By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
23 March 2019
Ever since India’s strike on a Jaish e Muhammad (JeM) camp, there is much spotlight on Balakot. Indeed Balakot is not just the name of a place; rather it is fundamentally an idea, the dissection of which remains central to decoding the narrative of Islamists of much of South Asia. The selection of Balakot by the JeM is not just for strategic consideration, but is also a symbolic continuation of the first jihad that saw so called martyrdom in action at this place. The characters were different but the cause and the underlying motivation was the same. And this motivation was to reclaim the land of al-Hind for Islam as it was supposedly under ‘Islamic rule’ back in the historical past. It is interesting to understand the trajectory of this first jihad which purportedly wanted to throw out the British from India. But perhaps more importantly, it is important to understand the central character who led this so called jihad movement.
A mightily maverick character called Sayyid Ahmed Barelwi and some of his followers like Shah Ismail were responsible for what is known as the mujahidin movement. Various interpretations of the fatwa issued by Abdul Aziz exist, including one by Sir Syed which expressly states that he (Abdul Aziz) never intended to fight the British and that the fatwa was primarily to ask Muslims to engage themselves in non-Islamic practices like interest since the country was no longer governed by Islamic precepts. Of course, the anxiety over the waning of the ‘Islamic regime’ started with Shah Waliullah, who in his infinite wisdom invited Ahmad Shah Abdali to invade India and establish ‘Islamic’ rule once again. For his successor, Abdul Aziz, the British power seemed much closer for comfort and that’s why he proclaimed in his famous fatwa that India had become Dar Al Harb or enemy land and therefore jihad became necessary for Muslims.
The most important person to heed this call for jihad was Sayyid Ahmed Barelwi. Perhaps a mercenary in the rag tag army of Amir Khan, Sayyid Ahmed indulged in wanton looting and destruction of property during his days as a ‘warrior’. As his many hagiographies suggest, this looting was legitimate as per the Islamic theological position of raiding enemy property witnessed during the formative years of Islam. It so happened that Amir Khan was eventually domesticated by the British and bought over by making him lord over a small patch of land. For reasons which are not very clear, Sayyid Ahmed left the company of Amir Khan and shifted briefly to Delhi. Here, under the influence of Abdul Aziz, he would make some followers who would be loyal to him throughout his life. One of them was Shah Ismail who would emerge as the intellectual ideologue of the so called mujahidin movement. As for Sayyid Ahmed, he remained incorrigibly non-literate throughout his life and all attempts to teach him the letters came to a naught. No matter what the various hagiographies tell us about the mysterious reasons behind his inability to read and write, the fact remains that leader of the mujahidin movement remained illiterate throughout his life yet was followed by people who were highly literate and theologically trained.
Despite the popular rhetoric that Sayyid Ahmed waged a jihad against the British, there is hardly any concrete evidence that he planned to do anything remotely like declaring a war against the British. His journey to Afghanistan went through some of the important cities of India like Patna and Calcutta, where he received obeisance from many Muslims. All through this while, it was the British who gave him easy passage throughout India and eventually oversaw his migration into Afghanistan. If the British wanted, they could have easily arrested him, something which they did to many others fighting for the freedom of the country. There is one possibility: that the British did not consider him too much of a threat. However, what looks more plausible is that the British effectively used him to wage war against the Sikhs. And for this reason alone, he and his preaching were tolerated by the British. Eventually, they were able to convince Sayyid Ahmed that the ‘real’ jihad should be done against the Sikhs, who were allegedly killing Muslims and burning down mosques. There is perhaps no other explanation as to why Sayyid Ahmed would be left free to preach against the British but eventually declare a jihad against the Sikhs.
Sayyid Ahmed remained a bully at heart. Once in Afghanistan, he started enforcing his conception of the Sharia. This meant, among other things, covering of women from head to toe and asking the locals not to take bath in lakes without their clothes on. He also started forcing the local Afghans to pay him a tribute, calling it the religious tax or the Zakat. At times, he is known to have publically whipped men and women for not obeying his orders. Perhaps he thought he was doing the right thing by following the practices of the first caliphs of Islam. The trouble was that Afghan culture was much more rooted than the so called Arab culture which is what Islamic Sharia is all about. The local chieftains started protesting against this new caliph and his new mores and eventually conspired with the Sikhs to deceive him at Balakot where he died battling the Sikhs.
But Balakot is not just the name of a place. It is also an idea. An idea which still captures the imagination of many Indian Muslims and mostly the Ulama. Ali Mian Nadwi, wrote two full volumes of his biography where he heaped fulsome praises on Sayyid Ahmed Barelwi. It is important to note that the Nadwa seminary is a very influential and important madrasa of Indian Muslims. A critique of Nadwi’s position on the so called jihad of Sayyid Ahmed is yet to be published which can only mean that by large Nadwi’s position on the first so called jihad movement still remains the accepted position. In the same fashion, the madrasa at Deoband too has not come up with a critique of Sayyid Ahmed’s position. Rather, they have tried to justify in all possible ways the tract of Shah Ismail called the Taqwatul Iman, which condemns the popular expression of Islamic religiosity in the subcontinent. I have personally spoken to many Barelwi Ulama, who are very critical of the text written by Shah Ismail, but they justify the jihad movement of Sayyid Ahmed. Thus, there seems to a consensus among the different maslaks of Indian Muslims that the jihad movement of Sayyid Ahmed was truly Islamic and that is a model worth emulating. Till the time this consensus exits, the idea of Balakot will not be defeated.
Arshad Alam is a columnist with NewAgeIslam.com