The Social Context
The struggle of Usulis to displace Sufi leaders from positions of influence took place in society as well as in doctrinal tracts. To look at the conflict on a more concrete level requires a focus on the social-control mechanisms invoked by the Usulis, and on the social interests that underlay the dispute. Mujtahids in Awadh had no Sufi pirs put to death, as happened in Iran. But Usulis verbally abused Sufis in public and shunned them. Nasirabadi declared Shi‘i believers in existential monism ritually unclean (najis ), so that no one should eat with them.
Usulis should curse even Sayyids and true believers in the Shi‘i creed who held heretical Sufi doctrines and gave allegiance to a Sufi pir, holding that through mystical exercises one could draw near God. Still, Nasirabadi did not put Sufis completely outside the pale. One might accept food from one, and should help out even a Sufi relative in need. An Usuli should not curse a Shi‘i simply for wearing the patched robes of a Sufi, but should ascertain his beliefs first, though wearing such clothing indicated moral corruption at the very least.
Nasirabadi's control over charitable contributions allowed him to attract students with stipends and to train a new generation of anti-Sufi scholars. Sayyid Aczam ‘Ali Bankori. for instance, wrote against Sufis and in favor of marriage, and Sayyid Muhammad Baqir Musavi the preacher (vaciz ) attacked Sufis and Sunnis in his sermons. The campaign against the Sufis created an atmosphere of witch-hunting among Awadh's Shi‘is. A man could be publicly disgraced and cursed on mere suspicion of Sufi tendencies. While these practices benefited the ulama in helping to cut off patronage to their Sufi competitors, they made life unpleasant even for respectable persons of slightly unorthodox views.
Sayyid Najaf ‘Ali Kashmiri, arriving in Faizabad in the late 1700s, inclined to the upper-class mysticism of the Isfahan school but had no links to a Sufi order. A self-effacing man, once when someone mistook him for an attendant at a public bath, he obligingly helped the fellow bathe. His commentaries on mystical works by Safavid thinkers, coupled with his ascetic bent, led his enemies to accuse him of being a Sufi. To save his reputation he publicly had to abuse the Sufis as heretical innovators guilty of antinomianism and esoteric interpretation of the scriptures. More lay behind such controversies than a high-minded concern with correct doctrine. Aqa Ahmad Bihbahani observed that when any of the ambitious ulama in Faizabad saw that a scholar had gained renown and might become a source for emulation for the laity, they smeared him as a Sufi or an Akhbari.
In 1816 Nasirabadi's biographer said that Sufi meetings had declined among Awadh's Shi‘is to such an extent that both the high and the low opposed Sufism. Though an exaggeration, the statement probably reflects social trends. In Jaunpur an important family of religious dignitaries traditionally maintained in their neighborhood a Sufi center (khanqah ) that had been built by Mufti Sayyid Mubarak Jaunpuri (d. 1687). In the late 1790s the building fell to ruin. The family had by that time become Shi‘is, and they made an architectural statement of their new faith by building an imambarah on the site. In the Sufi center of Salon, one Sadiq ‘Ali Shah raised an imambarah in 1796.
Nasirabadi's sons carried on the campaign against Sufism in the 1820s and 1830s, and it clearly remained an issue within the Shi‘i community. The mujtahids ruled that while the Imams and great Shi‘is may have performed miracles, all such acts attributed to Sufis were lies. They forbade marriage between a Shi‘i women and a Sufi Shi‘i, even one of sound doctrine, as long as he attended chanting sessions. (Although Sayyid Dildar ‘Ali had earlier felt reluctant to anathematize someone solely on grounds of practice, his sons took a harder line.) Conversions to Shi‘ism from Sunnism also raised questions. Some Sunnis claiming descent from the medieval mystic ‘Abdu'l-Qadir Gilani became Shi‘is in the 1820s, but refused to curse their ancestor. They said cursing him would advertise their Shi‘ism and prevent them from dissimulating with Sunnis. The mujtahid coolly replied that if someone deserved to be cursed, being related to him was no excuse for not doing so. The Usulis' hatred of Sufism extended even to matters of literary usage, and they
forbade the use of the Sufi term cishq , overwhelming love, in describing one's relationship with God, on the grounds that it was unscriptural and implied a reprehensible excess and anthropomorphism.
The issues of asceticism and Sufism to some extent involved matters of social class. Akhund Mulla Muhammad Riza Kashmiri, a celebrated ascetic and Akhbari contempotary of the wealthy prayer leader Sayyid Dildar ‘Ali Nasirabadi, owned a small mill. He himself sometimes ground the wheat that people brought him, and sometimes he had his male or female servant do the job. He lived on the proceeds, supported his dependents, and gave away excess profit to the poor.
The story goes that once a high notable from the court of Asafu'd-Dawlah attempted to visit him on an elephant. The pious mulla waved him away from his gate, protesting that, as a poor man, he could only be met by other poor men. Mulla Muhammad Riza's asceticism and God-fearing ways lent him a great deal off popularity. The Akhbaris Taju'd-Din Husayn Khan and Subhan ‘Ali Khan, tax-farmers hired and then dismissed by Nawab Sacadat ‘Ali Khan, pleaded with Mulla Muhammad Riza to pray for them, and at length he acceded to their importuning. Attributing their later reinstatement to his intercession with God, they offered him a ten-thousand-rupee reward, but he refused it.
Whereas small landed proprietors, such as the Nasirabadis, or tax-farmers such as Subhan ‘Ali Khan, depended on the goodwill of the government for their continuing prosperity, a small-time miller like Kashmiri could afford to be more independent. He had sympathy for the peasants who brought him their grain to be ground, and he certainly preferred the company and welfare of the poor to that of the rich. His asceticism made a virtue of the relative poverty of his social class, and he refused to become involved in the unstable life of intrigues that acceptance of ruling-class patronage would have entailed. Though he was not a member of a Sufi order, his lifestyle came closer to the ideal preached by Sufis like Mawlavi Samic than did that of most Usuli ulama. His steadfast Akhbarism marked his independence from the mujtahids, exemplifylng the kind of sectarian Shi‘ism that artisans practiced even after the Usulis created a formal religious establishment and wielded great power at court.
Awadh's notables also continued to give patronage to Sufis. In the early 1830s Roberts reported that a few years earlier a mendicant mystic called Shahji had come into high favor with the ruler of Awadh, and was given permission to levy small contributions for his support from shopkeepers throughout the capital. Although he collected only five cowries a day from each one, a very small sum, the total from all the bazaars amounted to a considerable revenue.
The Usuli campaign for social closure by excluding Sufi practices from the Shi‘i community derived partially from a desire to monopolize religious authority and resources. By making an argument that the Usuli style of life was more scriptural, and by painting the Sufi Shi‘is as heretics and crypto-Sunnis, the Usulis succeeded in weakening Sufi legitimacy within the Awadh ruling class: Their weapons included social ostracism, public humiliation, and the denial of marriage and inheritance rights. This campaign had the latent usefulness of providing a way of smearing newly immigrant competitors for patronage or authority.