Islamic Studies Twelver Shiʿism in Pakistan
Simon Wolfgang Fuchs
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0295


Shiʿis are not a marginal group in Pakistan. They comprise about 15–20 percent of a population of more than 210 million people, which means that they form the second-largest Shiʿi community in the world after Iran. Shiʿi objects of devotion in the form of banners, images, and flags dot urban residential quarters as well as the countryside. Their processions are highly visible in major cities such as Karachi, Lahore, or Islamabad. Shiʿis are also well represented in the political elite and the business community, thus continuing a legacy of Shiʿi princely states, Sufi leaders, and large landowners in the region. At the same time, however, Shiʿi activists complain bitterly about their marginal status in Pakistan, a state they helped create and that was supposed to embody an ecumenical Islamic spirit as a homeland for all Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. According to this narrative, Shiʿis have been targeted since the early decades of the state’s inception and have even been subjected to a deliberate and outright Shiʿi “genocide” since the 1980s, when sectarian tensions rose sharply in the wake of the Iranian Revolution. As a reaction, Shiʿis have mobilized politically and have also tried to present themselves as “pure” and acceptable orthodox Muslims. Yet this focus on sectarian violence glosses over the equally important internal tensions among Pakistan’s Shiʿis. Unlike in other countries with a sizable Shiʿi population, such as Iraq, Lebanon, or Iran, the religious scholars (ulama) cannot claim to be exclusively in charge of Shiʿi forms of piety in Pakistan. Instead, they compete for leadership with popular and often esoteric preachers as well as with (heterodox) Sufis who display certain Shiʿi leanings. This also means that Shiʿi interpretations that embrace the Iranian model of governance, known as “guardianship of the jurisprudent” (vilayat-i faqih), are fiercely contested by many Shiʿis who are skeptical of the clerics’ claims to represent the Hidden Imam during the time of his Occultation (ghayba).

General Overviews

Scholarship on Twelver Shiʿism in both colonial India (Cole 1988, Jones 2011) and Pakistan is still surprisingly limited. Existing accounts have focused on the transition from the colonial to the postcolonial context, have paid attention to Shiʿi fears (and even opposition) to the emerging state of Pakistan, discussed the emergence of sectarianism, and have considered the crucial intellectual and personal connections between the Middle East and South Asia (Fuchs 2019, Rieck 2015). While the role of transnationally active ulama has been highlighted, there are fewer studies on nonclerical figures (poets, politicians, artists, preachers, intellectuals). A major desideratum is also an in-depth study of Shiʿi mourning ceremonies (majalis), countless recordings and printed versions of which are in circulation. Further lacunae consist in works that would shed light on the interplay between Sufism and Shiʿism in a South Asian context or on non-urban Shiʿi groups, such as the Pashtun Turi tribe that resides in the Kurram Valley close to the border with Afghanistan.

  • Abou Zahab, Mariam. Pakistan: A Kaleidoscope of Islam. London: Hurst, 2020.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780197534595.001.0001

    This posthumously released collection conveniently assembles Mariam Abou Zahab’s various articles on anti-Shiʿi sectarianism, jihadism, and the politicization of the Shiʿi community in Pakistan, discussed in more detail (with reference to their original place of publication) below.

  • ʿArifi, Muhammad Akram. Shīʿiyān-i Pākistān. Qum, Iran: Intisharat-i Muʾassasah-i Shiʿah’shinasi, 1385 (2006 or 2007).

    This Iranian account of Shiʿism in Pakistan provides an interesting perspective on how reformist, Iran-leaning voices are supposedly gaining ground against “unorthodox” forms of Shiʿi rituals.

  • Bindemann, Rolf. Religion und Politik bei den schiítischen Hazâra in Afghanistan, Iran und Pakistan. Berlin: Das Arabische Buch, 1987.

    This book is somewhat dated but provides firsthand insights into how the Shiʿi Hazara community, which is spread out between Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, has reacted to the Iranian Revolution and the Afghan resistance to the Russian invasion in 1979. This volume is particularly relevant for Pakistan, since the author did most of his interviews in 1985 among Hazaras who lived in the city of Quetta in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province.

  • Cole, Juan Ricardo. Roots of North Indian Shīʻism in Iran and Iraq: Religion and State in Awadh, 1722–1859. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

    This study offers essential background for an understanding of how North India with the leading Shiʿi-ruled state of Awadh established historic ties with the Middle East. It explores how these connections led to the formation of an ulama class in Lucknow with the aim of establishing “orthodox” Shiʿism in the region.

  • Fuchs, Simon Wolfgang. In a Pure Muslim Land: Shiʿism between Pakistan and the Middle East. Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469649795.001.0001

    This volume, which draws on fresh sources in Urdu, Arabic, and Persian, is particularly interested in elucidating how the multifaceted ties with the “centers” of Shiʿi scholarship in Iran and Iraq have influenced debates in Pakistan on sectarianism, reform, religious authority, and local agency of religious scholars and popular preachers.

  • Hyder, Syed Akbar. Reliving Karbala: Martyrdom in South Asian Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    A fascinating study on the many meanings Shiʿis and others attribute to the story of the third Shiʿi Imam (and grandson of the Prophet Muhammad) al-Husayn, who was killed in the battle of Karbala in 680. While the author does not exclusively focus on Pakistan, he discusses in chapter 3 the famous Karachi-based sermonizer Rashid Turabi and devotes chapter 5 to how Muhammad Iqbal, Pakistan’s “national” poet, viewed Karbala.

  • Jones, Justin. Shiʻa Islam in Colonial India: Religion, Community and Sectarianism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511791505

    This book sheds crucial light on Shiʿi community formation in colonial India and argues, inter alia, that a new generation of Shiʿi scholars made use of the late colonial public sphere to advance their particular understanding of Shiʿism and present Shiʿi Islam as its own, freestanding religion.

  • Rieck, Andreas. The Shias of Pakistan: An Assertive and Beleaguered Minority. London: Hurst, 2015.

    Based largely on previously unused Shiʿi newspapers and periodicals, this important study is an indispensable account of Shiʿi organizations, political activism, and internal conflicts since the establishment of Pakistan in 1947.

  • Rizvi, Sayyid Athar Abbas. A Socio-Intellectual History of the Isnā ‘Asharī Shī’īs in India. 2 vols. Canberra: Ma’rifat Publishing House, 1986.

    A very detailed account that mostly presents a “factual” narrative, drawn from Shiʿi sources, on the community’s historical development in the Indian subcontinent until colonial times. Vol. I, 7th to 16th Century A.D.; Vol. II, 16th to 19th Century A.D.

  • Zaman, Muhammad Qasim. Islam in Pakistan: A History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1ws7wf2

    Not restricted to Shiʿi Islam, this book covers, inter alia, (the demise of) Islamic modernism, Islamist conceptions of Pakistan, the ulama and the state, the role of Sufism, and religious minorities (among many other topics). It is essential reading for anyone interested in the role of religion in contemporary Pakistan.

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