Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani

Islamist opposition leader in Pakistan
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Shah Ahmed Noorani Siddiqui, politician and cleric: born Meerut, India 1926; married (two sons, two daughters); died Islamabad 11 December 2003.

Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani was unmistakable with his round spectacles and flowing beard. He headed the powerful MMA (Muttahida Majlis i Amal), an unlikely six-party Islamist alliance of clerics and pro-Taliban mullahs in Pakistan.

The septuagenarian leader was known for his integrity and unwillingness to cut political deals. He was a pious and powerful cleric, and had deep political roots in Sindh province. He was not branded as a religious reactionary, but considered to be "a beard and a brain", because he was so articulate and well-travelled, according to political commentators in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

Noorani was a fiery orator, and could get a crowd shouting slogans with ease, but he prided himself on his cool delivery, using logic like a scimitar. He spoke a dozen languages with fluency, including English, Arabic and French. He was one of the first jet-setting Muslim clerics, and globe-trotted across North America, Europe and the Middle East with ease.

For 33 years as an opposition politician, Noorani opposed military rule and was an unrelenting critic of successive generals, from Zia ul Haq to Pervez Musharraf. Earlier, as spokesman for the opposition, he was a thorn in the side of the prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Noorani oversaw the triumph of his Islamic alliance in the October 2002 election, and the Islamist party dominated the frontier region where the renegade Taliban were said to be hiding.

Born in Meerut, India, in 1926, Shah Ahmed Noorani was influenced by his father, Maulana Shah Muhammad Abdul Aleem Siddiqui, a distinguished Islamic scholar known across the subcontinent. By the age of eight, he had memorised the Koran. He took a degree from Allahabad University, followed by graduate studies in Meerut, and then organised the Muslim Youths National Guard Forces during the independence movement and spoke at hundreds of rallies. After the violence he witnessed during the partition of India and Pakistan, in 1947, Noorani preached at mosques abroad for 23 years, and won a reputation as a firebrand preacher. He converted hundreds of non-believers to Islam.

First elected as a member of parliament from the port city of Karachi in 1970, Noorani led the Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP), a moderate Sunni Muslim party, and brought it to prominence. It was the country's second largest party and he was unanimously elected its leader. While composing the 1973 Pakistan constitution, he advocated "the constant Struggle of Muslim Hand", and argued for the founding of an Islamic republic.

When the party was deemed a threat, JUP was divided into factions by the intelligence agencies under General Zia's military regime, but Nooranli was not silenced. He would not abide martial law, and he resisted dictators who ruled through military might. Consistently, he clashed with top brass, and he made no exception for the present President of Pakistan. Noorani recently opposed controversial constitutional amendments that granted General Musharraf sweeping powers over the parliament.

Noorani was about to leave his house to address a news conference in Islamabad when he died of a mild heart attack. He was 77.

Qazi Hussain Ahmed, a politician who has been asked to stand in as interim president of the MMA, said, "Noorani's death is a great setback to the MMA." Maulana Fazl-ur Rehman, another political ally, said, "Maulana Noorani initiated democratic culture in the country and he will always be remembered as a great religious and political mentor."

Jan McGirk