The Legacy Of Syed Ahmad Barelvi In India


By R. Upadhyay

Historically, the death of Aurangzeb in 1706 was a turning point in the Muslim history of medieval India when the Moghul empire started its decline. Deeply dismayed with the political debasement of Muslims due to rise of Christian British in Bengal as well as of Hindus led by Marathas and Jats in central and north India and gradual erosion of Islamic glory, a prominent Islamist theologian namely Shah Waliullah Dehlawi (1703-1762) viewed it as a danger signal for Islam. He felt so frightened that he wrote letters to various Muslim magnates in the empire expressing that if the situation was allowed to persist the Muslims particularly the ruling class was likely to be “drowned in the surrounding sea of Qafirs”. Accordingly, apart from intellectual movement he launched for uniting the Muslim masses, he also sent an invitation to Afghan ruler Abdali to stop the rule of Marathas and Jats.

Despite the continuity of Islamic rule for centuries in larger parts of the sub-continent, the Muslim community in India was sharply divided into two exclusive segments namely those who were the descendents of Arab, Turk, Iranian and Afghan conquerors known as Ashraf (Noble Muslims) and those neo-convert Indians who were known as Ajlafs (Low category Muslims). Since the priestly class of this society mostly remained aligned with Ashrafs, orthodox Islam did not penetrate deep into the daily lives of the Muslim proletariat (Ajlafs) who maintained continuous emotional link with their Hindu past and were even practicing their pre-Islamic customs and celebrations. Therefore, Waliullah’s movement was meant for purifying the Ajlafs. It is said that Waliullah era was the beginning of Muslim renaissance following the decline of Islamic rule.

After the death of Waliullah in 1762 , his son Abdul Aziz (1746-1822) succeeded him in the theological saddle of Delhi and carried forward the ideological heritage of his father’s movement. Since the Marathas were already on retreat after their defeat by Abdali in the third battle of Panipat in 1761 and the British were marching towards Delhi, he converted the movement launched by his father into Jihad against the British after declaring India as Darul Harb (House of war). When the British army marched to Delhi in 1803 and Mogul emperor became a British vassal, he also issued a fatwa appealing to the Muslims for launching Jihad against the British and for restoring the rule of Islamic glory. Finding his disciple one Syed Ahmad Barelvi who was born in November 1786 in Rai Bareilley in the present Uttar Pradesh and belonged to the family distantly related to his family suitable for leading the Jihad, he sent him to join the Pathan military force led by one Nawab Amir Khan as a fighter and for getting training in the modern warfare and knowledge of handling European weaponry. He was also assigned with an additional duty of leading the force in prayer. Later he sent Ahmad Barelvi to Mecca in order to acquire the ideological knowledge of Islam from the Wahhabi clerics of Arabia. During course of his stay in Arabia he was greatly influenced with the spirit of Wahhabism and returned to India sometime in the early years of 1820s.

On his return from Mecca, Ahmad Barelvi also known as founder of Wahhabi movement in India, founded an organization namely Tariqah-i Muhhamdiyah (The Way of the Prophet Muhammad) and designated himself as Amir al Mumin (Commander of the Believers). Fully inspired with Waliullah’s political thought for converting the Ajlafs into true Islamists, he toured the length and breadh of the country particularly Bihar, Bengal, Punjab and Kashmir and found that the Ajlafs were still following Islam within their pre-Islamic cultural mindset like visiting even the Hindu mystics, also following their recommendations for overcoming their worldly problems, having no inhibition in wearing their pre-Islamic dresses. They constituted the larger majority of Muslim society and were therefore the main target area of Barelvi for their brainwashing and turning them into full-fledged Muslims.

Propagating his Jihadi doctrine which stirred them up and obtained ascendancy over their minds, he successfully set up a wide network of centres in the cities of Bihar and Bengal. Determined to restore the central authority of Muslim power in India he also started mobilising subaltern forces and donations even from the poorest Muslims for Jihad and encouraged his contemporaries Pir Shariatulla and Nisar Ali of eastern Bengal whom he had met earlier in Mecca and supported their Farazia movement against the non-Muslim Zamindars who were backed by East India Company. His influence in Bengal was so deep that the region practically turned into an Islamist colony. Even during the Afghan war of 1980s Bangladesh and the bordering area of Burma were the major suppliers of Islamic warriors who played a significant role in Jihad against Russians. It was the mobilization effort of Barelvi that the neo-convert Ajlafs were turned into Islamic warriors who joined his movement known as “The Mujahideen Movement”.

Like Waliullah, Syed Ahmad Barelvi also viewed the political domination of the Christian British within Muslim empire as a critical challenge to the survival of Muslims. Following his foot steps, he also wrote letters to the Muslim magnates for joining Jihad against Sikh ruler of Punjab with promise to hand over their sovereignty back in their respective regions. (Qiyamuddin Ahmad in his book The Wahhabi Movement in India). In his letter he stated, “My real objective is the establishment of jihãd and carrying of war into Hindustan and not to stay in the lands of Khorasan… The Christian infidels who have gained possession over India are very artful and deceptive… The ill-natured Christians and ill-fated Mushriks have gained control over the various parts of India stretching from the bank of Indus to the shore of the ocean which covers a distance of six months journey.” In his letter to the Muslims he said “My real objective is the establishment of jihãd against the Sikhs of the Punjab and not to stay in the countries of Afghanistan and Yagistan.”

The Jihad movement of Barelvi was basically directed against British but when he found that the strength of his Jihadi warriors were not in a position to fight against the stronger British army, he turned his Jihad against Ranjit Singh, the Sikh ruler of Punjab. His movement was in fact aimed at to free the regions captured by both the British and the Sikhs and to restore the Islamic control over them. His propaganda campaign that the non-Muslim powers were determined to assimilate Islam made a favorable impact on the Muslim masses of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal and Punjab who joined him in sizeable number during Jihad. Accordingly, with his headquarter at Balkot he launched Jihad in 1825 against Rajit Singh. Initially, he got some success when his jihadi warriors took back Peshawar by defeating the Sikh army but failed to take back Punjab since he was killed in the battle of Balkot in 1831.

Despite the failure of the Jihad launched by Barelvi, his successors and disciples particularly Vilayat Ali and his brother Inayat Ali from Patna kept the Jihadi fire of Islamism alive for the successive Islamists who carried it forward from generation to generation. After the death of Barelvi, his supporters iconised him as Islamic martyr and started naming him Syed Ahmad Shaheed.

A fanatic activist amongst the generation of Muslims who were dismayed at the ending years of Mogul Empire in Indian sub-continent, Syed Ahmad Barelvi is still a great source of inspiration for the Jihadi brand of Muslim youths in India like SIMI and other terrorist groups operating in India with the support from neighbouring and other Islamist countries. His movement for resistance against non-Muslim rule which was transformed into a religio-political creed became the ideology of the future Islamists who still believe that India under non-Islamic control is Darul Harb and therefore it is the religious duty of every Muslim to launch Jihad and turn it into Darul Islam. Barelvi’s martyrdom was so inspiring that it not only became a great source of inspiration behind all the subsequent movements like uprising against the British in 1857, Deoband Movement, Aligarh Movement and Pakistan Movement but also attracted the Muslim youths of India and other Muslim countries.

In fact the descendents of Khiljis (1288-1320), Tughlaqs (1320-1413), (1414-1451), Lodis (1451-1526), Moguls (1526-1540 and 1556-1857) and Suris (1540-1556) were never united when their respective power transferred from one Muslim to another Muslim They however, were found coming together after the end of Islamic rule in 1857 under the inspiring movement of Waliullah and Jihadi ‘martyrdom’ of Syed Ahmad Barelvi.

Indian Muslims might be proud of the martyrdom of Ahmad Barelvi because he fought for reconverting India from Darul Harb to Darul Islam. Even Deoband movement converted the Jihadi hardware of Barelvi into software for Islamic revival movement. But have they ever tried to understand that the Muslims who stayed back in India after partition of the sub-continent are treated better than their counterparts in Pakistan? Do they know that Indian Muslims are always treated as Ajlafs even in Saudi Arabia which claims it to be Darul Islam? They still pay high reverence to Abdul Aziz who issued a fatwa appealing the Muslims either to join Jihad or migrate to Arabia but they must try to understand that the Muslims from South Asia who migrated to Christian West are much comfortable than even Saudi Arabia or any other Gulf countries. Tariq Ali a noted Pakistani writer maintained that “Those who have migrated from South Asia are much better treated in Britain than in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf States (The Clash of Fundamentalism, Tariq Ali, 2007, page 331).

So long the Muslim masses of India who are mostly the Ajlafs are not free from the ideological bondage of the descendents of the former Muslim rulers and of radical Ulema like Sarhindi, Waliullha and Ahmad Barelvis, they will not be allowed to throw out their medieval mental load.

Following the Allahabad High Court’s verdict on Ayodhya, Nonagenarian Hasim Ansari the oldest litigant in the title suit on Ayodhya dispute is trying hard to resolve the issue through negotiation. But efforts of this Ajlaf are being torpedoed by the Ashraf descendents of the Arabian Indians whose agenda appears to be different.

(The author can be reached at e-mail [email protected])


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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