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What we do not yet know about the Taliban and its Sharia rule

What we do not yet know about the Taliban and its Sharia rule

Though the insurgent group rushed to assure the West, its embrace of strict Islamic law leaves much to speculation.

Analysis | Global Crises

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told a press conference Tuesday, August 17, that Afghanistan will not allow terrorist groups to use Afghan territory to plot against others and that the Taliban will respect the rights of women and girls in education, business, and the workplace. Mujahid, who had just returned to Afghanistan from a lengthy exile in Quetta, Pakistan, said that women’s rights will be guaranteed only if women act according to Sharia (Islamic law). But he did not define what he meant by Sharia in this case and what constraints it will impose on women’s rights.

The statement implies that the new regime in Kabul plans to follow its own rigid version of the Deobandi-Hanafi interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence, much like the Taliban did when they were in power from 1996 to 2001, and much like the radical jihadist Salafi-Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia. An Afghan military commander, Waheedullah Hashimi, told Reuters on Thursday that Afghanistan under the new Taliban regime will be ruled by Sharia law, not Western-style democracy. In light of these statements, Afghan women have much to worry about.  

This is unsettling because the new regime, according to Hashimi, intends to follow a strict, fundamentalist and puritanical interpretation on politics and social mores that is followed in Saudi Arabia but not in most Muslim majority states. If Hashimi is speaking for the Taliban’s  leaders, the new Afghan regime will jettison existing laws, including the 2004 constitution, that have governed Afghanistan in recent years and replace it with what they perceive to be divine rule or Hukm

Although different interpretations of the Sharia rule exist among the Taliban, women do not fare well in any of them. Women will be required to cover from head to toe. The burqa will replace the hijab. Interestingly, the Qur’an enjoins women to dress “modestly” but does not command them to be totally covered. Some radical mullahs and imams have cited certain Hadiths to justify their position on women, but often the authenticity of such Hadiths is questionable. Women’s freedom to pursue education, work, social interaction, and travel without permission from, or being accompanied by, a male relative will be severely restricted. 

The new supreme leader of the country, Amir al-Mu’minin (Commander of the Faithful) Haibatullah Akhunzada, together with the envisioned ruling council, will in effect revive the Islamic policies of Mullah Omar who ruled Afghanistan in the decade preceding 9/11. Still more discouraging is that the supreme leader Akhunzada’s closest advisers are equally conservative and dismissive of Western-style democracy. These include Mullah Muhammad Yaqoob (son of Mulla Omar), Sirajuddin Haqqani (son of the well-known Jalauddin Haqqani of the violent Haqqani group that promoted suicide bombings), Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (a co-founder of the Taliban and the group’s chief negotiator in Doha, Qatar), Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai (head of the Taliban office in Doha), and Abdul Hakim Haqqani (formerly, head of the Taliban’s powerful council of religious scholars and a confidant of Akhunzada). None of these leaders is considered a reformist thinker or is willing to deviate from the strict interpretation of Islamic doctrine. 

Under divine rule or Sharia rule, Afghanistan will not hold free and fair elections. Afghanistan’s three Islamically-governed neighbors — Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran — have different views of elections. Pakistan allows relatively free elections, but no such system exists in Saudi Arabia. Iran’s national presidential elections are indirectly controlled by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Guardian Council. The latter vets presidential candidates before the elections to make sure that only ideologically acceptable candidates are allowed to run. The three countries cite different interpretations of Sharia to justify their position on elections. Afghanistan will be more like Saudi Arabia than the other two. 


The Taliban spokesman Mujahid stated that Afghanistan will not allow any group, presumably al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other terrorist organizations to use Afghanistan to threaten other countries or engage in violent jihad against others. However, he did not explain how the Taliban could prevent such activities or even how such groups could be kept out. If this statement targeted the so-called “Arab mujahidin,” what about Afghan jihadists determined to continue the fight against the “infidels” and their local supporters? It is unrealistic to expect the Taliban to be able to seal the country’s borders, especially the long and porous border with Pakistan.

If the Taliban regime is serious about preventing terrorists from entering Afghanistan, does it have the resources and capacity to pursue an effective counterterrorism strategy against lethal and highly trained terrorist groups? If not, will the Taliban seek help from other states, including the United States and other Western countries in its counterterrorism policy? Or will it turn to its neighbors — Sunni Pakistan, Shia Iran, and Communist China — for such assistance? 

Relations with China on this front will be difficult because China views its Uighur citizens, who are Sunni Muslim, as potential terrorists. Will the Taliban ignore the Uighur Muslim issue and forge friendly relations with China, similar to what many Muslim majority countries have done? Taliban leaders would find it ironic indeed to be turning to the United States, which they believe they have just “defeated,” or any non-Muslim state for help in the fight against terrorism.

Foreign Relations

Mujahid did not explain how the new “Emirate” will function as a state in the 21st century digitally globalized world. If the I.E.A. adheres to the Ibn Taymiyya Salafi Wahhabi doctrine of jihad against the perceived enemies of Islam, how will it manage its relations with non-Muslim states? As most of these states are part of Dar al-Harb (Realm of War) and are considered “infidels” under this radical interpretation of Islam, what peaceful relations will the Taliban seek to establish? 

Nor did Mujahid elaborate on whether the Taliban will seek peaceful “covenants” with such countries as the United Stated that have been at war with Afghanistan for 20 years? Although according to the Taliban’s puritanical Salafi doctrine, the new regime may seek to engage some “infidel” states peacefully because they are in a “’ahd” or covenant relationship with Dar al-Islam (Realm of Peace). 

How will the Taliban regime behave toward those other states that are not in a covenant relationship with Dar al-Islam or have broken previously existing covenants? Will the Taliban declare a “jihad al-Qital” (fighting or violent jihad) against them, much like what Osama Bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and other Salafi Wahhabi Saudis did against the United States in the 1990s and on 9/11/2001? 

The answers to all of these questions remain to be clarified.

The Way Forward

History teaches us that war and occupation have often proven futile in achieving a state’s foreign policy objectives. Learning from its painful lessons in Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington should shift gears and pursue a diplomatic, humanitarian, and trade policy to engage Afghanistan, assuming the Taliban Kabul regime is interested in such relations. The United States should take an inclusive approach and work with its allies and South Asian regional states, especially India and Pakistan, in doing so. Expanding trade with the Taliban regime should also include constant prodding about human rights, including women’s rights. The Quran does not ban women from improving their lives, receiving education, contributing to society, or improving the welfare of their fellow citizens.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's deputy leader and negotiator, and other delegation members attend the Afghan peace conference in Moscow, Russia March 18, 2021. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via REUTERS|United States Air Force Lockheed C-130 Hercules approaches the landing strip over five Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, carrying equipment from Afghanistan, on June 12, 2021, at the Ali Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait. (U.S. Army photo by Maj. John Forrister, 101st Division Sustainment Brigade). (MAJ John Forrister, 101st Division Sustainment Brigade)
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