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Legalised Pedigrees: Sayyids and Shiʽi Islam in Pakistan



This article draws on a wide range of Shiʽi periodicals and monographs from the 1950s until the present day to investigate debates on the status of Sayyids in Pakistan. I argue that the discussion by reformist and traditionalist Shiʽi scholars (ʽulama) and popular preachers has remained remarkably stable over this time period. Both ‘camps’ have avoided talking about any theological or miracle-working role of the Prophet's kin. This phenomenon is remarkable, given the fact that Sayyids share their pedigree with the Shiʽi Imams, who are credited with superhuman qualities. Instead, Shiʽi reformists and traditionalists have discussed Sayyids predominantly as a specific legal category. They are merely entitled to a distinct treatment as far as their claims to charity, patterns of marriage, and deference in daily life is concerned. I hold that this reductionist and largely 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.

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1 See, for example, M. Fayyad, ‘Al-Marjiʻiyya al-shiʻa mundhu “al-ghayba al-kubra” hatta al-Najaf’, al-Sharq al-Awsat (25 March 2005), available at (accessed July 2019). “Throughout this article, I use the established Arabic transliteration for terms such as ‘guardianship’ (wilaya) but render these in their Urdu or Persian form in case they are taken from a particular Urdu text (e.g. vilayat-i takvini, denoting 'creational guardianship).”

2 This is not to say that Bashir Husain Najafi did not have role models to draw on. Both his grandfather and one of his uncles were Shiʻi scholars. On his biographical background, see Naqvi, S. H. ʻA., Tazkirah-i ʽulama’-i imamiyyah-i Pakistan (Mashhad, 1991), pp. 6061. On Najaf's prominent scholarly families and their transnational connections, see Corboz, E., Guardians of Shiʽism. Sacred Authority and Transnational Family Networks (Edinburgh, 2015).

3 Najafi shares this achievement with one further Najaf-based Grand Ayatollah, the Afghan Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayyad. For more information on him, see al-Fayyad's official website (accessed July 2019).

4 Mauriello, R., ‘Genealogical Prestige and Marriage Strategy among the Ahl al-Bayt: The Case of the al-Sadr Family in Recent Times’, in Genealogy and Knowledge in Muslim Societies: Understanding the Past, (eds.) Savant, S. B. and de Felipe, H. (Edinburgh, 2014), p. 134. Compare also Mauriello, R., Descendants of the Family of the Prophet in Contemporary History: A Case Study, the Šīʿī Religious Establishment of al-Naǧaf (Iraq) (Rome, 2011).

5 On the family, see J. Jones, ‘Khandan-i-Ijtihad: Genealogy, History and Authority in a Household of ʽUlama in Modern South Asia’, Modern Asian Studies, published online 28 October 2019, doi: See also for the establishment of Usuli authority in Awadh, , Cole, J., Roots of North Indian Shīʻism in Iran and Iraq. Religion and State in Awadh, 1722–1859 (Berkeley, 1988).

6 Wright, T. P. Jr, ‘The Changing Role of the Sādāt in India and Pakistan’, Oriente Moderno (Nuova Serie), 18, 2 (1999), pp. 656658. Compare also Buehler, A. F., ‘Trends of ashrāfization in India’, in Sayyids and Sharifs in Muslim Societies: the Living Links to the Prophet, (ed.) Morimoto, K. (London, 2012), pp. 231246.

7 In total, Pakistan's fifteenth NA has 342 seats. Of these, 60 are reserved for women and ten for minority representatives. Interestingly, none of the female Muslim deputies has a Sayyid pedigree. See (accessed July 2019).

8 Ibid. For the PPP's strength in Sindh, see (accessed July 2019). In this article, I am not concerned with critically examining the accuracy of claims to Sayyid-ness but simply accept this self-designation as a telling social phenomenon.

9 See Naqvi, Tazkirah-i ʽulama’-i imamiyyah-i Pakistan, pp. cahar-sizdah.

10 See Fuchs, S.W., ‘Third Wave Shiʽism: Sayyid ʽArif Husain al-Husaini and the Islamic Revolution in Pakistan’, Modern Asian Studies 24, 3 (2014), pp. 493510.

11 Roy, O., ‘L'impact de la révolution iranienne au Moyen-Orient,’ in Les mondes chiites et l'Iran, (ed.) Mervin, S. (Paris, 2007), pp. 3445.

12 On him, see Naqvi, Tazkirah-i ʽulama’-i imamiyyah-i Pakistan, pp. 136–137.

13 On Shiʽi rituals and public veneration in a South Asian context, see Schubel, V. J., Religious Performance in Contemporary Islam. Shiʽi Devotional Rituals in South Asia (Columbia, 1993).

14 See Moussavi, A. K., ‘The Establishment of the Position of Marjaʽiyyt-i [sic] Taqlid in the Twelver-Shiʽi Community’, Iranian Studies 18, 1 (1985), pp. 3551.

15 Due to the increased possibility to directly access the marajiʽ even from remote locations, this relationship and the importance of the role of representative is changing of course. For some of these dynamics, see Clarke, M., ‘Neo-Calligraphy: Religious Authority and Media Technology in Contemporary Shiite Islam’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 52, 2 (2010), pp. 351383, and also Corboz, Guardians of Shiʽism, pp. 48–72.

16 This is also the main thrust of reformist critique – namely, that the traditionalists would disregard or even deny essential requirements of the shariʽa. See for such a reasoning, al-Najafi Dhakko, M. H., Islah al-rusum al-zahira bi-kalam al-ʽitra al-tahira al-maʽruf bi asli Islam aur rasmi Islam (Sargodha, 2009), p. 9.

17 For a more detailed discussion of the dimensions of conflict between traditionalists and reformists and the identity of the two ‘camps’, see Rieck, A., The Shias of Pakistan. An Assertive and Beleaguered Minority (London, 2015), pp. 124132, and Fuchs, S.W., In a Pure Muslim Land. Shiʽism between Pakistan and the Middle East (Chapel Hill, 2019), pp. 5394.

18 On Dhakko, see Rieck, The Shias of Pakistan, pp. 129–133. On al-Hilli, see Schmidtke, S., The Theology of al-ʽAllama al-Hilli (d. 726/1325) (Berlin, 1991).

19 Compare also Sachedina, A., ‘Al-Khums: The Fifth in the Imāmī Shīʿī Legal System’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 39, 4 (1980), p. 276.

20 Compare, for example, S. M. Jaʽfar, ‘Khums’, Payam-i ʽAmal 21, 4, (June 1977), pp. 32–33.

21 See M. H. al-Najafi Dhakko, ‘Bab al-istifsarat’, al-Muballigh 6, 9 (October 1962), p. 6. For a similar focus on caution, see S. M. Jaʽfar, ‘ʽAqiqah-i ghair sayyid aur sadat’, al-Muntazar 13, 21–22 (January 1972), p. 23.

22 al-Najafi Dhakko, ‘Bab al-istifsarat’, al-Muballigh 6, 9 (October 1962), p. 7.

23 On Mashhadi, see Fuchs, In a Pure Muslim Land, pp. 104–105.

24 M. Zaman, ‘Khums se ghaflat aur khums hi ki zarurat’, al-Hujjat 3, 2 (February 1963), p. 20.

25 Al-Hujjat thus follows the “standard view of the present day Imāmī mujtahids”. See Sachedina, ‘Al-Khums’, p. 289.

26 Zaman, ‘Khums se ghaflat’, p. 20.

27 Compare also Sachedina, ‘Al-Khums’, p. 288.

28 Zaman, ‘Khums se ghaflat’, p. 24. For similar arguments, see also S. M. Jaʽfar, ‘Payam-i ʽamal men ʽamal ka paigham’, Payam-i ʽAmal 14, 8 (October 1970), pp. 7–8.

29 Al-Najafi Dhakko, Islah al-rusum al-zahira, pp. 136–137.

30Faridah-i khums aur uski ahamiyyat o afadiyyat’, Payam-i ʽAmal 18, 1–2 (March and April 1974), p. 37

31 See A. Rieck, The Shias of Pakistan, pp. 124–125. For more background on Muhammad Ismaʻil, see Naqvi, Tazkirah-i ʽulama’-i Imamiyyah-i Pakistan, pp. 260–264.

32 On the spread of Shiʽi educational institutions in Pakistan, see Kazimi, S. M. Saqalain (ed.), Imamiyyah dini madaris-i Pakistan (Lahore, 2004).

33 The work is not dated but my estimate of its year of publication, based on the book's layout and the haptic perception of its paper, is corroborated by Naqvi, Sayyid ʽArif, Barr-i saghir ke Imamiyyah musannifin ki matbuʽah tasanif aur tarajim (Islamabad, 1997), ii, pp. 2930. On Mirza Yusuf Husain's biography, see Naqvi, Tazkirah-i ʽulama’-i imamiyyah-i Pakistan, p. 393.

34 M. Y. Husain, Kitab al-khums (Mianwali, n. d.), p. 136. This tripartition of deserving groups is related to Q2:215: “They will question thee concerning what they should expend. Say: ‘Whatsoever good you expend is for parents and kinsmen, orphans, the needy, and the traveller; and whatever good you may do, God has knowledge of it’”.

35 Husain, Kitab al-khums, p. 137.

36 Ibid., p. 138.

37 For a more detailed discussion of the intellectual labor that the Shiʽi community invested in conceptually dealing with this development, see Tabtaba'i, H. Modarressi, Crisis and Consolidation in the Formative Period of Shiʽite Islam. Abū Jaʽfar ibn Qiba al-Rāzī and his Contribution to Imāmite Shīʽite Thought (Princeton, 1993).

38 Husain, Kitab al-khums, p. 140.

39 See Rieck, The Shias of Pakistan, pp. 200–201.

40 Zaidi, S. B. Nisar, Kashf al-Haqa'iq (Karachi, 2004), pp. 323324.

41 Ibid., p. 395.

42 ʽAliabadi, S. A. S. Musavi, ʽAqa'id o rusumat-i shiʽah (Karachi, 2004), p. 116, and al-Najafi Dhakko, Islah al-rusum, p. 142.

43Bani Hashim ko sadaqa nahin diya ja sakta’, Zulfiqar 13, 22 (16 July 1984), p. 5.

44 S. Z. al-H. Kauthari, ‘Sayyidzadi ka nikah ghair Sayyid se?’, Zulfiqar 18, 5 (1 November 1988), p. 2. For the social implications in contemporary Pakistan of such views, compare also (accessed July 2019).

45 The term kafaʼa in Islam denotes a wide-ranging parity between future spouses that should encompass equivalence of birth, social status, wealth and professions of husband and father-in-law. Compare Ziadeh, F. J., ‘Equality (kafāʼah) in the Muslim Law of Marriage’, American Journal of Comparative Law 6 (1957), pp. 503517; Siddiqui, M., ‘Law and the Desire for Social Control: an Insight into the Hanafi Concept of Kafaʽa with Reference to the Fatawa ʽAlamgiri (1664–1672)’ in Feminism and Islam: legal and literary perspectives, (ed.) Yamani, M. (Reading, 1996), pp. 4968; Samin, N., ‘Kafāʼa fī l-Nasab in Saudi Arabia: Islamic Law, Tribal Custom, and Social Change’, Journal of Arabian Studies 2, 2 (2012), pp. 109126.

46 Ibid. On al-Suyuti, see Hernandez, R., The Legal Thought of Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī. Authority and Legacy (Oxford, 2017).

47 Al-Najafi Dhakko, Islah al-rusum, pp. 213–224.

48 Jara, H. B., Lumʻat al-anwar fi ʽaqa'id al-abrar, 3rd edition (Sargodha, 1992), pp. 324325. For Jara's biography, see Naqvi, Tazkirah-i ʽulama’-i imamiyyah, pp. 83–85.

49 See M. H. al-Najafi Dhakko, ‘Bab al-Istifsarat’, al-Muballigh 6, 12 (January 1963), p. 36.

50 Ibid.

51 On the muhkamat, see Kinberg, L., ‘Muḥkamāt and Mutashābihāt (Koran 3/7): Implication of a Koranic Pair of Terms in Medieval Exegesis’, Arabica 35, 2 (1988), pp. 143172.

52 On Islamic theories of abrogation, see Hallaq, W. B., A History of Islamic Legal Theories (Cambridge 1997), pp. 6874.

53 al-Najafi Dhakko, ‘Bab al-Istifsarat’, p. 37.

54 Unfortunately, the author does not spell out whether Sayyids are in fact engaged in any such practices by providing amulets etc. More anthropological research is required to help illuminate this issue.

55 al-Najafi Dhakko, ‘Bab al-Istifsarat’, p. 37.

56 T. Bukhari, ‘Fazilat-i nasab’, Payam-i ʽAmal 22, 7 (September 1978), p. 9.

57 Ibid., p. 11.

58 Ibid., p. 11.

59 For the appropriation of scientific thought in modern Shiʽi Islam, compare Fuchs, S. W., ‘Failing Transnationally: Local Intersections of Science, Medicine, and Sectarianism in Modernist Shiʽi Writings’, Modern Asian Studies 48, 2 (2014), pp. 433467.

60 Bukhari, ‘Fazilat-i nasab’, pp. 12–13.

61 Ibid., p. 13.

62 See M. H. al-Najafi Dhakko, ‘Qaum-i shiʽah ke arbaʽah anasir’, al-Muballigh 12, 2 (March 1968), p. 13.

63 Ibid., p. 13.

64 In this context, this mostly means the Imams. Dhakko foregrounded the tremendous influence of the popular preachers and admonished them to stick to authentic narrations. Ibid., pp. 13–14.

65 Ibid. pp. 14–15. Dhakko in this article was highly critical of existing Shiʽi organisations. Their lack of effectiveness, in his view, was inter alia reflected in the dire state of the Shiʻi press. According to Dhakko, there was not a single Shiʽi daily newspaper or weekly that could convey the community's demands to the government. On these aspects of Shiʽi political activism, see Rieck, The Shias of Pakistan, pp. 114–123.

66 See al-Najafi Dhakko, ‘Qaum-i shiʽah ke arbaʽah anasir’, pp. 14–15.

67 See Fuchs, In a Pure Muslim Land, pp. 104–105.

68 S. ʽA. Zaidi, ‘Ahl al-bait ʽalayhi al-salam’, Zulfiqar 13, 16 (April 1984), pp. 4–5.

69 On the confrontation in 1980 that led to the so-called Islamabad agreement, see Rieck, The Shias of Pakistan, pp. 207–219.

70 Baluc, I. H., ‘Islamabad Convention’, Rah-i ʽAmal 13–14 (1980), p. 6.

71ʽAlam-i Islam ko mutahhid ho kar la-diniyyat aur sahyuniyyat ka muqabalah karna cahiye’, Zulfiqar 11, 16 (16 April 1982), p. 7.

72 Naqvi, S. Z. Akhtar, Vilayat-i ʽAli b. Abi Talib. ʽAsharah majalis (Karachi, 2012), p. 203.

73 M. Latif Najafi, ‘Anvar-i ilahi ka libas-i bashari men zuhur’, Zulfiqar 16, 7 (1 December 1986), p. 5. See also, for example, Ismaʽil, M., Khutbat-i muballigh-i aʽzam. Majmuʽah-i taqarir (Lahore, 2010), pp. 146147.

74 Carney, A. al-H., ‘The Theos Agnostos: Ismaili and Shaykhi Perspectives’, Journal for Islamic Studies 23 (2003), pp. 335.

75 On him, see Caman, A. H., Meri yadgar mulaqaten: Mihrab o minbar ki namvar shakhsiyat se mulaqat va marasim ki un kahi aur dilcasp hikayat (Islamabad, 2000), pp. 268286.

76 ʽAbidi, S. ʽI. H., Tamancah bar rukhsar-i munkar-i vilayat-i ʽAli (Lahore, 2009), pp. 8081.

77 al-Sabiqi, M. H., Qawaʽid al-shariʽa fi ʽaqa'id al-shiʽa bi-jawab usul al-shariʽa fi ʽaqa'id al-shiʽa (Multan, 1989), pp. 402407. Ali Rahnema has dismissed this material as ‘superstitious’. He has argued that it was ‘rediscovered’ under the Safavids with the clear goal of justifying their rule. See Rahnema, A., Superstition as Ideology. From Majlesi to Ahmadinejad (New York, 2015), p. 17.

78 S. Z. Hasnain Zaidi, Mushkil kusha’-yi ʽalam (Lahore, n.d.), pp. 154–155.

79 Ibid., pp. 156–157. By contrast, for the hypocrite (munafiq), that is the non-Shiʽi Muslim who had denied the authority (wilaya) held by the Imams, ʽAli's appearance would mean clarity of hell and God's curse (khuda ki laʽnat). Compare also Dogar, S. H., Ta'yid-i maʽsum dar javab-i Islah al-rusum (Lahore, 1996), p. 315.

80 Ansari, B., Haqa'iq al-wasa'it yaʽni Maʽrifat-i Muhammad o Al-i Muhammad bi-javab-i Usul al-shariʽa (Gujrat, 2013), pp. 118121. For Ansari's biography, see Naqvi, Tazkirah-i ʽulama’-i imamiyyah-i Pakistan, pp. 276–279.

81 Ansari, Haqa'iq al-wasa'it, p. 55.

82 S. M. Jaʽfar al-Zaman Naqvi, Tariq al-muntazirin dar fara'id-i mu'minin (Karachi, n.d.), p. 6.

83 Naqvi, S. M. Jaʽfar-uz-Zaman, The Last Great Reformer of the World as Highlighted by Prophets (Karachi, 2003), pp. 122124.

84 For anti-Shiʽi sectarianism in Pakistan and the competition over the idea of Pakistan, see Zaman, M. Q., ‘Sectarianism in Pakistan: The Radicalization of Shiʽi and Sunni Identities’, Modern Asian Studies 32, 3 (1998), pp. 689716, and Fuchs, S. W., ‘The Long Shadow of the State: The Iranian Revolution, Saudi Influence, and the Shifting Arguments of Anti-Shiʽi Sectarianism in Pakistan’, in Pan-Islamic Connections: Transnational Networks between South Asia and the Gulf, (eds.) Louër, L. and Jaffrelot, C. (London, 2017), pp. 217232 and pp. 290–300.

85 Sayyid Hakim Mahmud Gilani was born in 1908. His father was a scholar and poet employed by the Maharaja of Kashmir. Gilani finished his schooling in 1925 and, after a short stint in as a primary school teacher in Lahore, devoted himself to journalism. He worked for the journals Islah and Shahab before becoming the responsible editor of Ahl-i Hadith, a post which he held from 1928 until 1957. He continued to publish in other important newspapers and periodicals, such as Zamindar, Siyasa or the monthly Musalman, and wrote books from an Ahl-i Hadith perspective. After his conversion, this focus shifted to works from a Shiʽi angle. Gilani was hired as the assistant editor of the periodical Maʽrifat-i Islami and stayed with the publication from 1961 until 1975. He eventually founded of his own Shiʽi publishing house, the Idarah-i Tahqiqat-i Haidari. A glowing admirer of Khomeini, he was planning to write a substantial work on the Iranian Revolution at the end of his life. Due to a long illness, however, the task came to naught. See F. Vasti, ‘Taʽarif-i muhaqqiq-i aʽzam ʽallamah Sayyid Mahmud Gilani’, Zulfiqar 12, 7 (1 December 1982), p. 6.

86 Ibid.

87 For the situation in the Punjab and the local strength of the Unionist Party, see Osman, N., ‘Dancing with the Enemy: Sikander Hayat Khan, Jinnah and the Vexed Question of “Pakistan” in a Punjabi Unionist Context’, in Muslims against the Muslim League. Critiques of the Idea of Pakistan, (eds.) Qasmi, A. U. and Robb, M. E. (Cambridge, 2017), pp. 311337.

88 H. S. M. Gilani, ‘Kya Pakistan Husain aur Zainab ke nam par hasil nahi kiya gaya?’, al-Muballigh 7, 12 (January 1964), p. 19.

89 For a discussion, see Hyder, S. A., ‘Sayyedah Zaynab: The Conqueror of Damascus and Beyond’, in The Women of Karbala. Ritual Performance and Symbolic Discourses in Modern Shiʻi Islam, (ed.) Aghaie, K. S. (Austin, 2005), pp. 161182.

90 Gilani, ‘Kya Pakistan Husain aur Zainab ke nam par hasil nahi kiya gaya?’, p. 20.

91 Ibid., p. 21

92 Ibid.

93 Dhulipala, V., Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial India (New Delhi, 2015).

94 Jones, J., ‘“The Pakistan that is going to be Sunnistan”: Indian Shiʽa Responses to the Pakistan Movement’, in Muslims against the Muslim League. Critiques of the Idea of Pakistan, (eds.) Qasmi, A.U. and Robb, M. E. (Cambridge, 2017), pp. 350380.

95 Whereas Venkat Dhulipala makes the case that in 1945 India's Shiʽis replaced their Muharram slogans with calls for the establishment of Pakistan and displayed ‘enthusiasm’ for the new state, Justin Jones paints a more nuanced picture: he draws our attention to both substantial Shiʽi reservations and simultaneous support by influential Shiʽi figures within the Muslim League. Yet, both accounts do not offer a discussion of the League trying to appropriate Shiʽi rhetoric. See Dhulipala, Creating a New Medina, pp. 445–6, and Jones, ‘“The Pakistan that is going to be Sunnistan’”.

96 Morimoto, K., ‘How to Behave Toward sayyids and sharīfs. A Trans-Sectarian Tradition of Dream Accounts’, in Sayyids and Sharifs in Muslim Societies. The Living Links to the Prophet, (ed.) Morimoto, K. (London, 2012), p. 19.


Legalised Pedigrees: Sayyids and Shiʽi Islam in Pakistan



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