In any case, Waliullah’s teachings did not attract any substantial number of followers.3 A large number of Muslims in India were inclined towards far more liberal interpretation of Islam and remained skeptical of Waliullah’s call for return to a puritanical approach. Many Sunnis felt that Waliullah and his followers were inspired by the Arabian heretical preacher, Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab who despised Sufism and other influences in the religion. While Wahhab’s followers called themselves Wahhabis, Waliullah’s group came to be known as the Ahl-e-Hadith (the People of the Prophetic Tradition). Alongside Ahl-e-Hadith emerged another group, equally attracted by Waliullah’s teachings and legend but more accommodating towards Sufism, Deobandis who set up their centre of learning in a small town, Deoband, in United Province (Uttar Pradesh of today).
To win popular support, Sayyed Ahmed launched a jehad against the Sikhs, who it felt, were discriminating against the Muslims in Punjab.
The next time the Islamic puritans managed to band together was early 19th century when a group of ulema, in an attempt to counter the gathering strength of the British, traveled to the borderlands of Afghanistan and set up a proto-state where the rule of law was Sharia.
The group was led by one of Waliullah’s grandsons, Shah Ismail and his associate Sayyed Ahmed of Rae Bareilly, inspired mostly by the teachings of Shah Abdul Aziz, one of Waliullah’s sons. A staunch opponent of the British expansion, Aziz had issued a fatwa declaring that India was a dar ul-harb, abode of war.
The Pathans of Afghanistan were not enamored by the puritanical approach of the extremist group resulting in frequent clashes between the two groups. To win popular support, Sayyed Ahmed launched a jehad against the Sikhs, who it felt, were discriminating against the Muslims in Punjab. A large number of Pathans sided with the Sikhs to take on the extremist group in an armed conflict in Balakot in 1831 which ended with the death of Shah Ismail and Sayyed Ahmed.
Though the death of the two top leaders was a crippling setback, many of their followers pursued the path of jehad till the attempts were crushed by the British during the 1857 war of independence. Some of the Ahl-e-Hadith leaders, however, continued to raise the banner of revolt against the British, especially in the North-West Frontier Province till they were finally fatally crippled in the early part of 19th century. Although the group largely opted to remain peaceful thereafter, according to a Hadith scholar, the group had ‘refused to accept the supremacy of the British and the Hindus’, and vowed to carry on the struggle through other means to ‘convert India into an abode of Islam (dar-ul-islam) through jehad. 4. Many madarsas in India, and in Pakistan, even today believe in carrying forward this tradition of jehad.
This historical perspective is important to understand the potential of terrorist groups like LeT, which owes allegiance to the Ahl-e-Hadis group, HuJI and SIMI, Deobandi groups, to come together to recruit and expand the network of terror in Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan.
- Hussain Haqqani, India’s Islamist groups, Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, Volume II, (Haqqani draws his observations from S Abul Ala Maududi, A Short History of the Revivalist Movement in Islam (translated from Urdu), (Lahore: Islamic Publications Limited, 1963). P.5.
- Barbara D. Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1982, p. 283.
- Hafiz Salahuddin Yusuf, Tehrik-i-Jehad, Jama9at Ahl-i Hadith Aur 8Ulama-i Ahnaf, Dar ul-Kitab Islamia, Delhi, 2000, p. 54.