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Tahir-ul-Qadri, Muhammad

Najia Mukhtar
Oxford Islamic Studies Online What is This? Online-only content developed by noted scholars is continuously added to the site, part of our ongoing efforts to expand our coverage of the Islamic world.

Tahir-ul-Qadri, Muhammad

(b. 1951), Pakistani Muslim

religious leader,

was born in 1951 in the town of Jhang. According to his official biography, he has an extensive religious education formally started in the Muslim holy city of Medina. In addition, he has an MA in Islamic Studies, an LLB (bachelor of laws) and a PhD in Muslim Law from the University of Punjab in Pakistan (MQI website). Tahir-ul-Qadri is the founder of the transnational organization, Minhaj-ul-Quran International (MQI; lit. “Path of the Quran”). MQI was established in 1981 in Pakistan. Subsequently a number of branches have emerged in a number of other countries, including an official headquarters in London. It has an important following[1] and organizational apparatus, notably demonstrated in large organized events such as an annual iʿtikāf (spiritual retreat) gathering during the last ten days of the Islamic month of Ramaẓān (MQI Itikaf City).

Social and Political Activism

Whilst predominantly recognized as a religious leader, Tahir-ul-Qadri has dabbled in political activism, notably in two protest marches and sit-ins led by him against the alleged failings of Pakistan’s political leaders in August–October 2014 and January 2013 (Khan 2014, Ali Khan and O’Toole 2014). These rallies have also revived Tahir-ul-Qadri’s political party, the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT; Pakistan Peoples’ Movement, est. 1989), with which he served as a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly from 2002 until 2004 (Philippon 2012, Piquard 2001). In fact, Tahir-ul-Qadri had been associated with political personalities even before this; at the start of his career he was patronized by the family of current Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif (PM from 1990 to 1993 and 2013 until present) (Jafar 2014).

After resigning from Parliament Tahir-ul-Qadri moved to Canada and shifted his focus (until returning to lead the first protest march in 2013) toward social-religious activities through MQI’s various arms. These include an active women’s wing, youth and students’ societies, a section responsible for interfaith activities, and the organization of religious events such as iʿtikāf. In Pakistan MQI runs an important rural and urban network of schools and colleges imparting a combined religious and secular education, a university (Minhaj University), as well as an extensive range of other welfare programs, handled by the Minhaj Welfare Foundation (MWF). These include, for instance, running an orphanage, various medical initiatives, and the organization of congregational marriages for couples lacking the financial means to organize a marriage ceremony (Minhaj Welfare Foundation). It also has wide-ranging daʿwah (propagation, outreach) operations, including Tahir-ul-Qadri’s extensive itinerary of public lectures in Pakistan and abroad, and the recording and dissemination of these in various forms including over the internet and on CDs, cassettes, and DVDs. Indeed MQI has significant publication and information activities that handle the distribution of Tahir-ul-Qadri’s vast corpus of writings and speeches on Islam, the maintenance of a large number of affiliated websites, and an active Twitter and Facebook presence. MQI’s main website lists eighty-two affiliated websites, including social media and the websites of fifteen international branches as well as of various institutions (colleges, universities, orphanages, etc.) that sit under MQI.

Form of Leadership

Referred to as Shaykh-ul-Islam [2], Tahir-ul-Qadri’s religious leadership has a particular format and stature among his followers. First, he presents himself as a Sufi leader as well as a religious scholar. Hence, in keeping with the charismatic aura typically associated with such figures, great effort is made to present him as embodying perfection across a range of fields. He is considered a scholar, jurist, spiritual guide, and healer of the highest acclaim, with an extensive intellectual-spiritual lineage, permissions (ijāza), and academic credentials (see his profile on MQI’s website). The Sufi, master-disciple (pīṛ-murīd) system, even if not actualized for the sake of modernization . . . remains the prevalent form of authority within the movement (Philippon 2012, p. 17). Tahir-ul-Qadri’s exceptionality is projected in numerous ways by his followers including in an elaborate collection of hagiographic material disseminated on the internet, through publications, and in reiterating his accolades at public events. Despite the elaborate organizational machine of MQI, Tahir-ul-Qadri is the pivotal figure to whom followers gravitate. After him, it appears that his sons will lead the organization in an expected, hereditary transfer of power.

Ideas and Teachings

Tahir-ul-Qadri’s global renown, particularly after September 11, is significantly premised on his strong condemnation of religious violence, notably terrorism per the title of his famous Fatwa against Terrorism and Suicide Bombings (“Fatwa”) released internationally in 2010 at a launch event in Westminster, London (see, for instance, coverage of the Fatwa on in the international media on MQI’s website). However, even prior to this, when sectarian violence between the Shīʿah and Sunnī communities first became a significant problem in Pakistan during the 1980s[3], Tahir-ul-Qadri had campaigned for reconciliation and dialogue between the two communities. Hence, even though Tahir-ul-Qadri is of the Sunnī denomination, MQI has Shīʿah members. As noted above, MQI also has a dedicated division for promoting interfaith dialogue, primarily working with Pakistani Christians, but also with Hindus and Sikhs. Tahir-ul-Qadri himself speaks frequently on television and in public addresses on the subject of promoting peace across religious communities.

More broadly, Tahir-ul-Qadri’s teachings may be situated with the traditional Sunnī- Barelwī orientation (sing. maslak, lit. way) which started as Muslim reform movement in nineteenth-century colonial India (Metcalf 1989, Sanyal 1999). Many of the early Barelwī leaders were affiliated with the Qādirī Sufi silsila (lineage). As evident from his name, this is also the case for Tahir-ul-Qadri. It is common for Barelwī adherents, including Tahir-ul-Qadri, to describe themselves simply as Sunnī or ahl al-sunnat wal jamāat (people of the Prophet’s precedent). Nevertheless Barelwī thought can be distinguished, for instance, in its special treatment of the stature and qualities of the Prophet Muhammad (Sanyal 1999, 2005). Thus Tahir-ul-Qadri’s public speeches frequently involve interpreting the guidance of the Prophet Muhammad regarding the issue at hand, making extensive reference to selected Prophetic traditions (sing. ḥadīs̤) in order to make his case.[4] MQI organizes a large annual event (and many smaller ones) to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday (maulid al-nabī). The 2014 event in Lahore is reported by MQI to have attracted over 150,000 attendees (MQI website). MQI has also constructed a dedicated building (gosha-durūd) for perpetual recitation of blessings and salutations for the Prophet.

In addition to the centrality of the Prophetic model, Barelwī interpretations are also identified by their association with Sufi practices and beliefs, hence Tahir-ul-Qadri’s status also as a Sufi leader. Two other notable movements that emerged in the same nineteenth-century Indian context as the Barelwī movement—the Deobandī[5] and Ahl-i-ḥadīs̤—seek to critique and move away from many of the popular shrine-based modes of worship associated with Sufism particularly in rural India. These included praying at the shrines of dead saints for intercession with the Prophet Muhammad or God, and celebrating saints’ death anniversaries (ʿurs). Barelwī leaders, however, defend such practices, spending significant energy in demonstrating their basis in Islam.[6] However, while he is Barelwī in ideational leaning and does claim a Sufi identity, Tahir-ul-Qadri circumscribes his association with traditional Sufi structures. Philippon (2012) equates the organizational setup of MQI more to that of the well-known Islamist organization Jamaat-e-Islami, than a Sufi community (t̤arīqa). Moreover, while many traditional Sufi beliefs and practices such as intercession and visiting the shrines are condoned, MQI does not have a saints’ shrine of its own. As noted above, even if Tahir-ul-Qadri acts as spiritual guide to many of his close followers, there is no formal pledge of allegiance or discipleship process (murīdī).

In certain aspects Tahir-ul-Qadri’s project seeks to move past tradition. Atypically for Barelwī interpretations, he accommodates a level of independent reasoning (ijtihād) within traditional understandings of Islamic law (Tahir-ul-Qadri 2007). Furthermore, as reflected in MQI’s educational activities mentioned above, he ostensibly seeks to amalgamate modern and religious education. MQI also offers a significant activist role to women, as evidenced in their extensive participation in the protest marches of 2013 and 2014. Finally, Tahir-ul-Qadri appears to seek rapprochement, for instance through his Fatwa, with Western countries particularly in light of post September 11 preoccupations with religious violence emanating from Muslim societies. In line with Philippon (2012), Tahir-ul-Qadri’s work is best described as an attempt to update or modernize e the traditional Barelwī understandings of Islam in a contemporary context.

1 According to Philippon (2012) there are approximately 500,000 paid-up Minhaj-ul-Quran members in Pakistan and 25,000 abroad.

2 “Shaykh” here is the same as the term shaiḵẖ, which typically refers to a Muslim religious leader, particularly the leader of a Sufi community (silsila or t̤arīqa). The spelling “shaykh” is that used in MQI’s communications when referring to Qadri.

3 On the emergence of Shīʿah-Sunnī sectarianism in Pakistan, see Nasr (2002) and Abou Zahab (2002).

4 However his writings make also make reference to other Islamic source materials such as the Quran and texts of jurisprudence, in addition to the ḥadīs̤. See, for instance, the Fatwa.

5 Note that early Deobandī leaders were also Sufis but sought to rid Sufism as it was practiced in India of its presumed excesses.

6 There are other theological disagreements between the three orientations. For details, see Metcalf (1989).


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