The ‘Wahabi Movement’ was an Islamic revivalist movement founded by Syed Ahmad of Rai Bareilly. Syed Ahmad condemned the western influence on Islam and advocated a return to the true spirit of Islam. The Wahabi Movement tried to purify Islam by eliminating all the un-Islamic practices which had crept into Muslim society. From the 1830s to the 1860s, it offered the most severe and well-planned challenge to British supremacy in India.
Syed Ahmad Barelvi, inspired by the teachings of “Abdul Wahab (1703-92) of Saudi Arabia” and the preachings of “Shah Waliullah (1703-62) of Delhi”, founded the Wahabi Movement in the 1820s.
Shah Waliullah was the first Indian Muslim leader of the 18th century to organise Muslims around the two-fold ideals of this Movement:
(i) He urged the desirability of creating harmony among the four schools of Muslim Jurisprudence which had divided the Indian Muslims. He sought to integrate the best elements of the four schools.
(ii) He emphasised the role of individual conscience in religion. He held that in cases where the Quaran and the Hadis could be liable to conflicting interpretations, the individual could decide based on his own judgement and conscience.
Shah Abdul Aziz (son of Shah Waliullah) and Syed Ahmad Barelvi further popularised the teachings of Waliullah but also gave them a political perspective.
Shah Abdul Aziz (1746-1824) gave a Fatwa against the British government, declaring India to be Dar-ul-Harb (land of war or chaos) under British dominion and the need to convert it to Dar-ul-Islam (land of Islam).
Syed Ahmad advocated a return to pure Islam and the kind of society that had existed in Arabia of the Prophet’s time. To eradicate the un-Islamic practices that had crept into the Muslim community, he started the Wahabi Movement, which sought to purify Islam and return to the simplicity of religion.
Syed Ahmad Barelvi first preached his doctrines in Rohilkhand. In 1822, he chose Patna as a centre for his activities. He appointed four Khalifas (spiritual vice-regents) to propagate his ideas. He had set up a countrywide organisation with an elaborate secret code for working of movement under spiritual vice-regents.
In 1826, he migrated to the North-Western Frontier Area and established an operational base at Sithana in the north-western tribal belt. In India, the main centre of the Wahabi Movement was Patna though it had its mission in Bengal, United Provinces, Hyderabad, Bombay, and Madras.
Initially, the Wahabi movement was against the Sikhs of Punjab. For Syed Ahmad, India was Dar-ul-Harb (the land of war) and needed to convert to Dar-ul-Islam (the land of Islam). He declared Jihad against the Sikh kingdom of Punjab ruled by Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
Syed Ahmad issued a pamphlet, ‘Targhiz-ul-Jihad‘, against Sikhs. He regarded his immediate enemy be the Sikh kingdom of Ranjit Singh, which was expanding further, close to Afghanistan. He intended to establish a powerful Islamic state on the North-West frontier in the Peshawar valley as a strategic base for the future invasion of British India.
Arriving in Peshawar valley in late 1826, Syed Ahmad and his followers made their base in the towns of Hund and Zaida in the Swabi District. He called upon the local Pashtun tribes to wage Jihad.
In December 1826, Syed Ahmad and his followers clashed with Sikh troops at Akora with some success. They captured Peshwar in 1830 but lost to Sikhs in 1831 in the Battle of Balakot.
In 1831, Syed Ahmad lost his life in the Battle of Balakot against the Sikhs. The defeat at Balakot made a devastating blow to the Wahhabi movement. After his death, the Wahabi Movement slowed for a while, but his followers, particularly Wilayat Ali and Inayat Ali of Patna, revitalised the work and broadened its scope.
Wilayat Ali, Inayat Ali, Shah Muhammad Hussain, and Farhat Hussain (all from Patna) were appointed as the Khalifas by the Syed Ahmad.
Wilayat Ali was one of the prominent disciples of Syed Ahmad. He was deputed to the Deccan (in the south) to mobilise masses in Hyderabad, which attracted many scholars and nobles, including Nawab Mubariz-ud Daula (the brother of Nasir-ud Daula, the Nizam of Deccan). Later, Nawab Mubariz-ud Daula was arrested and imprisoned in Golconda Fort (this episode was known as Hyderabad Conspiracy Case 1839).
The younger brother of Wilayat Ali, Inayat Ali, was deputed to mobilise Muslims in Bengal and also to go to the Frontiers with over 2000 followers, where he captured many forts.
Both Ali Brothers of Patna strengthened the organisation and established a training centre at Patna with several subordinate zones and circles throughout Bengal, Bihar and Deccan and assigned duties to local missionaries in each respective zone.
After the British annexation of Punjab in 1849, the British dominion in India became the sole target of the Wahabi’s attack. The Wahabis played a vital role in spreading anti-British sentiments.
Wilayat Ali and Inayat Ali were later arrested by the British and taken to Lahore. Maulana Abdullah (the eldest son of Wilayat Ali) succeeded Inayat Ali and revived the activities in the Frontier region.
Suppression of Wahabi Movement
During the Revolt of 1857, the Wahabis played a significant role in spreading anti-British sentiments. General Bakht Singh, the leader of the mutineers in Delhi during the 1857 revolt, was also a Wahabi. Following the Rebellion of 1857, the movement turned into an armed struggle against the British. Subsequently, the British termed Wahabis as traitors and rebels and carried out extensive military operations against the Wahabis.
The most important base of the Wahabis was Sittana, from where they ravaged the surrounding regions, plundering, burning, pillaging and killing. In the 1860s, the British government launched a multi-pronged attack by organising a series of military operations on the Wahabi’s operational base in Sittana.
Between 1863 and 1865, the British government launched a massive hunt of prominent Wahabi leaders across India and arrested its prominent leaders through a series of trials. These trials took place at Ambala (1863), Patna (1865), Rajmahal, Malda and again Patna (1870–71). The Ambala and Patna Trials were the earliest and the most important, as they set the pattern for subsequent government proceedings.
In 1870, the British forces entirely crushed the Wahabi Movement. The British government also introduced the term ‘sedition‘ in the Indian Penal Code 1870 to outlaw speech that attempted to “excite disaffection towards the government established by law in India”. This movement marked the beginning of sedition law in India.
The British registered several court cases for sedition against the Wahabis. Various court cases of sedition on Wahabis weakened the Wahabi resistance, although sporadic encounters with the authorities continued into the 1880s and 1890s.