A Force of Moderation or Radicalisation? The Role of Afghanistan’s Ulema

Influential force: religious scholars (ulema) attend a conference in Afghanistan in 2014. Image: UNAMA / CC BY-NC 2.0

With Afghanistan largely turning its back on the outside world, the country’s religious scholars might be in a key position to influence the direction taken by the Taliban government. But what sort of an influence will they be?

In August 2021, the Taliban took power quickly and decisively in Afghanistan following the rapid unravelling of the former government. They are probably at a stage, relatively early into their rule, where they are less inclined to compromise on the direction of their government or to take advice from outsiders. Instead, the Taliban have called on the religious scholars (ulema) to legitimise and advise their government. After all, the ulema constitute the backbone of the Taliban as a clerical movement – and the Taliban’s leaders see themselves as ulema. From the start of their existence in 1994, the Taliban have been committed to the implementation of Islamic Law (Sharia), even if with significant changes over time.

The ulema are not internally homogeneous. The most obvious division is between Sunnis and Shia, with the latter representing probably around 15%, proportionally to the population. Although several senior Shia clerics have been negotiating with the Taliban, none of them are anywhere close to the Taliban’s leadership. There are divisions among the Sunnis as well, of the which the most important is between Salafis and Hanafis. The former account for at most 5% of the population and presumably for a similar share of the ulema. The Taliban leader, Amir Haibatullah Akhundzada, has declared that the Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia will be in accordance with Hanafi jurisprudence. Within the 80% or so of ulema who are Hanafi Sunnis, different tendencies can be identified, such as the Salafi-leaning Ahl-e Sunnat wa Jamaat, which is quite marginal in Afghanistan; Sufi orders, which despite their long-term decline remain quite influential; Muslim Brotherhood-influenced groups, which are not united but overall are quite significant; and more. The ulema most influential with the Taliban leadership are all Hanafis influenced by the militant brand of Deobandism that has become popular in Pakistan. Many Sufis, Muslim Brothers and Ahl-e Sunnat wa Jamaat are also linked to the Taliban, or sympathise with them, but they are not, generally speaking, associated with the top leaders. The ulema linked to the notorious Haqqani network tend to be closer to the Muslim Brotherhood or even to Ahl-e Sunnat wa Jamaat, rather than Deobandism, and while they have access to Interior Minister Serajuddin Haqqani, they are not close to Akhundzada.

At present there is little evidence of Hanafi ulema groups opposing the Taliban’s Emirate and there appears to be widespread support, at least among Pashtuns. Many ulema appear keen to be involved in the design and administration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) governance model and have reached out to the Taliban. Various ulema groups peripheral to the Taliban (even Shia ulema) have also offered discussions, but with few tangible results thus far. Given the Taliban’s extreme reliance on religious stricture for all manner of political, military, social and cultural policy, it is likely that some ulema will have significant access and influence with the Emirate. On 30 June 2022, the Taliban gathered together up to 3,000 Taliban-friendly religious scholars in Kabul for a ‘Great Conference of Ulema’.

Charting the influence and role of the ulema within the Taliban’s Emirate is difficult, and little effort has gone into this so far. Sources within the Emirate’s government and the Taliban movement indicate that the level of knowledge of Islam within the ulema does not automatically imply power and influence within the Taliban. The ulema are considered religious scholars and can elicit respect, even despite political divergence: one ulema with known ties to the military command of the previous administration is ‘left alone’ by the Taliban because of his popularity and his extensive knowledge of Islam. Another was able to directly oppose the provincial vice and virtue authorities based on his popular support and very high religious credentials. But, no matter how high the level of religious scholarship, influence among the Taliban depends on other variables. The influence of Afghan ulema on the Taliban seems to be determined by three main criteria:

  • Political alignment with the Taliban. Even if some ulema are supportive of certain Taliban policies, this will not provide overall influence within the Taliban.
  • Personal connections and position within the Taliban, including tribal, geographic, family, business and formal integration into the organisational structure. It is common for the ulema – even independent ones – to have one or more relatives in government. Many links, loyalties and associations are based on long-term historical or family ties, and it does not follow that someone who worked with the previous government is necessarily out of favour. However, sources overall suggest that only the ulema close to the Taliban leadership are likely to hold significant influence – and that the Taliban are less likely to consider taking advice from ‘non-Taliban’ ulema. To have the best chance of influence, ulema need to have close personal ties with Amir Haibatullah Akhundzada, Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar or other senior leadership members, have a history of active involvement in the insurgency, and be more conservative with a low interest in engaging with foreign actors.
  • Personal power. Holding any position of power can come about through direct or indirect involvement; by being an active or former commander; or by being the head of or a teacher at a madrassa that is graduating hundreds of students who will go on to join the Emirate in various functions. Civilian members of a Mahaz (military ‘front’) can still wield influence without an official position by delivering pro-Taliban sermons during Friday prayers. There are very few ulema who are not directly or indirectly affiliated with the Taliban, but they can still have some influence if they can demonstrate extensive religious knowledge and support from the local community.

Aside from these three criteria, the general pattern is for the Taliban to prefer conservative ulema who are already in – or closely affiliated to – the Taliban. Ulema who might be considered moderate and are interested in engaging with the international community are significantly less likely to have access and influence. This is the environment that the Taliban have created, by systematically reshaping the socio-political space to incentivise alignment and discourage dissent.

Preservation of position, influence and salary is likely more important to most scholars than engaging with controversial issues

Shaikhs are those ulema believed to have the greatest knowledge about Islam. They are particularly important to the Taliban and the only ones who might in their own right wield access and influence at the highest level of the organisation. The Taliban leadership consults them on key issues regarding Emirate policies and orders. In some cases, Emirate officials ask these ulema to produce policies based on Sharia or other broader Islamic tenets. According to one Taliban commander, there are about 50 top individuals that the Taliban leadership depends on for advice and guidance. They do not participate in meetings or gatherings on behalf of the Emirate or in their own personal capacity. They avoid media and other forms of publicity. They are influential because they are seen as detached from ordinary people, not influenced by external opinions and acting only based on their knowledge and judgement as religious scholars. They typically serve in the Ulema Councils, either at the national or the provincial level. Some of them are accorded more importance than ministers or governors by the Taliban leadership. Their power may come less from religious erudition than from perceptions of asceticism and an unwillingness to compromise.

The Taliban are hermetic, defiant and protective of their ideological core. They are working to expand their control of the policy space through the promotion of like-minded, connected and politically aligned ulema and the progressive side-lining of dissenting or moderate ulema. Access and influence lie primarily with ulema who are close to the core of the Taliban top leadership, so it seems likely that this level of proximity is not obtainable without a level of ideological radicalism, even if other factors play a role. Ulema with access and influence are thus systematically cut off from foreign engagement, and less likely to be amenable to religious moderation. There are many ‘moderate’ Taliban ulema, in the sense of being willing to engage with the international community, or supportive of education for girls and women, but these individuals are not necessarily the ones that the Taliban leadership gravitates towards for advice.

Even with various potential avenues for influence, the ulema must be careful how they use their connections, in particular when it comes to addressing policy issues or problems created by the IEA. No matter how influential a mullah is, one direct attack on the Taliban can remove this influence. Preservation of position, influence and salary is likely more important to most scholars than engaging with controversial issues. Direct and public criticism of Taliban governance and policies is not well received by the Taliban. Even trusted ulema close to the Taliban can lose their influence if they transgress this line. Our findings indicate that the Taliban would probably prefer to receive the views of trusted ulema individually or in small groups.


Despite the strong predominance of ultra-conservative ulema in the inner core of advisers to the Taliban leadership, contacts within and around the Taliban movement give the impression that a majority are theoretically in favour of some form of external engagement – or could be convinced of the value of such an approach. In the case of some ulema, this conviction seems to be based on prior experience with international organisations in Afghanistan. For others, their interest in external engagement would likely be more pragmatically conditional on Taliban approval of such initiatives or tied to an explicit desire to ensure the wider recognition of the Taliban regime. For instance, one Mawlawi with high-level access is reportedly an enthusiastic proponent of external engagement, to the point of considering compromise on girls’ education, which he sees as a way to ensure the survivability of the IEA. Another Mawlawi, influential at the provincial level, reportedly told a gathering of top IEA officials to work with the international community and encouraged them to allow girls’ education all over the country and to grant some women’s rights. That said, a large minority are firmly against any form of engagement.

The different ulema networks could play a role both in any further ultra-conservative drift and in attempts to foster moderation

Very few ulema seem to be ready to justify almost any type of violence, like a Mawlawi who stated that ‘anyone who creates propaganda or preaches against the Islamic Emirate should either be beheaded, or his/her tongue should be cut out’. More often, ulema appear generally opposed to violence, based on previous involvement in intra-community dispute resolution or mediation between communities and the Taliban. In some cases, violence is only deemed acceptable in the context of a conflict against invaders – such as for one individual with a history of violence against foreign forces who now seems inclined to support moderation in civilian life and argues that those not following Sharia should be convinced with preaching, rather than coerced.

A large share of the ulema surveyed were assessed to be in favour of girls’ education, and some have stated their opposition to the rigid approach of the vice and virtue department, which is often putting pressure on people to abide by the Taliban’s rules at a time when people face great challenges.

Anecdotes gathered during the research suggest that ulema are increasingly sought after by national and international actors of all kinds to act as some form of entry point or mediator. If this trend is confirmed, it may increase competition for the time of popular ulema, and could lead some ulema to try to leverage their status for personal advancement.


The ultra-conservative and reclusive ulema near the top of the Taliban may have influenced them towards adopting policies such as the closure of girls’ high schools. However, more pragmatic views seem common among the less influential bulk of the ulema. It remains to be seen whether the latter are in a position to influence the Taliban or will instead be influenced by the Taliban through a progressive reshaping of the socio-political space by the Taliban leadership, with incentives and sanctions to encourage alignment with Taliban directives and discourage any form of dissent, especially at the national level. The pressure of interest groups and social and international dynamics might well prevent any top-down ‘synchronisation’ effort from succeeding. The leadership and the ultra-conservative ulema surrounding it appear to believe they have already made major concessions compared to the policies implemented by the first Emirate in the 1990s: the hudud punishments of Sharia were not implemented for the first 15 months after the Taliban’s return to power; primary schools and universities are open to girls; and a few non-Taliban have been appointed as deputy ministers. But the pendulum could shift either way. In mid-November, Akhundzada instructed the judges to start applying hudud punishments, which will likely include stoning and amputations. The path taken is likely to be determined by the leadership’s perception of how its efforts to engage foreign governments are going, as well as by developments internal to the Taliban. While the leadership of the Taliban has appeared quite insular so far, it has not been completely impervious to lobbying by groups and factions. The different ulema networks could play a role both in any further ultra-conservative drift and in attempts to foster moderation. Whichever direction the Taliban takes, the ulema are likely to remain a channel for influencing the Emirate for a large variety of actors at the national and international level. NGOs and businesses, for example, often rely on them to approach the Emirate’s authorities, especially at the provincial level. Their importance in the current context is therefore hard to overestimate.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

Funded by

  • European Union

    European Union

    The research on which this article is based was funded by the European Union. The European Union holds full copyright for the text of this article.

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Tim Foxley

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Dr Antonio Giustozzi

Senior Research Fellow

Terrorism and Conflict

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