Pakistan’s Shia dynamics


Shias in Pakistan reputedly account for about 20 percent of the population — or 42 million out of the population of 210 million — making it the second largest Shia population in the world outside Iran. Although the subject has not attracted academic attention to the extent it deserves, two very detailed and highly impressive books published in the last few years by German academics Andreas T. Rieck and Simon Wolfgang Fuchs have made enormous contributions in filling the gap.

In his pioneering 2015 book, The Shias of Pakistan: An Assertive and Beleaguered Minority, Rieck — a German researcher who has served in both Pakistan and Afghanistan — focused on the history of Shias in Pakistan, the growth of Shia organisations and their conflictual relationship with the Pakistani state. In his meticulously researched and stimulating book titled In a Pure Muslim Land: Shi’ism between Pakistan and the Middle East, Fuchs — a lecturer of Islamic and Middle East Studies at the University of Freiburg in Germany — discusses in detail the fundamental transnational transformation of Shia thought and religious authority in Pakistan.

Detailing the growth of the Shia population in today’s Pakistan with specific focus on Punjab, where there was no Shia religious seminary till 1915 (as Lucknow was the pre-eminent city for Shia seminaries in India) and only two till 1947, Fuchs argues that the number of seminaries have increased since the creation of Pakistan and received an impetus after the Irani revolution. By 2004, there were 374 Shia seminaries for male and 84 for female students in the country, with 218 and 55 respectively in Punjab alone.

Apart from the long list of books that the author has made use of during his extensive research in Pakistan, India, Iran and Iraq, Fuch relies extensively on three Shia journals published in Pakistan: Al Hujjat, Payam-i-Amal and Al Muntazar. He examines the role of Shia political organisations in the run-up to Partition, conflict between traditional and reformist Shia ulema after Partition, linkages between Pakistani Shias and the Grand Ayatollahs in Iraq and Iran before the Irani revolution, the impact of the Irani revolution on the Pakistani Shia landscape, and increasing Sunni-Shia sectarianism against the backdrop of growing local and transnational linkages.

The role of Shia politicians in the creation of Pakistan can be described as not only undeniable but, in fact, decisive. Sir Aga Khan III, an Ismaili Shia, was the first president of the Muslim League. The first provisional committee of the Muslim League consisted of four Shia members. Shia politicians played an important role in the Muslim League in its initial decades and some — such as Syed Ameer Ali, Syed Wazir Hasan, Raja Sahib Mohammad Ali Mohammad Khan of Mahmudabad, Sir Ali Imam etc — became its president. Raja Sahib stepped down in 1930 and helped Allama Muhammad Iqbal become president ahead of Iqbal’s famed Allahabad address.

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