The 18th century was a period of extreme decadence of Muslim power in India. On the death of the great Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707, had started the disintegration of his vast dominions embracing the whole of the Indian subcontinent. His successors were too weak to arrest the process of decadence and disruption besetting it. Not only the Muslim political power had rapidly declined and was soon at its lowest ebb but also their economic, religious, and cultural life showed signs of extreme degeneration. The central power which held together with the opposing groups and shielded their weakness was itself breaking up. The social contacts with the Hindus gave vogue to many whimsical and un-Islamic customs which struck at the root of the fundamentals of Islam and slowly weakened its hold in India. In such a disruptive and gloomy atmosphere was born Shah Waliullah, a great intellectual reformer, whose teachings paved the way for the renaissance of Islam in India, both in religious and political spheres. Shah Waliullah was followed in his noble mission by his son Shah Abdul Aziz of Delhi and his disciple Syed Ahmad Barelvi, assisted by his associates.
Syed Ahmad was born in a famous Syed family of Rai Bareli, known for its learning and sainthood. His great grandfather, Maulvi Ilmullah Saheb was highly respected for his deep erudition, purity of life, and devotion to God and His last Prophet. He refused to accept any gift even from a puritan like Emperor Aurangzeb and preferred a life of poverty and abstinence. He was very particular about following the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet of Islam.
Syed Ahmad, who was born on the 1st of Muharram 1201 A.H. (October 24, 1786), had little inclination towards education during his childhood. He was, however, very fond of manly exercises and passed his time in learning and practicing the use of arms.
When fully grown up, Syed Ahmad, along with six companions, proceeded to Lucknow in search of employment. Lucknow, in those days, was the Capital of the Kingdom of Oudh and a great center of learning and culture in Northern India. But, he did not stay there for long and set out on foot to Delhi in quest of knowledge. After a strenuous journey, he called on Shah Abdul Aziz, a well-known divine of Delhi, who, on being informed of family connections, entrusted him to the care of his brother Shah Abdul Qadir. Syed Ahmad stayed at the Akbarabadi Mosque of Delhi and studied Quran and Tradition. His spiritual guide Shah Abdul Aziz initiated him into the Chistiya, Qadirya, and Naqshbandiya orders of Sufism.
After two year’s stay at Delhi, which proved a turning point in his life, Syed Ahmad returned home, Rai Bareli, where he was hailed by the people as a divine, known for his exemplary character and simple, pious life.
His stay at Rai Bareli lasted hardly two years, when, at the age of 24, he set out for Tonk to enter the service of Amir Khan. Then followed several years of hazardous life and his participation in several campaigns fought by the Amir, prepared him for his ultimate struggle for the faith which he was destined to lead. His exemplary life and spiritual gifts brought about a transformation among the soldiers of Amir Khan. He was respected by all and had become a trusted Counselor of Amir Khan. When the latter became subservient to the British by accepting the state of Tonk, Syed Ahmad left for Delhi. His freedom-loving spirit could not reconcile itself to the service of a Ruler who was subordinate to an alien power.
In 1815, he again arrived in Delhi. His period of preparation was over. Now he was a mature man of experience possessing rare spiritual gifts. The two outstanding luminaries of Shah Abdul Aziz’s family-Shah Ismail, his nephew, and Maulana Abdul Haiy, his son-in-law,-accepted Syed Ahmad as their spiritual guide. His enrolment as a spiritual disciple of these luminaries of the House of Shah Waliullah, enhanced Syed Ahmad’s prestige, with the result that people began to flock around him in large numbers for spiritual guidance. His proclaimed objective was to restore Islam to its pristine purity and to cleanse it of all oriental and Hindu influences.
Syed Ahmad did not confine his beneficial activities to Delhi alone. He visited a number of places in Northern India, including Saharanpur, Muzaffarnagar, Deoband, Rampur, Bareli, and Shahjahanpur. His two principal lieutenants, Shah Ismail Shaheed and Maulvi Abdul Haiy, known for their eloquence and learning, popularised his mission with exceptional success. The reform movement was in full swing. The tongue of Shah Ismail, the pen of Maulvi Abdul Haiy and the magnetic personality of Syed Ahmad, created a stir throughout Northern India. Their righteous life and spiritual stature and noble mission brought many adherents within its fold. Syed Ahmad now headed a country-wide organization. Many evils that had crept into the Muslim society were eradicated. Syed Ahmad himself married a widow, which was considered a very obnoxious act, not only by Muslims in general but also by his own family.
During his stay in Rampur, Syed Ahmad came into contact with certain Afghans coming from Kabul, who related to his stories of Sikh atrocities committed on Muslims of North-Western India. The Sikhs had extinguished the religious freedom of Muslims inhabiting that region. They were prohibited from calling ‘Azan’ and offering prayers in congregation. Enraged at the brutalities of Sikhs, he resolved to wage Jihad against them after his return from the holy pilgrimage to Makkah, whither he proceeded in 1821, accompanied by a large party.
His journey through Allahabad, Benares, Ghazipur, Azimabad (Patna), Monghyr, Bhagalpur, Murshidabad, terminating at Calcutta, was marked with unprecedented enthusiasm and reception. People came in large numbers to have a glimpse of the great Reformer and many became his devoted followers.
From Calcutta, Syed Ahmad and his entourage proceeded to Jedda by sea. His stay in the Holy land lasted for more than one and half years. During this period he came into contact with many renowned Muslim scholars and learned about many reformatories and revivalist movements in the world of Islam, including Wahhabism.
On his return from the holy pilgrimage, he started preparations for the most important task of his life, Jihad, which ultimately ended in his martyrdom at Balakot in 1831. He sent Shah Ismail and Maulvi Abdul Haiy to different parts of the country to inform the people of his intentions to wage a holy war against the Sikhs, in whose territories the life, honor and religion of Muslims, had been gravely threatened. His appeal received an overwhelming response and a large number of persons volunteered themselves for the holy war. Finally, on January 16, 1826, he left home on an arduous journey, never to return. He was accompanied by five to six thousand companions, all prepared to die for delivering their brethren from the tyrannical Sikh rule. The party left for North-Western India by a circuitous route and arrived at their destination at Naushehra after passing through Tonk, Rajputana, Sind, Baluchistan, Qandahar, Kabul, Khyber Pass, and Peshawar. This long arduous journey and the hardships of the way, the oppressive heat of Rajputana and Sind, the hazards of brigands, and the difficult climbs of the barren hills of Baluchistan, did not diminish their crusading spirit. Wherever they went, they were given a thundering ovation by the people, but the Muslim rulers of these areas were hesitant in giving him active support and thus antagonizing the Sikhs who formed the most powerful state in Western India.
Syed Ahmad arrived in Naushehra and made it his headquarters in December 1826.
The stage was now set for the Jihad. According to Islamic practice, a proclamation was addressed to the Sikh Ruler, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who did not pay any heed to it. The Syed, now got ready for an attack on the Sikh forces stationed at Akora and led by Budh Singh, a cousin of Ranjit Singh. The assault took place on December 21, 1826, in which the Sikhs, despite their numerical superiority in men and arms, were completely routed. They retired leaving 700 dead on the battlefield.
But jealousy and rivalry among the tribal chieftains and their irresistible lust for loot hindered Syed Ahmad from accomplishing his mission. Despite the overwhelming superiority of the Sikh army which was disciplined and led by experienced foreign soldiers and was equipped with the latest weapons of war, the ‘mujahideen’ inflicted on them defeats in several encounters. At one stage Ranjit Singh even sued for peace, but his terms were not acceptable to Syed Ahmad. He, therefore, adopted other tactics. He sowed dissensions among the Pathan supporters of the Syed through bribery and intrigue. He made secret approaches to some of the influential tribal chiefs supporting the Syed, including Yar Muhammad, the Chief of Peshawar, asking them to withdraw their support on promise of concessions. He even warned them that the Syed’s victory in the area would mean the domination of the Indian Muslims over the Pathans. Thus, a task that could not be achieved by Sikh arms was accomplished through the treachery of Muslims themselves.
On the eve of the fateful battle at Saidu Sharif, fought in March 1827, the virtuous Syed was poisoned by the servants of Yar Muhammad. But, the Syed ordered his men to take him to the battlefield. Accordingly, the next morning he was carried to the battlefield in a subconscious state. The battle went on for four days, and despite the enemy’s superiority in manpower and equipment, the Mujahideen were in a commanding position. At a time when victory was in sight, Yar Muhammad, along with his men, deserted the Muslim ranks. This caused great confusion and consternation among the Muslims. Their victory turned into a rout in which several thousand Muslims lost their lives.
This revealed the organizational weaknesses among the Mujahideen The top leaders of the force resolved to enforce more rigid discipline among the rank and file, who were to be controlled by a central authority responsible for enforcing the Shariat rule among them. Syed Ahmad was selected as Ameer-ulMomineen. The treacheries and hostilities of some of the tribal chiefs led to several skirmishes with the Mujahideen, in which Yar Muhammad Khan, the Chief of Peshawar, and Khadi Khan, the Chief of Hund, were killed. The Mujahideen occupied Peshawar in 1830. But, instead of removing Sultan Khan, brother of the treacherous Yar Muhammad Khan, the Syed retained him as the Governor of the city. He enforced the Shariat law throughout the conquered territory. Maulvi Syed Mazhar Ali of Azimabad was appointed as Qazi of Peshawar.
Sultan Khan, Governor of Peshawar, who had been pardoned, was secretly planning to avenge the death of his brother, Yar Muhammad Khan. He organized the mass killing of Mujahideen. One night, when the latter were offering their prayers, they were killed by hired assassins. The flower of Muslim chivalry and learning in the subcontinent perished in one night by the conspiracy of a brother Muslim and by the hands of Muslims themselves. This caused great dismay and grief in the Syed’s camp. All that had been won was lost in a single night.
Syed Ahmad and his followers, being greatly disappointed with the treachery and hostility of the people inhabiting the Peshawar area, decided to go northward and concentrate their efforts against the Sikhs in Hazara and Kashmir. Arriving at Balakot, a small town in the Kaghan valley, surrounded on three sides by high mountains, he set up his Headquarters there, considering it safe for the Mujahideen.
Here, too, the local Muslims spied for the Sikhs and led them through a secret route in close proximity to the Mujahideen’s camps. Here was fought the last decisive battle at the beginning of May 1831. The Sikh army far superior in numbers and arms won the day. More than six thousand Muslims perished on the battlefield. The leader of the movement, Syed Ahmad, along with his chief lieutenant, Shah Ismail, died fighting till the end.
Syed Ahmad Shaheed was a great reformer, subscribing to the Shah Waliullah School. He kept aloft the candle of religious reformation lit by Shah Waliullah. Though he was not an accomplished scholar like his spiritual teacher Shah Abdul Aziz and his spiritual disciples Shah Ismail Shaheed and Maulvi Abdul Haiy, yet he was a man of action and his simple life and purity of heart inspired awe and respect among his followers. Whoever came into contact with him, was greatly influenced by his magnetic personality. He showed great zeal in denouncing all innovations in Islam, of which the most hated were those associated with the name and Divinity of Almighty God. In his Sirat-ul-Mushtaqim he classified such innovations into three categories: those which have sprung through association with corrupt Sufis, those of heretical origin and those which have come through Hindu influences. He exhorted the Muslims not to follow anyone except the Quran and the Hadis.
The marriage of widows had begun to be considered obnoxious among Muslims like those of Hindus. Syed Ahmad himself married a widow quite contrary to his family traditions. Lavish expenditures on the occasion of marriage, birth, and death, was condemned by him. He denounced tomb-worship, a practice which was a negation of the Islamic doctrine of monotheism. He did not like the Sufis, who led a life of meditation and abhorred social contacts. Instead of making life worth living, such Sufis had preferred to withdraw from it.
Syed Ahmad was himself a Sufi, but not in conformity with its common concept. Instead of passing life of renunciation, he passed a life of action. His insistence on Jihad distinguished him from an average Sufi, who usually believes in a life of meditation and inactivity. He laid greater emphasis on the importance of following the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet. According to him, one cannot attain a high spiritual status without strictly following the Shariat. He, therefore, accepted the teaching of ‘Mujaddid-Alif Sani’ in preference to those of Muhiyuddin Ibn-i-Arabi.
Syed Ahmad Shaheed was an idealist, a dreamer of dreams. With his simple straightforward manners, he raised a group of fanatical devouts who were ready to sacrifice their lives for Islam. Among his notable disciples were Shah Ismail Shaheed, Maulvi Abdul Haiy, Maulvi Wilyat Ali Azimabadi, and Maulvi Karamat Ali Jaunpuri. The last-named had the distinction of being the greatest Muslim reformer and missionary in Bengal.
Syed Ahmad Shaheed possessed a magnetic personality. Whoever came into contact with him, became his devoted follower. He was the spiritual guide of more than four million followers, among whom were some of the well-known scholars, religious leaders, and Sufis of the time.
He was the first popular political leader of the subcontinent, who created a political organization for furthering his noble mission.