Shia Islam in India

Sultan Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah constructed Char-Minar (at Hyderabad) in the year 1591 CE, to commemorate the beginning of the second Islamic millennium year (1000 AH).
Nawab Shuja-ud-Daula and his heir Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula at Faizabad
Nizamat Imambara in West Bengal, built by Mansur Ali Khan (Nawab of Bengal) is probably the largest Imambara of India
Hoogly Imambara Courtyard, West Bengal
Asafi Masjid at Asafi-Imambara Complex, Lucknow
Shia Jaama Masjid Husainabad, Lucknow

Shia Muslims are a large minority among India's Muslims. There has been no particular census conducted in India with regards to sects, but Indian sources claimed the Shia population in mid 2014–2015 was between 35% and 38% of the entire Muslim population of India which accounts them in numbers between 80,000,000[1][2] to 90,000,000 plus[3] of the then 227 million Indian Muslim population.[4] However, as per an estimation of one reputed Shia NGO Alimaan Trust, India's Shia population in early 2000 was around 30 million with Sayyids comprising just a tenth of the Shia population.[5] According to some national and international sources Indian Shia population is the world's second-largest after Iran.[6][7][8][9][10][11][12][13][14]

The Shia population was also acclaimed publicly as second largest by the 14th Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh quoted in the year 2005.[15][16] One of the lingering problems in estimating the Shia population is that even though the Shia form a significant minority in a Muslim country, the entire population is often listed as Sunni. Shiites are estimated to be 21–35 percent of the Muslim population in South Asia, although the total number is difficult to estimate due to the intermingling between the Islamic schools and branches and practice of taqiyya (a form of concealment when in minority) by Shias.[17]

There are many big and small towns and villages with a majority Shiite Muslim population in India. Many Sayyids between 11th to 16th century migrated to the Indian subcontinent to escape the persecution of Shias in mostly Sunni ruled Middle East,[18] Prominent places in India with majority or considerable Shia Muslim population are Kargil, Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Lucknow, Hallaur, Amroha and others.

Among the Shias of India, an overwhelming majority belongs to the Ithna Ashari (Twelver) division, while the Shias among the Khoja and Bohra communities are Ismaili.[19] Dawoodi Bohras are primarily based in India, even though the Dawoodi theology originated in Yemen. India is home to the majority Dawoodi Bohra population most of them concentrated in Gujarat out of over 1 million followers worldwide.[20]


As per historical evidences and the genealogy maintained by the Sayyids who migrated to India from the Middle East, the history of Shia Islam in India traces long back, around 1000 years. According to historical records earliest known Muslim settlers in Awadh region (now a part of state of Uttar Pradesh) were father and son duo Saiyed Salar Dawood Ghazi and Saiyed Saiyed Salar Masud Ghazi.[21] In 422 AH/1030 AD Saiyed Salaar Dawood Ghazi his son Saiyed Salaar Masud Ghazi and nephew Saiyed Salaar Sulaiman established themselves at Satrikh (also known as Sulaimanabad), district Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh. In the year 462 AH/1070 AD Saiyed Abdullah Zarbaqsh and Saiyed Zaid Shahsawar viz. the son-in-law and grandson (daughter's son) of Saiyed Salaar Dawood Ghazi established the town Zaidpur, district Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh. The rulers of various dynasties of India and also in the 11th century the rulers of Multan and Sindh were adherents of Shia Islam.[22] The Nawabs of Awadh[23]

Shia culture and belief has left its influence all over India with Imam Hussein ibn Ali becoming the revered personality in India not only for the Shias but also from non-Muslim communities, especially the Hindus of northern India who participate in ceremonies commemorating Hussein ibn Ali's martyrdom on the Day of Ashura.

Shaykh al-Mufid writes that before the Battle of Karbala, Hussein ibn Ali and the commander of the enemy forces, Umar ibn Saad, met at night and talked together for a long time. After that meeting Umar ibn Saad sent a letter to the Governor of Kufa, Ubayd-Allah ibn Ziyad in which he wrote that Hussein ibn Ali has suggested that he go to ‘one of the border outposts’ of the rapidly expanding Muslim empire as a way of resolving conflict.[24] Other traditions name that border outpost as Al Hind or India. Even though Hussein ibn Ali himself was not able to go to India, some of the Shia did emigrate there for various reasons, including those who came as refugees from Umayyads and Abbasids persecution.[25] These refugees brought with them rituals which kept alive the remembrance of Karbala and their Shia Identity.[26]

Its narrated by Abd al Razzaq al Muqarram in his work of Maqtal al-Husayn that prior to his martyrdom, Al-Abbas ibn Ali while asking water for Mohammad's family from the Yazid I's army expressed his desire to go either Rome or to India. This made some people weep in the army of Yazid.[27]

It has been believed that in 7th century few ladies from the household of Prophet Mohammad after Battle of Karbala came to Punjab province which became a part of Pakistan. One of the prominent of them was Ruqayyah bint Ali, the daughter of Ali through his wife Umm ul-Banin, Ruqayyah bint Ali was the sister of Al-Abbas ibn Ali and wife of Muslim ibn Aqeel. Still her shrine in Lahore, Punjab of Pakistan, is visited by people all around and she is referred as Bibi Pak Daman.

Most of the Shias migrated to South Asia to prosper and obtain high positions in various Muslim Sultanates and later Mughal Empire. There were also rebels and nobles who lost royal favour and migrated to Mughal Empire. The Mughals also preferred to employ foreign Muslim officials that had no local interests and thus were loyal to the Mughal emperor.


Shiites in India faced persecution by some Sunni rulers and Mughal Emperors which resulted in the martyrdom of Indian Shia scholars like Qazi Nurullah Shustari (also known as Shaheed-e-Thaalis, the third Martyr) and Mirza Muhammad Kamil Dehlavi (also known as Shaheed-e- Rabay, the fourth Martyr) who are two of the five martyrs of Shia Islam.

Shias also faced persecution in India in Kashmir for centuries, by the Sunni invaders of the region which resulted in massacre of many Shias and as a result most of them had to flee the region.[28] Shias in Kashmir in subsequent years had to pass through the most atrocious period of their history. Plunder, loot and massacres which came to be known as ‘Taarajs’ virtually devastated the community. History records 10 such Taarajs also known as ‘Taraj-e-Shia’ between 15th to 19th century in 1548, 1585, 1635, 1686, 1719, 1741, 1762, 1801, 1830, 1872 during which the Shia habitations were plundered, people slaughtered, libraries burnt and their sacred sites desecrated.[28] Such was the reign of terror during this period that the community widely went into the practice of Taqya in order to preserve their lives and the honor of their womenfolk.[28] Village after village disappeared, with community members either migrating to safety further north or dissolving in the majority faith. The persecution suffered by Shias in Kashmir during the successive foreign rules was not new for the community. Many of the standard bearers of Shia Islam, like Sa’adaat (Saiyeds) or the descendants of the Prophet Mohammad and other missionaries who played a key role in spread of the faith in Kashmir, had left their home lands forced by similar situations.[28]

In post-Independence India, Shias are free to profess their faith without any restriction, and Ashura is an observed as a holiday in many parts of the country, however, some degree of persecution remains in Kashmir region of India by the majority Sunni community. In Kashmir, Ashura Procession has been banned by the government.

India's role in battle of Karbala

Nathanvilal Wahshi, a Hindu Writer narrated about the arrival of a helper for Hussein ibn Ali’s cause on the eight day of Moharram. Hussein ibn Ali welcomed him and immediately confirmed his Indian Identity. Hussein ibn Ali then goes on to praise India and its people in the following words:

"The perfumed fragrance entered the realm of love from your country The cool breeze came to my grandfather Mohammad from that garden."[29]

Upon asking more about the guest’s background he finds out that he is an Indian merchant residing in neighboring city of Basra, his father had been entrusted with the treasury of the war booty by none other than Ali. For this reason the merchant holds himself morally responsible for assisting Hussein ibn Ali in any possible way when the later is in trouble. Hussein ibn Ali appreciated gesture, but discouraged the merchant from taking up arms in following words:

"Brother, in my opinion you are the beloved of the world. In this country you are the treasure of India."[29]

Munshi Premchand further narrates the perception of this merchant on the part of Imam as suspicion about Hussein ibn Ali’s sincerity because of being a Hindu.

With tear filled eyes the traveler said: ”I am a Hindu, perhaps my fidelity is not convincing Master! Even though this heart is the land of Idol Temple, In it is also lit the light of affection”.[29]

Hussein ibn Ali said : What have you said in passion, Why should my eyes doubt your fidelity? My lord is aware of my conscience. What’s the difference between Hindu and Muslim in the quest for truth? This has been the guiding principle for the People of the Cloak or Ahl al-Kisa. ”.[30]

Population and circumstances

India, the only non-Muslim nation in the world with Shiite population of 4–5 percent of its entire population, has recognized the day of Ashura listed as Moharram as the Public Holiday in India. India also has the Birthday of Imam Ali as public Holiday in states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, whose capital Lucknow is considered as the centre of India’s Shiite Muslim community. The Birthdate of Ali is not recognized by any country in any of its states other than India, Azerbaijan and Iran as public Holiday. It is also a known fact that when Saddam mercilessly quelled a Shia uprising in 1992. The world media remained silent and damage to the shrines of Hussein ibn Ali and his half-brother Al-Abbas ibn Ali, in the course of Baathist attempts to flush out Shia rebels was a tightly kept secret of the Saddam regime but Indian media Doordarshan was the only network in the world to have shown that footage.[31]

Asafi Imambara Lucknow, built by Nawab Asaf ud Daulah one of the largest Imambara of India

India being a Secular state, Shiite Muslims in India practice their religion freely without any restriction.[32]

All India Shia Personal Law Board

Shias also claim to be sidelined in India, hence the All India Shia Personal Law Board was formed after segregation from the All India Muslim Personal Law Board in 2005 to address the legal needs of the Shia population. AISPLB feels that there should be a national policy for the Shias to prevent their exploitation by vested interests. The attitude of the government towards Muslims especially in Maharashtra came in for criticism.[1] The newly formed All India Shia Personal Law Board had 69 members at the time of formation compared to 204 members in the All India Muslim Personal Law Board.[33] The Shia body had the support of the erstwhile royal family of Lucknow, some 2000 descendants of the family claim to have extended their support. Shias claim they have been sidelined by the Sunni-dominated law board, which was set up in 1972.[34] Maulana Mirza Mohammed Athar, president of the breakaway All India Shia Personal Law Board explained the reason for segregation saying that, Shias have formed a forum of themselves because the All India Muslim Personal Law Board never took interest in their well being." Shias and Sunnis do not interpret family laws in a similar way. Shiites also have different Mosques and Burial grounds in India."[34]


India has the second largest Shia population in the world, after Iran.[35][36][37][38][39] However, some external sources such as the BBC claim that there are close to 45 million Shia's in India[40] and the Pew Research Center figure them between 15 and 20 percent of the Muslim population giving the numbers between 30,000,000 and 40,000,000.[41] However, the Pew Research Center report is not considered authentic by many Shias and also national and International reports after taking into consideration the report released by Britannica Book of the year in 1997 which put the estimates of Shia population in India in 1996 over 26,000,000[42][43][44] out of entire Indian Muslim population of 103,000,000 in 1996.[45][46] Shias live in the district of Badgam, Jammu and Kashmir with a majority population, and has been peaceful and has resisted separatism.[47] Shia population is 15 lakhs of Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir ,which is 14% of entire state population.[48] Sunni Muslims in India comprise about 12 crore India’s 17 crore Muslim population.[49]


There are notable Shia Muslims involved in many prominent Indian affairs, such as Arts, Business, Diplomates, Bureaucracrates, Journalism, Sports, Science, Religion, Literature, Politics, etc.

Azim Hashim Premji, being 3rd richest Indian, belongs to Shia community. Bismillah Khan, the winner of Bharat Ratna award is regarded as one of the most important figures in Indian music. In Politics, majority of Shia Muslims, like other Muslims of India are generally supporters of the Indian National Congress.[50][51][52]

Some Shia organisations in India include:-

Azadari in India

Husainabad Imambara also known as Chota Imambara at Husainabad, Lucknow, built in 1838 by King Mohammad Ali Shah of Awadh

Azadari or the mourning practice of Imam Husain ibn Ali is very much prevalent across India.[54] One thing which is worth noting in Indian Azadari is the participation of non Muslims in Shia rituals on the day of Ashura.[55][56][57]

The Hindu rulers of Vijayanagar during the 16th and 17th centuries even donned blackened garments and helped to arrange the Kala Tazia (Black Tazia) processions. Even the Scindias of Gwalior and the Holkar Maharajas of Indore conducted Majlis or Muharram congregations.[58] In Lucknow Hindus regularly join Muslims in the Azadari and Alam processions. The Sufi saints of India along with the Shi'ite Scholars encouraged the mixing and merging of indigenous elements from the rich cultural heritage of the land to that of Muharram thus proclaiming the message of peaceful co-existence among communities and united resistance to tyrannical authority.[58]

The carrying of Alams through fire by men is more common. There are several occasions when these are traditionally practiced particularly in the town of Vizianagaram 550 km outside of Hyderabad where 110 Alams are taken through the fire. A significant aspect of firewalking in the context of Moharram commemorations in Andhra Pradesh is the participation of Hindus in the ceremonies. In Vizinagaram 109 of the Alams are carried by Hindus.[59] The Grand Ashura Procession In Kashmir is banned by the state government of Kashmir. It has imposed illogical restrictions over it .

See also


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Further reading

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