Event Date: 9-10 September 2011
Royal Holloway, University of London
Contesting Shi‘ism: Isna ‘Ashari and Isma‘ili Shi‘ism in modern South Asia
Khandan-i-Ijtihad: authority and transition in a family of Shi‘a ‘ulama in north India, c.1850-1950
Scholarship on Shi‘ism in north India has, to a great degree, looked at the religion in terms of its Nawabi incarnations, and its associations with the project of state-building in pre-colonial Awadh. This is perhaps especially true of the so-called ‘Khandan-i-Ijtihad’, the most significant household of Indian Shi‘a ‘ulama over a number of successive generations. Through early mujtahids such as Dildar ‘Ali and Sayyid Muhammad Nasirabadi, this family projected great influence upon the Nawabi court, and epitomised the Usuli Shi‘a revival of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Lucknow.
For all that has been assumed about the historic demise of the religious and secular elites tied to the Nawabs, this clerical family have retained their public primacy in India until the present. This paper, then, is an attempt to explore the little understood post-annexation history of this family, who have remained prominent figures in Shi‘a life across modern South Asia. Focusing upon the social milieu and public functions of the key figureheads of this lineage, this paper will explore the family adab (sense of honour and identity), exploring the nature of the household, their ties to both Lucknow and their qasbas of origin, and their response to the socio-political transformations accompanying the collapse of Shi‘a power in 1856. It will argue that the ‘ulama were able to exercise an occupational transition, from being the jurisconsults and state functionaries of the 1850s, becoming important lay functionaries and, later, representatives of their community before the colonial state. The paper thus carries implications for our understanding of the functional adaptability of the Shi‘a ‘ulama, and their ability to re-craft their socio-religious role in changing historical settings.