People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 22

June 03, 2007

Theocracy And The Rebels Of 1857:

Assessing The Role Of The Wahabis



Iqtidar Alam Khan


THE Wahabis or, as they preferred to call themselves, Ahl-i Hadis, were followers of Saiyid Ahmad Barelvi, and are portrayed by Dr. K.M. Ashraf as having played a key role in organizing the 1857 Uprising (‘Muslim Revivalists and the Revolt of 1857’, in P.C. Joshi, ed. Rebellion 1857). They are given credit for being armed with a consistent anti-British ideology and also for being steadfast supporters of the rebels at Delhi and other major centers of the Revolt. Ashraf also suggests that the emergence of ‘elected committees of soldiers which virtually took over the government in Delhi and Lucknow’ were an outcome of sepoys’ contacts with the Wahabis ‘who had already developed their technique of conspiratorial work through a chain of hospices and secret agents.’ He refers to Bakht Khan as ‘a confirmed and fanatical Wahabi’ and suggests that the ‘administration of Delhi’ established by him was really in the hands of the Wahabis.


These are observations having important implications for the nature and character of the 1857 revolt and its over-all impact on the subsequent course of Indian people’s resistance to colonial rule. One has to examine them critically in the light of evidence that has become available since Ashraf wrote his well-known piece for the volume edited by P.C. Joshi to mark the centenary of the 1857 revolt.


A perusal of the events of Saiyid Ahmad Barelvi’s movement from 1816, when he first emerged as a prominent figure among Shah Abdul Aziz’s disciples at Delhi (Shah Abdul Aziz was the son of Shah Waliullah the well-known religious leader and theologian of Delhi), down to his death in a skirmish with Ranjit Singh’s forces at Balakot on the north-west frontier (1831), reveals that he never considered the British in India to be an enemy. In adopting this attitude he was apparently following in the footsteps of his preceptor Shah Abdul Aziz who had issued a fatwa in 1804 characterising the territories controlled by the English as dar ul-harb (zone of war) for legal purposes, but had avoided giving a call for jihad against the English. Shah Abdul Aziz even allowed his followers to accept jobs in the administration controlled by the English at Delhi. Saiyid Ahmad Barelvi on his part not only refrained from calling for a jihad against the English but even accepted assistance and hospitality from persons in their service. While proceeding to Sind with his followers in 1826, Saiyid Ahmad Barelvi made a halt of several days at Gwalior as a guest of maharaja Sindhia, a close ally of the English. The Gwalior ruler’s helpful attitude towards Saiyid Ahmad Barelvi on that occasion was obviously in conformity with the English policy of encouraging Saiyid Ahmad in his project of jihad against Ranjit Singh’s government. The organizational network established by Saiyid Ahmad Barelvi in the territories controlled by the English, subsequently, worked openly in raising funds and volunteers and conveying them to the Wahabi militia fighting against Ranjit Singh in the north-west.


A strain, no doubt, started developing between the Wahabis and the English from 1838 onwards, when the first Afghan War broke out. Some of the Wahabis encamped in the north-west were found fighting on the Afghan side. With the English taking over control of Peshawar after the first Punjab War (1844-45), the Wahabis on the border came to be suspected of hostile activities and were even accused of subverting the loyalty of the sepoys serving in the north-west.


It is, however, noteworthy that in 1857 the main body of the Wahabi leadership then located at Patna, was not very enthusiastic about supporting the rebel sepoys. The correspondence of the rebel leader Masih-uz Zaman with Pir Ali of Patna brings out the fact that till the revolt broke out there on 3 June the former was not sure if the Wahabi leaders would cooperate with the rebels. These apprehensions were not entirely baseless. None of the known Wahabi leaders came out in support of the revolt at Patna, though, no doubt many of their ordinary followers might have participated in the uprising of 3 June. A Minute of the Lt.-Governor of Bengal dated 30 September 1858 records that ‘Nothing was at any time proved or even alleged against the Wahabis’, in respect of the revolt at Patna.


The outbreak of revolts in May-June 1857 by units of the Bengal Army stationed at different places in North West Provinces (U.P.) and Delhi and by men of the Gwalior contingent and Sindhia’s troops at Gwalior, Nimach and other cantonments in Central India, were accompanied by the coming into existence of armed bands outside the ranks of the rebel sepoys who were popularly called jihadis or ghazis. These bands mainly consisted of armed volunteers from the Muslim population of the towns, and only occasionally were Muslim sepoys opting out of the revolting platoons included in such formations. In the case of the Gwalior Ghazis, the leader of the group, Jahangir Khan, himself was originally a havaldar of the Gwalior contingent. In some instances, as was perhaps the case at Delhi, Bareilly and Patna, jihadi ranks may have also included men influenced by the doctrines propagated by Saiyid Ahmad Barelvi and his Wahabi followers.


It is important to note that in other centres, for example, Allahabad, Lucknow and Gwalior, the jihadi bands tended to form around figure-heads influenced by different mystic cults whose teachings were often at variance with those of Wahabis in many respects. At Allahabad the jihadis were commanded by Maulvi Liaqat Ali who belonged to a family of orthodox theologians connected with Qadariya sufic order. He allowed himself to be declared a ‘nawab’ by a Hindu leader of the rebel sepoys, which would have been inconceivable if he was in any way linked with the Wahabis. As is well known the puritanically oriented Wahabis did not approve of such aristocratic offices. The leader of jihadis at Lucknow, the famous Ahmadullah Shah, again, was not a Wahabi. He was a sufi-minded ‘faqir’ who counted himself among the ardent followers of Mehrab Ali, a dervish of Gwalior. Going against the Wahabi doctrine of Imamat, Ahmadullah Shah was inclined to raise Mehrab Ali to the position of a sovereign ruler. A description of Jahangir Khan, the leader of the Gwalior ghazis, given by the Gwalior resident S.C. Macpherson (‘arrayed in green with beads fingered in ceaseless prayer’) also shows him as inclined to mystic practices, an anathema to the Wahabis.


There is no evidence that anyone of these jihadi leaders was particularly bothered, like contemporary Wahabi ideologues, about removing religious deviations (bidats) or thought of choosing an imam for leading a jihad against the English. They simply ignored the doctrinal question frequently posed by Wahabis about whether India was a zone of war (dar ul-harab) or about whether Islamic warriors should migrate to a territory deemed zone of Islam (dar ul-Islam). The leaders of ordinary jihadi bands of 1857 simply regarded the English as their enemy, in the struggle against whom they were more than eager to join hands with Hindu chiefs and sepoys. For these ordinary jihadis, the overthrow of the alien English rule was the aim of their jihad, and not the establishment of a theocratic regime so beloved of the Wahabi leaders.


The Wahabi leaders, particularly those responsible for co-ordinating the activities of their organizational network from Patna, were by and large hesitant about joining the 1857 revolt. They were, possibly, not convinced of the doctrinal validity of engaging the English in an armed conflict where Hindu chiefs and leaders of sepoys would be their allies and not clients. Some of them were, perhaps, also not reconciled to recognizing the Mughal Emperor as the symbolic leader of the rebels. Being sticklers for the postulates of theoreticians like Shah Ismail on the theme of jihad, they were of the view that the ongoing conflict would qualify to be called a jihad only if it was led by an imam chosen by Muslims. This sentiment was reflected in the propaganda that was being carried on by some unknown persons at Delhi through unsigned handbills pasted on the walls during the time when the town was still under the effective control of the rebels. That not all such handbills were treated as the handiwork of English agents is borne by the seriousness with which one of these was noticed by the Delhi Urdu Akhbar edited by Muhammad Baqar, an ardent supporter of the rebel regime. A long write-up that appeared in the Delhi Urdu Akhbar of 5 July 1857, attempts to rebut the points made in one such a notice that had been put up at the Jama Masjid. In this notice (ishtihar) it was claimed that the Hindus were infidels and the English as ‘People of the Book’ should not be attacked. This forced the Delhi Urdu Akhbar to denounce this Wahabi-oriented notice as the work of English agents. It said:


Muslim brothers: You should not be deceived by their false pretences. It is simple falsehood and deception on their part (when they say that) jihad (is allowed) only when an Imam was there. Let it be known to every one and also to those deceivers and doubters that, according to shariah texts of (all the) different sects of the followers of Islam, (the present) jihad is binding on every one and (any) one who absents (himself from this duty) is a sinner.


The rebel sheet reproduces Arabic and Persian versions of relevant lines from the Islamic texts as well as their summaries in Urdu ‘for the perusal of general public’ to denounce the Wahabi Notice.


Lastly, there is no basis for presuming that Bakht Khan the rebel Commander-in-Chief at Delhi was a ‘confirmed and fanatical Wahabi’. On the contrary, Bakht Khan and the administration he helped to set up at Delhi are known to have suppressed cow-slaughter, an issue on which the Wahabis were always very agitated. In acting decisively against this divisive tendency, Bakht Khan was not only supported fully by Bahadur Shah Zafar, but, possibly also by the leading theologians like Shaikh Fazle Haq Khairabadi and Sadr al-Din Azurda then present in the rebel camp at Delhi, none of whom were Wahabis. Bakht Khan’s own words and actions at no point suggested any theocratic or sectarian approach. In more than one general order (preserved in the National Archives), he condemned the jihadis who were insisting on cow-slaughter and threatened with capital punishment any person who committed such an offence. In one such order, he denounced some jihadis who had occupied the Jama Masjid, censuring them for ‘spoiling the mosque with their dirtiness’!


Such being the case, it is strange that comparisons should be drawn between the Delhi rebels of 1857 and the Al Qaeda as William Dalrymple does in The Last Mughal, committing the double error of closely linking the 1857 Rebels with the Indian “Wahabis” and treating the latter as precursors of Al-Qaeda.