Accueil arrow Tribunes libres arrow Roots of Radical Islamist Ideologies in South Asia


Dr Farhan Zahid, PhD

Introduction and Historical Background

A quick glance at Islamic history may provide a picture of radical movements surfacing time and again with different sets of agendas and extremist mindsets. Many of these movements fizzled out after taking roots for some period of time and eventually diluted either by the rigidity of their thoughts or by the moderate forces. Events had taken similar course during the period of Muslim rule in Indian sub-continent.

The Indian sub-continent had been invaded many times long before the Muslim invasions of India. In classical antiquity India was invaded by nomadic European tribes (Aryans) and later by the Greeks, and by the Central Asians in middle ages. By and large South Asia remained the centre of invasions from all directions both by neighboring states and forces from far flung regions.

The advent of Islamic civilization in South Asia began with the invasions of Arab forces during the reign of second Caliph Umar the Great (Second Caliph of Muslims Empire after the death of Holy Prophet Mohammad PBUH) and then during the Umayyad dynasty (680-750). The raids continued afterwards and Afghan warlords Mahmud of Ghazni and Mohammad of Ghor were prominent among many others in raiding and plundering rich Indian states. Invaders of such kind were not interested in establishing their rule over the conquered territories rather their only motive was loot.

The dominant Indian religions of that era were Hinduism and Buddhism. Hundreds of thousands of adherents of Buddhism and Hinduism embraced Islam in years following the first invasion by Muslim mystics called Sufis who had migrated to India from Persia, central Asia, Arabia and Mesopotamia. The different branches of Sunni-Sufis Orders (Qadris, Chistis, Suharwardis and Naqshbanis) preached and propagated Islam not only in India but also in East Indies (present day Indonesia and Malaysia). Thus from the beginning, the Sufi Islam remained the dominant religious outlook of Indian Muslims. Even to this day majority of 500 million Muslims in South Asia remain adherents of Sufi Islam.

Muslims have always been a minority in India. Their percentage in the overall population never exceeded 35 percent but due to secular, tolerant polices of ruling Muslim dynasties they managed to rule over majority Hindus. Balkanization of empire quickly followed whenever a shift in this policy occurred.


The establishment of Muslim rule was not puritanical but more secular in out look. With the establishment of first government (the Slave dynasty) the Muslim elites continued to rule over most of Indian Sub-continent only to be dethroned by the British in mid-eighteenth century. There had been a number of ruling dynasties since the beginning:

  • Slave Dynasty, founded by a general of Mohammad of Ghor, his slave (1206-1290)
  • Khilji dynasty (1290-1320)
  • Tughlaq dynasty (1320-1413)
  • Sayyid dynasty (1414-1451)
  • Lodhi dynasty (1451-1526)
  • Mughal dynasty (1526-1857)

The Mughals ruled longer than any other dynasty and during their period the radical Islamists mullahs started to gear up against the moderates. Historians divide Mughal dynastic rule in two distinct periods. The first period comprises of first six great Mughal Emperors. The rule was characterized by complete control over the state affairs. The second period was ruled by emperors of the same family with a lesser or no level of authority over the administrative affairs of the empire. This period started after the death of Emperor Aurengzeb.

The Mughal Empire touched its zenith during the period of Emperor Akbar the great (1542-1605). His 49-year rule is still regarded as one of the best periods of religious harmony. The period was not only remembered for great victories and annexation of further territories but also an era of cultural achievements and inter-religious tolerance which was the cornerstone of Mughal Emperor Akbar's domestic and religious policies. But the same period also witnessed some religious discomforts propagated by radical clerics like Shaikh Ahmad Sihindi (AKA: Mujjadid Alf Sani). To this day his opposition to Akbar's tolerant religious policies remains an inspiration for present day radical Islamists of South Asia especially in Pakistan as he is certainly considered as a prelude to subsequent radical and extremist movements. His movement was reactionary to Akbar's policies which he deemed heretic and inconsistent with orthodox Islam, such as:

  • Akbar was an adherent of Sufi Islam and thus believed in saints and sufi mystics. He used to visit shrines (he also adopted the concept of Sulh-e-kul or truce with every other religion: a concept of Islamic mysticism) and offer his respect
  • Abolished Jizya (tax on non-Muslims or protection money)
  • Inducted many Hindus, and other non-Muslim subjects into his administration at high places
  • Removed all restrictions previously imposed upon his Hindu subjects with regard to their practice of religion (such as building temples etc)
  • Allowed Shia sect of Islam (considered heretical in the eyes of orthodox Sunni sect of Islam) to profess their teachings and appointed many Shia advisors
  • Formed a synthesized religious order Din-i-Ilahi (religion of God) which was considered a blasphemous act for fundamentalists and a new religious doctrine for reconciliation of relations amongst all religions of India

Adding insult to injury for fundamentalists was his marriage to the daughter of a Hindu warlord of Punjab province. Akbar was definitely living ahead of his times and his policies were too hard to be digested by the extremist clerics of his period. Even to this day, he is hated by Islamists all over India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. 

Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi's Opposition

Akbar's policies deeply offended Ahmad Sirhindi, a Muslim cleric from Punjab province.  If Akbar was the first liberal monarch in Indian history then his contemporary Sirhindi was definitely the first ultra orthodox radical cleric. According to one Indian historian, "to Indian Islam the rigid and conservative stamp it bears today." [1]

Sirhindi firmly opposed Akbar's tolerant policies towards the people of other faiths and rallied Muslim populace against his rule. He even declared Akbar a heretic and Kafir (unbeliever) and issued a Fatwa (religious decree) against him. Offended by Sirhindi's opposition Akbar imprisoned him for some period but the Sirhindi-led movement left behind its footprints and made him a torchbearer of fundamentalist/radical schools of thought. Sirhindi's views could be summarized as:

- He wrote and professed against tolerant Sufi Islam prevalent amongst Indian Muslims, considered it an innovation and rejected it. He said "what is outside the path shown by the Sharia (Islamic traditions) is forbidden."

- Professed strict policies against the majority Hindu community by declaring "Cow-sacrifice in India as the noblest of Islamic practices. The kafirs may probably agree to pay jiziya but they shall never concede to cow-sacrifice."[2]

- His views were extremely intolerant not only against Hindus but every other religion being practiced in Indian sub-continent

- Declared Shias (another sect) as heretics and regarded their practices un-Islamic.

Sirhindi's views were reactionary to Akbar's reformist and harmonizing policies. It is also evident that he was deeply intolerant towards any other mode of religious practice which was not at par with his own views. He denounced Muslims and non-Muslims alike and that places him alongside modern radicals and fanatics. He was called ‘reviver of the second millennium' by his followers for his efforts to "revive the lost spirit". He introduced concepts of violence, intolerance and fanaticism in his writings still prevalent today.

Another thing to note here that the only versions of Islam present in the Indian sub-continent during Akbar's reign and even during the Mughal Empire era were Shia Islam and Sunni-Sufi Islam. Sirhindi belonged to one of the sub-sects of Sunni-Sufi Islam called Naqhbandia, which was considered most radical and conservative amongst other mild and moderate sects of Islam. Centuries later, clerics from Naqshbandia branch of Sufi-Sunni sect joined hands with Wahabi/Salafi movement of Arabia.

Emperor Aurengzeb's Fundamentalism 

Mughal rulers were not Indian. They came from Central Asia where their ancestors ruled over the valleys of Samarkand and Bukhara. From their paternal side the Mughals were grand children of Temerlane (Temurid Dynasty) and their maternal lineage made them successors of great Mongol warriors (Changez Khan and his dynasty). Mughals defeated vastly superior forces of Ibrahim Lodhi of Lodhi Dynasty and established their rule in 1526 in the First Battle of Panipat. It was Zaheer ud Din Babar (1483-1531) who founded the Mughal Empire but it reached its apex and stability only during Akbar's reign (1542-1605). The period could be termed as pax-Mughliana. It was Akbar's iron grip and governance over state affairs that made the empire last for another two centuries.  Descendents of Akbar ruled over comfortably (Jehangir and Shah Jehan). It was only after the succession of Aurengzeb (Shah Jehan's son) that things once again started to take a different track.

One of Emperor Shah Jehan's (1592-1666) five sons Aurengzeb had never been able to get into the good books of his father, mostly because of his extremist views regarding the treatment of non-Muslims and his attitude towards Shia Muslims. Perhaps because of his tutors who were mostly orthodox Arabs rather then traditional tutors from Persia and Central Asia. From the beginning the paramount influence on Aurengzeb's thinking was Sarhindi's thoughts". "Over the years the letters and tracts of Sarhindi written in Persian worked as ideological mascot for the Islamic revival movements launched after the collapse of Islamic rule in India. His letters exercised great influence on successive Mogul emperors after Akbar particularly at the time of Aurengzeb. It is said that Aurengzeb was so much impressed by those letters that he not only adopted hard-line Islamism but also became a disciple of Khawaja Mohammad Masum, (the son and successor of Sarhindi). His letters recommending revival of Jizya were the height of his hate-Hindu campaign."[3] 

Ruthless to the core he killed all of his brothers in cold blood during wars of succession and dethroned and blinded his own father. After taking over the throne and proclaiming himself the sixth Mughal Emperor, Aurengzeb wasted no time in implementing his religious agenda. Overall his policies resulted in the birth of hostile relations amongst the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs and are hitherto relevant as :

- He re-imposed Jizya (religious tax) on all of his non-Muslim subjects

- Believed in the strict imposition of Sharia (Islamic laws) and that too  in a very conservative manner

- All form of music and use of musical instrument and all forms of performing arts were thoroughly banned and violators were severely punished (dancing and music was in Sufi-Islam as well as a religious norm of Hindu religion)

- Issued his famous Fatawa-e-Alamgiri (religious edicts) representing his conservative religious views

- Ordered destruction of Hindu temples on many occasions and stopped all form of missionary activities by Christian priests

- His extreme religious policies finally resulted with Marhata uprisings (Hindu farmers) in southern provinces, led by Shivaji who fought against Aurengzeb for the establishment of Hindu rule. The Hindu awakening was a big blow to consistent Muslim rule and the result was emergence of small Hindu kingdoms in the south. Even after Aurengzeb the same pattern continued and more and more governors proclaimed independence from Delhi (the capital of Mughal Empire) as a result the empire started to shrink and balkanize.

- It was not only the Hindus of southern provinces who revolted against the tyrannical rule of Aurengzeb Shia Muslims also resisted his increasing hostilities. Aurengzeb also executed his anti-Shia policies and banned many of their religious activities.

If 49-years rule of Akbar had brought in many liberal reforms then the same number of years ruled by Aurengzeb ruined everything Akbar had worked for. These two rulers were poles apart with respect to the state affairs and policies measures. Despite of having resistance from Sirhindi, Akbar strengthened the Mughal rule in India whereas Aurengzeb's hostile religious policies finally resulted in weakening of Mughal Empire which never remained the same after his death in 1707. That year onwards the empire only saw a steep decline which continued to disintegrate at a rapid pace. Had there been no Aurengzeb with such religious extremist the empire would have remained integrated and lasted for more years.

Shah Waliullah's Religio-Political Thoughts and its Impact 

Aurengzeb's religious intolerance towards people of other faiths shook the foundations of once mighty Mughal Empire, and the empire started to crumble after his death. His policies coupled with the incompetence of his descendents had led to the beginning of fall of the Empire. Aurengzeb died in 1707 and after him no emperor could dare to control the rebelling governors and the whole empire was falling like a house of cards.

In such chaotic situation some followers of Sirhindi called for implementation of Islamist reforms. Most prominent amongst them was Shah Waliullah. An Arab by descent Wali ullah was ethnocentric and took pride in his ancestry. To him the real Islam could only be based upon Arab-dominated culture and norms: Arabized Islam; completely dipped in Arab culture and tribal values. He wrote voluminously on the subjects most importantly on revival of jihad. In fact for him the solution for all the problems of Mughal state was in implementation of Sharia through jihad. His father Shaikh Abdul Rahim (1644-1718) established a religious seminary Madressha Rahimiya in Delhi eventually taken over by him. Shah Waliullah is still considered as first Muslim reformer of India in radical Islamist circles (primarily because of the inspiration he sought from the Muslim reformation movement of Abdul Wahab of Saudi Arabia).

For Shah Waliullah (1703-1762) the declining Muslim rule was because of Muslims' turning away from the ‘real spirit' of Islam which according to him was fundamentals. His religious doctrines were similar to Sirhindi's. Shah Waliullah in his famous fatwas (religious decrees) declared India Dar-ul-Harb (abode of war) rather than Dar-ul-Islam (adobe of Islam) and for him the only solution was Jihad against the infidels (unbelievers). According to Ayesha Jalal, "the writings of the redoubtable Delhi-based scholar Shah Waliullah (1703-1762), known for his enunciation of the most systematic theory of jihad in South Asia, must be read in this historical context. His career bridged the pre-colonial and colonial eras of South Asian history. Hailed as being at once a Muslim modernist and the architect of Sunni orthodoxy, Waliullah left an intellectual legacy that casts a long shadow over all subsequent explications of jihad in theory and attempts to translate in into practice."[4]

Waliullah's writings are precursors for providing sources for radicalism and violence. He gave a distinct political thought previously absent in Muslim political thought prevailing during the times of semi-secular Mughal dominated India.

Disgusted from the declining state of affairs of Mughal Empire he wrote letters to neighboring Muslim monarch asking them to invade India and ‘cleansed' it from all the dangers emanating from non-Muslim revolting communities and put them back under the thumb of Muslim rule. Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Durrani even paid heed to his invitation and invaded India in 1748. He defeated the Marhatta forces at the famous Third Battle of Panipat (1761) but against the wishes of Shah Waliulllah neither did he stay long enough nor did he take control over the reigns of government. His invasion turned out to be a looting and plundering spree of the riches of Delhi, Lahore and many other cities. Abdali returned to his fiefdom the present day Afghanistan without consolidating his rule in India against the wishes of Waliullah. His adventure was disastrous for already declining Mughal Empire and even worse for the Muslims of India, who became the victims of his forces more than anyone else, courtesy Shah Waliullah.

According to Indian historian R. Upadhyay, "Shah Wali Ullah realized the political rise of non-Muslims like Marhata, Jat, and Sikh powers and the fading glory of Islamic rule as danger to Islam and therefore, any loss of political heritage of Muslims were unbearable to him. He was the first Arab scion in India, who raised Islamic war cry for stalling the diminishing glory of Mogul Empire. His religio-political theory inspired a large number of successive Muslim scholars, who carried forward his mission and resultantly gave birth to Islamic politics in India. The slogan of ‘Islam is in danger'-is profoundly embedded to his hate-non-Muslim ideology."[5]

Waliullah was inspired from Wahabi Movement of Arabia. In fact he was a contemporary of Ibn-al-Wahab, the leader of 18th century radical Arabian Islamist movement. Wahab and his followers had already revolted against the Ottoman rule in Arabia. Waliullah had personally come across Wahab while on pilgrimage to Arabia. Wahab's writings and thoughts greatly inspired him. " On principle Wali Ullah had no difference with his contemporary Islamic thinker Abd-al-Wahab (1703-1787) of Saudi Arabia, who had also launched an Islamic revivalist movement. Wahab, who is regarded as one of the most radical Islamists had a wide range of followers in India."[6]

Shah Waliullah belonged to a family of aristocrats and scholars. Preserving the status quo was indeed in his best interest. Therefore he took practical steps to safeguard a falling system.  His intentions were of getting back the glory and might of Muslim rule, were in fact a personal agenda. All of his efforts in this regards backfired miserably and Ahmad Shah Durrani's invasion was one the worst things that happened to India.

Nonetheless Shah Wali Ullah inspired many amongst Indian Muslims, both scholars and laymen. He managed to gather a large following especially the Muslims of Delhi and of nobility. His sons continued the same path even after his death and one his grandsons became part of the one indigenous jihad movements.

Jihad Movement of Syed Ahmad Barelvi 

As discussed above that Shah Wali Ullah's jihadi thoughts had inspired many Indian Muslim scholars and continued to gain momentum amongst Indian Muslims. Syed Ahmad of Bareli (United Province, India) became the first to not only interpret but also execute Waliullah's jihadi dreams. Syed Ahmad was no scholar; neither did he belong to Indian Muslim nobility. He was a commoner and soldier in the army of a small Indian state (State of Tonk). Waliullah's grand son also joined Ahmad in his jihadi adventures. Ahmad was also inspired by the teachings of Waliullah's son Shah Ismail, who took over his father's position after his death.

Ahmad visited Hijaz (Mecca and Medina) in 1820 where he sought Wahabi ideas from the European inspired Wahabi ‘reformation'. After coming back to his home town in India he started preaching the same thoughts but did not receive any welcoming response from local Muslims who were adherents of either Sufi-Sunni or Shia sects of Islam.

Syed Ahmad then decided to wage jihad against the Sikh Kingdom of Lahore[7]  in western India (present day Pakistan). For that very reason he started a campaign of raising an army of volunteers but managed to recruit only a small number of volunteers. He then left for Peshawar and camped in nearby district of Manshera. Syed Ahmad received some military aid and reservists from Pashtun tribes of that region in his ‘jihad' against the Sikhs (the rulers of that region) not because of any enmity with the Sikhs but due to the reason that their rival tribes had joined hands with Sikhs. For Pashtun tribes it wasn't a jihad as they were fighting for the sake of rivalry. During the battles against Sikhs and their allied Pashtun tribes Syed Ahmad managed to secure few military victories and carved out a kingdom of his own spread over a small territory with Peshawar as its capital. With that achievement he became the first jihadi to translate the ideas of Shah Waliullah and continued to impress the latter generations of Islamists and jihadist in South Asia.

The small caliphate he founded soon became the hub of fanaticism and a miniature Wahabi-styled Saudi Arabia. There he implemented the thoughts of Shah Waliullah by creating a theocratic government with strict laws based upon Wahabi-inspired Sharia. Centuries later the same model was implemented by Taliban in their reign over Afghanistan (1996-2001). Syed Ahmad declared himself Amir-ul-Momineen (Commander of the Faithful) with Shah Ismail as his deputy.

The kingdom lasted for five years (1826-1831) when Syed Ahmad's army was finally defeated and he himself was killed in battle against a Sikh force at Balakot (small town near Manshera district). After his death some of his followers continued the ‘jihad' against Sikhs and later against the British when they took over the region from Sikhs. His followers invented a new sect based upon Wahabi guided principles of Arab culture and called themselves Ahl-e-Hadis.

There had been striking similarities between Syed Ahmad's jihad movement and his radical-puritanical rule and the Taliban rule in recent past (1996-2001). Just to have a brief idea some of those were:

- Literal interpretations of Quran and Sunnah without context and laws based upon such literal interpretations

- Destruction of shrines and rejection of all sects of Islam including the predominant Sufi sect

- Strict punishment were carried out such as lashing idolaters, chopping off hands of thieves which were very similar to Taliban's code of conduct

- Laws related to women were also similar to Taliban era

- Persecution and declaring  of Shia Muslims as heretics and unbelievers

Syed Ahmad's jihad movement was short-lived but his initial victories and the state he founded remained in the minds of his followers as a model state of puritanical practices. He is even to this day hailed as first Indian jihadist and highly revered amongst the Islamist radicals. He provided the ideas for future jihadist to create a type of rule he managed to establish, and is still considered by many as the ‘ideal Muslim state'. Although he lost the battle but his legacy of violence and puritanical rule continue to carry on. Many radical organizations of present day Pakistan consider him the hallmark of Islamist rule.

Growth of Religious Radicalism during British Rule

The British came to India primarily for trade and commerce during the period of Mughal Emperor Jehangir (son of Akbar the great) in 1612. The successful trade relations with Indian rulers allowed the British East India Company to penetrate further. But it was only after more than hundred years that British started to play their political role by using military might. It was mainly because of the declining state of affairs of Mughal Empire that once powerful empire was crippling at a fast pace.

The emergence of smaller states and principalities across India also made the job easier. The East India Company had started to control coastal towns such as Bombay (1687), Madras (1640) and Calcutta (1690, known as Presidency towns, during that era and with in next fifty years (after 1707: death of Mughal Emperor Aurengzeb) the Company was the most powerful single entity in India. The British government was behind every move the Company had made in India and provided all means of support that made possible the successful march of Company everywhere.

The rich state of Bengal had already parted ways from Mughal Empire and was ruled by the Nawab of Bengal (Duke). The Company had been eyeing over the Bengal because of this state's vast area, population and potential for becoming a sound base for further expansion. In 1757 Company forces thoroughly defeated the forces of Nawab Siraj ud Dula of Bengal (Battle of Plassey) and installed their man as Nawab. As per plan the province provided a sound footing and expansion began. In another battle (Battle of Buxar, 1764) the British soundly defeated the combined forces of Bengali Nawab, Nawab of Oudh (small neighboring state) and Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II. The battle was decisive as there was no one left to challenge the British military might.

The Company rule with support from British government continued to expand at a very rapid rate. After dealing with some troublemakers such as Sultan Tipu of Mysore state (1799), the Anglo-Marhatta Wars, the Anglo-Sikh Wars, and the Carnatic Wars the British finally faced with a revolt in 1857 but managed to curb it. There after the British government had come directly stepped into the Indian affairs and replaced the East India Company with direct Crown Rule and India officially became part of British Empire in 1858. The British thus became the sole masters of India with their empire divided into provinces and princely states (whose ruler swore oath of British loyalty). This period of British rule is referred to as British Raj in India (1858-1947).

The British Raj period did face some unsuccessful rebellions that continued to surface and some of these had the roots in Muslim radicalism based upon the doctrines of previously mentioned Muslim scholars and jihadis like Shah Wali Ullah, and Syed Ahmad.

The British also managed to annex the Sikh Empire (Kingdom of Lahore, ruled over by Ranjeet Singh dynasty and spread over Punjab, Kashmir, and Frontier provinces) in 1846 as a result of Anglo-Sikh Wars and then the troubled territory had become part of British Indian Empire.

Syed Ahmad's jihad movement was crushed by Sikh-Pashtun forces at Balakot (present day northern Pakistan) and he was killed in action along with some 600 followers. But some remnants of his radical movement managed to survive and continued to create trouble for British up till 1860. Allying with the rebel Pashtun tribes they formed a new base in Sittana district of northern region. Some Pashtun nationalists continued to remain a problem for the British in the tribal areas, bordering Afghanistan. According to Norwegian scholar Anne Stenersen:"In Pashtun border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, such uprisings were dubbed ‘mad mullah movements' by the British colonial administration. The Taliban's leader Mullah Omar has frequently been compared to the charismatic mullahs of the 19th and early 20th century, such as Mullah Hadda (who started the Great Pashtun Revolt of 1897) and the Fakir of Ipi (who led a guerilla war against the British India in the 1930s and 1940s)."[8]

Some of Ahmad's original followers who accompanied him from central India also survived and made a new base at Patna (city in Indian province of Bihar). They kept on sending jihadists to the northern territories of British Empire. The spirit of that new jihadi movement were two brothers from Patna city namely Inayat Ali and Wilayat Ali, who considered Syed Ahmad as their spiritual guide and believed that Ahmad did not die in the battle but had gone in hiding. They propagated the rumors and conspiracy theories about Syed Ahamd's spiritual powers and gathered many followers and kept sending them to their base in Sittana town in northern parts of empire. According to British historian, W.W. Hunter: "Hindus and English were alike infidels in the eyes of the Sittana Host, and as such, were to be exterminated by the sword. The disorders which we had connived at, or at least viewed with indifference, upon the Sikh Frontier, now descended as a bitter inheritance to ourselves. The records of the Patna Court show that the Vice Regents early established a character for themselves on the Frontier as fanatical firebrands. In 1847, Sir Henry Lawrence recorded a proceeding to the effect that they were well known as fighters for religion in the Punjab; and as such they were forwarded under the custody to their homes in Patna."[9]

The resumption of jihadi activities in the north led British to send their forces to crush the rebellion and from 1850-1863 they sent around 33,000 to 60,000 regular troops aided with police and paramilitary to root out the revolt. Moreover the Patna camp of conspiracies and recruitment was also busted and the conspirators were tried and convicted by the court of law.

Meanwhile another radical movement started in Bengal province which had also fallen under the British control. This movement was led by Titu Mir, a follower of Syed Ahamd's jihad ideology.[10]

Titu Mir's movement was more of social struggle against the Hindu feudal lords of Bengal but he disguised it under the garb of religion and professed radical views similar to Syed Ahmad's. His revolt also became troublesome for British and again troops were sent to crush his movement. Titu Mir's radical forces destroyed many Hindu temples and had created a lot of havoc. According to Hunter, "On the 6th November they marched out to the number of 500 fighting men, attacked a small town, and after murdering the priest, slaughtered two cows (the sacred animal of the Hindus), with whose blood they defiled a Hindu temple, and whose carcases they scoffingly hung up before the idol. Yhey then proclaimed the extinction of the English Rule, and the re-establishment of the Muhammandan Power.......they were equally bitter, however, against any Muhammadan who would not join their sect, and on one occasion, in sacking the house of a wealthy and obdurate Musalman, varied the proceedings by forcibly marrying his daughter to the head of their band." [11]

Titu Mir was finally killed by an expeditionary force sent by the British and his forces were crushed; many of his followers were also arrested and tried and his deputy was sentenced to death by the court.

While Syed Ahmad was busy in his jihad movement in northern India, another like minded jihadi started his activities in East Bengal. Haji Shariatullah (1781-1840) was another graduate of Madressah Rahimiya (Shah Wali Ullah's madressah in Delhi), and with the same bent of mind. Shariatullah was basically inspired from the Wahabi movement of Saudi Arabia. He went to Arabia for pilgrimage and influenced by the radical ideas of Ibn-e-Wahab, the founder. He lived there in Arabia for more than 20 years and after his return to Bengal he immediately implemented the agenda of radical reforms. Shariatullah called his movement Fariazis (essentials or fundamentals) and preached his followers to adopt only those practices of Islam which were essential in ‘his view' (mostly Wahabi practices). The target of Fariazis was mostly Bengali landlord against whom Shariatullah and his followers revolted. Moreover he also convinced his followers to boycott British goods and payment of tax.

According to W.W. Hunter, "The fanatical Musalmans of the delta bear the name not of Wahabis, but of Faraizis, or rejection of all glosses and non-essential parts of Islam. They call themselves the New Musalmans, and muster in vast numbers in the districts east of Calcutta... in 1843 the sect had attained such dangerous proportions as to form a subject of special inquiry by government."[12]

After Shariatullah's death, his son Dahdu Miyan took over the command of the movement and continued to work on the same lines. But the movement could not last for long as the traditional Muslims (Sunni-Sufi) very soon rejected the radical ideas of Faraizis. The jihad movement of Syed Ahmad and his descendents, Titu Mir's movement in Bengal and Faraizis of Eastern Bengal were indeed all Wahabi-inspired movements. That was the very reason both British and Indian Muslims called them Wahabis of India and although in the very first move, every time they somehow managed to manipulate some people but their moves never lasted long enough to take a large number of Indian Muslims into their fold. It was not only that the British launched military and police operations against them but the local Muslim population became so antagonized by their radical methodology that they also turned against them. 

The Deoband Movement: Beginning of organized radical Islamism

War of Independence of 1857 (British historians called it the Mutiny) was the last ditch effort of the remnants of aristocracy (both Hindu and Muslim), religious leaders (Ulema) and some rulers of independent states to oust the British. They had endeavored to do this only with the help of Indian soldiers of British legions (defectors and that was the reason British called it Mutiny) who sided with them. The Mutiny was crushed swiftly by the British in no time. The rebel regiments were from Merith (district in Central India) and Calcutta, Bengal; but very soon British moved in troops from Punjab, more loyal and trusted ones, and curbed the rebellion. This also ended the Company Rule which was then replaced by the proper British Raj (Crown Rule and India became one of the overseas dominions). The British had become invincible in the eyes of all their opponents.

In this newly emerged scenario a group of disillusioned Ulemas (religious clerics) who had been part of the Mutiny resorted to other means. They believed in reviving the spirit of lost glory of Muslim rule in India and had firm beliefs in Shah Waliullah's politico-religious philosophy. They considered Islamic revival was only possible by going back to the fundamentals of Islam and thought of achieving back the lost pride  by professing the scholarship and changing the mindset of Muslim youth. They decided not to profess the message of jihad for a while (although it remained in the list of their agenda items) because of the military might of British wit which they could not compete with.

The lynchpins of this movement were Rashid Ahmad Gangohi, Qasim Nanotvi, and Haji Imdadullah. All of them belonged to Naqshbandia branch of Sufi-Sunni Islam and staunch proponents of Shah Waliullah and his ideology. Together they established a new Madressah ‘Darul Uloom' in 1867 in the small town of Deoband in the outskirts of Saharanpur district of central Indian province of Uttar Perdash (then called United Province). In later years they started calling themselves Deobandis or at occasions reformers. The motive of Deobandis was to correct the ‘incorrect practices of traditional Muslims', according to their belief because of which the Muslims had lost their glory in India. According to Barbara Daly Metcalf, "The goal of the school was to train well-educated Ulema who would be dedicated to reformed Islam. Such Ulema would become prayer leaders, writers, preachers, and school teachers, and thus disseminate their learning in turn."[13]

These Ulemas as earlier mentioned were strong opponents of British rule since the beginning and had fought against them during the Mutiny. Some of them also remained in prisons for some period of time and had idealistic jihadi beliefs in turning back the course of history once again set in the Muslim rule in India. They were not abreast of changing times and although they called themselves reformists but they were conservative to the core and it was only because of their consecutive military defeats at the hands of British that they started to believe in other way outs. Their anti-Hindu and anti-British thoughts were not hidden as well but they were left with this option of only resorting to teaching and disseminating their radical thoughts to the up coming generations of Muslim youth.

The response of the Muslim community was not as warm as they expected but they were well received in some urban districts. The oldest and traditional madressah system at time was in the hands of Ulema of Farangi Mahal Lucknow, a madressah established in 1695 and had continued to produce Islamic scholars and prayer leaders. The Farangi Mahal Ulema were followers of Sunni-Sufi Islam and believed in traditional and moderate Islam and they also preached the same in their centuries old traditions. The Deobandis borrowed many ideas from their system of learning but relied heavily on Shah Waliullah's model (which in turn inspired from the Wahabism of Saudi Arabia). "The School taught basically the dars-e-nizami, the curriculum evolved at Farangi Mahal in the eighteen century.....indeed, there was actual opposition, led by Rashid Ahmad, to teaching the rational sciences of logic, philosophy, and jurisprudence at all. These subjects were ‘rational' in the sense that they represented exercise of men's minds on the material provided by the revealed sources."[14]

Very soon the students graduated from the madressah began to be known as Deobandis and that made them part of a new sub-sect (maslak) of Sunni Islam and they also took pride in it in a move to dissociate with traditional Sunni-Sufi Islam of India. "The Ulema and their schools were deobandi. Increasingly, the name of Deoband came to represent a distinct style, a maslak, of Indian Islam. by roughly 1880, there were over a dozen schools that identified themselves as Deobandi; by the end of the century, at least three times that many, some in places as distant as Chittagong, Madras, and Peshawar. By the celebration of the school's centennial in 1967, there were said to be 8,934 Deobandi schools."[15]

In religious perspective the Deobandis called themselves Reformists and compared themselves to Christian Protestant; but very soon they were confronted with Counter Reformists: the Barelvis.

The Barelvi school of thought was founded by Ahmad Raza Khan (not the same Bareli of Syed Ahmad, but in the same province in Central India) another city of British United Province (UP). The Barelvis upheld the traditional values of Islam and condemned the practices and teachings of Deobandis. Their movement achieved far greater success especially in rural areas. They restricted the Deobandi influence to urban areas. The Barelvis-Deobandi confrontation is hitherto a feature of Muslim sectarian issues in South Asia (both India and Pakistan).

Meanwhile, the Deobandi schools continued to produce teachers, prayer leaders and scholars throughout the rest of 19th century (after the foundation of school in 1867) but it was only after the first generation of Deobandis that the second generation once again resorted to violence and started to flex their political muscles. Ubaidullah Sindhi and Mahmud ul Hasan along with like minded leaders hatched a conspiracy to over throw the British Rule. They sought help from Ottoman Turks during the First World War. The plan was to once again use the tribal areas (northern regions of British Empire) for waging jihad against the British government. For this plan Ubaidullah managed to seek some help from Afghanistan government where as Mahmud ul Hasan (who was also the principal of Deoband) went to Turkey to take financial assistance from the Ottomans and Germans (the Central Powers in WW-I). The mode of secret communication was letters written on silk handkerchiefs. The conspiracy was soon uncovered and all the involved were taken into custody. That was a failed attempt but it had shown the British rulers the desperate attempt made by the Deobandis. The conspiracy once again disgraced Muslims of India under British rule who were striving hard to prove their loyalty to the government. It had already taken years to come out of perceived mistrust of British rulers.

The unearthing of their plan and arrest of the culprits also disclosed the temporally non-violent stances of Deobandi scholars. Their failed conspiracy had also made them traitors both in the eyes of Muslims of India and of course the British government. Muslims did not want to associate with them where as the British were alarmed and conscious about their goals and activities. In lieu of such developments the Deobandis then turned to active politics.

Mahmad ul Hasan the leading Deobandi scholar founded Jamiat-e-Ulema-Hind (JUH: Party of Indian Scholars) along with other Deobandi scholars in 1919. The JUH was formed from the Deoband Madressah platform with a manifesto of guiding Muslims under the light of Islamic teachings and to play an active role in Indian politics. Since the beginning the party followed an anti-British agenda and joined hands with Indian National Congress, another like minded but secular party.

JUH started his political career with Non-Cooperation/Civil Disobedience Movement, and Khilafat Movement (for the restoration of Ottoman Sultan as Caliph of Muslim world) in 1919, along with Indian National Congress (INC). Both the movements failed miserably as INC leader Mohan Das Karamchand Gandhi discontinued the disobedience movement without taking JUH leaders in confidence and Turk leader Mustafa Kemal rejected Caliphate for a modern and democratic Turkey.

The JUH continued to have a lukewarm support amongst the Indian Muslims but failed to achieve desired objectives. The Indian Muslims were more tilted towards either INC or All India Muslim League. The AIML demanded for a separate country for the Muslim dominated provinces of India, a demand, which JUH rejected and strongly opposed the partition of India. The only role then remained for JUH was to become a sister concern of Congress and rally Muslim support for it. The JUH split into factions after the creation of Pakistan and India and in Pakistan it changed its name of Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI). 

Ahl-e-Hadis and Ahl-e-Quran Movements

Two other religious movements had emerged during the same period of time juxtaposing to Deobandi and Barelvi were Ahl-e-Hadis and Ahl-e-Quran. The Ahl-e-Hadis were more radical and conservative in approach when compared with the Deobandis. The Ulemas of Ahl-e-Hadis traced their roots from the Syed Ahmad's jihad movement of early 19th century. They were strict adherents of interpretation of literal Quran and Hadis (traditions of Holy Prophet PBUH). Most of the leaders and followers belonged to the landed aristocracy and bureaucracy. Unlike other sub-sects of Sunni Islam, the Ahl-e-Hadis isolated themselves by not considering any school of jurisprudence. According to Barbara Daly Metcalf, "The Ahl-e-Hadis justified their focus on hadis by denying the legitimacy of the classic works of the four major law school that, with the commentaries and compilations of fatawa based on them, had been the standard source of legal guidance for the Sunni community since the ninth century."[16]

The Ahl-e-Hadis were opposed by all other sects because of their radicalism of highest order and their close resemblance with Saudi Wahabis led others to call them Indian Wahabis. Despite the fact that this sect had managed to influence mostly affluent Muslims of India it remained a tiny minority to this day mostly because of their orthodox and literal interpretation of Islamic texts and by rejecting all other sects.

Another sect that was an offshoot of Ahl-e-Hadis was Ahl-e-Quran. The sect failed miserably to attract any following and wiped out after some period of time, mainly because of their rejection of almost every text other than Quran. "Jurisprudentially, it was even more extreme than the Ahl-e-Hadis, denying the excessive emphasis that they put on Hadis and accusing them of creating two kinds of revelation. The Ahl-e-Quran opted to use only the revealed statements of the Quran, treating the Hadis as relevant only to the human situation of the Prophet (PBUH) and taking only the injunctions of Quran as compulsory."[17]

Both of these movements had similarities. Ahl-e-Hadis though continued to grow but largely remained a gathering of select few but influential and financially strong people, well-connected with their like minded Arabian-Wahabi fellows. One of the internationally declared terrorist organizations belonging to the Ahl-e-Hadis school of thought is Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is being operated by Pakistani militants but sponsored by their Arabian financers of Gulf States. 

Analysis and Discussion

The impact of Wahabi sect of Islam and its growth in Arabia during 19th century had indeed influenced Muslims of South Asia. The Wahabi movement was somehow inspired from the Christian reformation movement but radical and ruthless in implementing its agenda. There had been radical clerics in India even before the emergence of Wahabi sect in Arabia. People like Sirhindi were adherents of Sufi-Islam, a very tolerant and mystic form not only practiced in South Asia but in almost every Muslim-majority country. Differences had started to emerge amongst different Sufi Orders. Moreover Sirhindi believed in inclusion of Arab norms and culture in the Mughal court (he was of Arab descent). There had also been Shia clerics from Persia in the court of Akbar the Great who were also exerting their influence. Thus because of their conflicting ideologies a new school of thought came into being. Later clerics like Shah Waliullah sought inspiration from Wahabi movement and that also altered the course. Finally it was from Arabian-Wahabis inspirations that resulted in the emergence of Deobandi sect and later it further divided and produced more sects, intolerant and repressive by virtue of ideologies. But it should not be forgotten that the influence has had remained minimal, otherwise there would have been a chaotic situation.

A brief survey of South Asian history shows a clear trend of consistent growth of radical Islamists. Most of the radical/militant leadership had started to surface after during the repressive and intolerant regime of Mughal Emperor Aurengzeb. Even earlier than him during the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great, radical political thoughts started to spread mostly because of teachings of Ahmad Sirhindi and his followers. Amongst his most important followers was Shah Waliullah who reinvigorated his political ideology (one century later during the era of crumbling Mughal Empire). These intolerant and extremist thoughts sought further inspiration from Wahabism surfacing from Arabian Peninsula during 18th century. Shah Wali Ullah's jihadist thoughts were translated by Syed Ahmad, a self proclaimed militant from central India, he raised an army of volunteers and waged ‘jihad' against the Sikh Kingdom in North West India (1826-1831). The crushing defeat inflicted upon him by Sikhs and locals together ended his so called maneuver of galvanizing Muslim support around him. He failed miserably as the locals and a great majority of Muslims of India rejected his call of ‘holy war' against the infidels. The fiefdom he created in North West India was short-lived.  His rule was considered ruthless by Muslims (similar to that of recent past Afghanistan under the Taliban). The idea of a practical jihad was nonetheless founded by him, although based upon his whimsical and personal interpretation of Islamic holy war and later rule. His ideas were later borrowed by many like-minded persons throughout 19th century. Many tried to wage war against the British and put back the Indian subcontinent under Muslim rule, forgetting that the Muslim rule in India was in fact secular from the beginning and that was the very reason that the dynasty after dynasty of Muslim rulers had managed to rule over India, where Muslims at that time constituted a tiny minority. The vast population and area of Indian subcontinent provided Muslim kings a role of balancing power amongst Hindu rulers of hundreds of small states. The central authority used to be the king in Delhi but he always relied heavily on his allies, most of them were not Muslims but his rule suited them. India never came under any one single ruler as many were autonomous or semi-autonomous. The Islamist ruler Aurengzeb (1658-1707) disturbed the whole political picture set by kings before him, ruling over India for hundreds of years.

After Aurengzeb's rule things began to change quite rapidly. With a growing nationalism amongst majority Hindus and other non-Muslims communities and their lack of trust for further Muslim rule mainly because of Aurengzeb's repressive and anti-Hindu policies, the political system kept on crippling. Syed Ahmad and some of his disciples were the first to revolt against the Sikhs and British. Syed Ahmad's movement as discussed before was short-lived but some of his successor continued to disturb British and their areas of influence.

The final joint effort by both Hindus and Muslims to quash the growing British influence in India resulted in War of 1857. (Indian historians call it War of Independence whereas British termed it Mutiny). With the fall of Mughal Empire in 1857 and India coming under the direct Crown Rule, many of the revolting militant groups were curbed. The 1857 War was a half-hearted endeavor as it failed to gather mass support. The British troops (composed of mainly locally recruited Hindus and Muslims) defeated the rebelling forces of last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah II.

The convincing defeat of all the revolting radical Islamist forces by the hands of British made their morale so low that British were considered invincible. Many adherents of Shah Waliullah ideologue resorted to preaching and teaching at madressahs. Many new madressahs were opened up and new radical school of thoughts came to existence.  

The establishment of Deoband seminary in central India by former jihadists, and subsequent Deoband movement in India heralded a new era of preaching and disseminating radical Islamist doctrines amongst Muslim youth. Although the movement was well picked up by the urban Muslims but rejected by the majority rural area Muslims (traditionally employees of British Indian armed forces and followers of traditional Sufi Islam). The Deobandis called themselves reformists and put up their Islamist agendas before the educated Muslim youth. This effort also failed as most of the Muslims had either joined hands with secular Indian National Congress or All India Muslim League (both modernist political parties). Same happened during the independence movement where neither JUH nor Jamaat-e-Islami managed to gather any mass support. Their claims of providing religious leadership to Muslim causes in order to resolve their long standing grievances were once again turned down by Muslims of India. In elections, held before independence the religious parties stood nowhere.

The radical forces have always been supported of tiny minority of Muslims in South Asian sub-continent. They have always had some kind of presence in the society since the times of Akbar the Great but their support and influence remained restricted to a very narrow sphere. It was only with the American money and support that the jihadi spirit was reinvigorated against the Soviets. The Soviets were defeated and forced to withdraw from Afghanistan but drawbacks of spreading the militant ideology came to light afterwards. The Islamist militants felt their very first victory a gift of God or that they had been rewarded. Moreover they considered it solely because of their own efforts and without any external help. Sooner or later such illusionary feelings allowed them to turn their guns against their own countries of origin.


  • [1] Aziz Ahmad, Studies in Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment, Oxford University Press, 1964, p.189
  • [2] letter No. 81 of MaktiibCtt-i-Imdm Rabbani (Shaikh Sirhindi's letters)
  • [3] R. Upadhyaya, "Violence on Minorities in Pakistan: The Historical Legacy of Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi", South Asia Analysis Group, Paper no. 4025
  • [4] Ayesha Jalal, "Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia", Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore, pages 15-16
  • [5] R. Upadhyay, "Shah Wali Ullah's Political Thought: Still a Major Obstacle against Modernization of Indian Muslims", South Asia Analysis Group, Paper no. 629
  • [6] Ibid
  • [7] Ranjeet Singh established the kingdom in early 19th century spread over Punjab, Kashmir, and Pashtun dominated areas previously under Mughal Empire
  • [8] Anne Stenersen, "The Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan-Organization, Leadership and Worldview", Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI), February 2010, page 14
  • [9] W W Hunter, "The Indian Musalmans", Trubner and Company, London, 1872, page 22
  • [10] Ibid p.45
  • [11] Ibid p.46
  • [12] Ibid, p.100
  • [13] Barbara Daly Metcalf, "Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900", Royal Book Company, p.100
  • [14] Ibid, p.100-101
  • [15] Ibid, p.136
  • [16] Ibid, Metcalf, page, 270
  • [17] Ibid, p.289.

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