Sami ul Haq, recently murdered in Pakistan, was widely renowned for his role in lighting the spark that united the insurgency against the Soviets in Afghanistan. His influence transformed the insurgency into an 'Islamic duty'.

The tears flowed freely, as the students cried for the departed teacher with the same intensity he used to preach. Sami ul Haq, born in 1937, in a small village nestled between Islamabad and Peshawar, had mentored “millions” of students over a sixty-year career. 

“He was an extraordinary man,” said Qari Abdullah, one of the tens of thousands of students, followers and wellwishers who had gathered at the Darul Uloom Haqqania for a final farewell to the man who had changed their lives with a revolutionary message.

“Maulana Sami’s contributions to Islam and Jihad cannot be measured,” said Mufti Hamza. 

Now in his late 50s, Hamza remembered Sami as an “oratorical powerhouse” who had sold the idea of jihad as a “compulsory undertaking on all Muslims of fighting age.” 

To spread his message Haq converted the grounds of a modest-looking seminary into a thousand-room complex where students from all over the world would come and learn about holy war. 

“He took the idea of a personal struggle – that everyone is fighting an inner war and modified it with a focus on fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan,” said Zarghoun Shah, a correspondent for GEO News network, who has reported on the Taliban since the 1990s.

Uniting under the banner of 'jihad'

In the 1980s Sami ul Haq’s Darul Uloom Haqqania took the lead, among many different schools of religious learning, in giving the Afghan war a holy tinge. 

Haq’s message found resonance with Pakistan’s military establishment, where his namesake, Pakistan’s then ruler General Zia ul Haq – found ‘jihad’ as the right message to win the war.

“They are very clear about jihad they don’t hide it. So if you talk in your own ideology you can call it good or bad. In their terminology, it is one that is the path of Allah, and we have to do it. It is obligatory on every Muslim,” said Shah, the reporter for GEO. 

By promoting jihad, Haq inspired a generation of students who would continue to fight long after the Soviets had gone.

Amongst them were a group of young refugees from Afghanistan. The student, or ‘Taliban’, movement, as it came to be known spread like wildfire from the Darul Uloom Haqqania in northwest Pakistan, thousands of miles through hundreds of thousands of impressionable minds. 

Destroying lives

“He is responsible for the murder of countless people,” says Ahmad Khan*, originally from Jalalabad, now living in Kabul. 

Ahmad, in his late twenties, was born after the Soviets had left, at a time when the civil war amongst the mujahideen had started. Like others his age, he spent most of his life in refugee camps in Pakistan. There he attended schools affiliated with Haqqania in Akora Khattak. 

Ahmad says smaller madrassas connected to the seminary would use symbols of jihad as teaching tools in disciplines like mathematics. 

“Two grenades plus two hand grenades are four. Similarly were Kalashnikovs and other weapons of war,” Ahmad says. 

“That tainted our memories with guns and bombs, and destroyed our childhood.”

Armed with the knowledge of warfare mixed with the faithful zeal of the Haqqania, the Taliban started from Kandahar, then took Kabul, and eventually captured eighty percent of Afghanistan.

It cemented Sami ul Haq’s status as a power broker and an indispensable link between the different worlds he occupied.

The Taliban went on to rule Afghanistan with an iron fist and committed an innumerable number of human rights abuses in the country. They have been fighting a bloody insurgency in Afghanistan against the US-backed Afghan government for the last seventeen years. 

Most countries involved in Afghanistan no longer see a future in the country without the Taliban as the insurgency has refused to die down.

A man of many lives

He had lived “many lives,” says Amir, a student at Haqqani, where Sami ul Haq’s story is memorised by some of the students as an ode to their master. 

“He gave birth to one of the most enduring student movements of the late 20th century,” said Amir. 

The ‘Father of the Taliban’ as he came to be known had inherited a single-storied structure from his father, who had set it up as a Deobandi learning centre in 1947. Sami ul Haq turned this village enterprise, into a religious learning powerhouse, whose message of holy war would reach “millions of people”.

“When they call him the Taliban’s father or some fanciful title like that, they often forget that the Maulana was first and foremost a Deobandi scholar”, said Mufti Hamza, whose father knew Sami ul Haq well. 

The Deobandis are a revivalist movement within the Hanafi strain of Islam. It started in the early 1700s as a reaction to the British in India and was inspired by the activism of Shah Waliullah a radical cleric opposed to British rule. 

At the time, the Deobandis challenged India’s Muslim leadership, accusing it of “corrupting Islam” and promising a fresh, and more puritanical, start.

Today, up to 20 percent of all Sunni Muslims in Pakistan identify as Deobandis, and the same percentage of all Muslims in India say they are followers of Darul Uloom Deoband. 

Sami ul Haq provided the jurisprudence for a new revival within the Deobandis, giving the Islamic legal basis for jihad and blasphemy. 

Later in his life, Sami ul Haq defended polio workers who were being killed by the Pakistani Taliban.

Ismail Khan, a journalist with Dawn who had interviewed the cleric many times, wrote in Daily Dawn.

While defending the Afghan Taliban as fighting a ‘’just’’ fight sanctioned by God, Haq criticised the Pakistani Taliban, calling them “a different species”, according to Ismail Khan.

His defence of the polio workers is his “most significant contribution” wrote Khan.  

Not everyone shares that view, and Afghans, as well as many Pakistanis, will remember him for something else.

“He will be remembered for jihad”, said Zarghoun Shah, the geo reporter.

*Ahmad Khan is a pseudonym used to protect the identity of the source