Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice

Sadakat Kadri

At a recent press conference, a written statement attributed to the Taliban’s ‘commander of the faithful’, Haibatullah Akhundzada, said that the incoming government of Afghanistan will ‘work hard to uphold Islamic rules and sharia law’. In Arabic, ‘sharia’ implies a path to salvation, and ultra-pious Muslims don’t abandon that road willingly. But the rules to be upheld are less obvious. They’ve been contested for at least twelve hundred years. Some jurists have been tolerant and inclusive; others not. One prolific scholar popular in Taliban circles, Ibn Abiʼl-Dunya, a stern tutor to several princes in late ninth-century Baghdad, wrote seven tracts on prohibition alone. Among the frivolities he thought hateful to God were stringed instruments, chess, pigeon-fancying and sitting on seesaws.

Akhundzada leans heavily towards intolerance. In the late 1990s, he worked closely with the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which outlawed activities from beard-trimming to kite-flying. He went on to write a legal justification for suicide bombings. Among those apparently persuaded by it was his 23-year-old son; in July 2017, he drove an explosive-laden Humvee into a Helmand military base.

With spiritual guidance that fierce, there’s little the Taliban can’t authorise itself to do. Isolated verses of the Quran can easily be cited to justify the disadvantaging of women and minorities. Ninth-century texts condemning pursuits that distract from God are reason enough to outlaw frivolities from soap operas to Snapchat. And brutal punishments can always be labelled divine: symbolic floggings, amputations and executions excite the Taliban’s supporters as much as they appal its critics.

The Taliban’s pick ʼn’ mix approach to jurisprudence shouldn’t be underestimated, though: its sharia courts are an established feature of Afghanistan’s legal landscape. With a view to delegitimising politicians in Kabul, over the last fifteen years the movement established a three-tier judicial structure in territories it controlled. And according to an Overseas Development Institute survey published in May 2020, which drew on several earlier analyses, the system was typically seen ‘as more accessible and easier to navigate than state courts, as well as quicker, fairer and less corrupt’.

Taliban judges in those courts didn’t need to be impeccable. All they had to do was inspire more confidence than the alternatives – courts sanctioned by the state or tribal authorities – and they were flexible enough to do so. Rather than suppress local customs, sharia courts tended to accommodate them. Harsh punishments were exceptional. Rulings that honourably resolved potentially poisonous disputes were usually respected, even by the losing side.

The cleric who oversaw that wartime effort, Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai, has been appointed minister of justice. Now that the Taliban looks set to establish an entirely new state judiciary, the fiction that hardliners maintain about the sharia – that it benefits everyone, all the time – is about to come under unprecedented strain. Will Afghanistan’s new courts be ‘quicker, fairer and less corrupt’ than the old ones – or just more spectacularly repressive?

The signs aren’t good. With a humanitarian catastrophe looming, Taliban ministers have failed to engage with international agencies and started feuding among themselves. Even the fate of Haibatullah Akhundzada is unclear: he’s not been seen since the Taliban takeover, and rumours of his untimely death are rife. Such gossip isn’t worth much but it reflects widespread unease. Ordinary people, braced for sectarian violence since Islamic State’s vicious bomb attack at Kabul Airport on 26 August, aren’t confident that lasting legal order is at hand. Far from calling for the Taliban to go easy on repression, some have been demanding that it step up its security patrols and make its enforcers wear uniforms.

Even if the Taliban’s efforts to realise heaven on earth are doomed to fall short, the calls in Afghanistan for implementation of sharia law aren’t about to end. In a war-torn country mired in poverty and starved of opportunities, dreams of stability are intense. Any movement that claims to know God’s eternal laws – and how to give them effect – will always have its appeal.


  • 21 September 2021 at 5:32pm
    Maurice West says:
    Surely the Islamist dream of a world under a caliphate is as vain and futile, not to mention bloody and murderous, as the efforts of Alexander the Great, Napoleon and Hitler (to name but a few). Climate change may save us from the most fanatically deadly visions mankind is heir to, but at too great a cost otherwise, of course.

    • 21 September 2021 at 8:46pm
      Mujahid Islam says: @ Maurice West
      The Taliban are every bit as determined on global domination as the French Resistance under the Nazis. Last time I checked they weren't the ones with hundreds of military bases around the world, or drones and cruise missiles spanning the earth's skies. However, the US (& UK's) failed invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan are certainly as humiliating, 'not to mention murderous', as Hitler's invasion of Russia. No terrorist or Nazi had ever claimed the murder of 1/2 million children to be 'worth it' - only the US. So we should not be surprised at the torture to death of prisoners at Bagram airbase, blowing up weddings, the executions of school children with their hands tied (investigated by Times journalist Jerome Starkey), 'double-tap' bombings (where those who help the injured are also blown up), testing their biggest bombs and newest weapons, murder of civilians by drone (thanks to the imprisoned Daniel Hale we now know that 90% of CIA drone murders were of innocent civilians). Who is surprised Afghans prefer the Taliban to the US? Clearly, the obvious response to military failure against poor, weak and half-starved countries is to threaten a wealthy, strong and nuclear armed country like China. Wait, is that the tramp of Taliban flip-flops in the High Street?

    • 22 September 2021 at 3:27pm
      Maurice West says: @ Mujahid Islam
      The outrages of US and UK governments are one thing (or many things); I was making a point about global domination by no matter whom. All such attempts have failed and must fail. And long may that continue to be the case. Barbarity is barbarity whichever nation or group perpetrates it and whatever cause it espouses. The image of the Taliban as charmingly wearing flipflops and being otherwise like teddy bears is hardly borne out by their behaviour twenty-odd years ago. Whether they are cuddlier than IS or Boko Haram or Al-Shebab, or any of the other Islamic fundamentalist groups with an eye on a universal caliphate, I cannot say—perhaps they’ll turn on each other (as IS apparently has against the Taliban). But whoever dreams of establishing a worldwide state, religion-based or not, one man’s Utopia won’t be another’s. And bullying and threatening the unwilling with mutilation or any other punishment (forcible “re-education”, for instance) is not only inhumane but futile—if we have to be compelled, we shall only resent the fact. But my point was simple and to me self-evident. What baffles me is why people are attracted by visions of an earthly paradise. History shows they cannot be realised. The American poet Ezra Pound deeply regretted ever having entertained such a notion. The best we can do is accept that we are too flawed to produce anything much better than societies made up of sometimes bewildering compromises.

    • 23 September 2021 at 2:51am
      Higgs Boatswain says: @ Maurice West
      Not all Islamists are the same, just as not all Communists (or all liberals) are the same. The Taliban is not ISIS. It's not even al-Qaida. You don't hear the Talibs talk much about caliphates or about world domination. Their objectives are more limited - more conservative, I'm tempted to say. They do not want to destroy the nation state in the name of some eschatological pan-Muslim polity. They merely want to shape Afghanistan according to their own religious ideals. But after 20 years of war, it looks like it's difficult for them to decide exactly what those religious ideals are.

    • 23 September 2021 at 3:59pm
      Maurice West says: @ Higgs Boatswain
      Of course, not all Islamists are the same, any more than are all Communists or other supporters of any other all-embracing ideology, religious or otherwise. What they do is what counts. All seem to wish to impose on the rest of us their vision of not just a better world but what they regard as the very best—contesting voices being dismissed or eliminated. To say that the Taliban “merely want to shape Afghanistan according to their own religious ideals” sounds innocent enough—or would, if they just ‘wanted’ to do so, but what happens to those who fail to share those ideals? At worst—mutilation, crucifixion, decapitation— those charmingly olde worlde forms of punishment that rival our own hanging, drawing and quartering—only nobody I know has ever felt nostalgic about that quaint form of execution. As for not quite knowing what their religious ideals are, they seem to result in blanket bans on playing music, dancing and other sources of pleasure, and severely restricting the freedoms of women—but about these matters there is no debate—the Taliban know best.

  • 21 September 2021 at 6:54pm
    Gary Leiser says:
    This post is on the mark. One of the first things that almost every ruler who seized power in Islamic history did was to declare his intention of al-amr bi'l-ma'ruf wa nahi an al-munkar, that is, "promote virtue and avoid vice." He then set about banning amusements, closing taverns, bordellos, and the like. This he did to claim religious legitimacy. He always failed and those under his political sway eventually reverted to form, that is, their traditional way of doing things. It cannot be emphasized enough the huge gap between theory (sharia based on interpretations of the Koran and Hadith combined with the tools of consensus and analogy) and practice. Historically, the majority, probably the great majority, of Muslims ignored the sharia apart from a few practices and followed their own traditions. All attempts to create a utopian Muslim society based on the sharia and an imaginary "golden age" of the Prophet have failed. That of the Taliban will follow suit.

    • 23 September 2021 at 3:02am
      Higgs Boatswain says: @ Gary Leiser
      I don't think it's fair to say that "the majority, probably the great majority, of Muslims ignored the sharia." Insofar as the sharia is the 'straight path' - as-sirat al-mustaqim - no Muslim can ignore it. But historically the sharia has mostly been fairly distinct from politics - not because Muslim political leaders were good secularists, but because religious authorities and jurists viewed political power with frank suspicion. The idea that political authorities should seek to create a sharia-state, and to appropriate for themselves the universal task of commanding virtue and prohibiting vice, is mostly a dream of modern Islamists.

  • 23 September 2021 at 1:17pm
    Hisham says:
    Mr. Kadri and other commentators raise many thoughtful points . Many are complementary . However some comments do reject ( like all commentators in the West) the role of religion , any religion , in running states . May I say that some commentators seem to focus on particular points or issues or concerns. However in Islam there are several principles of jurisprudence and Sharia ( Usull Al Fiqh ) that I submit are worthy of note in any society. In this respect may I refer to the Sharia principle that ' preventing misdeeds ' are ahead/preferable to 'performing good deeds ' in everyday activities. The other principle is 'closing loopholes ' ( sa ad al tha'raei ) in which doing something which may be ' good in itself ' is not permissible if it might lead to a 'bad result' ( or vice versa ). The third is ' continuing good deeds' ( Al Ma'salih al mur'sala) which means that anything good ( for individuals or societies ) even though not specifically approved in the Quran or Prophet's sunna are permissible and encouraged .

    Hence actions taken should not be judged on ' narrow ' premises or demands' but on their benefits for the greatest number of citizens as well as for the state. I am sure most people agree with this principle in any society. I suppose as some comments mentioned it is easy to ' say something good in theory' or declare 'your good intentions ' and another thing to implement it . The case of Muslim states whether in historical sense or as expressed by the 'wishes' of most modern 'moderate ' Muslims outside the West had been 'consistently ' found wanting . It is clear that outcomes are far far removed from the spirit and the letter of Islamic jurisprudence and Ma'qqasid al Sharia( purpose of Sharia ). It seems sadly that Afghanistan will be another example.

  • 27 September 2021 at 12:05pm
    Roy says:
    The Abrahamic religions are all a curse on humanity. To varying degrees, no doubt, but a curse nonetheless. Hair splitting about sectarian differences just serves to obscure the basic facts which confront us in abundance. I'm with Brother William.

  • 5 October 2021 at 11:19am
    Roy says:
    A couple of years ago I saw a Syrian woman currently living in the USA say something along the lines.
    "People keep talking about 'Islamic extremism' but that's not the real problem. The problem is Islam."
    For a non-muslim to make the same observation amounts to secular blasphemy.

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