Bashir Husain Najafi is an oddity. Today's most prominent Pakistani Shiʽi scholar is counted among Najaf's four leading Grand Ayatollahs.Footnote 1 Yet, when he left Pakistan for Iraq in 1965 in order to pursue higher religious education, the deck was heavily stacked against him. Husain Najafi does not belong to any of the renowned and transnationally active Shiʽi families, such as the al-Sadrs, the al-Hakims, or the al-Khu'is.Footnote 2 What is even more remarkable is his genealogy as a non-Sayyid.Footnote 3 In the wider Arab-Iranian world, Husain Najafi's lack of ‘Sayyid-ness’ would have been a serious obstacle to scholarly authority. Raffaele Mauriello has emphasised the “centrality of the Family of the Prophet for the religious, political and social leadership of Shiʽi communities in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran”.Footnote 4 Hailing from a family of ʽAlid descent is a major criterion for achieving respect and status in the setting of Shiʽi seminaries and learning. Outside the Middle East, this observation has significant explanatory power, too. South Asia's leading Shiʽi ʽulama have a Sayyid background. Lucknow's famed khandan-i ijtihad (lit. ‘the family of independent legal reasoning’) traces their connection to the Prophet Muhammad through the tenth Shiʽi Imam ʽAli al-Hadi (d. 868). Jurists of the highest order (mujtahids) belonging to the family have dominated scholarly circles in North India and beyond since the eighteenth century.Footnote 5
In post-Partition Pakistan, the high visibility of Sayyids continues unabated, too, even beyond an exclusively Shiʽi environment. It has been argued that the failure of land-reforms “has perpetuated Syed power in rural and tribal Pakistan longer than in India”.Footnote 6 This phenomenon is amply reflected in the set-up of Pakistan's National Assembly (NA) after the 2018 general elections, for example. While out of 272 male Muslim deputies, only 21 (or roughly 8 per cent) are Sayyids, a different picture emerges when we consider the Pakistan's People Party (PPP), which is traditionally strong in rural Sindh.Footnote 7 The PPP currently has 43 male Muslim members in the NA, 11 (or more than 25 per cent) of whom belong to the Prophet's kin.Footnote 8 If we consider the narrower context of Shiʽi learning, Sayyids form an even more impressive group. Sayyid Husain ʽArif Naqvi's biographical dictionary of Shiʽi ʽulama and popular preachers in Pakistan lists 481 personalities — 172 (or 36 per cent) of whom are Sayyids.Footnote 9 Sayyid ʽArif Husain al-Husaini, Pakistan's most prominent Shiʽi political leader of the 1980s, was a descendant of the Prophet through the latter's grandson and Third Shiʽi Imam al-Husain (d. 661).Footnote 10 Al-Husaini, in turn, was president of the Tahrik-i Nifaz-i Fiqh-i Jaʽfariyya (Movement for the Implementation of Shiʽi Law, TNFJ), Pakistan's most influential Shiʽi organisation of the time with complex ties to the revolutionary government in Iran. As Olivier Roy has pointed out, well-educated Sayyids with a background in medicine and engineering played a dominant role within its structure.Footnote 11 Sayyids are also overrepresented among the directors of Pakistan's most important Shiʽi religious institutions. A telling case in point is Sayyid Safdar Husain Najafi, who headed Lahore's Jamiʽat al-Muntazar from 1967 until his death in 1989.Footnote 12
Yet, this undeniable over-representation and visibility of Sayyids is not further discussed in publications by Pakistani Shiʽis. For this article, I have scrutinised a wide range of periodicals and monographs that reflect the internal diversity of Shiʽi religious thought and span the time period from the 1950s until more or less the present. As I explain in more detail below, the community in Pakistan is split in particular along reformist/traditionalist lines and regarding questions of religious authority. In order to capture these controversial positions, I have studied the explicitly reformist periodicals al-Muballigh from Sargodha and al-Hujjat from Peshawar, the ‘mainstream’ but ʽulama-focused magazines al-Muntazar and Payam-i ʽAmal from Lahore, and the traditionalist journals Zulfiqar from Peshawar and Asad from Lahore. While searching for contributions on Sayyids, I was most of all struck by the one-sided, ‘reductionist’ character of the debate. Even authors who themselves belonged to the Prophet's kin showed a remarkable reluctance to explore the implications of Sayyids’ cosmological or theological status. When the question of Sayyid-ness is touched upon at all, Shiʽi authors instead apply an exclusively legal lens to the issue. This means that we encounter elucidations of financial privileges for Sayyids, rules pertaining to marriage, and general instructions on how to interact with the Prophet's offspring. There is a significant silence, however, with regard to debates on Sayyids’ (potentially) special position with God and their consequent claims to leadership. This lack of any theological consideration or exploration of their esoteric standing is by no means a trivial, purely academic, or farfetched matter. Sayyids are, after all, descendants of both the Prophet and the Shiʽi Imams. Given the elaborate and emotional Shiʽi veneration of the ahl al-bait (family of the Prophet) what does it in turn mean to be attached to their bloodline?Footnote 13 Since many Shiʽi authors highlight the miracle-working capabilities of these “Infallibles” (maʽsumin) and affirm their supernatural status, how does such an illustrious pedigree reflect on the position of Sayyids in Pakistani society and beyond?
In the light of these questions, the main argument of this article can be summed up as follows. I hold that Sayyids are nothing less than a problem, both for Shiʽi reformists and traditionalists figures in the midst of an ongoing, intense struggle over religious authority in Pakistan that has been taking place since the country's inception. Both sides reduce Sayyids to a mere legal category and avoid talking in too detailed terms about any further role that they might have in contemporary society. This is because reformists and traditionalists were (and are) not willing to accept any potential alternative personalities of religious guidance that would have interfered with their specific interpretation of Shiʽism. Sayyids could have potentially constituted such a rival source of influence and guidance.
The model advocated by the reformists reflects the established Shiʽi Usuli scholarly hierarchy, which centres on one or several overarching ‘sources of emulation’ (marajiʽ al-taqlid), who are acknowledged by the common Shiʽis. According to Twelver Shiʽi orthodoxy, the commoners accept one of these Grand Ayatollahs as the ‘most learned’ (aʽlam) and ‘emulate’ him in their daily conduct, thus becoming his muqallids.Footnote 14 This process underlines that Shiʽi authority with its global centres in Iran and Iraq crosses the limits of the nation state and is in most cases a mediated form of religious leadership. For this reason, the representatives of the marajiʽ have come to play an important role as the recipients of religious taxes on behalf of the Grand Ayatollahs and as ‘transmission belts’ of religious rulings during the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.Footnote 15 While representatives and Grand Ayatollahs often are Sayyids, this status is subordinate for the reformists to proper madrasa training and expertise in the field of jurisprudence. Being a Sayyid alone does not grant someone a rank within the scholarly hierarchy. In order to push for their understanding of religious authority, reformists thus had tangible reason to avoid exploring in too much detail what it means to be related to the Prophet in order not to open the floodgates of alternative conceptions.
The traditionalists, on the other hand, were keen to promote direct access to the creational authority of the Shiʽi Imams (vilayat-i takvini), highlighting these—according to Shiʽi belief—divinely ordained successors to the Prophet Muhammad as being preexistent and thus a part of God's ‘first creation’. In the view of these preachers and ʽulama, God was an utterly transcendent being. The removed character of the divinity made it necessary that the Imams acted as mediators between God and humanity. In this effort to ‘democratise’ Shiʽism by launching attacks on the scholarly hierarchy, it was necessary to highlight that all Shiʽis had in effect the same chances of experiencing the Imams’ intervention in their lives as ‘removers of problems’ (mushkilkusha), for example. The only important criterion was the quality of love an individual had for the ahl al-bait. The Prophet and the first eleven Imams had died a this-worldly death but could still be approached while the Twelfth, Hidden Imam, was temporarily in a status of occultation.Footnote 16 Granting special prerogatives to directly approachable, living Sayyids who also carried part of the Prophet's lineage would have meant complicating the traditionalists’ position in their ongoing competition with the reformists to relocate the centre of Shiʽi authority away from the marajiʽ toward the Imams.Footnote 17
Sayyids and the supremacy of the legal discussion
In this section, I will substantiate my claims by demonstrating that there is no significant difference in the characterisations of Sayyids in both ‘reformist’ and ‘traditionalist’ Shiʽi publications in Pakistan since the early 1950s. All authors under consideration here treat Sayyids in a remarkably stable fashion as merely a legal category when discussing their privileges and specific standing in society. This acknowledgment does not translate into granting them any particular social role or even a position of religious influence.
The question of zakat and khums
An important aspect in this regard is that Sayyids are not eligible to receive zakat, the obligatory charity payment in Islam, from non-Sayyid Muslims. The reformist figure Muhammad Husain al-Najafi Dhakko marshalled in the early 1960s the Shiʽi scholarly tradition to underline this position, quoting the fourteenth-century scholar al-ʽAllamah al-Hilli (d. 1325).Footnote 18 Dhakko pointed out the unanimous ban on any non-Sayyid Muslims from handing over their zakat to a Sayyid if this was paid on wealth (mal) or in conjunction with the Feast of Breaking the Fast (ʽid al-fitr).Footnote 19 The Pakistani scholar did not provide a detailed rational for his reasoning. He only attributed this impermissibility to the “greatness and exaltedness” (ʽazmat o jalala) of the Sayyids. Yet, in relying on such vague adjectives, Dhakko definitely went further than many other contributions in ʽulama-led periodicals, which referred in a matter of fact tone to Sayyids without any additional qualifications or embellishments.Footnote 20 While some religious scholars, notably also the Iraqi Muhsin al-Hakim (d. 1970), the leading global mujtahid of the 1960s, made room for certain exceptional obligatory payments that could be transferred to the Prophet's kin, Dhakko preferred to refrain “out of caution” (ihtiyat se) from allowing these donations to be accepted by the “great Sayyids” (sadat-i ʽizam).Footnote 21 This restriction did explicitly not apply to voluntary contributions. Dhakko quoted several sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, who had emphasised that on the Last Day he would certainly reward such voluntary acts of kindness and generosity (ihsan, neki, aʽmal-i khair) towards his descendants (ba-ruz-i qiyamat use ki mukafat dunga).Footnote 22
The reformist journal al-Hujjat, published from Peshawar by Mirza Safdar Husain al-Mashhadi (d. 1980), followed a similar line of reasoning.Footnote 23 It underlined the divinely prescribed character of khums (lit. the fifth), the tax of 20 per cent on their income that observing Shiʽis are supposed to pay. This special contribution ensured that “the Muhammadan movement can be successful and that the mission of the ahl al-bait can make progress” (ki uske zariʽe tahrik-i muhammadiyya kamiyab ho sakti [sic] aur ahl-i bait ka mission taraqqi kar sakta hai).Footnote 24Khums was subdivided into two equal portions. The first, termed the “portion of the Sayyids” (sahm al-sadat), was supposed to provide material and financial assistance to poor members of the Prophet's kin in lieu of the zakat.Footnote 25 The second half, called the “portion of the Imam” (sahm al-Imam), was earmarked for tasks such as “spreading religion” (din ki tausiʽ o ishaʽat) and the propagation of the shariʽa.Footnote 26 Importantly, the distribution of the funds was supposed to be channelled through the hands of a proper Source of Emulation and his representatives. The mujtahid was free to spend the “portion of the Imam” according to his own discretion.Footnote 27Al-Hujjat cautioned that it was not up to the Shiʽi community to take a shortcut to this centralised collection of khums. Shiʽis were not allowed to rely on their “self-made” and independent estimate when distributing their mandatory charitable contributions.Footnote 28 As Muhammad Husain al-Najafi Dhakko put it, to discharge of one's khums in this way without receiving a proper receipt and lacking suitable oversight could be compared to conducting one's obligatory daily prayers without paying attention to how often one bowed down.Footnote 29 Shiʽi organisations in Pakistan, such as the Imamia Mission in Lahore, pointed out that several Iranian and Iraqi had authorised them to collect (and spend) the funds on their behalf.Footnote 30
Such arguments were not exchanged on a mere theoretical plane, void of any practical implications for Pakistan's Shiʽi community. Some traditionalist scholars openly challenged the mujtahids’ prerogatives. Starting from the 1950s, they made a front against the collection of khums on behalf of the marajiʽ. Muhammad Ismaʽil (d. 1976), an influential convert from Deobandi Islam and known in the Shiʽi community as muballigh-i aʽzam (the Greatest Preacher), went into full attack mode. In a series of articles published in his journal Sadaqat, Ismaʽil argued that this religious tax was the exclusive right of needy Sayyids.Footnote 31 He was in particular opposed to using the khums to fund new madrasas.Footnote 32 A similar approach can be discerned in Mirza Yusuf Husain's (d. 1988) work Kitab al-khums, which appeared after Muhammad Ismaʽil's contributions.Footnote 33 Mirza Yusuf Husain held that the aim of khums was primarily to satisfy the requirements of those Sayyids who were orphans, poor or travelling.Footnote 34 In case the sahm al-sadat was not sufficient to meet their specific needs, it was obligatory on the Imam to tap into “his” portion in order to provide the remaining funds. As a next step, he was obliged to take into view the ordinary struggling Muslims. Since he was the Imam of the entire ummah and held far-reaching responsibilities for its welfare (sari ummat ke imam hain aur sari ummat ke zimmadariyan aur hava'ij un se vabastah hain), it was mandatory for him to also step in should the zakat collection for non-Sayyids prove to be insufficient.Footnote 35 Only if his kin and his other “slaves” had been provided for, was there room to invest in religious education, preaching or purchasing weapons for defence against enemies of the faith.Footnote 36 This logic, according to Mirza Yusuf Husain, would continue to apply during the Occultation, which had commenced with the Twelfth Imam's final inaccessibility in 941.Footnote 37 Husain did not express a controversial statement when claiming that the Imam's role during this time had been transferred to the ʽulama. He qualified this mainstream view, however, by insisting that the scholars were only qualified to act as representatives if they did not give in to their own desires, remained obedient to God, and would not divert the khums to their personal benefit.Footnote 38
These attempts to redefine Shiʽi charity were barely disguised efforts by traditionalist scholars to defend their dominating position in the Shiʽi community, which hinged in particular on their grip on Shiʽi mourning ceremonies. This position would have faced significant challenges if more ʽulama were educated in khums-funded reformist madrasa and continued their studies in Iran and Iraq, a phenomenon that saw a significant increase from the 1960s.Footnote 39 At the time of Partition, traditionalists had still largely dominated the Shiʽi scene in Pakistan because many influential Usuli scholars had stayed behind in India where the overwhelming majority of the subcontinent's Shiʽi educational institutions were located.
Since substantial amounts of money are involved, the controversy did not die down until the early 2000s. While not attacking the well-established and divinely sanctioned concept of khums per se, traditionalist authors continue to criticise the ‘evil’ practice of even non-Sayyid mutjahids to collect the funds on behalf of the Prophet's kin.Footnote 40 These ‘miserable people’ (badbakht) not only claim for themselves the power to certify who can be regarded as a descendant of the Prophet. They also further ‘violate’ the Sayyids’ self-esteem (ʽizzat-i nafs ko majruh kiya jata hai) by making them queue for their sahm. Sayyids would only receive extremely trivial amounts of charity instead of having substantial aid delivered directly to their doors.Footnote 41 Reformist authors, in turn, keep voicing their rejection of the practice that khums changes hands informally and without any accountability. In their eyes, the popular preachers are the main beneficiaries of these funds, instead of the proper group, namely the descendants of the Prophet.Footnote 42 Yet, we once again notice a surprising lack of detail. Regardless of the passionate tone of these clashes, none of the two sides have elaborated further on the precise nature of Sayyids’ distinctiveness. It remains entirely unclear what their differing charity treatment should imply beyond the invocation of vague notions of honour and respect.Footnote 43 For both sides, the Sayyids’ entitlement to the fifth was predominantly a legal problem.
The problem of marriages
The question of whether Sayyids could marry non-Sayyids is a further issue discussed in Shiʽi publications. The traditionalist journal Zulfiqar in November 1988 lambasted the ruling by a Hanafi mufti (religious legal expert) in Pakistan. The scholar had issued a legal opinion in favour of such a union, arguing that a ban was in violation of the Quʼran, the sunna, and the unequivocal opinion of Hanafi fuqaha (jurisprudents).Footnote 44 The journal fundamentally disagreed. Zulfiqar in its answer drew exclusively on Sunni sources and argued that there was no equivalence and compatibility (kafa'a) in marriage between a female Sayyida (sayyidzadi) and a non-Sayyid.Footnote 45 The reason for this unsuitability was once again not further specified but came down mostly to the issue of obligatory charity (sadaqa) that was not permissible for her as a sign of distinction. A further fact that set a Sayyida apart was that her period (mahwari) would continue to recur until she was sixty years old, as compared to ordinary women, who usually entered the menopause at the age of fifty. The author of the article, Sayyid Zuhur al-Hasan Kauthari, made the case that his argument was built solidly on the Sunni tradition. He quoted inter alia Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 1505), who had suggested that there was no compatibility between the Prophet and his family, on the one hand, and the remainder of creation, on the other (la yukafi'him fi-l-nikah ahad min al-khalq).Footnote 46
For the reformists, this issue does not seem to have played a significant role. Muhammad Husain al-Najafi Dhakko and others insisted that Pakistan's Shiʽi community needed to fundamentally reform its marriage ceremonies. In their view, these occasions betrayed too many ‘Hindu’ as well as reprehensible Western influences related to dress, singing, and mixing of the sexes. Weddings were also celebrated with undue pomp and circumstances. Yet, the reformists did not address the question of Sayyids marrying non-Sayyids at all.Footnote 47 Without further evidence, we can only speculate that this silence perhaps reflects a reluctance to spell out why Sayyids were set apart regarding their kafa'a in the first place. Be that as it may, intervening in this field was clearly not a priority for the reformists who boldly fought on many fronts related to custom and belief.
A similarly one-sided elaboration, even though this time with regard to silence on the traditionalist side, becomes visible if we consider further discussions on the necessity to honour Sayyids qua their genealogical lineage. The pioneering reformist figure Husain Bakhsh Jara (d. 1990) put it rather bluntly, asking what necessity was there at all for providing an elaborate reasoning that “ʽAli's children” should be treated with esteem? Since they are related by blood to the Prophet, there was simply no possible objection to the “duty of respect” (ihtiram ke vujub).Footnote 48 In January 1963, the journal al-Muballigh carried the legal opinion that expressing one's respect for the Prophet's kin functioned in an analogous fashion to the Islamic principle that Muslims should honour their fathers and mothers, even if they did not practice their faith, or had not (yet) converted to Islam at all.Footnote 49 This obedience to one's parents only found its limit in actions that would turn the daughter or son into a polytheist. In the same vein, even a non-practicing (be ʽamal) Sayyid who skirted fundamental obligations such as praying and fasting did not lose his status as being related to the Prophet. He still deserved being honoured (tauqir o taʻzim ka istihqaq rakhta hai) by non-Sayyids.Footnote 50 Muhammad Husain al-Najafi Dhakko relied on a hadith discussed by the Safavid scholar Mir Damad (d. 1631) to underline this point. The Prophet had compared those among his descendants who displayed a pious and good conduct (salih o nik kirdar) to the clear verses of the Qurʼan (muhkamat).Footnote 51 It was necessary to both respect and also follow them as sources of prosperity (najah o falah). Those Sayyids who manifested corruption (talih o bad kirdar), by contrast, were like the abrogated verses of the Qurʼan (ayat-i mansukhah).Footnote 52 While they should still be honoured (taʻzim o takrim), it was impermissible to apply these verses to one's life. Yet, in typical fashion, the author avoided talking about the precise meaning of this status or what it would mean to “follow” the Sayyids or to be “obedient” to them. Instead, he once again made the (circular) argument that the distinction could be inferred from their differing treatment as far as zakat and khums are concerned.Footnote 53 The issue was not really clarified by further references to Muhammad b. Yaqub al-Kulaini's (d. 941) Shiʽi hadith collection Usul al-Kafi. In this work, we find traditions that Sayyids are held to stricter standards by God. They receive a double punishment for sins and a double reward for good deeds. While thus opening the door for respect, al-Muballigh tried at the same time to dispel any notion that this would imply the necessity for public veneration or even a position of religious authority exerted by Sayyids. The article made it clear that Sayyids were not allowed to cash in on their special status and demand being honoured by their fellow human beings.Footnote 54 Instead, they should take heed of the example set by the fourth Shiʽi Imam, Zain al-ʽAbidin (d. 713). When he embarked on the hajj, he always chose to travel with “foreign” pilgrims, who were unaware of his identity. This way, he could also contribute the labour of his hands and eat with the other pilgrims without them making any special accommodations for him.Footnote 55
In a comparable vein, an article in Payam-i ʽAmal in September 1978 underlined that Islam indeed acknowledges the importance of both hasab (personal achievement) and nasab (genealogy).Footnote 56 According to this contribution, young Pakistanis who are only nominally Muslim but rather fully emulate the West (mazhab-i maghrib ki kuranah-i taqlid karne vale nau javan) promoted instead the idea of absolute equality and thus fell prey to a discredited concept that had already been pushed by the Umayyad dynasty to sideline the ahl al-bait.Footnote 57 The author instead made the case for Islam's differing understanding of equality in society. The latter pertained to uniformity of rights (huquq ki jaksaniyyat) and attempts to “lift up” debased people to an acceptable moral standard. Yet, a truly religious society could calmly and generously embrace the existence of certain “categories [of people] who obtain high levels, (in tabaqon jo buland darajat par fa'iz hain)”. This elite should not be brought down to the level of vile (past) human beings. Instead, Islam accepted their honour (sharaf) without the slightest envy.Footnote 58 The article reminded its readers that Sayyids were not singled out due to their own achievements but rather as descendants to whom other rules applied, the ban on zakat among them. Drawing on modern principles of science (science usulon ki roshni men), the piece went on to add some more contemporary arguments by claiming that European researchers confirmed the importance of genetically transmitted and hence inherited qualities.Footnote 59 In case of the Banu Hashim, it was their outstanding bravery that had originated with ʽAli and continued to be handed down from generation to generation.Footnote 60 Yet, the author was quick to point out that Sayyids could never rest on their genetic laurels alone. In order to really deserve being honoured, they were required to repent from their sins and reform their ways. He encouraged Sayyids to present such an impressive example of high morals that “the world itself would be forced to think of us [the Shiʽi Muslims], due to our relations [with the Sayyids and hence the Prophet]” (keh dunya khud hamari nisbaton se hamen yad karne par majbur ho ja'e) and that, consequently, Muhammad's name would be illuminated.Footnote 61
Several examples of physical distinctions such as the female period and bravery notwithstanding, the concept of Sayyids and their esoteric and exoteric standing remains curiously ill-defined in the material examined. The authors, writing during a period of more than fifty years, are all in agreement that Sayyids are direct descendants of the ahl al-bait. Reformist and traditionalist authors do not seem to be willing, however, to venture beyond very vague notions of honouring Sayyids or spelling out the extent of their leadership for the Shiʽi community. Why is this the case? I suggest that the key to make sense of this phenomenon has to be sought within the intense struggle over the question of religious authority in Pakistan, as the next section will demonstrate in some detail.
Two alternative forms of religious authority
I would like to argue that Sayyids constituted a veritable problem for reformists and traditionalists alike. The inception of Pakistan gave rise to an intense competition within Shiʽi Islam, which led both camps to eagerly bolster their particular conceptions of religious authority. In each of these typologies, there was no room for descendants of the Prophet as alternative centres. The reformists, for example, operated with a four-fold differentiation of the Shiʽi community (qaum), as an article in al-Muballigh from 1968 demonstrates.Footnote 62 The periodical distinguished the simple believers (ʽamm muʼminin), who have imbibed from their childhood the principles of religion (usul-i din). Their faith was to a significant extent built on emotional appeal and their love for the ahl al-bait. They attended Shiʽi mourning sessions (majalis) and were moved by narrations of the virtues (fada'il) and afflictions (masa'ib) of the Shiʽi Imams.Footnote 63 Second, there was the group of the popular preachers, the zakirs and waʽizin. They fulfilled the crucial service of leading these majalis (Shiʽi mourning gatherings) and elucidating the precise roles and life histories of the ahl al-bait.Footnote 64 Third, we also find a further group of essentially political leaders of the qaum. Their task was to protect the Shiʽi community by fighting for its rights against infringements on behalf of the government. They were supposed to ensure, for example, that Shiʽi religious education was provided for in the school curriculum.Footnote 65 Finally, however, there was the most important group, the teachers in religious schools and the great mujtahids. This transnational community of scholars in both Pakistan and the Middle East laid the cornerstone of Islam since they made it clear to all other three groups what the boundaries of permissible (halal) and impermissible (haram) actions were. They thus constructed the edifice of the shariʽa, in which Shiʽi piety and its more emotional aspects could safely operate, and dug the well from which all others drank.Footnote 66 The journal al-Hujjat had—a couple of years earlier—approached this issue with an even more hierarchical typology. It made the case that in each age only one overarching marjiʽ al-taqlid existed. This outstanding personality was the head of a tightly-organised network of representatives (wukala). These men, ideally mujtahids themselves, had exclusive duties for each region of the globe and functioned in this setting as leaders for the Shiʽis. Below them, the journal located those religious scholars who had not yet reached the level of ijtihad but could be trusted in transmitting legal rulings. The popular preachers took the lowest rank in this pyramid. As we see, once again religious learning and shariʽa-focused competence is the main currency in this context. There is no room envisioned for Sayyids qua Sayyids, meaning without madrasa training, nor is their (potential) role discussed at all.Footnote 67
For the traditionalists, by contrast, the pinnacle of authority was not the mujtahid of the age, who was supposedly the representative of the Hidden Imam in the Usuli understanding. Instead, proponents of this camp made the case that the Occultation of the Twelfth Shiʽi Imam did not mean that the ahl al-bait were no longer accessible.Footnote 68 Such an approach comes to the fore in a speech that Aqil Turabi (d. 2009), second son of the famous poet and majlis leader Rashid Turabi (d. 1973), held in April 1982. He had just been elected as the new president of the Imamia Council, a body that considered itself to be a traditionalist counterpart to the Tahrik-i Nifaz-i Fiqh-i Jaʽfariyya (TNFJ). The TNFJ was the main organisation of Pakistani Shiʽi political activism during the 1980 and led by ʽulama who were inspired by the Iranian Revolution. The TNFJ president Mufti Jaʽfar Husain (d. 1983) won a decisive Shiʽi victory in early 1980. He had steadfastly opposed the Pakistani government's attempt at deducting zakat directly from bank accounts.Footnote 69 As an expression of Mufti Jaʽfar's authority, the crowd addressed him at rallies with slogans such as “Ek hi qa'id, ek hi rahbar, Mufti Jaʽfar, Mufti Jaʽfar” (Only one leader [qa'id, Arabic], only one leader [rahbar, Persian], Mufi Jaʽfar, Mufti Jaʽfar).Footnote 70 Aqil Turabi deliberately rejected such terms. He implored his audience that they should never call him with either designation. The only qa'id or rahbar worthy of such an address was ʽAli b. Abi Talib, the first Shiʽi Imam. Turabi called him the shahanshah-i vilayat mushkilkusha, the King of Kings of the Guardianship, the Solver of Problems. Besides him, there was no other leader.Footnote 71 Similarly, the contemporary Karachi-based zakir Sayyid Zamir Akhtar Naqvi relies on Urdu poetry to express ʽAli's exaltedness:
Traditionalist publications repeatedly pointed out that the Imams only outwardly appeared to us in human form. In reality, they were of a different substance altogether, created out of light and preexistent.Footnote 73 Such a view is intimately connected with the esoteric notion of the Imams’ “creational guardianship” (vilayat-i takvini). According to this view, God had delegated far-reaching powers over creation to the Infallibles. Human beings could not directly approach God since He was the absolute other, an utterly transcendent being. The Imams, by contrast, were approachable by all and served as the crucial connection (vasila) between the Creator and his creation. Some went even so far as to claim that the true originators of our earthly existence were the Imams themselves because God had even delegated this task.Footnote 74 The influential Shiʽi preacher and former member of the Council of Islamic Ideology Sayyid Irfan Haidar ʽAbidi (d. 1998) did not openly adopt such an extreme position.Footnote 75 He confirmed that God is the creator but stressed that the ahl al-bait had real power. While God's true self was hidden, His nature was revealed through the Prophet Muhammad and his descendants (makhfi zat us ki magar zahir ho Muhammad o Al-i Muhammad […] ke zariʽe). Among these, it was the Imams who provided proper guidance and intervened in the world on their own authority.Footnote 76 To foreground their views, traditionalist authors in Pakistan relied heavily on Shiʽi hadith material, which amply confirms the supernatural abilities of the Imams. According to these sources, the Imams are inter alia conversant in all language, leave no trace when walking over soft soil, and cast no shadow.Footnote 77 Pakistani writers claimed that the Sixth Imam, Jaʽfar al-Sadiq (d. 765), had confirmed that ʽAli would show himself to every child on the planet and visit every dying human being—he had this power according to God's decision (yeh taqat ba-hukm-i khuda maujud hai).Footnote 78 For the believers facing death, the vision of ʽAli would be glad tidings and would enable them to face their mortality in a calm and peaceful manner.Footnote 79 With their miracle working powers, the maʽsumin (Infallibles) were thus highly responsive to human suffering. The polemicist Bashir Ansari (d. 1983), for example, laid out in detail how his trust in the Imams’ intervention, in combination with uttering the heartfelt words of Ya ʽAli madad (Help, oh ʽAli), had protected his sons in the midst of a terrible accident, had healed one of his children from gout, and had caused a dangerous tumour in his throat to retreat without him having to go through the therapy advised by foreign-educated doctors.Footnote 80 These interventions, it is important to point out, do not hinge on the fact of whether the supplicant who implores the Shiʽi Imams is a Sayyid or not. Bashir Ansari himself was not of this rank.
Given his conceptualisation of the Imams, Bashir Ansari also advocated for a different hierarchy among scholars. Ansari put gnostic knowledge (maʽrifa) center stage. Accordingly, those ʽulama who only dealt with purely legal questions such as khums, zakat, or purity were inferior to those—such as he himself—who paid attention to God's unicity (tawhid), the mission of the Prophets and the Imams, as well as their authority (wilaya):
In the same way, the faqih who has attained a high position in the branches (furuʽ) of religion and has already reached the highest level of ijtihad and extraction (istinbat) is inferior compared to the scholar who is fully conversant (ʽubur hasil hai) with questions of the articles of faith (ʽaqai'd), belief (iman), and the principles of religion (usul-i din) .[ The latter is the one] who shows through his knowledge the way of truth (rah-i haqq) to those who are lost. He also inflicts a defeat on the enemies of God and the Prophet and the opponents of the pure Imams (on them be peace). The branches of religion have only been made obligatory (vajib) for this reason that through them the foundations of religion are remembered (yad tazah rahe). Therefore, the ʽulama of gnostic knowledge (ʽulama’-i maʽrifat) are several stages better than the ʽulama of religious rituals (ʽulama’-i ʽamal).Footnote 81
Sayyids had no space or role in such an alternative ranking. For this reason, they should regard the Hidden Imam as their “tribal chief”, who shared their rights. They should direct their own veneration to him under the guidance of the esoterically-minded ʽulama, whom al-Zaman did not require to be Sayyids themselves.Footnote 82
To underline the fact that even a fervent veneration of the Imams does not preclude this-worldly political activism, we also find traditionalist voices that connect the achievement of Pakistan in an intimate fashion with the Infallibles. They emphasise that passionate love for the Imams can unleash real consequences on the ground, without conceding, however, that Sayyids would be playing any role in this regard either. The traditionalist scholars try to refute the accusation that their ‘apolitical’ worldview would imply passivity during the time of the Occultation, with them being focused only bloody mourning ceremonies.Footnote 83 In presenting themselves as activists, too, they sought to reclaim the original idea of Pakistan as Shiʽi utopia and thus to challenge Sunni sectarian actors, who aim at turning Shiʽis into a non-Muslim minority. Such a step would, among other forms of discrimination, exclude Shiʽis from the collective reasoning of what Pakistan should mean for the South Asia and the world.Footnote 84 Arguments about the Imams’ political salience become visible in the recollections of Sayyid Hakim Mahmud Gilani, a former Ahl-i Hadith activist and editor of the group's journal for almost thirty years.Footnote 85 In 1958, he converted to Shiʽi Islam and became a prolific pro-Shiʽi voice until his death on 1 August 1982.Footnote 86 Gilani recalled that before the 1946 elections in the Punjab, the prospects for victory at the ballot box grew increasingly dimmer for the Muslim League (ML). The party faced the combined opposition of the Ahrar, the Congress and the Unionists.Footnote 87 The ML leadership, now in full panic mode, decided to completely revamp its message only a couple of days before election day.Footnote 88 Gilani remembered one campaign event in particular, held in the city of Sargodha. Present back then were the journalist Zafar Ali Khan (d. 1956) along with other important members of the League, such as Mian Mumtaz Daultana (d. 1995) and Iftikhar Husain Nawab Mamdot (d. 1969), who all repeated basically the ‘same speech’. These non-Shiʽi figures decided to pitch their message in a rather explicit Imami way. They equated the confrontation between the Muslim League and her opponents with the conflict between the Umayyad Caliph Yazid b. Muʽawiya (d. 683) and Husain. The context of Karbala meant that Islam as a whole had faced an extremely dangerous juncture. Through his brave fight and martyrdom, Husain had managed to save the religion of his grandfather from being overwhelmed by unbelief (kufr). Today, Muslims in the subcontinent during this “most critical time” (is naziktarin vaqt men) were supposedly confronted with an equally stark choice and threat. They were required to give their support to Husain and hence to God himself. The ML representatives delved even more deeply in Shiʽi tradition, which holds up the bravery of ʽAli's daughter Zainab (d. 681) in confronting Yazid after she was marched to Damascus along with other captives from Karbala.Footnote 89 At the rally in Sargodha, the Muslim Leaguers called on the people to face the enemies of the League, whom they equated with enemies of religion itself, with the same faith-filled hearts as Zainab had exemplified in her encounter with the Caliph. Her conviction had made him tremble: “Oh sons and daughters of Islam! If you want to preserve the special religion (din-i mutaʽayyin) of Husain and Zainab and aim at being assured to see it blossom, then be obedient to Husain and Zainab! Make the Muslim League successful and help her to bring about Pakistan!”.Footnote 90 In Gilani's estimate, this new strategy helped to turn around the League's desperate situation and made Pakistan an unexpected reality. The tremendous religious passion unleashed in this way outmanoeuvred the League's opponents, even though they were ‘spending money like water’.Footnote 91 Pakistan was, hence, not built on an abstract, generic idea of Islam but established in the name of Husain and Zainab. This way, its Muslim inhabitants can today “breath freely”.Footnote 92 The potential for political mobilisation that Gilani attributes to widespread veneration of the ahl al-bait is remarkable. While recent revisionist accounts have shown that the discourse of the ML was much more infused with religious rhetoric than previously acknowledged, the focus has so far been on uncompromising Sunni figures, such as the Deobandi scholar Shabbir Ahmad ʽUsmani (d. 1949).Footnote 93 His narrow and sectarian conception of Hanafi Islam that should rule supreme in future Pakistan unnerved Shiʽis in Bombay and Lucknow.Footnote 94 Yet, there are no other accounts of which I am aware that have stressed a particular utilisation of Shiʽi symbols tapping into the cross-sectarian devotion to the Imams and the ahl al-bait in the run-up to Partition.Footnote 95 What we can perhaps glean from this substantial ‘Imamophilia’ is that both reformists and traditionalists were aware of the religious (and political) force of these ideas. Both camps were eager to channel these expressions of piety towards the ʽulama or the Imams, respectively. They thus pre-empted the Sayyids themselves from potentially cashing in on the ‘clout’ of a direct affiliation with the ahl al-bait held in the Punjab and beyond.
These deeply-held convictions regarding the political potentials of the Imams and the love for the Prophet's kin bring me in this concluding section to a quote by Kazuo Morimoto. In his pioneering works on Sayyids and Sharifs in Muslim societies, Morimoto has investigated accounts of a dream in which Sayyids feature prominently. He draws the following conclusion:
Thus, just as the holy figures of the Prophet's family are presented as capable of intervening in the affairs of the stories' present-day events through dreams, sayyids/sharīfs are depicted as being able to prompt such ancestral interventions. It is this idea of the existence of a trans-temporal supernatural circuit between sayyids/sharīfs and their holy and affectionate forebears in all later times that underpins the edifying stories.Footnote 96
But, as we have seen in the context of Pakistan, no such notions come to the fore in the material that I have investigated. Sayyids there are not credited with providing any particular shortcut to divine intervention. I have argued that both reformists and traditionalists have avoided talking about any theological or miracle-working role of the Prophet's kin. Instead, both sides have discussed Sayyids merely as a distinct legal category to which its own criteria apply as far as charity, marriage or honouring is concerned. I hold that this reductionist and legalising reading of Sayyids has to do with the intense competition over religious authority in post-Partition Pakistan. For both traditionalist and reformist Shiʽi authors, ʽulama, and preachers, there was no room to acknowledge Sayyids as potential further competitors in their efforts to convince the Shiʽi public about the proper ‘orthodoxy’ of their specific views.