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Tracing the roots of jihad in South Asia

REANALYISING THE PAST: Historian Ayesha Jalal  

Most people think Wahhabi Islam (a branch of Sunni Islam) came to India riding on the petro-dollar. Another popular misconception is that jihad has its origins in the American counter-strategy to meet the challenge posed by the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979.

However, the reality is different. Both the Wahhabi version of Islam, and the idea and practice of jihad, claim a pretty long tradition in the Indian subcontinent. This custom continues to impinge on contemporary political reality.

According to well-known historian Ayesha Jalal, Balakot is in many ways the “epicentre of jihad in South Asia”. Situated on the banks of the river Kunhar at a distance of nearly 18 miles from the city of Mansehra in the North West Frontier Province in Pakistan, Balakot was the place where Sayyid Ahmad of Rai Bareilly (1786-1831) and Shah Ismail (1779-1831) waged a jihad against the Sikh kingdom of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and fell in battle on May 6, 1831. Balakot is also the gateway to the Kaghan Valley, which is bounded on the east and the south by Kashmir.

In Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia , Jalal says “Balakot’s association with the idea and practice of jihad in South Asia was reinforced in the 1990s, when militant groups set up training camps in its environs to prepare for their campaign against the Indian security forces stationed in predominantly Muslim Kashmir. For these militants, Sayyid Ahmad and Shah Ismail are great heroes, whose jihad their admirers wish to emulate, to redress what they perceive as current injustices”. One can be reasonably sure that even if Burhan Wani was not familiar with their life stories, he was surely familiar with their concept of jihad.

While jihad is largely associated with orthodox religious views and fervour, the fact is that loss of political power and supremacy is its root cause. In the 18th century, the loss of Muslim sovereignty became a fact of life and the realisation triggered a redefinition of jihad as obverse of aman (peace). The Delhi-based scholar Shah Waliullah (1703-1762), hailed as a Muslim modernist as well as the architect of Sunni orthodoxy, enunciated the most systematic theory of jihad. It was his theory that Sayyid Ahmed of Rae Bareilly sought to implement between 1826 and 1831. When Delhi fell to the British in 1803 and the Mughal Emperor became a pensioner, Shah Abdul Aziz (1746-1824), the son of Shah Waliullah, issued a fatwa declaring that India was no longer dar-ul-Islam (land of Islam) and had become dar-ul-harb (land of war).

As Harlan O. Pearson in his excellent study, Islamic Reform and Revival in Nineteenth-century India: The Tariqah-i-Muhammadiyah informs us, Shah Abdul Aziz simultaneously initiated Syed Ahmad into three Sufi orders ( tariqahs ): the Naqshbandiyah, Qadiriyya and Chishtiyah in 1806. In 1809 he joined the army of Nawab Amir Khan, ruler of the state of Tonk, who later became a major contributor to the movement for Islamic reform and jihad. Syed Ahmad initiated the Tariqah-i-Muhammadiyah in Delhi as a movement for purification and revitalisation of Muslims. Soon, Shah Waliullah’s grandson Shah Ismail became his disciple.

In 1821, both went on to Haj and became aware of a similar reform movement started by the Arabian Wahhabis. When they returned to India, the Muhammadis began preparing to wage jihad against the Sikhs in Punjab. Even though the mujahideen (holy warriors) received support from many enthusiastic Muslims, the Muslim rulers of the kingdoms adjoining that of Maharaja Ranjit Singh did not support them. However, the British did not place any hurdles in their path and viewed them as a useful yet indirect ally against the Sikh ruler.

In an exact parallel that reminds us of the present-day Islamic State and its self-appointed Caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, Syed Ahmad declared himself the imam or the supreme religious leader and was called Khalifah (Caliph). In 1830, he became strong enough to seize the city of Peshawar from a Pathan chief loyal to Ranjit Singh. Next year, the debacle at Balakot happened and the action shifted to Patna, from where 2,000 mujahideen set out for the NWFP in 1843. While there is a belief that these Indian Wahhabis participated in the revolt of 1857, there is not much evidence to support this. What is true is that the Patna Muhammadis maintained the jihad on the frontier till 1863. However, as their trials progressed in the 1860s, they became a symbol of disaffection against the British. It is illustrative that for many decades, people continued to believe in the imminent return of Syed Ahmad and refused to accept that he was killed in the Balakot battle.

Various people were influenced by these developments in various ways.

Urdu poet Hakim Momin Khan ‘Momin’ (1801-1852), a disciple of Sayyid Ahmad, yearned to join his mentor’s forces despite his frail health. Jalal says there is an all-pervasive presence of jihad in the verses of 19th century poets as different in temperament and disposition as Aatish, Zauq, Shefta, Nasikh and Ghalib. Even Syed Ahmed Khan, who disagreed with their jihad but supported their reform programme, considered Sayyid Ahmad a saint and did not hesitate to describe himself as a Wahhabi. The founders of the Deoband Dar-ul-Uloom were related to the family of Shah Waliullah.

Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia, Harvard University Press, Rs. 550 onwards.

Islamic Reform and Revival in Nineteenth-century India: The Tariqah-i-Muhammadiyah, Yoda Press, Rs. 2,755 onwards.

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