Wednesday, Feb 01, 2023

The Lucknow connection

A city madrasa in India could have something to do with sharpening of Shia-Sunni tensions in Pakistan

Shia in Pakistan since 2002 has been caused by edicts of apostatisation issued by a madrasa of Lucknow. The massacre of the Shia in Pakistan since 2002 has been caused by edicts of apostatisation issued by a madrasa of Lucknow.

It may shock many Indians to know that the massacre of the Shia in Pakistan since 2002 has been caused by edicts of apostatisation issued by a madrasa of Lucknow. One may also connect the trauma of sectarian killings in Iraq today to a fund moved from Lucknow in the 18th century to construct the Hindia Canal that turned the desiccated Shia shrines of Najaf and Karbala into agricultural land, seducing Sunni nomadic tribes into settling down as Shia farmers, and thus converting Iraq into a Shia-majority country.

A recent report on Sunni-Shia riots in Lucknow, appearing in Muslims in Indian Cities: Trajectories of Marginalisation (2012) by Laurent Gayer and Christophe Jaffrelot (editors), speaks of the current Muslim-versus-Muslim sectarian riots in a city where literary Urdu was born at the hands of three great classical poets, Anees, Dabeer and Mir, all of them Shia. Speaking this language in a chaste accent, the majority Sunni Muslims of Lucknow fight sanguinary battles with Shias during the month of Muharram.

In his paper in the above book, “A Minority within a Minority: The Shias of Kashmiri Mohalla, Lucknow”, Gilles Verniers tells us: “Lucknow is a city of hills and dales, where altitude once defined status. The rulers of Awadh, a Shia dynasty that established itself in the city in the late eighteenth century, distributed lands and properties to their administrators and courtiers in the higher reaches of the hills. The commoners, labourers and orderlies of the state and the court were concentrated in the lower parts, darker, more congested and prone to water logging.”

Then, between 1775 and 1778, Kashmiri Pandits migrated to the city as able administrators for Asaf-ud-Dowlah, the fourth Shia Nawab of Awadh, who had shifted his capital from Faizabad to Lucknow. They were soon joined by Muslim families, mostly Shias, who also hailed from Kashmir, and were directly or indirectly connected to the royal family and its court or served the Awadh state as high-ranking officials. Then came the British, cutting the mutinous Shia down to size after 1857. Fortunes declined in the 1950s after zamindari was abolished under land reforms and better-educated Hindus moved out to better jobs. This small area started mutating into a slum, covering an area of 12 sq km and housing a population of 39,319, mostly Shia Muslims.

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Unfortunately, Lucknow has earned a bad name today, not because of Hindu-Muslim riots but Shia-Sunni violence among the poor Muslim community, reflecting, too, what is happening in Pakistan, Iraq and Syria today.

Following the 1979 Khomeini revolution in Iran, the Sunni Arabs of the Gulf and Saudi Arabia felt threatened by Iranian irredentism. They first approached Pakistani dictator Zia-ul-Haq, and then, of all places, Lucknow. Zia imposed a new tax (zakat) on Sunnis but included Shias too, which was not according to Islamic law, provoking the Shia to stage their first angry march on Islamabad.

Saudi Arabia then approached the Sunni head of the famous seminary, Nadwatul Ulema of Lucknow, to write two books to incite hatred of the Shia in the entire Islamic world. The first was a condemnation of Iran’s Imam Khomeini, and the second was a compilation of fatwas (edicts) from the madrasas of India and Pakistan declaring the Shia as kaafir and therefore liable to extermination for succumbing to apostasy.


In 1986, the Deobandi seminaries of Pakistan and India had issued fatwas of apostatisation against the Shia population and thus upheld the manifesto of Sipah-e-Sahaba, a party formed in 1985 in Pakistan on the basis of its demand that the Shia be declared non-Muslim by the state of Pakistan through an amendment to the constitution. The state had already set the precedence of apostatising a Muslim community, the Ahmadis, and declaring them non- Muslim under the second amendment of 1974.

The anti-Shia edicts (fatwas) were “managed” through a scholar of India, Manzur Numani, then head of Nadwatul Ulema of Lucknow, who had earlier written a book against Imam Khomeini and Iran. Funded by the Saudi charity Rabita Alam Islami (World Islamic League), he wrote to the Deobandi seminaries of India and Pakistan, asking them to give their juristic opinion on the Shia faith. The “masterpiece” he achieved came in the shape of a collection of fatwas printed serially in the Lucknow-based journal Al Furqan from December 1987 to July 1988.

Yoginder Sikand, a noted Indian scholar of Islam, laments: “Even madrasas considered somehow more ‘open’ and ‘modern’ are not free from the virus of sectarianism.One of the Nadwa’s leading teachers, Manzur Numani, penned numerous diatribes against the Shias in the wake of the Iranian Revolution, branding them as infidels and insisting that Shi’ism had nothing to do with ‘authentic’ Islam whatsoever.”


In 2003, when the first batch of the Shia Hazara community was massacred in Quetta, Balochistan, these fatwas of Lucknow were first distributed across the city. I noticed that pages from the book of Numani’s fatwas — which I possessed — had been photocopied, enlarged and distributed in the city before the massacre.

Now, a word about the nexus between Lucknow and the ongoing Iraqi implosion. The conversion of Iraqi Arabs was owed, among other factors, to the “bequests” that came from the Nawab of Awadh, who was to rule Lucknow, first rescuing a waterless and desiccated Najaf from death, through the construction of the “Hindia Canal” from the Euphrates, then through permanent stipends to the Shia jurists of the city. (Thanks to this lifesaving Indian canal, Najaf today has a surplus economy run by a cleric, now Grand Ayatollah, who migrated to Iraq from Jalandhar, India, in 1947.)

The fertility of the land around Najaf and Karbala, ruled then by Turkey, attracted the desert Arabs to agriculture, while the Ottoman bureaucracy encouraged them to own land so that tax could be collected from them. The well-endowed Iranian Shia jurists, threatened by repeated raids from the Wahhabis of Arabia against the Shrines of Najaf and Karbala, began to proselytise intensively among the Arab tribes till most of them converted.

In the 19th century, Iraq had already become a Shia-majority state. The one big factor was the corpse traffic (naql al-janaez) that accounted for nearly 20,000 dead bodies of Shias from Iran and India every year for the purpose of burial at the shrines of Najaf and Karbala. The practice was old and had stemmed from the hadith of the sixth Shia Imam Jafar al-Sadiq that “being next to Ali a day is more favourable than seven hundred years of worship”. The coming of the corpses had its own economics that attracted a lot of commerce to the city of Najaf.

Yitzhak Nakash, in his book The Shi’is of Iraq (1994), tells us that Lucknow gave more than a million rupees annually from the nawab’s treasury for the upkeep of the Shia shrines in Iraq. The money went to the Iranian Shia jurists settled around these shrines.


It is unfortunate that Shi’ism, which once informed the Muslim-Indian culture and also changed Hindu attitudes through its syncretic character, is now changing into a dogma that it never was. The Shia in Pakistan and India are rediscovering their faith as a schism that took place in early Islam and are readying themselves for a new armageddon.

The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’

First published on: 13-05-2014 at 00:05 IST
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