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.