Back to home page When, Why, and How the Hazaras chose Shi'ism

by Dr. S. Askar Musawi

The Hazaras are mostly Shi’as Muslims, and inhabit the heart of Afghanistan, surrounded by Sunni Muslims. The question thus arises; how and when did the Hazaras become Muslims, and out of the two branches of Islam, how or why did they choose Shi’ism? According to Aristov (1895:286), the Hazaras adopted Islam from the original inhabitants of the area, i.e., from the Tajiks, who were apparently Shi’as. However, the accuracy of this assertion is open to question. Firstly, Aristov fails to provide any documentation to support his theory; secondly, the religion of Khorasan (the original name of Afghanistan) was Sunni Islam; centuries before the emergence of Shi’ism as the official religion of ancient Iran, which also included today’s Afghanistan, Sunnism was the dominant and official religion of the region.

A second theory suggests that the Hazaras adopted Shi’ism at the time of Shah Abbas Safavid (1589-1629). This theory was first proposed by Vambery in 1895, who maintained: “Shah Abbas forced them [the Hazaras] to accept Shi’ism” (1864:132). Some time later, apparently without any knowledge of Vambery’s view, Schurmann was to propose a similar theory:

“.......Shi’ism could only have been introduced into the Hazaristan from the west, from Persia, the only important Shi’ite nation in the Muslim world. Hazara Shi’ism, like that of Persia, is Isna-Ashari (Twelver). Given the extreme pro-Shi’ism of the migrant Berberis, one can conclude that there are no important theological differences between Persian and Hazara Shi’ism. Although Shi’ism of history is almost as old as Islam itself, it was not until the rise of the Safavids (16th century) that Shi’ism became the state religion and that the masses of Persia were completely Shi’ized. Before the 16th century, Shi’ism existed as a religious sect enjoying a more or less uneasy relationship with the dominant Sunnism. Thus one can assume that Shi’ism was introduced among the Hazaras some time after the rise of the Safavids, i.e., sometime during or after the 16th century” (1962:120).

This theory of their conversion to Shi’ism at the time of Shah Abbas is confirmed by the Hazaras themselves. I have encountered this view amongst Hazaras in conversations with respected scholars, such as Mohammad Ismail Mobaleegh, and Mohammad Ali Modarris. This theory, however, is not without its weaknesses. According to one of the most reliable historical texts of the Shah Abbas period, History of Abbasid Amirs, written by Iskandar Beg Turkmani:

“the Hazaras were already Shi’as at the time of Shah Abbas; two to three thousand Hazara soldiers, under the command of Din Mohammad Khan Uzbek, fought against Shah Abbas’s army” (1916:567-9).

A third theory maintains that the Hazaras adopted Shi’ism as soon as they converted to Islam. This theory was first proposed by Temirkhanov. According to him the Hazaras were idolaters; it was some thirty years after the death of Hala-Kou Khan that his followers converted to Islam (1980:31, 32). According to Rashiduddin Fazlullah, Ghazan-Khan showed an inclination towards Shi’ism from the very beginning of his conversion to Islam. Ghazan-Khan often undertook pilgrimages to the tome of Ali and his sons. He was always fond of respected Sayyeds and Shiites, providing them with regular stipend, mosques, money and wealth. After Ghazan-Khan his son, Abu Said, continued his father’s tradition (Rashid, 1959:984-985,997). Thus, according to this theory, Shi’ism was first established and encouraged in Afghanistan by Ghazan Khan and his son Abu Said.

It could be argued that the theories of Schurmann and Temirkhanov are both correct, i.e., it is possible that some Hazaras were converted to Shi’ism by Ghazan Khan and Abu Sa’id, a fact which need not contradict the theory holding Shah Abbas responsible for further encouraging Shi’ism amongst the Hazaras. Thus, it can be maintained that Shi’ism amongst the Hazaras began at the time of Ghazan Khan, but that it was not until the Safavid period when Shi’ism became the official religion of Iran that the process was completed. There had of course existed, previous to this time, Shi’as in today’s Afghanistan and other Islamic countries, in historical opposition to the Sunnis (Orazgani, 1913:69:72; Yazdani, 1989:38-56). But it was the Safavids who were able to turn this opposition into an organized and official political force. The original Shi’as in Iran and Afghanistan were the descendants of Ali, known as Sadat-e Alavi. They were, for the most part, on the run and in a state of political exile, in order to escape the Omavids and later the Abbasids (Habibi, 1988: 868-869; Yazdani, 1989:39-44).

Thus the original followers of Shi’ism entered Afghanistan long before the Moghols; possibly at the time of Imam Reza ( the eighth Shi’as Imam), who was called to Toos (today’s Mashhad) by al-Mamoun, the Abbasid Caliph, to take the throne, and whose followers must have joined him there (habibi, 1988:872). After the murder of Imam Reza by al-Mamoun, the Shi’as were once again forced into exile; it was at this time that they may have traveled East to China.

The conversion of the Hazaras to Shi’ism did not take place at one particular period; it is not possible to maintain that the Hazaras converted to Shi’ism at one particular moment in history. Indeed such mechanical analyses of any historical and social phenomena are bound to be incorrect; every change in human society takes place over a period of time during which it follows its process of development. The ‘Shi’aization’ of the Hazaras, like other social and historical phenomena, took place over a long period of time; entering a new phase even during the past few decades. Thus, it may be maintained that the Hazaras first turned to Shi’ism at the time of Ghazan Khan and that this continued throughout the reign of his son Abu Said and later when it was further encouraged, and so flourished fully, at the time of Shah Abbas Safavid.

Most Hazaras are Shi’as, although some, such as the Sheikh Ali and Firozkohi Hazaras, have remained Sunni. Shi’ism itself is divided into smaller sects. The majority of Shi’as are Dovazdah Imami, while the Ismailis form a minority, living mainly in India and Pakistan. The Ismailis themselves are divided into smaller sects still. These divisions are also found in Afghanistan, in particular amongst the Hazaras. According to Canfield:

“The Ismailis are here referred to as sects, in the plural, because the Ismailies toward the southern end of their territories pay respect to a different saint than those of the northern end (those called in the ethnographic literature, “Mountain Tajiks”) and because in certain minor respects their beliefs are different, the southern type having renounced some years ago the veneration of Saints” (1973:1).

The spread of Ismailies in Afghanistan is said to have begun in 755 AD, when it entered Afghanistan from Iran (habibi, 1988:873).

What is interest here is the political dimension of the question of religion. For, while in purely religious terms, Sunni and Shi’as have no basic differences, this has not been borne out in reality, where the existence of the two sects has led to bloody wars, the emergence of new political boundaries, and religiously determined social strata. Over the past hundred-odd years in Afghanistan, the Hazaras have been victimized socially and deprived of their natural and human rights because they are Shi’as.

Until 1919, some Hazaras were still kept as slaves by the Pashtuns; although Shah Amanullah banned slavery in Afghanistan during his reign, the tradition carried on unofficially for many more years. Nor did the power of propaganda against, and the victimization of the Hazaras remain restricted to the border of Afghanistan; famous scholars are also known to have been influenced. One of the most internationally respected and famous scholars, a founder of the Islamic Renaissance in Afghanistan, Sayyed Jamaluddin Afghani (1901), referred to the Shi’as Hazaras as ghali. Many years later Temirkhanov was to repeat the mistake. Fortunately this was later corrected and put into its proper perspective by Canfield in his valuable and more scholarly and accurate study of the Hazaras.

The outstanding peculiarity of the situation of the Hazaras is the escalation of what should have been no more than a tribal conflict into an all-out national conflict under consecutive Pashtun regimes, reaching its height during the reign of Abdur Rahman (1880-1901). With the aid of Sunni clerics, Abdur Rahman Khan declared the Hazaras “infidels’ and waged Jihad on them (kakhar, 1971:213). Their sin being that they were not willing to accept Imam Ali as the fourth Caliph to succeed Mohammad, but in fact regarded him as the prophet’s only successor. This, in short, is the essence of the differences between the two branches of Islam, Shi’as and Sunni.

copyright: Askar Musawi, "The Hazarahs of Afghanistan"

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