Communal relations in Awadh under eighteenth-century nawabs differed greatly from those under the "shahs" of the mid-nineteenth century. Asafu'd-Dawlah gave privileges to Hindu holy men as well as Muslim ones, to Hindu pilgrims to Allahabad as well as Shi‘i pilgrims to Karbala. Communal relations, hardly idyllic, nevertheless depended on Mughal traditions of personal status, which affirmed Muslim superiority but recognized the right of Hindus to exist. Mediators among religious communities, in the form of Sufi pirs and Hindu holy men, abounded and even won influence at court.
The Usuli ulama sought to rationalize communal relations on a different basis. They claimed a special, exclusive relationship with Shi‘i laymen (including notables), who were bound to emulate them in matters of law and ritual, and countenanced no competition from Sufis or Hindu holy men.
They legally excluded Hindus from a legitimate status under the Awadh state, although they had few means until the 1840s to interfere in the actual workings of communal law. Their demand for the social exclusion of Hindus as ritually impure idolaters received scant response from the Shi‘i-ruled state, which depended on Hindu elites to help it rule. In the process of socially excluding Hindus, ironically, Shi‘is adopted an idiom that made them more like a caste.
The contradictory policy advocated by Shi‘i ulama toward Sunnis involved the exclusion of hard-line Sunnis like the Naqshbandis, leniency toward Sunnis who participated in Muharram rituals, and a political alliance with Sunnis against Hindus. Ironically, the challenges to Shi‘i dominance in Awadh came, not from Hindus, but from Sunni sectarian movements, such as those of Sayyid Ahmad Rai-Barelavi and Amir ‘Ali Amethavi. Usuli insistence on cursing the caliphs, more strident after the inception of the Shi‘i kingdom, alienated many Sunnis and helped provoke a backlash. Violently anti-Sunni policies of the Awadh government in the 1820s and 1830s gave way under both external British and internal pressures to more juridical forms of exclusion in the 1840s and 1850s. Both Usuli communalist policies at the center and increasing decentralization in the countryside, implying greater power for Hindu rajas and merchants, help explain Sunni frustrations in the 1850s.