Ali Khan Mahmudabad – Shia-Sunni Relations in India

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Ali Khan Mahmudabad, PhD Student, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, on Shia-Sunni Relations in India 

Recent analyses of Shia-Sunni relations have tended to place these two groups in an intractable, binary and black and white opposition. Although a theological and later jurisprudential divide has existed virtually since the inception of Islam, the use of these overarching labels as homogenous categories reflects current political and social exigencies more than historical reality. As a survey of recent news from around the world would illustrate violent confrontations in countries such as Pakistan, Bahrain, Iraq are increasing and in other countries, like Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Malyasia and Egypt where the Shia are in smaller minority, there are often the victim of draconian state policies. There are very few places in the world where Sunnis are ruled by a Shia majority and Iran is an exception where, despite a constitution the rights of Sunnis to freedom of worship amongst other things, there are reports that there is active effort by the state apparatus of preventing Sunnis from acting on these rights.

Although some scholars, especially those who have religious or political pre-commitments, tend towards a teleological analysis of the Shia-Sunni ‘divide,’ as it is often simplistically called, this form of enquiry does less to try and understand the differences and more to exacerbate tensions. The relationship between Shias and Sunnis in India is one that cannot be addressed in these absolute terms as on their own these categories have little meaning.

It is important to state here that the term Shi’a, for the purposes of this paper will refer to ithna’ashari or twelver Shias as appose to Ismailis, Zaidis and other sub-sects. Similarly, the term Sunni will be used judiciously because popularly speaking many Sunnis categorise themselves as Deobandis, Barelvis, Sufis, Hanafis, Ahl-e Hadith, Wahabis and Salafis which in turn determines their view of Shias. Furthermore, for various historical reasons that shall be discussed the paper shall focus mostly on Northern India and particularly on the state of Uttar Pradesh.

Before embarking on a discussion of the present situation, it is necessary to provide a brief historical overview of the context in which tensions emerged, existed and were exacerbated.

A troubled past

For the purposes of our paper it is perhaps best to begin in the nineteenth century in North India as it was around this period that many of the ideas, which are still found in Madrassa or seminary curriculums today were articulated and formed. Although many tracts have been written against the Shia[1] and counters have also been written by the Shia, one of the most famous polemical works was written by Shah Abdul Aziz Dehlavi (1745-1823) called Tuhfa-e Ithnashariyya. The book aimed at providing a theological refutation of what it perceived to be Shia beliefs and practices. An in depth critique of the book was later written by Sayyed Hamid Hussain Musavi (1830-1880) called Abaqat al-Anwaar fi Imamat al-Aimmat al-Athaar.

Dehlavi was the son of Shah Walilullah (1703-1762), regarded as a great reformer of the eighteenth century, who spent 14 years studying the Islamic sciences in Medina. One of his students was Sheikh Abu Tahir Muhammad ibn Ibrahim al-Kurani al-Madani who taught him amongst other things the works of Taqiuddin ibn Taimiyya (1263-1328) who was a vociferous critic of the Shia.[2] Around the same time Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, the ideological progenitor of what is now popularly referred to as Wahabism, studied the Islamic sciences in Medina with a Sindhi (North Indian) Naqshbandi[3] scholar who belonged to the Shafi school of jurisprudence, Mohmmad Hayat al-Sindi. He was also a student of ibn Ibrahim al-Kurani and a great admirer of ibn Taimiyya’s works. Wahabism[4] as it developed adopted an inflexible and extreme position against all those who did not agree with its teaching including Sufis and of course the Shia who became one of its main targets.

It was in the 19th century that a seminary was set up in a sleepy town of Northern India called Deoband. Amongst the prominent founders of the Madrassa were Qasim Nanotwi (1833-1880) and Rashid Ahmad Gangohi (1829-1905). The school, founded in the wake of decline of the Mughal Empire, increasing British control and a perceived threat to an ‘authentic Islam,’ has been variously described as following various Sufi schools and was originally an apolitical way of catering to the everyday needs of Muslims. One of the first fatwas given by the seminary was about the takfir of Shia in other words declaring them to be non-Muslim. Takfir, which as we shall see continues to be a problem today, is from the root of the Arabic word K-F-R which literally means to cover or hide something, thus implying that although someone might not be ostensibly a believer they do nonetheless have truth albeit hidden within them. Normally the word kafir is translated as infidel or non-believer and is used as such in popular usage. During this initial years theological debates or munazaras were very common amongst ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shia’ scholars and indeed Gangohi wrote and published a book called Hidayatush Shia in 1871, replying to an advertisement and ten questions which were originally intended for such a debate.

With the onset of new technologies, especially those of printing and communication, debates between Shias and Sunnis tended to become more public and arguments and counter-arguments were often carried in journals and magazines. Although there was much shared culture amongst the Shias, Sunnis and even Hindus and this was even commented upon by Abdul Halim Sharar who wrote that no one could tell the difference between Shias and Sunnis in Lucknow at the end of the nineteenth century, sectarian fissures were always in the background. Much of the shared culture revolved around ritual practices of Muharram, which was the annual commemoration of the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson at the battle of Karbala. For instance the Sunni Raja of Naanpara patronised Muharram and especially the reading of elegies in Memory of Imam Hussain. This patronage was often also offered by many Hindu rulers, most famously the Maharajas of Baroda and Gwalior. At a more popular level, Sunnis participated in Muharram ceremonies and in a town like Allahabad 122 of the 220 tazias, or replicas of the shrine of Imam Hussain in Karbala (Iraq), were built and carried in the processions by Sunnis.

Educated Shias and Sunnis would be found at the courts of various Muslim rulers and while the Mughal court and the Nizam’s court in Hyderabad had many leading Shia ministers, the court of the Shia Nawabs of Awadh had high-ranking Sunnis. This of course did not mean that theological differences were not highlighted and debated but the logic of politics and power often meant that these issues had dimensions that were not driven solely by a sectarian logic. It was perhaps with the rise of populist politics, the increase in the power of the ulama and the more open contestation of public space that religious tensions began to rise. As is the case with many other instances of the deepening of social fissures, religious contestations actually underlie deeper social, political, economic and cultural problems.

Trans-national Unity and local fissure

Towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century many prominent members of the ulama or scholars and many Sufi spiritual leaders did not take an antagonistic stand against the Shia and indeed in many instances there was active support and cooperation between the two. Allamah Shibli Nomani, Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi, Maulana Hasrat Mohani and many others are prominent examples.

Interestingly, often the unity, however temporary, arose from events taking place outside India. The Italian invasion of Libya, the Balkan wars, the Russian invasion of Iran, the Cawnpore Mosque controversy, and then the 1st World War and Turkey’s position in it, all led to a political atmosphere in India which indirectly led to solidarity between Sunnis and Shias. As a British government intelligence briefing put it, a worldview was being shaped amongst Muslims that these matters were a contest between ‘Muhammedans and non-Muhammedans.’

So for instance in 1912 in a meeting in the wake of the bombing of Imam Reza’s shrine in Mashad by the Russian, Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi, a prominent Sunni scholar, Maulana Nasir Hussain, a eminent Shia scholar and many other notable Shias and Sunnis came together at Victoria Park in Lucknow in order to register their protest against this assault on Islam. This show of unity however momentary was noticed and commented upon by Director of Criminal Intelligence and warranted an urgent letter sent to the Home Office in London.

In response to the destruction of the various mausoleums, shrines and other religious sites by the Saudi ruler Abdul Aziz ibn Mohammad ibn Saud, a relative of Mohammad ibn Abdul Wahhab’s descendents through marriage, Maulana Abdul Bari,[5] and a prominent participant in national politics in India, Maulana Hasrat Mohani and many others formed an organisation called the Anjuman-e Khuddam-e Haramain or the organisation of the servants of the two shrines. Wahabi sponsored destruction of holy sites, which were not only sacred for the Shia but for many Sufis too, started much earlier and the 1802 destruction of Karbala and the slaughter of many of its inhabitants was one such event.[6]

Interestingly, Karbala, as a symbol for Muslims of a powerful tyranny being opposed by a small yet righteous minority, became a very popular feature of the writings of Sunnis who were participating in the struggle against the colonial powers. For example Maulana Mohammad Ali ‘Jauhar’ composed a number of poems, elegies and dirges[7] in memory of Imam Hussain and in his autobiography wrote of Karbala as “the greatest tragedy in Islamic history…mourned to this day throughout the Islamic world by Sunni no less than Shiah, the ‘partisan’ of Ali.” Other scholars, politicians, journalists and poets like Shibli Nomani, Zafar Ali Khan and Allamah Muhammad Iqbal amongst many others also utilised Karbala as a way to galvanise Muslims against the colonial government. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Shias and Sunnis often came together to create political and literary organisations and indeed united in their defense of preserving the status of the Urdu language. Indeed the first deputation of Indian Muslims who wanted to convey Muslim grievances to the British government went to Simla in 1906 and was a mixture of both Shias and Sunnis and was headed by the Agha Khan, an Ismaili.

Despite acts of unity in the face of what was viewed as trans-national injustice against all ‘Muslims’, a somewhat different situation existed on the ground as far as local issues were concerned. The nineteenth century already saw the outbreak of Sunni-Shia riots in urban and semi-urban areas.

In one of the early openly sectarian acts in Lucknow, some Sunnis decided to create their own distinct Karbala in Lucknow in 1906 opposite the existing one.[8] The Sunnis then stepped up the practice of Madh-e Sahabah, or praise of the companions of the Prophets companions, some of who have traditionally been regarded by Shias as having usurped the place of Ali as the rightful inheritor of the Caliphate after the Prophets death. The Shias responded by public tabarra, or the cursing of the first three Caliphs and other figures that are venerated by the Sunnis. In response to this the secretary of the Madh-e Sahabah Committee Zafarul Mulk, decided to label the Muharram processions as bidat or innovations that must be countered. Thus, in this period an theological divide was further deepened by the fact that Karbala, a shared symbol of unity in the face of colonial oppression, became a the very object of contention.

Although the world of high politics continued to see the cooperation of Shias and Sunnis, the first quarter of the twentieth century also saw the mushrooming of sectarian organisations.[9] Although there has been persecution, reprisal, theological debate and even animosity, the scale of Shia-Sunni violence on a popular level increased exponentially in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Interestingly in this period as well as all the way up to partition many of the stalwarts of the Muslim League were Shias. Indeed the president of the League and eventually the ‘founding father’ of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was a Twelver Khoja.[10] However, despite this many Shia organisations saw the League as a ‘Sunni junta.’ Meanwhile the Congress drew support from the Deoband and Nadwatul Ulama and although many people have attempted to explain these two organisation’s support for the Congress as proof of their nationalism, it would perhaps be equally correct that their support was driven by their desire to propagate their message trans-nationally and to consolidate support in India so as not to lose the power of numbers.[11]

The instances of Sunni-Shia agitations and riots are too numerous to recount in detail but the 1930s saw a particularly vicious round of fighting. 1938-39 saw widespread riots in Lucknow which had been initially catalysed by official suggestion to ban Madh-e Sahabah processions in 1935. Following the elections in 1937, many parts of the United Provinces in North India saw sectarian violence and this was in large part fanned by people like Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani (1879-1957), principal of the Deoband seminary and an ardent ‘nationalist,’ Maulvi Abdul Shakoor Lucknawi, Maulvi Zafarul Mulk, Allamah Mahriqi and many others. Around this time, the Sunni press also produced a huge amount of material about the heresies surrounding Shia practice and although polemical literature has been part of the Shia-Sunni dynamic for many centuries, a renewed emphasis was placed on not only the flawed theology of the Shia but also the un-Islamic bodily practices and rituals that they ascribed to. This was met by an equally forceful response by Shia scholars who wrote books, pamphlets and tracts repudiating these allegations. Maulana Syed Ali Naqvi, a member of the Ghufranmaab family of Lucknow and leading Shia scholar wrote a number of works in defense of azadari, the ritual remembrance of Karbala, in the 1930s. Despite this polemical divide, some Barelvis and many Sufis, because of their veneration of the Prophets family and their ideological affinity to Ali ibn Abi Talib continued to act as balancing forces and the khaanqahs, religious seats and dargahs, shrines, of the Sufis contributed to this trend particularly in rural areas.

Although leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad from the Congress tried to resolve these differences, most of the time a divide and rule policy was adopted whereby concession were given to one group and then the other. The renewed push for Muslim Nationalism by the League after the 1940s meant that for a short time sectarian differences were set aside but as became increasingly obvious in the aftermath of partition, this was a fleeting moment.

Deepening Divides

After independence and the abolition of the zamindari[12] system in the United Provinces, the Muslims and in particular the Shias were deeply affected. Suddenly older forms of patronage disappeared and a relatively prosperous and powerful group lost influence. The 1960s and 1970s saw a huge spike in Shia-Sunni violence and most of this centered on the public acts of tabarra and Madh-e Sahabah. In response to public agitations the government would often ban public processions of both groups. Interestingly, often these riots took place before or immediately after elections and various political parties, in particular the Congress, Jan Sangh and the Janata Party have. The period after partition also led to the consolidation of the power of Deoband and the Nadwatul Ulama as many Sufi khanqaahs and institutions suffered either because of the lack economic means or, as was the case of Firangi Mahal in Lucknow, the spiritual heads moved to Pakistan. Although it is important to state that there is no consolidated Muslim political front in India, there are certain national apex bodies that claim to be representative of all Muslims, regardless of sect. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) and the All India Muslim Majlis-e Mushawarat (AIMMM) have both Shia and Sunni members. Recently in 2005 the All India Shia Personal Law Board (AISPB) was created in an effort to be truly representative of Shias but this move seems to not only represent a move against the Deobandi dominance of the AIMPLB but partly is also reflective of the political divisions amongst Shia leaders.

Importantly whereas trans-national issues had once acted as unifiers, in the period after 1947 the rise of the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia led to an increase in their influence in India and the 1979 revolution of Iran, especially given the rise of the Ba’athists in Iraq and the waning of Shia power there, led to new power dynamics and in turn led to a blurring between sectarian difference and the competing vested political interests of various countries. The only exception to this has been a united opposition to Israel by both Shias and Sunnis. The flow of labour between India and many Arab countries not only led to the slow creation of a middle class in India but also meant that many Sunnis carried back with them ideologies that exacerbate sectarian divides as well as the financial means to put these into practice. This is true not only at the individual level but also institutionally where many seminaries and mosques are either being taken over by Wahabis and Deobandis.

Although there are serious theological differences between the Deobandis and Barelvis, the latter have slowly also become anti-Shia in their outlook. Certain Sufi groups continue to act as buffers and their scared spaces continue to act as binding forces of harmony and toleration. In recent times because of ease of communication and access to information preachers from outside India like Tahirul Qadri, a Pakistani Sufi, have been able to act as bulwarks against the perceived rise in influence of the Deoband. On the other hand, the Internet has also facilitated access to information and the rise of sectarian and confessional websites, YouTube videos and Facebook groups have not only led to the exacerbation of further divides but has also facilitated the propagation of many false stereotypes which in turn have entrenched prejudice. Older seminaries and theological schools have also taken advantage of the Internet and now Deoband has an online department for giving fatwas called Darul Itfa.

As was mentioned earlier, one of the first fatwas declaring Shias to be kafir was propagated by the Deoband in the 19th century and this fatwa has been re-issued a number of times since. The website of the Darul Itfa contains a number of pronouncements in which Shias are denounced as heretical, albeit with enough theological caveats to render a technical reading of the fatwa as non-inflammatory. However, at a popular level when inciting public opinion or perpetuating stereotypes, caveats and nuances are of course useless in the face of blind bigotry. The rituals and bodily practices of Shias continue to also be the focus of much of the criticism and often many points actually represent perceived beliefs rather than those that the Shia actually prescribe to. Much of this material is as much against Shias as those Sunnis who are seen to have been corrupted by Shia practice. Thus these fatawa[13] are also given against those Sunnis who are not in line with the Deoband position. Amongst the Shias, there are also a number of factions and divisions that are nearly always caused by political reasons though unlike the Sunni divisions they do not represent any theological and religious divide.

Just like in the period before partition most of the Shia-Sunni violence has focused on the contestation of using public spaces for religious ritual and these occur all over India but tend to be particularly focused around the area of Uttar Pradesh and more recently Kashmir. Of course sporadic fighting has also taken place in other places like Bombay and Hyderabad. This violence is not only political in its nature, where various political parties want to divide the Muslim vote, but often also has economic and business rivalry at its core. Of course there is always a religious undertone and one of the more interesting facts of the Shia-Sunni divide is the way in which often there is a conscious effort by the Sunnis to either outright condemn Shia rituals and belief or to incorporate them within its own frameworks and therefore claim ownership. Thus one of the ways in which Muharram has been countered by certain Sunni groups is by having an annual commemoration of the Shuhadaye Islam or martyrs of Islam which include figures which the Sunnis venerate and which is held to coincide with the dates of Muharram.

Today India has a population of about 180 million Muslims of which about 15-20% are Shia. The fact that the Muslims are already a minority, and therefore the Shias a double-minority, has meant that many of the sectarian problems that have taken root in Pakistan have been avoided in India so far. The kind of targeted killings and assassinations of Shias that have become a marker of Sunni-Shia relations in Pakistan have not taken place in India although the ideological influence of seminaries like Deoband have meant that its influence spreads beyond India. For the most part and particularly in rural areas sectarian differences are still represented by hazy boundaries and many Sunnis still participate in Muharram observances. However these practices are also being slowly countered as trans-national and local religious authorities seek to consolidate their power and draw clear-cut distinctions between those they deem to be real Muslims and those who fall beyond the pale of Islam. The division then is not just amongst Shias and Sunnis but also within Sunnis as they struggle to determine who represents the most authentic form of Islam.

[1] Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi, one of stalwarts of the Naqshbandi silsilah of Sufis, wrote a famous tract against the Shia in the 16th century.

[2] Over the course of time the terms used to describe the Shia have varied and amongst others rawafid (pl. of rafidi) and ghulaat have been often used and more recently in the sub-continent ahl-e tashee is used by many non-Shias, perhaps as a counter to Ahl-e Sunnah which is used to describe the Sunnis.
[3] The Naqshbandi Sufis trace their spiritual lineage to Abu Bakr unlike most other Sufis who trace their spiritual lineage to Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, who is regarded as the first Imam by the Shia.
[4] Wahabism in India is often though to have arrived with Syed Ahmad of Rae Bareilly (1786-1931), followers of whom would later call themselves Barelvis, who also went to the Arabian peninsula but he had already been preceded by Ghulam Rasool of Benares, later known as Maulvi Abdul Haq, who had spent many years in the Najd as oppose to Medina and Mecca before returning to India and was a teacher of Syed Ahmad’s disciple Wilayat Ali. Syed Ahmad was also a student of Abdul Aziz Dehlavi. Abdul Aziz was the first person to declare India as dar-ul harb, the abode of war, and Delhi as a bastion of kufr or disbelief and paganism.
[5] A Sufi scholar from the famous Firangi Mahal family and founder of the Madrassay-e Nizamia in 1908.
[6] An Indian Shia, Mirza Abu Talib Khan traveled from India to Asia, Africa and Europe between 1799 and 1803 and described in great detail the sacking of Karbala and details of the city at that time. The original Persian travelogue has been translated into English.
[7] For examples see, Syed Hashim Raza, ‘Gems of Jauhar’ in S. M., Haq (ed.), Mohamed Ali: life and words (Pakistan Historical Society, Karachi, 1978), pp. 154-161.
[8] Karbalas were and continue to be places where processions would culminate and the tazias, replicas of shrines and the papier-mâché tabuts, replicas of the bodies of martyrs, would be buried there.
[9] The Anjuman-e Sadr-us Sudoor, the Shia Conference, The Anjuman-e Tanzimul Momineen, the Madrassatul Waizeen, founded by the Raja of Mahmudabad, the Imamia Mission set up by Maulana Ali Naqi and the Anjuman-e Jafariya were some examples of the Shia organisations and institutions. Some like the Tanzimul Momineen were set up in response to Sunni organisations, in this case the Anjuman-e Tahaffuz-e Millat.
[10] The term khoja denotes someone who is ethnically from the state of Gujarat. There is a large population of both Twelver and Ismaili khojas both in India and around the world.
[11] The activities and works of Ubaidullah Sindhi, a Deobandi alumnus, bear particularl testament to the trans-national vision that the seminary aspired to.
[12] Small and large landholdings by feudal and semi-feudal families.

[13] Plural of Fatwa

Ali Khan Mahmudabad is a PhD Student at the University of Cambridge. Affiliated with the faculty of History, his work focuses on the effect of poetry on the formation of North Indian Muslim political identity between 1850-1950. Before completing an MPhil in Historical Studies at the University of Cambridge, he was at the Institute of Higher Language Studies at the University of Damascus for a one year course in the Arabic Language. In 2006 he completed his BA (Hons) from Amherst College in America with a double major in History and Political Science.

In addition to his academic interests Ali is also a free-lance journalist and has contributed articles to The Guardian (UK), OpenDemocracy (online UK), National Geographic Traveler, The Times of India, Tehelka, The Hindustan Times, Daily News and Analysis and other international magazines and newspapers. He writes a fortnightly column the national Urdu language daily Inqilab. His areas of interest are linked to the politics, culture and religion of South Asia and the Greater Middle East.

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