Reading historical accounts sometimes leads one to think that very little changes in the world. This seems certainly true of the Middle East where Islam dominated the land and people and where the Turkish Caliph held power. First-hand accounts are rare and, though the bias of the narrator can be detected, one can assess the real situation. One such account is by Mirza Abu Taleb Khan, a Shia Muslim from Musheerabad in Bengal. Returning from England, Abu Taleb, while travelling overland back to India, arrived in Karbala and Najaf in April 1802 to visit Shia Islam’s holiest sites. He reported that less than a year before his arrival:
“(While) the greater part of the respected inhabitants of Karbala having gone to pay their devotions at the Shrine of Najaf, 25,000 mounted Wahabis, on Arab horses and swift camels, made a sudden incursion from the desert and, being in league with some persons inside the town, shortly made themselves master of the place. After having massacred and plundered the inhabitants for many hours, they left at sunset ... During the short time, the Wahabis remained in the town they murdered 5,000 persons and wounded twice that number. They also plundered all the inhabitants of gold, silver and everything that was valuable.”
The Wahabis had tried to cut away the golden tiles gifted by the Shia Persian king with which the tomb was covered but they were bolted firmly. Abu Taleb recounts that, after the Wahabis left, the “wandering Arabs” entered Karbala and completed the dreadful job, which occupied them for two days. They carried off all the copper and heavy articles that the Wahabis had not thought worthwhile taking. Poor Karbala had not recovered even after a year and Abu Taleb says the residents were full of the recent tragedy and could speak of little else. He says the Turkish Caliph’s Army sent from Mosul to protect Najaf from the Wahabis instead desecrated the sacred Shia shrines!
For Abu Taleb, the Sunni Wahabist movement was phenomenon of which he was till then unaware of. He describes the founder, Abd al-Wahab, as one who was born in Hilla on the banks of the Euphrates, raised as an adopted son in the Nejid in Arabia and then returning to Najaf after spending time in Isphahan, Khorossan and Ghazni. In the year 1757 his forceful proposition was that a true Muslim should not let anyone or anything to be “associated” with Allah. Anyone who did was considered an idolater and infidel. Abu Taleb says the massacre at Karbala was accompanied by the cries of “Death to the Associaters” and “Death to the Infidels”—ascribed to the local Shia.
According to the Wahabis, tombs, dargahs and even prophets—were only standing in the way of the believers and their God. Abu Taleb comments that the Wahabis then controlled all the towns of Arabia except Muscat, Medina and Mecca. He also describes their raid on Mecca and Jeddah and the destruction of sacred tombs in Mecca and the ransom extracted from the Sheriff of Mecca who took refuge in a ship on the Red Sea.
Abu Taleb, however, commends them for their simple manners and moderation in their desires despite their great power and collection of immense wealth. But, he says, the people of Baghdad, Basra and Hilla, as well as those of Najaf and Karbala, dreaded an attack by the Wahabis daily.
Abu Taleb had a great deal of contempt for the Sunni Turks though he was travelling under their protection. He inevitably ascribed an anti-Shia bias to most of them. He says the reason attributed locally for their toleration of the Shia shrines was the fear of intervention by the (Shia) Kings of Persia and the income earned from Shia pilgrims and donations from Persia and India. Thus: “to Turkish avarice that we are indebted for the freedom enjoyed here (in Karbala)”. When he does come across a Turk who is graceful and respectful to the Shia shrines (of which they were superintendents) he comments favourably but adds the words “although a Sunni”.
Of the local buildings, he says that even the palace of the Pasha of Baghdad was not equal to the houses of the middle class in Lucknow, much less to the palaces of the Nawab Asaf-ud-Doula of Oudh or of his Minister, Hussain Reza Khan. From Constantinople to Basra, he claims he never saw a single house that would have been considered respectable— let alone comfortable—by a person of moderate fortune in Lucknow!
Abu Taleb details an interesting story of one of the two canals in Najaf—the Husseiny and the other called ‘Neheri Hindue’ or ‘Neheri Assuffy’. The Nawab of Oudh financed the latter: “It was larger than the Husseiny and it is as broad as a tolerable-sized river.” The Nawab’s intention was to ensure supply of ample drinking water to Najaf—which had a severe water problem as the river Euphrates had shifted away from it. By then it had already cost ten lakh rupees and the work was still continuing in 1802. This was “due to the duplicity of the Pasha of Baghdad and the malversation (misconduct) of the superintendent”— who, instead of taking a direct route, made it wind through Kufa and other towns. Abu Taleb said it was still four miles away from Najaf!
What was intended as a drinking water canal for the holy city of Najaf had been converted into an irrigation canal for the surrounding areas! It brought prosperity to the area through which it was dug, improving soil fertility, allowing crops to be grown and creating employment. Abu Taleb comments: “Nor are the people of Iraq ungrateful but daily offer up prayers and supplications for the Nawab’s eternal salvation and never mention his name but with rapture and enthusiasm.” Money well spent— though for a cause not intended by the donor.
Dean of Studies and Head, Centre for Telangana Studies, MCR-HRD Institute of Telangana