Sufis and the Friday Prayers
The establishment of Friday prayers in 1786 helped provoke a crisis. As long as Shi‘is simply held informal mourning sessions for the Imams, the community could remain diffuse and diverse. The holding of formal prayers in congregation at Hasan Riza Khan's palace required that criteria for community membership be set up. Moreover, Hasan Riza Khan and-other notables created tensions by bestowing patronage both on Sufis and on their Usuli rivals. The appointment of an Usuli prayer leader proved divisive, since to pray behind him implied acceptance of his spiritual leadership. The Sufis held meditation sessions, with dancing and singing, on Fridays in the same hall where Shi‘is said Friday prayers in congregation. The Sufis did not join the prayers, some suggesting that praying in public was prideful. They said that anyone with inner purity did not need such rituals, which only bestowed outer purity.
In the 1780s at the Awadh court the struggle between jurists and mystics grew fierce. Once the Sufi Shah Khayru'llah told his patron Hasan Riza Khan that he did not go to Karbala, for fear of Aqa Muhammad Baqir Bihbahani, whom he accused of extorting money from Indian pilgrims to the shrine of Imam Husayn. Nasirabadi, having studied in the shrine cities, protested that such fears were wholly unfounded.
In 1786, about four months after the congregational prayers began, Sayyid Dildar ‘Ali launched a stinging attack on the Sufis in his afternoon sermon. He condemned those who claimed to meet every day with God, or even to be God Himself, and who said they knew the condition of the seven heavens. Nasirabadi sneered that if one asked them a question about Islamic law, they would be unable to answer. He accused them of innovating heretical rituals and laws. Since Sunnis in India often attacked Shi‘is as innovators, Nasirabadi made this charge cautiously. He defined a heretical innovation (bidcah ) as a practice contrary to the path of the Prophet. For instance, he said, there is an oral report from Muhammad that whoever weeps for Husayn will enter heaven. Therefore, the mourning sessions held by Shi‘is for the Imam are not heretical innovations, though they grew up after the time of the Prophet. (Sunni critics, of course, did see such mourning sessions. as heretical.)
Nasirabadi also criticized Sufis for the practice of spiritual retreat and seclusion, saying that meeting with the believers and associating with one another is much praised in the oral reports from the Imams. In later sermons, as well, he returned to these themes, criticizing Sufi ascetic ideas and what he saw as pantheism. He rejected the analogy that God flows in his creation as water in milk, or that God is as the ocean and beings are as the waves. Such a view, he said, would reduce us to saying that dogs and pigs are God Himself.
The Chishti leader Shah ‘Ali Akbar Mawdudi (d. 1795), Nasirabadi's keenest competitor for the support of Hasan Riza Khan, led the Friday morning meditation sessions, but he and his following refused to attend the congregational prayers. They prayed Friday prayers elsewhere, with Mawdudi as the prayer leader. Shah ‘Ali Akbar, stung by Nasirabadi's anathemas against the Sufis from his newly won pulpit, sent Hasan Riza Khan a letter saying "Praise be to God! Is it right that someone should now mount the minbar and pronounce curses on the person who founded the congregational prayers?" When Hasan Riza Khan brought the matter up with Sayyid Dildar ‘Ali, he replied that he did not wish Mawdudi to be among those whom
he cursed. If he categorized himself as a pir, Nasirabadi bore no blame. But Mawdudi considered himself a law-abiding mystic, insisting that the prerequisite for mystical initiation was to follow the holy Law. He felt that the principles of esoteric knowledge, like those of jurisprudence, were based on the Qur'an, the Sunnah, consensus, and analog. He therefore strongly objected to being branded a heretic.
The chief minister perceived no contradiction between the legalism of the Usulis and the mystical approach of his favorite Sufis, still hoping to find a way for the two to coexist. He broached the idea that Sayyid Dildar ‘Ali meet Shah ‘Ali Akbar personally and iron out their differences. Nasirabadi dismissed the man as a fraud, saying that Mawdudi refused to participate in the Shi‘i prayers only because of his many Sunni followers. Sayyid Dildar ‘Ali said he feared that he might confuse the Shi‘i congregation if he now, after having mounted the pulpit and cursed Sufis every Friday, expressed a wish to meet a pir.
In the early 1790s a final break came. One evening Hasan Riza Khan brought Shah ‘Ali Akbar to the Great Imambarah just before sunset. The new Friday prayers mosque stood next to the Imambarah, and the believers were preparing to say the sunset (maghrib ) prayers. At sunset Nasirabadi normally ordered candles to be lit at that Great Imambarah, out of respect to the cenotaphs stored there. That evening, however, he waited, in hopes that the Sufis would leave. Hasan Riza Khan defused this tense situation, arranging a pro forma (zahiri ) meeting between Usuli and Sufi.
The chief minister wanted Shah ‘Ali Akbar to pray behind the mujtahid. The negotiations broke down, however, and Mawdudi led his Sufis in the sunset prayer at the Imambarah. Hasan Riza Khan went over to the Friday prayers mosque to say the prayers behind Nasirabadi with the Usulis. Sayyid Dildar ‘Ali ardently requested of the chief minister that he be excused from meeting the Sufi. Shah ‘Ali Akbar at that point fell ill and had to leave. Nasirabadi was happy at this development, which allowed him to avoid meeting the man.
The incident proved decisive for the development of the Shi‘i community in Awadh. The Sufi Shi‘is, excluded from the official congregation, lost opportunities to exercise influence with, and receive patronage from, high notables. Shi‘i Sufism might have acted as an ecumenical force, since pits often had Sunni or even Hindu followers. The Shi‘ism of the Usuli ulama emphasized strident communalism, such militancy ultimately provoking a Sunni backlash.