Towards Unity: Shahanshah Naqvi’s Call and Shia-Sunni Harmony in Contemporary Lucknow

Sidra Fatima,

Lucknow: On a humid afternoon in the capital city of Uttar Pradesh, Maulana Shanshah Naqvi, a distinguished Shia scholar from Pakistan, addressed a crowd at Asafi Masjid on June 10 with fervour and passion. His hour-long speech passionately advocated for unity between Shias and Sunnis — a perennial theme resonating through the centuries-old arches.

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“Sunni meri jaan hai, Shia meri aabru (Sunnis are my life, while Shias are my dignity),” proclaimed the noted cleric, reminding followers of the two sects, “Islam teaches us peace and brotherhood. In these challenging times, our strength lies in unity.”

This call for unity holds particular significance in Lucknow, a city with a history marked by sectarian tensions between the two groups. As the city of one of India’s most populous states and a spiritual centre of subcontinental Shi’ism, Lucknow has witnessed more Sunni-Shia violence over the past century than any other Indian city.

The roots of this conflict date back to 1905, marked by the city’s first recorded riot. Since then, sectarian violence has primarily flared during Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, which holds profound significance for Shiite across the world.

Muharram commemorates the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad. During these two months of Shia ritual mourning, Muharram and Safar, life in the old city of Lucknow comes to a standstill annually. While religious differences generally take a back seat in daily life, it becomes more pronounced during Muharram, often leading to conflicts within the Muslim community. Traditionally, Muharram in Lucknow exacerbates existing schisms, which can escalate into violence triggered by seemingly minor incidents like a thrown rock.

Syed Ali Haider, a 24-year-old journalist, explained the origins of this conflict, saying, “In the late 1980s, the concept of ‘tabbara’ (a doctrine to consider enemies of God as enemies) gained traction in Lucknow. A few Shia clerics were accused of using loudspeakers during their speeches, which created friction between the two communities. In response, Sunnis too began organising juloos (procession) to counter Shia gatherings. It often led to clashes and disruptions. Over time, these incidents grew more frequent, with members of both communities occasionally resorting to exchanging heated words, sometimes resulting in serious altercations.”

The cycle of violence, he said, can also be viewed through the lens of political motivations encouraged by governments.

The population of Shias in Lucknow roughly stands somewhere between 1.5 to 2 lakh, comprising about 2-3% of the state’s total population. Despite being a minority, the community wields significant historical and cultural influence in the city, owing to the Nawabs who governed Lucknow during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Quamar Ashraf, a media analyst, working for the United Nations agencies, further explained, “Despite theological differences between Shia Ilm-e Kalam (interpretation) and Sunni Ilm-e Kalam, everyday life and cultural practices of both communities were deeply intertwined, influenced by Sufism and mysticism. Sunnis also observed Muharram and participated in religious events honouring Prophet Muhammad’s family, especially Imam Hassan and Hussain. However, the Gulf oil imbroglio not only financially empowered the majority Sunni population, but also facilitated the spread of Wahhabi Islam, which historically harbours animosity towards Iran due to theological and political differences between Arabs and Iranians.”

He said the Gulf oil imbroglio changed not only the financial dynamics of Lucknow, it also promoted the spread of the Wahhabi ideology. This introduced an alternate set of theological interpretations far removed from the more syncretic and mysticism-influenced practices prevalent among Indian Muslims.

“This shift exacerbated theological differences between Shias and Sunnis, particularly among religious scholars who debated on religious matters more frequently,” he added.

Sectarian Divide and Political Advantage

Raphael Susewind, a political anthropologist renowned for his studies on Muslim belonging and electoral dynamics in Lucknow, elucidates the strategic underpinnings of sectarian violence: “Some argue that accentuating one’s Muslim identity over Shia or Sunni affiliations can serve as a mediator in such situations.”

Given that a significant number of Muslim candidates identify as Sunni, Shiite voters often hesitate to support them, perceiving Sunni identity as overshadowing broader Muslim unity. This division is seen as advantageous to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), exploiting a fragmented Muslim electorate that lacks cohesive political influence.

“Having witnessed a lifetime in the midst of sectarian unrest, I have discerned a pattern — these conflicts frequently coincide with election cycles. Politicians frequently exploit sectarian divisions for electoral gains, knowing that tensions between Shias and Sunnis can polarise votes within the Muslim community,” reflected a 57-year-old female Shia scholar, who resides at Hussainabad.

Appeal for Harmony

Against this backdrop, Maulana Shahanshah’s call for unity emerges as not just timely but imperative. His message resonated deeply with individuals like Butool Zehra, a master’s student at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

“Amidst rising Islamophobia nationwide, it is crucial for both communities to present a unified front. They must engage politically as a cohesive force to challenge those who exploit divisions between them for political gains,” she remarked.

She stressed the urgency of bridging the divide between the groups, stating, “We must diminish the schism through intellectual discourse and scholarly debates, rather than undermining each other’s identities.”

Invoking legendary writer and playwright Saadat Hasan Manto who had once said, “I am enough of a Muslim to be killed”, Zehra said a murderous mob only identifies a Muslim, not a Sunni or Shia.

“Both communities must adopt this perspective to survive. Internal divisions within Islam paint an unfavourable picture and undermine the unity of the Ummah (community), where mutual support should prevail. By embracing these principles, we can contribute to countering the pervasive Islamophobic narratives worldwide,” she concluded.

Hamza Ahmad, a resident of Uttar Pradesh’s Moradabad district, expressed similar sentiments. “In our society, people heed the ulama (Islamic scholars) greatly. If Shia and Sunni individuals come together at gatherings and social events, they will realise how alike they are,” he observed, adding, “In today’s political climate, the majority treats both communities equally. If we unite and dispel misconceptions, it would significantly strengthen our bond.”

In the era of social media, clerics like Maulana Shahanshah wield even greater influence. Their leadership among Muslims plays a pivotal role in uniting disparate segments of the community. “We need more leaders like Shahanshah Naqvi to lead this initiative,” he emphasised.

Imran Abbas, a local business owner in Hussainabad, stressed on the need to make religious gatherings of both sects more inclusive. “I may not be educated, but I have witnessed enough to say that if we set aside our differences and stand united, we can create a safer and more stable environment for our children — setting a unified example for them,” he said.

Rather than focusing on the causes of conflict, according to him, both Shiite and Sunnis should attend gatherings organised by both sects. “Unity fosters stability, which is crucial for both economic progress and communal harmony.”

Maulana Kalbe Sadiq, a noted Islamic scholar, devoted significant effort to foster peaceful coexistence of Shias and Sunnis and Hindus and Muslims. And therefore, he was widely respected by both groups. In numerous speeches, he emphasised the commonalities between the sects and urged mutual respect and understanding.

Similarly, Shahanshah Naqvi, in his recent addresses, underscored the urgency of unity in the face of external challenges.

“I grew up surrounded by various myths that were dispelled as I delved deeper into reading. The narratives ingrained in children’s minds contribute to the divisions we see today. It is crucial to explore both sides of history before forming any opinions,” remarked Alfiya Azeem Khan, a 21-year-old Sunni Muslim and recent graduate.

A New Era Dawns in Lucknow?

In a city with a tumultuous history of sectarian strife, these peaceful times offer an opportunity for introspection and optimism. The words of Maulana Shahanshah and the endeavours of other religious leaders resonate deeply within the community — urging a departure from a past marked by division.

Syed Ahmad Unais Nadwi, a 32-year-old Sunni Islamic scholar, emphasised that efforts toward unity are not recent. “Efforts to bridge the gap between both the sects have been ongoing for a long time. The establishment of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, for instance, largely led by Ahle-Sunnat and Jamaat-e-Deoband, has made significant strides by integrating Shias into its leadership positions. Maulana Kalbe Sadiq played a pivotal role in the formation of this esteemed forum where both sects collaborate under one umbrella,” he said.

In his 32 years of life, he said, he has observed that despite conflicts, the two communities consistently unite against external threats. “Many Sunni scholars have tirelessly worked to foster peace between Shias and Sunnis. Addressing internal conflicts can prevent external forces from dividing the Muslim community, which faces persecution not only in India but globally,” he said.

Lucknow’s narrative is one of coexistence amidst challenges, striking a delicate balance between tradition and progress. Within these voices — and others like them — lies the promise of unity and harmony, guiding the city towards an evolving future.

“For now, as long as the ideology of Hindutva persists, the unity between these two sects will continue to strengthen,” commented Ashraf, the senior journalist.