Political Landscape

The Ulama Council: paid to win public minds – but do they?


The largest religious body in Afghanistan is the National Ulama Council, which was set up by President Karzai almost a decade ago. The president’s hope, expressed at the time, was that the council – with its 3,000 members from across the country, all of whom receive government salaries – would help him win political support and religious legitimacy. The gambit has worked – but only partially. The council almost always publically backs the government, and in return gets frequent access to the president as well as influence on his decisions. Yet, when at home in the provinces, members often preach a different message and, at times, attack the administration and its Western backers, actually helping fuel anti-government feelings. AAN’s Borhan Osman has been looking at the contradictions in this influential and under-reported body.

Located in the upmarket neighbourhood of Kabul’s Wazir Akbar Khan is the heavily fortified headquarters of the National Council of Religious Scholars (Shura-ye Sartasari-ye Ulama-ye Afghanistan).(1) Every month or so, the 150 members of its Central Council (Shura-ye Markazi) – which acts as the larger body’s leadership board – along with the heads of the 34 provincial councils, meet for several days to discuss religious, cultural, and political issues.
As a result of these sessions, the Central Council produces statements that it presents to President Karzai who often endorses them. Indeed, the Ulama Council is probably the body with the best access to the president. Given its religious legitimacy, this privileged contact endows it with an enormous influence. But the relationship is not one-sided: the president seeks the Council’s backing as a religious legitimisation of his government while trying to keep the ulama and mullas in line with a quid pro quo subsidy. Shams-ur-Rahman Forutan, a member of the council, admitted one of the reasons for forming such a council was to ‘help the mullahs to economically stand on their feet’.

Members do support the government per se and clearly act as its strong backers in their public statements and declarations, but they often fail to keep that supportive language when they are back home. Taking the government’s defence against the Taleban attacks as an example, the Council members issue their condemnatory statements when they act collectively, but when they preach in front of their followers as individuals, many would tone down the required message or remain silent during their public sermons, including those on violence against civilians. (Just recently, the Afghan Senate urged the Council to ‘declare jihad’ on suicide attacks.)

Established in spring 2002 in Kabul, the Council(2) had, within two years, expanded to all 34 provinces of Afghanistan making it the biggest (official)(3) religious body. According to members of its secretariat interviewed by AAN, it has 3,000 members, both ulama and mullas, approximately 80 from each province. A majority of the members are Sunni, but there is a sizeable Shia minority of 25 to 30 per cent – something that was not seen in similar pre-war councils. The Shi’as additionally have their own separate council of ulama.(4) Most members of the national Council have a 1980s jihadi background but come from the whole range of mujahedin factions (tanzim). Its membership makes the Council an equivalent to an average Afghan ministry’s staff, and the monthly stipend of between 5,000 and 10,000 Afghani (approx. USD 100-200) is equal to the salary of an average Afghan government civil employee. (The holder of a BA would receive Afs 7,000.)

For its first eight years, the Council was chaired by a staunch Karzai supporter from Sayyaf’s Ittihad-e Islami party (officially renamed Dawat-e Islami, which is known for its close ties to Saudi Arabia), Fazl Hadi Shinwari, who was simultaneously the country’s Chief Justice from 2002 to 2006. He continued to lead the Ulama Council up to 2010 when he stepped down for health reasons. (He died from his illness a year later.) Under him, a large part of the Council’s membership were qazis (judges), although that subsequently declined to approximately 25 per cent. In fact, 60 per cent of the members are also on the regular payroll of the government in other capacities – as qazis, government advisors, imams in urban mosques, ordinary government employees, and teachers – giving them a double income. Imams also receive honorariums from their muqtadis (regular mosque attendants) – usually more than their government wage.

Some of Karzai’s religious affairs advisors are also on the Council – besides the late Shinwari, they include Pir Muhammad Rohani, dean of Kabul University during Taleban rule, and Enayatullah Balegh, the imam of Kabul’s biggest mosque, Pul-e Kheshti. Other Council members sit in the lower house or the senate, such as Abdul Sattar Khawasi, Shahzada Shahed, Hafiz Abdul Qayum, Alami Balkhi (a Shia), Khaleqdad, and Qazi Nazir. The head of the Independent Electoral Commission, Fazl Ahmad Manawi, is a former deputy head of the Council.

This situation and the fact that Shinwari held the positions as Chief Justice and head of the Council in personal union for many years, shows the Council’s dual role: while it claims to be an independent, quasi-non-governmental body (and its opinions are deemed as such by the president), it is closely entangled with the country’s state institutions. This relationship has continued under Shinwari’s successor, his former deputy, Qiamuddin Kashaf, another senior Ittihad/Dawat member and senior member of the High Peace Council, as well as a renowned author and translator of Islamic books.(5)

In 2002, in the inaugural speech, Karzai said the Ulama Council was intended to be an important force for strengthening unity and peace in Afghanistan. However, a letter(6) sent by him to provincial governors a year later confirms the actual intention for which the Council was formed: it advised them to establish provincial and district-level councils, with the aim of countering ‘false’ accusations and propaganda by the Taleban and their allies which ‘confuse the minds of the Muslim and Mujahed nation regarding the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan [the name of the government at the time] by accusing it of infidelity (kufr) and unlawfulness (na-rawa)’. Karzai’s message shows that the Council’s main function, at least from the government’s perspective, is providing it with religious legitimacy through the ulama, vis-à-vis the challenge constituted by the Taleban with their own religious self-legitimisation.

The Ulama Council’s monthly declarations often echo the issues that the president wants pushed. Over the past months, for example, this has included seeking the trial of US soldiers involved in killing Afghan civilians, the transfer of all detainees from US-run prisons to Afghan control, urging that negotiations with the Taleban are held under the government’s lead (and not unilaterally by the US government), asking for Saudi mediation in any talks, and condemning Pakistan’s shelling of border areas in the east of the country. When Karzai, in 2010, turned against the West, condemning foreign embassies and the UN for having committed fraud in the previous year’s presidential elections – something which brought his relations with the West to all-time low (see here and here), the Ulama Council came out strongly backing Karzai’s rhetoric as patriotic, Islamic, and a reflection of popular opinion.

The Council’s publications such as the bi-monthly newspaper Al-Islam copy all other state-run newspapers, reserving the front page for news on the president, the cabinet meetings presided over by him, and his speeches and decisions. In their gatherings and the presidential meetings in Kabul, the ulama hardly touch on genuinely popular issues such as tackling corruption (which in Islamic law is at least as evil as the other sins they do focus on, such as taking drugs, banks charging interest, and immodest clothing for women) and the weak provision of basic services to the population.

Consequently, the Ulama Council’s pro-government fatwas, its dependence on government stipends, and sometimes subservient rhetoric vis-à-vis the Kabul government have drawn criticism from both sides. People often refer to council members as sarkari (governmental) or, more pejoratively, darbari(courtiers). This has been picked up by the Taleban, who reject the council’s religious authority and call its members ‘puppet mullas who use their religion for making dollars’. They have also put them on their kill-list, with bloody success, as shown by a large number of assassinations of pro-government clergymen.(7)

The Council’s religious credentials are also limited by the fact that it issues statements in bullet points, without much reference to the sacred texts or the opinions of legal scholars. As Afghanistan’s top religious body, which sees itself on equal terms with Egypt’s prestigious al-Azhar University and Saudi Arabia’s Council of Senior Ulama,(8) the Council has failed to produce any serious debate on issues that are religiously controversial (like suicide attacks and violence against women) or on claims by the Taleban (eg, what might constitute an Islamic government and that working with foreigners is wrong).

From time to time, the Council has ventured to push the limits of its mandate. Following the Quranic principle of amr bil-ma’ruf wa-n-nahy anil-munkar (‘promote virtue and discourage evil’), it has, for example, lambasted certain TV shows as ‘un-Islamic’, demanded the death penalty for Afghans who have converted from Islam, and, in a much-discussed statement in March this year (our blog on this issue here), urged that women should not travel without a close male relative (mahram) and avoid mixing with non-related men in their social life, workplaces, and educational institutions. Members of the Council related to AAN how they had once summoned then Minister of Information and Culture, Abdul Karim Khorram, and Attorney General Abdul Jabbar Sabet in 2007 to talk about Islamic ethics for women on TV. But they added that they – according to the principle, ‘Our duty is only to deliver the message to you (and not enforcing anything)’(9) – had no power of implementation. Already in August 2010, the Council had asked the president to implement sharia law; his response, if any, is not known.

Its self-appointed role as promoter of virtue and preventer of evil has attracted criticism both nationally and internationally and brought the Council into confrontation with human rights watchdogs, not least because the amr bil-ma’ruf principle reminded many of the Taleban ministry of the same name and its edicts frequently use a language that sounds similar to the Taleban’s. The instructions of the March statement were condemned by human rights activists and female MPs alike as a ‘Talebanisation’ of Afghan law and as an overstepping of the Council’s responsibilities. Karzai, following this outcry, reaffirmed his support for the resolution calling it a religious duty to be followed by all Afghans.

But on an individual level, some members of the Council perceive the government as either weak or unwilling to act according to what they call ‘Islamic principles’. Members of the Council sometimes lash out harshly at the government and accuse it of being too submissive to ‘foreigners’,(10) fuelling anti-government and anti-West feelings.

Being at odds with the insurgents, both conservative groups in the country, and human rights and civil society organizations, the Council appears associated with the government – despite bitter feelings caused by the Council members’ perception of being ignored by the government on a number of issues it sees as crucial. In interviews with Council members such as Forutan and Balegh, it seems that their own perception of the Council’s achievements are also ambiguous. The type of strict demands seen in the Council’s March statement on women has so far only drawn rhetorical commitments by the president, and the Council has had no chance, so far, of seeing them enforced; women announcers and ‘indecent’ Indian serials, for example, are still on TV. However, it has succeeded in pressing for an increase of Islamic subjects both at universities and in training materials for the Afghan National Security Forces.

At the same time, the Council has fulfilled the government’s expectations only partly. On the one hand, it has consistently rubber-stamped the president’s policies (both national and foreign) and – at least, centrally – systematically denounced the Taleban’s attacks as un-Islamic. Their anti-Taleban and pro-government statements receive fairly sizable attention from the state-run TV channels and its other media as well as private media. This has lent some religious legitimacy to the president’s position, at least on the rhetorical front. The wages paid to mullahs and ulama by the government have ensured that the central government is informed about public opinion in their various ‘duty stations’. But in a broader sense, the Council has proved ineffective at mobilizing the population in favour of the government – for the very reason that it is drawing most of its members from government-paid circles.

For those members who are imams, it is important to keep their muqtadishappy since only their satisfaction can ensure that they keep their jobs (and thus keep on being paid by the government on one hand and by their followers on the other). This makes the imams hesitant to preach in favour of the government if their audience is fed up with it. The government’s relationship with the West, which a part of the population may see as not just overly friendly but actually subservient, is another factor that makes it difficult for the ulama to take a strong stance in favour of the government, especially in the face of the stronger and more vocal anti-government voice of the more traditionalist religious circles, such as most of the non-member mulla(-imams) and madrassa teachers in rural areas, as well as the Taleban’s propagandists based in Pakistan. The ulamas’ failure to push the government on governance issues may even have had the opposite effect: making parts of the population more anti-government, especially in rural areas.

The mullas who constitute the majority of the Council still come from Afghanistan’s traditional religious establishment and are largely drawn from a generation whose religion has become heavily radicalised and politicised during the past decades’ civil wars. Since they have usually been trained in madrassas with centuries-old curriculum, they are bound to have little or no knowledge of modern concepts of civil rights, nation state, politics, international relations, democracy, and, most importantly, how religion interplays with all these in a modern society. Nevertheless, they see themselves as the vanguard that defends the traditional values and push for their own narrow interpretation of an Islamic state. As an integral part of the broader religious establishment, the ulama are highly influential in their impact on the general atmosphere in the country, setting limits even on those rights and freedoms enshrined in the constitution and forcing many Afghans to self-censor their behaviour. The Council is a major actor in the fight for ‘cultural’ hegemony in the country between those who want an Islamic state in the Islamist sense and those who tend towards the secular, opposing what they would call ‘mullas’ rule’.

The mullas’ poor awareness and lack of modern education not only pits them against the Afghan modernists struggling for a democratic state, but it also puts them in sharp contrast with non-militant/political Islamists in other parts of the world (such as the Muslim Brotherhood) who enjoy good modern education and therefore have a better understanding of the modern world.

(1) ‘Ulama’ (Arabic) is the plural of alim, ie a scholar with a higher degree of Islamic studies. A mulla, on the other hand, is somebody who has attained a lower level of Islamic education, usually in mosques or small madrasas, and is usually working as an imam (head of a mosque) in a rural area. Although the council’s name only includes Ulama, some of its members are mullas of lower education.

(2) This Ulama Council is not the first in Afghanistan’s history. Nadir Shah founded the Jamiat-ul-Ulama in the early 1930s, a body that included prominent mullahs and Sufi Hazrats of the Mujaddedi family who, in the body’s first declarations, issued fatwas of absolute obedience to the king and delegitimized any type of revolt. Jamiat-ul Ulama worked under the supervision of the Ministry of Justice and remained an important voice during the various periods of the 20th century. However, its momentum was ever decreasing during the latter half of the kings’ rule. During the PDPA’s regime, it was replaced by a directorate of Islamic Affairs (shu’un-e Islami), which was promoted to a ministry under President Najibullah. In addition to this ministry, which was mainly responsible for managing mosque and Hajj affairs, Najibullah’s regime also established Shura-ye Sartasari-ye Ulama wa Rohanyun-e Afghanistan (Afghanistan’s Nationwide Council of Ulama and Spritual Leaders), which mostly resembled, in structure, the current Council.

Since the mujahedin and the Taleban both thought of themselves as holding undisputed religious legitimacy, they probably did not feel the necessity for establishing a similar body of ulama – although the latter did call mullas from across Afghanistan to debate highly important national issues at least twice during their reign. However, this was seen as more similar to a Loya Jirga. The first gave Mulla Omar the title of Amir-ul Momenin and the other decided, in 2001, that Osama bin Laden should leave Afghanistan (see a discussion of the role of Taleban ulama in this AAN paper. p 19 ). The Taleban also had a not-very-public Ulama Council, but its job was only disciplinary monitoring of government officials and the judiciary for Islamic misconducts and corruption.

(3) There are also smaller bodies of ulama or mullas, both Sunni and Shia, on the central and provincial levels, that meet on a random basis for important issues only.

(4) Shura-ye Ulama-ye Shia-ye Afghanistan (Afghanistan Shi’a Ulama Council), which is Shia only, and Shura-ye Ukhuwat-e Islami (Islamic Brotherhood Council) a Shia-led initiative with some Sunni ulama on board, are the most prominent. The former mostly advocates the rights of Afghan Shias with the government, promotes the unity of Shiites both inside Afghanistan and with their co-religionists in Iran, Iraq, and other countries, and promotes public awareness on political and religious issues. The latter works mainly for promoting understanding between Sunnis and Shias in Afghanistan. Both are led by a prominent Shia cleric, Ayatollah Asef Mohseni, former leader of the Harakat-e Islami party and founder ofTamadun TV.

(5) Most of them are in Pashto and they range from biographies of the Prophet and his companions to translations of major Islamist works like Mawdudi’s commentary (tafsirTafhim-ul-Quran (‘The Understanding of the Quran’). Audios of these translated tafsir are on the radio every morning.

(6) Both the speech transcript and letter are published in the first issue of the Council’s activities journal, not as a scanned original, but rather as a typed transcription, which therefore lacks Karzai’s handwritten signature, and even an exact date.

(7) According to the Council’s secretariat and its publications, the Taleban have killed 41 of the Council’s members so far and wounded dozens in various attacks since 2003. The latest fatality was Abdul Samad, head of the Uruzgan provincial branch, in October this year.

(8) Fazl Hadi Shinwari expressed this ambition in his inaugural speech to the Council in 2002.

(9) It is a Quranic principal based on verse 17 of chapter 36 (Sura-e Yasin), which transliterates as wa ma a’laina ill-al balagh-ul mubeen.

(10) On rare occasions where the Council showed some independence, Karzai would just get rid of what looked like irreconcilable rhetoric from the ulama and mullas with some ‘good and quick’ excuses without upsetting his guests. At one point, as a former member of the Central Council recalled when talking to AAN, the mullas issued a harshly-worded statement condemning the government for its failure to exercise its power (in the case of the death sentence against Abdul Rahman who had converted from Islam in 2006 and then fled to Europe) and complaining that TV stations never paid heed to the Council’s edicts. When the mullahs met Karzai in the palace and read the statement, Karzai got out a rosary from his pocket, showed it to the Ulama and said: ‘I have to rush to a meeting with some American senators who just arrived. They want to convert to Islam. It will be really great if I manage to convert them. Dear Ulama, please pray for me to turn them to Islam.’ And the mullas were happy, their anger cooled down, and they abandoned their harsh statement. ‘I was astonished that the Ulama believed it,’ the former Council member observed.

Tagged with: ,
Thematic Category: Political Landscape