The narrative of zawaal, or loss of political power, has possessed the imagination of the Muslim elites in the subcontinent from the late 18th century onwards. One important element was the capacity of Muslim rulers, amirs and aristocrats to patronise the ulama— and thus to ‘serve’ and ‘promote’ Islam — which considerably reduced as a result of the gradual consolidation of the colonial rule. This was considered both an effect and a cause of the misfortune that was supposed to have befallen the Muslims, because apparently an abundance of maulvis, duly patronised and rewarded by generous, deendar rulers, was considered good for the health of the religion and the ummat. A neglect of jihad was diagnosed at the heart of zawaal that the Muslim elites were suffering.
Shah Abdul Aziz (1745–1823), son of Shah Waliullah, conveyed the gravity of the general Muslim misfortune to his shagird, Syed Ahmad Barelvi (1786–1831), and urged him to do something about it. The problem Syed Ahmad Barelvi encountered right at the beginning was that, according to traditional thinking, supported by clear religious edicts, waging wars was supposed to be the profession of sword-wielding warlords or sahiban-e-shamsheer and certainly not that of religious teachers and scholars. (This remains a big unresolved issue in matters relating to jihad even today: Who has the authority to declare and organise jihad, and under which necessary conditions?). Syed Ahmad, therefore, started looking around in search of a suitable local sahib-e-shamsheer.
He thought he had discovered the requisite quality in Nawab Amir Khan, the ruler of the state of Tonk in Rajasthan. He duly became a part of the nawab’s darbar and later, thanks to his training in the traditional martial arts, of his army as well. However, despite his long and close association with the nawab, he was unable to convince the latter to try and wrest control of Hindustan from the angrez by waging a jihad against them. The nawab had been awarded the rulership of the princely state by the British in exchange of his services to them and thus it might have been a bit unrealistic on the part of his creditable darbari maulvi-turned-warrior to expect such a feat of him.
Syed Ahmad Barelvi remained in the service of Nawab Amir Khan for about eight years before getting thoroughly disappointed in him on the question of jihad. Finally, he decided to raise a lashkar and launch and lead the jihad himself. This was, in many ways, a unique, unprecedented decision on the part of Syed Ahmad, in which he was supported by Shah Ismail (1779–1831), a grandson of Shah Waliullah, a nephew of Shah Abdul Aziz and a religious ideologue in his own right. This could be called the first jihad of the modern kind in the northern subcontinent because not only did the call for jihad come from religious scholars, and not sahiban-e-shamsheer, but those who were urged to join it were not necessarily warrior clans but individuals, many of whom had had nothing to do with war as a profession before.
Syed Ahmad declared that the state founded in the areas ‘liberated’ through a victorious jihad would be handed over to an aadil hukumran (literally, ‘a just ruler’). Till such time, however, he persuaded himself to wear the mantle of the amir-ul-momineen. (This is another significant question that continues to face the jihadi lashkars of various sizes and their leaders to this day. And, often, it is resolved by the warlord in question assigning to himself the role of the amir-ul-momineen of usually a loosely demarcated, large or small geographical area).
Since what was being launched was different from a traditional war in which everyone clearly knew who would get what, another question raised its head: What would the participants, including those who were not professional warriors, and those who financially supported the effort, get as a result of the jihad? The answer to this question given by Syed Ahmad and recorded in the history of that particular jihad was a revealing one. It will be discussed a bit later.
The maulvis and religious teachers who were associated with small or big darbars traditionally enjoyed a higher social status than the village mullahs. In the course of the 20th century during which printed word attained a decisive victory over the traditional, oral transmission of knowledge, it was gradually forgotten that most of the mullahs who performed religious rituals in villages were actually illiterate and had only memorised the required texts by rote. They had learned to lead the no-less-illiterate villagers in matters of shariat and issue religious edicts using and interpreting this very oral ‘knowledge’ of the popular texts. The higher maulvis, on the other hand, belonged mostly to the Syed caste, which had acquired in the Muslim society of the subcontinent a highly sacred status, all but unknown in many Arab countries.
As an important professional activity, these higher maulvis of Syed clans traditionally used to be tutors to sons of aristocrats and rulers of princely states. Therefore, such maulvis not only enjoyed a somewhat powerful social status but also commanded a measure of respect for their knowledge. Sometimes these higher maulvis were awarded tracts of land as well as gold and gems for the services they rendered. Still, they concentrated on imparting education and training to those individuals of sufficiently high birth who intended to enter the service of an amir or ruler as a tutor or a state functionary. The matter of high birth was handled with utmost caution, as the activity of educating and training of potential darbaris was crucial for the sophisticated power structure of society.
(To be concluded)
Published in The Express Tribune, July 23rd, 2011.
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