There 72 Muslim sects and sub-sects in Pakistan. They often disagree over interpretations of the Quran and occasionally there is some violence related to the differences. Blasphemy laws have been used against groups with unorthodox views.

While most Muslims are of the Sunni and Shia (Shiite) sects, there are several religions with connections to Islam. Ahmadis consider themselves Muslims but many other Muslims don’t regard them as such. They do not accept Muhammad as the last prophet and were officially declared non-Muslims by the government in 1974. Zikris form another group that regard themselves Muslim but are rejected by Sunni leaders because they practice ceremonies that are considered non-Muslim. An offshoot Shia sect, the Ismailis, led by Prince Karim Aga Khan, are prominent in some northern areas. There are also some in the Karachi area. Shia-Sunni tensions have increased in recent years and there have been some violent incidents.

According to “Deobandis and Barelvis are the two major groups of Muslims in the Subcontinent apart from the Shia. Barelvi Hanafis deem Deobandis to be kaafir. Those hostile to the Barelvis deprecated them as the shrine-worshipping, the grave-worshiping, ignorant Barelvis. Much smaller sects in Pakistan include the Ahl-e-Hadees and Ahl-e-Tashee. The non-Pakhtun population of Pakistan is predominantly Barelvi. The stronghold of Barelvism remains Punjab, the largest province of Pakistan. The differences between these sects can be difficult to understand. Most Shiites in the subcontinent also tend to be influenced by the Sufis. Pakistan's Muslims, like other Muslims in the region, tend to follow a school of Islam which is less conservative, and hence the support for strongly and overtly religious parties has been minimal.” [Source:]

The Muslim League — the political party responsible for founding Pakistan — was founded by the Aga Khan III, leader of the Ismaili Sevener Shiites and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, an Ismaili. The Barelvis and Shias and Ismailis and Ahmediyas joined the Pakistan movement, while the Deobandis opposed the formation of Pakistan, since they wanted to Islamize all of India. But the Deobandis in Pakistan owed their allegiance to Maulana Shabbir Ahmed Usmani, who organized the Deobandi ulema who were in favour of Pakistan into the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam. The so-called "nationalist Muslims" who opposed Partition, such as Maulana Azad and Maulana Maudoodi, were Sunnis. [Source:]

Muslim Group Numbers

According to the CIA World Factbook in 2020: Muslims make up 96.4 percent of the population. Of these 85-90 percent are Sunni and 10-15 percent are Shia (Shiites). According to the International Religious Freedom Report for 2019: “Sources vary on the precise breakdown of the Muslim population between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Sunnis are generally believed to be 80-85 percent of the Muslim population and Shia, including Hazara, Ismaili, and Bohra (a branch of Ismaili), are generally believed to make up 15-20 percent. Unofficial estimates vary widely with regard to the size of minority religious groups. Religious community representatives estimate religious groups not identifying as Sunni, Shia, or Ahmadi Muslim constitute 3 to 5 percent of the population. [Source: International Religious Freedom Report for 2019, United States Department of State, Office of International Religious Freedom]

“According to the 2017 provisional census results, the population is 0.22 percent Ahmadi. Taking account of the Ahmadi boycott of the official census, however, community sources put the number of Ahmadi Muslims at approximately 500,000-600,000.Estimates of the Zikri Muslim community, located in Balochistan, range between 500,000 and 800,000 individuals. Several minority rights advocacy groups dispute the provisional results of the 2017 census and state the numbers underrepresent their true population.”

According to “By one estimate, in Pakistan, the Shias are 18 percent, Ismailis 2 percent, Ahmediyas 2 percent, Barelvis 50 percent, Deobandis 20 percent, Ahle Hadith 4 percent, and other minorities 4 percent. The Ahle-e-Hadith is a small group of Sunni Muslims in India who do not consider themselves bound by any particular school of law and rely directly on the Prophet's Sunnah. By another estimate some 15 per cent of Pakistan's Sunni Muslims would consider themselves Deobandi, and some 60 per cent, are in the Barelvi tradition based mostly in the province of Punjab. But some 64 per cent of the total seminaries are run by Deobandis, 25 per cent by the Barelvis, six percent by the Ahle Hadith and three percent by various Shiite organizations. [Source:]

Nearly 85 percent of South Asia's Sunni Muslims are said to follow the Barelvi school, closer to Sufism. The remaining 15 percent of Sunnis follow the Deobandi school, more closely related to the conservative practice of Islam.

Hostility Towards Muslim and Muslim-Influenced Groups in Pakistan

There have been various threats to non-Sunni Muslim minorities from different sources that have roots in Islamization efforts in the 1970s and 80s and have been exacerbated as the Sunni extremist Taliban and al-Qaida movements. Shiite Muslims have borne the brunt of individual suicide bombings and targeted killings for years, though Christians and Ahmadis also have faced violence.

According to Amnesty International, several dozen people had been charged under Pakistan's blasphemy laws. In all cases, these charges appear to have been arbitrarily brought and to have been based on an individual's minority religious beliefs or on malicious accusations. Benazir Bhutto, sensitive to Pakistan's image in the world community, attempted to approve changes in the blasphemy law in order to "curb abuses of the law" — especially those involving false accusations and fabricated cases. Critics claim, however, that Benazir, constantly under attack for being too liberal by the religious right, has been overly cautious and slow to introduce amendments to the law.*

Myra MacDonald of Reuters wrote: “A 2010 study by Pakistani analyst Ayesha Siddiqa of students in elite colleges found that while 60 percent said the government was right to declare Ahmadis non-Muslims, a sizeable 18 percent believed Shi’ites were also non-Muslims. These and other findings led her to conclude that radicalism was growing even among the educated youth — it is often, wrongly, blamed on poverty — which in its extreme form could lead people into violence. Their tendency, she wrote, to see different groups with an unquestioned bias, she wrote, “especially coated with religious overtones or padded with religious belief prepares the mind to accept the message from militant organizations.” [Source :Myra MacDonald, Reuters, July 15, 2011]


Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam that incorporates ecstatic experiences and the veneration of Muslims pirs or saints, is very strong in Pakistan and Islam in India and Pakistan is influenced by Sufism. Experts say about 60 percent of Pakistani Muslims regard themselves as Sufi followers. Much of the literature, poetry and music associated with Pakistan is inspired by Sufism (See Qawwali Music below). The music and poetry appeals to Sufis and non-Sufis alike. Non-Sufis often attend Sufi concerts and festivals. Even so Sufis are considered heretical by some in Pakistan. Sufis in Pakistan embrace a personal approach to their faith and often have different beliefs on how their government should be run.

Most Sufis are Sunni Muslims while Sufism has had a strong impact on Shia Islam. According to the Los Angeles Times: “Sufism was brought to South Asia by its mystics from the Middle East more than eight centuries ago. Its highly mystical, personal approach to Islam, marked by trance-like chants, dancing to pounding drumbeats, and its belief that Sufi saints and descendants known as pirs are conduits to God make it anathema to Muslim fundamentalists, who consider it idolatry. Sufism found widespread popularity, particularly among large segments of the underclass that embrace its emphasis on equality."

Sufism is Islam's mystical tradition, the Sufis being Muslim holy men who develop their spirituality through prayer and meditation. Sufi comes from the Arabic 'safa' meaning purity, so Sufis are those whose hearts and souls are pure. The first Sufis wandered through Persia and Afghanistan and into the South Asia, preaching love, peace and brotherhood. Some of Pakistan's finest music and literature were written by Sufi saints; verses set to music that tell of the love of God, and stories in which virtue receives its reward. Sufi saints portrayed life at its most perfect. The shrines of the great saints draw many who come to pray and make offerings.

Each shrine has a festival (urs) each year on the death anniversary of the saint's death. The shrine then becomes a fairground, with musicians playing traditional instruments and singers performing mystical folk songs while dancers dance themselves in to a devotional frenzy. Trade fairs, sports competitions and traditional martial arts also take place such as fighting with daggers and riding.

Saints and Mystics in Pakistan

Saints (known as “Pirs”) are held in high regard particularly in the Punjab, where many have had miracles attributed to them. One saint reportedly could make mud walls gallop. Another prolonged his life by his ability to sleep through the night on only one or two breaths. Maulanan Jalal ud din Rumi, the founder of the Sufi dervishes of Qunia, was reportedly flayed alive and then walked around for four days with his skin in his hand. Many saints broke rules and were in trouble with the mullahs.

Madho Lal Husain is one of the most popular Sufi saints in Lahore. After studying long and hard it said he discovered the secret of God. As a test he threw a Qur’an down a well. When people who saw him started calling him a heretic, he called for the Qur’an and it returned to his hands dry and undisturbed. To celebrate he went on a binge of drinking, dancing and singing. He wore red clothes and was involved in scandal involving a young Hindu boy but no one wanted to confront him because they were afraid of his powers.

The descendants of saints are treated with great reverence. They are often worshipped not only by individuals but also by entire families, tribes, and communities. Pir families are often members of the “feudal” elite, often earning substantial income from offerings and contributions made in the name of the original saint in addition to the money they earn form their land holdings.

“Fakirs” are Muslim "holy men." Some sit in the lotus position and dress in bright green tunics and beads, acting like Hindu holy men. In Iran, Sufis are known as ascetics who wander from place to place, wearing coarse woolen clothes and bark girdles. They have traditionally held almond wood crooks in their hands and sometimess flew off into violent spasms of ecstacy.

Shrines in Pakistan

Almost every village has a shrine to a local saint where annual festivals are held. They have traditionally been built around the tombs of great saints and have traditionally been the focal point of religious life and festivals. Many are connected to mosques, where worshipers do their traditional prayers. A typical shrine consists of a series of courtyards with the tomb of the saint at its center.

Making offerings at the tombs of Muslim saints in Pakistan is similar to Hindu and Buddhist ritual offerings. Many of those who make offerings are seeking help in some way as Catholics and Chinese do when they pray at church or a temple. Strict Muslims are appalled by this kind of worship.

The tomb itself is often the site of religious activity. It is often covered by flowers and surrounded by worshipping making offerings and seeking favors or miracles. Many touch the grills around the tomb while saying Muslim prayers. Some leave money.

Thursday night is when Pakistanis visit shrines dedicated to saints. Describing the scene at the Bullhe Shah shrine outside Lahore, Isabel Hilton wrote in New Yorker, “Outside a group of musicians struck up a sing in praise of the saint. A man stood up from the crowd, which was seated in a semicircle; he wore a white shalwar kameez and green sack knotted around his head as a makeshift turban. He began to dance, lightly and gracefully, and as his pace picked up he tore off the turban and tied it around his waist. His long hair fell down his back; his head began to jerk violently from right to left, and then in circles, as his feet kept time with the runs. In the glow of the shrine's colored lights I could see the face of the watching crowd, transfixed in sympathy."

Some shrines are very old and contain beautiful and unique architectural elements. Some are tourist sites. Those of saints who have died in recent times often look like regular buildings.In the early 2000s, 40 people died and 100 were injured in a stampede that occurred as a crowd tried to rush through a gate that they believed would deliver them to paradise after they died. The Paradise Gate leads to the tomb of the saint Sant Baba Ranjit Singh Ji [Baba Farid Ji] located at a shrine in the town of Pak Pattan in central Punjab. The disaster occurred just before midnight at the start of a religious festival dedicated to the saint which attracts around 500,000 followers every year. The festival is usually a calm spiritual affair in which pilgrims make offers of sweetmeats and rice and pick leaves from tees that grow near the saint's tomb.

Deobandi Sect

The Deobandi sect is regarded as conservative group and is strongly associated with the Muslim extremist movement in Pakistan. It follows a fierce brand of Sunni Islam developed in the 19th century at an Islamic academy in Deoband, an India town outside of Delhi, thus its name. Most of the country’s radical madrassas are associated with it. Many Muslim extremist and terrorist groups are associated with it too. Deobandi teachings inspired the Taliban and dominate Pakistani religious politics.

Sunnis follow the Deobandi school make up about 15 percent of the Sunnis in Pakistan. Deobandi Islam has may similarities with Wahabbism practiced in Saudi Arabia. It was created partly out of reaction to British rule and was given a further boost when Pakistan became an independent nation. One of its main ideologues, Abdul A’la Maududi, advocated a totalitarian form of Islam and said that the Quran had to accepted in its purest and most literal form and that many Muslims were corrupted by the liberal West.. He argued that Islam was perfect and believers must follow it without judgements or question and its laws had precedence over those of any state and Western influences must be fought wherever they reared their ugly heads,

According to The Wahhabi (Arabia), Deobandi (Pakistan and India) and Jamaat-I-Islami all are anti-sufi, and against the over devotion to Muhammad, The Deobandis in Pakistan owed their allegiance to Maulana Shabbir Ahmed Usmani, who organized the Deobandi ulema who were in favour of Pakistan into the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam. The so-called "nationalist Muslims" who opposed Partition, such as Maulana Azad and Maulana Maudoodi, were Sunnis. []

Barelvi: Mellow, Sufi-Influenced Muslims

Barelvis are regarded as tolerant, mellow Muslims described the Washington Post as “a violence-eschewing, anti-Taliban school of Islam steeped in Sufism.” Mostly found in the Punjab, they are sometimes called Sufis According to “ For the Barelvis, the holy Prophet is a superhuman figure whose presence is all around us at all times; he is hazir, present; he is not bashar, material or flesh, but nur, light. The Deobandis, who also revere the Prophet, argue he was the insan-i-kamil, the perfect person, but still only a man, a mortal. Barelvis emphasise a love of Muhammad, a semi-divine figure with unique foreknowledge. The Deobandis reject this idea of Muhammad, emphasising Islam as a personal rather than a social religion. [Source:]

“The Barelvis follow many Sufi practices, including use of music (Qawwali) and intercession by their teacher. A key difference between Barelvi and Deobandi that Barelvi's believe in intercession between humans and Divine Grace. This consists of the intervention of an ascending, linked and unbroken chain of holy personages, pirs, reaching ultimately to Prophet Mohammad, who intercede on their behalf with Allah. It is a more superstitious — but also a more tolerant — tradition of Indian Islam. Their critics claim that Barelvis are guilty of committing innovation (Bid'at) and therefore, they are deviated from the true path — the path of Sunnah.

The Pakistan Movement got support from the Barelvis (Low Church). It had faced opposition from the National Indian Congress which was supported by the Deobandi seminaries (High Church). However, after the establishment of Pakistan as an Islamic state in 1949, Barelvi Low Church was too mixed up with mysticism to be a source of Islamic law. Ironically, Pakistan moved away from the 'spiritual pluralism' of the Barelvis, who had supported Pakistan, and relied on the more puritanical Deobandis who had opposed it.

Unlike the Deobandis, the Barelvis see the Prophet Mohammad as more than a man, a part of the divine light of Allah. This doctrine gives rise to a form of Islam that provides a space for holy men and esoteric practices and graves appear to be often more ornate than those found within Deobandi communities.The Wahhabi (Arabia), Deobandi (Pakistan and India) and Jamaat-I-Islami all are anti-sufi, and against the over devotion to Muhammad, whereas the Barelvis emphasize Muhammad's uniqueness.Indeed, nearly 85 percent of South Asia's Sunni Muslims are said to follow the Barelvi school, closer to Sufism.

The Barelvis believe the Prophet is a human being made from flesh and blood [bashar] and a noor [light] at the same time. This is like the example of when Gabriel, who is also noor [light], used to appear to the Prophet in the form of a man, flesh and blood. He is infallible and perfect and free from all imperfections and sinless (as are all Prophets). He is human but not like other humans. Allah has given him the ability to see the whole of Creation in detail while he is in his blessed grave as if he was looking at it in the palm of his hand. This is called being "nazir" ("witnessing"). Allah has given him the ability to go physically and spiritually to anywhere in the Created Universes he pleases whenever he pleases (peace be upon him) and to be in more than one place at the same time. This is what is meant by "hazir" (present). This is not the same as believing that he (peace be upon him) is present everywhere all the time!

Barelvi Muslims Become More Conservative?

Karin Brulliard wrote in the Washington Post: “Liberal Pakistanis have long extolled the Barelvis — some of whom practice mystical saint worship and all-night dance sessions — as reason for hope in a nation that sometimes seems to be surging toward violent fundamentalism.” In Pakistan, they are often referred to as “"very peaceful people," an opinion some U.S. officials have echoed privately. Barelvis did not support the holy war against Soviet rule in Afghanistan. As terrorist attacks have surged in Pakistan, several prominent Barelvis have issued decrees condemning suicide bombing and other violence. Islamist insurgents have responded with major bombings at Sufi shrines and mosques. [Source: Karin Brulliard, Washington Post, January 29, 2011]

In the late 2000s and early 2010s, the “the sect has formed an alliance that, leaders say, intends to field candidates for political office to promote peaceful Islam and the authority of the state. The group, the Sunni Ittehad Council, is staunchly anti-American, but also fervently anti-Taliban, on grounds that killing innocents cannot be justified under Islam.”

The education system in Pakistan is seeded with pro-jihad ideas. “Meanwhile, an expanding urban middle class — frustrated with a dynastic political system and violence widely blamed on Pakistan's alliance with the United States — has sought power through religion, analysts say. Authorities have done little to restrain clerics who encourage bloodshed; Qadri told a court he was inspired by two Barelvi clerics.

“Some Sufi leaders acknowledge that they regard the blasphemy furor as an opportunity to take political wind from the Deobandi sect. Barelvis consider themselves the truest lovers of Islam's prophet Mohammad, and defending Qadri offers the followers a chance to prove their religious mettle and anti-Western credentials, analysts say.

“Peace-Loving” Barelvi Muslims Support Assassination of Liberal Governor

In January 2011, Punjab governor Salman Taseer was assassinated by a policeman named Mumtaz Qadri after Taseer criticized Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and banned them in Punjab Province. Karin Brulliard wrote in the Washington Post: “Loud support for the confessed killer is coming from an unlikely quarter:” the Barelvi. “While many factions have lauded the slaying, the peace-promoting Barelvi sect has spearheaded mass rallies to demand the release of the assassin, a policeman. Because most Pakistanis are Barelvis, their stance is challenging the belief long held among liberals here that the Muslim majority in this nuclear-armed nation is more moderate than militant. [Source: Karin Brulliard, Washington Post, January 29, 2011]

“While it is unclear whether the public reaction to Taseer's slaying signals widespread militant sympathies, there is little doubt here that religious conservatism has deepened... "We represent the voice of the people," said Sfarish Ali, 26, a teacher here at the vast Jamia Naeemia seminary, a Barelvi institution whose leader was killed when extremists bombed the school in 2009. "Our rulers are the slaves to Western countries . . . so they are under pressure when it comes to religion. But we are not." The support Barelvis have expressed for Taseer's assassination has prompted some alarm that more Pakistanis are opting to adopt, rather than oppose, hard-line tactics. A U.S. official expressed concern that more-militant Islamic groups might exploit the issue to win the Barelvis to their cause, on the basis that killing in the name of religion is morally, legally and politically justified. "For all we know, Qadri may have been a lunatic,'' the U.S. official said. "But once he did this, he essentially put a whole different set of things in motion."

“The Sufis' prominence in the praise for the governor's assassin illustrates one reason it has proved difficult to gauge the depth of religious radicalism in Pakistan. Competing strands of Islam infuse all corners of politics, defying easy labels such as pacifist, moderate, extremist or violent. "This is a very basic concept. If you kill an innocent person, it means you are killing all humanity," said Mohammed Ziaul Haq, a council spokesman and author whose new book is titled "WikiLeaks: America's Horrendous Face." "Islam is a religion of peace and love, and it asks its followers to restrain themselves."

“But killing in response to blasphemy is another matter, he said, making it "totally different from terrorism.'' The government had done nothing to silence Taseer's criticism of the blasphemy ban, he said, or his support for a Christian woman sentenced to death for the law, which he said had made Taseer an "indirect" blasphemer himself. "Ninety percent of people in Pakistan think Mumtaz Qadri is a hero," Ziaul Haq said. "If it's a democracy, the government should think about that."

“Yet Barelvi leaders who were interviewed struggled to explain how championing Qadri's deed was compatible with support for government authority. At Jamia Naeemia, an enormous pink structure where cheerful teachers eagerly give tours, one teacher praised the killing but then admitted he was horrified when he first heard about it. He did not want to be quoted saying that, however.

“Ragab Naeemi, the principal and leader of a demonstration in support of the killer, said the assassination was clearly sanctioned by the Quran. The government needed to be sent a clear message that it must ensure the legal system preserves the sanctity of Islam, he said. He added that Taseer, a brash businessman whose secular lifestyle made him something of a playboy by Pakistani standards, made it easy to pick sides. "Being Muslim, our leaders should be neat and clean," Naeemi said. "So people think eradication of Salman Taseer is 100 percent right."

Shiite (Shia) Muslims in Pakistan

Shiites (Shias) make up 10 to 15 of the Muslims and population of Pakistan. Most Shiites in India and Pakistan tend to be influenced by Sufism. Shiites and Sunnis eat, work and socialize but rarely intermarry. Shiites generally worship at their own mosques and have their own religious leaders. Shiites give particular reverence to Sayyid, those who claim linear descent from the Prophet. The highlight of their year is the spectacular festival of Muhurram.

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: Shiites in Pakistan are “divided into two major groups: the Imami and the less numerous Ismaili (also called Agha Khani after their spiritual leader). This division, as with the rift between Sunnis and Shiites, resulted from a disagreement over the true successors of Muhammad. Other Shiite groups in Pakistan include the Bohras, Dawoodis, and Khoja. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, Thomson Gale, 2006]

“Pakistani Shiites generally live in the cities of Quetta, Peshawar, Karachi, and Hydarabad and in the northern regions of Gilgit and Hunza. The major Shiite religious observance is Ashura, which falls on the tenth day of Muharram (the first month of the Islamic year). Ashura marks the start of 40 days of mourning over the death of Shiite leader Husayn ibn Ali and his companions at Karbala in 680 c.e. To commemorate this event, men and boys take to the streets in processions, pounding their chests and striking their backs with chains tipped with blades. In Pakistan Shia and Sunni tensions become particularly acute during this time, often resulting in riots. Chhelum marks the fortieth day after Ashura, and it, too, is observed by Shiite processions.

Shiites claim they are discriminated against by the government. Tensions between the two communities rise after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and Zia ul-Haq's Islamization policies, which began around the same time. There has been violence Between Shiites and Sunnis and violence directed at Shiites (See Terrorism). In the 2000s and 2010s, there were a number of assassinations of prominent Shiite leaders and bombings of Shiite mosques by Sunni militant groups, such as the Laskhar-i-Jahangvi, an offshoot of Jamiat-i-Ulama-i-Islam (Society of Learned Islamists).

Attacks of Shiite (Shia) Muslims in Pakistan

In March 2013, at least 50 people killed when a truck packed with explosives detonated in a Shiite neighborhood in Karachi. After that, Richard Leiby wrote in the Washington Post: Fatal attacks against Shiites have risen and fallen for years. But 2012 was the deadliest on record, according to Human Rights Watch, which says more than 400 Shiites were killed; the toll for this year has already hit at least 250. Militants have recently focused the killings on ethnic Hazara Shiites in Balochistan, who have fled the province by the thousands. [Source: Richard Leiby, Washington Post March 14, 2013]

“For decades, Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, backed by Saudi Arabia, groomed Sunni extremists to offset any threat by Shiite Iran and also to wage attacks against India. Many Shiites today subscribe to the widely held belief that the Pakistani intelligence services protect Sunni extremists, including the al-Qaeda-allied Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a sectarian militant group that has asserted responsibility for numerous sectarian attacks in Pakistan, including the recent Quetta blasts.

“Pakistan officially banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in 2001 and the military denies any links to the group, but security forces have done little to crack down on it. One popular conspiracy theory holds that an omnipotent military “establishment” that is disgusted by Pakistan’s civilian government is seeking to sow chaos and postpone elections. “These generals want to extend their control in this country and they need the blood of Pakistanis for their goals,” thundered Raja Nasir Abbas Jafari, a burly, white-turbaned Shiite party leader in Karachi. “These terrorists are their strategic assets.”

“Experts cite an array of factors for the spike in attacks. In Quetta, for example, ethnic Baloch who simply hate Hazaras are thought to have allied in convenience with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. And anti-terrorism coordination among provincial and federal governments and the military is deficient.”

Between the early 1990s and early 2010s, an estimated 4,000 Pakistani Shiites were killed in sectarian attacks. Murtaza Hussain of Al-Jazeera wrote in 2012: The pace of the violence “has rapidly accelerated in recent years. The tragic irony of this increasingly violent sectarianism is that Muhammad Ali Jinnah, widely known and revered as the "Father of the Nation" of Pakistan was himself a Shia Muslim though he maintained a secular public religious identity and preached the same for the country which he created. His famous speech to Pakistanis in which he said: "You are free; you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed…", signifies how far modern-Pakistan has departed from its founding ideals and become a place where the country's founder himself would likely be threatened and unwelcome. [Source: Murtaza Hussain, Al-Jazeera, 26 November 2012]

Attacks Involving Sunnis and Shiites in the 1990s

In the 1990s, Sunni Muslim militants, sometimes backed by Saudi Arabia, and Shiite radicals, sometimes supported by Iran, opened fire on one another in hit-and-run attacks. Clergymen were routinely kidnapped and mosques were repeatedly attacked by bomb-throwers on motorcycles. Violence between the groups get so intense that bodyguards were posted at the entrances of Shiite mosques.

In one round of attacks in the mid-1990s, 33 people were killed in two separate drive-by attacks. A total of 21 were killed and 26 were wounded when Shiite gunmen opened fire on crowds of Sunnis. The attacks were in response to a Sunni attack that left a 12 Shiites dead, including a 12-year-old boy, and injured 13 a few days before.

In September 1996, a dispute between Shiite and Sunni teenagers in Kurram in the Tribal Areas escalated to communal war that left 200 people dead, and many women and children kidnapped. Outsiders staying at the local hotel were killed. In 1997, members of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi put on disguises and pretended they were musicians, singers, dancers and members of a wedding procession in Multan. When the procession passed the Iran Culture Center, militants climbed over he wall and shot dead an Iran director and six others. Other “wedding guests” set off firecrackers to cover the nose from the gunshots.

In September 1998, the mosque and homes of Shiites were burned down in Islamabad in retaliation for the murder of a Sunni extremist leader and three of his followers. In 1998, 24 Shiite mourners were gunned down and killed and 50 were wounded as they recited the Quran at a Lahore cemetery. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi was behind the attack. In January 1999, 16 Shiite Muslims were gunned down while praying near the town of Multan in the Punjab.

Attacks Involving Sunnis and Shiites in the 2000s

In April 2002, a bomb killed 12 women and children at a gathering at a Shiite mosque in central Pakistan. In March 2003, 57 people were killed in Quetta and more than 150 were wounded in a grenade, gunfire and suicide bomber attacks during a Shiite Muslim religious procession during the Shiite holiday of Ashura. The attack began when three gunmen opened fore and hurled grenades at a crowds and then entered the crowd of survivors and blew themselves up. Shiites retaliated by setting fire to a Sunni mosque, shops and a television station. Al-Qaida was reportedly involved in some of the attack because it suspected Shiites of providing intelligence to security forces hunting down Al-Qaida.

In July 2003, 47 Pakistanis were killed in a suicide bomb attack on a Shiite mosque in Quetta where around 2,000 people had gathered for prayers. One survivor told Associated Press: “First they killed security guards outside the mosque. Then they moved inside the mosque and started firing on the people.” As bad it was it could have been much worse. Two bombs found in the mosques were defused before they went off.

The attack took 15 minutes and was carried out by three gunmen who witnesses said looked “very relaxed,” walking “here and there.” Survivors said they patiently fired five or six shots into a victim and then paused and aimed at another. Periodically they heard the sound of an empty cartridge falling in the floor, then being replaced by another. One attacker blew himself up with a suicide bomb. The other two were beaten to death by worshipers at the mosque. The 47 dead included the three attackers. Shiites rioted after attack and went to the nearest hospital and found no one there and burned it down.

In May 2004, 13 people were killed at a Shiite mosque at the Sindh Madressa-tul-Islam school in Karachi. The attack occurred on a Friday afternoon after most of the students had been let out early. Most of the dead were adults praying at the mosque. On May 7 2004, 23 people were killed at Shiite mosque. This was followed by the drive-by shooting of pro-Taliban Sunni Muslim cleric Nazamuddin Shamzai. Shiites enraged by the attack fought government security forces and attacked a dozen or shops and restaurants, including a McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

In May 2004, a suicide bomber exploded himself inside the Imam Bargah Ali Shiite mosque in Karachi, during evening prayers, killing 19 and injuring at least 42. The attack was seen as revenge for the assassination of senior Sunni Muslim cleric Nazamuddin Shamzai.

Thousands of soldiers and police were put on alert due to fear of sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunnis. Hundreds of Shiite youths rioted anyway. They burned shops, blocked highways and rail lines and attacked government buildings. A shootout between police and rioters left three more dead.

In September 2004, Dawood Badini, a member of the Muslim militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, said he was responsible for three attacks on Shiite Muslims in Quetta that left more than 100 dead. He organized the attacks in July 2003 and March 2003 plus an attack of Shiite police recruits that left 11 dead. Badini is the brother-in-law of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center.

In January 2005, 14 people were killed in clashes between Shiites and Sunnis after a Shiite cleric was assassinated and his supporters went on a rampage seeking revenge. Six of the dead were members of a family that were burned alive when their house was set on fire. The previous June, Shiites in Gilgit staged protest over the content of Islamic textbooks used in state schools. It was unusual for there to be violence in the Gilgit area.

In March 2005, 29 people were killed when a powerful bomb was detonated among a crowd of Shiites that had gathered at a shrine for Shiite saint in the town o f Naseerabad, about 350 kilometers south of Quetta.

Multan Attack

In early October 2004, two devastating attacks killed 80 people. In Multan 39 people were killed and more than 100 people were wounded by two bombs (one in a car and one in motorcycle) during a predawn attack at a gathering of Sunni Muslim radicals honoring the death of leader of an outlawed Sunni group. There was fighting between rival Sunni and Shiite militant groups. Angry Sunnis gathered outside the hostel where victims were taken, shouting “Shiites are infidels.”

One survivor of the Multan attack told Associated Press: “The explosion numbed our ears, we saw people falling on each other, everybody was crying, everybody was running. Many people were injured in the stampede. We started picking them up and asked passing cars for help.” The bomb was detonated by remote control and was not a suicide attack based on the fact no body parts were found in the car that was that blown up. The bombing may have been a retaliation for the bombing of the Shiite mosque six days earlier.

In that attack, also in October 2004, 31 people were killed and 50 were injured when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowded Shiite mosque, Zainabia mosque, in the eastern city of Sialkot during Friday prayers. One survivor told Associated Press: “I was praying when I first saw a bright light and then something exploded with a big bang, and I fell down...I saw human body pieces hitting the walls and ceiling of the mosque.” The bombings were believed to be a retaliation for the killing of Amjad Hussian Farooqi, an important member of al-Qaida in Pakistan. In response the government outlawed political and religious gatherings.


Ismaili Islam is a sect within the minority Shia Sect of Islam that broke from Sunni majority in the A.D. 9th century. Most Ismaili's live in the Indian subcontinent and East Africa. The Ismailis are a Shia sect also named the "Seveners" There are around 16 million Ismailis worldwide, mostly in pockets in 25 countries in East Africa, Western and Central Asia, North America, Western Europe, and the Middle East. Most regard the Aga Khan as their leader. The present Aga Khan is regarded as the 49th iman.

The Ismaili sect began in the 9th century as a secret society in east Iraq and west Iran. Its followers believed that Ismail, the eldest son of Jafar al-Sadiq, the sixth Shia imam, was the seventh imam and that his son Muhammad became an imam after him and would one day return as a messiah-like prophet.

Ismailism rose at one point to become the largest branch of Shi‘ism, climaxing as a political power with the Fatimid Caliphate in the tenth through twelfth centuries. Ismailis believe in the oneness of God, as well as the closing of divine revelation with Muhammad, whom they see as "the final Prophet and Messenger of God to all humanity". The Ismaʿili and the Twelvers both accept the same initial Imams. After the death of Muhammad ibn Isma'il in the 8th century CE, the teachings of Ismailism further transformed into the belief system as it is known today, with an explicit concentration on the deeper, esoteric meaning (batin) of the Islamic religion. [Source: Wikipedia]

See Separate Articles on the Fatimids, Assassins and Druze.

History of the Ismailis

Like Sunni Islam, Shia Islam has developed several sects. The most important of these is the Twelver, or Ithna-Ashari, sect, which predominates in the Shia world generally. Not all Shia became Twelvers, however. In the eighth century, a dispute arose over who should lead the Shia community after the death of the Sixth Imam, Jaafar ibn Muhammad (also known as Jaafar as Sadiq). [Source: Library of Congress *]

The group that eventually became the Twelvers followed the teaching of Musa al Kazim; another group followed the teachings of Musa's brother, Ismail, and were called Ismailis. Ismailis are also referred to as Seveners because they broke off from the Shia community over a disagreement concerning the Seventh Imam. Ismailis do not believe that any of their Imams have disappeared from the world in order to return later. Rather, they have followed a continuous line of leaders represented in early 1993 by Karim al Husayni Agha Khan IV, an active figure in international humanitarian efforts. The Twelver Shia and the Ismailis also have their own legal schools."

The Ismailis split into Egyptian, Syrian and Persian branches. The original Assassins, the brilliant Fatimids (who ruled in the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries in Egypt), the Druze and followers of Aga Khan have all been Ismailis.

Ismaili Beliefs and Practices

The Ismailis took the Gnostic theory of emanations and sparks and combined it with esoteric interpretations of the Qur’an to bring Imam in direct combination with the Active Intellect. Followers traditionally contribute a portion of the income to the treasury. The money is invested and allocated to health, education, and cultural projects world wide." In parts of Pakistan they practice their religion in special buildings called “Jatmattkhans”, which are most noticeable in the cities of the Sindh.

The Ismailis recognize seven imams. They recognize the same first six as imam as Shia Muslims. Their seventh Iman, is Ismail, the eldest son of the sixth Shia imam Jafar as-Sadiq. Shia believe that Jafar as-Sadiq second son Musa al-Kazim, is the seventh imam. They believe the iman lines continues to this day.

Ismailis have no mosques, clerics or holy days and regard prayer as a personal matter, with no fixed times or prostrations. Instead of mosques, Ismailis use community centers with a prayer room. Women are less excluded than in other Muslim sects. Ismailis have traditionally taken a cyclical view of history and incorporated mathematics and philosophy into their theological views.

Aga Khan

The Aga Khan ("Great Chief") is the title of the spiritual leader, or imam, of the 15 million members of the Nizari Ismaili sect of Shia Muslims in 25 countries. Regarded as a saint and prince, he is believed to be a direct descendant of Muhammad.

James Reginato wrote in Vanity Fair: “ The title Aga Khan—meaning, in a combination of Turkish and Persian, commanding chief—was granted in the 1830s by the Emperor of Persia to Karim's great-great-grandfather when he married the emperor's daughter. But Aga Khan I was also the 46th hereditary imam of the Ismaili Muslims of the world, in a line that descends directly from the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century. [Source: James Reginato, Vanity Fair, January 14, 2013 /]

Aga Khan I (Hasan Alis Dhah, 1800-1881) was an imam and governor of the Persian province of Kerman. The Persian shah gave him the tile “Aga Khan," which means "chief commander." In 1839, Aga Khan I helped the British in the first Singlo-Afghan War; in 1848, he established the headquarters of his sect in Bombay, India.

On the Agha Khan in 1875, Sir Bartle Frere wrote: "Like his ancestor, the Old One of Marco Polo's time, he keeps his court in grand and noble style. His sons, popularly known as 'The Persian Princes,' are active sportsmen, and age has not dulled the Agha's enjoyment of horse-racing. Some of the best blood of Arabia is always to be found in his stables. He spares no expense on his racers, and no prejudice of religion or race prevents his availing himself of the science and skill of an English trainer or jockey when the races come round. If tidings of war or threatened disturbance should arise from Central Asia or Persia, the Agha is always one of the first to hear of it, and seldom fails to pay a visit to the Governor or to some old friend high in office to hear the news and offer the services of a tried sword and an experienced leader to the Government which has so long secured him a quiet refuge for his old age." Agha Khan died in April, 1881, at the age of 81. He was succeeded by his son Agha Ali Shah, one of the members of the Legislative Council. (See The Homeward Mail, Overland Times of India, of 14th April, 1881.)]


The Zikris are an Islamic group that lives mainly in Makran in Balochistan province. They follow the main tenets of Islam but consider the fifteenth-century Sufi teacher Sayyid Muhammad Jaunpuri (1443–1505) as the Mahdi, or messiah. Their central ritual, which they refer to as the hajj, takes place on the 27th day of the Muslim month of Ramadan. Followers participated in a pilgrimage to Koh-i-Murad, a mountain in Turbat where their prophet made an appearance before disappearing into Afghanistan. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, Thomson Gale, 2006]

The Zikris, like the Ahmadis, form a group that regard themselves Muslim but are rejected as such by Sunni leaders because they practice ceremonies that are considered non-Muslim. Estimates of the Zikri Muslim community, located in Balochistan, range between 500,000 and 800,000 individuals. Zikris means "those who recite the name of God".

The majority of Baloch are Hanafi Sunnis. A community of an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 Zikri Baloch live in the coastal Makran area of Balochistan and in Karachi. The Zikris believe in the Messiah Nur Pak, whose teaching supersede those of the Prophet Muhammad. Their beliefs, considered heretical, have led to intermittent Sunni repression of their community since its founding in the fifteenth century. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

The coastal Baloch are in greater contact with non- Baloch and manifest a concomitantly greater sense of group solidarity. For them, being "unified amongst ourselves" is a particularly potent cultural ideal. Because they are Zikris, they have a limited pool of eligible mates and do not generally marry outside of the group of Zikri Baloch. *

Zikri practices and rituals differ from those of orthodox Islam. They do not observe the Ramadan fast and place the teachings of their mahdi above those of Muhammad. These are among the main reasons they are considered heritics. The Islamist group Jamiat-i-Ulama-i-Islam want the Zikris to be declared non-Muslims. [Source: D. O. Lodrick, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009; Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (, Official Gateway to the Government of Pakistan (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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