Are the Taliban Jihadists? On the Religious Identity of Afghanistan’s New Rulers

How can we comprehend the current state of affairs in Afghanistan? Thomas Schmidinger offers us an insight into the religious position of the Taliban inside of Sunni Islam. In doing so, he shows us that religious identities are more complex than we often believe. To read the German version of this article, click here.

I

In Western media, the Taliban are sometimes associated with jihadist groups, the “Islamic State” (IS) or al-Qaeda, or at least grouped with political Salafism. Historically, it is true that during their first “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” i.e., before their fall in 2001, the Taliban provided refuge to al-Qaeda, but this was due more to Pashtunwali, i.e., Pashtun customary law that gives high priority to the protection of guests, as well as to historical ties from the time of joint support for the anti-Soviet struggle, rather than to ideological and religious similarities. In today’s Afghanistan, al-Qaeda is no longer present, and the IS is an enemy of the Taliban. In fact, the Taliban’s fight against the IS in Afghanistan was a major reason for Russia, China, and Iran’s rapprochement with the Taliban, as they were seen as effective opponents of the IS.

This article, however, will focus less on realpolitik and on the resulting alliances that often seem absurd, and more on the question of the Taliban’s religious background. Is it a jihadist or Salafi group or something fundamentally different?

Jihadism, as we know it and as it is active worldwide in al-Qaeda and the IS, is a particular terrorist development out of political Salafiya. Salafism is a current within (Sunni) Islam that rejects the historical development of the various madhāhib, i.e., the “schools of law” of Islam (singular: maḏhab, plural: madhāhib), and seeks to replace historically developed theology, jurisprudence, and philosophy with an imitation of the Prophet and his companions.

If Salafism in general represents a backward-looking utopia, a return to the community of the Prophet, his companions and the first generations of Islam, political Salafism represents fighting for the political system that corresponds to such a society (or to what its present-day adherents understand by it). In jihadism are added the concept of takfir – that is, the “excommunication” of most Muslims[1] – and the concept of (lesser) jihad, that is, armed jihad as an individual religious duty.[2]

Jihadism was also influenced by a movement similar to Salafism, which, however, did not as radically reject the madhāhib, but instead represented in a sense a radicalization of one of these “schools of law,” namely the Hanbalites. The 18th-century scholar Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb, the founder of Wahhabism, referred to this maḏhab, which goes back to Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855). Wahhabism became the state religion in Saudi Arabia through the alliance with the Saud dynasty and inspired Usama bin Laden, among others, in the development of his al-Qaeda.

II

However, the Taliban are neither Salafis nor Wahhabis and have repeatedly emphasized this since their recapture of Kabul in mid-August 2021. Religiously, the Taliban are Sunni Muslims who belong to the Sunni maḏhab of the Hanafiya. The Hanafis were the imperial law school of the Ottoman Empire and are dominant today in south-eastern Europe, Turkey,[3] and Central Asia and among Indian Muslims. Religiously, the Taliban are thus no different than most other Sunni Muslims in Afghanistan. Nor do they declare other Muslims to be non-Muslims – as do, for example, the IS. The anti-Shiite spin that was unmistakable when the Taliban first came to power in the 1990s represented a radicalized racism against the Hazara, who were frequently racially discriminated, rather than a theologically based position.

As is well known, the Taliban emerged predominantly from Koranic students of the so-called Deobandis, a movement within Hanafi Sunni Islam that bears revivalist traits but never adopted the Salafi rejection of tradition and of the madhāhib. Founded in 1866, the Dar ul-ʿUlum (House of Knowledge) in the small Indian town of Deoband became one of the most important Islamic universities under British colonial rule, also producing many anti-colonial Islamic scholars and attracting scholars from Afghanistan. The Deobandis, a foreign designation they themselves rejected, became one of the most important streams of Sunni Islam in India. The designation “Deobandi order,” which is sometimes found in Western media and is based on various Sufi communities that are also often referred to as “orders” in Western languages, is not entirely accurate. The Deobandi movement is rather a very literalistic and revivalist current, which, especially in the context of British colonial rule over India, included a recollection of the “golden age” of Islam and, although it has similar organizational forms to the Sufi orders in the region, is not itself a Sufi current.

In addition to Afghanistan, the Deobandis have considerable influence in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, South Africa, and Indonesia. They hold a dogmatic, orthodox, and puritanical doctrine that tends to be anti-Western, but they do not distance themselves from other Muslims and certainly hold different positions within the movement. In their rejection of the veneration of graves and saints, there are parallels to Wahhabism and Salafism, which made them sharp opponents of the likewise Hanafi Barelwī movement, but did not lead to their adoption of other Wahhabi or Salafi positions.

When the reform-minded pro-European Afghan ruler Ghazi Amanullah Khan expelled the country’s most important cleric, Sher Agha, in the 1920s, the latter went into exile in Deoband. In the context of the Dar ul-ʿUlum, he gathered around himself conservative Sunni students of the Koran and mullahs from Afghanistan who returned after Ghazi Amanullah Khan fell from power and fled to Italy in 1929. The Deobandis have since been considered an important reference point for Afghanistan as well.

When the war in the 1980s left behind thousands of Afghan orphans in the Pakistani border regions, it was the Deobandis who took care of them in their Koran schools, not only offering them a roof over their heads but also imparting their very puritanical Hanafi Islam. In the 1990s, these very students of the Koran became the Taliban, who are still religiously affiliated with this form of Hanafi Islam today.

This is a very puritanical version of the Hanafi school of law, which is also influenced in many respects by the Pashtun code of law and honor, the Pashtunwali. The IS accuses the Taliban of being “nationalistic” and thus “un-Islamic” because of this inclusion of Pashtun traditions. Religiously, the Taliban do not have much in common with Wahhabism and Salafism, even though political alliances existed in the 1990s that were based on a shared concept of the enemy.


Thomas Schmidinger is a political scientist and social and cultural anthropologist who lives in Vienna.


[1] Almost all Muslims agree that anyone who believes in the creed of Islam (that there is no God but God and that Muhammad is the prophet of God) is a Muslim, and that failure to follow certain rules makes one a sinner but not an apostate. However, for takfiris, Muslims who practice takfir, even minimal deviations from their Islamic interpretation constitute not sin but apostasy. As a result, takfiris regard the vast majority of Muslims as apostates. Since in this worldview apostasy is a crime worthy of death even before the afterlife, it is also legitimate to kill Muslims, who in their view are apostates.

[2] This is discussed in more detail in Thomas Schmidinger: Jihadismus. Ideologie, Prävention und Deradikalisierung. [2nd edition] Mandelbaum Verlag. Vienna, 2016.

[3] Not in the Kurdish regions: The majority of Kurds are Shāfiʿites.


Photo Credits: Pixabay


Rat-Blog Nr. 24/2021

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