Whatever the differences between the manifold movements of Islamic renewal and reform that developed in north India during the second half of the nineteenth century, scholarship has been unanimous in identifying the cataclysmic events of 1856–8 as a defining moment. The annexation of new territory by the East India Company, the removal of the key figureheads of Muslim rule, the seizures of inherited landholdings and the imposition of ‘Western’ education all induced a sense of disenfranchisement and humiliation (zillat) among the Muslim elites of the region, and spurred them to devise new forms of Islam which could endure outside the framework of Muslim political control and state patronage. Yet, while the Rebellion has long been proven collectively important for the Muslims of north India, the case could be made that it was of particular significance for the Shi‘a minority. One of the most significant casualties of the events was Awadh, a Shi‘a-governed princely state which incorporated a swath of north India from 1722 until 1856. As a rich literature on Awadh has shown, not least Juan Cole’s masterful study, the ruling Nawabs, a dynasty of Nishapuri Persian origins, heavily co-opted Shi‘ism as a ‘dominant ideology’ of governance, and an agent of state legitimization. Throughout the early nineteenth century, and in the 1840s–50s in particular, a ‘formal religious establishment’ of Shi‘a clerics and courtiers was built up. Shi‘a cultural, religious and welfare institutions were richly fostered by the state and used to extend its outreach, while a new and increasingly powerful circle of ‘ulama were recruited as jurisconsults and advisers to the Nawabi court. Indelibly associated with Nawabi governance, in much of north India it was Shi‘ism, and the relatively small population that formally identified themselves as adherents of the religion, that was most bound up with the established securities of state patronage and servitude.
The 1856 deposition of Wajid ‘Ali Shah, the final King of Awadh, and the exile of much of his staff to Metiaburj in Bengal, brought to an end one of the world’s most significant post-Safavid Shi‘a kingdoms. Thereafter, with courtly patronage all but dead, the two decades after 1858 proved especially ruinous for Shi‘ism in north India, especially in the city of Lucknow, the former Nawabi capital. The Awadh court was dismantled root and branch by the British, disenfranchizing many of its former advisers, while others were bought off with small pension agreements. The chief mufti (jurist) of the city in the last years of the Nawab’s reign, the exalted scholar Mirza Muhammad ‘Abbas, had his personal library destroyed in the 1857 violence, and was forced into self-imposed exile. The Urdu newspaper Tilism commented that the rites of Muharram, the annual commemorations for the martyred Shi‘a Imam Husain and his family which dominated Lucknow’s municipal calendar, experienced heavy depletion in tandem with the fortunes of the Nawabi elite and the realities of British policing: ‘The doors of fortune are closed. The fire of suffering is at its height. The imambaras (mourning halls) look deserted.’ The city’s largest Shi‘a mosque, the Asafi masjid, and the adjoining Asaf-ud-daula imambara, Lucknow’s most imposing religious building, were converted into British military garrisons, their religious functions shut down; over fifty other city mosques were appropriated to uses including offices, police depots, medical dispensaries and stables for livestock. New land-settlement policies, rewritten in 1858 around principles of perceived ‘loyalty’ to the British Raj, shut off the stipends of inherited land revenue on which many noble Shi‘a families and religious scholars had depended. Meanwhile, with the kings of Awadh no longer representing a solid source of patronage for Shi‘a scholars and preachers, the transnational clerical traffic between Iraq, Persia and India largely evaporated. Visits to India by Arab and Persian scholars, artists and physicians, commonplace under the nawabs, became less so, while the profile of Indian ‘ulama in Shi‘a clerical centres such as Najaf reciprocally dried up.