Jihad and retribalisation in Pakistan
BOOK REVIEW: Jihad and retribalisation in Pakistan by Khaled Ahmed, DT, July 12, 2008
Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia
By Ayesha Jalal
Not far from Balakot, the votaries of the Sayyid are fighting on the side of Al Qaeda against ‘imperialist’ America and its client state, Pakistan, and killing more Muslims in the process than Americans, just as the Sayyid killed more Muslims than he killed Sikhs
Ayesha Jalal studies the jihad of Sayyid Ahmad Shaheed (1786-1831) in India as the most immaculate articulation of the theory of jihad in Islam. Sayyid Ahmad may have conceived his holy war against East India Company while living in Rai Bareilly in the central region of northern India, but he moved his warriors to where Pakistan’s North Western Frontier (NWFP) province is today because he thought that the Pashtun living in the tribal areas under non-Muslim Sikh occupation were better Muslims than the settled Muslims of the plains.
Here was the first indication that Islamic utopia could be constructed more easily in a tribal society. He probably wanted to take on the British after creating a mini-state on the pattern of Madina in the NWFP and probably hoped to reform the contaminated Muslims of the plains as a means of enhancing his challenge to the British. Al Qaeda too discovered the Pashtun straddling the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan as the tribal matrix where an Islamic utopia would grow into a centre of the global caliphate devoted to reforming and uniting Muslims living unhappily as subjects of today’s nation-states.
Sayyid Ahmad was feared by Muslims in the urban centres of India and was wrongly called a Wahhabi — a negative term pointing to the intimidation and violence associated with Saudi Islam — because they thought he would use ‘retribalisation’ as a method of returning them to the true faith. Pakistan fears Al Qaeda and its Pashtun foot soldiers as it sees the same kind of process in evidence under what is called Talibanisation.
Historian Ayesha Jalal has a fair claim to knowing the various communal narratives of Muslim India, as proved in her 2000 monumental work Self and Sovereignty: Individual and Community in South Asian Islam since 1850. One can say that her latest book on Jihad has grown out of this earlier work and that her identification of one of the most ideologically ‘explained’ holy wars in the 19th century India is intended to understand the location of Al Qaeda inside Pakistan’s Tribal Areas in the 21st century. She writes on page 16:
‘The geographic focal point of the jihad of 1826 to 1831 on the northwest frontier of the subcontinent corresponds to the nerve centre of the current confrontation between Islamic radicals and the West. The jihad movement directed primarily against the Sikhs was transmuted in the course of the war into a conflict pitting Muslim against Muslim. This feature of intrafaith conflict in a jihad as armed struggle has not diminished its appeal for contemporary militants, who evidence many of the same failings that undermined Sayyid Ahmad’s high ideals. The martyrdom of those who fell at Balakot continues to weave its spell, making it imperative to investigate the myth in its making’.
The story goes like this. Sayyid Ahmad, convinced of his own semi-divinity and admired by a large number of followers for his exact adherence to Islam, marched from Rai Bareilly in Central India in 1826 in the direction of the north-western city of Peshawar with a an ‘army’ of 600 local Muslims optimistically posing as warriors. The aim was to establish an Islamic state on the land of the Pashtun. As he meandered through the various regions of India and Afghanistan, he was greeted by Muslim rulers not very keen to support him in his jihad. But in Kandahar, 200 Pashtun warriors joined him, clearly in expectation of the loot which jihad in their view brought in its wake. Some Yusufzai tribesmen, irritated by Sikh rule, also joined his lashkar.
If he thought he was walking into a ‘people’ of uniform views, he was mistaken. The Durrani Pashtun of Peshawar were not particularly enthusiastic about his movement. Scared of the internecine Pashtun warfare, they had become allies of the Sikhs and paid tribute to them.
In the first engagement with the Sikh army near Peshawar Sayyid Ahmad suffered a defeat because his soldiers took to looting after the first attack and thereby allowed the Sikhs to regroup and attack again. The next battle at Hazro met with the same fate: the Pashtun warriors took to looting before the battle was won and failed to gain decisive edge later on. The warriors fought over the spoils of war and the various groups carried off what they thought was their share, no one listening to the Sayyid.
The lure of loot attracted 80,000 more local warriors to his lashkar which now became an army. At the battle of Shaidu, the warriors of Islam outnumbered the army of Budh Singh, the general who represented the suzerain Maharaja of Lahore, Ranjit Singh. This time a part of the Islamic army refused to fight, and the Durranis actually poisoned the Sayyid fearing his growing spiritual power, and let him be defeated as their imam. Weakened by poisoning, he nevertheless sought solace in marrying an Ismaili girl as his third wife.
As author Jalal points out, the parallels are shockingly close. Sayyid Ahmad’s main objective was the expulsion of the British from India (p.70). Osama bin Laden’s foray into Pakistan is also a phase in his jihad against America. Sayyid Ahmad was under pressure from the puritans of the faith from India to first wage war against the ‘Muslim infidels’ and for this he had to enforce sharia on the Pashtun population of Hazara which was under his military control:
‘The scope of the laws was broadly defined to include the compulsory enforcement of Islamic injunctions relating to prayers and fasting, as well as a ban on usury, polygamy, consumption of wine, distribution of a deceased man’s wife and children among his brothers, and involvement in family feuds. Anyone transgressing the sharia after swearing allegiance to Sayyid Ahmad was to be treated as a sinner and a rebel. Any breach was punishable by death, and Muslims were prohibited from saying prayers at the funerals of such people. Two weeks later, after another meeting of tribesmen, Sayyid Ahmad began appointing judges in different parts of the frontier...the moves infringed on the temporal powers of the tribal chiefs and seriously undermined the prerogatives of local religious leaders (p.94)’.
The three conditions that Sayyid Ahmad and the Taliban fill are: fighting enemy number one (the British, the Americans) through a secondary enemy (the Sikhs, Pakistan); mixing local Islam with hardline Arab Islam; and using the tribal order as matrix of Islam. The Taliban derive their radical Islam from the Wahhabi severity of the money-distributing Arabs; the mujahideen of Sayyid Ahmad derived their puritanism from Shah Waliullah’s ‘contact’ with the Arabs in Hijaz in 1730.
In the battle of Balakot, Sikh commander Sher Singh finally overwhelmed Sayyid Ahmad after he was informed about his hideout by his Pashtun allies. Ahmad fought bravely but was soon cut down. To prevent a tomb from being erected on his corpse, the Sikhs cut him to pieces but ‘an old woman found the Sayyid’s severed head which was later buried in the place considered to be his tomb’ (p.105).
Author Jalal notes that in the battlefield of Balakot, where Sayyid Ahmad of Rai Bareilly was martyred in 1831, another kind of ‘cross-border’ deniable jihad is being carried out by other mujahideen. She writes: ‘To this day Balakot where the Sayyid lies buried is a spot that has been greatly revered, not only by militants in contemporary Pakistan, some of whom have set up training camps near Balakot, but also by anti-colonial nationalists who interpreted the movement as a prelude to a jihad against the British in India’ (p.61).
Not far from Balakot, the votaries of the Sayyid are fighting on the side of Al Qaeda against ‘imperialist’ America and its client state, Pakistan, and killing more Muslims in the process than Americans, just as the Sayyid killed more Muslims than he killed Sikhs. According to Sana Haroon (Frontier of Faith: Islam in the Indo-Afghan Borderland; Hurst & Company London 2007), Ahmed Shah Abdali had induced descendants of Mujaddid Alf Sani to move to Kabul after his raid of Delhi in 1748. In 1849, Akhund Ghafur set up the throne of Swat and put Syed Akbar Shah on it as Amir of Swat, the Syed being a former secretary of Sayyid Ahmad of Rai Bareilly.
It was a Wahhabi war in the eyes of mild Indian Muslims. It was therefore a virulently Sunni war which pointedly did not attract the Shia. It is difficult to believe that Urdu’s greatest poet Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) could have supported the jihad (p.61). Writers have claimed that he wrote in cipher and used complicated metaphor in his poetry to attach himself surreptitiously to jihad; but that is not true if you read his Persian letters recently made accessible in the very competent Urdu translation of Mukhtar Ali Khan ‘Partau Rohila’ in a single volume Kuliyat Maktubat Farsi Ghalib (National Book Foundation Islamabad 2008).
Far from being attracted to the movement of jihad inspired by anti-Shia saints like Shah Waliullah and Shah Abdul Aziz, Ghalib praises an opponent of the Sayyid, Fazle Haq, and is more forthright about his own conversion to Shiism from the Sunni faith. Like Al Qaeda’s war against America, Sayyid Ahmad’s jihad was a Sunni jihad, an aspect that must be made note of. Al Qaeda today kills Shias as its side business. *