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Faded networks: The overestimated Saudi Legacy of anti-Shi‘i sectarianism in Pakistan – by Simon Wolfgang Fuchs



This article questions the often-assumed centrality of Saudi Arabia for the development of anti-Shi‘i sectarianism in Pakistan. I argue that those groups and individuals who have been most vocal about the Shi‘i ‘threat’ since the 1980s lacked (and continue to lack) any strong lineages with the Kingdom. Instead, their local polemics in Urdu foregrounded Pakistan as a political idea and global promise for Islam. This status of Pakistan’s self-view was acutely threatened by the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the subsequent establishment of a religious state under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini. Consequently, Pakistani sectarian scholars transcended earlier Salafi-inspired arguments and tried to render Sunni Islam ‘fit’ to compete with powerful Shi‘i symbols. In doing so, they displayed a remarkable willingness to appropriate and rework Shi‘i concepts, something that is far from the mind of Saudi clerics.

If we want to believe the existing literature, it was in the 1960s that the Saudis took charge of anti-Shi‘i sectarianism in Pakistan. They did not create many of the (longstanding) arguments from scratch but significantly turned up the heat of what had been a rather slowly simmering affair with roots in colonial India (Jones, 2011). The Partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 meant the emergence of a two-winged Pakistan as a homeland for Muslims alongside the Indian Republic.

Shi‘is formed a significant minority of about 15 to 20 per cent of West Pakistan’s population whereas their numbers in East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh) stood at a comparatively insignificant 1 per cent. Aware of their community’s numerical strength, Shi‘i organisations in West Pakistan in these early decades did not shy away from openly voicing their demands, such as calling for separate religious education or control over their endowments.

They criticised various Pakistani governments, several of which were military dictatorships, for failing to comply with these wishes. While the language of discrimination was thus deployed, the time period until the 1980s witnessed few actual instances of either vicious anti-Shi‘i polemic or, worse, sectarian violence (Rieck, 2015: 55–195).

Yet, the 1960s brought significant transnational and long-lasting change with them. In 1968, the Salafi scholar Ihsan Ilahi Zahir (d. 1987) became the first Pakistani to graduate from the Islamic University of Medina in Saudi Arabia. The institution had been opened in 1962 as a Saudi instrument to spread Salafism on a global scale (Farquhar, 2016).

Zahir established close and lasting links with the Saudi royal family, scholars, and publishing houses in the Kingdom. He also faithfully maintained these connections after returning home. In the ensuing decades, Zahir put into practice what he had learned regarding the refutation of ‘false’ Islamic sects. He remained highly prolific. The Pakistani scholar published 14 polemical books, all of which he had originally written in Arabic. These were soon to be translated into Urdu with his output from the 1970s onward predominantly attacking Shi‘i beliefs.

Given these clear entanglements, it is by no means surprising, then, to argue that ‘perhaps no single scholar has been more influential in aggravating Sunni-Shi‘a tensions and violence in South Asia than Ihsan Ilahi Zahir’ (Haykel, 2011: 191). Studies on the conflict between Sunnis and Shi‘is in Pakistan tend to single out intellectual input from the Gulf as the main driver for how sectarian ideas have gained a foothold from Karachi to Peshawar (Ahmed, 2011).

Yet, this focus on Saudi Arabia and the power of its networks, although popular, does not capture the important local and regional dimensions of sectarianism in Pakistan. Instead, I would like to argue in this article that the idea of Pakistan as a disputed political and religious category trumps those clientelist relationships the Saudis managed to establish with local Salafi actors from the Ahl-i Hadis tradition. The meaning of Pakistan was subject of an intense debate among Sunnis and Shi‘is during the 1940s.

After independence, the country found itself in a suspended and striving relationship with Islam with modernists, traditionalists, and secularists all trying to implement their specific but irreconcilable visions (Zaman, 2018: 54–94). Due to this primary importance of the political, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 in particular unnerved Pakistan’s Deobandi scholars, who exert leadership over the numerically largest Sunni denomination in Pakistan. Suddenly, they had to face a fully formed – and precisely not still ill-defined and ‘suspended’ – rival Islamic political project next door.

In short, after 1979 there occurred a remarkable shift from Saudi-aligned Salafis, who emphasised most of all the doctrinal incompatibility between ‘proper’ and Shi‘i Islam, towards Deobandi protagonists, who regarded Shi‘is as a predominantly political problem (Fuchs, 2019: 152–85).

In the following, I will concentrate on Pakistan’s most important anti-Shi‘i organisation, the Sipah-i Sahabah-i Pakistan (Army of the Companions of the Prophet). Originally founded in 1985 it is known since around 2009 as Ahl-i Sunnat wa-l-Jama‘at (The People of the Prophetic Practice and the Community, ASWJ) (Zaman, 1998; Abou Zahab, 2009).

While probably not itself (or at least not any longer) directly involved with violence against Shi‘i actors and groups, the SSP/ASWJ has like no other organisation managed to lay the ground for an atmosphere that is conducive to attacks on Shi‘is carried out by others. Moreover, there are strong personal connections between its leading activists and those militants in the ranks of the notorious Lashkar-i Jhangvi, demonstrated for instance by the fact that in 2012 Lashkar-i Jhangvi‘s founder Malik Ishaq (d. 2015) was made vice president of ASWJ (Mehmood, 2012). My main focus of analysis are three prominent and influential voices within the SSP/ASWJ, namely its former president ‘Ali Sher Haydari (d. 2009) (‘Dastavezi film: ‘Allamah ‘Ali Sher Haydari’, 2011), the current chairman Muhammad Ahmad Ludhiyanvi (Arshad, 2007), and the current central president Aurangzeb Faruqi (Hanafi, 2014a). Each of these three men is an ‘alim (religious scholar, pl. ‘ulama’) who was trained in Deobandi institutions and has received his entire education in Pakistan.

In this article, building on Fuchs (2017b), I present two major arguments. First, I make the case for the continuing divergence between sectarian arguments formulated by religious scholars in Saudi Arabia and those advanced by ‘ulama’ in Pakistan. For the latter, the question of politics is an essential part of their reasoning and not an afterthought that sits awkwardly on more crucial and fundamental doctrinal considerations. The ASWJ scholars – unlike their Saudi peers – do not merely react to geopolitical events and adjust their teachings accordingly.

Instead, the striving for the soul of Pakistan as an ideological, Sunni state forms the heart of their enterprise. This also explains their willingness to appropriate and rework Shi‘i symbols and ideas, something that is far from the mind of Saudi clerics (Ismail, 2016: 12).

As far is my second argument is concerned, I claim that these immediate political concerns made the ASWJ ‘ulama’ rethink the Sunni tradition in search for fresh polemical arguments. One example is that Deobandi scholars elevate those early Muslims who are designated as Companions (sahaba) of the Prophet Muhammad to unprecedented levels unknown to the Sunni tradition (Khalek, 2014). As a result, the Companions can serve as towering religious figures, able to compete with Shi‘i conceptions of their divinely-appointed leaders, their Imams (Halm, 2004: 28–44).

In a further step, the well-structured defence of the sahaba as gatekeepers and guarantors of both Islam and the caliphate as the ideal political system acquired overarching importance.

In sum, then, the Pakistani case questions the supposed central role of Saudi Arabia in fostering Sunni-Shi‘i sectarianism or leading to a ‘securitisation’ of the issue in South Asia. Conventional wisdom sees this process as ‘ideologically and financially sustained and supported by Saudi Arabia, the world epicenter of anti-Shia‘ism’ (Vatanka, 2015: 175).

While I do not deny the possibility of continuing financial contributions beyond the public eye, the primary religious networks created by the Saudis, namely their intimate connections with leading Ahl-i Hadis ‘ulama’ in Pakistan, preceded the Iranian Revolution and were not driven by geopolitical concerns. The message pushed in these circles mostly reiterated longstanding polemical anti-Shi‘i tropes and primarily theological controversies while staying clear of overtly political arguments.

Unlike the Salafis of the Ahl-i Hadis camp, the scholars of the SSP/ASWJ, who have been dominating the sectarian scene since the early 1980s, do not require an affiliation with Saudi institutions in order to claim religious authority in the context of Pakistan’s Deobandi environment. Their local debates in Urdu do not seem to filter back toward the wider Middle East and – as far as I am aware – have not been translated into Arabic. Additionally, as I have also argued elsewhere, there is little evidence to suggest that the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s had a decisive impact on sectarianism in Pakistan.

Despite all the Saudi funding for various Mujahidin groups, their publications meant for external and internal consumption largely stay clear of sectarian rhetoric (Fuchs, 2017a). The next paragraphs will spell out these tensions between external influence and local concerns in some more detail.


For Ihsan Ilahi Zahir, Shi‘is formed a predominantly doctrinal concern. None of his works, irrespective of whether he released them before 1979 or after the Iranian Revolution, features any explicitly political content. Instead, Zahir emphasised the futility of working toward Sunni-Shi‘i taqrib (rapprochement). The Shi‘is, he held, insulted the Companions of the Prophet as impious usurpers and charged them with suppressing the original text of the Qur‘an because they intended to do away with evidence for the supposedly divinely ordained leadership of the Shi‘i Imams (Brunner, 2019; Fuchs, 2019: 162–9).

The arguments advanced by Saudi scholars in the four decades since the Iranian Revolution have continued along these lines. Accusations of polytheism (shirk) because of undue veneration for or even deification of the Prophet‘s descendants and the supposed Jewish origins of Shi‘i Islam feature prominently in these polemics (Ismail, 2016: 54–95). Saudi ‘ulama’ have so far refrained from substantially debating the political implications of Iran‘s model of government, known as vilayat-i faqih (guardianship of the jurisprudent), but rather doubled down on their longstanding polemics against Shi‘i Islam (Ismail, 2016: 144–52, 157–62, 166–89).

According to Ismail (2016: 202), there was only one noticeable, major change in sectarian treatises in the wake of the Iranian Revolution: Saudi ‘ulama’ now began to highlight the nefarious effects which Shi‘i dissimulation (taqiyya) had on their state. Especially traditionalist-minded scholars, who dominatet the clerical establishment, ‘characterized the Shī‘a as treacherous and disloyal to the Saudi nation; such accusations are absent from the rhetoric of the early ‘ulamā’’’(Ismail 2016: 203) It is important to emphasise that these Saudi religious scholars did not develop an alternative political vision to rival Iranian efforts of exporting its Revolution. Their abstention becomes understandable in light of the tightly guarded political space in Saudi Arabia. The state effectively prevents any criticism of the monarchy let alone reflections on possible alternative political arrangements (Al-Rasheed, 2007: 59–101).

The Pakistani ‘ulama’ of the ASWJ, by contrast, use their conflict with the Shi‘is as a launching pad for pushing attacks on political grounds, labelling their religious opponents as bent on undermining the original religious promise of Pakistan. The ultimate (and ulterior) Shi‘i intention became manifest in how the country was transformed on a regular basis on the ninth and tenth of Muharram each year, when Shi‘is commemorate the martyrdom of their third Imam Husayn during the battle of Karbala in the year 680.

Sunni sectarian publications argue that the entire Pakistani public sphere then took on a Shi‘i appearance (Husayn, 2014; Ta‘aruf… Aghraz… nasb al-‘ayn, n.d: 15; Ahl-i Sunnat, 2014). Even more, the Sunni majority were victims of persecution, comparable in scope to that suffered by early Muslims at the hands of unbelievers (Ludhiyanvi, 2007c: 74).

They were subjected to terrorism perpetrated by the state and supported by Iran, two actors allegedly working hand-in-glove (Siddiqi, 2014). Pakistan had clearly strayed from its divine mission to work toward the return of a rightly-guided caliphate (khilafat-i rashida) that would purify society and ensure Islam’s global dominance (Metro News, 2014: min. 01:15; Ta‘aruf… Aghraz… nasb al-‘ayn…, n.d.: 13–14).

Instead, the authorities persecuted those who hailed the sahaba as the exemplary embodiment of a such a caliphal system and defended the Companions against insults that undermined its appeal (Haydari, 2010c: 53–4; Faruqi, 2014a: 24).

The ASWJ portrayed itself as the biggest victim of sectarianism in Pakistan, positioned always at the receiving end (Faruqi, 2014b; 2018: min. 22:40; Ahl-i Sunnat, 2015; Fayyaz, 2015: min. 12:30). The only reason why they had so far been content with merely organising yet another demonstration instead of taking more decisive action was that the ASWJ viewed Pakistan as its home which it would not like to set on fire, thus displaying a real sense of rightful ownership over the state (Ludhiyanvi, 2007d: 224–5).


Like their Saudi peers, the Pakistani sectarian ‘ulama’ labelled the Shi‘is as being traitors at heart. This act of disavowal was not without pitfalls: Shi‘i religious scholars had been at the forefront of many causes very dear to their Sunni colleagues. All of these instances of erstwhile cooperation thus had to be labelled as outrageous deception and taqiyya, be it the Shi‘i participation in the Pakistan movement, the anti-Ahmadi struggle, or the opposition to the left-leaning president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (d. 1978).

What redeemed ‘ulama’ from the broader Deobandi camp in general and those being attached with the ASWJ in particular from having initially fallen into this elaborate trap, however, was that they were also the first on a worldwide scale to now actively and effectively counter the implications of the Iranian Revolution. The entire Muslim world and even the Saudis had initially failed to appreciate the danger emanating from Khomeini. ASWJ publications detailed the initial excitement that had swept the entire Islamic world in the spring 1979. The catchy slogan ‘Neither East nor West but Islam, neither Shi‘is nor Sunnis but Islam’ had proven to be highly effective.

Even senior literary and religious figures at the time were so overcome by Khomeini’s appeal that they completely forgot what Shi‘is actually believed in (Ta‘aruf… aghraz… nasb al-‘ayn, n.d.: 6). Fortunately for the Sunni cause, the ASWJ argued, Shi‘is had committed their own plunders. Out of missionary zeal, they had started to translate many of their essential works for the first time on a worldwide scale. Shi‘is thus threw off the ‘black cloak of dissimulation’ under which they had managed to disguise themselves as Muslims for the last 1,400 years (Ta‘aruf… aghraz… nasb al-‘ayn, n.d.: 7; Hassan, 2014: min. 02:50). Consequently, hundreds of volumes denigrating the sahaba in accessible Urdu turned up in Pakistan (Faruqi, 2014a: 25).

Additionally, Iran made use of an effective agent in Pakistan, namely the main Shi‘i organisation of the early 1980s, the Tahrik-i Nifaz-i Fiqh-i Ja’fariyya (Movement for the Implementation of Ja‘fari Law, TNFJ). The movement had been established to ‘spread Khomeini’s ideas’ and was thus opposed to the ‘ideology of Pakistan and the beliefs of the majority of this predominantly Sunni country’ (nazariyyah-i Pakistan aur aksariyyati sunni mulk ke ‘aqa’id) (Ta‘aruf… aghraz… nasb al-‘ayn, n.d.: 7–8).

The first individual to counter these machinations on a global level was Haqq Navaz Jhangvi, the founder of the SSP, who clearly felt empowered by General Zia ul-Haq’s policy of Islamisation (Fuchs, 2019: 160–2). A brave young mujahid, Jhangvi took it on himself to rally the faithful all over Pakistan with the aim of resisting the Iranian ‘rebellion from Islam and its ideologies of unbelief’. Jhangvi faced an uphill battle with this self-assigned task.

The outstanding anti-Shiʿi polemicists of the past had only exchanged blows with Shi‘i religious scholars. Jhangvi was the first to bear the propagandistic might of a Shi‘i state (Ta‘aruf… aghraz… nasb al-‘ayn, n.d.: 8–9). Instead of caving in, Jhangvi pursued a two-pronged strategy. First, he aimed at rapidly expanding the area of operation already in 1986, one year after the founding of the SSP. Second, he saw the pressing need for closing the Sunni ranks by rallying Pakistan’s various Sunni groups behind the mission of defending the sahaba and establishing the caliphate, an achievement that he hoped to replicated worldwide (Ta‘aruf… aghraz… nasb al-‘ayn, n.d.: 9–10, 28–9).

The ASWJ saw the odds slowly shifting in its favour. It prided itself of having become the ‘biggest religious organisation’ in the country, bouncing back after each attempt to ban it (Hanafi, 2014b). Since the early 2000s, the organisation increasingly employed Sufi terminology to highlight that God had blessed the group: dream visions (which play a prominent role in modern Islam in general; Mittermaier, 2011) bestowed on members allegedly revealed how martyred ASWJ leaders enjoyed privileged treatment in paradise (Ludhiyanvi, 2007a: 235; 2007c: 78–9).

Referring to past successes, Muhammad Ahmad Ludhiyanvi recalled how the former leader and member of the national assembly (MNA) A‘zam Tariq (d. 2003) had in 1994 forced his way to occupy the speaker’s seat of Pakistan’s parliament. Tariq used this exalted position to declare a ‘Namus-i Sahaba Bill’ (Honour of the Prophet’s Companions Bill), which would have made any denigration of the sahaba a capital offence, as passed (Qasim, 1998: 121–3).

According to Rieck (2015: 254), at this point most MNAs had already walked out ‘because of the unruly behaviour of the opposition’. Yet, at least in Ludhiyanvi’s narration, the subsequent applause by fellow deputies was significant. It underscored the existence of a silent but in reality dominating majority, both in parliament and also in the population at large, for the sectarian goals of the ASWJ (Ludhiyanvi, 2007a: 231–2).

In the context of the predominance of the political in Pakistan’s sectarianism, it is also crucial to point out that the ASWJ continues to appropriate Shi‘i and Iranian revolutionary concepts and symbols for their own goals according to the pioneering observation by Zaman (1998: 702–3).

Comparably to the Iranian case where fervent adherents of Khomeini’s revolutionary programme were designated as followers of ‘the Imam’s line’ (khatt-i imam) (Reda, 2014), ASWJ supporters were expected not to overstep Haqq Navaz Jhangvi’s ‘line’ (Ludhiyanvi, 2007c: 76; 2007b: 113). ASWJ activists who donated one third of their income were singled out.

Their munificence outdid the mere 20 per cent (khums) (Kalyanavi, 2014) that Shi‘is are expected to pass on to their chosen Source of Emulation (marja‘ al-taqlid) (Sachedina, 1980). In an attempt at transcending Iranian symbolism, we also see a strong commitment by the ASWJ to celebrate the memory of its martyrs (Ahl-e-Sunnat Media Cell, 2019). A particular striking instance is the remembrance of the bloody stand-off that had happened in July 2007 between the Pakistani government and military, on the one hand, and those ‘ulama’, students, and militants who had entrenched themselves in Islamabad’s Red Mosque (Lal Masjid), on the other.

The ASWJ did not hesitate to embrace the seminary, which had a longstanding history of agitating against Shi‘is (Blom, 2010). Reflecting on the violent confrontation that had to led substantial loss of life, ‘Ali Sher Haydari argued that even the battle of Karbala, essential as a founding event for Shi‘i group identity, paled in comparison.

In Islamabad, more women and children had perished than when al-Husayn and his party came under attack. Moreover, the third Shi‘i Imam and his followers could rely on travelling provisions while those holed up in the Red Mosque faced a food crisis which meant that they had no other choice but to consume Guava leaves (Ludhiyanvi, 2007e: 282).

At Karbala, al-Husayn and his small band had been deprived of drinking water. Yet, in Islamabad the access to water had already been cut off on the first day out of the full week which the siege lasted. Unlike al-Husayn, the encircled seminarians could not undergo ablution (ghusl) before their death (Haydari, 2010b: 264). In Iraq, the attack had occurred on neutral, ‘secular’ ground but in Pakistan people were killed in a house of prayer.

The siege of the Red Mosque, then, was unique in terms of cruelty, sacrifice, and oppression (Haydari, 2010b: 265). By arguing along these lines, ‘Ali Sher Haydari not only stressed the need for radical political change in Pakistan, he also effectively termed Sunnis as superior martyrs and took a powerful blow at the heart of Shi‘i Islam.


In order to further substantiate their calls for an exclusively Sunni state, ‘ulama’ attached to the ASWJ show a remarkable fixation on the sahaba, whose importance at times even seems to overshadow the Prophet Muhammad himself. These sectarian religious scholars did not shy away from terming themselves ‘slaves of the sahaba’, a choice of terminology with which Wahhabi scholars would take serious issue (Haydari, 2010e: 177).

In the view of ASWJ leaders, the Companions amplified and hence enhanced the brightness of the divine message (Haydari, 2010e: 158). The sahaba were the essential bridge to Muhammad because no human being could enjoy unmediated access to the Prophet (Ludhiyanvi, 2007c: 82). This also applied to the criteria for determining as to what should count as proper, authentic hadith. If the sahaba’s conduct differed from a known saying by Muhammad, then said report had to be classified as either unreliable or even abrogated (Haydari, 2010e: 168).

One problem, though, was the Shi‘i emphasis on a Prophetic report, found also with variations in authoritative Sunni collections, that God had left the believers with ‘two weighty things’ (thaqalayn), namely the Qur‘an and the members of Muhammad’s household, the ahl al-bayt. According to the Shi‘i view, this report proved how essential their Imams were for understanding the true meaning of scripture. Both ‘weighty things’ were intertwined and eternal (Bar-Asher, 1999: 93–8). In order to diffuse this threat, ‘Ali Sher Haydari went as far as claiming that God had rather established two qiblas (direction of prayer). The first of these was – as is conventionally known – the Ka‘ba in Mecca, denoting the direction of worship. The second qibla, however, was no one else than the Companions.

They form a direction of prayer for Muslims in professing their faithful submission to the guidance of the Prophet (Haydari, 2010a: 108–9). Muhammad had deposited the ‘entire religion’ (sara din) with his Companions and had filled their breasts with the Qur‘an (Haydari, 2010e: 169). They thus acquired a status not unlike the Shi‘i Imams because ASWJ publications credit the sahaba with awesome powers. The latter’s words and statements would provide healing for every illness and the solution to every problem (Ta‘aruf… Aghraz… nasb al-‘ayn…, n.d.: 34).

The sahaba should be seen as blessed with a superior form of comprehension which manifested itself in an exemplary conduct, even if it surpassed the understanding of ordinary believers. These dynamics could even be likened to the ambiguous and unclear (mutashabihat) verses in the Qur‘an, which Muslims also take as word of God even though they might be unable to grasp their precise meaning (Kinberg, 1988). In the same way as all the Qur‘anic verses were the ‘signs of God’ (Allah ki ayat), the Companions were collectively His community (Allah ki jama‘at) (Haydari, 2010d: 66–7).

Such a shift of the focus of gravity from the Prophet, venerated by both Sunnis and Shi‘is alike, toward the sahaba clearly reduced the already shrinking common ground between the two sects in Pakistan. Not helpful is the insistence by the ASWJ on its supposedly deep commitment to Muslim unity, underlined by the group’s unflinching veneration for the ahl al-bayt, a group so dear to the Shi‘is. In fact, the ASWJ adopted for its definition of membership among the ‘People of the House’ the most stringent Sunni interpretation possible.

According to these sectarian ‘ulama’, the term exclusively referred to the Prophet’s wives. This position differed radically from the Shi‘i view, as well as from moderate Sunni conceptions, which applied the term to the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, his nephew and son-in-law ‘Ali, their sons al-Hasan and al-Husayn, as well as their descendants. While it is not uncommon for Sunni authors to include the Prophet’s wives in their definition, it is very rare to do so exclusively (Sharon, 1986).

For ASWJ leaders, the Prophet’s wife ‘A’isha in particular has over the last years become a focal point. She is showered with the same epithets of purity that Shi‘is use to address their Imams and is lifted up into the rank of a fully qualified Muslim jurist who dispensed legal opinions even to male sahaba (Faruqi, 2014a: 25).

In a second step after elevating their standing, the ASWJ turned the display of extreme partisanship toward the sahaba into the ultimate criterion for discriminating between ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ religious convictions. Those who kept watch to preserve the impeccable honour of the Companions guarded nothing less than Islam’s most precious manifestation and faith (iman) itself (Faruqi, 2014a: 18–19).

These pro-sahaba activists should be considered as the gatekeepers of religion as a whole (Haydari, 2010e: 175). By implication, those Muslims who had historically fulfilled the role of sipah-i sahaba had always defended the essential aspects of Islam, such as prayer, the pilgrimage, or the profession of faith, too.

Guarding the honour of the Companions was thus not a question of a particular organisation (tanzim) of rather recent vintage in Pakistan (Haydari, 2010e: 176–7). Rather, the ASWJ made the case that God Himself had condoned such an interpretation in the qur’anic verse 48:18, a part of which reads as ‘God was well pleased with the believers when they were swearing fealty to thee under the tree’. Muslim sources elucidate the reason for this revelation by connecting it with an event that took place in the year 628.

The Prophet and a large group of his Companions had failed to enter Mecca for the lesser pilgrimage (‘umra). Fleeing from a sortie by Meccan troops, they had come to rest in the desert and opened negotiations with their enemies. During this time, rumours spread about the death of one of their envoys, the later third Caliph, ‘Uthman b. al-‘Affan (d. 656).

In order to calm things and reassert his authority, Muhammad requested from his followers a pledge of allegiance and submission to his authority (Watt, 2012). Aurangzeb Faruqi, however, reinterpreted this episode in an unprecedented way (Görke, 1997). In his view, the primary reason of the pledge (bay‘a) was to avenge the blood of ‘Uthman. Because those present showed such a devotion to one of the sahaba and his honour, God did not hesitate to express his pleasure with them via aforementioned Qur‘anic revelation, effectively guaranteeing their admission to paradise.

Today, the ASWJ would follow in the footsteps of this essential part of the Prophet’s mission and could thus be certain of God‘s special favour too (Faruqi, 2014a: 28–30).

Lest anyone criticise the organisation‘s focus on historical figures that had no apparent connection to modern-day Pakistan, ASWJ leaders insisted that some of the Companions commanded a very real, even touchable presence on (or rather beneath) the country‘s soil.

Muhammad Ahmad Ludhiyanvi recalled that he was once travelling with ‘Ali Sher Haydari near Khairpur in Sindh when they decided to stop at a small settlement next to the road. Their goal was to visit an ancient cemetery which held the remnants of three sahaba who allegedly had come to the area before the Arab conquest in the year 711. Locals had recently dug a grave right next to their burial site and were eager to share with the two ASWJ leaders the strange events that had followed.

First, a sweet fragrance had started to emerge from the Companions’ graves, gradually filling the entire locality. The bodies of the three sahaba had not decomposed, neither had their garments. One of the locals had even been able to touch the forehead of one of the corpses, feeling fresh sweat which made his hand smell pleasantly for an entire month (Ludhiyanvi, 2007b: 287–90).

The ASWJ thus also displayed its own ‘cultural obsession with the wholeness of the body as the foundation for moral righteousness and political cohesiveness’, pertaining to the incorruptible earthly remains of the sahaba (Kugle, 2007: 60–8). Within such a culture of encompassing and exclusivist veneration for the close Companions of the Prophet, there could no longer be any room for Shi‘is in the country.


Anti-Shi‘i discourses in Pakistan have come a long way since the 1970s when Ihsan Ilahi Zahir, the Pakistani graduate of the Islamic University of Medina who had returned home by then, launched his passionate effort to exclude Shi‘is from the fold of Islam. Far from simply continuing along his well-trodden path and merely recycling polemical tropes, the SSP/ASWJ pushed sectarianism into a novel direction that transcends related discourses emerging from the Gulf. Pakistani ‘ulama’ affiliated with the organisation painted Shi‘is as detrimental to the fulfilment of their country’s initial political promise, which was supposed to establish the dominance of Islam on a global level. In order to bolster their arguments, they followed a two-pronged strategy.

First, these actors raised the importance of the sahaba as religious figures that could expect veneration not unlike the Shi‘i Imams. Second, they invested considerable efforts to place the defence of the Companions and their honour at the centre of all religious obligations. The combined public force of these doctrinal and political arguments, formulated in South Asia and the Middle East, have increasingly limited the space for any potential Shi‘i-Sunni rapprochement. Once such ideas have acquired the status of factual, self-evident knowledge, they are extremely difficult to dismantle and retract.

What I have shown in this article is the importance of digging through layers of religious polemics that at first glance seem to be all cut from the same cloth. Instead, we have noticed important regional variations. While the final consequence of sectarian discourses, namely to render the Shi‘is as unbelievers or even apostates (murtadds) (Friedmann, 2003: 54–86, 121–59), may be the same, the road to this conclusion taken by Saudi and Pakistani ‘ulama’ is decidedly different.

Therefore, I have argued, it is misleading to attribute too much leverage to the Saudi clerical establishment in kindling the flames of sectarianism in Pakistan. Deobandi networks that push for an exclusion of Shi‘is from the public deliberation of Pakistan’s (political) future do not rely on Saudi ideological input or funding. While they are happy to incorporate aspects of Saudi-sponsored Salafi arguments, they transcend the mere focus on theological point-scoring. Anti-Shi‘i sectarianism in Pakistan is thus a predominantly local affair instead of yet another manifestation of an Iranian-Saudi proxy war on South Asian soil.

In addition to the discussed divergence pertaining to the predominance of doctrinal issues, on the one hand, vis-à-vis the embrace of the political, on the other, there are potential further research questions that would warrant our comparative attention when studying the Middle East and South Asia.

ISIS, for example, adopted during the heyday of its caliphate a remarkable millenarian outlook, luring fighters to Syria with the promise that the final battles before the day of judgement were near (McCants, 2015: 99–119). Attempting to accelerate the coming of the end of days and acting as a tool for the promised Islamic saviour (mahdi), however, is a notion that is usually far more pronounced in Shi‘i thought (Ourghi, 2009).

The ASWJ, by contrast, stays entirely clear from such eschatological speculations. Their slain leaders even reportedly communicated to those left behind in dream visions how much they would prefer to fight the battle in Pakistan instead of being relegated to paradise (Ludhiyanvi, 2007c: 79). The explicit this-worldly focus of the ASWJ could also be seen as an expression of how seriously they take the political and their mission that Pakistan may obtain its true purpose.

This stands in contrast to ISIS, which displays a much more pronounced Salafi-fixation on doctrinal purity and hopes to transcend conventional political categories through violence. Additionally, a closer study of sectarian discourses in the Middle East and South Asia might also bring to the fore the extent to which these are bound up with perceptions of ethnic superiority.

The argument of God singling out the Arabs is repeatedly made by Saudi scholars in their confrontation with Iran (Ismail, 2016: 206). Such a reasoning, however, is – for obvious reasons – entirely missing from the Pakistani sectarian scene. These avenues for further research foreground the necessity to take the intellectual production of sectarian actors seriously, as I have attempted in this contribution.

The way in which sectarian groups and thinkers frame their arguments, how they go about constructing the other and justify exclusionist rhetoric, deserves more attention than simply dismissing such pronouncements as a propagandistic smokescreen for more material motives such as influence and power. In the end, even geopolitical aspirations have to be grounded in local narrations that are meaningful to those audiences that are targeted with sectarian discourse.


The author would like to thank Simon Mabon, Edward Wastnidge, and Saloni Kapur for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this article.


The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.


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