New history of an old conflict

June 11, 2017

A detailed, objective, and accurate account of the Sunni-Shia conflict in Pakistan and India

New history of an old conflict

The leader of the Pakistan Movement, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was a Shia and yet Shias are more in the news in contemporary Pakistan for being the target of violence. How did this happen? What is the history of this important community in pre-partition India and in Pakistan? Andreas Reick, a German scholar, undertook to answer them in a scholarly book based on research on this community in Pakistan.

The book has nine chapters that first lay down the historical context and work up to 2013. The first chapter tells us about the spread of the faith in India from the 8th century onwards. The author corrects the myth that there was no Shia-Sunni conflict in pre-partition India. He informs us through documentary evidence that the conflict existed in the Sultanate and the Mughal periods. This conflict also led to sectarian clashes during the British period. British officers took precautions to ensure that the Muharram would pass without the Shia-Sunni clashes which were always expected. It is also true that in Oudh, because of the Shia ruling dynasty, Sunnis participated in the Muharram mourning and even joined processions.

However, this did not mean that Sunnis were not clashing with Shias. Indeed, there were anti-Tabarrah agitations in the 1930s which expressed Sunni rage against what they considered sacrilege of their sacred personalities. It may be noted that Tabarra (literally meaning to draw apart; to separate; to keep one’s self away) refers to the Shia view that they should draw themselves away from the fact that three caliphs ruled earlier than Hazrat Ali ibn-e-Abi Talib whom they consider the rightful caliph. Since tabarra was often vitriolic and polemical, and sometimes invectives were used, it was bitterly resented by Sunnis, but for Shias it was an article of faith hence the conflict was recurring especially during Muharram.

The Shias were part of the Pakistan Movement although the hardline anti-Shia Majlis-e-Ahrar remained in the Congress camp even in the 1930s. Ironically, the Ahrar leader Mazhar Ali Azhar (1895-1974), who called Jinnah Kafir-e-Azam, led a faction of his party which supported Pakistan but that did not reduce the party’s anti-Shia bias.

Once Pakistan was created, Shia-Sunni differences were held at bay for some time. However, organisations, such as the Idarat-I Tahaffuz-I Huquq-I Shia-I Pakistan with Mufti Jafar Husain (1914-1983), began functioning to safeguard Shia interests. One of their demands was the kind of religious education the Pakistani state would provide to them. By 1968 it was accepted that the syllabus of Islamic Studies would be different for Shia students in schools. However, on the ground the situation remained confusing.

The author concludes, Shias "are nowadays threatened by terrorist violence, but they are far from being an oppressed minority"

Meanwhile Deobandi and Ahl-i-Hadith resentment of Shia rituals continued although the government managed to keep law and order for the most part during the 1950-60s. Under Ayub, especially in Ayub’s last years, Shia mobilisation increased and committees for Shia demands were made in various districts. But this was a period of increased politicisation anyway so this increased momentum among the Shia community was part of the general political ferment.

Shia activism bore fruit when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto became the prime minister of Pakistan. According to the author "the five-and-a-half years of Bhutto’s government can be considered -- along with the Yahya Khan interregnum --as the most favourable period for Shias in Pakistan’s history". However, there is no evidence to suggest that both Bhutto and Yahya were motivated by religious feeling. Indeed, it was probably their secularist attitude that resulted in this state of affairs. Shia Islamic Studies syllabus, always a major demand, was agreed to in 1974 and Shia organisations remained active in urban areas.

The situation drastically changed when Zia ul Haq took over in 1977. The main Shia organisation was the Tehreek-e-Nifaze-Fiqh-e-Jafria (TNFJ), ostensibly meant to enforce the Shia religious law for Shias in the country, but this was not an offshoot of Zia’s rule in any direct manner. It was, indeed, a response of Pakistani Shias to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 which had brought Ayatollah Khomeini in power and boosted Shia morale across the world.


This alarmed the government as well as the Sunni ulema who were afraid of the Iranian Revolution being exported to Pakistan. One response, in the name of national integrity, was to do away with the separate Shia Islamic Studies syllabus. The other was the newfound acerbity of tone among Sunni ulema which was equally matched by Shia leaders as well. Things came to a head only on June 20 1980 when Zia promulgated the Zakat and Ushr Ordinance. Shias marched on Islamabad and protested being forced to pay the alms tax on the grounds that they already paid it to their own religious organisations. On July 6 Mufti Jafar Husain was invited to the President House and after a 12-hour marathon meeting it was decided that Shias would be exempted from paying zakat.

This victory, although welcomed by Shia moderates and Pakistani liberals, antagonised extremists of both sects: among Shias those who believed in the Islamic revolution; among Sunnis those who were apprehensive of newfound Shia assertiveness and wanted Pakistan to be a Sunni state. The Shia youth of the Kurram agency, according to the author, was in the forefront of the movement. The leader of the TNFJ, Arif Husain al Husaini, was also an admirer of Khomeini and so the revolutionary element gained strength.

As Shia communal mobilisation increased from 1979- 88 so did opposition to it. But now a new factor kicked in -- the Afghan revolution. This brought in Arab and American money and Saudi-funded Sunni organisations multiplied. In Jhang the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, led by Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, became so powerful that its leader contested for a seat in the National Assembly in November 1988. Although he lost to Syeda Abida Husain, a Shia dignitary and established political figure, his street power was astounding.

After his assassination in 1990, the power of his party increased even further and a bloody anti-Shia interlude in Pakistan’s history was inaugurated. The Shias also formed a militant organisation called the Jaish-e-Mohammad. However, being a minority the Shias were panicked by the Sunni extremist organisations such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. These organisations joined or were supported by the Taliban.

The cases of Hazara Shia killings in Quetta and the sporadic killings of high-profile Shia professionals have been specially highlighted in the media while that of ordinary workers remains less known. However, as the author concludes, Shias "are nowadays threatened by terrorist violence, but they are far from being an oppressed minority". In the history of violence using the name of Islam -- the recent London and Manchester carnage for instance -- this sounds reassuring. But is it reassuring for individual Shias from the Hazara community? Or in Muharram? Or for prominent Shias? No. Indeed the reason it seems reassuring is that we live in such a violent world that mere survival seems temporarily reassuring while we look over the shoulder for the assassin.

The only gap in the book is that there is no coherent account of Shia beliefs in South Asia nor their internal theological differences. Granted that there is Syed Husain Jafri’s The Origins and Early Development of Shi’a Islam published by Oxford in 2002 which gives an account of the development of these beliefs in a historical perspective, but even this book does not focus on theological matters in South Asia. The present history would have improved with a brief mention of this aspect of Shia thought. Moreover, some relevant material from Shah Abdul Aziz, the Deoband scholars and the defence by Shia ulema in India might have contributed to this intellectual history.

But these are minor matters and do not detract from the merits of the book. Reick’s notes run into 147 pages of small type. He has used a vast and rich archive of sources including interviews and magazines to present a detailed account which will remain unmatched in accuracy, objectivity, detail and scholarship for a long time. I recommend it to all students of religion, South Asian Studies and I am sure that it will not lose its significance in the near future.

The Shias of Pakistan An Assertive and Beleaguered Minority
Author: Andreas Reick
Publisher: Hurst & Coy, London
Year: 2015
Pages: 540
Price: Rs2,795

New history of an old conflict