Promoting Virtue and Prohibiting Vice

Promoting Virtue and Prohibiting Vice' in Khurasan, Past and Present

Monday, May 23, 2022

10:00 AM - 11:00 AM (Pacific Time)

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The Taliban have returned to power in Afghanistan, and commentaries in media and academia on Taliban regulations have returned to the spotlight. Journalists usually take the view that Taliban laws are based on Scripture. The Taliban, naturally, claim their laws are derived from Islamic authorities. However, Taliban regulations primarily flow from the obligation to ‘enjoin the good and forbid the reprehensible’ (al-amr biʾl maʿruf waʾl- nahy ʿan al-munkar); hence their ministry for ‘the promotion of virtue and prohibition of vice.’ Taliban regulations under this obligation tend to be subjective; ipse dixit (‘he said it himself’), i.e., dogmatic assertions lacking foundation in legal authorities.

al-amr biʾl maʿruf has assumed central roles in medieval governments of Khurasan. One ruler of the Shiʿi Sarbadar dynasts of Sabzavar imposed severe rules (like executing prostitutes by throwing them down wells). Two rulers of the Sunni Kartid rulers of Herat enforced al-amr biʾl maʿruf. An edict by one Kartid presaged Taliban edicts: barring women from leaving their homes.

Harsh diktats under al-amr biʾl maʿruf are not uncommon in Sunni and Shiʿi contexts. But there are critical differences between past and present. Khurasan has been a nursery for myriads of autochthonous Islamic beliefs and activities: the ʿAbbasids, Karramiyya, Qalandariyya, Malamatiyya, and sundry Sufi expressions. The mostly Tajik and Persian- speaking (Farsiwan) Kartids and Sarbadarids reflected organic expressions of piety. The majority Pashtun and Pashtu-speaking Taliban, however, imbibed alien doctrines in Pakmadrasas; for example Wahhabi and/or Deobandi interpretations of al-amr biʾl maʿruf; and to anathematize (takfir) Shiʿites, Sufis, and anti-Taliban Sunnis as ‘apostates.’

The paper examines the roles of al-amr biʾl maʿruf in Persianate Khurasan; and the imposition of alien doctrines on the Farsiwan majority of Afghanistan.


Shivan Mahendrarajah earned his doctorate in Persian and Islamic history at Cambridge. He is the author of The Sufi Saint of Jam: History, Religion, and Politics of a Sunni Shrine in Shiʿi Iran (Cambridge University Press, 2021); and A History of Herat, from Chingiz Khan to Tamerlane (Edinburgh University Press, 2022; in press). He is a Research Fellow (2021–24) at the School of History, University of St Andrews, Scotland.






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