1857: A jihadi revolt?

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1857: Not a jihadi uprising

See also Wahabism below

By Hassan Jafar Zaidi


The documentary, Clash Of The Worlds: Mutiny, telecast by BBC-1 on January 7, carried some distortions of historical facts. It suggested that the 1857 uprising against the British was motivated, organised and fought by the jihadi Muslims of India. The background of jihad was linked to 1830-31 Wahabi movement led by Syed Ahmed Brelvi who was a disciple of Mohammad Bin Abdul Wahab of Arabia (1704-92).

Syed Ahmed’s Wahabi Jihad movement

The documentary traced the roots of Wahabism as an anti-British movement, leading finally to an armed struggle against the British in India; establishing a jihadi camp in Peshawar “against the British” under the command of Syed Ahmed who was killed in 1831 without telling ‘who he was fighting against’ and who really killed him. Some important facts have been ignored or misrepresented because they did not fit into what the documentary was trying to impress upon i.e. the Islamic Jihad always targeted the British, irrespective of time and space in the history of mankind.

It is important to set the historical records straight. History must be viewed in its true perspective rather than an instrument of propaganda for the persecution of a religious community.

Sir W.W. Hunter, a great British annalist and an ICS officer, was assigned to prepare a report about discontentment among the Muslims of India (published as Our Indian Musalmans or The Indian Musalmans). It was considered an authentic document on Syed Ahmed’s Wahabi Jihad movement. According to Hunter, Syed Ahmed, under the influence of Mohammad Bin Abdul Wahab, recruited during early 19th century, the Jihadis, the fighters of Holy War, from Bengal, Bihar, Awadh and Agra, the areas which were under the administration of East India Company.

British acquiesce because Sikhs are the real target

British officers had the knowledge of this recruitment and they let it happen because the target of this recruitment was not the British but the Sikh empire of Ranjeet Singh spread over Punjab, the present day North West Frontier Province and Kashmir.

Hunter narrates stories of young Muslims, doing menial jobs in the East India Company, applying for long leave and the Company’s officers granting them. Syed Ahmed was successful in conquering Peshawar and its surrounding areas up to Mansehra and Balakot.

Battles between the Sikh armies and the jihadis continued; the Sikhs were officered by the French generals to support Maharaja Ranjeet against the British expansion. Thus, this local war became a proxy war between the British and the French –– the jihadis enjoying tacit support of the British and the French helping the Sikh armies.

Syed Ahmed and many of his companions were killed at the hands of the Sikhs (and the French) in a battle at Balakot in 1831. To some extent, it resembled the recent proxy war between the Soviets and the western bloc fought under the guise of jihad by Osama bin Laden and other jihadi organisations. It was only after the fall of Sikh empire in 1849 that a minor group led by Patna-based brothers Wilayat Ali and Inayat Ali, the Wahabis began to work against the British just as the Taliban, once favourite Mujadideen of the West, turned against the West after the demise of the Soviet Union.

The BBC documentary does not reveal several facts about the real contending forces. The 1857 uprising, mutiny for the British and war of independence for the Indians, has been portrayed in the documentary as Jihad by Muslims/Wahabi terrorists against the British, and there is no mention of the participation of Hindus and other Indian communities in it –– a crucial omission.

There exists a general consensus among historians that 1857 war was a secular uprising. It united Muslims and Hindus against the colonialist British who, by their policies, had sowed the seeds of rebellion in all the communities for different reasons. The uprising was inevitable when the Indian section of the army was allocated cartridges greased with the fat of cows and pigs, unacceptable to both Hindus and Muslims. The vanguard of the rebellion consisted of all the communities. The mutiny lasted thirteen months: from the rising at Meerut on May, 10, 1857 to the fall of Gwaliar on June 20, 1858.

Unity of 'bigots'

Thomas Lowe, a contemporary British chronicler who was in Central India during the rebellion, wrote in 1860: "The infanticide Rajput, the bigoted Brahmin, the fanatic Musalman, had joined together in the cause; cow-killer and the cow-worshipper, the pig-hater and the pig-eater… had revolted together." The combatants in the uprising comprised the rebellious East India Company sepoys, several small princely states mostly ruled by Hindu rajas, and deposed rulers of big princely states of Oudh (Muslim) and Jhansi (Hindu).

A closer look into the uprising reveals little presence of Wahabi extremists. There were calls for jihad by Muslim leaders like Maulana Fazl-e-Haq Khairabadi and Ahmedullah Shah which were responded by Muslim artisans of Oudh. In May 1857 the Battle of Shamli took place between the forces of Haji Imdadullah and the British in Thana Bhawan in Oudh. These few eruptions led by religious Muslim leaders could not and did not change the overall secular complexion of the Rebellion.

The origins of Wahabi movement of late 18th and early 19th century in Arabian peninsula were not anti-British sentiments. The movement targeted the Turkish Ottomans who, as believed by the Wahabis, were responsible for polluting the fundamentalist Islam of Arabia with the traditionalist rituals of Ajam (non-Arabs). Wahabism was a political movement, with religious overtones, seeking freedom for Arabs from the occupation of Ottoman Turks.

The British wanted to destabilise and demolish the Ottoman Empire; they facilitated and supported the Wahabis in Arabian peninsula. The rulers of Najd, the House of Saud (Al-Saud), were the disciples of Wahabism. The Indian Viceroy i.e. the representative of British Crown as Governor General, provided money and arms to Al-Saud rulers of Najd and other Gulf Sheikhdoms to brew this rebellion against Ottomans (The Kingdom: The Arabia and the House of Saud by Robert Lacy).

Wahabism was supported and sponsored by the British

During World War1, John Philby, an Intelligence Officer of the British Foreign Service was sent in 1917 to Abdul Aziz, the Wahabi ruler of Najd, to serve as his advisor. Aziz succeeded in deposing Sherif Hussain of Makkah from Hijaz to establish Kingdom of Saudi Arabia after the collapse of Ottoman Empire. Philby served as a minister in the government of Al-Saud. He changed his name as Abdullah apparently after embracing Islam but still served the British Intelligence. He was exiled by King Saud in 1955.

That is how Wahabism was supported and sponsored by the British in 19th and 20th century in the Arabian peninsula which later became the breeding ground of jihadis. After 9/11, the world changed and the allies became aliens. So, the documentary portrays the Wahabi jihadis as anti-British and anti-West militants since the inception of Wahabism till to-date.

The researchers of the documentary perhaps were ignorant of the fundamentals of Wahabism. A collogue of pages from some religious books in Urdu were presented as the literature of teachings of Wahabis. One of the pages was titled “Shab-i-Barat ki Fazeelat” (Glory of the Night of Exoneration). One may note the Wahabis don’t believe in this night, nor take part in celebrations performed on this night by the traditionalist Muslims.

1857: The role of Wahabi ulema

A revolt now forgotten

By Intizar Hussain, Pakistan

On the morning of May 11, while going through the morning papers I was wonderstruck at their complete indifference to the 150th anniversary of the great event of 1857. Our papers were without any reference to this occasion, which was being celebrated with much enthusiasm in India. This indifference was in contrast to not only to our neighbour’s enthusiasm but also to our own enthusiasm in 1957, on the eve of the centenary of this event. I nostalgically remembered the May 11 of that year when all our leading papers, both English and Urdu, had come out with special supplements offering relevant information and analytical study of this event. The book stalls were flooded with books specially published by different publishers on this occasion.

Should this indifference be taken as an indicator of a sharp decline of our national awareness during last 50 years?

So when I received from Pakistan Academy of Letters an invitation for participation in a function meant to commemorate this event, I readily accepted it and rushed to Islamabad. Though we are now living under the stress of hartals and agitations, the function was well attended by the intellectuals and writers of the city. Ashfaq Salim Mirza, Prof Yusuf Hasan and Qazi Javaid had in their well-prepared papers presented an analytic study of this event from their progressive point of view. The other kind of analysis came from Fateh Mohammad Malik, who reminded us the role of Wahabi ulema in this struggle. In fact, this reference too is very relevant in respect of this war. The groups of fighters known as mujahideen had drawn inspiration from the teachings of Wahabi ulema. King Bahadur Shah Zafar knew well their worth and was all praise for their able commander Bakht Khan. But at the same time he felt duty bound to keep intact the secular character of the war. After all Hindus too, including with such volatile groups as Marhattas, had deposed confidence in him and had chosen to fight under the leadership of this aged man, who stood for them a symbol of Indian unity.

I have before me a volume compiled by Ikram Chughtai where the famous Fatwa-i-Jehad issued under the signatures of distinguished religious scholars of Delhi has been thoroughly discussed. The Fatwa created a new enthusiasm among Muslims for fighting against British, but at the same time created problems for the King, who had to take care that there is no rift in the united front of the Hindus and the Muslims.

This volume has been published by Sang-i-Meel. As said earlier, this publisher alone has taken upon itself to publish documents related to this event as many as possible. They are mostly in English. And there is a reason for it. The Englishmen were in a better position to write about this event. They had easy access to the material related to this event – the official reports, the dispatches and the personal letters of officers. With this material at their disposal they could compile the history of the whole war, could present an analytical study and could draw their own conclusions without any fear of being suspect. In recording their experiences they could afford to be objective and faithfully recorded what they saw, if they chose to do so.

The Indians had no such facility. The material related to the event was inaccessible to them. Even if accessible, they could not utilize it freely. They were all suspects. They had to be very careful what to say and what not to say. Even after writing carefully, they were hesitant to get it published.

Ikram Chughtai, in cooperation with Sang-i-Meel, planned to collect all what the writers have written during the last 150 years about this event and present them in a series of volumes. The first volume was confined to Khwaja Hasan Nizami’s writings about the events of 1857. The present volume, second in number, includes a number of different kinds of writings such as diaries, reminiscences and analytical studies. More precious are perhaps the eye witness accounts by personalities who, under the compulsion of their official duty, were in a position to see what was happening from close quarters.

This volume also includes Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s famous booklet Asbab-i-Baghawat-i-Hind. It is important because of being the earliest analytical study of the event written by an Indian Muslim. Who could dare at that time to make an objective analysis of the situation and point out to the failings of the British rulers? Here Sir Syed is seen saying in a dexterous way that rather than anyone else, the English rulers themselves created by their insensate behaviour conditions leading to a revolt.

See also

1857: The events

1857: The causes

1857: A jihadi revolt?

1857: The geographical spread

1857: Heroes and heroines

1857: The aftermath

1857: Contemporary reportage

1857: Books and folksongs about

1857: Little known but important facts


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