What we know as ‘jihad’ today was unknown in the pre-colonial society of the South Asian subcontinent. Wars, big and small, were fought with the main aim of occupying as much land as possible, for the simple reason that natural resources and agricultural activity were tied to land and its ownership determined a clan’s economic power and social status. The fights for possession of big or small tracts of land went on endlessly among landowner clans, and the invaders, local and foreign, commanding soldiers of fortune, would occupy large geographical regions, win over the landowners of that region and start extracting from them a portion of the natural resources and agricultural produce.
The Muslim invaders of the subcontinent did occasionally use Islamic slogans and terms such as jazba-e-imani, shujaat, but-shikani etc, to invoke a fighting spirit among their soldiers, but we must not forget that some of these terms were employed in situations where the commander of the opposite army was as much a Muslim as that of the invading army. A case in point is Babur, who led the invasion from Afghanistan in 1525, when Ibrahim Lodi possessed the throne of Delhi. Nonetheless, Babur used religious slogans and acts (for instance his announcement to quit drinking) to fan the enthusiasm of his soldiers.
However, religious actors or priests — peshimam, mudarris, qazi and mufti — were an integral part of all levels of this system, which worked on the basis of land ownership. On the village level, where most of the people lived, the local mullah or imam-masjid was as much a part of the zamindar’s ryot or serfs as were other groups such as farmers, agricultural labourers and artisans. Just like these workers or kammis, the mullah would receive his wages in exchange for performing religious rituals for the community. His duties included giving a shar’i fatwa to settle domestic or family disputes on the one hand, and on the other finding religious sanction for the landowner’s activities of all kinds. These activities could, and often would, range from using force to occupy other people’s land, to including other people’s women into his harem, to using his wealth for worldly pleasures some of which were expressly disallowed by popular religion, to getting rid of other claimants of the inherited land and wealth (brothers, cousins, etc.). The mullah would naturally be very sensitive towards his bread-giver’s interests and dutifully find favourable room in the maze of religious decrees for all this and more. One of his important duties was, in case of any whiff of rebellion in one of the ryot, to declare him astray from the true path, sometimes even kafir and wajib-ul qatl, and to annul the culprit’s nikah as a punishment for misbehaving with the master.
This role of the maulvi or religious priest was quite visible at the upper levels of society as well. When the Mughal king Aurangzeb started taking out one by one all the potential claimants of the throne, the religious beliefs of a few of them (such as Dara Shikoh) were also questioned and duly found objectionable. From the village zamindar’s chopal or kucthehri to the durbars of aristocrats, nawabs and big or small kings, the fatwas or religious decrees of the maulvis, muftis and qazis were mostly the expression of the ruler’s will. An interesting example is the region currently called Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (including its various princely states, now annexed) where the Khawaneen (plural of Khan) had told the priests in plain language that a particular part of Surah Al-Nissa of the Holy Quran, which decrees women’s share in the family inheritance, would remain ‘non-functional’, i.e. would not be followed in their land. This interesting revision of the religious law was a way of continuing the local tradition which discourages women demanding and getting their share in their father’s inheritance even today.
As per the famous saying, wars were traditionally fought for land, but for gold and women also. The accumulated income from land used to be stored in the shape of gold, silver and gems in the treasures of zamindars, nawabs, amirs and kings. In case of an invasion and a conquest by a local or foreign invader-conqueror, a part of such treasures would be distributed among the soldiers of the victorious army, while the major portion would come into the possession of victorious zamindar or king as booty or maal-e-ghanimat. The ryot or common people, busy in the agricultural activity that created this wealth in the first place, had no connection with its changing of hands. They would be paid, under the strict tradition of barter, only a meagre portion of the agricultural produce in order to go on living at a subsistence level. (It was only during the colonial period that they started handling cash at the lower levels of society which was to have a huge and far-reaching impact, but of that, later.)
By the time the British colonial set-up entered its third phase around the middle of the nineteenth century, it had consolidated its grip on the land and the resources it contained, and all the local rulers had either been dispossessed or become subservient to the new invaders-conquerors. While the landowners at the lower levels were accustomed to such changes of allegiance as they had to pay a part of their wealth to this or that ruler in any case, for those at the middle and upper levels, Muslim and others, it was a real loss of power. Apart from other things, the changed fortune rendered them hardly capable of patronising those associated with their durbars, including masahibs of all kinds, artists, prostitutes and so on.
“Those who lost, or nearly lost, patronage of the various darbars included maulvis, muftis and qazis as well. While their less-lucky counterparts, i.e. village mullahs, continued their meager existence, these darbari maulvis had to really face hard times, because with their specialised training and occupation, they saw no place for themselves in the new set-up. In order to resist the new reality, they first tried the tested, traditional method of inviting a new invader-conqueror to fight the present one. Shah Waliullah (1703-1762) is known to have beckoned the King of Afghanistan to establish his Indian empire by wresting the subcontinent from the ‘infidels’. However, the latter’s descendants could not be so beckoned by Shah Waliullah’s progeny, because they would not have found it practicable, given the power equation in the era of rising colonialism, to defeat the British militarily, as the new kind of rulers were unlike the medieval Delhi kings, or even Marathas, who were easily dislodged by the Afghan soldiers of fortune, with or without the use of jihadi slogans.”
(To be concluded)
Published in The Express Tribune, July 16th, 2011.
Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.
For more information, please see our Comments FAQ