Syed Ahmad Barelvi

Syed Ahmad Barelvi (1786-1831)


Syed Ahmad Barelvi
Syed Ahmad Barelvi
      Syed Ahmad was the founder of the Wahabi Movement in India. Wahabism had earlier started in Arabia by the efforts of Abdul Wahab (1703-92).
He aimed at restoring Islam to the exact form it had in the days of the Prophet, rejecting the impurities which had crept among his followers. In India, the source of inspiration for Syed Ahmad was Shah Waliullah (1704-1763) who wanted to re-establish the Muslim rule in India with the help of Muslim rulers, like the Nizam of Hyderabad and Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Abdali. Abdali did invade India, defeated the Marathas at Panipat (1761), killed and looted at will and soon left for Afghanistan, without strengthening the tottering Mughal Empire, to the chagrin of Waliullah, who died soon after.
Learning from this experience, Syed Ahmad had come to believe that Muslims in India must take upon themselves the amelioration of their condition which was getting worse after the death Of Aurangzeb. A greater part of the country had come under the control of Marathas, Sikhs, Rajputs and jats. The Mughal ruler was reduced to a destitute, titular head. “When in 1803 Lord Lake entered Delhi, he was shown a miserable blind old imbecile, sitting under a tattered canopy. It was Shah Alam ‘King of the World’, but captive of the Marathas, a wretched travesty of the Emperor of lndia". Such was the condition to which the great Mughal Empire had been reduced to. With the change of rulers, Muslims had lost all the privileges which were bestowed by the Mughal emperors on them. Syed Ahmad believed that Muslims must get organized to fight the infidel rulers, to bring back the ‘glory of Islam’ to India again.
Syed Ahmad was born at Rai Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh in 1786. He studied in a school in Delhi run by Shah Abdul Aziz, son of Shah Waliullah. His teacher had already issued a ‘fatwa’ declaring India as a ‘dar-ul-harb’ (enemy country) and was no more ‘dar-ul-Islam’ as it was ruled by non-Muslims. Abdul Aziz had begun to organize militant centers in north-Western provinces (present Uttar Pradesh) and Bihar for the purpose of launching jehad’. He selected Syed Ahmad as his principal jehadi’. To learn the art of warfare, Syed Ahmad joined the army of Amir Khan, a Pathan pindari leader in 1809 in Rajasthan. His military training was cut short in 1817 when the Pathan leader submitted to the British. Ahmad was back in Delhi. Shah Abdul Aziz then declared Ahmad as his successor, handing over his white robe and black turban to him as a ritual of succession. He also deputed two of his own relatives, Shah Abdul Hai and Shah Ismail, to render all possible help and to work under Ahmad’s guidance.
Thereafter, Ahmad started in earnest the work of organizing and preaching _ organizing volunteers for ‘jehad’ and preaching to remove the evils which had crept in the Muslim society. He asked Muslims to shun Hindus and not to adopt their manners in dress and eating; not to join in their festivities like Holi and Diwali; shun idolatry by worshipping at mazars, veneration of ‘pits’ and other places not sanctified by Islam and its Prophet. He was worried that Muslims were losing their identity. For the first time Islam was on the defensive in India. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Ahmad started enrolling volunteers for jehad and collecting funds for the purpose. After reaching Calcutta, Syed Ahmad left for Mecca 0821). At the holy city, he came in contact with the Wahabis and his ideas about social reform and political struggle got crystallized. He was now convinced that it was only by overthrown non-Muslim rule that the reformed faith could be enforced on the lines of Arabia. Thus, the immediate task before the Wahabis was the conversion of India froma ‘dar-ul-harb’ into a ‘dar-ul-Islam’.
On his return journey, Syed Ahmad landed at Bombay in October 1823 and proceeded to Delhi with the same fanfare as his earlier journey from Delhi to Calcutta. Wherever he went, he continued enrolling volunteers and the number of volunteers (jehadis) continued to grow. His followers started weaving several myths around him and on this basiscarried on vigorous propaganda among Muslims to prepare themselvesfor jehad. Even some Muslim rulers, like the Nawab of Tonk, became his followers. The sight of such devoted following, which had taken an oath of allegiance to him, emboldened Syed Ahmad. With eight thousand armed followers, he proceeded via Gwalior, Tonk, the desert of Rajasthan, Sind, Baluchistan, Kandahar, Ghazni, and Kabul reaching Peshawar in November of the same year. This circuitous route was chosen apparently to avoid passage through Sikh territory. He established his headquarters at Sittane near Peshawar. He appealed to the Pathan tribes to join him, and many of them did1 giving further strength to his jehadi army. The selection of this region to start jehad against the infidel rulers was an astute one. The area was populated almost exclusively by Muslims, who resented the authority of the Sikh rule. It was not accessible to large armies; the barren hills stood as an excellent barrier against outsiders.
Under the Islamic law, the election of a Khalifa or Caliph was necessary to provide a leader to direct the jehad’. There was no difficulty in Ahmad getting elected as Khalifa by his followers. The news of his election and an explanation of this measure were communicated to the Muslims in different parts of India through circular letters, Coins were minted bearing the legend ‘Ahmad the just, the Defender of the Faith, the Glitter of whose Scimitar Scatters Destruction Among the Infidels’, and were put in circulation among his followers.3 The Khilafat was, however, short-lived. Ranjit Singh, who had annexed Peshawar earlier (1930), became concerned about the hostile activities of Syed Ahmed and sent his army to contain his activities and ambition. A battle ensued at Balakot in May 1931 and Syed Ahmad and his second in command Muhammad Ismail were killed. Alexander Gardner, who later became a colonel in the Punjab army and was with the crusaders at the time, gave an account of this skirmish in the following Words:
“Syed Ahmed and the Maulvi (Abdul Haye), surrounded by his surviving Indian followers, were fighting desperately hand to hand with the equally fanatical Akalis of the Sikh army. They had been taken by surprise and isolated from the main body of the Syed’s forces, which fought very badly without their leader. Even as I caught sight of the Syed and Maulvi, they fell pierced by a hundred weapons. Those around them were slain to a man, and the main body dispersed in every direction... I was literally within a few hundred yards of the Syed when he fell, but I did not see the angel descend and carry him off to paradise, although many of his followers remembered afterwards that they had seen it distinctly enough.”
But this was not the end of Wahabism. His followers continued the jehad for another four decades. “Syed Ahmad had set-up a regular organization. He had appointed a number of khalifas or spiritual vice-regents, who not only kept alive the movement after the death of their leader, but even made it more vigorous within a short time. Taking advantage of the political chaos in Punjab after the death of Ranjit Singh in 1939, the Wahabis established their authority over a large tract of territory along the left bank of Sindhu (Indus)”. When Punjab was annexed by Lord Dalhousie in 1849, the problem of Wahabis was transferred from the Sikhs to the British. Thereafter, the Sittane camp was a source of chronic anxiety to the British for two decades. Up to the late 1860s several expeditions, involving thousands of regular troops were made to North-West Frontier to destroy the rebels but withut much success. Then the British government changed their strategy. Instead of fighting the rebels in their stronghold situated in a difficult terrain, they started taking action against the ring-leaders in Bihar and present Uttar Pradesh and at other places, which were sending jehadis and money to Sittane. Thousands of them were imprisoned and the Wahabi movement died down in the early 1870s.
The importance of the Wahabi movement lies in the fact that it created a permanent schism between Hindus and Muslims and did not allow the composite culture to develop. The seeds of two-nation theory were thus sown. It is rather surprising that the Wahabis did not take part in the 1857 uprising and kept completely aloof from it, though both the revolts were directed against the British. The only explanation could be that the Wahabis wanted a purely Islamic uprising and did not want to join the one which comprised Hindus. At the same time it cannot be denied that the Wahabi jehad against the infidels was much better planned and organized than the outbreak of 1857, which was disjoined without effective coordination and leadership. The Wahabis had created a highly developed organization to which there is no parallel in the history of the revolutionary movements against the British during the nineteenth century and are regarded by some historians as having waged the first War of Independence in India, and the credit for this goes mainly to Syed Ahmad Brelvi.
It is interesting to note the reaction of Sir Syed Ahmad, who was trying to construct a bridge between Indian Muslims and the British rulers, to this anti-British movement by Muslims. He was afraid that his efforts towards reconciliation would suffer due to the jehad undertaken by the Wahabis. As in the case of the 1857 uprising, which was considered by the British as a rebellion mainly inspired by the Muslims, so also in this case Syed Ahmad tried to contain the damage to the Muslim cause by declaring that the Wahabi movement was the work of some misguided youth and it was not really based on true Wahabism. In a letter to The Pioneer (14 April, 1871), he wrote, ‘Wahabism, as exemplified by certain misguided men in India, is not Wahabism at all; and those who are really guilty of conspiring against Government are not acting upon the principles of their religious tenets”. Syed Ahmed’s views 0n Wahabism were expressed in greater detail in articles published in The Pioneer, while reviewing WW. Hunter-’s ‘Indian Musalmans’ (1871), in which Hunter had concluded that Wahabism was a rebellion against the British government whom they considered as an infidel government. Due to the efforts of Syed Ahmad and others, the hostility generated by the Wahabi movement and 1857 uprising was gradually neutralized and Muslims became the favoured community, especially after the formation of Indian National Congress.


  1. The British and Sikhs (Ranjit Singh) were in alliance since 1809 A.D. This alliance allowed Ranjit Singh to strengthen his rule in Punjab while all other major political powers were being crushed by East India Company in Sub-Continent.

    A recent research study contains an indepth literature review that is published on Sayyid Ahmad and provides insights on Sikh & British alliance established at that time and how British pursued their colonial agenda in India.

    I hope you and other members will like this study useful. Here are some of the details of the study -

    Title: Social Reformation and Anti-Colonial Struggle by Sayyid Ahmad Raibarelvi: Circumstances and Implications


  2. picture of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan,Founder ,Aligarh University.
    Syed Ahmed Berelvi ( qaddasha sirruhul aziz) khalifa of Shah Abdul Aziz Dehlavi (qaddasha sirruhul aziz) and Murshid of Sufi Noor Mohammed Nizampuri ( qaddasha sirrhul aziz)....above infos about wahabiyyat is false.