Rage against the Raj: Revisiting Jihad in British India

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Ahmadiyya ARC

That it moves on is seen to be both the worst and the best quality of time; the best when we want it to pass and the worst when we wish it stopped. But this one-way, linear movement of time has never come to a halt and what we have as the end-product is thousands of years of history, and counting.

Problems arise when these ever-growing volumes of history start to change colour, with the tint of opinion getting darker than the shade of fact. The same has happened with the question of Jihad against foreign rulers in the British-Indian subcontinent.

As definitions of Jihad were altered under opportunist agendas, a great service of a great reformer was painted as his crime against Islam. The story is long and windy so we will sum it up here to fit a few columns, yet bring to life the history of this important aspect of Muslim history in South Asia.

The mutiny of 1857 witnessed a confusion among the Muslim ulema and leaders as to whether waging Jihad against the British was Islamically justified or not.

While this episode was to set the scene for anti-British sentiment among Indian Muslims, it also fixated the confusion surrounding the Muslim reaction in terms of Jihad.

The question of whether India was a Dar-ul-Harb or Dar-ul-Salam (land of war or land of peace, respectively) was to linger all along up until the partition of India and, in all honesty, still very much does in modified shape and form.

With uprisings of the Yusufzai tribes of the North-Western Province badly crushed by the British, the Ambala Expedition of 1863 worked as a deterrent for many Muslim circles with anti-British Jihad tendencies, but some continued to thrive on it.

The situation of a foreign and disbelieving ruler was fairly novel and called for a novel approach. It was this response that Muslim ulema failed to unite on and the Dar-ul-Harb/Dar-ul-Salam debate lay open.

Followers of Shah Waliullah Dehlvi’srh philosophy of Jihad seemed to find a leg to stand on, but the British part of the equation remained unbalanced for the uniqueness of the situation; Sikhs had been seen as disbelievers by the Waliullah brand of Islam, but were at least not foreigners.

The majority of moderate Muslim scholars questioned the validity of Jihad against the British and signed fatwas declaring India a Dar-ul-Salam. That the British allowed Muslims to practice their religion served as the pivot of fatwas against taking up arms.

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Karamat Ali Jaunpuri, Nawab Abdul Latif Khan, Maulvi Chiragh Ali and Syed Amir Ali were among the prominent Muslim figures to hold this view. (Ayesha Jalal, Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia, 2008; Ghulam Muhammad Jaffar, The Repudiation of Jihad by the Indian Scholars in the Nineteenth Century, Hamdard Islamicus, Autumn 1992)

Maulvi Nazir Hussain of Delhi, despite his strong disposition of Shah Waliullah’srh Jihadist philosophy, sided with the above.

“Mirza Ghulam Ahmad…”, writes Ayesha Jalal, “rejected armed jihad as anachronistic.”

Jalal, in her work, Partisans of Allah goes into further detail of how Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas “made concerted attempts to rethink jihad in the light of British colonial rule.”

All such fatwas must be commended as they definitely were providing advice based on Islamic teachings, but here, we wish to bring to light the effort of one person who went the extra mile to promote this peacebuilding initiative.

The man we are going to mention in the following lines had, unlike others named above, no huge funds and was not living in a great metropolitan city. He was from a very small town called Qadian, but was restless from seeing Islamic teachings misconstrued and misrepresented by some so-called Muslims, only to quench their thirst of religious bigotry.

Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, peace be upon him, claiming to be the Promised Messiah and Mahdi, wanted the world to see how grand a meaning the doctrine of Jihad entailed; that it was much broader and deeper in its meaning than mere warfare.

In the wake of this situation, Hazrat Ahmadas, hitting the nail on the head, wrote a treatise titled Jehad and the British Government in May 1900. He invested his already meagre and insufficient funds into having it published from Caxton Printing Works in Lahore and circulating it to as many parts of the country as possible, especially in the area that lay between the borders of the Punjab and Afghanistan, later to be officially named the North-Western Province by the British Government.

He approached the government officials, sent them his treatise and offered to have more printed at his own expense in order to propagate the true concept of Islamic Jihad.

One such official that he wrote to was Sir Francis Cunningham, the commissioner and superintendent of Peshawar. The first letter read:

“Qadian

“30th July 1900

“Sir,

“Herewith I beg to enclose a pamphlet in English and an Urdoo handbill. The former is the translation of my work recently written in Urdoo on the illegality of Jehad, and the latter a fatwa in Urdoo and Arabic prohibiting Jehad, both works being based on the text of the Holy Quran and authentic traditions. My object in them has been to show that the bloody deeds perpetrated under the guise of Jehad are totally opposed to the teachings of the Holy Quran.

“Both these writings have been largely circulated in the Punjab and India. I beg also to submit that copies of the Urdoo pamphlet on Jehad and of the handbill can be placed at your disposal for further circulation in the Frontier districts.

“The English translation is submitted for your information as to the contents of the work.

“[Signed] Mirza Ghulam Ahmad

“Chief of Qadian,

Punjab.”

Correspondence between Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas and Sir Francis Cunningham, the commissioner and superintendent of Peshawar | Ahmadiyya ARC

Sir Francis Cunningham wrote back saying:

“To,

“Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Kadiyan [sic]

“8th August 1900

“I have the honour to acknowledge receipt of your letter of 30th July and to thank you for sending a copy of your pamphlet on Jehad. So far as I can judge, it appears to be a just and enlightened explanation of the doctrine of Islamic Jihad and is equally creditable of your learning and judgement.

“I have no doubt such a statement from a teacher of your reputation will be welcomed by all good Mahomedans as a vindication of their faith, and as proof that Islam does not countenance crimes which ignorant and wicked men may commit under the cloak of Religion.

“I should be glad to see your Risala and fatwa widely distributed in frontier districts.

“[Signed] Francis D Cunningham

“8/8/00”

Correspondence between Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas and Sir Francis Cunningham, the commissioner and superintendent of Peshawar | Ahmadiyya ARC

To this, Hazrat Ahmadas replied:

“Qadian

“20th August 1900

“Hon’ble Sir,

“I beg to acknowledge the receipt of your letter dated the 8th instant and thank you for your kind appreciation of the humble service I have done to my religion, country and Govt.

“It is my own ardent desire that this pamphlet on Jehad (in Urdoo) should be widely circulated among the frontier people and the work was written chiefly with that object in view. Copies of the pamphlet were distributed immediately after its publication in several places on the frontier and fifty more copies have been sent for distribution in Peshawar, after the receipt of your letter. But to secure a better and wider circulation in the Mufussil and amongst the Mullas and village headmen, local information and assistance is necessary which I cannot secure owing to the distance of my residence from that part of the country …

“Being based on the Quran, I am sure the work will prove an effective remedy for the error in to which most Mullas and the ignorant public under their influence, have fallen; and the reformation of their corrupt ideas, the necessary consequences of which shall be the fanatic murders under the guise of Jehad, shall be a sufficient reward to me for the work I shall thus have done.

“I humbly beg to submit that in taking all these pains I do not lay any body under obligation; nor do I ask for any return or reward from anyone. It is my heart’s inmost desire to bring about a reformation and to uproot the evil ideas equally opposed to moral and social laws, that now prevail among the Muslims.

“Although the strong arguments with which the Quran and traditions have supplied me are sufficient guarantee of my success in extirpating the savage ideas of Jehad, yet I am not unaware of the difficulties in my way and know full well that the reformation I aim at can not be brought about in a day. For not only are the frontier people opposed to me in these views but even the Moulvis of this country entertain, in this respect, ideas which it is my mission to wipe off from the face of the earth. Along with the conviction of my ultimate success, therefore, I am certain that I can only gradually win over the Muslims to my views. It is for this reason that I request you to assist me in the circulation. I do not ask from the Govt. any pecuniary assistance nor do I trouble its officials to gaining any personal benefit. My desire for the eradication of the false doctrines of Jehad arises out of my love for truth and I cannot rest until I have rid Islam of the false charge that is put against it.

“It is possible that the tenor of my writings may offend some Christian gentlemen who look at matters only superficially. But it should be remembered that if I depart from the path of truth and like flatterers forbear to mention the errors of the Christians along with those of Muslims laying stress upon the prohibition of Jehad only, my writings shall not be worth a straw and they shall fall off in the eyes of the Muslim public and prove fruitless for the ignorant masses. For when with all this support of Islam, I have been pronounced a Kafir and dajjal, how can I expect to gain any benefit by adopting any other method. My books would then have been thrown off by all orthodox and not the slightest heed would have been paid to them.

“My policy is not that of a hypocrite, for I love the truth that has been revealed to me. My object is that the doctrine of Jehad which has brought such a disgrace upon Islam and lent support to so many innocent murders should be extirpated from amongst the Muslims. Very few moulvis have responded to my call but about thirty thousand Muslims in different parts of the country have bade farewell to this inveterate evil custom and have now a firm belief in my doctrines.

“[Signed] Mirza Ghulam Ahmad

“Chief of Qadian, Gurdaspur”

This letter brings us to a point where a century-old allegation against the Promised Messiahas automatically fizzles away: The allegation that the Promised Messiahas was deployed by the British Government to disunite Muslims as regards the doctrine of Jihad.

The above letter by the Promised Messiah, Hazrat Ahmadas set the Peshawar administration into motion and we have correspondence of officials writing back and forth to agree on what could be done with the offer.

Cunningham writes to one of the officials to report back and starts his letter with the following words:

“I should like your opinion on this. Personally though I am not a murid of the Mirza of Kadiyan [sic], he seems to me an enlightened man who deserves respect and honour.”

These lines were addressed to SVO – initials that the Ahmadiyya Archive and Research Centre is in the process of assigning to a name.

This official wrote back saying:

“I do not know of any other leading man or mulazim of the offices at Peshawar who has sympathy with the Mirza. There are of course many who hesitate to curse him, who on the contrary call him a good man, having good knowledge of Arabic with powers of rhetoric and religious controversy.

“The Mirza is no doubt an intelligent man and though I am not his murid, I think he is a good man and deserves respect.”

With these good words, the letter goes on to suggest that:

“As regards to his treatise on Jehad, I do not think it will meet any appreciation in the Frontier District … He calls himself a Messiah, which a Pathan cannot be made to believe for a moment. I do not think any effort in the way of purchasing copies of this treatise and distributing them in villages will prove successful.

“Moreover, in my humble opinion, Govt. or officials of Govt. should take no initiative in the matter. A spontaneous movement made by Mohammedan or bodies of Mohammedans themselves will be more beneficial than any action taken by Govt. in this respect. The part taken by the Mirza or the Anjuman Islamia Lahore should have been taken by the Anjuman Himayat e Islam Peshawar or by the Frontier Islamia Club there …”

Through this rare, never before seen correspondence, the Promised Messiahas is seen defending Islam and trying to rid its name of the savagery associated to it and from the brutal practices in the guise of Jihad.

He is seen clearly telling the government that he has also criticised their coreligionist Christian missionaries, where he thought they deserved it.

The government officials are seen enquiring about the Promised Messiahas and his offer – as one does about a stranger and not for one’s own agent. They eventually reach the conclusion that “Anjuman Himayat e Islam Peshawar or the Frontier Islamia Club” can better serve the purpose of pacifying the uprisings of the so-called Jihad.

Shall we wait to hear from the Anjuman-e-Himayat-e-Islam Peshawar on what they have to say about this? Or will the Frontier Islamia Club get back to us with their take? Do they not appear to be a more favourite choice for the British government? Do they even exist?

If they do, we invite anyone from these “Muslim” organisations to get back to us at Al Hakam or, for that matter, to any of the millions of Ahmadis living in any of the 213 countries of the world.

Albeit in vain, we do very much look forward to hearing back from you!

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