Context & Culture

Death of a Sahebzada: A story of different strands of thought in the Taleban movement


Late Abdullah Zakeri Sahebzada, a religious scholar close to the Taleban, killed in Quetta in early 2014. Photo: Pajhwok Afghan News

Earlier this year, a radical Afghan religious leader from a family of Sufi Pirs was murdered in Quetta, Pakistan. His name was Abdullah Zakeri Sahebzada. His relationships with the Taleban’s leadership and repeated calls for international jihad had earned him the ‘Taleb’ label in some media. But Zakeri, once a mediator in the Taleban movement, had a fall-out with Mullah Muhammad Omar who found him too extreme in his thoughts. AAN guest author Bette Dam(*) analyses Zakeri’s hitherto widely unknown life and career and introduces new aspects of internal differences during various periods of the Taleban and the movement’s relationship with the still widely practiced phenomenon of Sufism.

Abdullah Zakeri Sahebzada was originally from Zabul, but he died at the age of 84 in the Pakistan city of Quetta. Two men on a motorcycle shot him when he came out of a mosque following his afternoon prayers on 29 January this year. The assassins managed to escape.

Taleban and Pakistani intelligence sources based in Quetta the author spoke with accused the Afghan secret service NDS of the murder. Other recent murders of religious leaders in Quetta – like those of Mullah Salim and Mullah Nurullah Hotak, both leading Taleban members (media reporting here) – were also described as the result of NDS cross-border operations by these sources. A member of Zakeri’s tribe in Kandahar, however, told the author that Zakeri was not necessarily an enemy of the Afghan state – or the Taleban or the Pakistan intelligence, other possible perpetrators – but he might have been killed because of a private conflict.

Immediately after Zakeri’s assassination, his followers gathered at several locations, each time numbering in the hundreds, to mourn his death. This included the Afghan village of Zaker, which is now called Zaker-e Sharif (Sacred Zaker) by many because the family of the deceased hails from there and, as Sufi Pirs, they regard it as having religious importance. In that village, not far from the largest US base in Kandahar, men shouted hate speeches against the United States. The speeches were encouraged by Zakeri’s son Qayum, who said over the local radio that his father had foreseen that he would one day be killed by the US. “My murderers will be Americans”, his son quoted him, adding that his father had always been strongly opposed to the US.

Zakeri united several aspects in his person. He was an alem (a religious scholar), a political activist since at least the 1960s – who later, in the mid-1990s, tried to influence the Taleban movement and its supreme leader when it was still young – and a practitioner of Sufi rituals that are deeply embedded in the beliefs of many Afghans. He was the latter until his death, as a number of his visitors confirmed to the author.

He would give religious guidance or prescribe cures for illnesses of physical or mental nature. In his tiny, dark guestroom, his followers waited while he wrote tawiz, small pieces of paper usually with Quranic verses, with a pen that always sat in a dirty ink pot. The tawiz were to be sewn in tiny cloth covers or pieces of leather and worn around the neck as talismans. Zakeri also handed out shayest, similar papers, which, in contrast to the tawiz, are to be put in tea or other liquid that has to be drunk over three days as a cure for illness. Alternately, shayest can be put it between sheets – often of a specific colour – to sleep on them. For these reasons, some people – particularly in his home province of Zabul – call him a “Pir”, while others call him “sheikh” or “mawlawi”.

An early Islamist

For a Sufi Pir, Zakeri had extreme ideas, which were often picked up and reported by international media and even more so by Pakistani journalists who put him in ideological proximity to the Taleban movement. But it was less reported that Zakeri’s ideas clashed with those of the movement’s leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, and led to a fall out between the two. As a consequence, not many Taleban would have mourned Zakeri’s death, it is said in Quetta, since he had become an outcast.

Zakeri’s involvement in religious activism preceded the existence of the Taleban movement by far. During the reign of King Muhammad Zaher Shah (ruled 1933–73), who discouraged religious education, Zakeri’s unofficial madrassa in Kandahar was closed after his students participated in anti-government riots triggered by a dispute over Kabul’s insistence that officials’ wives should not wear burqas at official occasions. During these riots, the city’s only cinema was attacked and its interior set on fire, as an eye-witness of the events told AAN (find an article in Pashto here). During the ‘jihad’ against the Soviets, Zakeri was in prison for a while, but – as a legend goes – he prayed so hard that he was able to free himself from his handcuffs. After that, he moved to Quetta, where he established his own religious organisation, Ettehad-e Ulema-ye Afghanistan (Union of Religious Scholars of Afghanistan).

Two from the Hotak tribe

Mullah Omar and Zakeri knew each other before the era of the Taleban. Like Mullah Omar, Zakeri was from the Hotak tribe. Zakeri was also a religious leader, descending from one of the many Sufi families in Afghanistan who represent the spiritual and mystical side of Islam. That earned him the additional title of a Sahebzada, which is used for the descendants of Sufi Pirs. It is said that Zakeri’s 17th century forefathers’ mystical power was so strong that Shah Hossain Hotak (ruled 1729–38), the last ruler of the Hotaki dynasty, threw him out of his country. (This dynasty was established by Mir Wais Hotak, the founder of a short-lived Afghan tribal state that existed between 1709 and 1738.) In the village of Zaker, people say that Zakeri’s forefather cursed the king so hard in his prayers that his reign lasted only a few years longer.

Because of their tribal link, Mullah Omar’s father, who died when the later Taleban leader was only two years old, was sometimes a guest of Zakeri, his followers claim. Also Mullah Omar’s stepfather, who raised the boy after his father’s death, had good relations with the Pir, as Khateb Akhundzada, a mullah in the centre of Kandahar, told the author. Mullah Omar’s two uncles also were enthusiastic practitioners of Sufi traditions. According to a former Taleban minister, the young Mullah Omar might have received some religious lessons from Zakeri, but was not considered close to him. Mullah Omar received most of his education from other Sufi teachers, like Haji Baba whose grave Mullah Omar – when he was the Taleban leader – would visit almost every week.

In 1992, when Afghanistan descended into factional war after the withdrawal of the Soviets and the fall of the Najibullah government, Zakeri went to Kabul with the members of his ulema council. That visit is remembered by many of the sources the author interviewed because the Pir cursed the mujahedin leaders for creating the war. Furthermore, Zakeri’s 500-member council suggested the establishment of an Islamic government with an amir at the top, as Faruq Azam, who at that time negotiated on behalf of the Rabbani government, told the author (see also Afghan Islamic Press, 15 November 1992). The council also recommended that such an Islamic government should not include ‘communists’ like Abdul Rashid Dostum, who had been given amnesty and was appointed general by the first mujahedin president, Sebghatullah Mojaddedi, in 1992. According to contemporary media reports and a former secretary of Mullah Omar, important commanders like Jalaluddin Haqqani supported the idea, as did the prominent Pakistani alem, Mawlawi Nezamuddin from the Binori madrassa in Karachi, where lots of Afghans, including Taleban, studied (see also Afghan Islamic Press, 15 November 1992). But the new mujahedin government did not heed Zakeri’s suggestion.

Four years later, Afghanistan got what Zakeri propagated – an Islamic government full of taleban (students at mosques and madrassas) and mullahs. But Zakeri never became part of it.

An advisor first heard, then rejected

In the early years of the Taleban movement, however, Zakeri sometimes visited Kandahar from Quetta and played a role as a mediator in the movement. According to Khateb Akhundzada, he was also – invited or not, we do not know – present in meetings that prepared the declaration of the Taleban leader as amir-ul-momenin, which finally happened in April 1996 in Kandahar at a meeting of hundreds of taleban, mullahs and ulema. Prior to that, Omar had created enthusiasm by showing himself in the holy cloak of Prophet Muhammad that is kept in a shrine in the centre of the city. Before this gathering, mediation was needed in a smaller meeting in Kandahar, after the second-in-power in the Taleban. Mullah Muhammad Rabbani, had also shown interest in becoming the leader, as two witnesses told the author. Together with other prominent religious leaders, including one of the most important advisors of the Taleban, Mullah Deobandi, Zakeri reportedly played a role in having the attendees choose Omar.

Zakeri played a similar role in 1995–96, when the Taleban initially had enormous trouble taking Kabul. The then secretary of Mullah Omar remembers an internal conflict over whether to continue fighting or to negotiate a peaceful handover of the city with the Northern Alliance. Mullah Omar refused to negotiate and possibly share power with men that, he said, “had blood on their hands.” The disagreement grew so strong that pro-negotiations Taleban leaders like justice minister Mullah Nuruddin Torabi and health minister Abbas Stanakzai pushed for his removal. The majority though, including Zakeri, supported Mullah Omar and kept Torabi’s group at bay.

But relations between Zakeri and Mullah Omar were never smooth. Zakeri’s often impolite way of talking – regularly cursing people who would not listen to him – and his attitude, described as arrogant by people who worked with Mullah Omar, put the Taleban leader off. It was a clash of personalities and status: Zakeri being senior in age to Omar, while the latter – as amir-ul-momenin – was senior in rank.

Their political thinking also differed. Mullah Omar, for example, welcomed everybody in the movement ­– as individuals, not factions – from former communists who flew his fighter jets to Hazara commanders who joined his frontlines. Zakeri preferred to rely mostly on mullahs. In 1997, he angrily left Mullah Omar, when the Taleban leader relied on a renegade commander of General Dostum and former communist army officer, Abdul Malek, to take the city of Mazar-e Sharif. When Malek betrayed Mullah Omar and switched sides again after a short while, the Taleban lost the city again and with it many fighters.

After some time in Mullah Omar’s shadow, and long periods with no attention, Zakeri became more extreme, which pushed him back into the limelight. Zakeri joined Osama bin Laden and extremist Pakistani religious leaders who called for a global jihad. In a 1998 fatwa, Zakiri propagated an “armed crusade” by all Muslims in the world against the Americans, which corresponded with the ideas of Osama bin Laden, who had received asylum in Afghanistan.

Mullah Omar never bothered to silence Zakeri, who he apparently did not take seriously. When he was in power, he also did not prohibit most of the Sufi traditions he grew up with – something considered un-Islamic, for example, in Salafism. Like so many Afghans. Mullah Omar grew up with these habits in Afghan Islam, including the belief in tawiz or visiting graves to pray for the dead. Until days before the US and British bombings started on 7 October 2001, as a reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Mullah Omar continued to visit shrines in Kandahar. But he was against what he saw as a misuse of them – like selling tawiz.

On several occasions, though, Mullah Omar tried to stop Osama from issuing provocative statements and starting a war against the US from his country. He was busy setting up his own Islamic state and directing an on-going civil war. The last thing he seemed to want was another frontline, a conflict with the Americans, or another attack as he had experienced in 1998 in retaliation for al-Qaeda’s bombing of the two US embassies in East Africa when the Clinton administration hit al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan with cruise missiles. But Osama – and also Zakeri – ignored his orders.

In response, Zakeri started openly cursing Mullah Omar and accused him of being soft and incapable of running a state. According to sources on both sides, he questioned the level of Mullah Omar’s religious education, and insulted him as the ‘one-eyed mullah’, a curse from the Quran. Soon Mullah Omar stopped seeing Zakeri and ignored his suggestions, often written down as fatwas, which Zakeri kept sending.

After 9/11, Zakeri and Mullah Omar were not on the same page. For example, Zakeri argued in 2012 in one of his statements that the Taleban should not work with any foreign NGOs; he considered all of them foreign spies. The Taleban leadership, in contrast, although suspicious of them in general, allowed foreign NGOs to work during their regime and continued to cooperate with some of them afterwards. (Currently, they need to register with the Taleban Commission for the Arrangement and Control of Companies and Organisations.)

Zakeri also was against negotiations with the US government, according to a former Taleban minister. Zakeri’s son, just before his father’s death, went even a step further by revealing that Zakeri had opined that Afghan Taleban who were willing to talk had to be killed and declared jihad against those Taleban involved in talks with the US “before the US soldiers withdraw from Afghanistan.”

Whither the Zakeris?

It is not completely clear how much influence Abdullah Zakeri Sahebzada wielded in the Taleban movement. He participated in a number of crucial meetings, particularly before the Taleban came to power, and he had access to their key leaders. Later on, his purist position, to keep the movement free of fellow travellers and opportunists and limit government positions to religious leaders only, and his jihadist stance as well as his short temper collided with the ideas of the ideologically more eclectic Mullah Omar. Being from the same tribe no longer bridged the gap. The more Zakeri’s influence on the Taleban leader waned, the more extremist his positions became.

The differentiations within the Taleban movement and among its sympathisers and followers were papered over by a widespread perception, in the west, of its being a homogenous ‘radical Islamist’ movement. This led to some curious developments: Zakeri has sometimes been confused with or thought a relative of the leading Taleban military commander, Abdul Qayum Zaker (whose ‘retirement’ for ‘health reasons’ was announced in late April). Zakeri’s son Karim Agha was arrested by the Pakistani authorities in 2011, although he did not occupy any position in the movement. (He was released after two years, according to Afghan Islamic Press, 7 September 2013.)

Nobody knows yet what the future of the Zakeri Sahebzada family will be, particularly its status as one of Sufi Pirs. Zakeri sent one of his sons to receive higher education, and he speaks fluent English. Another one, Qayum, has already been seen in the mosques of Quetta and Karachi introducing himself as the successor, the one to go to for guidance, both spiritual and political.

(*) Bette Dam is a Dutch journalist and author who works mostly in the south of Afghanistan and on Taleban-related issues. She thanks AAN’s Borhan Osman for discussing the outcomes of research on Sufism in Afghanistan and Zakeri’s role in this.

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture