The return of the Taliban, a word meaning “students,” to control in Afghanistan marks the return of a top-down set of strict beliefs unlikely to evolve with the times, scholars who have studied the group say.
The Taliban say they follow the tradition-bound Salafi school of Sunni Islam that hews to the teachings of the first three generations of Muslim believers, beginning with the Prophet Muhammad’s generation.
The teachings of these “pious predecessors,” as Salafists call them, form the basis for what their adherents follow today, including a rejection of religious innovations in Islam since the eighth century.
The Sunni/Salafi Islamic school “is one of the strictest interpretations of the Islamic tradition,” where the “literal meaning is adhered to. And any input by intuitive reason is doubted or rejected,” said Abdulaziz Sachedina, the chair in Islamic studies at the International Institute of Islamic Thought at George Mason University in Fairfax.
The Taliban‘s brand of Salafi teaching includes a strict subjugation of women and the rejection of non-Islamic images. In early 2001, the Taliban destroyed two giant Buddhas carved into cliffs in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. The statues were condemned as “idols,” forbidden by the Taliban interpretation of Shariah law, the Islamic legal code covering almost every aspect of daily life.
During their rule over Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban closed schools for girls, banned women from most professions and compelled them to wear burqas, the all-covering dresses. In the wake of this month’s takeover of Kabul, press reports indicate that women are again required to wear burqas and cannot leave their homes unless accompanied by male relatives. The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that female journalists working for state television were stopped.
Mullah Mohammad Omar, leader of the group during its previous reign, ordered the historic Buddha sculptures destroyed after consultations with Taliban scholars. The demolition of cultural artifacts cemented the Taliban’s image in many quarters as a retrograde branch of Islamic belief.
“The first Taliban state, as many observers have noted in recent days, was arguably the most misogynistic in modern history,” said Jeffry R. Halverson, a professor of religious studies at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina.
“The impact on women was enormous. But people may not realize that the Taliban also declared war on Afghanistan’s culture. They destroyed film archives, paintings, music and media. Muslim men were arrested for not growing beards.”
Sayed Hassan Hussaini Akhlaq, a former chancellor of Gharjistan University in Kabul, said the Taliban “present [their] own interpretation” of what they claim are the original teachings of Islam.
Mr. Akhlaq, who now teaches at Coppin State University in Baltimore, said the Taliban are “not honest with their claim of following traditional schools” of Islamic thought. He said “they are not rationalist” in applying Shariah law, which sets forth rules for virtually all Islamic life and is based on the Quran and the Hadiths, a collection of traditions written down centuries ago.
But Shariah, unlike the Ten Commandments, is not written in stone. Scholars have identified at least five “schools” of Shariah interpretation.
The Taliban are purposely not changing with the times. Mr. Sachedina said the group today won’t apply reason to its rule in Afghanistan, although earlier interpretations of the Quran and the Hadiths were “set by human reasoning.”
“It’s also a kind of hypocrisy, whereby the earlier history is being denied,” Mr. Sachedina said. “Because the earlier history was a history of development, a history of growth. That’s how the early tradition was able to keep pace with the social and political realities.”
The Taliban deny that evolution and insist that “the tradition” of those early generations contains enough information to determine modern practices, Mr. Sachedina said. They answer challenges by declaring, “We need to find out if there is a text that we have not paid attention to” to answer a societal question.
He said the Taliban’s approach is iconoclastic within the global Islam of today.
“I think this movement is very much identified with this kind of approach to the everyday situation because Afghanistan is not a general trend,” Mr. Sachedina said.
“In the Muslim world, what we find to be unusual in Afghanistan is the ability of Taliban to really control the country in a way that is completely out of tune” with nations such as Saudi Arabia, which “also is quite conservative in many aspects of life, and yet you find that modernization has crept in.”
Although far from the standards of New York, Paris or London, Saudi Arabia in recent years has modified its approach to religious life and how citizens are governed. In 2018, the kingdom ended its ban on women driving automobiles. In April, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Al Arabiya television, “There are no fixed schools of thought, and there is no infallible person.” He said authorities should practice a “continuous interpretation” of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings and practices known as the Sunna.
Out of line with any theology is the Taliban’s reported retribution against those who have cooperated with the ousted government, U.S. and allied troops, or foreign organizations, because theology cannot exist without ethics and moral behavior. Mr. Sachedina said the disconnect between the agreements signed by Taliban negotiators in Qatar, in which they promised respect for human rights, and the reports of reprisals illustrate the problem.
“Theology has always produced ethics,” Mr. Sachedina said. “If theology is not able to produce moral reasoning and moral behavior, then that theology is useless.”
John L. Esposito, founding director of Georgetown University’s Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, said he sees a potential for optimism from a generational split in the movement, with younger members wanting more flexibility.
“You have a lot of people who come from a younger generation, and they themselves are quite diverse in, in some ways, in terms of how they really want to act, what they really want to see and do,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s a bit of a defining moment in that, will it be that the Taliban, while using muscle in certain situations, will it be in other situations that they will be more flexible because there has been a sense so far that the Taliban would like to have some kind of relationship with the international community.”
He also said the Taliban might not be as hard-line as they were in the past because they don’t want another Western invasion of Afghanistan.
“This is a time of posturing. They’re taking over the country, and their goal [is] to take it over as fully as they can. They realize they made a lot of mistakes in the past, and they probably want to avoid some of them so that they don’t justify having their country invaded again by a Western country,” Mr. Esposito said.
Mr. Halverson, the Coastal Carolina University scholar, emphasized that the Taliban don’t “actually have a theology, technically speaking,” but instead hold to a creed.
“The distinction between the two is that a creed tells you what to believe, but theology utilizes reason to try and explain why and how to believe those things,” Mr. Halverson said. “The Taliban has no use for theology. They believe Muslims should simply conform to whatever they find in a religious text without asking how or why.”