An Invitation to a Deadly Banquet and Half a Century of Ashraf Collaboration with the Colonial British
History Vignettes

An Invitation to a Deadly Banquet and Half a Century of Ashraf Collaboration with the Colonial British

The third part of The Dharma Dispatch series on the comprehensive history of the Tablighi Jamaat in India is now at the juncture of the Muslim collaboration with the colonial British

Sandeep Balakrishna

Sandeep Balakrishna

In this series


The straightforward meaning of the term daʿwā is “call,” or “invitation.” Most of us in India are familiar with the meaning of its plural form, daʿwāt (or simply, daawat) in everyday usage as “feast,” “meal,” “banquet,” and in some cases, in its broader sense as “party.” Innocuous enough.

But daʿwā also has quite an impressive range of meanings. In the Quran, it means, “a call to the dead to rise from the grave on the Day of Judgement.” Other meanings include, “an appeal to Allah,” “a prayer,” “a vow,” and “giving summons.”

In practical terms, the origin of the term daʿwā is rooted in the campaign of Al Raji in 625 CE when a rapidly ascendant Arabian tribal warlord named Muhammad sent his emissaries as missionaries to those tribes who still hadn’t converted to Islam and acknowledged his Prophethood. It was a peaceful method of persuasion, a primordial template of the sort of Christian missionary message of love and compassion that Hindus are deeply familiar with. The tribes that didn’t accept Muhammad’s daʿwā were…slaughtered and those that surrendered were converted. The same feat was repeated in the campaigns of Bir Maona and the Expedition of Khalid ibn Walid (a commander of Muhammad). These and similar military-proselyting adventures by Muhammad set the pattern.

Over time, daʿwā became intertwined with jihad. Here is the simplest way to understand this relationship: your refusal to accept my daʿwā signifies your automatic consent to invite jihad upon yourself.

A supremely artistic depiction of this perverse sense of ethics is in the brilliant scene in Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa’s blockbuster, Aavarana where Aurangzeb’s army extends a “peaceful invitation” to a tiny, hapless Rajput principality to accept Islam voluntarily…or invite war upon themselves.

In the realm of Islamic theology, the purpose of daʿwā is to invite both Muslims and non-Muslims to understand the word of God as laid down in the Quran and the Sunnah. Each time you spot a large hoarding in your city that proclaims, “DO YOU WANT TO LEARN THE REAL QURAN? CALL TOLL FREE NUMBER: XXXXXXX786”; or you see an Internet banner ad that says, “TO LEARN THE TRUE MESSAGE OF PROPHET MUHAMMAD, THE MESSENGER OF GOD, CLICK,” you have subliminally become the recipient of daʿwā.

A Muslim who practices daʿwā either on a freelance basis or as a full-fledged missionary is known as a dā‘ī.

The wildly familiar synonym of daʿwā is tablīg̲h̲.

Chapter 9

When Syed Ahmad Barelvi returned to India in 1823 after immersing himself in hardcore Islamic bigotry in theory, technique, tactic and practice at Mecca and in other “pure” Muslim lands, he instantly set to work. He founded the first Tabligh named Tariqah-i-Muhammadiyya (The Ways/Methods of Muhammad). As planned, he directly addressed the common Muslims, not the clergy and blood-baying jihadis. He tapped into the vast informal network of preachers, Qazis, and eminences in the local laity of each region. His model has survived intact till date. The goal was to target each Muslim home in order to convert the very last ordinary Muslim to morph into a thorough Tablighi bigot like he was. Barelvi’s objective was generational and he met with some early successes, which inflated his vanity to the extent that he launched a jihad against Maharaja Ranjit Singh himself.

Big mistake.

In 1831, Syed Ahmad Barelvi and his hotchpotch band of jihadis were crushed like worms. He was caught and beheaded by Ranjit Singh’s commander, Kunwar Sher Singh who then burned his body at Balakot. Yes. The same place.

But by then, Barelvi’s disciples had already fanned out to various parts of northern and eastern India. Although their success rates too were really pathetic, the core idea that forming Tablighs was a highly viable vehicle to revive Islam to Mughalesque heights had taken firm roots. These roots had already begun to spread in fits and starts but were unstoppable despite their feeble energy. Both east and west Bengal witnessed cold starts of Tablighs—for example the infamous Faraizi movement. Almost without exception, the British ruthlessly killed the Tablighi leaders. In some cases, like in Haryana, the neo Muslims themselves killed the bigoted Tablighi leader, Shah Muhammad Ramzan when they discovered that he had been regularly mixing roasted beef in their food during Muslim festivals, and encouraging their girls to marry their own first cousins.

Then a catastrophe struck, completely tossing these infant Tablighi movements to oblivion. The British repression of the 1857 outbreak. Whatever labels one may give it—first war of independence, sepoy mutiny, etc—this epochal episode not only pulverized the Islamic backbone to finely-ground dust particles, it instilled the sort of near-permanent dread comparable perhaps only with what Genghis Khan had done to the Muslim world in just one tidal raid of annihilation. The Muslim community responded in the same way it had done with Genghis Khan: unconditional, everlasting, craven supplication. Jihad and Tablighs could wait. Survival was the immediate imperative.

Survival. Of the Muslim elite.

Or, in the proper fitness of hierarchy, survival of the Ashrafs (nobility) or the Ahl-i-Daulat (ruling class, aristocracy, etc) and their fanatical religious endorsers, the Ahl-i-sadat (clergy, custodians of the Faith). The rest in the lower rungs were completely dispensable: the forcibly converted Kaffirs…the Ahl-i-Murad (servile class), the Aljaf (low-born). This hierarchy was a direct inheritance from the time of the Delhi sultanate. Reminiscent of the brutal example of the Hindu convert, Imad-ud-din Raihan who had risen to quasi-nobility only to be mercilessly crushed by a clique of the “pure,” alien Turkic Muslims led by the barbarian Balban.

Much before the 1857 thunderbolt that shattered them, the Ashraf as we’ve noted earlier, had been reduced to a status slightly better than that of glorified landlords. Now they faced the real prospect of being flung to sheer beggary. They knew that the British didn’t possess the imbecilic magnanimity of the victorious Hindu Rajas. Plus, their unstoppable colonial blitzkriegs of successes throughout the world had added malevolence to their ruthlessness. The live memory of the pathetic degradation of the Mughal “emperor,” Bahadur Shah II who died a squalid, lonely death in a rotting wooden cabin in Burma was a perpetual reminder that one of them could be next.

Chapter 10

The human form of the aforementioned unconditional, everlasting, craven supplication to the British was also a leader of the Muslim elite: the ultra-Ashraf, Syed Ahmed Khan, still the perennial object of the nightly erotic dreams of our secularists.

This opportunistic zealot quickly morphed himself into a political huckster by crawling before the all-powerful East India Company despite owing ancestral debt to the Mughal court which had richly patronized his lineage for at least five generations. However, like the real-life version of an antiquarian Gulfam Hasan, Syed Ahmed Khan never forgot what the Mughal power truly represented, and longed for and worked towards its revival knowing that he wouldn’t realize it in his own lifetime or anytime in the long future. Grovelling before the British was also part of this “work.”

Syed Ahmed Khan was the original progenitor of nearly half a century-long Muslim collaboration with the British against the numerically and politically superior Hindus, and against the fledgling Indian National Congress. In return, he received the vacuous and degrading award given to a willing slave who helps the oppressive master: the knighthood. But above all, this unscrupulous servility gave him what he really wanted: an open field to propagate the toxin of the two nation theory in an unrestrained fashion. The bigot in Khan now unfurled its venomous petals like a fanatical human cousin of the Mimosa Pudica. Here are his own words on the dark art of effectively concealing bigotry:

Do not show the face of Islam to others; instead show your face as the follower of true Islam representing character, knowledge, tolerance and piety.

Syed Ahmed Khan’s subterfuge reaped good dividends. His Aligarh movement quickly became a vast and powerful den for providing intellectual and academic varnish for the gradual and methodical revival of Islamic political power in India. He also obliquely birthed and inspired two prominent leaders in his mould: Allama Iqbal and M.A. Jinnah.

This train of concealed bigotry chugged along smoothly until the Ashrafs after Syed Ahmed Khan’s death thought that they were now powerful enough to dictate terms to the British forgetting the fact that the British crown, a world power, was now ruling India, not the East India Company. The British instantly hit back hard. In 1911, they undid the Partition of Bengal and in 1919, smashed the Turkish Caliphate forever.

That was pretty much the end of the road for the Muslim elite as far as any collaboration with them was concerned. But it didn’t take them long to find another victim for the selfsame subterfuge. In fact, they didn’t even have to seek the victim; it had been frantically, publicly waving its hands, beckoning them for quite some time.

Its name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

To be continued.

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