Mujahideen Movement of Syed Ahmad Bareilvi

In the first quarter of the 19th century, a religious movement sprang up in the Yousafzai country that was headed by a non-Pashtun namely Syed Ahmad of Bareilly. Although not even Pashtun, Syed Ahmad was a notable figure in Pashtun history, one of those rare leaders who could actually prevail on feuding clans to bury the hatchet and unite, at least temporarily, under a single leader to fight a common enemy. In history his movement is referred to as the ‘Mujahideen Movement’.

 Syed Ahmad was born in 1786 AD, in Bareilly (a city of Western U.P, it was stronghold and capital of Rohilla-Afghans in 18th century), in the house of Syed Urfan. From his childhood he believed in the supremacy of Islam. That was the time when the glory of Islam was on its wane in India. Because of the internal strife and intrigues by the princes, the Mughal Empire had weakened. The Maratha in the Central Provinces and the Sikhs in Punjab were engaged in consolidating their positions. The British had secured a strong foothold in the eastern and southern provinces of India. The Muslims were leaderless, dejected and in a chaotic state. Syed Ahmad was of the view that the Muslims had all the potential for restoring their lost glory; provided they were led according to the teachings of Islam. He firmly believed that Jihad was the only means through which Muslims of the Subcontinent could shake off the non-Muslim yoke of subjugation.

 Amir Khan Yousafzai alias Amir-ud-Daula, the Nawab of Tonk (located in Rajasthan, India), shared and supported Syed Ahmad views (Most of the Afghan rulers of states and petty chiefs in India, such as Rampur, Tonk, Farrukhabad and Bhopal, mostly morally and financially supported Syed Ahmad in his Jihad in the Yusufzai country). Amir Khan Yousafzai was a brave leader who was then fighting against the increasing influence of British. Syed Ahmad joined Amir Khan and soon after, through his preaching and actions, gained influence in Amir Khan’s army. It is said that for seven years, Amir Khan and Syed Ahmad invited other Muslim rajas and Nawabs for Jihad against the British. Because of the internal rivalry and jealousy among the Muslim Nawabs, their efforts proved fruitless. Amir Khan became demoralized and lost all hopes of Muslim unification. Consequently, in 1817, he accepted the British offer of no war pact against the wishes of Syed Ahmad, who after the pact left him and went back to Bareilly where he, along with his friend Painda Khan, a Yousafzai of Buner, started visiting adjoining areas and preached Jihad . However, his message was not well received. It is here that he met Shah Abdul Aziz, a pious man of Delhi , who appointed him as his ‘Khalifa’ and since then he was known as Khalifa Syed Ahmad. The latter thought that the land of the Pashtuns, which was still considered as the cradle of Islam, was the only place where he could establish his base for launching his Jihadi movement. Accordingly, he proceeded to Mecca by way of Calcutta. It was during this journey that his doctrine influenced the minds of the Muslims of Bengal, which had ever since supplied recruits to the Mujahideen colonies in Pashtun territory.

 Syed Ahmad, accompanied by Maulvi Ismail, Maulvi Abdul Hai, Maulvi Mazhar Ali, Maulvi Ramazan, Buland Bakhsh, and Qazi Hiyan Kandahari with 400 followers, reached Peshawar in 1823 vis Sindh, Kandahar and Kabul. Initially he settled down at Tor Dher near Peshawar. It was the time the Barakzai of Kabul and the Yousafzai had been beaten down by the Sikhs near Nowshera. The Pashtuns were leaderless and in a depressing state. They received him as a God sent spiritual leader and flocked under his banner in multitudes. Among a race so simple and superstitious, the mission of all enthusiasts, such as Syed Ahmad was bound to succeed. Not a Pashtun himself, Syed Ahmad Bareilwi turned out to be a figure in Pashtun history, one of those articulate speakers who actually prevailed upon feuding clans to shun their differences and work for checking the inroads of the infidels in their territory. The Pashtuns obeyed. Animated by a spirit of Islam and with the desire of freeing themselves from the Sikh oppressors, a large, although ill-disciplined, army was soon at his disposal. For a brief period, he enjoyed a very successful career, the ‘Khans’ and people flocked to his standard, unfurled to re-establish the Islamic rule, and to rid the regions of infidels, the Sikhs. At Peshawar in ab big congregation, he said:-

“He who spends an hour in preparing himself for Jihad is nearer to God than the one who keeps fast through ou the day and spends his night in his prayers.”

After consolidating his position at Peshawar, Syed Ahmad went to Nowshera via Charsadda and Kheshgi. He started making preparations for Jihad against the Sikhs. He organized his followers into disciplined contingents of which his Hindustani followers made the nucleus. A Sikh army, about 3,000 strong under Budh Singh, the cousin of Ranjeet Singh, was encamped at Akora on the southern bank of Kabul River. Syed Ahmad, with about 1,000 men, on 21st December 1826, raided the Sikh camp at dawn. The Sikhs were caught unprepared and suffered heavily. This raid had far reaching effects on the future course of the movement. The local chieftains and the Barakzai sardars namely Yar Muhammad Khan and Sultan Muhammad Khan, who supported the Sikhs, realized the strength of the movement. Khadi Khan invited Syed Ahmad to Hund. From Hund, Syed Ahmad wrote letters to various tribal leaders and local ‘Khans’, inviting them for Jihad against the Sikhs. The Barakzai sardars joined the movement and so did other tribal chiefs. Bubbling with the spirit of Islam and with the desire to oust the infidels from their land, a great number of Pashtuns, particularly the Yousafzai joined Syed Ahmad who had established his headquarters in the Yousafzai country. He, at the invitation of Ashraf Khan and Fateh Khan; the ‘Khans’ of Zaida and Panjtir respectively, visited the Sadhum valley where he preached the cause of Jihad in a big jirga , attended by thousands who had gathered there from far-flung areas at the invitation of Fateh Khan. In the same jirga, Ashraf Khan, the Khan of Ziada, put forward the case of tillers of Maneri, that fell in the Hund Khanate jurisdiction, and whose land Khadi Khan had confiscated. The affected tillers had taken refuge in Panjtir. Syed Ahmad ordered the lands be returned to the tillers. Khadi Khan reluctantly agreed to it though he took it a direct intervention in the working of his Khanate and considered it as a personal insult in the big jirga and since then he bore a grudge against Syed Ahmad.

After spending some time in Panjtir, Syed Ahmad collected his army that had been strengthened by the contingents of Khadi Khan of Hund, Ashraf Khan of Zaida and Fateh Khan of Panjtir and the army of Yar Muhammad Khan, the Barakzai ruler of Peshawar. He proceeded to Nowshera with the intention of laying siege to the fort of Attock. To his surprise he found the Sikh army under Hari Singh waiting for him on the Indus. Budh Singh had already crossed the river with about thirty thousand troops and camped near Shaidu. The Mujahideen surrounded him and inflicted heavy casualties. when the Sikhs were about to give in, Yar Muhammad Khan left the battlefield with his force. With the result the Mujahideen were defeated and suffered heavily. Subsequently, it transpired that Khadi Khan , to avenge his insult at the hands of Syed Ahmad, had connived with Yar Muhammad Khan Barakzai and informed Ranjit Singh about the former’s intentions of attacking the fort at Attock.

Syed Ahmad with the remnants of his followers, escaped to Swat via Lundkhwar. He had to face two enemies within the Muslim ranks, Khadi Khan and Yar Muhammad Khan. After some time (1827), at the invitation of Fateh Khan he came down to Panjtir and resumed his teachings of the Islamic tenets. The Pashtuns who still believed in his miraculous powers, swarmed in thousands round his standard. Mir Babu and Malik Mobin Khan of Chargolai, and some other notables of Sadhum valley joined him. Feeling strong, he made up his mind to sort out Khadi Khan. He, besides circulating his proclamations throughout the adjacent districts, forwarded copies to the rulers of Kashghar , Bukhara, Kabul, and Heart; also, to Khanan Khan the Ghilzai chief, and to Shah Zaman Saddozai at Ludhiana.

In 1828, the Durrani sardars of Peshawar tried to exploit the rift between Khadi Khan and Mujahideen. Yar Muhammad Khan rallied 4,000 troops in the Utmanzai area. Syed Ahmad consulted his trusted aides namely, Arbab Bahram Khan, Arbab Juma Khan, and Inayatullah Khan of Allahdand, Zaidullah Khan of Bajaur, Mahmud Khan of Gharyal, Mansoor Khan of Chargolai, Qazi Syed Muhammad Hiban of Kunar, Maulvi Abdur Rahman of Toru, and Mullah Kali of Bajaur who gave their decision in favour of a battle against the Durranis. The forces faced each other in the plain of Zalozai near Utmanzai tappa. The odds were very heavy against the Mujahideen, however a stratagem of Maulvi Shah Ismail, the deputy of Syed Ahmad, averted what seemed imminent destruction of the Mujahidden band. In the darkness of night, a long cord was stretched all around the Durrani camp and to this, at short intervals was affixed dry grass and twigs. The Mujahids silently spread themselves round and at a given signal, suddenly lighted the dry grass raising war cries. To the astonished Barakzai bit seemed that an innumerable advancing enemy was to open fire on them from every side. Seized with panic, they fled in confusion. The Mujahideen captured their guns and inflicted great losses on them. Yar Muhammad Khan fled to Peshawar. After this victory, who till then used to commence his correspondence (Faqir Syed Ahmad) i.e from humble Syed Ahmad; now started using the word, ‘Amir-ul-Momineen’ i.e King of the Muslims, and his correspondence now started as from the king of the Muslims Syed Ahmad.

 The events of these years revealed a fragmented support by the Yousafzai and Mandanrs for Syed Ahmad’s movement. Social concerns and a combination of pressure and support from Sikh generals and Peshawar governors, forced a range of local decisions while presenting new opportunities, nevertheless the masses remained with the Syed. In 1829, at the peak of his local influence, Syed Ahmad in a large gathering in Panjtir said that the ‘Khans’ and other ‘Maliks’ should administer their principalities according to the laws of Shariat. This was a decisive moment for Syed Ahmad and a hope of establishing a legitimate authority consistent with his version of Islamic rule. In addition to the stated social agenda, Syed Ahmad also attempted to collect the Islamic ‘tithe’ (usher) of ten percent of crop yield. In coercing the reluctant ‘Khans’ to pay, Syed Ahmad antagonized Ahmad Khan of Hoti-Mardan, who then formed a power alliance with Sultan Muhammad Khan, governor of Peshawar. Khadi Khan of Hund, to divert the attention of Syed Ahmad from himself, spread the rumours that after Syed Ahmad had moved over to Panjtir, his policies were ignored in the Hoti tappa.

 Encourage by initial success, Syed Ahmad became stricter in extracting the ‘ushar’ and also added to his commands the stoppage of head money on the Pashtun brides. The Yousafzai and other Pashtun tribes rejected this new demand. They felt offended at innovation he desired to introduce into the century’s old marriage ceremony and by the ‘ushar’ demand for religious and state purposes. Olaf Careo writes that the trouble came when Syed Ahmad spoke against the bride price (walwar) given at marriage and then advocated the marriage of all single women of marriageable age. He continues, that Syed Ahmad was accused, some say unjustly, of assigning maidens one by one to his needy Hindustani followers. The people were greatly incensed and conspired against him. Careo blames Syed Ahmad’s failure on a typical system that could mobilize emotion for valour and sacrifice, but also at the same time for the vainglory, jealousy, envy, and malice that destroyed unity and success. He states that Syed Ahmad generated an emotional wave but failed to control it.

 Syed Ahmad was aware of the unrest prevalent amongst the tribes. He considered Khadi Khan to be the root cause of this restiveness and his activities a constant of nuisance. Syed Ahmad planned to get rid of him permanently. He, in September 1829, sent 156 ‘Mujahids’ under Maulvi Ismail who by then had become expert in night raids. The Mujahideen waited outside the Hund fort in a hide out. Soon after the morning Azan at dawn, when Khadi Khan’s people opened the fort gates for going to the fields, the Mujahideen entered the fort and raided Khadi Khan’s residence. Khadi Khan was awake. On hearing the noise outside his residence, he took out his sword and two pistols, climbed up the roof and urged his escort to fire on the intruders. He was spotted and shot dead. He fell amongst the Mujahids. Muhammad Baig, an Indian mujaihd, cut off his head with his sword.  After the death of Khadi Khan, his brother Amir Khan claimed to be the new Khan of Hund.He demanded that the arrested persons and the fort be handed over to him. In this context, Amir Khan approached Muqarrab Khan son of Ashraf Khan of Ziada. The former asked latter for assistance in avenging his brother’s death on Syed Ahmad. Muqqarab Khan was not in favour of Khadi Khan’s murder, yet didn’t want to oppose Syed Ahmad.  He didn’t agree with Amir Khan’s proposal, however, he promised to get his relatives, who had been taken prisoners, released. In this context he did talk to Syed Ahmad who granted the request. The latter gave Muqqarab Khan a letter addressed to Maulvi Ismail, which directed the latter to release the captives. Unfortunately, about that time Amir Khan and Ghulam Khan killed twelve Mujahids who were out near the former’s camp. This infuriated Maulvi Ismail, sent a coded message to Syed Ahmad that in view of latest development, the captives could not be released. This message was given to Muqqarrab Khan for onward delivery to Syed Ahmad. The former took the coded message as a complaint against him to Syed Ahmad and didn’t deliver it to the latter. He took it as a personal affront. He joined Amir Khan against Syed Ahmad. Thus, a rift developed within the ranks of Mujahideen.  To forestall such tendencies, Islam Khan and Fateh Khan: the brothers of Muqqarab Khaninvited Syed Ahmad to visit Zaida. During the discussion that ensued Syed Ahmad gave his verdict that on Amir Khan’s joining the Mujahideen ranks, his relatives would be released. The latter rejected the proposal.

 Syed Ahmad had enjoyed unchallenged influence and power amongst the tribes, but now the situation had changed. His commands and religious discipline proved too rigid for the taste of the people, while he further antagonized some of his Pashtun followers by asking them to give their daughters in marriage to members of his Indian band: a measure which was distasteful to the proud Pashtuns. Bellew’s narrative of Syed Ahmad was laced with gossip and slander. He said, ‘the Sayad’s foreign agents had been forcibly taking the Afghan maidens as wives’.  It soon resulted in alienation of some of the clans. His former friends of Chargolai now became his opponents, while the people of Hoti tappa totally ignored his authority.

 The Khans of Hoti and Mardan (Ahmad Khan Hoti, the elder son of Lashkar Khan, the ‘Khan’ of Hoti) didn’t like interference in the administration of their khanates. Ahmad Khan Hoti had joined Yar Muhammad Khan Barakzai against Syed Ahmad. They ignored Syed Ahmad’s commands. Some of the other ‘Khans’ raised questions as to whether there had been simply a general reaction against Syed Ahmad’s social policies or whether elite Khans , including those protecting Hoti family’s interests, had attempted to secure old imperial ties by, perhaps, encouraging rumours about Syed Ahmad ‘s social politics. However, before this discontent could spread to other areas, the enraged Syed came down from Panjtir to punish the culprits. The ‘Khan’ of Chargolai at once submitted and begged for pardon that was granted. The Hoti and Mardan tappas persisted in their obstinacy. The Syed plundered and burnt Hoti and Mardan.

Meanwhile, Amir Khan of Hund, to make the best of the situation, asked Yar Muhammad Khan for help against Syed Ahmad. Sultan Muhammad Khan Barakzai, the ruler of Kohat and Habibullah Barakzai (son of Muhammad Azim Khan), a Barakzai notable, answered the call. They jointly surrounded the Mujahideen at Zaida. On 5th and 6th Rabi-ul-Awal 1245 H (1829 AD), a fierce battle was fought near Mayar. Habibullah defeated the Mujahideen wing opposed to him commanded by Qazi Hiban of Kunar. He followed it to Garhi Kapoor. However, he learnt that the right wing under Sultan Muhammad Khan had been driven back and was hotly pursued by Maulvi Ismail.  He turned back to stop Maulvi Ismail from the pursuit. Meanwhile, the Mujahideen rallied from Garhi Kapoor and rejoined the main body and resumed the offensive. Once again Maulvi carried out a night raid on their army, captured their guns and routed them. Yar Muhammad Khan was wounded and died on his way to Peshawar. At the instigation of his mother, Sultan Muhammad Khan, who otherwise had a lot of respect for Syed Ahmad (to avenge the death of his brother) attacked the fort at Hund. By then Syed Ahmad had left for Sithana. He wrote to Painda Khan of Amb to join him in Jihad. The latter declined. Syed Ahmad, accompanied by Syed Akbar Shah, marched on Amb. After making a half-hearted effort to stop the invaders, Painda Khan fled and took refuge with the neighboring tribes. Syed Akbar occupied Amb and stayed there for about six months. Painda Khan stayed with the Amazai for some time and thereafter went over to Agror. Syed Ahmad appointed Salih Muhammad Mashwani of village Sarai Salih administrator of Amb. Before leaving, he sent his nephew (sister’s son) Maulvi Abdul Ali, with some men to drive away a Sikh contingent, which had encamped in the neighborhood of Amb. In the ensuing scuffle, Maulvi Abdul Ali was killed. Syed Ahmad replaced Salih Muhammad Mashwani with Syed Akbar Shah and himself went over to Panjtir. Painda Khan through the good offices of Syed Akbar, reconciled with the Syed and returned to Amb. Feeling strong, Syed Ahmad once again came to Peshawar to Peshawar to collect he ‘ushar’. He reduced the Barakzai authority in Peshawar valley as well as Doaba and Hashtnagar. At the latter place, he stayed for a few days, and sent a message to Sultan Muhammad Khan, asking him to come and tender allegiance to him, but receiving a defiant reply from him, he advanced and by a night attack captured Michni. Sultan Muhammad Khan, who by now had lost hope of aid from Kabul, invited Syed Ahmad to take over Peshawar. He had sent a message of reconciliation through his friend Arbab Faizullah Khan of Hazar Khani. Twice Maulvi Ismail met Sultan Muhammad Khan at the Arbab’s residence. Subsequently, Syed Ahmad, along with the Maulvi Ismail and Arbab Bahram Khan of Tahkal, met Sultan Muhammad Khan, who was accompanied by Arbab Faizullah Khan and Mardan Ali. Arbab Faizullah was so much impressed by the conduct of Syed , that he made up his mind that in case Sultan Muhammad Khan made any move to harm the Syed , he would join the latter. After the negotiations, Syed Ahmad marched into Peshawar and at once took possession of the fort. To propitiate Sultan Muhammad, he gave him districts of Doaba and Hashtnagar by way of jagir. These events occurred at the close of 1830.

 Sultan Muhammad Khan, who had not sincerely accepted the terms of Syed Ahmad, exploited the levy of the usher or one tenth of the agriculture produce which was levied in Syed Ahmad’s name from Kohat to Tanawal. This exaction became oppressive for the Pashtuns.  The Barakzai Khans exploited it, and the Syed’s injunctions on marriage of the women as his attempt to provide wives for his Hindustani followers. Thus, the locals were disenchanted with Syed Ahmad’s teachings and their patience, subjected to too severe a limit, gave away. There was an insurrection against Syed Ahmad and a sinister plan to eliminate his associates. Two months after taking over the control of Peshawar, Syed Ahmad was left in the lurch. However, it was Arbab Faizullah Khan who first of all informed Mazhar Ali of Sultan Muhammad Khan’s plan of massacre of the Syed’s agents in Peshawar and elsewhere in the Yousafzai tappa. Before anything could be done to save them, Sultan Muhammad Khan killed Arbab Faizullah Khan, Mazhar Ali and almost all of the Syed’s thanadars (appointment holders) and agents throughout the country, were murdered. An agent to the British political assistant at Ludhiana reported:-

“On 17th November 1830, the old Peshawar authorities had regained control of the city. It was also reported that the Eusefzies alarmed at the consequences which were likely to follow because of their joining the Syed had made indiscriminate slaughter of everyone belonging to them who happened to be residing in their villages in the plains between Peshaur and Attock.”

Thus, the Syed lost his power in one blow as rapidly as he had acquired it. With a heavy heart, he left Peshawar along with his followers. In Buner the locals turned against him as well. They planned to light a beacon-fire on a hill near the village Shiwa that was a signal to the people of the villages around to massacre the followers of Syed Ahmad. The dissidents wished to get rid of him and his followers, for they never tolerated ‘khalifa’ or ‘King’, and accordingly the plot was hatched for the purpose. To weaken his force, they induced Syed Ahmad to send out his followers into different neighboring villages to collect the usher. And on a certain Thursday night, when one watch of the night had passed, the beacon blazed out. Some 800 of the khalifa’s followers were away. He was at Panjtir at the time with 150 men. The Afghans were about to fall upon them when Fateh Khan, the Mandanr chief, conducted him by an unfrequented route through the mountains to the north, and send him safely across the Indus to Bala Kot into the Hazara., where he had been invited by Habibullah Khan of Garhi Habibullah. Painda Khan, the chief of Amb, refused to allow him passage through his state. Maulvi Ismail captured the Amb fort through a night raid and Painda Khan ran away. Syed Ahmad camped at Amb for some time. From there he moved to Raj Dewari. Winter had set in, and it had started snowing. Because of the administrative difficulties, Syed divided his Mujahids into small groups and stationed them in the adjoining towns and villages such as Bala Kot, Muzaffarabad and Bhogarmang. Soon after the winter, Habibullah wrote to Syed Ahmad that Sikhs were about to attack Bala Kot and requested him to come to his help.

(For further details of subsequent events, refer to the book “History of the Pathans”, Vol-II, by Haroon Rashid from which the above excerpt is taken …. for book references for the above material and extensive footnotes of the author, see the mentioned book. I have replaced the ‘Pathan’ word with Pashtun in the above content)


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