The Unvarnished Fanatic Syed Ahmad Barelvi was not a Freedom Fighter or Reformer
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The Unvarnished Fanatic Syed Ahmad Barelvi was not a Freedom Fighter or Reformer

A brief profile of Syed Ahmad Barelvi who sought to re-impose Islamic rule in India through Jihad and Sharia

Sandeep Balakrishna

Sandeep Balakrishna

Among the more successful experiments in whitewashing Islam’s blood-soaked history in India is the manner in which the post-Mughal period has been sexed up as an era where Indian Muslims heroically fought against the British for India’s freedom. Over the years, Tipu Sultan has been transformed as the most glorified of such “freedom fighters.” Tipu’s senior contemporary, the poor Siraj-ud-Daulah hasn’t quite had the same fortune. Unvarnished fanatics and bloodthirsty Jihadists have since been memorialised in literature, poetry, history textbooks, and postage stamps commemorating them have been issued with impunity by the sultanate of Nawab Nehru and his dynasty.

The list of these post-Mughal, eminent bigots roughly begins with Shah Waliullah, the hardcore Jihadist and traitor who invited Ahmad Shah Abdali to invade India. His voluminous body of work including letters is a study in religious bloodlust against Hindus. Yet, he is described as a mere “Muslim revivalist” and “Islamic reformist!” The same holds true for his equally fanatical son, Abdul Aziz who declared that Hindustan had overnight become Dar-ul-Harb (country or zone of infidels) because the British had gained dominance. Further, “ it was the duty of all mu’mins (Faithful) to either migrate to Dãr-ul-Islãm (Islamic country) or to fight the firangî (the British) for restoring the glory of Muslim rule.” Of course, both Waliullah and his son used the same, pious cuss word for Hindus and the British: Kaffir.

Syed Ahmad Barelvi was the most distinguished and devoted disciple of Abdul Aziz. It was the classic case of an experienced wolf training a highly toxic, two-tongued serpent.

Arguably, Syed Ahmad Barelvi holds the credit for seeding the “revival” of “pure Islam” as expounded by Aurangzeb in both theory and terrifying practice. Expectedly, Wikipedia sanitizes Syed Ahmad Barelvi as an “Indian Muslim revivalist,” while Troll.in Scroll casts him as an “Islamic icon.”

Syed Ahmad Barelvi was born in 1786 in Rae Bareli (hence “Barelvi”), quite aptly the bastion of the Nehru Congress Party for the longest time. In the same year, faraway down south, Tipu was busy launching serial Jihads of extreme barbarism in Andhra and northern Karnataka hanging men in public and butchering infants and lactating mothers.

Abdul Aziz was highly impressed by Syed Ahmad Barelvi when he declared that Islamic revival after the Mughals had to be based on a “mass movement which was at the same time religious, military and political.” Indeed, the boy had huge potential. As an initial step, Abdul Aziz ordered Syed Ahmad to join the militia of the Pindari barbarian, Amir Khan to learn the art of warfare. After spending six years, Syed Ahmad quit because Amir Khan abjectly surrendered to the British who clobbered him decisively and offered a choice between death or peaceful rule. Amir Khan wisely choice to spend the rest of his life ruling over a small estate.

When a disappointed and enraged Syed Ahmad returned to Delhi and met his former teacher, Abdul Aziz was “impressed by his charisma and maturation.” It was time for the next step.

In 1822, Abdul Aziz sponsored Syed Ahmad Barelvi’s trip to Mecca to “fully and properly equip himself with religious zeal.” Syed Ahmad then travelled Arabia extensively including a visit to Syria. He met highly pious fanatics fabled for their mastery over Islamic theology and learned the theory, art and tactics of reviving and spreading “pure” Islam in Hindustan.

When he returned to India at the end of 1822, he decided that God had himself given him a mission: to get rid of all the non-Islamic dirt accumulated in the Muslim community in India. He was also convinced that he would establish an Islamic State on the model prescribed by Muhammad and the first four Caliphs. The non-Islamic dirt included the following:

1. The heterodox Sufis

2. Shias

3. Practices borrowed from Hindus

The last point is interesting. Let’s hear it in the words of Prof Ahmad Aziz:

This last category was by far the most important, and was most vigorously denounced by Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi. It had included pilgrimage to Hindu holy places, shouting Hindu religious slogans, and adorning the tombs with lingams…worship of Hindu deities, borrowing from Hindu animism, consulting Brahmins for good or bad omens, and celebration of Hindu festivals. Next came external Hindu manners, such as eating on leaves or keeping pig-tails or piercing women’s ears and nose to wear jewellery or shaving one’s hair and eyebrows in imitation of yogis or even dressing like Hindus.

This was the state of the Muslim community as recent as the 19th century, and it clearly punctures the Mohammad Habib Myth that Hindus willingly welcomed a more “egalitarian Muslim social system” and assorted nonsense.

But two barriers stood in the way before Syed Ahmad Barelvi could attain his purifying mission: the hated British and the “cunning and wily” Sikhs. The solution: a wholesale Jihad against both. However, that was not easy because the British dominance by the early 19th century was near-total and Maharaja Ranjit Singh had consumed a vast range of territory in North and northwest India and had chopped the vestiges of Muslim power to tiny pieces.

Grave of Syed Ahmad Barelvi
Grave of Syed Ahmad Barelvi

Syed Ahmad Barelvi realized exactly how formidable these powers were and adopted a multi-pronged strategy. He would not appeal to the Muslim Khans and Ashrafs (nobility or ruling class) but to the clergy or Ulema which had frightening power over the community. Then he appealed to Muslim youth by going door to door with the “purity of Islam” message. Next, he sought and received substantial donations from Muslim businessmen and landlords from an impressive swathe of India: Patna, Hyderabad, Madras, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Bombay. Syed Ahmad Barelvi also indulged in deceit. To the Hindu princes who had been disenfranchised by the British, he wrote honeyed letters promising them his support in return for theirs. Here is a sample:

It is obvious to your exalted self that the alien people from distant lands have become the rulers of territories…and the traders…of goods have attained the rank of sovereignty. They have destroyed the dominions of the big grandees and the estates of the nobles of illustrious ranks, and their honour and authority have been completely set at naught. As soon as the land of Hindustan is cleared of the alien enemies and the efforts of these people [the Wahabis] result in the achievement of their objective, the ranks and offices of the state and government would be handed over to the seekers [of these], and the roots of their power and sovereignty would be strengthened.

This flattering letter was addressed to Raja Hindu Rao, brother-in-law of Maharaja Daulat Rao Scindia of Gwalior.

But Syed Ahamad revealed his true intent in another letter addressed to a Muslim businessman.

My real object is the establishment of jihãd against the Sikhs of the Punjab and not to stay in the countries of Afghanistan and Yagistan. The long-haired infidels who have seized sovereignty over Punjab are very experienced, clever and deceitful. The ill-natured Sikhs and the ill-fated polytheists have gained control over the Western parts of India from the banks of Indus to the capital city of Delhi.

In his inimitable style, this is how Sita Ram Goel characterises Syed Ahmad Barelvi:

Such a combination of scoundrelism and self-righteousness is rare even among Muslim theologians and missionaries.

Syed Ahmad achieved impressive success in his bigoted endeavours. By 1824-5, he had amassed a huge fortune and recruited thousands of Mujahideens for his cause. They were thoroughly brainwashed and battle-ready. To reinforce their commitment and psychological and religious preparedness, he made them sing war-songs infused with bloodcurdling messages rooted in Islamic theology. Here is one such song titled Risala Jihad:

War against the Infidel is incumbent on all Musalmans;
make provisions for all things.
He who from his heart gives one farthing to the cause,
shall hereafter receive seven hundredfold from God.
He who shall equip a warrior in this cause of God,
shall hereafter obtain a martyr's reward;
His children dread not the trouble of the grave,
nor the last trump, not the Day of Judgement.
Cease to be crowds; join the divine leader, and smite the Infidel.
I give thanks to God that a great leader has been born,
in the thirteenth of the Hijra.

Additional commentary on this song is unnecessary.

In 1826, Syed Ahmad Barelvi landed in the Peshawar valley and declared an outright Jihad against Maharaja Ranjit Singh. His incredible hatred for the Sikhs also owed to a fundamental reason: these vile infidels do not allow the call to prayer from mosques and they prohibit the killing of cows.

It was profoundly stupid move. But then Syed Ahmad was thoroughly puffed up at what he thought was a massive force of warriors. However, his “force” lacked the discipline of a regular army and the local villagers comprising Pashtuns didn’t really count as “military.” It would soon translate into a horrifying reality.

Syed Ahmad Barelvi had also counted on the support of the Afghan King, who simply ditched him. The local Muslim governors did the same. The inspiration he had initially provided through stirring messages of the unity of the Ummah and the purity of the Shariat eventually proved ineffective because Syed Ahmad began interfering in the local tribal customs.

In a clash with the Sikhs at Akora in 1826, the local chieftains in Peshawar deserted him. In 1830, the Pakhtuns rebelled at his excessive interference and slaughtered 200 of his Mujahedeens. Syed Ahmad Barelvi fled to Kashmir but had learned no lessons. Almost immediately, he began flaunting his authority there. He demanded a cut of ten percent of crop yields justifying this extortion based on Islamic scripture. Meanwhile, the remnants of his fabled Mujahedeen in Peshawar and elsewhere in Afghanistan were brutally murdered by the same villagers he had recruited. Out here in Kashmir, his “force” had dwindled to less than 700 and the local governors and chieftains had ganged up against him.

Syed Ahmad Barelvi then fled to Balakot sometime in 1831.

Meanwhile, the Sikhs had had enough of him. In the same year, a 10,000-strong body of battle-hardened Sikh soldiers began flooding Balakot. By all accounts it was an uneven contest but it was a contest Syed Ahmad had himself invited. It was also the first and last battle he fought. Led by the indomitable general, Kunwar Sher Singh, the Sikh army stormed Syed Ahmad Barelvi’s hideout and crushed the “fierce” Mujahids like worms. It was all over in two hours. Syed Ahmad and his second in command were caught, beheaded, and their body was burned and the ashes were scattered to the winds.

Syed Ahmad Barelvi’s grand Islamisation-of-India project was a non-starter which had disaster written into it right from its inception.

Needless, Syed Ahmad Barelvi is hailed as a great Shahid (martyr) in the Islamic annals. He is also celebrated as a freedom fighter in the secular annals.

Balakot should ideally remain as a special place of Hindu honour.

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