Islamic Studies Twelver Shi'ism in Modern India
Justin Jones
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0302


Shiʿi Muslims represent a sizeable minority of Muslims across South Asia, including in India; while there is no official enumeration, Shiʿis are often said to comprise approximately 10–15 percent of India’s Muslim population, which may put the current population at around 20 million. The Indian subcontinent has long been home to a range of Twelver Shiʿi communities, many of elite ancestry with Iranian or Arab heritage, and many of whom have historically exacted strong political influence. Significant semi-autonomous Shiʿi ruling dynasties emerged in the era of Mughal decline prior to the formation of the British Raj, including the Nawabs of Bengal, who ruled from Murshidabad (1717–1757), and most notably, the Nawabs (and, later, “Kings”) of Awadh: a dynasty of Nishapuri origins who founded their semi-autonomous North Indian state in 1722. Awadh, centered on the city of Lucknow, was revered as a center of Shiʿi learning and culture with close ties of pilgrimage and learning to Iraq, before it was finally annexed by the British Raj in 1856. Another Shiʿi community of great significance is located in the Deccan region in South India, especially the city of Hyderabad, where the political patronage of Shiʿism as state religion under the Qutb Shahi dynasty (1512–1687) ensured that the community remained politically and culturally significant, with this influence being maintained even in the court of the predominantly Sunni Asif Jahi dynasty (1724–1948). While Shiʿi political influence diminished during British rule, these and other Shiʿi ruling elites remained influential as major landholders and rulers of princely states, among them the Qizilbash dynasty in Punjab, Rajas of Mahmudabad, and Nawabs of Rampur in North India. Moreover, as an influential section of India’s Muslim elites, Shiʿis played a role in most currents of Muslim modernism and Muslim politics throughout the colonial period. However, Shiʿis had a largely ambivalent relationship with the major currents of Muslim political mobilization in British India. Ultimately, prominent Shiʿis participated actively in the Pakistan movement, but many Shiʿi groups opposed the creation of Pakistan. In independent India, Shiʿis have sometimes framed themselves as a “minority within a minority,” marginalized both as Muslims and by Muslims. Nevertheless, remnants of Shiʿism’s historic importance still inflect broader Muslim cultural life in many regions. Shiʿi communities are most visible and organized during the annual commemoration of Muharram, which is often marked by major public demonstrations of mourning, and which has occasionally led to local conflicts with Sunnis. (Note that this entry covers only the Twelver Shiʿis of modern India [i.e., British India since c. 1857, and independent India since 1947]; readers may wish to read it in conjunction with separate entries elsewhere on Ismaʿili Shiʿism in South Asia and/or Shiʿism in Pakistan.)


The historical, cultural, and linguistic diversity of Indian Shiʿism has meant that most studies in practice focus on particular regions of the subcontinent, and few scholars have attempted surveys that speak to the breadth of modern India. Moreover, existing studies tend to focus overwhelmingly on a few key centers, especially Lucknow and Hyderabad, leaving the Shiʿis of many regions unstudied. Hollister 1953 was the earliest attempt at a broad-brush academic survey of India’s Shiʿis. This survey work was followed by two works in the 1980s: Hasan/Hasnain was another synoptic study, while Rizvi 1986 is a heavily researched, two-volume work of intellectual history, with a focus on Shiʿi scholar families and their religious and cultural achievements. A recent edited volume, Jones and Qasmi 2015, is the first edited volume dedicated to the subject and contains several essays on Twelver as well as Ismaʿili Shiʿism. Most works cited below, however, remain focused on particular regions.

  • Hasnain, Nadeem, and Sheikh Abrar Husain. Shias and Shia Islam in India: A Study in Society and Culture. New Delhi: Harnam, 1988.

    An attempt at a broad overview of the subject, with a largely sociological focus.

  • Hollister, John Norman. The Shiʿa of India. London: Luzac, 1953.

    The first attempt at a single comprehensive study, this work addresses both Twelver and Ismaʿili Shiʿis and offers a sweeping (and rather dated) historical overview.

  • Jones, Justin, and Ali Usman Qasmi, eds. The Shi ‘a in Modern South Asia: Religion, History and Politics. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    An anthology of nine recent essays on Twelver and Ismaʿili Shiʿism, first published as a special issue of Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 24.3 (2014): 351–528. The introductory essay by Francis Robinson is especially useful. Several individual contributions within the volume are also cited below.

  • Rizvi, Saiyid Athar Abbas. A Socio-Intellectual History of the Isnā ʿAsharī Shīʿīs in India. Vols. 1 and 2. Canberra: Ma’rifat Publishing House, 1986.

    A wide-ranging study focusing on major Shiʿi religious scholars and literary figures, and based on Arabic and Persian sources; the second volume is most useful for the modern period.

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