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
Establishing the principles of the faith for a new Shi‘i polity: the theology of Sayyid Dildar ‘Ali Nasirabadi
For those familiar with north Indian Shi‘i Islam, Sayyid Dildar ‘Ali (1753-1820) is a well known individual credited with the formation of a rationalising hierocracy in the new Shi‘i polity of Awadh at the end of the eighteenth century. The process by which the elites established Twelver Shi‘i doctrines and their practices, and disseminated them in such a way that they still provide the basic motifs and parameters of modern Shi‘i identity in the subcontinent, has been studied by Juan Cole and others: facets of this process include the development of a political theology, establishment of institutions of learning and commemoration, and the production of literature for disseminating Shi‘i ideas in the scholarly and elite Mughal languages of Arabic and Persian as well as the vernacular of Urdu.
While his polemical works, countering anti-Shi‘i texts such as Shah ‘Abd al-‘Aziz’s Tuhfa-yi ithna ‘ashariya and attacking Sufis and Akhbaris, have some studies associated with them, the broad outlines of Dildar ‘Ali’s philosophical works and philosophical theology, which provided the foundations for these polemics and exchanges, have been rather neglected. A careful (although at this stage fairly cursory) study of Dildar ‘Ali’s major theological text, Mira’t al-‘uqul fi ‘ilm usul al-din, better known as ‘Imad al-Islam, will constitute the main part of my paper. Divided into the classic five-fold scheme of Shi‘i theology, it was written in Arabic for a scholarly audience. It was designed not only to establish his own credentials as a scholar and demonstrate the contribution of the ‘ulama of India to Shi‘i thought, but also to posit the basic metaphysical foundations for the critique of others: whether Sunni scholars of Farangi-Mahall and elsewhere, Sufi pirs, or traditionist Akhbaris. By way of some concluding remarks, I will also raise some of the contestations against his work, particularly focusing on an Arabic critique of Dildar ‘Ali produced by Sayyid Murtaza Nawnihravi, a sayyid from the qasbas like himself but very much outside of the hierocracy, entitled Mira’t al-‘uqul fi sharh du‘a al-mashlul.