Dr. Paul Rollier – Shias in Pakistan – View from Lahore

Live Encounters Magazine February 2014 Paul Rollier

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Shias in Pakistan: a view from Lahore – Dr. Paul Rollier, Research Associate,                   Department of Anthropology University College London—————————————————————————————————-

Received scholarship on Twelver Shias largely stems from research on Iranian society, and to a lesser extent from the Iraqi and Lebanese contexts. Pakistan’s Shias, who constitute 12 to 20 per cent of the country’s population, represent the second largest Shii community in the world. However Shias in Sunni-majority societies are often regarded as living on the margins of a Shii crescent subordinate to Iran, best described through the prism of sectarian conflict and their status as minority communities. This view is further accentuated with the regime change in Iraq in 2003 and the ‘Arab spring’ shading towards a strategic and confessional showdown between regional powers, which have led to renewed debates over a transnational Shii revival centered on the Middle-East. This tendency to overlook the South Asian context has made it difficult to appreciate the multifarious experiences of Shiism across national borders and to recognize the distinct religious and political trajectories of Pakistani Shias.

The vast majority of Pakistani Shias belong to the Twelver (Isna Ashari, Jafari) branch of Shiism. Well represented in liberal professions and in the arts, and comprising a few influential families with political clout, this heterogeneous community is nevertheless increasingly marginalized and persecuted (e.g. Parachinar, Quetta). To account for this situation a large body of scholarship focuses on the way Pakistan became the scene of a ‘transplanted’ war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the context of the anti-Soviet jihad in neighbouring Afghanistan. To offset Iran’s attempt to export its revolutionary ideology, Saudi Arabia became directly involved in the promotion of Sunni Islam in Pakistan, financing religious institutions and facilitating the emergence of radical religious movements. Simultaneously, General Zia-ul Haq oversaw a Deobandi-orientated program to make Pakistan’s public sphere more ‘Islamic’, emphasizing the country’s proximity with the Sunni Middle-East rather than with so-called ‘Hindu India’. These processes have profoundly altered the nature of Shii-Sunni relations and led to more exclusive sect-identities.

But the impetus of the Iranian revolution also instilled a sense of self-confidence among Pakistani Shias. The country’s Shii clergy, traditionally educated in Lucknow, gave way to a younger generation of politicized clerics educated in Iran and Iraq who denounced what they saw as the community’s narrow focus on rituals of public mourning (azadari). The revolution revitalized a Shii reformist trend manifest in Pakistan since the mid-1960s and which drew on the Muslim reformist movements that gained prominence in nineteenth century South Asia. Bare-chested men flagellating themselves in public, devotees prostrating themselves before religious icons and saints were deviations from proper piety. Pakistani Shias needed to be educated and Shiism purified of ‘innovations’ accumulated through centuries of coexistence with Hindus. More than the expression of traditional faith, religion was to become the vector for social transformations and progress. Emboldened by their Iranian mentors, Shias became more active politically and demonstrated against Zia ul-Haq’s polices and in defense of their religious rights, such as being exempted from explicitly Sunni laws and curriculum. The drive to reform rituals however was not so successful. In fact, Shii political activism in the 1980s often focused on the preservation of traditional rites, such as taking out mourning processions during Muharram. Iran’s attempt to imposed its standardized version of Shiism, together with the formation of Sunni sectarian groups to counter Iranian influence progressively led Pakistani Shias to adopt a more nuanced attitude towards their coreligionists in the Middle-East and to reaffirm their attachment to local forms of Shii piety. In short, although Pakistan’s religious establishment did become more clericalist and centralized following the revolution, we should be careful not to overstate its role as a catalyst for the transfer of Iranian ideas among lay Shias.

Shii religious life in Lahore

Twelvers Shias in Lahore are thought to constitute 15 to 20% of the population. The historical center of ritual activity is located in the Old City. Following partition and the arrival of migrants from the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, Lahore witnessed the emergence of four enclaves with a Shii majority. Most Shias however live in mixed neighborhoods. According to Lahori tradition, the advent of Shiism in the city dates back to the aftermath of the epic battle of Karbala in 680, which saw the death of Imam Hussein and his companions. Some of his female relatives are believed to have escaped on camelback to Lahore, where they narrated the tragedy and were later buried. A large number of Shii families in the city, as elsewhere in Pakistan, claim to be descendants of the Prophet who migrated from Central Asia, Iran and the Arabic peninsula to flee Sunni persecution. Although the vast majority are in fact descendants of Sunni Muslims and Hindus converted to Shiism during the Safavid period, the prestige conferred by noble origins often eclipses the concern for historical accuracy. The Qizalbash, an influential family who enjoyed colonial patronage since the nineteenth century, played a major role in promoting azadari rituals and remains to this day the patron of Lahore’s largest procession, which is held annually on the day of ashura.

My introduction to Lahore’s Shii community coincided with these Muharram celebrations and its countless processions to the sound of elegies and self-flagellation (matam). My Shii acquaintances, who mostly belong to the lower-class, would define themselves as fervent azadars (mourners), rather than Shias. During the year that I spent in their company, rarely if ever did they mention Khomeini’s concept of political authority or the emulation of high-ranking jurists. For them being Shia is about giving preference to the family of the Prophet (ahl-e-bait) over their enemies. It is about demonstrating one’s love for Hussein and his relatives, and grieving the loss of these outstanding role models. Taking out annual processions through the streets, singing elegies, attending mourning assemblies and beating one’s chest in unison is understood as a form of protest and a mnemonic device. As I am repeatedly told, these public rituals serve the purpose of reminding other Muslims that Islam would no longer exist, had it not been for Hussein’s heroic sacrifice. These events are also recognized as condensing issues of local power and patronage, economic rivalry and the display of social prestige. Participants explicitly acknowledge that processions are as much about religious piety as they are about asserting their presence over public space in spite of suicide-bombs and other deadly attacks. And indeed, with over 20 000 policemen deployed for security, entire neighbourhoods cordoned off, helicopters hovering in the sky and mobile networks temporarily suspended, Muharram celebrations are undoubtedly the largest public event in town. By risking their lives in making their grief manifest, mourners see themselves as performing something akin to Hussein’s own sacrifice at Karbala.

But these rituals are not simply about defending a theological stance, asserting one’s communal presence or competing for social prestige. Although less explicitly acknowledged, one also attends processions for direct returns. Blood and tears shed for the Imams are spiritually and materially rewarding, allowing one to seek the martyrs’ intercession and to gain proximity with God. Participants perform propitiatory vows before the ritual icons transported in processions, be it for fertility, good health or prosperity. If fulfilled, a vow may be ‘returned’ at a later date, usually by distributing thanksgiving in the form of food among processionists, or by offering money to the patron of the procession. The procession itself is sometimes propitiatory: the second largest in Lahore for instance is said to have originated in the early 1920s as a remedy for a particularly severe epidemic. In important ways, it is the imputed efficacy of these vows that accounts for the popularity of processions, as well as for the participation of Sunni Muslims and Christians, although their presence is dwindling nowadays. Non-Shias petitioning Hussein and his relatives are in fact said to have their wishes fulfilled more easily. I recently came across a number of accounts of Sunnis ‘converting’ to Shiism, some of them narrated by converts themselves. Almost all of them involve persons in custody charged with murder and who previously identified as orthodox Sunnis (Deobandi or Ahl-e-hadith). Typically, the culprit is enticed by a co-detainee to petition the Imam, his plea is fulfilled, and upon his release he flagellates himself in public, takes the lead of a procession or simply distributes food to its participants. Aside from extolling the virtues of the Imams, these stories are also meant to suggest that one does not need to subscribe to Shii doctrine to experience the effectiveness of these vows or to participate in processions. In other words, Shii rituals are thought to operate almost independently from one’s faith, allowing a degree of fluidity in the way people identify along sectarian lines. However this open-endedness may well be fast eroding as Deobandi militant groups intensify their attacks on such rituals.  

This intercessory component of popular Shii piety directly connects with the dominant Barelwi (or Sufi) forms of religiosity found in Pakistan. The point of convergence is particularly evident in the domain of charismatic relations of religious authority. The popularity of spiritual masters among my Shii informants is quite striking and manifests itself in diverse ways. While some vow allegiance to a particular master or to a living saint, the majority simply consults a spiritual guide (pir) on an had-hoc basis for issues ranging from bad fortune to  matrimonial disputes to spirit possession. The noticeable differences between Shii and Barelwi masters are that the former resort to the ahl-e-bait as intercessory agents and are frequently associated with Shii places of worship (imambargahs). Until his death in 2011, Bawa Sada Hussein Bukhari was perhaps Lahore’s most eminent and controversial Shii spiritual master. Divergent accounts of his life seem to coincide on a few points: born in a Punjabi village prior to partition, and an ascetic since his childhood, Bawa Sada sought religious education in Iraq, where he also served at the shrine of Imam Ali. He was then instructed in a dream to return to his homeland to spread the truth. Back in Punjab, he ardently defended Shii rituals, going to villages on horseback with his followers to perform matam in Sunni strongholds and actively proselytising among the rural poor. He is also remembered for having given a distinctly Shii colour to one of Pakistan’s largest Sufi festival (Sehwan Sharif) and for establishing a large imambargah in the northern outskirts of Lahore. His son inherited the mantle and runs the imambargah which attracts Lahoris as well as thousands of rural devotees during Muharam.

The case of Bawa Sada is particularly interesting insofar as his followers are representatives, albeit in a radical form, of the dominant Shii sensibility in the region. At the same time they also draw severe criticism from Sunni Muslims as well as from the urban middle- and upper-class sections of the Shii community. This dominant Shii sensibility is commonly known, among Shias, as malang, or matami malang. In its narrow sense, the term malang in Punjab designates a religious mendicant. In its Shii sense, it can be used more loosely to convey the idea that one is more concerned with divine love and the esoteric realm than with adherence to orthopraxis and the sharia. The reformist stance on the other hand is known as namazi (‘someone who performs his daily prayers’) or, from an explicitly malang perspective, as shia wahabbi and maulvism.

The condemnations emanating from namazi Shias bear the mark of reformist thought and centre on the near-divine powers allegedly attributed to Imam Ali and the ahl-e-bait by the malangs, as well as the latter’s mode of worship. In particular, the namazis reprove of the apparent precedence given to the public performance of matam over daily prayers (namaz), and the excessive acts of deference towards spiritual masters and ritual icons. For them, the likes of Bawa Sada indulge in innovations, associationism and anthropomorphism, all of which threaten the fundamental imperative of tauhid, divine oneness. Another issue centers on the practice of tabarra, the ritual cursing of the Imams’ archenemies, some of whom are held in high esteem by Sunni Muslims. While this practice is rarely performed, especially in the presence of non-Shias, Bawa Sada’s followers are accused of performing it inconsiderately, thereby creating discord. Some Shias contend that this attitude gives ammunition to the anti-Shii extremist groups operating in the country. Hence Bawa Sada is sometimes thought to have been an ‘agent’ of the CIA or India’s secret services, since sectarian strife is often understood to be the work of external enemies as part of their strategy to undermine Islam.

Patters of violence and political representation

The rise in sectarian violence in Pakistan over the last decade has led to numerous studies on the relationship between the Taliban, militant sectarian outfits and the state and its implications in terms of national security. This focus however sometimes obscures the everyday dynamics of inter-sect relations. Notwithstanding sporadic target killings and a suicide-attack on a procession in 2010, sectarian confrontations in Lahore are rare. They did occur on a large scale however during Muharram in 1963 and 1986, and each time followed a similar sequence, which is also discernable in instances of sectarian clashes throughout the province.

The first point of contention during Muharram processions concerns material symbols of sectarian affiliation. Tied to eclectic poles and buildings, specific billboards are seen conspicuously hanging above the streets along procession routes. Shias consider these boards insulting as they bear the names of what Sunnis regard as the ‘righteous four friends’ (the first four caliphs of Islam), to whom Shias oppose the twelve Imams and the ‘five pure ones’ (the ahl-e-bait). Together with the canopy of electrical cables that hangs across the streets, these boards sometimes impede the smooth transport of the ritual icons carried in Shii processions. Some consider that having the procession passing below them amounts to an acquiescence to the genealogy inscribed thereon. Historically, the physical constraints impacting upon the transport of sacred icons have been at the centre of communal violence across South Asia, and a sectarian confrontation involving religious billboards was recorded as early as the seventeenth century in Lahore. 

More problematic however is the question of precedence between the call to prayer (azan) and the performance of matam. Shias believe that Hussein’s sacrifice at Karbala is cardinal to Islam, and that expressing one’s commitment to his cause is paramount. For malang Shias, self-flagellation is precisely testimony to this commitment. At the same time, Muslims of all persuasions in Pakistan regard the azan as sacrosanct, sometimes more than the prayer itself: music is generally turned down, and all reprehensible activities momentarily suspended. Problems emerge when a Shii procession passes next to a (Sunni) mosque emitting the azan. Although police authorities are very careful in regulating the exact itinerary and timing of processions, the performance of matam and the Sunni azan sometimes coincide in the same locale. Confrontation generally ensues from a refusal on the part of processionists to suspend their self-flagellation and let the azan resound. Likewise Sunni preachers may deliver sermons through loudspeakers to eulogize Hussein’s archenemies when a Shii procession approaches, as was apparently the case with the Rawalpindi incident last Muharram. Sectarian clashes are not triggered by abstract disputes over the notion of the Caliphate and the Imamate, but through acts deemed disrespectful towards the material forms that make these theological differences manifest. The affective attachment to these tangible and audible forms, as well as their temporal and spatial situatedness are not all there is to sectarian confrontations, but they nevertheless constitute a critical dimension of these phenomena. Recognizing this allows us to gain a better understanding of the way in which identities based on sect can be mobilized but also made inconsequential and less discernible in other contexts. However while billboards, the azan and matam were traditionally the catalyst for communal confrontations involving familiar rivals, target killings and explosions have added an element of unpredictability and a heightened sense of danger to these public rituals.

The killing of over eighty Shii Hazaras in an explosion in Quetta in February 2013, followed soon after by the target assassination of a Shia doctor and his son in Lahore led to important demonstrations in the city. The Majlis-e-Wahdat-e-Muslimeen (MWM), a recently formed Shii political organisation, arranged a large protest outside the Governor’s House. Men and women, mostly Shias, sat on different sections of the road facing a stage where political leaders, clerics and a few representatives of civil society organisations addressed the angry crowd. ‘Labeik ya Hussein!’ — Here at your service Hussein — was the resounding slogan. Whereas civil society representatives stressed the existence of fraternal bonds between sects and the need for these denominations to be subsumed under a common Pakistani identity, Shii clerics and leaders emphasized the ‘sacrifices’ that Shias had made for their country since its inception. Surprisingly for an outsider, they strongly denounced the killing of Shias yet never named the groups orchestrating these acts of violence — the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and its avatars for instance. When I asked some participants why this was case, I was told that everybody knew who ‘they’ referred to. The United States, on the other hand, were openly vilified. As a matter of fact the MWM was at the forefront of the nation-wide protests against the controversial American film on Islam in 2012. Anti-Americanism seems to be the mainstay of its political rhetoric, which may seem quite at odds with the challenges facing Pakistan Shias nowadays.

The votes of Pakistani Shias, who traditionally supported the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) on account of the Bhutto family’s Shii leanings, are now dispersed between the three main national parties (PPP, PLM-N, PTI). As for the MWM, it faired rather poorly in the last general elections. The strategy adopted by most of my Shii interlocutors consists in supporting known Shii politicians, irrespective of their party affiliation, in the hope of gaining a degree of access to public resources and protection. According to them, the MWM is a useful Shii platform for the organizations of protests rather than a viable political party. Composed predominantly of iranianized clerics, the MWM is also suspected by many Shias of receiving direct support from Iran. Again, the rift between so-called malangs and namazi Shias translates in a certain disconnect whereby Shias of a malang sensibility feel underrepresented in Shii religio-political organizations.


In this brief overview of Lahore’s Shii community I have sought to highlight some of dominant trends that characterize popular Shii piety in the region. In doing so I argue that Shiism in Pakistan should not be discussed solely in terms of ‘sectarianism’ and that attention must be paid to the changing attitudes among Pakistani Shias with respect to reformist movements. The prevalence of a traditionalist sensibility raises important questions concerning the role of the ulama and the presumed influence of transnational clerical networks in shaping the theological and political orientations of Shias in Pakistan. The vitality of local heterodox practices must be understood as the complex outcome of the crosscutting political and ideological trends at play in the country over the last three decades. At the same time the escalating levels of violence and the preponderance of the reformist stance among the Shii elite may lead to transformations that are difficult to predict. While processionists seem determined to carry on displaying their unflinching commitment to public rituals, a cross-section of the urban middle- and upper-classes of all sects now argues that confining azadari rituals to private spaces would perhaps be the best way to prevent further violence.

Further readings

Abou Zahab, M. 2008a. The politicization of the Shia community in Pakistan in the 1970s and 1980s. In The other Shiites: from the Mediterranean to Central Asia (eds) A. Monsutti, S. Naef and F. Sabahi, 97-112. New York: Peter Lang.
——— 2008b. Between Pakistan and Qom: Shii women’s madrasas and new transnational networks. In The madrasa in Asia: political activism and transnational linkages (eds) F. A. Noor, Y. Sikand and M. van Bruinessen, 123-140. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Ahmad, I. 1991. Perspectives on the communal problem. In Communal riots in post-independence India (ed) A.A. Engineer, 130-155. Hyderabad: Sangam.
Ahmad, M. 2003. Shiipolitical activism in Pakistan. Studies in Contemporary Islam 5 (1-2), 57-71.
Ahmed, M. D. 1987. The Shi’is of Pakistan. In Shi’ism, resistance, and revolution (ed) M. Kramer, 275-288. London: Mansell.
Ali, M. A. 2000. Sectarian conflict in Pakistan: a case study of Jhang. Policy Studies n° 9. Colombo: Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
Hegland, M. E. 1998. Flagellation and fundamentalism: (trans)forming meaning, identity, and gender through Pakistani women’s rituals of mourning. American Ethnologist 25 (2), 240-266.
——— 2003. Shi’a women’s rituals in Northwest Pakistan: the shortcomings and significance of resistance. Anthropological Quarterly 76 (3), 411-442.
Kamran, T. 2009. Contextualizing sectarian militancy in Pakistan: a case study of Jhang. Journal of Islamic Studies 20 (1), 55-85.
Keddie, N. R. 2001. Shiism and change: secularism and myth. In Shi’ite heritage: essays on classical and modern traditions (ed) L. Clarke, 389-406. Binghamton, NY: Global Publications.
Nasr, S.V.R. 2000. The rise of Sunni militancy in Pakistan: the changing role of Islamism and the ulama in society and politics. Modern Asian Studies 34 (1), 139-180.
——— 2006. The Shia revival: how conflicts within Islam will shape the future. New York: Norton.
Pinault, D. 1992. The Shiites: ritual and popular piety in a Muslim community. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Rizvi, S.A.A. 1986. A socio-intellectual history of the Isna Ashari Shiis in India (vols. 1 and 2). New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.
Schubel, V. J. 1993. Religious performance in contemporary Islam: Shii devotional rituals in South Asia. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
Zaman, M. Q. 1998. Sectarianism in Pakistan: the radicalization of Shii and Sunni identities. Modern Asian Studies 32 (3), 689-716.
Dr. Paul Rollier is a Research Associate at the Department of Anthropology, University College London (UCL) with a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). His academic interest lies in contemporary Muslim South Asia and political anthropology. http://iris.ucl.ac.uk/iris/browse/profile?upi=PROLL52

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