‘We are providing legitimacy to terrorists by calling them Islamists’
Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, a religious scholar from Pakistan who has been living in exile in Canada, has declared a fatwa on terrorism in his latest book. V. Kumara Swamy meets the man who has devoted his life to spreading the message that an act of terrorism is entirely forbidden in Islam
The burly security man in a dark suit standing by the imposing gates of the Delhi hotel is adamant. I have to be escorted inside, he says. And no, it’s not the hotel’s policy to screen guests, he explains when I raise a bit of a stink, but a temporary measure. A VIP from Pakistan is putting up at the hotel, he says.
The person he is referring to is Dr Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, a religious scholar from Pakistan who has been living in exile for the last six years in Canada after threats to his life from the Pakistani Taliban. He became a marked man after he opposed religious extremism and issued a fatwa against all forms of terrorism.
And the hotel, clearly, is taking no chances. I am taken up to the seventh floor, and find that it’s swarming with security guards. Their boss — a tall barrel-chested American — wants a group of people coming up to meet Dr Qadri “intercepted” before they come any closer. “I don’t want so many people. Ask them to wait in the lobby,” he barks into his mouthpiece.
I am frisked and asked to wait till Qadri — a Sufi scholar belonging to the Sunni Islam and self-styled Shayk-ul-Islam (supreme authority on matters concerning Islam) — completes his evening prayers. When he walks in, wearing a long pinstriped robe with a matching jubba and a white loose-fitting salwar, I discover that he is of small build. His round red-rimmed white Rumi topi seems a little too big for his small baby-like face, but is complemented by his white pointed beard.
Though he has been travelling around the world holding massive public meetings while promoting his latest book Fatwa on Terrorism and Suicide Bombings, he looks fresh — with his eyes gleaming brightly behind his rimless glasses.
Having watched his energetic speeches on television and online, often exhorting his listeners to follow the life and teachings of Prophet Muhammad, sometimes even whipping them into frenzy, I ask him if his family and supporters feel that he has endangered his life with his fatwa on terrorism. His reply is matter-of-fact. “People who like me and have respect in their hearts for me may think that I have taken a risk. But I don’t think I have. I have merely fulfilled my duty as a humble servant of Islam and as a servant of humanity,” he says in a very soft voice.
He believes his new book — the 500-page Fatwa — will perhaps be his biggest contribution to the understanding of Islam. “This is an edict, and I have consulted thousands of books for compiling it. Besides the Quran, I have also consulted all the classical authoritative commentaries on the Quran, Hadith and Sunna and five schools of Islamic law including the Jafri School of the Shias,” he says. He claims that he has even consulted the contribution of Salafi scholars, considered the most fundamentalist in Islamic thought.
And he is clear that all the schools of thought in Islam come to the same conclusion about terrorism. “An act of terrorism or suicide bombing or killing of people irrespective of their religion is totally prohibited and forbidden in Islam. There is no room for terrorist acts under any pretext and this is an unconditional and absolute condemnation without ifs and buts,” he says, emphasising the last three words by thumping the side of the sofa he’s sitting on with his hand.
A trained lawyer and a former professor of Islamic law, Qadri knows how to argue his case. Through the book, he has tried to draw a link between Kharijites, apostates from Islam during the time of Prophet Muhammad who believed in armed struggle, and modern extremists. Kharijites are considered to be out of the fold of Islam despite their strict adherence to the religious rituals.
“Islam is a religion that believes in discussion and endorses efforts at convincing others by reasoning. Arms have no place in this discourse,” he says, wagging a finger.
Most Muslims, he stresses, oppose and condemn terrorism. A negligible number of people — but “highly visible and vocal” — support terrorist activities, he says. And he blames the media for “over-reporting” and a lack of understanding of the Islamic world.
He has solutions too. “Saying ‘Islamist terrorism’ is very wrong. We are providing legitimacy to terrorists by calling them Islamists. When you prefix Islamist or Islamic before terrorism, it becomes a problem. Terrorists try to derive advantage from it,” he says.
Born in the city of Jhang in Pakistan’s Punjab province, Qadri comes from a family of Islamic scholars and teachers. “My schooling took place in Sacred Heart School where I studied secular sciences and I studied the Quran and its teachings from great scholars of the time,” he says.
What also helped were his travels around the world as a student. He was initiated into classical Islamic teachings in a madrasa in Madina in Saudi Arabia. After earning his law degree in 1974, he practised law in the district courts of Jhang before moving to Lahore where he joined the University of the Punjab as professor in Islamic and international law. He later headed the Islamic law department of the university.
“Many of the politicians and judges in Pakistani courts were once upon a time either my colleagues or students,” he says.
I draw his attention to the situation in Pakistan — the perception that it is held to ransom by extremists. I mention the killing of Punjab governor Salman Taseer last year and a recent ban on a cold drink by the Lahore Bar Association because it was manufactured by a company owned by the Ahmediyya community, not recognised as Muslims by the Pakistan government.
He deflects most issues which are deemed controversial with a deft touch. For instance, on the bar association decision he says he is “not aware” of it. “It has not come to my knowledge. I don’t comment on these things,” he says. He also adds that anything he says can be misinterpreted by people with “vested interests” in Pakistan. Qadri, in fact, is so careful that he has own cameraman to record every media interaction.
But he goes on to say that a ban on food cannot function in a world which is so intertwined. “The only concern of a Muslim is that whatever he eats and drinks should be halal, that’s it. Who manufactures the product shouldn’t be a problem,” he explains. His brief stint in politics probably makes him choose his words very carefully.
A one-time supporter of military dictator Pervez Musharraf, Qadri fought the 2002 National Assembly elections from Lahore and won his seat comfortably under his party’s banner, the Pakistani Awaami Tehreek.
But his flirtation with politics was short-lived. He resigned in 2004 with the promise of never returning to politics. And he doesn’t want to touch the topic either. “I have left politics totally. I have my own principles. When I resign from a particular subject, I don’t go back to it again,” he says with a smile that firmly puts a lid on any further questions on the subject.
Qadri, however, believes that governments can play an important role in decreasing extremism in society. “Governments should spend money and effort to spread moderate teachings of religions. There should also be inter-faith and intra-faith reforms in all countries,” he says.
“Every community should stick to its religion, but they can also stay together,” he stresses.
I ask about India and Pakistan, and whether the history being taught in schools fuels hostilities. “It is important to take an honest stand on our histories,” he replies. “People should come out clean and tell the truth without any prejudice.”
His brand of teachings is not without its detractors. For instance, his recent visit to Gujarat was opposed by Deobandi scholars who accused him of being silent on the 2002 Gujarat riots. But the crowds at his public meetings in Vadodara, Mumbai and Bangalore are a pointer to the vast following that his teachings command. So I am not surprised when in the midst of our conversation, a senior Karnataka bureaucrat walks in. He respectfully kisses Qadri’s hands and touches his feet before squatting on the floor in front of him. He tells me that the “Shaykh is the biggest personality” for Sunnis around the world.
Qadri stresses he is completely dedicated to the cause of his religion and humanity. He has written 1,000 books on the subject — 500 of which have been published, while the others are in the pipeline. “My works are targeted at de-radicalisation. This is counter terrorism,” he says.
But how does the 60-year-old man whose travels around the world, addressing world leaders and others, take up all his time manage to read and write? “I spend my day with people but my nights are dedicated to reading, writing and research. I sleep only for a few hours — four hours of sleep is all that I need,” he says.
What also keeps him busy is the Minhaj-ul-Quran International, an organisation founded by him with branches and centres in more than 90 countries around the globe. He is also the founder of the Minhaj Education Society which has hundreds of schools and colleges in Pakistan. “We have a very modern curriculum. Both boys and girls are taught modern sciences. We don’t run madrasas,” he says.
The aim of the efforts is simple. “I do it for the sake of my Lord and for my life after this. Agle jivan ke liye,” he says in chaste Hindi — and calls it a day.