Throughout November one man camped out in the capital dominated the news. On social media, he starred in countless memes, one of which juxtaposed the protesters he led at the Faizabad dharna with a poster of the 2015 blockbuster Mad Max: Fury Road.
Two years ago, when Mad Max was released, Khadim Hussain Rizvi was largely unknown to most Pakistanis. He was, however, a name in Barelvi circles for his fire and brimstone Friday sermons at Pir Makki Mosque, near Lahore’s Daata Darbar. He was among the many clerics who had launched forth their politics in the name of Mumtaz Qadri and attracted growing numbers of followers. Qadri was the former police bodyguard who had shot dead Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer in 2011 over his stand in the case of Aasia bibi, a Christian accused of blasphemy. Qadri was hanged in 2016.
Rizvi claims that his support for Qadri was the reason he lost his job in the Punjab Government’s Auqaf Department. “I consider it my reward for supporting [him],” said Rizvi from his multipurpose stage at the Faizabad Interchange, with the spotlight – both metaphoric and literal – on him at all times. He is keen to press the fact that his name is on the Fourth Schedule, a list of people found to be or suspected of being involved in anti-state activities, delivering hate speech or being activists of religious outfits that have not yet been banned but are related with militancy in any way.
The foundation for his political clout was laid on August 1, 2015 when Rizvi announced the formation of Tehrik Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah while addressing a gathering of Ahl-e-Sunnat groups, with 75 founding members pledging allegiance to him in Karachi’s Nishtar Park
When you contact Rizvi on the phone, he insists that you meet him in person. When you remind him that it is he who has made access to his person a bit of a challenge given his “siege” of the capital, he appreciates the irony. Indeed, Rizvi has a stinging sense of humour, as is evident from his caustic interviews on national TV. Those close to him say that what you see of him on TV and the internet is a far cry from what he is capable of in person. For example, Rizvi’s use of Punjabi invective has been widely commented on. Among his vast vocabulary is a choice three-word phrase, which could not be reproduced here. Suffice it to say that it has become a buzzword online for his friends and foes alike. While his claim to fame might lie in his eccentricity, his greatest accomplishment thus far is orchestrating the surrender of certain state institutions, as underscored in scathing editorials in local and foreign press this week.
Khadim Hussain Rizvi hails from Attock but lives in Lahore now. He is in his 60s and has two children. He is physically challenged and has to use a wheelchair as a result of an accident. He is fluent in Urdu, Punjabi and Persian—both its purple and profane prose. He can quote poet Iqbal at the speed of a selfie being taken. In fact, he can base an entire interview on couplets and coarse language alone.
He habitually quotes his favourite poet and one favourite example is what Iqbal is believed to have said at the funeral of Ilm Din, a carpenter’s son and a Muslim who stabbed to death a Hindu book publisher in 1929 for printing a book deemed offensive to religious sentiments: “Assi wekhday reh gaye, tarkhaanan da puttar baazi lay gaya” (All we could do is look on, as the carpenter’s boy took home the glory).
Rizvi says his love for Iqbal and Qadri is based on “their devotion to the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him)”. He takes the position that his politics, splenetic promotion of violence, and his choice of language are based on this love. “When the respect of the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) is at stake, normal rules don’t apply,” he says. “If I curse in anger, it is not only justified in Islam but encouraged… I can quote numerous Hadiths.”
And then he does.
A Hafiz-e-Quran and Sheikh-ul-Hadith, Rizvi has the scriptures well-memorised. He can quote Hadith and events from Islamic history on the spot, and does so frequently, making quite an impression when he does. The Battle of Yamama, for example, is his favourite reference from history because, “it settled the fate of false prophets.”
Rizvi’s claims to unmatched knowledgeability is often wielded to take aim at competitors. Among his favourite targets are Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri, who he is particularly averse to for what he says is speaking against Qadri and “selling himself to the West”. Rizvi has accused Maulana Tariq Jameel, another popular cleric, of questionable sermons and for what he describes as bailing out actor Veena Malik when she was in trouble.
Rizvi also took it upon himself to issue a temporary fatwa on Imran Khan after the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf political party chief referred to an Islamic anecdote. “He should focus on declaring the Punjab government lotas (turncoats) and not speak about Islam, when he is clearly incapable,” Rizvi says of Khan. He generally reserves this advice for anyone who may differ with him on the finer points of theology.
In the past three months, Rizvi has evolved from issuing fatwas to becoming a force that will guarantee no fatwas will be issued again Zahid Hamid who had to resign as law minister due to the Faizabad dharna Rizvi led.
The foundation for this political clout was laid on August 1, 2015 when Rizvi announced the formation of Tehrik Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) while addressing a gathering of Ahl-e-Sunnat groups, with 75 founding members pledging allegiance to him in Karachi’s Nishtar Park. The group’s first assignment was to rally across Islamabad after Qadri was hanged on February 29, 2016, with intermittent clashes breaking out in the capital throughout March last year. The sit-ins were ended on March 31, with an ‘understanding’ with the government over seven points, but this was not put on paper.
Rizvi now has civil-military signatures on some of the same demands 20 months later.
TLY’s exponential surge has moved in synchrony with the creation of Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), its political wing, that has contested two by-elections in two provincial capitals over the past two months. They include the NA-120 by-election in September in Lahore, where TLP’s Azhar Hussain Rizvi finished third with 7,130 votes and Dr Muhammad Shafiq Amini with 9,934 votes in Peshawar’s NA-4 in October.
Speaking on the phone following the agreement with the government on Monday, Rizvi maintained that the immediate success of the by-elections, or what he described as a triumph in the capital, were not his personal victories. “It is a win for Namoos-e-Risalat, not my personal victory,” he said.