The Jihad movement and its offspring have had a limited vision in action and strategy.
The book — Sayyid Ahmad Barailvi : His Movement and the Legacy from the Pakhtun Perspective — seeks to unravel the interpretations of Jihad that has changed over the years. Its author Altaf Qadir has dealt with Sayyid Ahmad (1786-1831) who first propagated and led jihad during the 19th century in the then North West Frontier.
It was initially led as a purely reformist movement in Northern India. Reform and jihad was intended to purify and protect Indian Muslims from the innovations and atrocities of the British and Sikhs respectively. The book draws perspectives from the immediate localities of the Pakhtun region and reasons the failure of the movement. It assesses the social, political, religious and economic impact of jihad on the Pakhtun region and whether Barailvi’s movement is solely responsible for the present day jihadi mindset. It uses historical information, narratives and perspectives from original texts written in regional languages and Pakhtu.
Qadir, who is Assistant Professor in the History department at the University of Peshawar, believes during the long Muslim rule in northern India, the religious class was highly respected and appointed to high posts on the basis of their academic qualifications.
The weakening of central Muslim authority in Northern India and Bengal alarmed both the Muslim elite and general public. Besides local forces of disruption, western colonisers were the major threat as they had developed economies along with being well equipped and highly skilled in diplomacy.
The Marathas posed the most dangerous internal threat. They engaged Aurangzeb for years until his death in 1707. He did not succeed in destroying them. This accelerated the process of decline of the Mughal authority. Several of the Muslim aristocracy along with Shah Waliullah, a Muslim scholar of the 18th century asked Ahmad Shah Abdali, the Afghan ruler to intervene and save Muslims in India from complete devastation.
The defeat of the Marathas at the battle of Panipat in 1761 did not stop the Moghul political decline. The rise of the Sikhs in the Punjab and the English in the south and east of India were not checked as the Muslim political elites were unable to respond adequately.
The turn of the 19th century further alarmed the Muslims when the forces of the East India Company entered Delhi in 1803 and Shah Alam II, the Mughal Emperor, became a prisoner. The status of India was discussed by the ulema but no practical steps were taken.
Belonging to a middle class family, Sayyid Ahmad emerged on the horizon in the second decade of the 19th century. He was widely travelled and knew the grievances of the Indian masses and the nobility alike. He stepped forward and organised the jihad movement on religious grounds. His initial activities to preach characterised the innovative nature of his movement. He never forgot the goal of spiritual attainment.
After some initial success he diverted his attention to organising armed struggle against the infidels. His performance of Haj with several hundred followers was itself a new experience. It also implanted a seed of Jihad in Bengal which provided recruits to the Mujahidin for the North-West Frontier region.
Sayyid Ahmad proved different from the contemporary Muslim religious elite as none of them declared jihad against the infidels. All of them including Shah Waliullah looked to the Muslim nobility and sought assistance from outsiders to stop the political decline of the Muslim establishment. He initiated mass mobilisation not only to reform society but also to pursue armed struggle against the Sikhs and the English. The most authentic sources regarding the objectives of his struggle are his own letters written to different people before and after his migration to the North West Frontier.
The Sikhs of Punjab had compelled the Barakzai sardars of Peshawar to pay homage and tribute to Lahore but the majority of the people in the countryside were not subjugated. Sayyid Ahmad sent letters to the rulers of principalities around the North West Frontier. His sending envoys seeking their assistance against the ‘infidels’ are a testament to his wider perspective. His declaration of imarat was a turning point for the jihad movement. The ‘reformer’ who claimed to be the saviour of the Muslims of the area assumed political authority.
The initial tribal enthusiasm on his arrival was taken for granted as indicative of their willingness to accept his authority. However, the declaration of imarat created two major problems: some of the tribal chiefs viewed it as an attempt to subordinate them while some of the ulemas found it illegal according to the sharia.
One can easily see the legacies of Sayyid Ahmad’s imarat especially among the Deoband school of thought and the Ahl-e-Hadith. Masud Azhar (b. 1968) of Bahawalpur and Hafiz Mohammad Saeed (b. 1950 at Sargodha) are two examples.
At different stages of the Jihad movement Sayyid Ahmad was indecisive on occasions. One is he never had a centre for jihadi activities. In several instances he acted in haste. He declared jihad on the Sikhs without proper tactical or strategic homework and faced severe defeat in his first encounter in the open field.
This alienated local chiefs who viewed him as a competitor akin to previous invaders. His flight for personal safety in the face of defeat added to feelings of alienation from the Mujahidin.
Wahid-ud-Din Khan of Delhi believed that Sayyid Ahmad’s movement was not legitimate jihad because his imarat was self proclaimed and opposed by many. Therefore, it is believed he restricted himself from reforming Muslim society and Islam. This school believed that Muslims were wasting their energy in useless struggles and hatred against western powers for the last two hundred and fifty years instead of mending the ways of fellow Muslims and preaching to the colonisers.
The jihad movement by Sayyid Ahmad or later by others took a sectarian colour as their endeavours were diverted to declaring opponents ‘heretics’ and ‘infidels’. The major target of all such groups has usually been the Shia community.
The jihad movement left both positive and negative cultural and religious impact. On the positive side was the initiation of the teaching of the Quran and ahadith in the North West Frontier.
The most evident example of teaching Quran came from Mohammad Tahir (1913-87) in the current districts of Swabi and Mardan. He was known as the founder of Jama’at ak-Isha’at Tawheed wa Sunnah locally known as Panjpiri school of thought. They claimed to be the real followers of the Deoband school of thought. On the negative impact the most important is the polarisation of religious ideologues.
The recent wave of militancy may not be directly attributed to Sayyid Ahmad and his Jihad movement. Many factors have combined to include state and non-state actors. His jihad movement was a new experience in the history of the subcontinent. It might have brought positive changes in the Muslims in South Asian Society if he had limited his efforts to reformation of society.
The Jihad movement and its offspring have had a limited vision in action and strategy. There are differences between Sayyid Ahmad’s Jihad movement and present day militant organisations. They need to think their strategy in working for the upliftment of Muslims.