Sifting Facts from Fiction: The Underpinnings of the Taliban’s ‘Islamic Emirate’

Even after the Taliban have assumed power in Afghanistan twice, their ideology remains poorly understood, evident from the misconceptions surrounding it. Some believe this ideology is reflective of Islam while others attempt to find its basis in the Pashtun culture. It is necessary to explore the real underpinnings of the Taliban’s ideology, as reflected in their governments’ policies and practices, and determine what’s fact and fiction to dispel the harmful misconceptions surrounding Islam and Pashtun culture.

The Taliban’s years in power first began in 1996 when, after the fourth Afghan Civil War, Mullah Muhammad Omar from Kandahar assumed power in Afghanistan as the Ameer-ul-Mo’mineen (‘Commander of the Faithful’), rechristening the Islamic State of Afghanistan to the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ (an emirate means the dominion of an emir or ruler). His ‘Emirate’ was controlled by a ruthless violent extremist force known as the Taliban,[1] a Pashto word meaning ‘students’. In 2001 their administration was ousted by U.S. intervention post-September 11, 2001, only to return in 2021 to rule Afghanistan again with the same old ideology—this time under Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada as the Supreme Leader.

Historically, during the anti-Soviet War from 1979-1989, the Taliban studied at Pakistani madrasas or religious seminaries as refugee children in camps and orphanages. At these madrasas, the children were isolated from normal life and its pleasures and taught  virulent jihadist Deobandi ideology—a puritanical Islamist philosophy from Darul Uloom Deoband, India that shares similarities with the extremely puritanical Wahhabism sponsored by Saudi Arabia’s petro-dollars.[2]

The Taliban’s background in the Deobandi ideology owes itself to the strong presence of Deobandism in the Pashtun-dominated areas in Pakistan where the Afghan Pashtun Taliban were studying at madrasas and masjids controlled by clerics of this denomination. This religious establishment was encouraged greatly by Pakistan’s Islamist military dictator during the 1980s, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. These Deobandi madrasas became the melting pot for radical theological influences and provided the ideological grounding for what is known as the ‘Islamic Emirate’ of Afghanistan.

Deobandism Influenced by Wahhabism Under Zia

Coupled with the problematic formula of Deobandism based on repackaged Wahhabism, other factors contributed to shaping the Taliban’s ideology. Influences of Pakistani Islamist and sectarian parties, pan-Islamist ideologues from the Middle East and South Asia, and lastly, the ongoing ‘Islamization’ in Pakistan imposed by Zia, were all responsible for enriching the Deobandi ideology underpinning the practices of the Taliban regime.[3]

This ideology is elucidated by Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef—the ‘Islamic Emirate’ of Afghanistan’s former ambassador to Pakistan—who was once a young refugee living at a camp in Quetta, Balochistan, during the anti-Soviet War. In his book, My Life with the Taliban, he writes, “At the mosques the mullahs were preaching to us about the holy jihad, about the obligation to all Muslims, about paradise, and about our homeland.”[4]

Similarly, Fazal Rahim Marwat, a senior regional expert at the University of Peshawar, writes, “Ideological training of the refugee children in schools and madrasas created a new militant political culture among the refugees, one which was more suited to war than to peace.”[5] In an environment already charged with Zia’s ‘Islamization’, this further led young Afghan refugees to join the anti-Soviet Islamist resistance. They were later to become senior members of the Taliban, such as Zaeef himself and the leader Mullah Omar.

Regarding the formative stages of the Taliban’s ideological foundation, prominent Pakistani journalist and author Ahmed Rashid observed that funds from Saudi Arabia—through the Pakistani military government and Islamic charitable organizations—poured into madrasasand masjids run by Deobandi parties, which were similar in their radical approach to the Wahhabists. This produced brainwashed Afghan graduates in droves, having imbibed the same ideology that the Taliban later put into practice.[6]

Mullah Omar, who founded the Taliban in 1994, was a student of Deobandi education during the war atmosphere and later joined the Islamist struggle against the Soviet and Afghan governments. As a veteran of the ‘Afghan jihad’,he already commanded respect among his followers based on his perceived piety.[7] In the documentary, Inside the Taliban, Zaeef justifies Mullah Omar’s election as leader of the Taliban movement: “The Taliban chose him because he was a trustworthy person.”[8] This implies that he fulfilled a leader’s moral criteria that the Taliban were taught in the madrasas. His moral reputation was further bolstered in 1994 after he had freed two girls that were raped by a former local mujahideen commander. He had avenged this crime by killing the commander with the help of his followers.[9] In Zaeef’s words, “We had a responsibility to protect the people and to protect the area.”[10]

This is evidence of the Wahhabism-inspired Deobandi vigilante ideology that lies at the heart of the Taliban movement, which encourages civilians to pick up arms and enforce their conception of order in society. This aligns with the historical roots of Wahhabism where the cleric Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the 18th century formed an alliance with local emir Muhammad ibn Saud. Together, under the spiritual guidance of the former, they began conquering territories in Arabia through ibn Saud’s  ikhwan (brothers in Arabic), leading to the establishment of an administration based on rules they both deemed ‘Islamic’.

After Mullah Omar was entrusted with the responsibility to lead the Taliban, he similarly embarked upon an ideologically motivated mission that he presented as a ‘divine commandment’ in order to attain legitimacy.[11] He ordered groups of the Taliban to conquer territory after territory just as ibn Saud had in the 18th century. One can notice the pattern of striking similarity between the Wahhabists of Arabia and the Deobandi Taliban of Afghanistan.

Moreover, both the Wahhabists and Deobandis of North India have inspired the Taliban in their zeal for the ‘purification’ of Islam from alien influences. This remained and still remains a key goal and practice for the repressive Taliban regimes, fulfilled through their Gestapo-like religious police.[12] In February 1995, Mullah Afghani, a key Taliban official echoed this puritanical mission, “Our program is to continue jihad until… Islamic law is applied…”[13] The former Saudi Wahhhabist model of forcibly imposing the ‘right’ behavior by creating fear of rigorous punishments directly underpins the ‘Islamic Emirate’ of Afghanistan’s ideology.

Another Taliban official and the former deputy minister for health, Mullah Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanekzai, admitted that it is “a fact that our rules are obeyed by fear,” which he justified by alleging that “people are addicted to sin.”[14] Early followers of the radical ibn Abd al-Wahhab had similarly judged fellow Muslims as being ‘corrupt’ and ‘evil’, deeming it necessary to wage ’jihad’ against them with an aim to either ‘purify’ them through punishments or eliminate them. The situation is evidently no better in the second reign of the Taliban beginning from August 2021, despite earlier misguided assessments that they had become more moderate in their approach.

Four-Point Madrasa Creed and Islamist Ideologues’ Teachings

In an interview, renowned Pakistani theologian Javed Ahmad Ghamidi insightfully identified four root causes of religiously motivated violent extremism, constituting the “religious thought” that emanated from madrasas, mullahs, and Islamist movements.[15] These causes correspond to all the other ideological underpinnings of the ‘Islamic Emirate’ of Afghanistan, whether originally found in the Middle East or South Asia. As a didactic tradition, the Taliban have been taught each of these four principles in their madrasas.

The first tenet, as narrated by Ghamidi, is that polytheism, infidelity, and apostasy are all punishable by death, and the group’s ‘purification mission’ endows the right to enforce this punishment. This echoes ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who preached that every ‘enemy’ of God must either “be converted or destroyed”.[16] Accordingly, the self-appointed, ‘divinely ordained’ Taliban government awarded death to those it deemed as ‘heretics’ or ‘enemies’ of God, which included at least five thousand Hazara Shias in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998,[17] and hundreds more in Bamiyan in 1999.[18] The Taliban also dynamited important symbols of non-Islamic faith,  such as the Buddha statues in Bamiyan, after deeming them as centers of ‘idolatry’.

This intolerant ruling of the death punishment for whosoever refuses to change their faith means that little dialogue on religious matters can be conducted with non-Muslims, as they are to be dealt with the proverbial iron hand. Sectarian organizations such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) fully integrated into the Taliban’s rank and file, already aligned with the same zero-tolerance policy towards Shias, Sufis, and unorthodox sects and minority religions, thus, reinforcing the regime’s philosophy. This belief regarding the death penalty was originally borrowed from Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI), their parent Deobandi organization,[19] which also directly influenced the Taliban government.

The second tenet of the clerical and terrorist ideology taught to the Taliban , according to Ghamidi, is the proposition that “non-Muslims are born only to be subjugated.” Moreover, every non-Muslim government is considered illegitimate since it is not run by Islamic laws, and only true Muslims have the right to establish a legitimate rule. Whenever Muslims find themselves powerful enough, they must “overthrow” the non-Muslim governments. This tenet extends to Muslim rulers who are viewed as allies of non-Muslim governments because logically these Muslims are also ruling ‘illegitimately’, and thus, their governments should be overthrown to establish ‘shariah-compliant rule’.[20]

Much before the Taliban, the influential ideologue Sayyid Qutb of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood similarly believed that Islam allowed attacking Muslims whose actions did not conform to those expected of a ‘true believer’, which justified the possibility of armed jihadist actions against Muslim rulers thought to be working against the interest of Islam. Looking further into Islamist history, radical theorist Muhammad Abdul Salam Faraj from the Munazzamat al-Jihad organization shaped this into reality by ordering jihad’ against the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat by portraying him as an ally of Israeli Jews and a hindrance to the imposition of ‘Shariah’ law.

Conspicuously, the Taliban have also been overthrowing Muslim governments on the pretext of not enforcing the Shariah and punishing perceived Muslim allies of non-Muslim governments. They removed President Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ex-lecturer in Islamic theology, for failure to establish a strong theocracy. They also brutally executed former President Dr. Muhammad Najibullah, unquestionably a Muslim, for being a Soviet ally.[21] Recently, the overthrow of the Ashraf Ghani government in Afghanistan was also based on his government not being ‘truly Islamic’.  

Ghamidi related the third root cause of Islamist terrorism as that all Muslims worldwide should be ruled by a single Islamic government, called the ‘caliphate’, and that separate Muslim states carry no legitimacy. And so it follows that only the pan-Islamist caliphate will bring ‘true peace’ and implement the shariah—none of these is truly possible in a modern Muslim state. The Taliban also espoused these goals when they took over Kabul after Mullah Omar had already been treated in Kandahar as a ‘caliph’ or “Prince of the Believers”.[22]

This tenet of the rejection of a Muslim nation-state and instead the establishment of a pan-Islamist government does have historical grounding. Muhammad Ghazali, a key ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood published  in 1948, Our Beginning in Wisdom. It emphasized the ‘shariah’ to be the all-encompassing source of law, along with expressing the implicit disappointment that the government of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had put in place an ‘illegitimate’ system that made the regime itself ‘unacceptable’. Qutb was even more explicit in rejecting the Muslim nation-state of Egypt and thought that loyalty to it was a form of ‘Zionist imperialism’, calling instead for pan-Islamism.

Accordingly, the Taliban have made no secret their intentions of replacing loyalty to the Afghan state with that to the perceived Muslim ‘nation’. They always deem every depiction of a Muslim nation-state forbidden in Islam, emphasizing Islam as the sole source of identity. In both their reigns, they have ‘legitimized’ their ‘Emirate’ in the name of the ‘shariah’, whose implementation has been a stated policy.

The fourth and last ideological underpinning for Islamist violence taught by clerics, as mentioned by Ghamidi, is that the concept of a modern nation-state is a form of ‘infidelity’, and that there is no room in Islam for such a system. It brings ‘corrupting’ Western influences with it, to purge which is the responsibility of self-appointed violent extremist organizations with a ‘divine’ mission. The modern nation-state’s leniency in matters pertaining to religion also creates space for supposed ‘innovations’ within Islam, which are a point of focus for both Wahhabists and Deobandis who have inspired the Taliban.

In South Asia prior to the Taliban, Syed Abul A’la Maududi, an Indian and then post-Partition Pakistani pan-Islamist thinker, had a firm stance against ‘morally destructive’ Western influences and advocated no compromise on this issue, instead asking the West to reconcile with what he considered ‘Islam’. His “total reliance on the shari’a”, which according to the orthodox view, cannot be established by a modern Muslim nation-state, has been witnessed practically during the Taliban regimes in Afghanistan.[23] The Taliban have never considered Afghanistan to be a nation-state (supposedly an ‘infidel’ concept), banning national emblems such as the anthem and flag, and renaming the country as an ‘emirate’ from state in order to bring the country into compliance with shariah.

Moreover, following Maududi in the Wahhabist way, the Taliban specially instituted and have now resurrected the notorious ‘religious police’, to effectively monitor any deviation from the ‘shariah’. Thereby, they have aimed at eliminating ‘corrupt’ Western practices and local mystical traditions from the ‘actual Islam’. This demonstrates that besides the four-point creed taught in Deobandi madrasas, the Taliban’s ideological foundation has been derived partially from Maududi, whose teachings they were imparted in madrasas, several of which were run by the Jama’at-i-Islami, Maududi’s Islamist party. In addition, the terrorist group unfalteringly provides safe havens to global jihadists who obtain training and struggle for the implementation of the ‘shariah’ and ‘purification’ of Islam similar to the Taliban themselves.         

Islam as the Emirate’s Underpinning?

The ‘Islamic Emirate’ of Afghanistan has been acting solely in the name of Islam both times, yet two Qura’nic verses suffice to prove whether the real message of Islam is at the foundation of their ideology. In the second chapter of the Qur’an known as al-Baqarah, verse 256 has the oft-quoted line: “There is no compulsion in religion.” Yet the entire ‘emirate’ of the Taliban was and is still based on imposing through sheer force what they deem ‘Islamic’. Their governments have compelled adherents of every denomination to submit to their interpretation of Islam that orders social life in a particular retrogressive fashion, which contradicts the Qur’anic forbiddance of compulsion in faith matters.

Besides coercion, the Taliban regimes are invariably characterized by vicious bans on legitimate forms of pleasure-seeking, beautification, and even several fundamental rights of the populace, particularly females. However, verse 87in the fifth chapter of the Qur’an, known as al-Ma’idah, enjoins: “O those who believe, do not make unlawful good things that God has made lawful for you, and do not transgress.” The social policies that the Taliban have been implementing are extreme transgressions, again through exploiting the name of Islam.

Last but not least, the very first word of the Qur’an revealed to the Prophet of Islam was “read”, but the Taliban during the 1990s fixed the death penalty for the ‘crime’ of teaching girls.[24] Even in the 21st century, education for females is not permitted by the ‘Islamic Emirate’ beyond the primary level. It is evident how much of their ideology they have derived from what is indisputably Islam: the Holy Scripture.

However, there is indeed a problem with Islamic theology texts as in retrogressive translations and interpretations of the Qur’an, fabricated Hadiths, and classical scholarship—all of which are generally considered ‘Islam’ and form part of the package of the shariah. If all this is taken at face value as ‘Islam’, then what the Taliban have been and are still practicing is certainly “grounded within Islamic tradition”, as Adam Deen, a reformist Islamic expert argues about Daesh (or the so-called ‘Islamic State’).[25] Contrarily, if the real message of Islam is considered as referenced above through the Qura’nic verses, then the Taliban’s ‘Islamic Emirate’ stands on an ideological foundation in contradiction with Islam.

Refuting Hollow Claims About Pashtunwali

Most writers seem to accept that Islam does not lie at the heart of the Taliban government’s functioning. Instead, it is claimed that Pashtunwali has been the ‘real inspiration’ for the predominantly Pashtun Taliban—without actual references to the tenets of the Pashtun code.[26] K. B. Usha has even suggested that the “Taliban ideology is built on Pashtun nationalism”.[27] These points need to be refuted, since in addition to their untruth, they lead to stereotyping a whole ethnic group as religious extremist and violence-loving.

The documented reality is that the Taliban have institutionalized violation of some of the most important tenets of Pashtunwali, which every Pashtun is supposed to abide by. A few examples suffice to prove this contention. For example, the tenet nanawatay means merciful protection provided to all who request it against their enemies, even if the request for asylum is “sought among the enemies”.[28] In the face of the Afghan Shia Hazaras’ genocide, two delegations of tribal elders in Bamiyan approached the Taliban for intercession, only to be killed. Contrary to Pashtun tenant of nanawatay, the Taliban neither had mercy nor offered protection to the Hazaras.[29]

Another important aspect of the Pashtunwali code is sabat, meaning loyalty to one’s family, tribe, and nation. Contrarily, the Taliban have always shown little loyalty even to their own people by depriving them of fundamental rights and executing Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns alike. Further, nang means honor and stands for defending those who are in weaker social positions. The Taliban’s ideology has little regard for this Pashtunwali aspect. Their governments have institutionalized a misogynistic, discriminatory system, under which most women have lost their jobs based on their sex alone. The Taliban also shot dead Hazara elderly and children in the 1998 Mazar-i-Sharif massacre as they were trying to flee the city.[30]

All of this could hardly be considered honorable behavior in accordance with the concept of nang. Additionally, this also contradicts Pashtunwali in general, which seeks to protect from harm the lives of others, especially the weaker people. Lastly, jirga is a council of Pashtun tribal elders who are respected for resolving disputes at the local level. The Taliban, inspired by their Deobandi ideology, have been against any hierarchical tribal structure, continuing to kill those tribal elders whom they have viewed as posing resistance to their rule.

Afghanistan-Pakistan author Abubakar Siddique has summarized the above situation in the following words: “The Taliban opposed important aspects of local narkh, or customary laws.”[31] Importantly, it should be noted that Pashtunwali is only applicable to Pashtuns, however, the Taliban always force their Islamist laws upon every citizen of Afghanistan irrespectively., which cannot be in accordance with Pashtunwali.

Moreover, contrary to uninformed claims by some authors, the Taliban’s ideological underpinning can barely be Pashtun nationalism, since it is secular in character. It focuses on language, land, and nationhood as the sources of common allegiance and identification. The Taliban, on the other hand, are staunch Islamists who consider these allegiances ‘sinful’, and instead, use Islam in an exclusivist and divisive manner, as a supposed basis for identity.[32] These so-called ‘Pashtun nationalists’ reject and outlaw every important Pashtun cultural symbol, such as attan, a famous dance; tappa, a genre of singing; and rabab, a guitar-like folk instrument.

Therefore, the notion that Pashtunwali ideologically underpins the Taliban’s coercive state system is largely unfounded. The only possible commonality, however, between the Taliban’s worldview and Pashtun culture is that of intense patriarchy and primitive misogyny, for instance, the Pashtun social institution of jirga has no female members, which inadvertently matches with the Taliban’s Islamist belief that women do not deserve a place in arbitration and decision-making.


It is important to learn from history what is often misunderstood, for an incorrect understanding inevitably translates into flawed policy. Misconceptions about Islam and particularly the Pashtun people have done more harm than good. Therefore, the attempt throughout this write-up has been to debunk these stereotypes and provide a comprehensive understanding of the Taliban’s ideological foundation. Given the wide-ranging implications of this ideology, the effort herein has been to develop a more educated understanding of what factors influence this worldview that ultimately shapes the Taliban’s domestic and foreign policies. This is an ideology that arose from Saudi-funded, Deobandi madrasas, rolling multiple pre-existing radical influences into one lethal package that the world knows as the so-called ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’.


[1] The Taliban were known in Pashto as da Afghanistan da Talibano Islami Tahrik, translating into English as the ‘Islamic Movement of the Students of Afghanistan’. In Maley, William. 2002. The Afghanistan Wars. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

[2] Rashid, Ahmed. 2010. Taliban. London: I. B. Tauris.

[3] Maley, William. 2002. The Afghanistan Wars. New York: Palgrave Macmillan; Siddiqui, Rushda. 2008. The Islamic Dimension of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy. In H. Frisch and E. Inbar (Ed.). Radical Islam and International Security: Challenges and Responses (pp.153-168). New York: Routledge.

[4] Zaeef, Mullah Abdul Salam. 2010. My Life With the Taliban. New York: Columbia University Press,p. 19.

[5] Marwat, Fazal Rahim. 2012. From Muhajir to Mujahid. Peshawar, Pakistan: Qissa Khwani, p. 45.  

[6] Rashid, 2010.

[7] Tripathi, Deepak. 2011. Breeding Ground. Virginia: Potomac Books, Inc.

[8] YouTube video, ‘Inside the Taliban’, May 16, 2012, National Geographic Channel,

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Maley, 2002.

[12] Roy, Arpita Basu. 2002. Afghanistan: Towards a Viable State. Haryana, India: Hope India Publications; Marsden, Peter. 1998. The Taliban: War, Religion and the New Order in Afghanistan. New York: Zed Books Ltd; Murshed, S. Iftekhar. 2006. Afghanistan: The Taliban Years. London: Bennett and Bloom.

[13] Maley, 2002, p. 232.

[14] Agence France Presse, 23 September 1997, In Maley, 2002, p. 234.

[15] YouTube video, ‘Root Cause of Terrorism and ISIS – Excellent Answer’, November 19, 2015, Al-Mawrid,

[16] YouTube video, ‘Inside the Taliban’, 2012.

[17] Estimate by the United Nations.

[18] Tripathi, 2011.

[19] Siddiqui, 2008; Rashid 2010.

[20] YouTube video, ‘Inside the Taliban’, 2012.

[21] Marsden, 1998.

[22] Cole, Juan R. I. 2008. The Taliban, Women and the Hegelian Private Sphere. In R. Crews and A. Tarzi (Ed.). The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan (pp.118-154). Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, p. 127.

[23] Marsden, 1998, p. 81.

[24] YouTube video, ‘Inside the Taliban’, 2012.

[25] Donaghy, Rori. 2016. Meet the British Muslim Who Wants to Lead an Islamic Reformation. Middle East Eye. March 8, 2016.

[26] Marsden, 1998; Murshed 2006; Rashid, 2010.

[27] Usha, K. B. 2004. A Wounded Afghanistan: Communism, Fundamentalism and Democracy. Haryana, India: Shubhi Publications, p. 229.

[28] Bradley, Jazmine Sky. The Pashtunwali Code – A Lone Survivor Feature,  

[29] Human Rights Watch. 2001. Massacres of Hazaras in Afghanistan. New York: Human Rights Watch. In Maley, 2002.

[30] Tripathi, 2011.

[31] Siddique, Abubakar. 2014. The Pashtun Question. London: C. Hurst and Co. (Publishers) Ltd, p. 56.

[32] Kakar, Hassan. 2004. Journey to the Homeland: The Taliban and Islamic Fundamentalism. Peshawar, Pakistan: Danish Publication House.

Naveen Khan
Naveen Khan

Naveen Khan is a nonresident research fellow with the Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies at the University of Akron, Ohio, USA. Holding an MSc in Sociology from the London School of Economics (LSE), she specializes in Afghanistan-Pakistan security affairs and has conducted original primary research in the same region.