Shias in Pakistan reputedly account for about 20 percent of the population — or 42 million out of the population of 210 million — making it the second largest Shia population in the world outside Iran. Although the subject has not attracted academic attention to the extent it deserves, two very detailed and highly impressive books published in the last few years by German academics Andreas T. Rieck and Simon Wolfgang Fuchs have made enormous contributions in filling the gap.
In his pioneering 2015 book, The Shias of Pakistan: An Assertive and Beleaguered Minority, Rieck — a German researcher who has served in both Pakistan and Afghanistan — focused on the history of Shias in Pakistan, the growth of Shia organizations and their conflictual relationship with the Pakistani state. In his meticulously researched and stimulating book titled In a Pure Muslim Land: Shi’ism between Pakistan and the Middle East, Fuchs — a lecturer of Islamic and Middle East Studies at the University of Freiburg in Germany — discusses in detail the fundamental transnational transformation of Shia thought and religious authority in Pakistan.
Detailing the growth of the Shia population in today’s Pakistan with specific focus on Punjab, where there was no Shia religious seminary till 1915 (as Lucknow was the pre-eminent city for Shia seminaries in India) and only two till 1947, Fuchs argues that the number of seminaries have increased since the creation of Pakistan and received an impetus after the Irani revolution. By 2004, there were 374 Shia seminaries for male and 84 for female students in the country, with 218 and 55 respectively in Punjab alone.
An authoritative book looks at the transnational transformation of Shia thought and religious authority in the country
Apart from the long list of books that the author has made use of during his extensive research in Pakistan, India, Iran and Iraq, Fuch relies extensively on three Shia journals published in Pakistan: Al Hujjat, Payam-i-Amal and Al Muntazar. He examines the role of Shia political organizations in the run-up to Partition, conflict between traditional and reformist Shia ulema after Partition, linkages between Pakistani Shias and the Grand Ayatollahs in Iraq and Iran before the Irani revolution, the impact of the Irani revolution on the Pakistani Shia landscape, and increasing Sunni-Shia sectarianism against the backdrop of growing local and transnational linkages.
The role of Shia politicians in the creation of Pakistan can be described as not only undeniable but, in fact, decisive. Sir Aga Khan III, an Ismaili Shia, was the first president of the Muslim League. The first provisional committee of the Muslim League consisted of four Shia members. Shia politicians played an important role in the Muslim League in its initial decades and some — such as Syed Ameer Ali, Syed Wazir Hasan, Raja Sahib Mohammad Ali Mohammad Khan of Mahmudabad, Sir Ali Imam etc — became its president. Raja Sahib stepped down in 1930 and helped Allama Muhammad Iqbal become president ahead of Iqbal’s famed Allahabad address.
However, the most important contribution of Raja Sahib to the cause of Muslims was to convince — along with Syed Wazir Hasan — his close friend and a rising star in Indian National Congress, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, in 1913 to join the Muslim League. A secular man, Jinnah — who was born an Ismaili Shia but had converted to mainstream Twelver Shia Islam a few years after returning from England — always strictly downplayed his religious faith throughout his life.
After Partition, Shias of the region were cut off from Lucknow, previously their main intellectual reference point for spiritual guidance, and increasingly turned towards the Ayatollahs in Najaf in Iraq (mostly) and to Qom in Iran.
The Aga Khan and Raja Sahib (both father and son) were the main financial backers of the Muslim League for decades till the creation of Pakistan. When Raja Sahib died in 1931, the Muslim League was moribund during 1931-1935 because of a lack of financing from his Mahmudabad estate. It was in 1936 that Raja Sahib’s son, Raja Amir Ahmed Khan, after attaining the age of majority, joined the Muslim League and resumed financial contributions, thus enabling the party to function properly again.
Lucknow in the United Provinces witnessed violence and riots during Sunni-Shia sectarian tension in the late 1930s when the Congress was in power and allied with Sunni religious organizations — Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind and Majlis-i-Ahrar-i-Islam — which played an active role in the sectarian dispute with Shias. A few years later, when the demand for Pakistan gained traction, Fuchs shows that the Shia political organization, the All India Shia Conference, was sceptical about the idea of the creation of a Sunni majority state. But at the same time, Shias were haunted by the recent memories of Lucknow’s sectarian dispute in which the Congress, Majlis-i-Ahrar-i-Islam and Jamiat-Ulema-i-Hind were all on the same side, and later all three vociferously opposed the demand for Pakistan.
After the creation of Pakistan, Shias of the region were cut off from Lucknow, previously their main intellectual reference point for spiritual guidance, and increasingly turned towards the Ayatollahs in Najaf in Iraq (mostly) and sometimes to Qom in Iran. Iraq’s Mohsen al Hakim was the most revered Grand Ayatollah among Pakistani Shias for decades, as he also took special interest in a newly created Muslim country. The shift towards Irani Ayatollahs took place years after Al Hakim’s death and specifically with the advent of the Irani revolution.
Eqbal Ahmad, one of Pakistan’s foremost political analysts, described the Irani revolution as a landmark revolution which — in contrast to the typical revolutionary model of protracted armed struggles in Third World countries — was a mass insurrection and, by far the most popular, broad-based and sustained agitation in recent history. He found the movement quite unparalleled for its militant but non-violent character and for its discipline and morale in the face of governmental violence.
Ahmad compared the Irani revolution to the French revolution and termed it as unique and seminal for the post-colonial era as the French revolution had been for the industrial age. Comparing the two revolutions, he perceptively wrote: “Like the revolution of 1789, its importance may be less in the results it produced and more in the trends it announced and the fears it aroused. As the French revolution marked the beginning of a new era in Europe, so has the [Irani], in the Middle East especially and generally in the Third World. As the French revolution augured a period of war and strife in European politics, so did the [Irani] in southwest Asia. As the French revolution at first threatened, then augmented the influence of imperial Britain in Europe, so were American interests in the Middle East at first threatened by the [Irani] revolution and vastly augmented thereafter.”
In Pakistan too, the impact of the Irani revolution was very profound both in terms of the trends it announced and the fears it aroused. Although both Pakistan and Iran enjoyed the closest of relations during the Shah’s period — as both were in the pro-Washington camp during the Cold War — Pakistan became the first country to recognize Iran’s revolutionary government in 1979. Politically, relations between Pakistan and post-revolution Iran have fluctuated from hostility during the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan, to neutrality during the Iran-Iraq conflict, to assistance on Iran’s nuclear programme and, most importantly, to the facilitation of Irani trade from the Karachi port during the Iran-Iraq war.
Domestically, the Irani revolution impacted Pakistani Shias in many ways. These included assertive political activism, the formation of the Imamia Students Organization, the rise of new leaders such as Arif al Hussaini to top positions, the growth of female activism and the emergence of a new class of Shia religious clerics who had either spent most of their time in Iran or were ideologically allied to Tehran rather than Qom or Najaf. More importantly, it also invited backlash against Shias when the Saudis bankrolled Pakistani-state sponsored Sunni madrassahs during the Afghan ‘Jihad’ in the 1980s, which resulted in the rise of sectarian outfits, and the Saudi-Iran proxy war as Pakistan suffered from violence and terrorism for decades.
The author shows that political activism of Pakistani Shias through the 1960s and ’70s reached its climax in 1980, just a year after the Irani revolution, when then president Ziaul Haq, despite reservations expressed by the Shia ulema, promulgated a new ordinance regarding automatic annual deduction of the religious tax (zakat) from bank accounts. In July 1980, the Shia political organization Tehreek-i-Nifaz-i-Fiqh-i-Jafaria (TNFJ), under the leadership of Mufti Jafar Hussain, organized the largest Shia demonstrations in Pakistan’s history in Islamabad. It was a watershed moment; the sit-in forced Zia to backtrack and he agreed to exempt Shias from zakat deduction. Known as the Islamabad Accord, Zia viewed it as a personal humiliation as it sent a strong message across the country that his so-called ‘Islamisation’ was not acceptable to all Pakistanis.
After the Islamabad Accord, Zia viewed Shias as a threat to be controlled and, therefore, first instigated a split in the TNFJ in 1984 with the help of his intelligence agencies. Second, and more importantly, he approved the appearance on the scene of the anti-Shia sectarian organization Anjuman-i-Sipah-i-Sahaba (later renamed Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan, or SSP) and turned a blind eye to its virulent propaganda and violent actions. For some analysts, more than the Saudi-Iran proxy war or the Afghan Jihad or the Irani revolution, it was the Islamabad Accord which signalled the start of sectarian war in Pakistan.
The book has interesting profiles of Allama Arif al Hussaini, Allama Sayyid Jawad Naqvi and Ehsan Ilahi Zaheer. Al Hussaini, who assumed leadership of the TNFJ after Mufti Jafar, was extremely anti-Zia and anti-Saudi Arabia. He was so opposed to Zia’s regime that he did not even come to the airport to welcome Iran’s then president Ruholla Khomeini during his trip to Pakistan in 1985. Naqvi, who has lived most of his adult life in Iran, is known for his ‘Lahore Project’— a well-known modern Shia seminary.
Zaheer, a virulently anti-Shia Sunni scholar who was educated in Saudi Arabia, was air-lifted to a military hospital in Riyadh in then Saudi crown prince Fahd’s private plane from Lahore after he was injured in a bomb blast in 1987. He was later buried in Madina after his death a few days later. Fuchs shows that the success of the Irani revolution has created a longing for a “Sunni state” among Sunni scholars as well as SSP ideologues.
The book is highly recommended for the depth of its research as it is likely to be acknowledged as a reliable reference book on the subject.
The reviewer is an independent researcher based in Islamabad
In a Pure Muslim Land: Shi’ism between
Pakistan and the Middle East
By Simon Wolfgang Fuchs
The University of North Carolina Press, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 10th, 2019