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Syed Ahmed ‘Shaheed’ Rai Barelwi’s Tehrik-e-Jihad in India, Was It to Fight British Imperialism or Establish an Islamic State?

By Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, New Age Islam

10 May 2016

Maulvi Syed Ahmed ‘Shaheed’ Rai Barelwi was born in 1786 in Rai Bareilly in India. Therefore, he is called “Rai Barelwi” (not “Barelwi”, so it should not be confused with the term popularly attributed to those who belong to another city in India called “Bareilly” or those who subscribe to the views of Imam Ahmad Raza Khan Barelwi).

Maulana Abul Hasan Nadwi, prominent Islamic and Arabic scholar of Deobandi denomination and former rector of Nadwatul Ulema in Lucknow, authored a complete and comprehensive book on the biography of Syed Ahmad Rai Barelwi showcasing the ‘glory’ of his Jihad movement in India. He notes in his book, “Seerat Ahmad Shaheed”:

“The Indian Islamic movement of Ahl-e-Hadith, also known as Wahhabi movement, was inspired and led by Syed Ahmad Shaheed, who was born in Rai Bareli (Awadh) on 29th November, 1786…..He was an eminent Islamic thinker, scholar, an unparalleled orator of his time and well-versed in both religious and mundane affairs. The chain of his preaching and proselytisation (Dawat o Irshad) was spread across the country…..Almost 4,000 non-Muslims embraced Islam at his hands” (Syed Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, Seerat Ahmad Shaheed, Vol. 1, pp.20, Published by MajlisTahqiqat-o-Nashriyat Islam, Lucknow, 1977).

It is quite interesting to note that Syed Ahmad Barelwi coined a new term “Bai’at-e-jihad” (allegiance to jihad) in parallel to the popular Sufi term “Bai’at-e-Tariqat” (allegiance to a spiritual master). Dwelling more on the jihad movement of Rai Barelwi, Maulana Ali Nadwi writes: “Thousands of people undertook Bai’at-e-Jihad at his hands, in which they were taught war skills and use of arms in place of Zikr-O-Muraqabah (Sufi practice of chanting, meditation and remembrance of Allah). The high-soaring slogans of Jihad Fi Sabi-Lil-Lah (jihad in the path of God) were also raised”.

Maulana Ali Nadwi further enumerates: “He [Syed Ahmad] used to lay great emphasis on the zeal for jihad. He would exhort his followers, saying: keep with you arms and weapons with the intention of Jihad and eat to your fill. Insha Allah! (God willing), we will engage in jihad against the Kuffar (infidels and polytheists). So keep doing practice and preparation for this. There is no better godliness and sainthood (Darweshi Aur Faqiri) than this.”

Interestingly, Maulana Ali Nadwi’s book, Seerat -e- Ahmad Shaheed is also recommended as a reading reference for the students of Islamic Studies in many madrasas and universities. It takes one to the conclusion that the battle of Ballakot which was fought between the forces of Syed Ahmed Rai Barelvi and Raja Ranjit Singh eventually led to the martyrdom of Syed Ahmed Barelvi ushering in the Jihad movement in India.

Quoting Maulana Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi in his book “Major Muslim Religious Movements in India” originally written in Urdu, the current head of the department of Islamic Studies in Jamia Millia Islamia, Dr. Iqtidar Mohammad Khan writes under the subtitle “Tahrik-e-Mujahideen and Ahl-e-Hadith’s Ulema of Sadiq Pur”: “When the Islamic reform movement in India was championed by Syed Ahmad Shaheed (1201-1246) and Maulana Ismail Shaheed (1196-1246), after Shah Waliullah, it was opposed by the British and some Pirs and Maulvis [Sufis] who called it “Wahhabi movement in India” because of its objective being similar to that of Ibn Abdul Wahhab in the Najd”.

Dr. Iqtidar further comments that “the two reform movements [of Ibn Abdul Wahhab and Syed Ahmad Rai Barelwi) arose in the lands where Jihalat (ignorance), superstitions, Qabr-Parasti (grave-worshipping), and Peer-Parasti (saint-worship) were rampant. Therefore, both the Islamic movements were adversely affected by the British propaganda”.

We have just taken a cursory glance over what the Indian Ulema and Islamic circles think of Syed Ahmad Rai Barelwi and how they project him in their remarkable writings. Let us now see what liberal authors and secular researchers have to say with regard to him:

An authoritative scholar on Islamic thinkers and reform movements in India, Barbara Metcalf made a particular mention of Syed Ahmad Rai Barelwi in her work on Deoband as ‘someone who was trying to synthesize his experience in establishing an Islamic state as per his pious commitment to the Shariah’. (See: Metcalf, Barbara Daly, 2002. Islamic revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900 (3rd impression. ed. New Delhi: Oxford Univ. Press).

The author of the ground-breaking book “Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan”, Mr. Olivier Roy (1985) recalled Rai Barelwi as the first Indian Islamist leader who launched an armed jihad and led a movement that was religious, military and political. Mr. Roy succinctly explained how Syed Ahmad sermonised jihad to the local Pashtun tribes, urging them to abandon their local customs and strictly adhere to the Shariah. He mentioned that due to his religious decrees, the traditional tribal chieftains (the khans) were replaced by the clerics and mullahs. They formed a new system of religious tax (Jizyah) to finance the Jihadi activities. (See: Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan. Cambridge University Press. pp. 57–8)

In the same way, Edward Mortimer, a noted scholar on Islam in South Asia described Syed Ahmad Rai Barelwi “as an Islamist who anticipated modern Mujahideen in his waging of jihad and attempt to create an Islamic state with strict enforcement of Islamic Shariah.

Remarkably, Syed Ahmad Rai Barelvi was glorified as “Ameer ul Momineen” (the chief leader of believers) by his supporters among the Ulema and Islamic leaders in India. Some of his diehard followers even believed him to be the promised Imam Mahdi (al-Mahdial-Mauood), as the eminent Islamic historiographer, Shaikh Ikram has noted this in his classical work on this subject, “Mauj-e-Kausar: Musalmano ki Mazhabi aur Ilmi Tareekh ka daur e Jadeed (the modern religious and intellectual era of Muslims in India).  This is precisely why a great adoration of Syed Ahmad Rai Barelvi and high glorification of his jihad movement are an integral part of Wahhabi Madrasa curriculums in the subcontinent, particularly in Pakistani madrasas.

In a syllabus of Class IX, there is a book entitled, “Pakistan Studies” which carries a chapter "Syed Ahmed Shaheed Barelvi". After a brief introduction, sings high praises of Syed Ahmed as ‘great thinker and martyr of Islam’, the chapter gives the historical background of his Jihad movement with an illustration of its chief objectives. It reads under the subtitle “The Mujahideen Movement”:

“Syed Ahmed Shaheed Rai Barelvi started a great movement in the North of India known as “The Mujahideen Movement” or “The Movement of Jihad”. This movement arranged a power for the struggle of freedom in Muslims which produced a spirit of survival and they started freedom struggle”. Giving the background of the Mujahideen Movement, it further reads: “Syed Ahmed Shaheed Barelvi devoted himself in the preparation of the holy war. He started a national movement for this purpose in 1818 and organized this movement after his arrival from Hajj as the Mujahideen Movement in 1831”.

Among the prime objectives of Mujahideen Movement, as the above chapter puts forward, were:  “To protect the Muslims from the worship of other things except Allah, and to preach Jihad because it was not possible to get freedom from an evil force without an armed struggle”.

The book has clearly stated that Syed Ahmed Rai Barelvi wished to eradicate the rule of Sikhs from Punjab in order to establish Islamic values and traditions. It further adds: “He [Syed Ahmed] started Jihad in Punjab. Shah Ismail Shaheed along with six thousand followers also joined Syed Ahmed Shaheed in his Jihad against evil forces. He toured different areas around Delhi and Punjab, where number of his followers joined him”.

It is widely held among many Ulema of the Indo-Pak that Syed Ahmad Rai Barelvi launched his Tahrik e Jihad or Jihadi movement against the British imperialism in India. But the historical facts unravel the truth that his jihad was solely aimed at fighting Punjab’s Sikh community, overthrowing non-Muslim rule and ultimately establishing an Islamic state in the country. His core belief was that Muslims in India could not achieve true freedom unless they launch an ‘aggressive, violent and armed struggle against the non-Muslim forces’. He regarded non-Muslims as ‘monstrous evils’ who had corrupted the Islamic society, and therefore, launched a great jihad with thousands of his fervent followers to eliminate the ‘evils’.

A New Age Islam columnist, Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi is a classical Islamic scholar.