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Perceptions of Jews among Lucknawi Shias

By Saira Mujtaba

“O Mankind! Indeed, We created you from a male and a female and We made you nations and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed the most noble of you near Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed Allah is all-Knower, All-Aware.” (Surah Al-Hujurat, Verse 13)

The above verse from the Quran clearly enjoins the people to know each other closely so as to shed preconceived notions. Lucknow, a city rich in culture and tehzīb (civilization), patronised by the erstwhile Nawabs, is known for its hospitality. Even a stranger here is welcomed warmly and people rarely cross their bounds even while quarrelling with each other. Although, migrant population has somewhat diluted the innate nature of its tehzib, its remnants are still visible in the genteel manners of its denizens.

Another remarkable feature of Lucknow is that it has the largest concentration of Athna-Ashri or The Twelver Shias in India. There has been a strong connect between Luknow and Iran and hence the overpowering influence of Shia culture. The Nawabs of Awadh were of Persian origin. During their rule, Awadh attracted a lot of Persian artists and painters and even religious scholars. Azādāri was patronised by the Nawabs and today Lucknow is the biggest center of Azādāri in the world. Some leading Shia scholars trace their roots to Iran. Maulana Kalb-e-Jawad Naqvi, who is the most prominent Shia cleric, traces his lineage to Syed Dildar Ali Naqvi also known as Ghufran-Ma’ab Naseerabadi, who came to India from Iran. Few people might know that the man who brought about the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, Ayatollah Rouhollah Mosavi Khomeini’s father was born in the neighbouring town of Barabanki. Though Lucknow is known for its Ganga-Jamunitehzīb (Hindu-Muslim composite culture and civilization and harmony between the two), similar amicable relations are thrown to the winds when one talks about Sunnis and Shias.

There have been innumerable incidents of violence and rioting as a result of discord between the two sects. A major reason for this conflict owes to the fact that the Lucknawi Shias are a very close knit group. They are concentrated in the old parts of the city and one rarely witnesses any inter-mingling with other groups. This lack of inter-personal communication becomes a perfect breeding ground for prejudices and perceptions to breed about the ‘other’.

One can only imagine about the nature of perceptions that people have about those with whom they have never interacted with. In recent times one has seen a very uncanny trend of deducing conclusions from perceptions and thus labelling other groups as per one’s own pre-conceived notions.

Perceptions and Generations: Do they converge or diverge?

When one talks about perceptions of Jews among Lucknawi Shias, the observations become more interesting. Lucknawi Shias, like any other community, have people from diverse socio-economic and educational backgrounds, while some youth move to bigger cities in search of better jobs and education, the older lot stays behind. While the former’s mental horizons widen, as a result of their exposure to people from backgrounds different from theirs, thus changing perceptions and witnessing an evolution in their notions about others; the older generation that has rarely interacted with people from outside, continues to manifest the perceptions that they harbour for others.

A Lucknow based Shia has rarely or probably never interacted, met, talked or ate with a Jew. Not only this, a Lucknawi Shia has most possibly never ever seen a Jew in real life. And this is stated based on the interviews that this writer had with Shias from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. From a zardoz (one who embroiders in the traditional style called zardozi) living in Hussainabad, the heart of the old city, who has never even been to Gomti Nagar (a posh upscale neighbourhood of New Lucknow) to a student in his twenties who moved to Delhi, to a lecturer in a university, and a film maker who vehemently believes in the Palestinian cause, one comes across a spectrum of perceptions that Lucknawi Shias have about Jews.

Asif Ali Muzaffar is a 45 year old zardoz who now rides an e-rickshaw for it gives better returns. Like most of the zardozs in Hussainabad, Asif is an Athna Ashari Shia and has been living in the old city since birth. “I have never even seen Gomti Nagar…it’s too far. For me this is my Lucknow,” he says proudly when asked about his exposure outside Lucknow. Like many of his ilk, Asif’s notions about a Jew are based on what little he gets to know through the newspapers about the Israel-Palestine conflict, but more so from the majālis during Moharram (the first month of the Islamic calendar during which Husain, Prophet Muhammad’s grandson attained martyrdom). “Jews kill innocent Palestinians,” he says in a matter of fact manner, for he believes that Jews are only those living in Israel. Majālis or sermons given by clerics commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussain also become a hot-bed to comment on the current socio-political scenario that affects the Muslim population. For somebody like Asif, there is no difference between a Jew, the State of Israel and a Zionist.

Is the pulpit shaping perceptions?

“Perceptions about Jews among Lucknawi Shias or one can say Muslims in general are seen through the prism of the Israel-Palestine conflict. And this holds true for perceptions of Shias or Muslims among Jews as well,” says Dr. Saif Ikram, Lecturer, Jamia Millia Islamia, who is a Lucknawi Shia himself. “Mostly perceptions of Jews are based on what the clerics say about the Israel-Palestine conflict. While the educated lot discerns the difference between a Jew, a Zionist and the State of Israel, people like Asif usually paint all three with the same brush. People like him won’t even know that a sizeable proportion of Jews live in Iran where they are recognized as a minority and are free to practice their faith,” he adds.

What does the youth have to say? 

Uzair Rizvi, a media student shows a stark contrast from Asif in his perceptions about Jews. Though both of them haven’t met a Jew in their life, their notions differ in regarding how a Jew is different. “The only thing I know about them is what the media of both sides have fed me with, so I’m not in a position to perceive or comment anything without really meeting them in person. My general perception about them is positive, or may be neutral, like towards any other community that I don’t know very well. They’re also Ahl-e-Kitāb (The People of the Book),” says Uzair.

As a budding journalist, Uzair is articulate enough to make a distinction between Jews and Zionists. He adds, “As far as Zionism is concerned, that itself is an enemy of Jews, it is an extreme ideology, having an agenda of ‘transformation of their land’ into a colonial power and oppressor. Yes, anti-Semitic notions amongst many people might be present, but I really don’t know if many Jews associate themselves with Zionism.”

On meeting Lucknawi Shias with diverse backgrounds, one sees a difference in their views. While people from low socio-economic backgrounds have based their perceptions on emotions, the more educated lot relies on critical thinking.

The Extremes from both the camps should be resisted

There are also voices, like Abbas Shamael Rizvi, a filmmaker, who minces no words and calls a spade, a spade. He is a fervent supporter of the Palestinian cause, as well as someone who clearly differentiates between Jews and Zionists. Abbas also acknowledges how Jews have contributed immensely to the modern world.

“No educated man in the field of theology can deny the fact that most of the Prophets were born Jewish. In the past 2000 years, the contribution of Jews in the development of modern day banking, trade, science and literature cannot be negated or ignored. Islam awards Judaism an exalted place recognising it as a monotheistic and God sent religion. In the past, the socio-political relations of Muslims and Jews have been far better placed than as what they seem today.”

Abbas gives historical reference to support his argument of amicable relations between Jews and Muslims in the past.

“The story of Rabbi Mukhayriq from Jewish tribe of Bani Qaynqa is noteworthy to remember. Mukhayriq went on to become the first Jewish martyr of Islam. He fought side by side with Muslims against the Meccan attack of Abu Sufiyan in the battle of Uhud. His exalted place in Islamic history is very much noted by the comment of Mohammad himself who said, “He was the best of Jews”,” says Abbas.

Abbas is probably one of the few Muslims, who sees Zionism through the same prism he views Wahabbism with. Both being extreme ideologies, he shuns them both vehemently. Emphasising on the historical association, he also outlines when prejudices against ‘the other’ started creeping in.

“The distinction only comes with the advent of Zionism and this should be seen in comparison to the emergence of Wahabbism in Islam. Both of them, though unrelated, are based on political supremacy over others. The decadence of a moral ground, in spite of being attached to great religions, is something that should surely be a concern to their co-religionists. Both the ideas have a tendency to vehemently attack even insiders, calling them self-haters or heretics. Zionist ideology of considering Palestinians as lesser humans or calling the western critics as anti-Semite hardly bring friends to the table. The Zionist binoculars have hazed the once thriving and progressive people and made them captive of a long, never-ending descent of disrepute. It is noteworthy that in order to survive the changing world, Zionists are even ready to absolve Hitler of his crimes, to be relevant morally in a geo-political struggle with Palestinians as per the recent statement of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu,” says Abbas.

He added, “Zionism is threatening Judaism, just like Wahabbism is threatening the very soul of Islam, and this is what not only is troubling for the critics but also to the not so learned spectators. The silver lining is that we have started hearing voices of resistance from within.”

One should resist extreme ideologies, whether of one’s own faith or that of others. Also, in order to create a better understanding of each other, the moderate voices should come forward to create people-to-people contact so as to shed prejudices. But one also wonders if such attempts would be able to blossom under the blanket of violence and gory events that unfurl before us every day.The perceptions of Jews held by Lucknawi Shias are an interesting mix but after all perceptions are what they are indeed – perceptions, but nonetheless they do influence events. Hence, the current need of the hour is to establish a dialogue between the two communities which would only be possible if the cycle of violence on the Palestine conflict abates.

Saira Mujtaba is a Delhi based freelance journalist and an anchor in All India Radio and Doordarshan. She is currently translating Urdu short stories of Begum Masroor Jahan into English.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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