A failed manipulation: the british, the oudh bequest and the shï ̈ulamä of najaf and karbalä

Meir Litvak*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Between 1850 and 1903, the Oudh Bequest channelled over six million rupees from India, through British mediation, to the Shfï shrine cities of Najaf and Karbalä in Iraq. It has intrigued historians the way that this sophisticated British tool has exercised influence and control over the Shfï ̈ulamä in Iran and Iraq. However, the British became directly involved in the distribution of the Bequest in 1903, on the eve of the Constitutional Revolution. In view of the ̈ulamäs growing involvement in Iranian politics, and gross corruption among the distributors, the British saw the Bequest as a means to enhance their influence over the ̈ulamä in Iran. The political usage of the Bequest was a subject of a prolonged debate within Bequest bureaucracy. Disagreements often stemmed from different priorities, determined by local considerations, of British authorities in Iraq, Iran and India. In 1912 the British took over the direct distribution of the Bequest, abandoning their expectations to use the Bequest as a 'powerful lever' in Iran, and shifting their focus to enhancing their prestige in Iraq itself and acquiring the goodwill of Shfïis in India. These policies were renewed with greater vigour after the British occupation of Najaf and Karbalä in 1917. Overall, these British attempts ended in dismal failure, showing that charity, however generous, cannot compensate for the need of religious leaders to maintain popular support by distancing themselves from foreign patronage and tutelage. Moreover, manipulation proved less powerful than broader historical processes such as the rising national and religious awakening against foreign powers.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)69-89
Number of pages21
JournalBritish Journal of Middle Eastern Studies
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2000


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