The relations between the Shi’ite Clergy and the British Imperialism (Part 1)


The relations between the Shi’ite Clergy and the British Imperialism (Part 1)
by divaneh

Note: This is the English translation of an article with the same title that was published in Persian in the main part of this website.

The Shi’ite clergy in Iran has regularly accused those with different points of view to the ruling party as having links to foreign governments and betraying their own country in order to serve their foreign masters’ interests.  Bahaais, Jewish, members of some political parties and seculars have all been subjects of such allegations. The study of the contemporary history however reveals that it was in fact the Shi’ite clergy (Shi’ite Ulama) who in pursuit of its own gains helped the imperialistic agenda of the British Empire in the Middle East and the South Asia. Although the Ayatollah Kashani’s assistance to the British and betrayal of the prime minster Mosadegh at the time of the oil nationalisation movement provides a recent example of such treachery, the subject of this article goes back to two centuries ago and another example of close relations between the Shi’ite Ulama and the British government.  This involved transfer of huge sums of money from India to the holy cities in Southern Iraq and distribution of the money between the Shi’ite Ulama by the British agents. These huge sums of money have been called with different names including Awadh Largesse, Oudh Bequest, Indian Money and some other titles.

Respected historian Ahmad Kasravi in relations to the Indian Money and the Shi’ite clergy writes:

“These are unacquainted people who know less than a 10 years old child about the world and its affairs. They are so concerned with feghh (Islamic jurisprudence), hadith (religious tales), and religious thoughts and philosophy that have lost sight of the real knowledge and wisdom. They have either not noticed or ignored all the new developments and the new branches of science. They live in the present and view the world through a 1300 years old prism.  Thoughtless people who study for six months to find out “whether the necessary introduction is necessary?”. They undertake 30 or 40 years of hardship to become a Hojat-ul-Islam and have a share of the Indian Money or receive donations from religious Iranian merchants. ...
They have two main sources of income: one is the Indian Money that is annually distributed between the Ulama by the British agents, part of which they pay to the Talabehs (seminary students). The other is the money that the religious merchants and wealthy Iranians send or deliver in person (1).

* * * * * *

The Kingdom of Awadh, situated between Bengal and Delhi at the foot of the Nepalese Himalayas, was founded by Mir Muhammad Amin Nishapuri (1739), known as Saadat khan Burhan ul Mulk, the first Nawab of Awadh.  He travelled to India from eastern Iran in 1708 and entered the service of the Mughal emperor and subsequently was appointed the governor of the Awadh in 1722. After forming alliances with local Sunni townsmen and rural Hindu Rajas, he exercised a level of independence from the central government.  He later collaborated with the Iranian invader Nadir Shah, who rewarded him by conferring Awadh on him and his descendants as a hereditary Nawabate.

Awadh Nawabs were Twelver Shi’ites and most important governmental positions were occupied by Shi’ites who formed less that 1% of the population. They had strong religious sentiments and had even made a replica of the Najaf based Imam Ali’s shrine in the city of Lucknow (2). They encouraged the expansion of the Shi’ism and were generous to the clergy. Their generosity and the richness of the Awadh kingdom attracted some Iranian clergies to Awadh. The immigrant clergies had to compete with the local Ulama who had better knowledge of the local court protocols and customs, and therefore tended to occupy the more influential positions such as Friday prayer leaders. Iranian clerics sometimes preferred to settle among Shi`ite communities ruled by the British, where they were free from the demands made on them by the Awadh state (3).

At the time the Ulama were divided into two main groups of Usuli and Akhbari. Akhbaris who did not even allow the Friday prayers, practiced a more rigid form of Islam and did not allow any change to the traditional Islam. The Usulis on the other hand believed that Ulama can use their own judgement and allow changes that would comply with the rulings of Islam (4). They believed that it was necessary for people to copy the Ulama in their day to day life as they did not possess the sufficient knowledge of the faith.

In 1757 the East India Company (EIC), that represented the British Imperialism in India, defeated the Nawab of Bengal in the battle of Plassey and started to establish itself as the uncontested ruler of the India (5). The EIC fell out with the third Nawab of Awadh, Shuja-ud-Daula, after he aided the fugitive Nawab of Bengal Mir Ghasem. The EIC’s subsequently defeated the Shuja-ud-Daula in the battle of Buxar in 1764 and forced the Nawabate to pay heavy indemnities and cede parts of its territories. The British appointed a resident in 1773, and over time gained control of more territory and authority in the state (6).

The Nawabs of Awadh were dedicated Shi’i Muslims and donated generously to the cities of Najaf and Karbala, now situated in Southern Iraq. In 1779 a young Shi’i cleric called Seyed Dildar Ali Nasirabadi travelled to the Southern Iraq in the Ottoman Empire to further his religious studies. He visited the shrine cities for two years and pursued a brief course of studies with Aqa Muhammad Baqir Bihbahani and his leading disciples in Karbala. Like most Indian clerics he was an Akhbari but in Iraq he adopted the Usuli beliefs (7).  This Indian connection proved highly lucrative for the Usuli clerics in the shrine cities. In the late 1780s during the reign of Asaf-ud-Daula, Awadh Chief Minister Hasan Riza Khan remitted Rs. 500,000 to Najaf for the construction of a canal to bring the Euphrates’ water to the dry Najaf.  The project was completed in 1793 and the canal became known as the Asafiyya or Hindiyya canal, after its patron. The ecological changes resulted in increased agriculture around Najaf and attracted the tribes of nomadic Arabs to the area which increased their exposure to the Shi’ite beliefs (8). Awadh rulers also reconstructed a Shi’i mosque in Kufa and built a hostel for the Indian pilgrims and a library with 700 manuscripts (3).

Najaf was not the only city that benefited from the connection and huge sums were also sent to Karbala to aid Ulama and the poor of the city. Later Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula sent another Rs.200,000 to the Mujtaheds (clergies) in Iraq on the advice of the Seyed Dildar Ali. Najaf’s improved environment and the lucrative financial assistance that the Usulis received from the Awadh rulers strengthen the position and dominance of the Usuli clerics (3).

After Asaf-ud-Daula, his son Vazir Ali became the Nawab but his Anti-British stance caused the British to remove and replace him with his pro-British uncle Saadat Ali Khan II. By then the Nawabs had increasingly become the puppets of the British Empire, with the British resident exercising a substantial control in the affairs of the Nawabate (6).  Saadat Ali Khan was crowned by Sir John Shore only after the assurance from the new Nawab for acquiescence to the EIC and to carry out its orders (10).

In 1801 Wahhabi Sunnis ransacked Karbala and left widespread damages and a large number of casualties in their wake.  Nawab Saadat Ali Khan sent his financial assistance to the shrine city together with a silver and velvet canopy for the shrine of Imam Hussain at Karbala that was made in Lucknow and sent via Bombay to Iraq under British auspices. To the dismay of the outraged British, Ulama in Karbala demanded Rs. 8,000 offering in cash before they would agree to accept the canopy (3).

The Awadh rulers initially sent their financial assistance through the firms of Iranian merchants, but later used the British and the EIC for such transactions. In 1815 Ghazi-ud-din Haydar sent Rs 100000 for the clergies in the Najaf and Karbala through the British government.   Nawab Ghazi-ud-din's grandmother, Bahu Begam, left Rs.90,000 in her British-guaranteed will to the shrines in Iraq, specifying that the EIC transmit the sum to Sayed Muhammad and Mirza Muhammad Husain Shahristani, both of Karbala (3).

In 1814 the EIC started its costly war in Nepal and requested a loan of 10 Million rupees from Nawab Ghazi-ud-din Haydar, on the condition of paying an annual interest of Rs 600,000 to ten members of the ruling family. Four months later, Ghazi-ud-din Haydar agreed with the second loan of Rs. 10 millions on the similar conditions (3). Subsequently EIC forced the Nawabate to accept the Tarai jungles that it had captured from Nepal as the full payment of the second loan (11). The same Nawab agreed with the third loan of the Rs. 10 millions with the reduced interest of 5%. In 1826 the EIC requested another loan of Rs. 5 millions to wind up the Nepal war.

The role of the Awadh Shi’i government as the financier of the EIC and the earning of the interest (known as Roba in Islam) which is forbidden in Islam had created a dilemma for the Shi’i Ulama. Seyed Dildar Ali had advised more caution in receiving interest from the Europeans. This difficult issue was later resolved by his son Seyed Mohammad Nasirabadi who was by then the chief Mujtahed of Lucknow. He issued a religious edict in the 1830 and advised that it was only the Shi’ites from whom interest could not be received. In accordance with his ruling, the wealthy Shi'ite could receive interest from all the 10 Millions population of Awadh with exception of the small minority of Shi’ites. The Imami Shi’ism in this way showed its ability to adapt itself to modern capitalism (3).

The British government was obliged by the terms of the loans to pay the interests to the named individuals and their descendants. In cases where there was no descendent the interest was to be paid to the Mujtaheds (grand clergy) of Najaf and Karbala. For example, in accordance with the terms of the agreement of the third loan, the EIC agreed to spend part of the annual interest of Rs. 500,000 for the upkeep of the two widow queens and pay the rest to the Mujtaheds of Najaf and Karbala (22). Also in a document dated 17 Aug 1825, the British government agrees to pay RS. 120,000 a year to one of Nawab’s wives Mubarak Mahall. It was further agreed that after her death a third would be paid to any person in her will and the rest to the Mujtaheds of Najaf and Karbala, and to pay the full amount to the Mujtaheds in the case that no recipient was appointed (3).

With the passing away of the beneficiaries of the loans, the British government was paying increasingly larger amounts of money to the Mujtaheds in Najaf and Karbala, and the money which is known as the Indian Money caused rivalries between the clergy.  An instance of such rivalry was formed between Shaykhis (Followers of Shaykh Ahmad Al-Ahsai) and Usulis. The Shaykhi teachings had reached the North India through the pilgrims and Mirza Hassan Azimabadi who was a student of Seyed Hussain Nasirabadi returned to Lucknow after studying with the Seyed Kazem Rashti and started preaching and promulgating the Shaykhi doctrine.  This link proved beneficial for Shaykhis and made Seyed Kazem Rashti the recipient of the Indian Money for a period in 1830 (12). Increasing popularity of the Seyed Hassan alarmed Seyed Hussain Nasirabadi who attacked and repudiated his former student’s beliefs. This disagreement resulted in the Indian Money to be paid to the Seyed Ibrahim Qazvini, the Usuli rival of the Seyed Kazem Rashti. As the other possible source of patronage, the king of Iran, Mohammad Shah Qajar was bestowing his largesse to Sufis rather than the Mujtaheds, the halt in the flow of the Indian money to the Shaykhis weakened their position whilst strengthened the position of the rival Usulis (3).

The Awadh’s financial assistance to Najaf and Karbala was reduced during the reign of Nasir-ud-din Haidar (1827-1837) but lucrative donations started to flow again with the reign of Nawab Muhammad Ali Shah. The Awadh Mujtaheds informed the Mujtaheds in Najaf and Karbala in a letter in 1839 that the new Nawab was found of the shrine cities and their residents, and having learnt of the demise of the Asafiyya canal wished to repair it. He ordered that Rs. 150,000 be sent to each of the two cities through the British resident via the Political Agent in Turkish Arabia. It is worth mentioning that the Ottoman rulers of Iraq were not in favour of such repairs to the canals due to the power that it would grant to the Shi’i cities of Najaf and Karbala but reluctantly agreed on the insistence of the British agent.

The close link between the Shi’i clergy and British made them comfortable to use the British diplomatic pouches to communicate between Lucknow and the shrine cities, and even send the religious manuscripts through the British post (3).  The dominance of the EIC in India and the increasing presence of the British in Iraq coupled with the weakness of the Ottoman empire, had allowed British to connect these two important Shi’i centre together. Both centres played important roles in the disintegration of the Indian and Ottoman empires and creation of the Pakistan and Iraq through direct and indirect actions by the British.

To Continue ...


1- Shi'i gary, Ahmad Kasravi, Tehran 1944


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6- Awadh,

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57. The Mirage of Peace: Understanding the Never-Ending Conflict in the Middle East, David Aikman,Regal 2009


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