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Experiments with Khomeini's Revolution in Kargil: Contemporary Shi‘a networks between India and West Asia*


Shi‘i scholars from India have been a sizeable presence in seminaries in Iran and Iraq, both historically and today. Yet there is a dearth of scholarship on Shi‘i linkages between India and West Asia, with the exception of historical work on the patronage of shrine cities in Iraq by centres of Shi‘ism in India. Departing from this geographical and historical focus, this paper lends insight into contemporary religious networks between India and West Asia, using the example of the Twelver Shi‘a in Kargil, a region located on India's ‘border’ with Pakistan in the province of Kashmir. Kargili scholars travelled overland via Afghanistan or by sea from Bombay to Basra to study in seminaries in Iraq and Iran from the nineteenth century onwards. Increasing fluency in Urdu in post-colonial India enabled them to connect with Shi‘i institutions in other parts of India, which mediate religious, cultural, and financial flows from a transnational Shi‘ite realm. These networks of religious learning are not only conduits for the transmission of textual, doctrinal knowledge, but also for politico-religious ideologies that are selectively harnessed, and often exaggerated, to effect significant social and political changes in micro-locales. While local conflicts are over-determined by the evocation of transnational links, they also reflect, even if only through rhetorical and partial reproduction, doctrinal and politico-religious schisms among Shi‘i leaders in West Asia. This is illustrated by an ethnographic account of the activities undertaken and contestations provoked by the Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust in Kargil, a modernist reform movement that has selectively appropriated Khomeini's revolutionary ideologies to instigate social change and shape local politics and religious practice in Kargil.

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This paper draws on fieldwork conducted in Kargil between 2007 and 2011. I thank all those quoted for sharing their knowledge with me.

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1 Bashir, Shahzad, Messianic Hopes and Mystical Visions: The Nurbakhshiya between Medieval and Modern Islam (University of South Carolina Press: South Carolina, 2003); and Bray, John (ed.), Ladakhi Histories: Local and Regional Perspectives (Brill: Leiden, Boston, 2005).

2 Metcalf, Barbara D., Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband 1860–1900 (Oxford University Press: New Delhi, 2002), p. 19.

3 A renowned master in the area was Shaykh Ali of Brolmo, a village that now lies in Pakistan.

4 Urdu came to be taught and thus understood widely in this region only after the introduction of government schools in post-colonial India.

5 Jones, Justin, Shi‘a Islam in Colonial India: Religion, Community and Sectarianism (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2012), p. 34.

6 In Kargil clerics trained in Iraq or Iran can be recognized by their white turbans. Referred to as ‘shaykhs’, they are accorded a higher position in the local religious hierarchy. Clerics educated locally or in other parts of India are referred to as ‘akhunds’.

7 Marsiyas are elegies. Qasīdas are poems in praise of the Prophet, his family, and the lineage of Imams.

8 Devji, Faisal, Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity (Hurst: London, 2005); Cole, Juan, Roots of North Indian Shi‘ism in Iran and Iraq: Religion and State in Awadh, 1722–1859 (University of California Press: Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1988).

9 Cole, Roots of North Indian Shi‘ism in Iran and Iraq.

10 Cole, Juan, ‘“Indian Money” and the Shrine Cities of Iraq, 1786–1850’, Middle Eastern Studies, 22:4 (1986), pp. 461480.

11 Robinson, Francis, The ‘Ulama of Farangi Mahal and Islamic Culture in South Asia (Permanent Black: Delhi, 2001), p. 25.

12 There has been a recent surge in scholarship on Shi'a transnationalism. However, much of this literature focuses on the Middle East and Africa. See, for example, Deeb, Lara, Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi‘i Lebanon (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2006), and ‘Piety, Politics, and the Role of Transnational Feminist Analysis’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S), S112–116 (2009); Louėr, Laurence, Shia Politics: Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf (Columbia University Press: New York, 2008); Pinto, Paula, ‘Pilgrimage, Commodities, and Religious Objectification: The Making of Transnational Shi‘ism between Iran and Syria’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 27:1 (2007), pp. 109125; Shaery-Eisenlohr, Roschanack, Shi‘ite Lebanon: Transnational Religion and the Making of National Identities (Columbia University Press: New York, 2008); Valeri, Marc, ‘High Visibility, Low Profile: The Shi‘a in Oman under Sultan Qaboos’, International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 42 (2010), pp. 251268. For work on Pakistan and Afghanistan, see, Zuzanna Olszewska, ‘Poetry and its Social Context Among Afghan Refugees in Iran’, DPhil thesis, University of Oxford, 2009; Sakurai, Kieko, ‘Women's Empowerment and Iranian-style Seminaries in Iran and Pakistan’, in Sakurai, Kieko and Adelkhah, Fariba (eds), The Moral Economy of the Madrasa (Routledge: London and New York, 2011); Zahab, Abou Mariam, ‘The Regional Dimension of Sectarian Conflicts in Pakistan’, in Jaffrelot, Christophe (ed.), Pakistan: Nationalism Without a Nation? (Manohar Publishers: New Delhi, 2002); Zaman, Muhammad Qasim, ‘Sectarianism in Pakistan: The Radicalization of Shi‘i and Sunni Identities’, Modern Asian Studies, 32: 3 (1998), pp. 689716.

13 Jones, Shi'a Islam in Colonial India, p. 142.

14 Nakash, Yitzhak, The Shi‘is of Iraq (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1994), p. 4; Meir, Litvak, Shi‘i Scholars of Nineteenth-century Iraq: The ‘ulama of Najaf and Karbala (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1998).

15 In 2009 there were approximately 1,000 students from India studying in Iran, of whom 120 were from Kargil. (This is a rough estimate provided by a Kargili scholar in Qum, 2009.)

16 The recognition of a scholar as a mujtahid is sparingly accorded. On dars al-kharij and the seminary curriculum, see Fischer, Michael J., Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution (University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, 1980); Mervin, Sabrina, ‘The Clerics of Jabal ‘Āmil and the Reform of Religious Teaching in Najaf Since the Beginning of the 20th Century’, in Brunner, R. and Werner, (eds), The Twelver Shia in Modern Times (Brill: Leiden, Boston, Koln, 2001); Mottahedeh, Roy, The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran (Oneworld Publications: Oxford, 2005; originally published 1985).

17 This information is based on interviews with Kargili scholars in Qum in 2009.

18 The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in Iran, created in 1987, established cultural bureaus separate from the Iranian embassies in certain countries like India and Lebanon to foster cultural exchange. These centres became conduits for the ‘cultural politics’ of post-revolution Iran. Shaery-Eisenlohr, Shi‘ite Lebanon, p. 161.

19 Esposito, John (ed.), The Iranian Revolution: Its Global Impact (Florida International University Press: Miami, 1990), pp. 3, 31.

20 Fischer, Michael J. and Abedi, Mehdi, Debating Muslims: Cultural Dialogues in Postmodernity and Tradition (University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, Wisconsin, 1990), p. 156; Farhang Rajahee, ‘Iranian Ideology and Worldview: The Cultural Export of the Revolution’, in Esposito (ed.), The Iranian Revolution, p. 72; R. K. Ramazani, ‘Iran's Export of the Revolution: Politics, Ends and Means’, , pp. 55–56.

21 Khums is a tax incumbent upon the Shi‘a. It is one-fifth of the income of a person which is left over after all annual living expenses have been met. Khums is divided into two parts: māl-e imam and māl-e sādāt. Māl-e imām is given either to a mosque, imambara or madrasa, or to the local representative of a mujtahid. Māl-e sādāt is given to poor Sayyids (descendants of the family of the Prophet and the Imams).

22 This is particularly striking in Kargil compared to other places in India such as Mumbai, for instance, where some of the more popular clerics are from Uttar Pradesh. Again, the predominance of the local language, rather than the use of Urdu, may partly account for this. Kargili preachers trained in Iran or Iraq continue to impart religious knowledge in Balti or Purigi, dialects of Tibetan.

23 Robinson, Francis, Islam and Muslim History in South Asia (Oxford University Press: New Delhi, 2000), p. 69.

24 With the declaration of the British mandate in Iraq in 1920, senior Shi‘i ‘ulama (clerics) in the shrine cities declared any association with the British to be illicit. See Cole, Juan, Sacred Space and Holy War: The Politics, Culture, and History of Shi'ite Islam (I. B. Tauris: London, 2002), p. 174; In general, the colonial or ‘quasi-colonial’ experience contributed to a resistance to change among ‘ulama. Rahman, Fazlur, Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, London, 1982), p. 63.

25 Zaman, Muhammad Qasim, The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change (Princeton University Press: Princeton, Oxford, 2002).

26 It is important to note that neither Najafi House in Mumbai nor the Iran Cultural Centre in Delhi publicly engage or propagate any Iran vs. Iraq religious politics surrounding the leadership and legitimacy of different ayatollahs.

27 Motahari, Morteza, ‘The Fundamental Problem in the Clerical Establishment’, in Walbridge, Linda S. (ed.), The Most Learned of the Shi‘a: The Institution of the Marja‘i Taqlid (Brill: Leiden, Boston, Koln, 2001), p. 172.

28 Adelkhah, Fariba, ‘Framing the Public Sphere: Iranian Women in the Islamic Republic’, in Salvatore, Armando and Eickelman, Dale (eds), Public Islam and the Common Good (Brill: Leiden, Boston, Koln, 2004), p. 233.

29 This quote refers to Hizabullah's success in forcing Israel to retreat from its occupation of South Lebanon. The example sought to convey that this victory was possible because Nasrallah believed in Khomeini's ideology that politics and religion are inseparable, upon which the concept of the velayat-e faqih is also founded.

30 The Hill Council is a decentralized government body with extensive powers of developmental decision-making and implementation in the district, backed by control over financial resources.

31 Ghorayeb, Amal Saad, Hizbu‘llah: Politics and Religion (Pluto Press: London, Sterling, Virginia, 2002), p. 61.

32 Cole, Juan, The Ayatollahs and Democracy in Iraq. ISIM Paper 7 (Amsterdam University Press: Leiden, 2006), p. 10.

33 This endorsement of Indian secularism is in part shaped by the sectarian violence against the Shi‘a in Pakistan.

34 This is based on research conducted in Mumbai in 2012.

35 Pinault, David, The Shi‘ites: Ritual and Popular Piety in a Muslim Community (I. B. Tauris: London, 1992), pp. 9495.

36 This is not to suggest that the emulation of Shirazi was encouraged over that of Ayatollah Khoi.

37 Metcalf, Barbara D. (ed.), Moral Conduct and Authority: The Place of Adab in South Asian Islam (University of California Press: Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1984).

38 Meir, Shi‘i Scholars of Nineteenth-century Iraq, p. 41.

39 In the women's seminary Bint al-Huda, for example, the completion of a five-year programme structured around a semester system earns a student to a BA degree. Students choose a specialisation after five semesters.

40 A person taking up the study of falsafa cannot become a mujtahid, which requires a specialisation in fiqh and usul. However, a person studying falsafa can get a PhD degree.

41 See <>, [accessed 3 December 2013].

* This paper draws on fieldwork conducted in Kargil between 2007 and 2011. I thank all those quoted for sharing their knowledge with me.

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