MMA leader Liquat Baloch and Ghafor Hadari stand over the body of Noorani. ©Gulf News

The president of Pakistan's powerful Islamic coalition Maulana Shah Ahmad Noorani, died yesterday of a heart attack, his sudden demise dealing a serious blow to the Islamist alliance amid its ongoing tussle with President Pervez Musharraf on constitutional issues.

The 78-year old religious scholar was struck by a fatal cardiac seizure in the washroom at his residence in Islamabad, his assistants said.

"Maulana Noorani was brought to the hospital lifeless at 12-35pm and we struggled for 45 minutes to revive him," said Dr Inamul Haq of the city's Polyclinic Hospital, who was in the medical team that handled the emergency treatment.

His death was likely to overshadow the plan of the six-party Muttahida Majlis Amal to launch a nationwide anti-government movement in the event that Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali does not bring a constitutional amendment bill before the parliament by December 17.

Noorani was also head of the influential Jamiat Ulema Pakistan party. He won a seat in the Senate in the elections last year, when the MMA riding a wave of anti-US sentiment won power in two provinces bordering Afghanistan and secured a strong position in the federal parliament.

Born in Meerut, India well before Pakistan's birth in 1947, Noorani memorized the Holy Quran at the age of eight. He was the son of Maulana Shah Mohammad Abdul Aleem Siddidque, a prominent Islamic scholar of the 20th century.

He studied at an Arabic college and graduated from Allahabad University in India. He migrated to Pakistan after the partition of the sub-continent in 1947.

Besides Arabic, Noorani was multilingual, and was fluent in French and English. He was first elected to Pakistan parliament in 1970.

Many of his colleagues were shocked and grieved at his sudden demise. MMA General Secretary Maulana Fazlur Rehman described the passing away of Noorani as a "great loss for the whole nation."

"Everyone is in great shock. The Muttahida Majlis Amal is passing thro-ugh a most critical period as Maulana Noorani's demise is a great setback for us," the MMA leader said.

Fazlur said Noorani was a "moderate, polite and kind person and due to his qualities he was elected as chief of the united religious front."

Pakistan's Preseident Pervez Musharraf expressed profound grief in a condolence message in which he paid tribute to Noorani for his "great services for Pakistan and his tremendous contributions to national politics."

The president also commended the scholar's "lifetime devotion to religious learning and teaching." Jamali, in a condolence message from Switzerland where he is currently on a visit, said Noorani's "services and far-sightedness" would be long remembered.

"Maulana Noorani always worked with honesty and sincerity and devoted his life to nation-building. In his death the country has lost a renowned scholar and a sagacious parliamentarian," Jamali said.

Officials of Jamiat Ulema Pakistan said Maulana Shah Faridul Haq would act as chief of the party until the appointment of a new head and that arrangements were being made to take the body to Noorani's home town Karachi for burial.

Noorani is survived by two sons and two daughters. His burial has been delayed until a son and daughter who live abroad arrive, sources said.