In no discussion on the Hindu-Muslim problem have I seen Haji Shariatullah and Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi juxtaposed against Raja Rammohun Roy, though nothing else can help illuminate it better than such a juxtaposition. The Raja is well known as founder of the Brahmo Samaj and is appropriately regarded as father of modem India. The Sayyid too is a familiar figure to students of Indian Islam as leader of the Tariqah-i-Mohammediya popularly known as the Wahhabi movement. The Haji is less well known since his activities were confined to Bengal and his followers known as Faraizis were treated only as a milder version of Wahhabis.
The Haji must, however, be regarded as a significant figure on two counts. First, Islam in Bengal was truly syncretist as nowhere else in north India so much so that converts to Islam remained for all practical purposes Hindus except in name. Since they did not know either Arabic or Persian, Islamic theological concepts could make sense to them only in terms of Hindu gods familiar to them. Secondly, Bengal had witnessed a long Sannyasin–fakir armed struggle in protest against the policies of the East India Company, especially in respect of revenue-free land grants by previous rulers to religious figures. This was a unique struggle the like of which is difficult to find in our history.
Two points may be made in respect of the Sannyasins and the fakirs. First, the Dasnami Sannyasins were well-trained soldiers and functioned as traders and money-lenders as well. Secondly, the Madari fakirs in Bengal had been so deeply influenced by the Sannyasins in their belief system and meditational techniques that there was hardly any difference between them. Fakirs fought under Sannyasin leaders and vice versa.
It is remarkable that just over two decades after the end of this struggle, Shariatullah was able to launch a movement seeking specifically to purge Islam in Bengal of Hindu influences. He himself had been equipped for this role by his stay and study in Mecca for 20 long years. But the pertinent point is that he could quickly change the general environment in large areas. This speaks not only of his personal skills but also of the inherent weakness of syncretism and the power of Islam.
The Faraizi movement has been explained in terms of the disruptive impact of the company’s land and trade policies on the lives of the ryot and weavers. There is merit in this proposition. The Faraizis under the leadership of Shariatullah and even more violently under that of his son, Dadu Miyan, clashed with zamindars and indigo planters just as they looted company treasuries in towns. But they were not mere agrarian reformers. Indeed, they adopted a platform which alienated the Hindu ryot who were as much victims of company policies and behaviour of zamindars and indigo planters as the Muslim ryot. They were above all religious ‘reformers’ anxious to restore Islam to its pristine (read Arab) form and rid it of Hindu practices.
Shariatullah declared Bengal under the company rule dar-ul-harb (land of war). Though, unlike Sayyid Ahmad, he did not institute jihad (holy war), he held that since the shariat law did not prevail, it was unlawful to perform Friday congregational prayers and the two ids. As a Sunni, he also prohibited mohurram which is a Shia event.
Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi is a critical figure in the history of Indian Islam. He was a disciple of Abdul Aziz, son of Shah Walliullah, father of the revivalist movement in the early 18th century. As such, he was a product of the Indian Islamic environment. But while Abdul Aziz declared India dar-ul-harb and sought to purify Islam of Hindu practices, he did not institute jihad. This was Barelvi’s contribution. That is one reason why his followers are known as Wahhabis.
To begin with, the jihad was limited against the Sikh durbar on the ground, according to some Muslim writers, that while the British allowed Muslims freedom to practise their religion, the Sikhs did not. Others disagree and hold that Sayyid Ahmad limited the jihad to the Sikh durbar in the first instance because in his view it was weaker of the two and therefore easier to dispose of. The second proposition is valid, though, as it happened, Sayyid Ahmad failed to overthrow the durbar from his fastness in the Pathan territory partly because he had to spend much of his energy and resources in trying to cope with the unruly Pathans with their shifting loyalties. The British had acquiesced in the movement of men and money from their territories and in the establishment of the Wahhabi headquarters in Patna.
The jihad, however, continued even after they had taken over Punjab and the north-west frontier region in 1849. The Wahhabis played a significant role in the mutiny in 1857 and the establishment of the Dar-ul-Uloom seminary in Deoband, a major centre for training ulema in the sub-continent.
All this is recalled to underscore the contrast between the Hindu response to Western civilisation as exemplified by Raja Rammohun Roy, and the Muslim response, as exemplified by Haji Shariatullah and Sayyid Ahmed. And this contrast is underscored in order to draw attention to the two utterly divergent routes Hindus and Muslims adopted in the early 19th century. The Muslim return to the concept of jihad is particularly worthy of note.
Raja Rammohun Roy’s reform movement and Anglophilia were doubtless resisted by orthodox Brahmins and remnants of the old order who fought the British under the Moghul ‘emperor’ Bahadur Shah’s banner in 1857. But it is evident that the Raja prevailed. The freedom movement as launched in 1885 by the Westernised, predominantly Hindu, intelligentsia was an expression of this victory.
On the Muslim side, zamindars did not join Barelvi’s jihad but they did not resist it either. Indeed, many of them joined the mutiny which too was intended to restore the old Muslim-dominated order. Sir Sayyid Ahmad, founder of the Aligarh Muslim University, tried hard to change the psyche responsible for the jihad, not because it was directed towards elimination of Hindu influence on Muslims but because it was directed against the Raj and the West. His success was limited. Sir Sayyid was by no means a Muslim Rammohun Roy.
In sum, while the emerging Hindu elite linked itself with dominant Western civilisation and adopted the road to modernity and progress, Muslims turned their gaze towards a past incapable of being restored. But for the British tilt towards them necessitated by the compulsions of the Raj, they would have faced marginalisation long before 1947.
The Times of India, 11 February 1993