Seyed Mohammad Asgari was born in the northern Indian town of Jaunpur (Uttar Pradesh state) in 1955. He travelled to Iran in 1974 to study at the prestigious Qom religious seminary, where he obtained the rank of Hujjat al-Islam. He stayed in Iran until 1993. Upon his return to India Asgari founded the Ahlul Bait  Foundation (Bonyad-e-Ahlul Bait), which he continues to manage.
The Ahlul Bait Foundation specialises in the provision of religious and vocational training to local Shiite Muslims and to a lesser extent the wider community. The Foundation aspires to raise awareness of Shiite teachings and culture in India. Moreover, Bonyad-e-Ahlul Bait undertakes charitable activities on behalf of India’s poor, in particular the poor from the Shiite community.
Previously the Foundation produced two scholarly journals in Urdu: Peyghame Thaqalein and Tawhid, both of which were translated into different languages. Owing to financial difficulties the publications were discontinued but there are plans to revive them in the near future.
This interview took place at the Ahlul Bait Foundation’s main office in the Jamia Nagar district of New Delhi. The interview was conducted in Persian.
Mahan Abedin – How do you view Shiite-Sunni relations in India?
Seyed Mohammad Asgari – It has varied at different stages. At present, relations can be described as favourable. There have been no major reported incidents in recent years. However, from time to time there is an outbreak of verbal and rhetorical conflict. The main culprits are certain Sunni clerics, particularly those with a Wahabi mindset. Some minor Shiite clerics also foster misunderstanding by saying foolish things. But broadly speaking the situation is calm and satisfactory at present.
Mahan Abedin – To what extent can we talk about Islamic “unity” in India?
Seyed Mohammad Asgari – Despite the activities of extremists on both sides, there are many Shiite and Sunni activists and scholars who are working hard on the scene and behind the scenes to foster understanding and bring the Islamic religions closer together. Their efforts have borne fruit in recent years as evidenced by the lack of conflict. Increasingly Shiites and Sunnis attend each other’s conferences and meetings. This is a major step toward greater understanding. But there is a long way to go before we can talk about full unity in this country. In recent years misunderstanding between Shiites and Sunnis has increased outside India and it is difficult to ignore this reality.
Mahan Abedin – How do you explain the relative lack of sectarian violence in India?
Seyed Mohammad Asgari – If you take a global perspective there are two countries in which there is serious Shiite-Sunni conflict, namely Iraq and Pakistan. In both cases the factors producing violence have less to do with religious differences than with politics. These political antagonisms don’t exist in India. Take Iraq as an example; Shiite-Sunni conflict only broke out after the American-led invasion and occupation. Prior to that there was no open armed conflict between these two groups. At the time of British imperial rule in India there was widespread conflict between Shiites and Sunnis in this country, stemming either from the direct policies of the occupying power or the indirect consequences of the same.
It is clear that Global Arrogance  [Editor’s note: referring to America and her allies] is neither for the Shiites nor the Sunnis, in fact they are the enemies of both Islamic traditions. Take Pakistan as an example; before the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran there was no physical conflict between Shiites and Sunnis. Misunderstanding was limited to verbal spats. However, after the victory of the Islamic Revolution and Imam Khomeini’s insistence on unity amongst the two major Islamic religions, there were many influential political and intellectual quarters in the West who were alarmed by this development.
The arrogant powers regard Islamic unity as inimical to their core interests in these regions. Consequently, these powers went to work to subvert the plans of the Islamic Revolution. It is around this time that we saw an explosion of Wahabi literature in Pakistan that sought first and foremost to misrepresent Shiite beliefs with a view to distorting the Sunnis’ perception of the Shiites. The then Government of Pakistan led by General [Muhammad] Zia ul-Haq financed and armed many of these Wahabi groups and this was the single most important cause of sectarian violence. They went even further and attempted to physically displace Shiites and re-populate their villages with Sunnis.
These factors don’t exist in India. The Indian Government neither favours the Shiites nor the Sunnis. There are suspicions that elements of the Indian Government, especially in the powerful bureaucracy, favour Hindu extremists and nationalists, but that is a different matter. View the fact that the Sunnis in India are a minority; that helps explain their reluctance to undertake activities which might cause the ire of the Indian state. In Pakistan Sunni extremists feel no such inhibition and they can count on the support of the powerful military and security establishment which is riddled with extremist elements.
Mahan Abedin – Isn’t it in the interest of Hindu nationalists in India to foment Shiite-Sunni conflict?
Seyed Mohammad Asgari – The bottom line is that no matter how much some elements in the Indian establishment dislike the idea of Shiite-Sunni unity; at the end of the day the Indian Government feels it has a minimum duty of care towards all its citizens. India doesn’t want bloodshed on the streets. The situation is totally different in Pakistan where the extremists are supported and provoked by elements in the establishment. The Pakistani establishment in turn is supported by the arrogant powers, namely the United States and the United Kingdom, both of which aspire to foment Shiite-Sunni conflict everywhere as part of a broader strategy of subverting the Islamic Revolution.
Mahan Abedin – You talk about so-called Wahabism in India. How extensive is this group’s influence over Sunni Muslims in India?
Seyed Mohammad Asgari – From a quantitative point of view, this is not a major group. However, they are qualitatively impressive. This is due in large measure to generous funding by countries where Wahabism is either the dominant state ideology or otherwise a powerful political-social movement, namely Saudi Arabia and the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf. Moreover, Wahabism is a relatively new movement, or better put a cult, and wherever a new movement emerges there is a lot of activity associated with that trend. Wahabis are very active in building mosques, madrassas and other training institutes, and the sheer range and scale of this activity inevitably generates influence.
Mahan Abedin – When you talk about so-called Wahabism what and who exactly do you have in mind? Are you talking about a specific group or a more general religious and intellectual tendency?
Seyed Mohammad Asgari – The people who are referred to as Wahabis in India are divided into several groups, the members of which don’t get along with each other. The Ulama of the Deoband Seminary  are regarded as Wahabis, as are the Tablighi Jammat  movement. The Nadwatal Ulama Seminary  and the Ahleh Hadith movement  too are considered Wahabis. Moreover, the political Islamists of the Jammat Islami  are also viewed by some as Wahabi in outlook. In the Indian Muslim community the term “Wahabi” is ascribed to those elements who disapprove of the prevailing Islamic practices in this country, such as the mourning ceremonies for Imam Hossein  on the Day of Ashura .
Furthermore, people who reject the tradition of emulation in Islamic religiosity and scholasticism are often described as Wahabi. Note that the four main schools of Sunnism follow the teachings of specific great scholars. The Wahabis effectively reject the four schools. In India 90 percent of Sunni Muslims follow the Hanafi School of jurisprudence. The Ulama of Dar Ul-Uloom Deoband, the Tablighi Jammat, the Nadwatal Ulama and the Jammat Islami all follow the Hanafi School. The only dissenting group is the Ahleh Hadith. On that basis it is possible to refer to the Ahleh Hadith as the only true and pure Wahabi movement in India.
Mahan Abedin – There is some evidence that the senior Ulama of the Deoband Seminary are distancing themselves from some of the more extremist beliefs and practices associated with that tradition. In view of this evidence, is there any interaction between Shiite groups and the Deoband Seminary?
Seyed Mohammad Asgari – There is no organisational engagement. However, there are individual Shiites who maintain dialogue with the Deoband Seminary.
Mahan Abedin – Do you believe there has been reform at the Deoband Seminary?
Seyed Mohammad Asgari – No, I don’t believe there has been organisational or any kind of root-and- branch reform. There may be individuals who express dissenting views but it doesn’t go beyond that. In any case the Deoband School no longer constitutes a unified and coherent institution. It has been split into at least two major schools since the early 1980s. Moreover, there have been additional splits within these two schools.
Mahan Abedin – How would you explain the state of Shiite-Barelvi  relations?
Seyed Mohammad Asgari – Of course the Barelvis in India, like their brethren in Pakistan, look upon Shiites with a measure of disapproval and suspicion. But owing to their respect for the Ahlul Bait the Barelvis are closer to Shiites than the other Sunni groups. For example, on the Day of Ashura in Delhi most of the processions mourning the martyrdom of Imam Hossein are organised by the Barelvis. Of course, they don’t mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hossein with the same passion and fanfare as the Shiites, but this gesture inevitably creates proximity between Shiites and Barelvis, at least from the Shiites’ point of view.
Mahan Abedin – To what extent does the Indian Government interfere in internal Muslim affairs?
Seyed Mohammad Asgari – There are elements within the system, if not the Government, who are not in principle opposed to fomenting serious divisions amongst the Muslims. There are people in India who don’t like the idea of too much harmony in the Muslim community. But as I said earlier the Government as a whole is at pains to prevent bloodshed on the streets. At the same time the Government doesn’t want the Muslim community to become strong. Naturally they would take measures to keep the Muslims weak and divided, but not to the point of fomenting violence, which could undermine India’s international image. But I must stress I am talking generally here. I have no evidence nor can I point to specific issues or events.
Mahan Abedin – To what extent have Shiites been affected by violence perpetrated by Hindu extremists?
Seyed Mohammad Asgari – Shiites have not played a major role in any of the large scale Hindu-Muslim riots of recent years. Shiites have never instigated any of these riots nor have they played a significant role in the proceedings or the aftermath. Moreover, I can’t think of a single case where Hindus have attacked the mourning processions for Imam Hossein on the Day of Ashura. On the contrary there are Hindus who are deeply affected by the Ashura narrative and feel a close bond to Imam Hossein. There is even a Hindu sect called Hosseini Brahman, which has developed its own idiosyncratic historical narrative on Ashura, the accuracy of which is not the subject of debate here.
Anyway, the point I am making is that the Shiites in India never initiate inter-religious violence. However, when these large scale riots break out the Hindu extremist mobs don’t exactly go to great lengths to differentiate between Shiites and Sunnis. Their immediate objective is to kill as many Muslims as possible.
Mahan Abedin – What is the extent of Iran’s influence over Indian Shiite Muslims?
Seyed Mohammad Asgari – Naturally Indian Shiites, as well as many Indian Sunnis, were delighted at the establishment of an Islamic Government in Iran in 1979. Muslims in general were emboldened by Iran’s raising of the Islamic banner across the world. As far as Indian Shiites are concerned, for the past thirty years they have been delighted by Iranian successes and conversely depressed by Iranian setbacks. If there is disturbance in Iran then the Shiites in India become emotionally and psychologically distressed.
The vast majority of Indian Shiite Muslims follow two Iranian Marjaa Taqlid  (Sources of Emulation). The majority follow Grand Ayatollah [Seyed Ali] Sistani, who is based in Iraq but is of Iranian origin. Most of the rest follow Grand Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, the leader of the Islamic Revolution. However, the great majority of Indian Shiites regard Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamanei as a political leader, even if they don’t follow him in a Taqlid (Emulation) context.
Mahan Abedin – Who is your Marjaa Taqlid?
Seyed Mohammad Asgari – I follow Grand Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei. I have personally known him since before the victory of the Islamic Revolution. I regard him as unequalled in honesty and commitment and in possession of the deepest religious, scientific and political knowledge.
Mahan Abedin – To what extent are Indian Muslims, in particular Shiites, supportive of the Islamic Republic of Iran?
Seyed Mohammad Asgari – Religious Shiites universally support the Islamic Republic. This support is extensive and has a lot of conviction behind it. For example, if the leader of the Islamic Revolution Grand Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, issues a command then religious Shiites feel duty bound to follow. As far as more secular Shiites are concerned, although they support the Islamic Republic, they don’t feel committed to its future survival and success
Mahan Abedin – Do Indian Shiites view the Kashmir conflict differently to Indian Sunnis?
Seyed Mohammad Asgari – Initially the Shiites had the same aspirations about Kashmir as the Sunnis. But when the sectarian and political problems in Pakistan escalated from the mid 1990s onwards some Shiites reached the conclusion that Kashmir might suffer even worse if it was in Pakistani hands. This perception is reinforced by a steady stream of stories painting a bleak and difficult life for many Shiite residents in Pakistani-held Kashmir. However, I must stress that there are differences of opinion in the Shiite community and there are many Shiites who dissent from this view. In any case, Shiites are not happy with the present situation in Kashmir either. Clearly India has a problem in Kashmir and there is a widespread feeling that injustices are being inflicted on the Muslim population in Indian-held Kashmir.
 Ahlul Bait literally means the People of the House. In the Islamic tradition it refers to the household of the Prophet Mohammad. Shiite Muslims attach special historical, ideological and theological significance to the prophet’s household.
 Global Arrogance or Estekbar-e-Jahani in Persian is the term used by Iranian leaders to refer to the United States of America and her allies.
 The Dar Ul-Uloom Deoband is a reformist Islamic school founded in northern India in 1866. For more information refer to the author’s article, Islam in India: a Journey through Deoband, Religioscope, 04 October 2010, http://religion.info/english/articles/article_499.shtml.
 The Tablighi Jammat (Society for Preaching) is an international Islamic missionary movement founded in India in 1926. The Tablighi Jammat is widely considered to be an offshoot of the Dar Ul-Uloom Deoband.
 The Dar Ul-Uloom Nadwatul Ulama is a reformist Islamic school founded in northern India in 1894.
 The Anjuman-e-Ahleh Hadith (Association of the People of the Hadith) is an organisationally loose and fragmented association of Salafi-oriented Indian Muslims.
 The Jammat-e-Islami Hind is a political Islamist organisation formed in India in 1948. The group is an independent offshoot of the broader Jammat Islami movement in the Indian subcontinent. For more information refer to the author’s interview, Islamic movements: the Jammat-e-Islami in India – an interview with Ejaz Ahmed Aslam, Religioscope, 05 October 2010, http://religion.info/english/interviews/article_500.shtml
[8| Hossein ibn Ali (aka Imam Hossein, 626 AD – 680AD) was the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad. Shiite Muslims regard Hossein ibn Ali as the third infallible Imam. Hossein’s “martyrdom” in the Battle of Karbala (680 AD) is a major event in early Islamic history and arguably marks the point at which Shiites and Sunnis embarked on a divergent historical course.
 The Day of Ashura is the tenth day of the month of Muharram in the Islamic calendar. It is most famous for the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD during which the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hossein ibn Ali, was slain by the armies of the second Ummayad Caliph Yazid ibn Muawiyah. To Shiite Muslims Hossein’s quest for a just and authentic Islamic Government – coupled with the unjust manner of his death – signifies a major turning point in Islamic history. Consequently, the narrative of the Day of Ashura is central to the Shiite world view.
 The Barelvi movement was formed in northern India in 1880. It is a traditional movement whose main foundational drive was to counter the influence of the reformist Dar Ul-Uloom Deoband.
 The Marjaa Taqlid (Source of Emulation) is an institution unique to Shiite Islam. It represents the highest authority on matters pertaining to Islamic jurisprudence and broader categories of Islamic sciences. The Shiite faithful are encouraged to follow a particular “source of emulation”, namely one of the leading Grand Ayatollahs.
Mahan Abedin is an academic and journalist specialising in Islamic affairs.