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Hanafi and Salafi Sectarianism in Afghanistan

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Institutionalization of the Taliban’s brand of Islam neither lasted nor developed into a viable state; the establishment of the regime had political implications far beyond Afghanistan(The Taliban and the Crisis of afghanistan.pdf).The influence of Taliban widened in their initials as countering the paved contradiction between various groups and warlords in Afghanistan. Soon it became a stallion for a particular sect.

The recent events in Afghanistan which involve the abuse of power by some hardliner Hanafi school contingents against the Salafi School approve the point made initially. How bad it possibly could be? The interest is in the trajectory of Taliban acceptance or rejection on a global scale, hence this subject is not addressed. The central theme of this writing where we witness the rising tensions between the Hanafi School and the Salafi School will have prolonged impacts on the region and the sectarian division in the region.


A group (ISK) popular for fundamentally preaching barbarity would be taking on a group (Taliban) being fundamentally popular previously and now unpopular administratively and managerially. Afghan Taliban and the Islamic State of Khurasan (Islamic State wing for Pakistan and Afghanistan), the initial claims to be an Emirate which is restricted to Afghanistan and some particular areas in Pakistan, they have some inclination towards Nationalist identity in Afghanistan and now an addition of Hanafi School prioritizes its identity more after coming to power.

The Islamic State manifests a concept of Caliphate under one strong Caliph, experienced in Syria and Iraq. The American evacuation infringed both the organizations as Taliban rose to power, lacking forces and resources to control the entire Afghanistan and additionally disturbances appeared in the Panjshir valley. Now they are facing a more brutal and deadly enemy, more organized and capable than Taliban.

Beginning the War

The contention between various Muslims religious schools is part of every second history, however, the current evolution especially on part of Islamic State after 2014 and replacing Al-Qaeda in its military capabilities and extending its roots to all geographical localities, attracting hardliners by all means possible. This passed a shock wave especially in Afghanistan as the Islamic State posed inevitable daring danger for the Taliban.

The Hanafi and Salafi Schools are in contention after Taliban approached Islamic states command in 2016 in Syria not to open a parallel front in Afghanistan. The Taliban got their answer when the Islamic State took most part of the Nangrahar and Kunar provinces in Afghanistan. The Taliban on grounds and the Afghan and United States somehow outnumbered the Islamic State of Khurasan, hundreds killed and others surrendered.  Sheikh Nuristani, a prominent Salafi scholar ensured Taliban of his loyalty and not siding against them.

However after 15th, 2021, some particular groups of Taliban targeted Salafi Scholars and Individuals. Beginning with Sheikh Mutawakil, Dr.Niazi a Salafi Scholars initially creating fan base for Islamic state however both has later expressed their allegiances to Afghan Taliban. These events also include the killing of ISK leader for the region Muhammad Khurasani, while Taliban took a prison in Jalalabad amid Afghan Army escape. However the death of leader was answered by ISK, attacking the evacuation process on Kabul Airport resulting in hundreds dead, making sure their presence in the urban areas like Kabul.

Followed by this a number of similar events went through Afghanistan which tensed the situation even across the borders. The oathed Tahreek Taliban Pakistan (Pakistan Taliban) has found some individuals turning towards ISK including a Hafiz Saeed responsible for founding Islamic State in the Region, creating a troublesome situation for the support of Afghan Taliban in the Region.

The real bad could happen if the Taliban government is further disorganized by the continuous attacks of ISK in erstwhile Afghanistan as UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) noted ISK responsible for 12% attacks in Afghanistan. UNAMA measured the increase of 118% in 2018 and in 2019 ISK was responsible for 1773 causalities in first quarter of 2019; however, there was decrease in the ISK attacks where the organization carried out 34 attacks causing 673 civilian causalities which was a 45% decrease in comparison to 2019. In 2021 there was the ISK stood at 9% which was a 1% increase.(unama_poc_midyear_report_2021_26_july.pdf)


Afghan Taliban can attract a good chunk of Sectarian following due to Hanafi origins; however the influence of hardliners in ISK and their increasing Support among local Afghan individuals and their approach of replacing Al-Qaida as an international organization is another contrasting concept.

In such case and Scenario we can easily switch to agree with Tarzi and Robert D. Crews, as Taliban to tackle this situation is to be dealing in their own manner and that could possibly be one of these two; increasing Madrassas (Religious Schools) of Hanafi Sects and secondly, approaching a more hardliner approach to stop the flow of own individuals towards ISK.

This both approaches have their own disadvantages. Taliban turning to religious schools may led to diverting attentions as it is considered a valuable source of support and power among religious individuals inside one particular organization. This could also make them soft targets for ISK. Secondly, approaching a more hardliner approach in the state would evidently result to production of new groups which would prove catastrophic for Taliban and Afghanistan.

Possible Alliances

 While Taliban are a Pashtun group makes almost half of the total Afghan Population, rest are Tajik, Uzbeks, Hazaras and other small minorities which had explicitly impartial relations with the Taliban following the Russian evacuation and the Beginning of civil war, followed by the rise of Taliban and then their government. The Hazaras prominently Shia Muslims has been struck hard by the Taliban from time to time due to their sectarian contradictions. The very same Shia Muslims has been targeted by Islamic state in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

There was a voice of some neo-Taliban holding the offices and enforcing the moderate form of Sharia in Afghanistan to attract the common masses by opening educational institutions to women and encouraging their participation in other fields of social practices. But with the rising influence of ISK, leadership contention in Al-Qaeda after Al-Zawahari, Taliban less appeal towards public, public disorder and unrest in Northern Afghanistan, absence of central command Mullah Haibatullah, divisions between moderate and hardliner Taliban and American attacks on Taliban commanders has stiffened the case. The ISK is hitting hard and benefiting from the vacuumed space left by the Taliban Fighters.

The support for ISK comes both from the Fundamental and traditional circles, that is, the Pashtun code of conduct rests in vengeance which is mostly not favoring the Taliban and that is obviously in disbanded Afghan Army, the fundamentals inside Afghan Taliban and their aides in Pakistani Taliban may look towards the ISK as the Afghan Taliban seems to be falling of favor even by the religious allies like East-Uzbekistan movement which is favoring Yaghours(a minority Muslims in china) has switched-off their allegiances with Afghan Taliban.

Additionally the Taliban fighters who deserted from TTP and found ISK, also looks for prominent support from Islamic state against Pakistan, these fighters has been annoyed by the less support of Afghan Taliban in their voyage against Pakistan Army.

All these situations will be enough to balance the ground for both organizations to run for Sectarian power struggle in Afghanistan and influence the bordering Pakistan and Iran.   The sectarian contention by both Hanafi and Salafi against the Shia has common grounds back in the Afghan Civil war, but now all three of them are challenging each other, previously Hanafi Taliban has somehow agreed to take war under the Salafi Al-Qaeda but that motive came from the perspective of respect. Hanafi Pashtun Taliban has always opposed their replacement in their respective localities.

The Northern Alliance comprised of Uzbeks, Tajik and Hazara has always resisted Taliban, but a possible alliance could not be rejected as in the Afghan Civil war, there were events when they switched alliances against one another. This may be mean but could possibly result political compromises as well, against a more fundamental Islamic state which has never aligned to another group and enforces its own ideology.


The Islamic state of Khurasan has proven its strategic efficiency against the Afghan Taliban. The ground once lost by the Afghan Army is now open for ISK. Members from other groups like Quetta Shura has joined the ISK, believing strengthening the belief in Internationalization of Jihad, including the Current chief of ISK, Abu-Shahab-Al- Mahajir. This sectarian conflict will also shuffle the Pashtun centralism of power which rests in Kandahar. The possibility of Alliances is due to the uncreative strength of the Northern alliance’s against Taliban  and for the later to reduce burden on their advancing forces against ISK in certain regions of Afghanistan.

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Uzair Khan is an MPhil graduate in International Relations with a profound expertise in the intricate dynamics of Pakistan-Afghanistan relations.

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