The Sufi Warrior

Altaf Qadir’s Sayyid Ahmad Barailvi

A painting depicting the Durbar of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

ANYONE who has ever sat for a Pakistan Studies exam should have some idea of who Sayyid Ahmad Barailvi ‘Shaheed’ is. Yet as the book on the 19th-century figure by Peshawar-based academic Altaf Qadir shows, what we are taught and have to regurgitate on exam day is a mix of fact, hagiography and mythology. In fact, the real story of Sayyid Ahmad as told in Sayyid Ahmad Barailvi: His Movement and Legacy from the Pukhtun Perspective is much more interesting.

In the work, an academically sound and nuanced study of the warrior-mystic from Raebareli, Uttar Pradesh, covering his origins, rise and fall is presented. Apart from correcting the skewed history taught in Pakistan, this work is of value as it examines the linkages between Sayyid Ahmad’s mujahideen movement (as referred to in the book) and modern South Asian — especially Pakistani — hard-line religious and militant movements. However, it should be stated that there is absolutely no relation between Sayyid Ahmad Barailvi and Ahmed Raza Khan Barelvi, the Indian Muslim founder of the Barelvi movement, who lived just after the period of Sayyid Ahmad. If anything, both gentlemen represent opposite ends of the Islamic theological spectrum.

Qadir looks at Sayyid Ahmad’s movement in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa from a Pakhtun perspective, which is also unique. The writer traces the turmoil in India — specifically the political turmoil — after Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s death. After his passing, the empire was in disarray, with one weak ruler following another. It would be fair to say the Mughal state went into terminal decline after the death of Aurangzeb. The rise of the Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh in the 19th century is also discussed, as is the political situation of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa during this period, which is essential considering that this would be the region where Barailvi would base his movement. Qadir dwells on the social and political life of the erstwhile Frontier’s Pakhtuns during this period as well, which is also important in order to understand why Sayyid Ahmad’s movement ultimately failed.

Central to understanding the fortunes of the mujahideen movement is to understand the cultural concepts that mould Pukhtu/Pukhtunwali — the Pakhtun cultural code — such as badal (revenge), melmastya (hospitality), panah (giving asylum), jirga and riwaj (traditional tribal law). In fact, the writer quite frankly observes that “a Pakhtun remained a staunch Muslim until his Pukhtu was at stake”, though adding that this is not limited to Pakhtuns; tribal societies all over the globe usually prefer their tribal codes when custom clashes with other systems.

We are told that mullahs, sayyids and pirs often played a decisive role in Pakhtun society of that age, especially to resolve disputes or to encourage reconciliation. Considering the fact that Sayyid Ahmad was all three, his initial successes and popularity amongst the people of what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa can be explained.

The writer points out that the word Taliban — which now has ominous connotations, for obvious reasons — has for long been part of the Pashto vocabulary. He illustrates this point eloquently by quoting Pashto tapahs (verses), which present a romanticised view of the talib (student). Delving into the background of the warrior-mystic, we are told Sayyid Ahmad’s forefathers arrived in the subcontinent during the period of Shamsuddin Iltutmish, and over the centuries his ancestors served the Mughal court. Though he was not an alim in the technical sense Sayyid Ahmad had a “good knowledge of Islam” and knew Arabic and Persian, the writer explains. Along with his spiritual and theological pursuits, Sayyid Ahmad honed his martial skills when he joined the armed forces of Amir Khan, Nawab of Tonk in Rajputana (today’s Rajasthan) and was said to be “gallant … on the battlefield”. Discussing further his spiritual antecedents, Qadir says Sayyid Ahmad was a Sufi; he took bai’at (spiritual allegiance) at the hand of Shah Abdul Aziz, son of Shah Waliullah, and was initiated into the Naqhsbandi order. But as the writer notes, Barailvi was more a ‘Zahiri’ Sufi than a ‘Batini’.

It can be argued that the distinction between the ‘peaceful’ Sufi and the ‘war-like’ jihadi is something of a modern, artificial construct. Examples have existed in history — Sayyid Ahmad being a prime one — where the warrior and the mystic have been combined in one person. Hence Barailvi was very much a Sufi, yet entirely comfortable with armed struggle. In fact he utilised the Piri-Muridi (preceptor-disciple) system in favour of attracting recruits for his jihad (as referred to in the book). Interestingly, he insisted on ijtihad but rejected taqleed (following interpretation of jurists), whereas most orthodox modern ulema believe in the reverse.

As the author has pointed out at several instances, Sayyid Ahmad’s preaching had a sectarian, distinctly anti-Shia tone, something that obviously doesn’t emerge in our textbooks. This facet of his personality also connects him to modern jihadis.

His pre-jihad tour of India before arriving in the Frontier is described in some detail. The Hindu ruler of Gwalior, Daulat Rao, presented gifts and cash to the mujahideen, while Sayyid Ahmad and his acolytes also stopped in Ajmer, city of the Khawaja. From there it was on to Hyderabad, Sindh, where he met the Talpur ruler, and then to Shikarpur and Kalat, thereafter swerving towards Afghanistan, visiting Kandahar and Ghazni.

Qadir describes many of Sayyid Ahmad’s major battles, including the Battle of Akora Khattak — his first attack on the Sikhs. While many of the mujahideen were involved in looting the Sikh camp, the skirmish was a success. From here onwards Sayyid Ahmad and his mujahideen became a major threat to the Lahore Durbar of Ranjit Singh. At one point the Sikh ruler of Punjab sued for peace, which Sayyid Ahmad rejected. The defeat at Shaidu is attributed to the betrayal of the Barakzais — overlords of Peshawar.

Sayyid Ahmad declared himself ‘amirul momineen’, a precedent which has been followed by the late Mullah Omar, a successor of Sayyid Ahmad in South Asia’s jihadi continuum. However, as the writer notes, Barailvi was denounced by many of the orthodox Sunni ulema of the day. Not only was there resistance to his efforts from the Indian ulema, local clerics in the Frontier had dubbed the mujahideen ‘Wahhabis’.

But perhaps the biggest reason for the failure of the movement was the fact that Sayyid Ahmad tried to replace Pakhtun tribal traditions with his version of Shariah, which the local populace was not ready for. Perhaps it is due to this reason that mujahideen were massacred in Peshawar Valley by local tribesmen, before Sayyid Ahmad and many of his followers finally met their end in Balakot against the Sikhs in 1831.

Apart from Saiyyid Ahmad’s lofty position in Pakistani textbooks, as mentioned earlier, he is lionised by many South Asian jihadi groups; in fact some had named training camps after him. And apart from his sectarian rhetoric, modern militants have also adopted some of his tactics. For example, the removal (and murder) of the local Khans — a policy pursued by the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan — seems directly inspired by Barailvi’s activities. Among the stars of the Pakistani right-wing and jihadi firmament that claim inspiration from Barailvi are Samiul Haq, head of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam Samiul Haq (whose Darul Uloom Haqqania is located in Akora Khattak) as well as Masood Azhar.

The writer has done a commendable job in trying to set the record straight about this key 19th-century figure and connecting the dots between the jihadi movements of yore and their modern successors. –Dawn

Sayyid Ahmad Barailvi: His Movement and Legacy from the Pukhtun Perspective


By Altaf Qadir

SAGE Publications, India

ISBN 978-9351500728


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