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Understanding Salafism in South Asia

Although an increasing number of academic works recognize the various manifestations of the global Salafist movement, few, if any, compare Salafist movements. This article examines the Salafist movements in Pakistan and North India (known as the Ahle Hadith movement), which originated in the colonial era in India.[1] The article seeks to explain what led Salafist/Ahle Hadith organizations in Pakistan, though not those in India, to adopt violence.

The Salafist movement in North India and Pakistan is largely represented by the Ahle Hadith movement (people of Hadith). Its presence in the subcontinent is attributed broadly to Shah Waliullah Dehlawi, an 18th century reformer.[2] After the partition of India in 1947, many leaders chose to migrate to Pakistan while others chose to remain.[3] India is now home to an estimated 22 million Salafists (perhaps the largest community of Salafists in the world) while Pakistan has about 10 million.[4]

In South Asia, the term “Wahhabi” — a reference to the branch of Salafism still largely popular in Saudi Arabia[5] — has long had a negative connotation. Wahhabi was first used as a derogatory term by orientalists such as Wilson Hunter to identify “rebels” in the aftermath of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny against the British.[6] Subsequently, Muslim scholars successfully petitioned courts to have the term outlawed in 1889 across India.[7] Thereafter, the (primarily Urdu speaking) followers of Salafi thought in the region came to be known as the Ahle Hadith. Yet, the word Wahhabi has been used by groups such as the Barelvis to denounce their opponents (e.g., Deobandis and Tablighi Jamaat) even if they are non-Salafists.[8] The pejorative aspect of the term became even more prominent since the1980s, when Saudi funding for madrassas in many parts of the world (including in Pakistan) came to be associated with terrorism.[9] In this sense, the Salafist movements across South Asia are diverse and multi-dimensional.

Mapping Commonalities and Divergences

Despite the geographic divide, the two movements are similar in several noteworthy respects. First, they both espouse Tawheed (monotheism) and reject the practice of associating any saints as intermediaries between the faithful and God. Moreover, they routinely call for the encouragement of “good” and forbidding of “evil.” Both are also opposed to following any of the four mainstream Islamic jurisprudential schools, establishing themselves as ghair mukallideen (those who reject blind following).[10] While these beliefs establish an in-group, the Ahle Hadith movement also has common out-groups as well. For instance, both strands of the movement regard Shias and Ahmadis as “deviants” and “non-believers,” respectively.[11] 

Second, the group is opposed to the practice of associating with Sufi saints and “god men,” unlike the Barelvis and to a lesser extent, the Deobandis, both of which are also present in India and Pakistan.[12]

Third, the Ahle Hadith movement has regular arguments and disagreements with those who follow the Hanafi school of thought due to jurisprudential differences.[13]

Finally, the Ahle Hadith movements in India and Pakistan also have in common relations with Saudi Arabia. For instance, madrassas belonging to the movement in both nations send their students to Saudi universities such as Medina University and Umm ul Qura University.[14] Millions of dollars in Saudi funding has also been pumped into Indian and Pakistani madrassas and educational institutions.[15]

Yet, the similarities end here. While many differences have arisen between the movements, of particular relevance in this discussion is the adoption of violence as a tactic by many of the groups in Pakistan, a phenomenon that is largely missing in India. Maryam Abou Zahab, for instance, documented 17 major Ahle Hadith groups in Pakistan, of which three were violent and six were political with some leaning towards or approving violence on their enemies.[16]

Salafist/Ahle Hadith organizations in Pakistan have targeted various actors and groups or have advocated violence.[17] Some of these targets are Indian soldiers/security forces based in Kashmir as well as Ahmadis, Shias and Barelvis in Pakistan. The Markaz al-Dawah Irshad (MDI) is one of the leading Salafist organizations, whose proxy, Lashkar e-Taiba, best known for conducting various attacks on Indian soil including the Mumbai attack of 2008 that killed more than 160 people.[18] Another group, the Markaz Jamiat Ahle Hadith (MJAH), has issued fatwas (religious edicts) proclaiming death to all Shias in Pakistan.[19] Tehreek e-Mujahideen, an offshoot of MJAH, has targeted Indian security forces in the contested state of Kashmir.[20] Similarly, as Christine Fair has documented, Ahle Hadith organizations have launched attacks on Barelvi organizations in Pakistan while maintaining various madrassas that train militants such as Ma’had al-Ala in Murdike; Jamia Uloom e-Asria in Jhelum; Jamia Muhammadia in Gujranwala; and Jamia Muhammadia in Okara.[21]

In sharp contrast, many experts have regarded Indian Salafists as being “peaceful” and “non-violent.”[22] Indeed, the heads of the Ahle Hadith movements have either remained silent on political issues or even supported right wing Hindu agendas in India. For instance, the Jamiat Ahle Hadith issued statements of support for the Modi government’s abrogation of article 370 in Kashmir which reduced the status of the only Muslim majority state in India to a union territory and even supported the controversial National Register of Citizens across India — an issue that has sparked massive protests since December 2019.[23] Over the years, despite a push to paint Salafists as responsible for violence, the movement has largely remained apolitical and preferred to focus on theological and jurisprudential issues instead.  

Explaining the Differences

As shown above, whereas Salafists in India and Pakistan are similar in theological and jurisprudential terms and even in their financial expansion mechanisms, they have followed very different political trajectories. To be sure, many Salafists in Pakistan do not support violence. However, there are in Pakistan (unlike in India) a significant number of Salafist organizations that advocate violence. Three sets of circumstances have contributed to the formation of out-groups in Pakistan bent on violence:

  1. Pakistan Under Siege: Since independence, Pakistan’s civil-military relations have been strained. One way the Pakistani military justified bloated spending on defense was to paint the nation as being under threat from Hindu India and its various excesses in Kashmir.[24] Given that the army was not able to defeat the Indian army by conventional means, since the late 1980s it has relied on asymmetric warfare.[25] Many religious groups in Pakistan began to espouse violence against India in order to curry favor with the Pakistani authorities. Financial incentives and benefits extended to such groups, most notably Lashkar e-Taiba (LeT), [26] enabled them to train and dispatch recruits to conduct terrorist attacks in India.[27]
  2. Majority-Minority Dynamics: Some Pakistani Salafist groups have used sectarianism, in the form of Sunni Muslim domination, as a justification for violence. Various Sunni groups have demonized non-Sunni minorities such as Shias and Ahmadis, referring to them as “non-Muslims.”[28] Local dynamics and vested government interests as well as the Saudi-Iranian cold war further fuelled sectarian-based violence.[29] Due to the Deobandi groups which were supported by government policies (that originated from president Zia ul haque’s Islamist policies in the 1980s) targetting such minorities, Ahle Hadeeth groups have at least supported calls for violence (if not directly attacking minority groups).[30] In contrast, Indian Salafists, being part of the Muslim minority, have often tried to maintain a lower profile and despite having differences and debates with other sects, do not have violent scuffles of any sort. Moreover, the Salafists in many cases have even argued for Hindu-Muslim unity apart from participating more in the democratic process of India.[31] This stems from the fact that as a minority, survival is of paramount importance; and calling for violence in a Hindu majority state (especially one that is turning increasingly majoritarian) runs counter to its best interests.
  3. International Conflicts: The Afghan Jihad of the 1980s in particular have played a role in making Pakistani Salafist groups violent and Indian Salafists peaceful. Pakistan was a key nation in training and assisting the Afghan mujahideen in their campaign against the Soviet occupation (1979-1989).[32] In addition, the Pakistani government gave madrassas the “green light” to advocate violent action against Soviet forces, effectively militarizing many organizations, including Salafist/Ahle Hadith groups.[33] Thus, LeT, which among many other groups originated from the remnants of the Afghan mujahideen, emerged as a militarized faction of Salafists that subsequently went on to fight in Kashmir and elsewhere.[34] The anti-Soviet dynamic was missing in the case of India, which had a generally positive relationship with Moscow throughout the Cold War.[35] Indeed, many Indian madrassas, while sympathetic toward the Afghan mujahideen, explicitly forbade their students from participating in the Afghan Jihad, presumably due to tacit alliances between Muslim organizations and the then Congress government.[36]

Lessons for Radicalization Studies

Many Salafist groups in Pakistan do not subscribe to violence. The few that do are influenced by a variety of external factors such as the political situation within and outside Pakistan as well as majority-minority dynamics. Indeed, these same factors were also responsible for militarizing many other sectarian groups within Pakistan, such as the Deobandi movement, the Shias and the Barelvi movement. The markedly different political circumstances for Indian Muslims have yielded a much different outcome: non-violence has been a staple of groups such as Barelvis, Shias and the Deobandi movement in India.

Two lessons can be derived from the comparative study of Salafists in India and Pakistan. First, no religious ideology can be considered a harbinger of violence. If this were true, then Salafists who are normally decried as conveyor belts to violence would have turned violent in India. Second, political externalities play a more potent role in radicalizing and militarizing movements than do ideologies. It is for this reason that, broadly speaking, the very same dynamics that radicalize small segments of the Muslim population in Pakistan do the same for some Hindus in India.[37]

Ultimately, such comparative studies provide major clues for both academics and policy makers regarding how to prevent movements from taking up arms in most scenarios. Given the massive effort required to induce or coerce a group that has embraced violence to renounce it, adopting preventive polices that focus on political and other root causes, rather than on presumed religious ideological drivers, would seem both prudent and practical.


[1] This article does not examine Salafist groups in the Southern part of India, such as the Kerala Nadwathul Mujahideen (KNM), which uses Malayalam instead of Urdu as a medium of communication.

[2] Barbara Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982) 16, 28, 46-48.

[3] Ali Usman Qasmi and Megan Eaton, “Introduction,” in Ali Usman Qasmi and Megan Eaton (Eds.), Muslims against the Muslim League Critiques of the Idea of Pakistan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017) 3.

[4] Taken from the website of the Markaz Jamiat Ahle Hadith of India. These claims might be exaggerated.

[5] Mohamed Bin Ali, Muhammad Saiful Alam Shah Bin Sudiman, “Salafis and Wahhabis: Two Sides of the Same Coin?” RSIS Commentaries, October 11, 2016,

[6] W. W. Hunter, The Indian Musalmans (London: Trubner and Company, 1876) 116-118.

[7] Barbara Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982) 288.

[8] Julia Stephens, “The Phantom Wahhabi: Liberalism and the Muslim fanatic in mid-Victorian India,” Modern Asian Studies 47 (2013): 22- 52.

[9] Mohammed Alyahya, “Don’t Blame ‘Wahhabism’ for Terrorism,” New York Times, October 19, 2016,; and Julia Stephens, “The Phantom Wahhabi: Liberalism and the Muslim Fanatic in mid-Victorian India,” Modern Asian Studies 47 (2013): 22- 52.

[10] Regarding Salafists’ views of the four schools, see Bilal Philips, The Evolution of Fiqh (London: International Islamic Publishing House, 1983).

[11] Roel Meijer, “Introduction,” in Roel Meijer (Ed.), Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009): 8-12. For information on Shias, see the speech by Indian Salafist Meeraj Rabbani on Ahmadis at “Qadiani Hi Kafir Kyu CD 2 Part 1” (Why is only the Qadiani/Ahmadi kaafir),” YouTube, November 2, 2009.

[12] Regarding instances of Salafi opposition to Deobandis, see Munazara or debate between Ahlehadees and Deobandi on Taqleed, YouTube, December 3, 2017, For discussions on Salafist views on the Barelwis and Sufis in Pakistan, see Maryam Abou Zahab, “Salafism in Pakistan,” in Roel Meijer (Ed.), Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009): 126-143.

[13] For instances of Salafi opposition to Deobandis, see see Munazara or debate between Ahlehadees and Deobandi on Taqleed, YouTube, December 3, 2017, For discussions of Salafist views on the Barelwis and Sufis in Pakistan, see Maryam Abou Zahab, “Salafism in Pakistan.”

[14] Michael Farquhar, Circuits of Faith Migration, Education, and the Wahhabi Mission (Stanford: Stanford University Press) 147, 170. The author has also met many madrassa graduates from India who have gone on to study in Medina University, Saudi Arabia.

[15] Since 2005, Pakistani madrassas and other educational institutions have received an estimated $100 million. Over the years, their Indian counterparts have received more than $750 million. See “2008: Extremist recruitment on the rise in south Punjab madrassahs,” Dawn, May 28, 2011,; and Abhinav Pandya, “Does Saudi-funded Muslim Radicalization Threaten India?” Haaretz, August 18, 2018,

[16] Maryam Abou Zahab, “Salafism in Pakistan.”

[17] It is important to note here that different Salafist groups/organizations target these actors with varying intentions. All these groups however, contribute to Salafists engaging in violence in the country.

[18] Stephen Tankel, Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011) 207-235.

[19] Christine Fair, In Their Own Words: Understanding Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (London: C. Hurst and Co Publishers, 2018) 14.

[20] Ibid., 69-70.

[21] Ibid., 122.

[22] Bernard Haykel, “Jihadism Is Not Saudi Arabia’s Fault,” New York Times, December 8, 2015,

[23] Ziya us Salam, “Muslim bodies’ surprise support to the Modi government’s action on Article 370,” Frontline, October 25, 2019,

[24] T.V. Paul, The Warrior State: Pakistan in the Contemporary World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014) 69-94.

[25] Zahid Hussain, Frontline Pakistan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007) 102-108.

[26] Tankel, Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba, 207-235.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Mohammed Ismail Khan, “The Assertion of Barelvi Extremism,” Hudson Institute,

[29] Shahzeb Ali Rathore, “The Saudi-Iran Factor in Pakistan’s Sunni-Shia Conflict,” Middle East Institute, May 30, 2017,

[30] Khan, “The Assertion of Barelvi Extremism.  

[31] “Is voting haraam or shirk? Democracy in Islam - Sheikh Wasiullah Abbas (English subtitles),” YouTube, January 24, 2016,  Although the video was not released until 2016, this speech was delivered before the 2014 Indian general elections. See also “Mufti Ataur Rahman Qasmi || 33rd All India Ahle Hadees Conference || Delhi”, Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadees Hindi Official – YouTube, March 3, 2018, for discussions on Hindu Muslim Unity.

[32] Lubna Sunawar and Tatiana Coutto, “U.S. Pakistan Relations during the Cold War,” The Journal of International Relations, Peace Studies, and Development 6, 1 (2015): 1-11.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Tankel, Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba, 207-235.

[35] M.J. Berlin, “India Supports Soviets’ Afghan Position in U.N. Debate,” Washington Post, January 12, 1980,

[36] Arshi Saleem Hashmi, “The Deobandi Madrassas in India and their elusion of Jihadi Politics: Lessons for Pakistan.” Doctoral dissertation. Quad-E-Azam University (2014): viii, 207, (The author interviewed the head of the Jamiat Ulema e-Hind India, which is connected to the Deobandi to obtain this information.)

[37] An example of this is Hindu Raksha Dal, a group which organized violence against students in January 2020.