Wahabhi Movement and Muhammad Iqbal

Wahabi Movement

History – Wahabi (W) made its appearance into India in the early 19th century and attacked religious corruptions, which had crept into Muslim society. In India it had a new appeal since Hindus who had converted to Islam had brought Hindu practices and ideas that were alien to Islam. Wahabism advocated a return to the simplicity of faith and society of the Prophet’s Arabia, rejected all accretions to and declensions from the pure Islam. Soon it transformed itself into a religio-political creed. It was the ambition of its founder Saiyid Ahmad of Rai Bareilly (1786 to 1831) to restore Muslim power in India by bringing about the overthrow of the Punjabi Sikhs in Punjab and the British in Bengal.

Ahmad came under the influence of Abdul Aziz, son of a famous Delhi saint Shah Waliullah. This Islam was more comprehensive and retained a Sufi coloring. In this Islam, there was room for the Sunnis and Shias who quite contrary to the Wahabis follow various Imams. But there was hardly any difference as regards the end i.e. “pure Islam must be reenacted and regenerated, society must again be mighty”.

Ahmad like many others was very upset with the loss of Muslim power subsequent to the arrival of the British. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, founder of the Aligarh Movement and considered to be the father of the two nation theory thought the same way. May be an understanding of their minds prompted Sri Aurobindo to say in 1940 that the Muslims wanted to rule India.

To my mind nothing has changed, but probably the degree of sophistication in articulating thoughts has! Pakistan continues to benchmark itself with India. With the help of countries like Saudia Arabia, Bangladesh it is out to increase the Muslim population in the India so that Muslims can rule India again. It might be appropriate to remove a fallacy that the Muslims ruled India before the Brits arrived. After Aurangzeb’s death Muslim power moved southwards. It is the Marathas who dominated India for most of the 18th century. Mughal rule in Delhi was for name only. Read “Maratha domination in the 18th century” link at end of article.

This movement for Muslim regeneration had two facets to it, one upliftment of Muslim society and two fight against infidel rulers, Hindus in western India and the Christians elsewhere. Ahmad belonged to the militant group, took up arms against the Sikhs first and then the Brits. Before we move further it is important to talk of a similar movement in East Bengal by a sect called Farazis. It was preached by Shariatullah before the Wahidis who anticipated some of the important views of the Wahabi movement and hoped members of these two movements eventually joined hands.

Shariatullah started off by criticizing corruption in Islamic society, later on declared the Brits to be enemy territory i.e. dar-ul-harb. His achievement was that the apathetic and careless Bengali peasant was roused into enthusiasm. His son Mushin organized the movement and gave it a strong anti Zamindari feel. He made an attack on the levying of illegal taxes by the Zamindars and declared that all land belonged to Allah so no taxes. As a result of these teachings people began to gradually accept the teachings of Saiyid Ahmad.

Coming back to Saiyid Ahmad around 1820 he began to preach the doctrines of religious reforms similar to those held by the sect of Wahabis in Arabia. He started preaching his doctrines in Rohilkhand. In 1820 he visited Patna and got a very good response. Since the number of disciples went up he created an organization and appointed four khalifas or spiritual vice-regiments. Ahmad undertook tours to different districts and enrolled a large number of disciples.

Like his teacher, he too declared Bharat dar-ul-harb or enemy territory, thus making it incumbent on Muslims either to wage jihad against non-Muslim rulers or to migrate to some other country. For this purpose he made efforts to train his followers in the use of arms, and himself, in a soldier’s kit, held military parades. With this end objective and due to political exigencies he proceeded to the North West Frontier province and Afghanistan, accompanied by Patna Maulvis, to enlist the support of the tribes in his holy war against the Sikhs. In his pamphlet Targhib-ul-Jihad he called the Sikh rulers oppressors who had killed thousands of Muslims and did not allow the call to prayer from mosques and the killing of cows.

By 1830 Syed Ahmed established a government in Peshawar with 80,000 Wahabi soldiers. Now he took on the Sikhs. The British were only too happy to see the Muslims fight the Sikhs and destroy Punjabi power. Alas! Maharaja Ranjit Singh had different ideas. Not only did he defeat the Wahabis but Syed himself died in the Balakot battle in 1831.

Ahmad failed to defeat the Sikhs and died in battle in 1831. Let’s try and understand Ahmad’s mind. One Muslim glory must be regained. Two infidels must be defeated, probably thought Christians are lesser evil than Hindus, so reached Punjab first. So similar to Syed Ahmed who followed except that Syed realized that the Muslims would be better off supporting the Christians, an insurance policy against the Hindus. Ahmad’s efforts were not in vain. They had sown the seed that was to blossom into a tree in the years to come. Loss of political power by the Muslims was moaned by Syed Ahmed too.

However, Ahmad’s death did not deter his followers like Patna’s Vilayat Ali and Inayat Ali. They reached Kabul and helped spread the sect rapidly. Another Shah Muhammad put the sect on a sound footing in Bengal and Bihar. In Hyderabad Vilayat was able to recruit a number of followers. Now the Wahabi khalifas selected Maulavi Nasir-ud-din as Commander in Chief.

Based in Sindh he was joined by volunteers from Bharat esp Bengal, together they proceeded to Kabul to assist the ruler of Kabul in his fight against the British. So this time it is infidel number two. Subsequent to the death of Ranjit Singh the Wahabis did capture parts of Punjab but eventually surrendered to the Brits at Haripur.

After Vilayat’s death Inayat Ali became the supreme leader. Circulars were addressed to the khalifas to incite people to proceed to Mulka Sittana for jihad, Hijrat was declared to be incumbent on every Muslim in an infidel country like India. The preachers became active particularly in Meerut, Bareilly, Delhi and many districts of Bengal, Bihar. In an encounter with the Brits in 1853, the Wahabis suffered heavy casualties. Inayat Ali just about managed to escape. Now regular training was imparted to the recruits and songs were recited extolling the virtues of jihad.

The Wahabis did not play a conspicuous role in the rising of 1857 due to a variety of reasons. Their main leaders were put behind bars, communication lines cut between their center at Patna and forts across the Sindhu. The Wahabis also had a feeling that these disturbances were a matter concerning sepoys only. No they had not accepted the Brits suddenly. In fact they were the first to spread if not originate the idea of greased cartridges amongst the sepoys at Barrrackpore.

I am not going into the historic details from 1857 to 1872. It would be sufficient to say that a number of Wahabi leaders did try and take on the Brits but failed. As a result of various trials and other vigorous measures the Wahabi conspiracy was gradually stamped out of India.

What strikes you most?

The desire to establish Muslim rule in India once again. Signs of the Pan-Islamic Muslim mind at work. Indian Muslims did not see anything wrong in joining the ruler of Kabul in his war against the infidels. Punjab and Bengal seem to be important centers of influence.

Could this influence have led to the local population demanding a separate homeland for India some sixty years later? These events also raise another question. Why did the Muslims fight the mutiny of 1857? Think about it, was reestablishment of Muslim rule the objective. Who might have ruled India had the Brits lost the war of 1857 is something you could ponder over.

This anti-Muslim and pro-Hindu feeling feeling was further developed after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, as the British regarded the Muslims as its chief instigators. Thus H H Thomas (retired I.C.S.) observed that “The Hindus were not the main contrivers or the primary movers of the 1857 rebellion, it was the result of a Muslim conspiracy” quote Lala Lajpat Rai II pg 401. Reference has been made above to similar views expressed by

Charles Raikes and others.


The Wahabi movement was much better organized, planned than the rising of 1857. With missionary zeal they toured the country to stir up people against the infidels read British. After the abrupt death of Saiyid Ahmad Patna became the center of the movement. Besides a chief priest there was a President in overall charge of operations supported by a Central Committee. Every friendly district had similar committees and preachers.

The transmission of recruits from Patna called Chhota godown to Sittana called Bara godown, a distance of about 2,000 miles presented a difficult problem to the organizers. Here Yahya Ali’s administrative skills came to use. Rest houses were organized at regular intervals to look after people’s safety and comfort. At Sittana, these young men were kept under the immediate tuition of Abdullah. A few of them were selected to work as agents in British territory. Has anything changed? Today too Muslims from various parts of India, Bangladesh, and Britain are sent to Pakistan for training and thereafter to spread terror across the world. Pakistan, Afghanistan were training grounds for jihadis then and! The strategy is the same; it is for the law enforcement agencies to wake up.

Besides the Central office at Patna, the Wahabis had permanent machinery throughout the rural districts of Bengal for spreading their faith. It could be one of the reasons why Islam is so dominant in Bengal, east and west. You also might like to know the Muslims of Bengal supported the Brit plan of partition of Bengal in 1905 since they stood to become powerful in areas that are Bangladesh today. In fact the Muslim league was founded in Dacca, 1910 if I remember right. Why did so many Hindus convert to Islam in Bengal is another question for which seek answers?

Character of Movement

The movement in its early days was a purely religious one, confined to a section of Muslims, particularly the lower middle class. However, it was due to its militant role that the movement enlisted the sympathies and support of the average Muslim. Interestingly Muslims of all classes supported it.

The Hindus were suscipicious of the movement. It was directed at removing the Indian influence in Islam and attacking the Sikhs to restore Muslim power. However, the Wahabis did manage some Hindu support. Unlike subsequent Islamic movements in India, it never came in direct conflict with Hindus. The movement assumed the role of a class struggle in some places like Bengal.

Inspite of its wide spread character the Wahabi movement was for the Muslims, by the Muslims, of the Muslims. Can you think of a Muslim movement that was Indian in character between 1800 and 2000. Aligarh movement was anti Hindu, India. Khilafat was again for a Muslim cause.

Muslim schools

Subsequent to the Mutiny of 1857, the Brits came down heavily upon the Muslims making their condition pitiable. Sir Syed Ahmad, founder of the Aligarh movement, in fact was so depressed with the condition of his Muslim brothers, that at one time he contemplated leaving India. The reform movement started by Syed Ahmad and his pupils gained momentum after the mutiny and manifested itself in different forms. There were a group of religious thinkers who, influenced by the Wahabi ideology, started preaching new ideas and gaining support.

However, the majority of Indian Muslims were adherents of the Hanafi School with strong leanings towards Sufism and could not be won over by the soul less, dry and rigid Wahabhi discipline. The more the Wahabis pushed the closer people went to the Sufi fold. Thus, during this period we find that both the Chishtiya and Naqshbandiya, the two main Sufi schools in India flourishing. But this degenerated into rank superstition and blind saint-worship in the hands of unscrupulous pirs, which in turn produced a strong reaction in the minds of the sensible and thoughtful Muslims.

The foundation of Dar-al-Ulum at Deoband in 1886 was the greatest achievement of the Wahabi school of thought in India where as Farangi Mahal established during the reign of Aurangzeb continued to represent the old Hanafi School, maintaining a via media between the extreme and diametrically opposed Wahabi and Sufi doctrines. A third important institution with a distinctly religious bias and an ideology not very different from that of Farangi Mahal was founded in 1898 in Lucknow by Shibli Numani. It was called Nadwat al-Ulama, showed a more progressive outlook and has produced scholars of repute.

Maulana M Hasan was in charge of the madrassa at Deoband from 1888 to 1920. He imbibed from his teacher Maulana Qasim, the qualities of self-lessness and complete devotion to Islam. He tried to establish friendly relations between the modern Aligarh and orthodox Deoband schools. The Nadwat al-Ulama tried to bridge the gap between Aligarh and Deoband and various groups of Ulamas. It wanted to reform the Logic-ridden Nizamiyya system of religious education by putting greater emphasis on Islamic history and religious subjects, also introducing modern sciences and English as secondary subjects. The institution has produced many renowned Islamic scholars.

Each school attempted to revive the fortunes of the Muslims in a manner that they thought fit. Aligarh movement attached great importance to the economic aspect of the problem. Deoband School attached value to its moral and political aspect. The Nadwat tried to bridge the gap between these two schools.

I end this chapter with a quote from poet Muhammad Iqbal “Sovereignty passed out of its hands, but the eyes of the Muslim community were opened. The dust raised by the flight of the gazelle became antimony for the desert’s eye”.

Also read
1. Aligarh Muslim Movement
2. Understanding the Muslim mind through Ambedkar
3. Maratha supremacy in the 18th century
4. Thoughts on Pakistan
5. Who was responsible for partition?
6. Arabization of Indian Muslims and its ill-effects

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