The Shias of Pakistan

An Assertive and Beleaguered Minority

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Andreas Rieck
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     564 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Shias of Pakistan: An Assertive and Beleaguered Minority by Andreas T. Rieck provides a much-needed overview of the history of Shia organizing in Pakistan. Shia Muslims are a minority group in Pakistan, but Pakistan is home to the second largest Shia community in the world, after Iran (xi). This book largely focuses on Twelver Shias, with occasional references to the Ismaili community. Rieck lists the various Shia organizations that have formed since Pakistan’s founding and charts the changes in their demands, from requests for more equitable representation in areas such as law and education to later concerns around safety and security. Despite a strangely rosy portrayal of British colonialism and a failure to engage with the bigger questions about why Pakistan descended into sectarianism, The Shias of Pakistan offers a thorough community history.

Rieck begins with an overview of how Shi’ism came to the region. Twelver Shi’ism increased in popularity during the Mughal era when it became the official state religion of Safavid Iran (7). From Mughal rule through the British colonial period, Shias gained new followers during their elaborate, public Muharram ceremonies (11). Some Shia organizing took place in the 1940s, but it was overshadowed by the Muslim League (24). Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League and Pakistan’s first Governor-General, was born a Khoja Ismaili and later converted to Twelver Shi’ism (36). The majority of Shias were enthusiastic about Pakistan’s founding, but some were also nervous about the unresolved question of their rights in the new state (53). Attacks on Muharram processions began to increase in the mid-1950s, but large-scale violence remained uncommon (90). Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s presidency in the 1970s was notably calm (160). Zia-ul-Haq’s presidency marked a new era. Zia reneged on promises to protect minorities and did not fully consider Shias in his implementation of Islamic law (199). The 1979 Irani revolution emboldened Shia communalism (197). Violence skyrocketed during the 1980s and 1990s as Shias were attacked in hospitals, funerals, and sacred spaces (284).

Rieck tells history with a linear model. The result is impressively detailed, but it can also make it difficult to understand reoccurring themes. For example, Rieck does not comment on the relationship between religion and ethnicity. Many instances of anti-Shia violence are directed towards the Hazara ethnic group (280, 288, 292). The relationship between these attacks and larger anti-Shia sentiments is not clear. Similarly, anti-Ahmadiyya violence is frequently brought up in conjunction with anti-Shia violence even though Shias largely supported Bhutto’s injunction against the Ahmadiyya in 1974 (167, 183). Brief explorations of Hazara identity and the relationship between the Ahmadiyya and the Shia would have been helpful in explicating the stake and scope of debates over Muslim authenticity in Pakistan.

Rieck’s most interesting theoretical intervention is his observation of the way Shia and Sunni identities have formed in relation to one another. In his analysis of the All-Pakistan Defense of Sahaba Conference, held in 1985 and attended by hundreds of Sunni ulama (religious scholars), Rieck notes that Sunnis clearly imitated Shia commemoration rituals and popular mobilization tactics (235). Even in the sharpening of sectarian differences, there is an exchange of beliefs and practices. This anecdote is a fascinating illustration of how reliant majority groups are on minority groups for their own self-definition and self-understanding. Rieck also notes the phenomenon of Shia and Sunni urban religious scholars and institutions trying to stamp out diverse forms of rural practice by claiming that they are not authentic (235).

When it comes to British colonial rule, Rieck puts forward a number of contradictory claims. He notes that early Mughal rulers were fairly tolerant of religious diversity yet claims that Shias had “full religious freedom for the first time” under British rule (9). Rieck also suggests that Shias may have been undercounted in the 1921 British Census of India, the last census to differentiate between Shias and Sunnis, because they practiced taqiya (hiding one’s religious identity when under threat) (13). It is unclear why a group without a significant history of persecution in the precolonial era would hide their identity during the colonial era if they had “full religious freedom.” Rieck admits that “sectarian cleavages between Indian Muslims became sharper under British rule,” but gives no further reflection (19). Instead, Rieck states as fact that “the ‘divide’ and ‘rule’ argument” that is so characteristic of British colonialism is less convincing regarding Sunnis and Shias (19). He notes correctly that there are valuable arguments for blaming the British for reinforcing the Hindu-Muslim divide in India, but then argues that the British continued to rely on Muslim notables after the Great Rebellion of 1857 (19).

In Indian Muslim Minorities and the 1857 Rebellion (Bloomsbury, 2019), author Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst details how the British strategically racialized Muslims in the wake of the Great Rebellion, a response which continues to reverberate today in terms of our understandings of race and religion as categories of difference. Rieck’s own sources confirm that religious identity became entrenched and weaponized under British rule. At the first All Pakistan Shia Conference in Lahore in 1948, Raja Ghazanfar Ali Khan, the keynote speaker and Minister of Refugees, stated his hope that Pakistan’s founding would lead its people beyond the sectarian ambitions, narrow-mindedness and fanaticism which had been “taught to us by the British” (58). Rieck quotes Khan but does not interrogate this claim or take it seriously.

Despite these critiques, this book remains all too relevant. In September 2020, thousands flooded the streets of Karachi during the month of Muharram, proclaiming that Shias are heretics and waving banners from organizations known to have killed Shias in recent years. Today anti-Shia attacks come from a variety of sources including Khorasan, the regional branch of ISIS, and the Pakistani branch of the Taliban (xiii). The prominence of these organizations has also inspired smaller, more loosely organized terrorist groups. Rieck expertly outlines complicated webs of relationships and provides an unflinching account of the rise of anti-Shia violence. The next step is asking the difficult questions: how and why?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Yasmine Flodin-Ali is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andreas T. Rieck served with the UN Mission to Afghanistan before spending four years in Pakistan with the Hanns Seidel Foundation. Since 2007 he has been an advisor to the German Federal Criminal Police Office, Berlin.


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