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SAYYID AHMAD BARELWI SHAHEED, (1786-1831), North Indian activist and leader of jihad. Born in Rai Bareilly in the old Mughal province of Awadh in north India, this dynamic visionary died in battle on the mountainous frontier of the Northwest. Three strands of experience in his life came together in this utopian military endeavor. First, he was born into a family of sayyids, known for their piety and learning but, like many of the educated and well-born, now impoverished and frustrated in finding employment in a princely court. Second, in Delhi from 18o6 to 1811, he entered into the circle of the family of Shah Wali Allah with its program of the dissemination of scripturalist norms. Third, at about the age of twenty-five, he left Delhi to spend some seven years as a cavalryman for Amir Khan (1768-1834) in central India, immersing himself in the world of local state-building so characteristic of this period.

Back in Delhi, Sayyid Ahmad rejoined the reformist `ulama’ but rapidly distinguished himself by more far reaching and stringent reform, for example in opposing certain Sufi practices and enjoining such aspects of family behavior as the remarriage of widows. His teachings were written down in two works, the Sirat e  mustaqim, compiled by Maulana Muhammad Isma’il, and the Taqwiyat al-iman; both circulated in the vernacular language of Urdu thanks to the newly available lithographic press. The texts identified practices derived from false Sufism, Shi’i doctrine, and local customs; these were said to compromise God’s unity (tawhid). It is notable that Sufism as such was not opposed (as it was by the Wahhabis in Arabia and the Fara’izi [Fara’idi] in Bengal); it is also noteworthy that reformers rarely attributed deviations to Hindu influence, but rather blamed Muslims themselves.

With a small group of followers, Sayyid Ahmad toured northern India in 1818-1819. In 1821 he undertook the hajj as a prelude to jihad, traveling downriver to Calcutta, preaching, and collecting a band of some six hundred for a journey whose very practice had long been neglected. In 1823 he returned to Rai Bareilly where he spent two years teaching and preparing for jihad.

His followers regarded him as the mujaddid of the age; some considered him the Mahdi. They were prepared to abjure customs that had defined and given honor to personal and family status; many were prepared to leave their homes and even to die. The model for jihad, while seen as following Prophetic precedent, took its shape from the quest for new states in the post-Mughal period.

In 1826 Sayyid Ahmad left for the frontier, an area of Muslim population as precedent required, to launch warfare on the Punjab, then under Sikh rule. Although he was called amirulmu’minin (Ar., amir al-mu’minin; “commander of the faithful”) by his followers, many of the local tribes disliked the reforms of the mujahidin and had their own quarrels to prosecute. Sayyid Ahmad was trapped in Balakot with some six hundred followers and killed in 1831. Many cherished the idea that he was still alive because his body was not found. Followers kept the embers of the jihad alive until the 1860s; Sayyid Ahmad’s example and teachings inspired reformers long after his death.

[See also Islam, article on Islam in South Asia; Messianism. ]


Ahmad, Mohiuddin. Saiyid Ahmad Shahid: His Life and Mission. Lucknow, 1975. A detailed biography that also provides information on both primary and secondary sources available in Urdu and Persian.

Hardy, Peter. best overall religious movements.

Metcalf, Barbara D. Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900. Princeton, 1982. Although focusing on a later Islamic movement of the colonial period, also provides material on the first half of the nineteenth century as background.

Muhammad Isma’il. “Translation of the Takwiyat-ul-Iman, preceded by a Notice of the Author, Maulavi Isma’il Hajji.” Translated by Mir Shahamat Ali in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 13 (1832): 479-498. An influential tract of Sayyid Ahmad’s movement. Muhammad Isma 11. “Notice of the Peculiar Tenets Held by the Followers of Syed Ahmad, Taken Chiefly from the `Sirat-ul-Mustaqim,’ a Principal Treatise of that Sect, Written by Moulavi Mahommed Isma’il.” Translated by J. R. C. The Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 1 (1832): 479-498.

The Muslims of British India. Cambridge, 1972. The survey, providing a good context for this and other


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/barelwi-sayyid-ahmad/

  • writerPosted On: October 15, 2012
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