I love digging into mouldy old stuff and finding things which make me go, whoa, really? wow!. Well, this is one example of that. While researching the sack of Karbala by the Saudi's in 1801/02, I came across a curious factoid. Apparently, for a period of 70 years, the rulers of Awadh sent un-imaginable amounts of money for the Shia shrines in current day Iraq.
This money, all wrung out of the fevered and sweaty brows of the ordinary Hindu and Muslim peasants of the Awadh Kingdom, was sent to Iraq to repair shrines, to dig canals, and the like. And we are seriously talking about huge sums. For example I quote
In the late 1780s Awadh Chief Minister Hasan Riza Khan
remitted Rs.500,000 to Najaf through the Iranian firm of Hajji Karbala'i Muhammad Tihrani for the construction of a canal in the middle Euphrates that would bring water to perpetually dry Najaf. The project, aimed at sparing inhabitants and pilgrims inconvenience, was completed in 1793. It became known as the Asafiyyah or Hindiyyah canal, after its patron.
Remember all this time, there were frequent famines in and around Awadh itself. Oh! and there was no problem in accepting money based upon interest (long story that, the British borrowed money from Awadh to prosecute the Nepal War, and then the money was given to nominated beneficiaries which included people in Lucknow, India as well to Shia people in Iraq and Iraq through the British Agent in Basra, Iraq). The article also refers to a fascinating exposition on how Iranian and Indian merchants (the precursor of international banks!) worked to transfer huge amounts between such huge distances. But let me quote from the conclusion which is very interesting.
In the absence of overall figures for contributions to the shrine cities from Iran and elsewhere, it is impossible to assess the exact significance of the money coming from Awadh. Even the precise sums involved in the 'Indian money' are difficult to specify, though British records are explicit on some projects, such as the 1840s canal work.
There can be little doubt, however, that the 'Indian money'was important. In designating certain individuals its recipients, the Awadh notables and ulama helped shore up the leadership positions of Usuli mujtahids against Akhbari and Shaykhi rivals from the late eighteenth century on. Moreover, projects like the Asafiyyah canal had a discernible impact on the ecology of Iraq in the area around the shrine cities, on population movements and agriculture.
Beyond these considerations, however, the case of the 'Indian money'
illustrates in part the importance of monetary contributions made to the clerical establishment by Shi'i governments and high notables. One conclusion that can be suggested on the basis of the evidence presented here is that the mujtahids were far more closely tied to, and beholden to, Shi'i governments than has generally been recognized.
The Usuli clerics in the nineteenth century are often seen as highly
independent of the Iranian government, in contrast to the Sunni ulama in the Ottoman Empire. But money is influence, and to the extent that Shi'i mujtahids received gifts, stipends, and other wealth from governments and high officials, they were beholden to them. Of course, Awadh was too far away to demand much in return from the clerics in Najaf and Karbala. But an investigation of financial support from the Iranian government and its high
officials for the clerical establishment in nineteenth-century Iraq might yield similar conclusions.
Because India was one of the first areas to take the full brunt of European industrial imperialism, modern capitalism affected Shi'i finances first there. In the 1830s and 1840s substantial sums deriving from interest on loans to the East India Company were being disbursed to the Iraqi mujtahids by the British Agent in Baghdad on behalf of the Awadh government. The principal,
originally extorted from Hindu peasants by Awadh's Shi'i tax-collectors, financed further EIC imperial expansion in the subcontinent, while the interest supported both the Awadh ruling class and its clients, the Shi'i ulama in India and Iraq.Shi'i jurisprudents in Lucknow, and presumably in Iraq as
well, quickly reinterpreted Imami law so as to allow the charging of interest on loans to Christians. Armed with this ideological justification, the mujtahids entered the ranks of the capitalist rentiers.
It has long been recognized that religious leadership in the Shi'i world grew somewhat more centralized in the course of the nineteenth century. The magnitude of the sums involved in the 'Indian money' and in the charitable contributions forwarded from Iran suggests that the emergence of the 'supreme exemplar' in Najaf may have been facilitated by an expanded economic base.
The British role in helping transfer funds and in providing the mechanism for interest-bearing loans was conspicuous. Interestingly enough, the increasing British presence at first provoked some conciliatory moves on behalf the prominent ulama. The British were allies of the Shi'i kingdom of Awadh (Oudh), and their agent in Baghdad had become the distributor of Awadh largesse to the chief mujtahids in Najaf and Karbala. The prayer leader of Tehran apparently wished to strengthen the British-Shi'i alliance as
a means of furthering Shi'i interests and the interests of the ulama. But the 1840s were the high point of this relationship. The 1856 annexation of Awadh and the resultant revolt ('mutiny'), increasing British presence in south Iran, and British attemps to use the 'Indian money'to manipulate the ulama in Iraq, were ultimately to sour the embryonic alliance.