Simon Wolfgang Fuchs, In a Pure Muslim Land. Shiʿism between Pakistan and the Middle East, Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks Series, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2019). 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Simon Wolfgang Fuchs (SWF): When I traveled to Pakistan for the first time in the summer of 2011, I was stunned by what I saw in Islamabad. The center of Pakistan’s capital was covered with posters depicting Sayyid ‘Arif Husayn al-Husayni, the most important Shi‘i leader of the 1980s and a strong supporter of the Iranian Revolution. Seemingly every lamp post commemorated the anniversary of al-Husayni’s assassination on 5 August 1988. This bold showing of Shi‘i influence and self-confidence stood in sharp contrast to what I had read and heard about the fate of this minority group in Pakistan. News coverage back then was (and still is) dominated by narrations of sectarian violence directed against Shi‘ia, who make up fifteen to twenty percent of the country’s overall population. Yet, no visitor can escape the ubiquity of Shi‘i symbols and slogans, be it in the countryside of Punjab and Sindh or in urban centers, such as Rawalpindi, Lahore, and Karachi. This visibility was not reflected in existing scholarship, which had so far displayed no real interest in the intellectual production of Pakistan’s Shi‘is. The literature had largely ignored questions of transnational connections or how religious authority played out in the South Asian “periphery,” far removed from the traditional “centers” of Shi‘i scholarship and learning in Iran and Iraq. Consequently, I became intrigued and embarked on this project in order to explore Pakistan as a veritable Shi‘i center in its own right, which is at the same time very much in conversation with the Middle East.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

SWF: Originally, I had planned to stay away from two issues. First, I did not intend to wade into the messy late colonial context before the partition of the Subcontinent into India and Pakistan. Second, I was also keen to avoid the fraught and, frankly, overemphasized topic of sectarianism. During my preliminary research it quickly became clear, however, that I could not tell a convincing story with these two glaring holes in it. To be sure, I did not regret this change of plan for long: the 1920s and 1930s are a highly intriguing period of religious change, even more so because I came across the Urdu annual proceedings of the All India Shia Conference. This organization assembled the modern-educated and politically-minded strata of South Asian Shi‘ia. Their increasingly strained relationship with India’s leading Shi‘i ‘ulama based in the city of Lucknow gave rise to surprisingly modernist interpretation of Shi‘i Islam, which I discuss in the first chapter of the book.

Similarly, I initially very much underestimated the complexity and creativity of sectarian Sunni thought in the wake of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. In order to counter the Iranian threat, these actors deliberately tried to adopt and modify Shi‘i rituals and even turned the companions of the Prophet Muhammad, the sahaba, into figures that resembled and transcended the Shi‘i Imams. Beyond these aspects, the book is also concerned with the transnational manifestations of Shi‘i religious authority in Pakistan. This phenomenon is by definition a mediated form of influence because all the leading Grand Ayatollahs of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries resided beyond Pakistan’s borders. I show how this distance has opened up unexpected spaces for local religious scholars and popular preachers, who profess loyalty to the “Sources of Emulation” while also subtly reworking their Persian or Arabic messages. Such appeals to luminaries in Iran and Iraq play a decisive role for internal, heated Shi‘i debates about the need (or lack thereof) for reforming rituals and theology, too.

In general, my thinking about Pakistan has been shaped not only by excellent new literature on transnational aspects of Shi‘ism and anthropological accounts, but also by recent studies that foreground the importance of Pakistan as a political idea. Taking seriously the long-term ideological implications of the plan to create a separate homeland for the Muslims of British India, a “Muslim Zion” in Faisal Devji’s parlance, explains to a large extent how different actors are seeking to exclude each other from deliberating about the form this laboratory of Islam should be taking. Paying attention to what is at stake on the ground, I would argue, also helps us to put to rest the often-repeated argument about sectarianism in Pakistan being primarily a foreign import from Saudi Arabia.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

SWF: Originally, I was trained in Islamic studies and political science with a focus on the Middle East. Yet, somewhat unbeknownst to myself, already my first book took me into a direction that transcended the limiting and arbitrary confines of area studies. In Proper Signposts for the Camp. The Reception of Classical Authorities in the Ǧihādī Manual al-ʻUmda fī Iʻdād al-ʻUdda (Würzburg: Ergon, 2011), I looked at how an influential Egyptian ideologue employed the Islamic scholarly tradition while writing in Peshawar, Pakistan, during the time of the Afghan jihad. Traveling ideas and their reframing in various local contexts and languages have continued to fascinate me, which is palpable in In a Pure Muslim Land.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

SWF: My biggest hope, of course, would be for the book to stimulate debate in Pakistan itself, where questions of belonging, “correct” beliefs, and sectarian animosities are no mere academic conversations. Yet, there are simple but effective geopolitical hurdles such a task has to face. Given the tensions over Kashmir that erupted last year, the South Asian edition of the book, published by Speaking Tiger from Delhi, cannot cross the border at present. For this reason, we are currently in conversation with a publisher in Pakistan to prepare an Urdu translation, too. Beyond these immediate concerns, I would very much hope that the book reaches an audience beyond the (fantastic) community of colleagues specializing in South Asian Islam. For some reason, Pakistan often drops out from conversations on global Islam or major debates within the field of Middle East and Islamic studies. Bringing the country back in and kindling more interest for its importance and global intellectual connections is part of the impact that I would be hoping for.

J: If you could add an additional chapter to In a Pure Muslim Land, what would it be about? 

SWF: I was fortunate to draw on a rich source base for this project. For example, Urdu periodicals, which I gathered in public and private libraries in six countries, gave me illuminating insights into the thinking of various Shi‘i individuals and the specific “camps” they adhered to. In contrast to learned monographs written by religious scholars, these monthlies or bi-weeklies do not smooth over differences of opinion in terms of politics, law, or theology. The material gives you a good sense for the uncertainty and confusion of the present, too. Yet, every time when you enter a Shi‘i bookstore in Pakistan or browse Shi‘i YouTube channels, you realize that the genre which outstrips everything else are printed and recorded Shi‘i mourning sessions, the majalis. To be sure, I analyzed a good amount of these but this is no task any single scholar can ever hope to do justice to. The sheer number of influential preachers and sermons, many of them laced with complicated poetry and challenging allusions, is just overwhelming. I would have loved to put this majalis literature center stage in at least one chapter and to apply an analytical lens to it. Perhaps this calls for an entirely new project, however, which should ideally be a collaborative one.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

SWF: Currently, I am preparing my next monograph for Princeton University Press, which is supposed to be a global history of the Iranian Revolution. I am especially interested in how this crucial event in modern history was read and understood by Sunni Islamists and leftist groups from North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. In relying on Pakistani travelogues, Afghan pamphlets, and accounts in Tunisian periodicals, for instance, I am trying to recover the importance of the early 1980s. Beyond this immediate impact, I am also interested in the longer-term intellectual repercussions of the Revolution for thinking about political Islam or social justice. Related to this overarching goal, I am working on a journal article that discusses the relationship which Abu ‘l-A‘la Mawdudi’s Jama‘at-i Islami had with revolutionary Iran while also preparing, along with my colleague Layli Uddin (King’s College London), a workshop on “Islamic Socialism in the Global South,” to be held at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS) in September.


Excerpt from the book

From Chapter 5: Khomeini’s Perplexed Pakistani Men. Importing and Debating the Iranian Revolution since 1979

Raising the Banner of Wilaya in Present-Day Pakistan: Sayyid Javad Naqvi

It has become apparent that Sayyid ʿArif Husayn al-Husayni remained reluctant to even mention the loaded term vilayat-i faqih in any of his speeches and interviews. He was active on various propaganda fronts and promoted select aspects of the revolutionary package against his opponents. In the midst of these struggles he must either have preferred a cautionary approach or deemed the rule of a jurist irrelevant for Pakistan’s Shiʿis, given their minority situation. The last ʿalim I am about to discuss in this chapter does not feel deterred by any such constraints. Rather, Sayyid Javad Naqvi adopted the concept of the Guardianship of the Jurisprudent as the central building block of his thought, rendering it an axis around which nearly all his public announcements revolve. In doing so, his well-crafted omnipresence conveys the impression of a man on the rise. His posters, which usually advertise events at his seminary, dominate the Shiʿi areas of Pakistan’s cities. He has opened bookstores in Lahore, Islamabad, and Karachi that exclusively distribute his works and has embarked on an aggressive distribution campaign to other Shiʿi outlets as well. In August 2012, I witnessed how the tiny Shiʿi bookshop Imamiyyah Kutubkhanah in Skardu received a free delivery of Naqvi’s latest imprint. The dispatch from Lahore contained so many volumes that the owner visibly had trouble storing all these beautifully bound copies. Naqvi’s use of the Internet and social media in terms of both variety of content and production quality dwarfs the efforts of every other Shiʿi ʿalim in Pakistan. One possible explanation for the palpable qualitative shift in rhetoric from the height of revolutionary fervor in the 1980s to present-day Lahore must have to do with Naqvi’s uniquely Iran-centered career that distinguishes him from both members of the old guard like Safdar Husayn Najafi and the following generation of which Sayyid ʿArif Husayn al-Husayni is a representative. Unlike them, Naqvi spent nearly his entire adult life in Iran.

Born in Pakistan’s Punjab province, he graduated from a high school in Islamabad in 1979 and was immediately thrown into the revolutionary frenzy of the period. In an interview Sayyid Javad Naqvi described impatiently sitting next to his brother as he attempted to tune in to the BBC reporting on Iran to get an update on the latest developments. Naqvi remembers these months as a time when even Sunni ʿulama publicly praised Khomeini and put him on a level with the four Rightly Guided Caliphs (kih imam bah khilafat-i rashidah rasidah ast). That crucial summer, Naqvi embarked on a short trip to Pakistan’s revolutionary neighbor and later enrolled in a Shiʿi seminary in Islamabad for the initial stages of his religious training. In 1983, he proceeded to Qum, where he first studied and later taught in the city’s institutions of higher learning. After his return to Pakistan in 2009, he established his own seminary in the outskirts of Lahore; it became fully operational in 2010. In a way the seminary’s name, Jamiʿat al-ʿUrwa al-Wuthqa, already points to Naqvi’s goal for his native country: on the one hand, he cleverly exploits the fact that this Qurʾanic quote carries nonsectarian connotations because it brings to mind the journal of the same name published by the early hero of Pan-Islam, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. The term al-ʿurwa al-wuthqa also recalls an influential fiqh work with the same name by Sayyid Muhammad Kazim Yazdi (d. 1919), who is credited with clearly defining the notion of aʿlamiyya and the obligatory character of taqlid. More important, however, Naqvi repeatedly emphasizes that for him “the most firm bond” is nothing less than ʿAli’s wilaya as the Imam, which ties in with his hope that the model of vilayat-I faqih should spread over the entire globe. […]

Naqvi is unique among his Pakistani peers in his interest in the domestic affairs of Iran, which form a constant part of his lectures. He was very outspoken against the Green Movement, for example, which he condemned as a foreign conspiracy. In commenting on the 2013 Iranian presidential elections, Naqvi explained in a speech that the votes for the ultimately successful presidential candidate Hasan Ruhani should be understood as a display of faith in the system of vilayat-i faqih because the voters gave preference to the only clerical candidate running for the office. Naqvi also used this opportunity in front of his predominantly young audience to denounce Ruhani’s potential but by then already-disqualified contender, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (d. 2017). For Naqvi, this clerical veteran of Iranian politics was nothing more than a power-hungry individual who did not have the slightest reverence for Shiʿism, Islam, or the Guardianship of the Jurisprudent. His only conviction was that of being a staunch nationalist (Iran parast) who due to his realpolitik leanings deserved the title “Ayatollah Churchill.” But Muhammad Khatami, the former reformist president, was identified as the most substantial threat the Islamic Republic had faced since 1979. In Naqvi’s view, the “liberal” Khatami gave precedence to personal freedom over religion (din) and did not even intervene when speeches were made against the marajiʿ or Imam Husayn himself on the campus of Tehran University. Naqvi acts in these and many more instances of domestic commentary as a faithful supporter of Iran’s leader Khamenei and constantly warns against threats—to Iran, not to Pakistan—that stem from the country’s internal and external opponents.

Naqvi’s dominant topic, however, is the need to teach Pakistani society the true meaning of wilaya. In contrast to the reformists discussed in chapter 2, this ʿalim is in no way opposed to acknowledging the cosmological dimensions of vilayat-i takvini. Rather, in extolling the exalted role of the Imams, Naqvi gains room, in turn, to claim (political) authority for the religious scholars during the Hidden Imam’s Occultation. In this context, Naqvi is much more outspoken than al-Husayni when attacking the popular preachers. These people are for him nothing more than “illiterates sitting on the pulpits” who conceal the true ramification of wilaya as the cornerstone of religious thought: “If you want to know about Imamate then don’t go and ask those who don’t even know if Imamate in Arabic is written with ‘Alif’ or ‘Ain.’” These Shiʿi preachers were part of a broader South Asian problem, namely the prevalence of Sufi ideas, which led the Shiʿis to conceptualize their Imams as analogous to a pir. They were regarded as mere holy personalities whose support is sought in prayer, but they were not granted any authority (ikhtiyar) over the lives of the believers. This was a fundamental misunderstanding of their role, Naqvi emphasized, since God had delegated to them the government over his creation. This right to rule, in turn, flowed from the Imams to their chosen delegates, the ʿulama. Since Khomeini had unearthed “the buried wilaya” and established it in Iran, commands emanating from the country’s leader took on a mandatory nature for every human being. Yet Pakistan’s Shiʿis had no conception of wilayaas a system that also exposed the serious deficiencies of their political activism since 1947. They had always come to terms with the ruling, corrupt political forces, as long as these parties would permit them to celebrate their rituals in public. Pakistan’s Shiʿis implored the authorities to stop sectarian killings instead of being bold enough to advance their rightful claim of acting as the country’s protector. Even Mufti Jaʿfar Husayn’s efforts with the TNFJ were nothing more than a first step in the direction of forming a true Shiʿi identity. The Tahrik’s focus had been helpful in convincing the community that they indeed had a fiqh on their own. Javad Naqvi wholeheartedly lauded this preliminary achievement. He made it clear, however, that the true significance of Shiʿi law was that it contained particular approaches toward government and the political system as a whole, all based on wilaya. If this comprehensive system was not implemented, the Shiʿis should “under no circumstances” ally themselves with any other form of government.

Naqvi does not see any practical constraints for his minority sect that would prevent them from aspiring to the leadership of Pakistan. For him, the Lebanese group Hezbollah had shown the way. In Lebanon, the Shiʿis were neither a numerical majority nor in control of the government, but their self-confident attitude and courageous advancement of the system of vilayat-i faqih had endowed them with a dominating role (imama) in their local context. Sunnis and Christians too had to accept this. Unfortunately, however, Pakistanis could never count on Iran for real support in their struggle. The golden opportunity for exporting the revolution in the early 1980s was missed due to the war Iran fought with Iraq. Blunders by Iranian officials who had the wrong mindset (tafakkur-i ghalat) and displayed only a lukewarm commitment to exporting the revolution added to this failure.