Towards a jihadi politics — IV

Pathan tribal sardars did not accept Syed Ahmad’s as the amirul momineen, instead considered him just a maulvi.

Ajmal Kamal August 05, 2011

The last point of Syed Ahmad’s explanation of the bountiful and beneficial effects of jihad is particularly significant since the contemporary, colonised Hindustan was being compared with its past of 200-300 years back when the traditional Muslim rulers possessed enough spiritual and material resources to patronise men of God and religious learning in large numbers. In case of a victorious jihad, what ‘special benefit’ the deendar rulers and the maulvis under their benevolent patronage would have got thus becomes quite obvious. Other participants and supporters of the jihadi effort, i.e. the general public who had just begun to come in their own as a political entity, were supposed to be content with the unspecific promise of a ‘general benefit’ in the shape of divine benevolence, timely rains, good crops and prosperous trade. Lately, those recruiting fighters and collecting donations for today’s jihads — big and small — seem to have forgotten about the role this sacred activity is supposed to play in the fields of agriculture, trade and so on, as we hardly ever hear about it; these days what is usually promised is a contingent of 70 or more virgins for those who invest their lives in jihad and a general bounty of sawab for the chanda-givers — both safely located in the afterlife.

However, what the quoted excerpt of Syed Ahmad’s explanation brings out is that his concept of jihad had more to do with the performance of a religious ‘obligation’ rather than a political strategy of resisting the colonial rule. What is remarkably missing from this view is anything approaching a clear understanding of what had hit the subcontinent — and other parts of the world during his time — in the shape of colonial conquest and its attending exploitation of indigenous resources. Defining a local struggle as an effort to resist ‘foreign’ rule was, of course, out of the question as the ‘high-born’ (upper-caste) ideologues of the movement based their own claim to ascendancy on their real or imagined lineage to invaders and conquerors of ‘foreign’ origin. Indeed, this was the basis of the caste divisions among the South Asian Muslims. Similarly, it was not possible for such ideologues to discount or seriously challenge the colonial rulers’ claim of a ‘civilising mission’ because they themselves made similar claims about the civilising effect of Muslim conquests in the past.

This absence of a realistic appraisal of the political situation on the part of the ideologues and leaders of jihad made them prisoners to a view based entirely on the narrowly defined economic interests of the upper-castes among Muslims of the subcontinent. This view seems to have informed the decisions they made about how and on which lines jihad — a religious duty above everything else — was to be conducted. Or, indeed, against whom.

Sympathetic chroniclers and historians of the jihad movement led by Syed Ahmad and Shah Ismail have presented differing views on how to interpret the decision of the movement’s leaders not to fight against the British, who had occupied almost the entire subcontinent, barring the lame-duck Mughal ‘empire’ which was kept in place in a tiny area of Delhi and supported by a stipend to the ‘king’. Instead, the jihad leaders decided to go and attack the Sikh state of Punjab, which happened to be the only princely state which had not entered into an agreement of allegiance and subservience with the East India Company. Muhammad Jafar Thanesari, a close companion of Syed Ahmad in the jihad movement, maintains that fighting against the British was never a part of their plan, while Ghulam Rasool Mehr, with the benefit of a latter-day perspective, is of the view that the war with the Sikhs was meant only as the first phase of the movement’s larger plan, and the next phase, after the liberation of a part of the Takht-i-Lahore’s territory (located in today’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa), would have been to turn it into a base for launching a jihad against the British as well.

Whether Syed Ahmad and his jihadi companions would have actually fought the British after defeating the Sikhs or not is an unsolved — and unsolvable — question of history. However, the movement remained unsuccessful in defeating — or even posing a really serious challenge to — the Sikh state which was eventually annexed by the British 18 years later, in 1849, as a result of an offensive led by Lord Dalhousie, the British governor-general.

An even more revealing fact is that the only battles ‘won’ by Syed Ahmad, Shah Ismail and those of his companions who remained with him till the bitter end were fought not even against the declared target of the jihad — i.e. the Sikhs — but against the Muslim Pathans of the northwest who were expected to provide the bulk of the soldiers for the jihad. With the arguably misplaced emphasis on ‘reforming’ the local, practiced religion of the region, the leader of the movement managed to alienate and antagonise the local Pathan sardars to such an extent that they became the bitterest enemies of the jihad and vowed to finish it off with the help of the very Sikhs it was launched against.

The Pathan tribal sardars did not accept Syed Ahmad’s status of an imam and the amirul momineen, as claimed by himself as well as his companions, and instead considered him just a maulvi under the patronage of the tribal sardar who was supposed to advise him on religious matters and leave political and war decisions to him. These sharply divergent views on how the jihad was to be conducted and how much religious reform the tribal society could take disgruntled the tribal sardars to such a degree that they requested the local representatives of Maharaja Ranjit Singh to help them fight the mujahideen and finish them off. One of them even sent his son to Lahore as a hostage in exchange for a contingent of soldiers led by a Sikh commander.

(To be concluded)

Published in The Express Tribune, August 6th, 2011.


hariharmani | 9 years ago | Reply

Writing historical record is a awesome responsibility and disiminating by readers is more so.A reader who dedicate himself/herself can not in all honesty confine himself to one or only one direction,(as the state of pakistan has done in schools),then the state does more harm to itself in long run.It is not to far off strech ,a well knowedgable,well informed society is better served in the long run,you are only as good as your clarity of your knowledge.Let me add a little,as far mugal as -rule'in sub-continent is concerned.You do your own research.From 1528 to 1728,the begnning and end,there was 3 thing the rulers kept in mind.There were 4 legs to the power base.1)the Emperor2)sunni nobles3)the shia nobles and 4)the hindu nobles and Raja's who were supporters of the mugal raj.A intelligent Ruler was smart enough to balance these 3 forces,at the time of new king,there were struggles for supermacy,but once it was decided who would be Emperor after considerable blood letting,it was back to business as usual.This was well understood and no one rocked the boat,untill 1655,when Shah Jahen fell sick,Dara Sikoh and Jahanara on one side,and crafty Aurenzeb and Roshan ara on the other.They had no hold fight till death,we all know Auranzeb won,but it was the begnning of the end.He destroyed the 3 centers of the pillar and he was the tyrannt and his tyranny could not last after his death in 1607,almost 50 years,but he had weakened the the foundation and it could not sustain itself.Many historians feel if Dara had won,he was very smart and tolerant and his long rule would have been more stable than even Akbar the great.But history is not ifs and buts.That fall out between,shia/sunny and Hindus culminated in partition,and animosity,hostility and bad blood to this day.The frosting on the cake was the final betrayal of Saraz-ud-allah and battle of Plasy in 1757,that doomed of self rule and 250 years of British rule and what is much worse is the legacy of distrust they left behind for all 3 major sects,the fruits are now in full bloom.Pakistan has borne the full brunt.The story is not complete yet,cup of misery is only 1/2 full,worse is yet to come.

P N Eswaran | 9 years ago | Reply

I have been reading Mr. Kamal's series of articles on the subject of Jihad.

What is most astonishing is that the Muslims of the sub continent, in general and more specifically Pakistan and Afghanistan, have not grown for the last 400 years!!!

Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ