountability), also known as Amr bil-Maruf, was first introduced by King Nader Khan, in 1929, and formalised in 1930. It was only later, during the tenure of Zahir Shah, Nadir’s son, that the directorate, now made up of 20 ulema, began to work within the framework of the Supreme Court (see here).
Later, the mujahedin government of Burhanuddin Rabbani (1992-1996) established a Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice to regulate people’s behaviour and outward appearance per their interpretation of sharia (see here). It was this ministry that was retained and expanded by the Taleban when they captured Kabul and announced their Emirate in 1996.
How Amr bil-Maruf emerged during the first Emirate
The first generation of Taleban leaders were predominantly traditional mullahs and veterans of the Soviet-Afghan War, with a largely illiterate rank and file. Most, if not all, had grown up in Afghanistan’s rural south and received basic religious tuition in their home regions. The relative isolation of their upbringings meant they were unfamiliar with other cultures and religious practices, even within Afghanistan. They took the narrow and traditional interpretation of Islam ubiquitous in the villages where they lived and the hujras (community-level religious schools) and few madrasas in which they had studied, to be the norm for God-fearing Muslims. It was not only adherence to their understanding of sharia law that drove the first Emirate’s outlook on vice and virtue, but also culture shock. In newly-captured cities, the Taleban encountered activities that, while perfectly normal in those urban areas were wholly alien to the Taleban’s rural experience and the cultural norms of the southern Pashtun village they had grown up with. It was against this backdrop that the first Emirate’s Ministry for the Promotion of Vice and Prevention of Virtue, a remnant of the previous mujaheddin government, was retained and transformed into one of the most important state institutions by the Taleban.
The Taleban’s ‘morality police’ were used to rigorously and often violently enforce laws which banned or made obligatory certain behaviour and dress. Men had to grow beards and wear the baggy trousers and long shirts known as piran wa tonban, while women could only go outside wearing face-covering burqas. Men might be forced to attend public prayer in mosques, if for example, they were outside at the time or were shopkeepers. Many everyday activities were banned, such as family picnics, playing music, watching television, and publishing or possessing photographs of people or animals.
Women, in particular, suffered under the Taleban’s severe restrictions. Adult women were forbidden to leave the house without a mahram (close male relative) and banned from working outside the home, except in the health sector (see details in this 2001 US State Department report), while girls were banned from education. Vice and Virtue was empowered to inflict on-the-spot punishments, including beatings, lashings, and detention. Several interviewees who lived through those days, such as this shopkeeper in Kabul, told AAN that public beatings and other punishments were their enduring memory of the feared ‘morality police’ (see for example here):
They beat people in front of a crowd when they thought someone hadn’t performed his prayer or had trimmed his beard…. When a woman was not wearing proper clothes and didn’t wear a burqa, they beat her mahram severely because they could not beat the woman herself.
Many women also remember being beaten themselves, as a 1999 United Nations report on the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan documented.
These rules were not derived from scholarly readings of sharia law. Indeed, the first Emirate had no well-drafted body of literature to inform policy and practice. For the most part, they were based on the orders of individual Taleban leaders, most notably, the movement’s founder, Mullah Omar. Most of these men, including Mullah Omar, had not completed their religious studies, apart from local and largely informal hujra studies. Personal preferences also played a major role, as did the general norms and traditions of the areas where they had grown up and lived, ie Pashtun villages in the south. All of this informed an individual Taleban leader’s definition of a sharia-based life and, thus, his conception of proper behaviour. As a Taleban commander put it: “In those days, everyone acted as Amr bil-Maruf [and ordered] what he thought was fair or good.”
For the Taleban, Amr bil-Maruf was not just about enforcing what they considered to be Islamic behaviour and dress on the population. The ministry was also a powerful tool to control other Afghans, especially those living in cities, to keep them fearful and obedient. Outward conformity demonstrated the power of the Taleban state.
After 2001, the Vice and Virtue ministry closed and its officials disappeared from Afghanistan’s city streets. Given how many Afghans embraced watching television, listening to music, more relaxed dress codes, girls going to school and some women working pointed to the shallow-rootedness of what had been compulsory, while full mosques suggested that people’s faith carried on regardless. Amr bil-Maruf itself did not entirely disappear, but lived on as a relatively powerless directorate under the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs (see here).
Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice policy during the insurgency
In the early years of the insurgency, the Taleban were loosely organised and overwhelmed with fighting the enemy. They established a shadow government only after they had gained significant territory, governing areas under their control via commissions, such as for health and education. While some of these commissions were established early on, the Amr bil-Maruf commission only started its work around 2016-17, after the Taleban had strengthened their grip on rural areas and following Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada’s rise to the leadership. A traditionalist mullah from Panjwayi district of Kandahar Province with a background as a judge, rather than military commander, Hibatullah sought to police moral behaviour immediately after taking over the movement, ordering the establishment of an Amr-bil Maruf commission. However, even then, provincial and district-level branches of Amr bil-Maruf were mostly active in the areas where the Taleban had full territorial control and a robust and unchallenged presence.
For the most part, in areas where Taleban control was fragile and under threat, an organised Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice commission was not established. According to one Taleban interviewee, where control was “weak,” combat-related priorities and strengthening their presence took precedence over running an organised vice and virtue commission. For example, in Badakhshan, there was an active vice and virtue commission in Yawan district where the Taleban had a strong and unchallenged presence, but in Tishkan, where the Taleban frequently fought against the Afghan National Army, Amr-bil Maruf did not exist.
During this period, the commission’s activities varied significantly from region to region. In some areas, the Taleban appointed civilian officials, or more rarely, military commanders as directors for district and provincial branches of the commission. For example, in Andar district in Ghazni province, a former Taleban judge was appointed as the commission’s district director. The director and other Taleban members were helped by the military commanders whenever necessary. In other areas, the Taleban hired sympathetic local mullahs for the role. These mullahs tended to work through sermons, advising and threatening individuals whom they viewed as violators of sharia. For example, in Zabul, mullahs affiliated with the Taleban preached about virtue in mosques and other public gatherings and ceremonies, such as weddings and funerals, and reported acts of vice to the military wing, which helped enforce the rules when called upon to do so.
Elsewhere, in the absence of an active commission, rank-and-file fighters and commanders took on the responsibility, occasionally announcing decrees, and policing people’s lives, for example checking phones and harassing young men about their hairstyles. According to several residents of Raghestan district in Badakhshan, for instance, young men ran the risk of being harassed and even beaten by local commanders for activities such as playing music and, less often, shaving their beards.
While the application of amr bil-maruf varied, district to district, during the insurgency, one thing remained consistent with the Taleban policy during the first Emirate – there were no official policies or precise guidelines. The lack of cohesive, movement-wide policies and guidelines meant that the fate of violators was determined, locally, either by Amr bil-Maruf or directly by local commanders, in cooperation with the local ulama and often with some variation in line with local sensibilities.
For the most part, in this period, the Taleban used ‘soft’ approaches, such as preaching, advising in private, and only to a lesser degree, threats and punishments. One Zabul resident recalled:
In our area, the local ulema, by order of the Taleban, went to mosques, bazaars and ceremonies [ie weddings, funerals etc] to preach about Islamic sharia. They also spoke personally to individual wrongdoers, such as those who listened to music. And if specific individuals repeated their wrongdoings, they threatened them and sometimes beat them.
For example, a 35-year-old shopkeeper in Zabul province said that if the Taleban found “anti-sharia content[on someone’s phone], they would either delete it or take the phone from him and tell his parents about it. We also heard about a few cases when they beat youths after frequent violations.” A farmer in his early 40s from Farah province also said:
[The Taleban] always stayed in the mosques. Sometimes they asked locals in a friendly way why they were not coming to the mosque. Sometimes they asked the youth what they had on their phones, and occasionally, they checked the phones of those who looked like they were doing something sinful. And sometimes they advised village elders to mind the behaviour of the youth [in the village]. They also did the same thing in the bazaars.
The absence of a unified policy meant that the personal attitude of individual Taleban commanders played a crucial role in shaping policy and approach at the local level. For example, in the eastern province of Kunar, where an Amr bil-Maruf commission did not operate, it was the attitudes of the local Taleban military that shaped the approach. Most commanders in that province turned a blind eye to things like trimming beards. One resident described their attitude as “dissatisfied, but not reproachful,” meaning that Taleban commanders in his area did not bother people for what they considered minor infractions. However, in southern Zabul province, some local commanders were hostile to violators. As one interviewee commented: “They just don’t like you if you’ve trimmed your beard because you are going against sharia.”
Consequently, many individual commanders banned certain activities such as playing music, and some games, including cricket, and directed other commanders to routinely infringe on people’s privacy, including checking their smartphones. There were harsh punishments for violating bans, for example, playing music at weddings and other ceremonies. In July 2020, when the author visited Andar district in Ghazni province and Muta Khan district in Paktika province, he found the Taleban had banned music in Andar and repeatedly warned the district’s residents that violators would be punished. Residents said the Taleban had beaten some young people for playing music inside their homes. Residents in Paktika’s Muta Khan said the Taleban had beaten men for egg-fighting (hagay jangawall) – a traditional game played during Eid, as described in this report,which the Taleban condemn for being a vehicle for gambling. In many instances, even in places where an Amr bil-Maruf commission existed, local commanders acted autonomously to punish people for engaging in activities they deemed immoral.
In general, during the insurgency, actions were highly localised and driven by conditions on the ground, with the military wing in the lead even where official Amr bil-Maruf commissions existed. In other words, the ulema and the official Amr bil-Maruf commission often took a back seat to local military commanders. The softer approach was partly due to a desire to garner, or at least not alienate, vital local support for the insurgency. However, said one Taleban respondent, it was also because we “did not have the responsibility to implement sharia in the society at a time when there is no full control and a complete Islamic system.”
In the second Emirate, different ideas about amr bil-maruf
Views of hisbah among Taleban are currently complex; there are no coherent or precise guidelines compiled for the movement and a range of views. A starting point is that most of our interviewees were critical of Amr bil-Maruf’s approach during the first Emirate, saying it had been unjust and unfair. For example, a Taleban fighter from Farah said:
In the previous Emirate, people were questioned and beaten even for something that was ‘mustahab’ [recommended, but not compulsory]. [Not carrying out] a mustahab action isn’t a sin, so one can hardly beat someone for not carrying it out .
The Taleban we spoke to suggested that in the 1990s, those working in the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice had been unqualified: they did not know what was actually permitted by sharia and what was not, as a commander from Ghazni said:
If someone says I’ve performed my prayer, we aren’t going to beat him – because he might be telling the truth. Even if he didn’t perform his prayer, we don’t have the right to beat him. In the previous tahrik (movement), there were people in the Taleban who wanted to ruin our reputation by beating people without any question or authority. They were even forcing people to pray twice, and in sharia, when someone has prayed once, they couldn’t and shouldn’t be forced to pray a second time.
However, almost all the interviewees, of whatever rank, thought the opinions of their predecessors on vice and virtue, such as the ban on playing music, had been correct. Significantly, they also considered the promotion of virtue and prevention of evil to be an integral component of an Islamic system of governance. In this, the Emirate is at odds with most other Muslim states which have chosen not to set up state bodies to promote virtue and prevent vice. However, the Taleban could be said to be part of a broader Afghan tradition of having such state agencies going back to Nader Shah. Where our interviewees differed was on enforcement. They generally fell into two distinct trends of thought.
The first trend suggested that some acts, as a Taleban-affiliated scholar from Zabul described them, are “only a minor wrongdoing by an individual and do not affect society.… [These] are [an individual’s] own responsibility and as rulers and fellow Muslims we should only advise him.” Within this group, however, any consensus on which acts are minor violations and which are “harmful to society” appears elusive. When asked to enumerate which acts constitute minor infractions, some interviewees said trimming beards was a personal matter and a minor sin that should be addressed by instructing or informing the individual. Others, however, disagreed, saying that shaving beards should be prohibited by force, as one Taleban commander explained:
Having a beard is Sunna [following the example or words of the Prophet Muhammad]. Some ulema even say it’s wajib [compulsory, according to Islam]. So if someone who lives in a Muslim society and interacts with fellow Muslims goes against Sunna, he also encourages others to violate it. That’s why a strict ban on shaving beards should be enforced.
Differences of views were also evident when it came to music. Almost all Taleban encountered by this author believe that listening to and playing music is haram, forbidden by Islam, with the exception of acapella devotionals that do not have complex harmony or instrumental accompaniment and tarana (Pashto chants) praising the Taleban. However, the Taleban’s approach to dealing with violators varies vastly. While some of the Taleban interviewed by AAN said that most forms of music should be banned and every violator punished, others suggested that not everyone who hears music should be punished. A mid-level Taleban official working in one of the civilian ministries said:
Listening to music is a major sin. There are enough hadiths to explain the prohibition on music in sharia. But you don’t have the right, under sharia, to beat someone who listens to it in his own car or his home as long as he doesn’t bother or encourage others to do so. It means that if only he himself listens to it, only advising him is enough from a sharia point of view. But if he bothers others [by the music] or encourages others to listen, then you must do something to stop him.
In contrast, a second trend in thinking among our interviewees argued that all actions and behaviour deemed to violate sharia should be eradicated in an Islamic society. The interviewees falling into the second group were resolute in their belief that adherence to sharia law was an absolute, and should be strictly enforced under an Islamic system of governance. Without strictly imposing the rules of sharia law, one commander said, “You can’t ensure that people follow sharia in these evil times.” Another interviewee said:
It’s the responsibility of the Islamic system to bring order to an Islamic society. If people accept sharia and go on that way, there is no problem. But not going on the path of sharia creates fitna in society. Therefore, any act that is against sharia should be banned in whatever way possible. Otherwise, you can’t bring order to society, nor implement sharia.
While they supported an authoritarian and vigorous ban on particular issues, most interviewees following this second trend in thinking still disagreed with the general approach of their predecessors in the 1990s. Interviewees’ support for the use of force to implement amr bil-maruf only extended to specific issues. For example, they opposed said one Taleban commander from Kunar province “beating people for not wearing a turban.” A Taleban district level official in Badakhshan province explained:
If someone is living under an Islamic system, they must know every single rule of Islam and should obey them. For example, they shouldn’t trim their beards, shouldn’t listen to music, shouldn’t gamble, women should wear hijab and only leave home when necessary. If someone does not obey these rules, it is the responsibility of the Emirate to make people obey them either through financial fines or other punishments.
Some interviewees, especially those from the second school of thought, suggested that enforcement should be hardened gradually. For example, a mid-level Taleban official in the provincial Department of Education in his 30s from Ghazni province:
In sharia, some bans came gradually, not swiftly in one order. For example, the ban on wine during the time of the Prophet Muhammad came in three phases. First, it was in the form of advising that drinking wine isn’t good, then a second order came a little later which forbad it during prayer times and the final and complete ban came in the third order. So, some issues that are major sins and damaging [to society] could be dealt with in this way.
Many from this second group argued that an Islamic system “should first only tell someone about a particular sin, then a few months or days later if they repeat it, you should threaten them and finally, if a rule is repeatedly violated, it must be banned by force.”
How the differing views on Amr bil-Maruf translate into policy
The re-founded Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is fast emerging as one of the dominant state institutions in the second Islamic Emirate. Its acting minister is Sheikh Muhammad Khalid Hanafi, who is from the eastern province of Nuristan and said to be a well-educated teacher of hadith. Hanafi joined the Taleban after 2001, and rose quickly, working in the Taleban’s judiciary during the insurgency. According to a department director at the ministry, policy will not be based on the arbitrary orders of individuals, but will be in line with sharia law and deliberated by the Taleban’s own ulema. Hanafi himself is among the less conservative Taleban, following the first trend in thinking described above. However, sources at the ministry said that within ministry ranks, there is a variety of ulema, including the more conservative and hardline when it comes to enforcement. Several ministry staffers suggested to AAN that Hanafi’s aim is to fashion a ministry staffed by individuals well-trained in sharia who will bring Afghanistan’s community of Muslims to live the ideal Islamic life by advising or gentle cajoling, at least for now. One symbol of that is that the new generation of Amr bil-Maruf enforcers of sharia wear white piran wa tonban and sometimes also white lab coats and drive white vehicles. A softer approach may also be taken on pragmatic grounds. For example, one ministry official said: “For two decades, the West invested in directing Afghans towards infidelity in the name of modernisation. So we need even more time and wisdom, not beatings, to return people to the Islamic way of life.”
The ministry is made up of three directorates: the directorate of muhtasebin (implementing hisbah) has ten staff stationed in each police district to promote virtue and prevent vice by providing advice to individuals at checkpoints, ceremonies, shops and other public places. Multiple sources inside the government told AAN that the ministry has started holding short courses on vice and virtue for civil servants. A second directorate provides ‘amnesty’ or ‘pardon’ cards (in Pashto, da a’fwi kartona, and in Dari, kart-e afu) to officials of the former regime and is tasked with ensuring their safety. Finally, according to ministry sources, the dawat wa ershad directorate is a replica of Amr bil-Maruf for the Taleban themselves, monitoring and keeping track of their own ranks in vice and virtue-related cases. It is also apparently a military unit charged with addressing complaints filed against Taleban members (see also here).
Some of those Taleban wanting to have a very different Amr bil-Maruf from the first Emirate’s have had their ideas transformed by their experience in exile. Those from the political wing of the Taleban who have been living in Qatar have developed less rigid views on promoting virtue and preventing vice, partly through exposure to a different, but still pious, Muslim society, and partly through a more scholarly education (more on this below). According to one well-informed source with strong connections to senior members of the Taleban, and an active second-tier job inside the Emirate, many senior leaders from this wing, as well as younger Taleban who have also lived in Qatar and Pakistan, have “very moderate and even open-minded views.” A Taleban official who heads up the communications and media team at a line ministry told AAN: “Many of them don’t care whether you have trimmed your beard or not, or whether you wear a turban or a cap.” These Taleban believe that the focus should be on building a strong government that is not isolated from the world and that concentrates on economic and political priorities rather than the heavy-handed and controversial enforcement of amr bil-maruf.
However, according to a source close to the leadership, the Taleban’s supreme leader, Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, along with his close circle, are unhappy with “the current moderate policy” of the ministry and “want sharia to be implemented at full-scale.” According to the same source, Taleban ministers and other leaders in Kabul are trying to convince the supreme leader to temper his position in some cases, but have so far not succeeded. Rather, he and his close circle of advisers would like to see the clock turned back, to some degree, to the 1990s and are not prepared to change policies or forgo their traditionalist interpretation of sharia in favour of gaining either national and international legitimacy. According to one Taleban source, “He wants to move on the path of loy mullah sahib [Mullah Omar] and implement sharia the same way.” Other Taleban, though, as we have seen believe differently.
Diverging views became apparent, for example, after the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, on 28 March, ordered all male government employees to wear a cap and grow beards (Reuters report, here). According to a source close to the leadership, the decision came directly from the Amir and the ministry had no role in the decision. After it was announced, some Taleban officials publicly criticised it on social media, revealing contrasting ideological positions within the movement. For example, in a 28 March tweet, a member of the Taleban’s cultural commission, Asad Barai, tweeted: “Could Amr bil-Maruf employees bring a single case from the history of Islam where those who have trimmed their beards [have been] punished? … [These are] attempts at defaming the government.” A mid-ranking security official who was unhappy with the decision told AAN:
The leadership should move carefully and with wisdom, and understand the priorities of both sharia and the people. Sharia isn’t only confined to growing a beard, nor are there solid justifications for forcing people to grow beards.
In a tweet which has since been deleted, the head of the Administrative Office of the Emirate’s media team, Qari Abdul Sattar Said, who is a prominent and respected intellectual among the younger generation of Taleban, said: “In the history of Islam, there are almost no instances when a Muslim has been beaten, detained or punished for trimming his beard or [for having a particular] hairstyle.” Interestingly, following immense criticism of the decree by individual Taleban themselves both on social media and in private discussions, enforcement of it dwindled. A similar battle, although not involving Amr bi Maruf per se, on what is permissible appeared to have taken place behind the scenes concerning older girls’ education.
Revealing the distance even of ‘moderates’ within Amr bil-Maruf from the view of many Afghans as to what their religion deems to be proper was another ruling on dress, announced on 7 May 2022. Women, the order said, should cover their faces in public, preferably by wearing a burqa – the better option – or loose, black clothing (probably a reference to the Gulf Arab-style abaya) with a shawl and a niqab. Best of all, the order said, is not to leave home at all unless necessary (see AAN’s analysis here). The order was drafted and signed by a senior-level commission headed by Hanafi and including the ministers of education, justice and hajj and awqaf. Unlike the order on male government workers wearing caps and growing beards, the order on women’s dress did not trigger widespread criticism within the Taleban and indeed was generally welcomed. Most Taleban find it acceptable that women should cover their faces in public. Even those who say a reading of sharia reveals no obligation for women to cover their faces may support it as the best option in what one interviewee called “this evil time.” ‘Moderates’ may also consider the current order a step forward from the 1990s when women were only allowed to wear burqas, especially as it seems the ultra-conservatives among the Taleban would have preferred a burqa-only policy.
Nationwide, the Taleban’s approach to amr bil-maruf, has so far, been similar to the highly-variable approach taken during the insurgency, when local sentiment and especially commanders’ preferences dominated. This is to be expected given the lack of a fully operational, nationwide vice and virtue infrastructure or a precise compliance and enforcement policy. A mid-level official in the ministry told the author during an interview in late April that the ministry had started appointing district-level officials only recently and staffingwas still incomplete, with some districts and even provinces still having no director or other staff. In many provinces, Taleban military commanders and other officials were still intervening in matters of behaviour and dress. In Helmand, for instance, the Taleban provincial director of vice and virtue, according to a local resident, “threatened youths that they had to grow beards and thereby align themselves with the Islamic and Afghan way of appearance.” However, in Andar district of Ghazni province, where most forms of music had been banned, including the traditional drum duhool. The duhool is now permitted, but only after the Taleban district governor and police chief were changed. This was also the case with egg-fighting in Paktika’s Muta Khan district. When the author visited the district during the last Eid, in early May 2022, egg-fighting was permitted by the provincial authorities. In general, during the nine-month Taleban rule, the approach to amr bil-maruf has been softer than it was during the insurgency. The mid-level official in the ministry interviewed in April said that “We [the vice and virtue ministry] lack personal and mujahedin [religious police] to enforce the bans.”
Some variation in enforcement can be laid at the door of individual beliefs within the Taleban, with regional norms continuing to play a significant role in attitudes. Society in southern Afghanistan, for instance, embroiled in intense fighting and famous for its conservatism, has seen much less change when it comes to social norms in the last two decades, and neither have its Taleban. Those from eastern, southeastern, central and northern Afghanistan today demonstrate a greater degree of acceptance where norms have changed locally. To give one example: in Kandahar, according to media reports, the Taleban closed a local radio station and detained its three employees for music on air (See here and here), while in Khost province, according to multiple residents, the local FM radio channel continues to play music.
Change has come in how amr bil-maruf is implemented now compared to during the insurgency in the make-up of areas that the Taleban control. Pre-August 2021, they only controlled some rural areas where behaviour and dress tends to conform more to their expectations of what is required of a good Muslim. Now, the Taleban are again in charge of cities and as during the first Emirate, Amr bil-Maruf activities are chiefly focused on urban centres, particularly Kabul. Many Taleban believe city dwellers are Westernised and fail to follow correct behaviour for good Muslims. Amr bil-Maruf, for its part, sees itself responsible for leading these urban dwellers on the road to a lifestyle in line with the Sunna of the Prophet.
Also important to note is that the street-level enforcers of amr bil-maruf are largely experienced and well-disciplined, rank-and-file fighters, who are largely illiterate and have no great depth of understanding of sharia. By virtue of their diverse backgrounds and exposure to the social freedoms during the 20 years of the Republic, however, even they are not as conservative as the Taleban of the 1990s. Moreover, they also do not enjoy the same power and autonomy as their predecessors in the first Emirate had, neither when it comes to enforcing amr bil-maruf, nor influencing policy.
Finally, Mullah Hibatullah is not the charismatic leader that Mullah Omar was. He could personally steer every action of the movement and give the final word to settle ambiguities or disputes. Along with the absence of a robust body of ideological literature means that crafting policy on amr bil-maruf is not straightforward. Rather, various factors jostle for prominence: the scholarly interpretation of sharia law, the sensibilities of discordant elements within the movement coloured by regional mores and their life experiences and the also varying expectations of the Afghan people.
To sum up, Taleban generally believe the state should enforce public morality, but most are critical of the violent approach taken by Amr bil-Maruf during the first Emirate. Some Taleban believe ‘minor’ infringements of sharia are an individual responsibility, although there is disagreement about what minor infractions are. Others believe the state must come down hard on any violation of sharia, although even then, the preference is for sharia to be enforced through ‘softer’ or graduated measures, rather than punishments at the first violation. While Taleban leader Mullah Hibatullah would like to see a more hardline approach and within the ministry, there is a variety of views, the minister tends towards the softer approach. The ministry is not yet fully up-and-running nationally. Many positions are as yet unfilled and there are no national guidelines. Policy and enforcement varies, as it did during the insurgency, but Amr bil-Maruf is stronger and more organised in the cities – as it was in the 1990s – where Taleban believe the need for getting the ‘Westernised’ urbanites back on the straight and narrow is most acute.
Exploring what has changed in both Afghan society and the Taleban in the last twenty years that underpins the Amr bil-Maruf that is now emerging, and the differences with its 1990s iteration is the subject of the final part of this report.
Changing society and changing Taleban
Afghan society has been transformed since the Taleban were last in power. Two decades of international engagement, as well as greater opportunities for education, better communications, for some years, at least a stronger economy, and mass migration to the cities have all driven rapid social change, particularly the urban areas. Under the Republic, individual liberties, press freedom and women’s roles in society, including their political participation, improved significantly. In the past two decades, Afghanistan achieved the highest literacy rate in its history. School education, not only for boys but also for girls, became a norm and a major demand in many parts of the country. By 2020, according to the World Bank, women accounted for 19 per cent of the country’s total paid workforce and the number of girls in secondary education had increased from seven per cent in 2004 to 40 per cent in 2020. According to the Ministry of Higher Education, 78,000 Afghan women sat the university entrance exam in 2013, up from 1,000 in 2003 (see here).
Importantly, these changes were not limited to urban areas; rural Afghanistan also transformed to a great extent and the gap between urban and rural narrowed, leaving the Taleban to govern an Afghan society with greater expectations from the state, such as for girls’ education and personal freedoms than when they were in power the first time around.
During the insurgency, the Taleban took control of territories where many activities that had been banned in the first Emirate had become common practice (more on this later). Many of the urban habits that seemed extraordinary to rural Afghans in the 1990s have become established norms even in the Taleban’s birthplace of the rural south, as well as activities which new technology has made possible. Music and mobile phone selfies, for instance, are commonplace pastimes even in remote regions. Afghan men trimmed their beards and sported ‘Western’ hairstyles. Families sent their daughters to school and some women were also taking up jobs outside the home. During the insurgency, Taleban commanders were relatively tolerant of such activities – they needed to keep residents on side – even though, in general, Taleban rule was authoritarian, strong on tax collection, ready to use violence and not brooking dissent. (For detail on this, see AAN Dossier: Living with the Taleban here).
Some of the changes within the Taleban, including the greater variety of opinions on amr bil-maruf stem from the much broader and more diverse base of officials and fighters it now has and reflect the general changes in Afghan society. While Mullah Hibatullah represents a continuity of view from the 1990s, in both his understanding of sharia and that, in many cases, it needs rigid enforcement by the state, more flexible interpretations of what amr bil-maruf demands come because of the life experiences and education of many Taleban in exile.
A great number of senior Taleban leaders have enjoyed life in cities, such as Doha in Qatar and Peshawar, Islamabad, and Karachi in Pakistan. This generation of Taleban leaders has availed itself of the trappings that modern life has to offer, such as the internet – they have proven particularly adept at using social media for propaganda purposes – and even sent both sons and daughters to schools (see AAN reporting here). That exposure to urban life, including outside Afghanistan in societies which are still Muslim and God-fearing, but different from Afghanistan’s rural south has helped drive a change in some attitudes. Also important, however, has been education.
Many Taleban cadres and leaders, and even scholars from the previous generation, are better versed in Hanafi jurisprudence than the Taleban leaders of the 1990s. Over the past two decades, the curriculum of the madrasas in Afghanistan and Pakistan where most Taleban study have expanded with newly-acquired books, allowing them to progress to advanced levels and develop a more nuanced understanding of sharia. Most senior leaders and other officials have attained advanced levels, such as mawlawi, mufti and sheikh ul-hadith, as a Taleban official explained:
In the past, there were fewer chances for the ulema (Muslim scholars) to get an advanced education [in sharia] due to several problems such as a lack of madrasas, and qualified teachers, and fighting. The ulema didn’t have ready access in nearby areas or they couldn’t afford it. Therefore, they mostly studied a few books in local madrasas and mosques and became mullahs. But now there is everything, madrassas are everywhere, books are easily accessible and there are more [religious] teachers. In the past, the ulema also rarely wanted to take on the responsibility that came with a higher degree in Islamic studies such as [becoming a] mufti. It is a huge responsibility and people rarely dare to take it.
The Taleban have also had close interactions with other Islamic movements and ideologies – and not just al-Qaeda. As AAN’s 2017 thematic report on the Taleban ideology highlighted: “Whereas the movement had once banned books by Qaradawi and the Muslim Brotherhood, it now actively promoted works from these sources and regularly defended Islamist groups within the general context of anti-Imperialism. However, there is little to no evidence that this exposure has led them to amend any part of their own broader interpretations of Islam, such as their continued rejection of democratic elections, something the Muslim Brotherhood formally espouses.
There has always been some tension among the Taleban between the demands of Islam and tribal culture (that tension was explored in Thomas Ruttig’s special report How Tribal Are the Taleban? and Gopal and strick van Linschosen’s report on Taleban ideology (see, for example, pages 26-27.) In the 1990s, Mullah Omar banned ‘baad’ marriages, when a girl is married into another family to resolve a blood feud, a tribal custom, which is not permitted by sharia. However, it was quite rare for the Taleban’s rules of the 1990s, couched as Islamic, to break from the familiar Pashtun mores, where these were in conflict. Among the new generation of Taleban leaders, however, are scholars and ideologues who have had a more advanced madrassa education and scholarly understanding of Hanafi fiqh (jurisprudence). Their espousal of Islam is, in contrast to the 1990s, somewhat less coloured by tribal mores and more firmly rooted in a scholarly understanding of the Hanafi school of Sunni Islamic thought. In some instances, they are attempting to develop more scholarly and clearer definitions of what should be enjoined and what prevented and formulate sharia-based fatwas (religious edicts).
For instance, the author knows of several cases where the Taleban have intervened in disputes involving women’s issues, such as the right of a widow to marry a man of her own choosing or a woman’s inheritance rights. The Taleban’s supreme leader issued a decree on 3 December 2021 which banned forced marriages and insisted on a widow’s right to inherit and a woman’s right to choose her own husband (see the official decree here). A provincial Taleban judge in Ghazni province described the issue in an interview in November:
We solved more than three dozen critical issues in the past three months. In one case, a girl was being forced to marry one of her relatives. She didn’t want to. Before she was engaged to the relative, she [with the help of her brother] complained to us and we told their family that, from a sharia point of view, they can’t force her to marry someone she doesn’t like. We warned her father that he would be punished if he went ahead [with his plan].
The author has also tracked multiple instances of Taleban backing a woman’s Islamic right to inheritance after the woman approach them. For instance, in Farah province, a Taleban mid-level official told AAN that “when a woman approaches us and demands her portion of inheritance, we immediately resolve the issue in accordance with sharia.” This new generation of scholars and ideologues insist that fiqh trumps tribal attitudes, even in such sensitive family issues. This is to say, instead of ignoring such matters, some Taleban tend to solve them in accordance with sharia, at least for now.
Some interviewees gave examples of how Taleban views have changed since they were first in power, when it comes to the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, including the following:
After taking control of Kabul in the 1990s, the Taleban banned women from any public space without an accompanying mahram (close male relative). Currently, however, the official rule is that women can leave the house without a mahram to travel a distance of up to 72km (45 miles) or for up to three days (it is not yet implemented), as a provincial official of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice described:
Women can travel without a male relative for up to three days. It means they can go on a trip that lasts three days or, in today’s technology, they can travel by car to a destination almost 45 miles away. For a longer distance [such as travelling abroad], or for more than three days, they should have a mahram with them.
In the 1990s, the Taleban imposed one particular type of hijab, the burqa, but Taleban interviewees pointed out that prescribing a particular hijabis not mandated by sharia. According to one interviewee, “when a woman covers her face, her hands, and her body with whatever sort of hijab she wants, it is fine.” Another interviewee said: “covering the face with hijab isn’t ordered [in sharia], but in this evil time, if the face is covered, it is the best option for a woman.” Many Taleban interviewees suggested that covering the face is necessary in a time where “fitna is spread everywhere and for avoiding [more] fitna, women should cover their faces.”
The Taleban rigorously policed men’s beards during the first Emirate. Amr bil-Maruf would measure the length of a man’s beard, check to see if any of his facial hair had been trimmed and punish violators. However, Taleban respondents now argue that sharia provides specific rulings not only for trimming beards, but also for trimming moustaches. A Taleban member described it:
Growing a beard and trimming the moustache is Sunna in Islamic sharia and something our Prophet did all the time – it reaches the level of wajib (compulsory). Trimming your moustache is as important as not shaving your beard. So, he who calls himself a Muslim should obey all the obligations and follow the path of our Prophet. If someone shaves his beard and leaves his moustache to grow, he is in sin all the time, and he who doesn’t trim his beard, but fails to trim his moustache to the degree that the sharia calls for is also in sin.
During the first Emirate, the Taleban religious police forced men to pray publically and beat those who failed to do so. However, most Taleban we interviewed now see the issue differently, as one from Nangarhar province explained:
You should encourage people to pray, not force them, because the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice is a way of encouragement and wisdom. In many cases, you should only describe the wrong and the correct to someone. Forcing someone to pray is the wrong approach completely. If someone prays because they are afraid, it [their prayer] isn’t accepted by Allah. So, no one should force anyone to pray as it will not be accepted by Allah. If we force people to pray, who can ensure that they are reciting the words correctly? Have they done their ablutions? It is completely wrong. It’s prohibited by sharia and should not be repeated in the future.
The Taleban have also retreated from their earlier ban on images of living creatures, based on their understanding that they amounted to shirk, idolatry. In the 1990s, they banned all photos of living beings, and off the back of that television and video. During the insurgency, and in the light of the need for effective propaganda, Taleban ulema reassessed the decision and now believe these are allowed under sharia, as a Taleban commander explained:
Pictures and videos were banned in the first Emirate but are now allowed because we know their value. They’re very important and are a huge need nowadays. It’s also good for our cause, for Islam through which we can spread our message to the world. So we investigated, and most ulama agreed that it’s not considered a sin under sharia, given the need. So now the whole Emirate appreciates their value.
Given the Taleban belief that sharia should be followed, the fact that Amr bil-Maruf is not following up on all violations is an important question. For instance, the Taleban admit that all women should be given their inheritance, but are yet to generally enforce this. The same is true for girls getting an education: Taleban officials often posit, not only in public but also in private discussions, that education is a right for all (see for example here, here and here), but so far have failed to deliver it for all girls. They also consider trimming the moustache to a specific length to be the Sunna of the Prophet just like not shaving the beard, but in practice, only insist on men not trimming beards : is the moustache less important than the beard?
What might happen next?
The Taleban maintain the belief that it is the state’s duty to enjoin virtue and prevent vice among the population. Within the broader movement of the Taleban, there is an excessive sense of disdain for those they view as violating sharia law, but members of the movement have differing views of how this should be achieved and whether minor infractions of sharia should be policed. The evidence suggests that even today’s conservatives do not want to return to the violent and repressive enforcement of amr bil-maruf as seen in the 1990s. Yet even the softest of amr bil-maruf policies could not concede individual Afghans the freedom to make all their own choices on dress and behaviour, as some non-Taleban Afghans would like.
However, the Taleban, in government once again, face a population which has itself been transformed in the last twenty years, not everyone and not everywhere, but in general, considerably so. Many, probably most Afghans already consider themselves to be following sharia and the Sunna of the Prophet. So far, there has been little public protest against the Taleban’s enforcement of its interpretation of sharia, as enshrined in orders and decrees. The exception here are women’s rights activists who have courageously continued to demonstrate for the return of lost freedoms. Yet, there is uneasiness among population, amounting to, as yet, quietly-voiced dissent, especially over some issues – older girls’ education, rules on dress and women working. As AAN’s report on the Taleban’s order for women to cover their faces showed, there are many complexities in Afghan society, down to the family level, as to what is correct behaviour and dress for Muslims and whether the state has the right to dictate what many Afghans consider to be family matters. At the same time, as this report has shown, greater study of fiqh by some Taleban means a greater appetite among some to also get involved in matters such as women’s inheritance, and whether girls and widows have given their consent to marriages. Restricting women’s rights on dress, education, work and travel could go hand-in-hand with promoting them in other areas of the law. In so doing, they would be taking on, not just urban, but also rural interests, including generally supportive populations. (It would be similar to the ban on narcotic production and trade – which is clearly prohibited by sharia, but also crucial to the national economy and many people’s livelihoods.)
Behind all the discussion is the matter of the relative power of state versus society. Kabul in 2022 is not the half-destroyed city of 1996 when it was captured by the Taleban and they were able to impose on the demoralised population what many Kabulis considered to be the culture of the southern Pashtun village. And nationally, Afghanistan is a changed country with different expectations of the state. The Taleban and Amr bil-Maruf may have changed in terms of how they want to enforce particular behaviour and dress, but they still think it is right to impose their reading of sharia on other Afghans. After two decades of rule by the Republic, this represents a massive grab for power by the state – which may yet not go unopposed.
Edited by Kate Clark
This article was last updated on 10 Oct 2022