“It is obvious to your exalted self that the alien people from distant lands have become the rulers of territories and times, and the traders and vendors of goods have attained the rank of sovereignty. They have destroyed the dominions of the big grandees and the estates of the nobles of illustrious ranks, and their honour and authority have been completely set at naught… As soon as the land of Hindustan is cleared of the alien enemies and the efforts of these people [the Wahabis] result in the achievement of their objective, the ranks and offices of the state and government would be handed over to the seekers [of these], and the roots of their power and sovereignty would be strengthened.”1

This was the message which Syed Ahmad Barelvi sent to Raja Hindu Rao, brother-in-law of Maharaja Daulat Rao Scindia (AD 1795-1827) of Gwalior.


In another letter, which he wrote to his contemporary Muslim magnates ran as follows: “My real object is the establishment of jihãd against the Sikhs of the Punjab and not to stay in the countries of Afghanistan and Yagistan. The long-haired infidels who have seized sovereignty over Punjab are very experienced, clever and deceitful… The ill-natured Sikhs and the ill-fated polytheists have gained control over the Western parts of India from the banks of Indus to the capital city of Delhi.”2

The second letter is found in this form in Sawãnih Ahmadî, a biography of Barelvi. But there is another version, preserved in Patna University Library, which reads as under: “My real objective is the establishment of jihãd and carrying of war into Hindustan and not to stay in the lands of Khorasan… The Christian infidels who have gained possession over India are very artful and deceptive… The ill-natured Christians and ill-fated Mushriks have gained control over the various parts of India stretching from the bank of Indus to the shore of the ocean which covers a distance of six months journey.”3

Obviously, this version was meant for the consumption of Muslim masses. It is on record that Barelvi was not only seeking monetary help from Hindu Rajas but also patronage for his followers who were operating from within India. Hindu Rajas, however, were not against the Sikhs. At the same time, he was seeking help from Muslim magnates, most of whom were against the Sikhs but allied with the British. Muslim masses alone were inimical to both. Many Muslim theologians have followed in the footsteps of the first Christian missionary, St. Paul, and tried to be ‘all things to all men’. Barelvi was neither the first such Muslim missionary nor the last. But he achieved a minor miracle when he remained convinced that it was the Sikhs and the British who were clever and deceitful. Such a combination of scoundrelism and self-righteousness is rare even among Muslim theologians and missionaries.

Shri Seshadri has given a brief account of Syed Ahmad Barelvi and his Wahabis in The Tragic Story of Partition.4 He has also related how Muslim leaders did a right-about-turn under the guidance of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. We will only fill in a few more details because this episode in the history of Islam in India is extremely revealing. Marxist and Muslim scholars have been presenting the Wahabis and the Faraizis as freedom fighters and peasant revolutionaries. We should study some relevant facts in order to find out whose freedom they were fighting for, and what sort of revolution they were seeking to bring about.


We have already related in an earlier chapter how the residues of Islamic imperialism had reacted immediately after the Mughal empire collapsed in the first half of the 18th century. Shah Waliullah was a voluminous exponent of that reaction. But his appeals for an India-wide jihãd against the Marathas had borne very little fruit. Ahmad Shah Abdali of Afghanistan, whom Waliullah had invited to join the jihãd, inflicted a major military defeat on the Marathas in the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761 AD. But he also could not salvage the Mughal empire from the slough of disintegration into which it had sunk. By the time Waliullah was succeeded by his son Abdul Aziz (1746-1822) in the theological saddle at Delhi, the Marathas were already on the retreat before the fast advancing British. So Abdul Aziz converted his father’s jihãd against the Marathas into a jihãd against the British. A fatwa was issued that India under British rule had become a Dãr-ul-harb (zone of war or infidel land) and that it was the duty of all mu‘mins either to migrate to a Dãr-ul-Islãm (Islamic country) or to fight the firanghî for the restoration of Muslim rule.

Abdul Aziz found a devoted disciple in Syed Ahmad Barelvi. To start with, he sent Barelvi to get training in the art of warfare by joining the army of Amir Khan, the Pindari chieftain. Next, he commissioned Barelvi to go to Mecca in order to acquire the requisite religions zeal. Barelvi arrived in Mecca in 1822. He travelled extensively in Arabia and Syria and met many masters of Islamic lore. It is not certain whether he met Abdul Wahab, the founder of the Wahabi Movement in Arabia. But the similarity of his ideas with those of his Arabian contemporary earned for his movement the name Wahabi, though he himself had designated it as Tarîqah-i-Muhammadiyah (the way of Muhammad). In any case, he came back to India towards the end of 1822 fully convinced of his mission, which was to purify Islam in India of all non-Islamic accretions and then, with the help of this revived Islam, establish an Islamic state a la the model prescribed by the Prophet and the first four pious Caliphs. In the process, the British were to be driven out of India by means of a jihãd.

Barelvi was quite successful in setting up a network of centres in various cities of North India. He enlisted an impressive following, particularly among the upper class Muslims. He also collected a lot of money at the same time. He called upon Muslims to eliminate three kinds of excesses - firstly, those advocated by heterodox Sufis; secondly, those practised by the Shias; and thirdly, those ‘borrowed’ from the Hindus. Prof. Aziz Ahmad writes: “This last category was by far the most important, and was most vigorously denounced by Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi. It had included pilgrimage to Hindu holy places, shouting Hindu religious slogans, and adorning the tombs with lingams (Hindu phallic symbol), worship of Hindu deities, borrowing from Hindu animism, consulting Brahmins for good or bad omens, and celebration of Hindu festivals. Next came external Hindu manners, such as eating on leaves or keeping pig-tails or piercing women’s ears and nose to wear jewellery or shaving one’s hair and eyebrows in imitation of yogis or even dressing like Hindus.”5

Barelvi forgot that a majority of Muslims in India were converts from the Hindu fold, and that Islam sat rather lightly on most of them. This is understandable. After all, Barelvi was an Islamic missionary and not a historian of Islam in India. What amazes one is that even Muslim scholars in modern times have managed to forget that the ‘impurities’ or ‘excesses’ of Islam in India were not injected into it by Hindus from the outside, but were brought along by Hindu converts who were driven or lured into the fold of Islam by force or fraud. Nor has any Muslim scholar noted that it is these ‘impurities’ and ‘excesses’ which have prevented the total brutalization of native Muslims such as had always been and is being advocated by their Ashrãf (foreign) mentors.

To resume the story, Barelvi’s confidence in a jihãd against the British collapsed when he surveyed the extent and the magnitude of British power in India. He did the next best under the circumstances, and declared a jihãd against the Sikh power in the Punjab, Kashmir and the North-West Frontier. The British on their part welcomed this change and permitted Barelvi to travel towards the border of Afghanistan at a leisurely pace, collecting money and manpower along the way. It was during this journey that Barelvi stayed with or met several Hindu princes, feigned that his fulminations against the Sikhs were a fake, and that he was going out of India in order to establish a base for fighting against the British. It is surmised that some Hindu princes took him at his word, and gave him financial help. To the Muslim princes, however, he told the truth, namely, that he was up against the Sikhs because they “do not allow the call to prayer from mosques and the killing of cows.”6

Barelvi set up his base in the North-West Frontier near Afghanistan. The active assistance he expected from the Afghan king did not materialise because that country was in a mess at that time. But the British connived at the constant flow not only of a sizable manpower but also of a lot of finance. Muslim magnates in India were helping him to the hilt. His basic strategy was to conquer Kashmir before launching his major offensive against the Punjab. But he met with very little success in that direction in spite of several attempts. Finally, he met his Waterloo in 1831 when the Sikhs under Kunwar Sher Singh stormed his citadel at Balakot. The great mujãhid fell in the very first battle he ever fought. His corpse along with that of his second in command was burnt, and the ashes were scattered in the winds. Muslims hail him as a shahîd.

The scattered remnants of the Wahabis fought a few more skirmishes with the Sikhs. But they also met with no success. Next, they turned their fury against the British when the latter took over from the Sikhs in 1849. There was a lot of organizing and shouting of Allah-o-Akbar in the North-West Frontier as well as in several centres inside India such as Patna, Meerut, Bareilly and Hyderabad. But they produced very little fight. The British smashed them everywhere and it was all over by 1870. The greatest ‘achievement’ of the Wahabis after four decades of ‘fighting’ was the murder of Justice Norman at Calcutta in 1871, and of Lord Mayo, the Viceroy, at Port Blair in 1872.

One of Barelvi’s distinguished disciples was Mir Nasser Ali of Barasat in Bengal, better known as Titu Mir or Titu Mian. He had met the master in Mecca in 1822, and returned to Calcutta a few years later in order to organize another jihãd against the British. He set up his headquarters at Barasat, and declared that India under British rule was a Dãr-ul-harb. But, in due course, his invectives also came to be increasingly directed against the unarmed Hindus in the countryside of Bengal.

Narahari Kaviraj, a Communist scholar who hails Titu’s rascals as peasant revolutionaries, describes the exploits of his hero in the following words: “They first sallied forth in a body of about 500 persons to attack the market place of the village known as Poorwa, where they slaughtered a cow. With the blood of the animal they defiled a Hindu temple. Then they hung up the four quarters (of the cow) in the different parts of the market place. They maltreated and wounded an unfortunate Brahmin and threatened to make him a Muslim… The village of Laoghatty in the Nadia district was their next object attack. Here they commenced operations by the repetition of the same outrage to the religious feelings of the Hindus which they had committed at Poorwa, viz, the slaughter of a cow in that part of the village exclusively occupied by Hindu residents. But being opposed by Hardeb Ray, a principal inhabitant of the village, and a Brahmin, at the head of a party of villagers, an affray ensued in which one Debnath Ray was killed and Hardeb Ray and a number of villagers were severely wounded… Titu’s party went on increasing and with growing confidence they went on killing cows in different places, making raids on the neighbouring villages, forcing from the raiyats agreements to furnish grain, compelling many of them to profess conformity to the tenets of their sect… They openly proclaimed themselves masters of the country, asserting that the Mussalmans from whom the English usurped it, were the rightful owners of the empire… The rebels issued parwanas to the principal zamindars of the district. Their tenor was as follows: “This country is now given to our Deen Mohammed. You must, therefore, immediately send grain to the army.’ In a written report the magistrate of Nadia states that a paper written in Bengali and signed in Arabic characters, was put into his hand, purporting to be an order of Allah to the Pal Chowdhuries of Ranaghat to supply russud (rations) to the army of fakirs who were about to fight with the government.”7 All of this was an early rehearsal of what the Moplahs were to do in Malabar in 1921 during the Khilafat agitation against the British.

The British government at Calcutta had to take action at last, not because it was bothered about what was happening to the Hindus at the hands of Muslim mujãhids but because the Wahabis of Bengal were becoming a menace to the British system of law and order. Titu Mian was killed in the very first encounter with a British battalion in 1839. A number of his followers were hanged or sentenced to various terms of imprisonment.

Another movement on similar lines had flared up simultaneously in the Faridpur district of Bengal. This was the Faraizi Movement launched by Shariatullah who also had spent 20 years in Mecca and Medina. He had also declared that India under the British was a Dãr-ul-harb, and that Muslims should not observe Friday prayers and the two Ids till Islamic rule was restored. He also tried to ‘purify’ Islam of ‘un-Islamic accretions’ borrowed from the hated Hindus. And he also acquired a large following of fanatic Muslims in order to mount his jihãd against the British. But like his contemporary, Titu Mian, he also ended by spending all his spleen against the Hindus. Kaviraj writes: “As the followers of Shariatullah increased in numbers, and as they became too bold and overbearing, they carried their incursions against Hindu zamindars and committed acts of cruelty against Hindu families.”8 Shariatullah died in 1837 without achieving anything more spectacular. That was left to his son who had meanwhile returned from Mecca after a stay of several years.

Muhammad Mohsin, better known as Dudhu Mian (1819-1860), was a more full-fledged fundamentalist than his father. Professor Murray Titus writes that “Among other things, we are told that he insisted upon his disciples eating the common grass-hopper (phaDinga), which they detested, because the locust (tiDDi) was used as food in Arabia.”9 Dudhu Mian was convinced that Allah had entrusted him with the mission of restoring Islam in India to its pristine purity and bygone glory. That implied a fight against the British. But like his father, he also found that the unarmed Hindus in the countryside of Bengal were a far more attractive prey. According to Kaviraj, Dudhu’s followers were well-armed with swords, shields and a variety of other weapons. In April 1839, they raided 76 Hindu houses in seven villages. They committed atrocities on innocent Hindus, killed cows and broke the images worshipped by the Brahmins inside their homes. Later on, one of their victims was Kalicharan Kanjilal, a gomashta in a British-owned Indigo factory. Kanjilal was given the full treatment prescribed for kafirs in the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet. The atrocities heaped on this poor and unoffending Hindu by a Islamic-cum-Communist ‘hero’ are described in detail in contemporary government records.

Finally, the British Indigo planters put pressure on the British government to bring the hoodlum to book. “He was charged with plunder in 1838, committed to sessions for murder in 1841, tried for trespass and for unlawful assembly in 1844, and for abduction and plunder in 1846. But it was found impossible to induce witnesses to give evidence, and on each occasion he was acquitted.”10 It was only in 1857 that he was put in jail without trial. He died there in 1860.

The last effort made by the mujãhids of all sorts to overthrow the British rule and restore the ‘Muslim empire in India’ was in 1857. They were able to enlist Hindu support on a large scale because of reasons in which we need not go here. But this grand jihãd was also defeated, and its leaders had to seek shelter in the Hindu kingdom of Nepal. The last Mughal emperor ended his days of disgrace in far off Rangoon. Ishtiq Husain Qureshi names this period as that of the ‘lowest depths of broken pride’.11

Thus, by about the year 1860, the multifarious mujãhids had emptied themselves of all the heat stored in them by their sojourn in the ‘holy land’ of Hijaz. They could not shake a single brick in the edifice of the British empire. It was now the turn of the Muslim magnates, sitting pretty in their palatial mansions, to rescue the mujãhids from the theological knots into which the latter had tied themselves. Meanwhile, the British had seen the Muslim potential for mischief against the Hindus who had started taking pride in their history and heritage, and demanding self-rule. An invitation was extended to the residues of Islamic imperialism to revise their strategy when W.W. Hunter wrote The Indian Musalmans in 1871. The invitation was readily accepted by the other side.


Shri Seshadri has referred to this part of the story. He writes: “It was the vested landed interests amongst the Muslim aristocracy, especially in Oudh and parts of U.P. and Bihar which succeeded in persuading the maulvis to issue fatwas with a view to contradicting the previous fatwas calling for the establishment of Darul-Islam. The fatwas issued by the heads of the three prominent Mussalman sects of Mecca declared that the Mussalmans under the Christian rule of the British were assured of protection and liberty of Islamic observances and as such it was not Darul-harb and did not warrant jehad against it.”12 The mullahs in Mecca had been ‘persuaded’ by the British to help the Muslims in India.

Thus what had started with a bang ended with a whimper. The Mullahs have always had a hundred tricks in their theological hat. They can turn into white to-day what they had pronounced black only a day before, and vice versa. Hunter had noted in his book that “The danger to British rule comes from the ‘fanatic masses’, who take their religion seriously unlike the ‘well-to-do Musalmans’ who contrive to evade the clear prescriptions of the Quran to flee or to rebel”.13

It was at this critical juncture in the history of Islam in India that Sir Syed Ahmed stepped forward. “He was a pupil of the famous Mawlãnã a Mamlûk ‘Ali who was entirely a product of the Walî-u’llahî school and tradition. It was perhaps because of this relationship that he claimed to be a Wahhãbî…”14 But now on the word ‘Wahabi’ was to acquire a new meaning. He had been a protege of the British for a long time. He had sided with his masters during the jihãd of 1857. Soon after the jihãd failed, he came out with a book, The Loyal Mohammedans of India. He travelled to England in 1869 and wrote as follows from there to a friend in India: “Without flattering the English, I can truly say that the natives of India, high and low, merchants and petty shopkeepers, educated and illiterate, when contrasted with the English in education, manners and uprightness, are as like them as a dirty animal is to an able and handsome man. Do you look upon an animal as a thing to be honoured? Do you think it necessary to treat an animal courteously, or the reverse? We have no right to courteous treatment. The English have reason for believing us in India to be imbecile brutes.”15

Here was the man the British were looking for. The rest of his role is too well-known to be repeated here. He was undoubtedly the father of the two-nation theory which led later on to the demand for Pakistan. He became a bitter opponent of the Indian National Congress as soon as it was founded in 1885. He decried parliamentary democracy as a plot to put the ‘brute Hindu majority’ into power. He led a hate campaign against the Bengalis who were in the forefront of the fight for freedom. He was all for a fight against Hindi attaining an equal status with Urdu. And he tried his best to build bridges between Christianity on the one hand and Islam on the other. The nett result of his Aligarh Movement was to convert the Muslim community into a close preserve of toadyism (jee-huzûrî) towards the British. The British on their part responded positively, and made many concessions to the Muslims. This co-operation between British imperialism and the residues of Islamic imperialism continued till the creation of Pakistan, except for a brief period of bad blood during the Khilafat agitation.

Many scholars, both Hindu and Muslim, have persisted in painting Sir Syed as a nationalist in his early career. They feel puzzled at what they call his sudden volte face. The earliest of these scholars was Lala Lajpat Rai. Lalaji’s father had become a Muslim for all practical purposes, and was a great admirer of Sir Syed. The son had also come under the same influence before he went to Lahore and joined the Arya Samaj. He became an ardent nationalist. But the favourable impression which Sir Syed had made on his mind earlier had lingered on. He was, therefore, shocked when Sir Syed appeared in what Lalaji thought to be a new attire. He wrote a number of Open Letters to Sir Syed which were published in the English and the Varnacular press of his days. These letters made Lalaji famous in no time, and all over India.

Shri Seshadri has also observed that “these nationalist ideas appear to be but a fleeting phase in Sir Syed’s life”. The truth, however, is that there was never a nationalist phase in the life of Sir Syed. He started his life as a lick-spittle of the British, and a lick-spittle he remained to the end of his days. But like his namesake of earlier days, Syed Ahmad Barelvi, he tried to humour the Hindus whenever he needed material help. M.R.A. Baig hits the nail on the head when he writes: “As is well-known, he secured donations for Aligarh from Hindus of his own feudal class. When canvassing for their support he expressed such exemplary sentiments as that Hindus and Muslims were the ‘two eyes of the beautiful Indian bride.’ But when addressing exclusively Muslim audiences, especially political meetings, he was militant enough to threaten civil war.”16

Five years after Sir Syed’s death in 1898, his successor, Viqar-ul-Mulk, wrote a letter to The Pioneer of Lucknow. He said: “We start with the firm conviction and seek to implant it in the mind of every Indian Musalman that our destiny is now bound up with the presence and permanence of British rule in this country, and that in the government of the day we have got our best and surest friend.”17

This was the mentality which led to the formation of the Muslim League in December, 1906. The League pledged itself to an ever-lasting loyalty to the British Crown. Three months later, Viqar-ul-Mulk addressed a students’ gathering at Aligarh. He said: “God forbid, if the British rule disappears from India. Hindus will lord over it, and we will be in constant danger of our life, property and honour. The only way for the Muslims to escape this danger is to help in the continuance of the British rule. If the Muslims are heartily with the British, then that rule is bound to endure. Let the Muslims consider themselves as a British army ready to shed their blood and sacrifice their lives for the British Crown… Wherever you are, whether in the football field or in the tennis lawn, you have to consider yourselves as soldiers of a British regiment. You have to defend the British Empire, and to give the enemy [Hindus] a fight in doing so. If you bear it in mind and act accordingly, you will have done that and your name will be written in letters of gold in the British Indian history. The future generations will be grateful to you.”18

But the leaders of the Indian National Congress continued to hug the illusion that the residues of Islamic imperialism in India could also be mobilised in the fight for the freedom of the motherland. They had failed to notice and understand why the jihãd against the British had again and again led to atrocities on innocent Hindus, and how the mujãhids of yester years had ended by becoming stooges of the British at a later stage.


1 Qeyamuddin Ahmad, The Wahabi Movement in India, Calcutta, 1966, pp. 365-366.

2 Ibid., p.358. He uses the term ‘polytheists’ for Sikhs who had not yet started swearing by monotheism, and were regarded as a Hindu sect.

3 Ibid. This letter refers to both the British and the Sikhs who are again denounced as mushriks, polytheists.

4 Chapter 3.

5 Aziz Ahmad, Studies in Islamic Culture, Pp. 211-212.

6 Targhîb-al-Jîhãd translated by W.W. Hunter, p. 140. The fond belief that the Amir of Afghanistan and the Frontier Tribals could be invited for liberating India from foreign rule, lingered for a long time. It was soon forgotten that the belief was entertained or fostered by Muslim ‘revivalists’ in the 18th and the 19th centuries. The Indian “revolutionaries” like M.N. Roy, Raja Mahendra Pratap, and Chandrashekhar Azad were latter-day victims of this illusion and tried to help ‘our friends in the North-West’ with munitions and money. The illusion suffered a set back only when Pandit Nehru went out to the NWF to fraternize with the ‘brave Pathans’ soon after becoming virtual Prime Minister of India in 1946, and was welcomed with bullets. He never mentioned the ‘brave Pathans’ again.

7 Narahari Kaviraj, Wahabi And Faraizi Rebels of Bengal, New Delhi, 1982, Pp. 37-38, 43-44, 50-51.

8 Ibid., p.65.

9 Murray Titus, Indian Islam, Oxford, 1930, p. 180.

10 R.C. Majumdar (ed.), History and Culture of the Indian People, Volume XI, Bombay, 1981, p. 885.

11 Ihtiaq Husain Qureshi, The Muslim Community of the Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent (610-1947), Delhi reprint, 1985, Chapter XI.

12 The Tragic Story of Partition, p. 65.

13 Cited by David Lelyveld, Aligarh’s First Generation, Princeton, 1978, p. 11.

14 Ishtiq Husain Qureshi, Ulema in Politics, Delhi reprint, p. 226.

15 Cited by G.F.L. Graham, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, London, 1885, Pp. 183-184.

16 M.R.A. Baig, The Muslim Dilemma in India, Delhi, 1974, p. 52.

17 Francis Robinson, Separatism Among Indian Muslims, Delhi, 1975, p. 139.

18 Cited by R.C. Majumdar (ed.), History and Culture of the Indian People, Volume XI, Bombay, 1981, p.146.

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