Syed Ahmad Barelvi

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Syed Ahmad Barelvi
সাইয়েদ আহমাদ ব্রেলভীর কবর.JPG
Born(1786-11-29)29 November 1786
Died6 May 1831(1831-05-06) (aged 44)
Known forBattle of Balakot

Syed Ahmad Barelvi or Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi (1786–1831)[1][2] was an Indian Muslim revivalist from Raebareli, a part of the historical United Provinces of Agra and Oudh (now called Uttar Pradesh).[3] The epithet Barelvi is derived from Raebareli, his place of origin.

Syed Ahmad toured India preaching Islamic renewal and jihad, and built a highly developed network of personal friends and partisans spread across northern India organized to recruit and dispatch men and financial aid. In 1826 he provided an Islamic challenge to an expanding Sikh empire when he arrived in Peshawar, (now in Pakistan), with a few hundred disciples, to establish an Islamic state among Pashtun tribes in the area with the support of his network. During the last years of his life, his supporterignated him Amir al-Mu'minin ("Commander of the Believers"), and Shaheed ("martyr") after his death in the Battle of Balakot in 1831. He is thought to have been killed, along with hundreds of his troops and followers, by the Sikh army in Balakot, Mansehra District in 1831, but a number of his followers survived and continued to fight on, taking part in tribal uprisings in the North-west province as late as 1897.[4]

Syed Ahmad is thought by at least one scholar (Edward Mortimer), to have anticipated modern Islamists in waging jihad and attempting to create an Islamic state with strict enforcement of Islamic law,[5] and by at least one other (Olivier Roy), to be the first modern Islamic leader to lead a movement that was "religious, military and political," and to address the common people and rulers with a call for jihad.[4]

Militia Service[edit]

At the age of twenty-five, Ahmad joined a militia as a cavalry man. The militia was led by Amir Khan, in Northern India, one of the many military adventurers of this period, who had organized a body of free-floating demilitarized soldiers of the area to raid and conquer, with the ultimate goal of setting himself up as a prince. Barbara Metcalf theorizes this period in Sayyid Ahmad's life as a time of maturation, when he began to synthesize his experience in state-making and his pious commitment to the Sharia.[6] After about six years of service, however, he left the militia because Amir Khan chose to make peace with the British in return for the rule of a small estate. From Sayyid Ahmad's perspective, this was a strategic disaster because it amounted to surrendering to the greatest threat that Muslims faced in India.[7]

Upon leaving the militia, Syed Ahmad returned to Delhi and visited his former teacher Shah Abdul Aziz, who was so impressed by Syed Ahmad's charisma and maturation over the years that he advised his nephew Shah Ismail and his son-in-law Maulvi Abdul Hayy to take spiritual allegiance (bay'ah) with him. These two would go on to become Syed Ahmad's most trusted disciples. This endorsement by Shah Abdul Aziz only added to Syed Ahmad's reputation, and his popularity grew with adherents flocking to him by the thousands.[8]

Reform/Resistance Movement[edit]

According to Olivier Roy, Barelvi was "the first person to realise the necessity of a movement which was at the same time religious, military and political." He also was the first to address the people, not traditional leaders in his call for jihad. His evangelism—based on networks of preachers, collectors and judges—also addressed the common people and not the rulers' courts.[4]

His first target was the Sikh-ruled kingdom of Ranjit Singh, which was expanding further into Muslim land towards Afghanistan. It is thought that Barelvi intended to establish a Muslim bastion on the north-west frontier in the Peshawar valley from whence to attack the British colonialists after defeating Sikh forces.[4]

Prior to this he performed the hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca in 1821 with many supporters and spent two years organizing popular and material support for his Peshawar campaign.[9] He carefully developed a network of people through the length and breadth of India to collect funds and encourage volunteers, traveling widely throughout the subcontinent of India attracting a following among pious Muslims. He returned from Haj in 1823.[4]

Syed Ahmed's supporters were strong at Sithana in the North-Westem tribal belt and at Patna, but were also present in Hyderabad, Madras, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Bombay. His movement spread very rapidly in Bihar, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and North-Western India.

Sayyid Ahmad declared jihad against the Sikh Empire of Punjab ruled by Ranjit Singh.[10]

Arriving in Peshawar valley in late 1826, Sayyid Ahmad and one thousand followers made their base in Charsadda village in Hashnagar.[9] Barelvi preached jihad amongst the local Pashtun tribes, demanding they renounce their tribal customs and adopt the shariat. The traditional khan were replaced by ulama (clerics) and a system of Islamic taxes was established to finance the jihad. Only after this evangelist campaign and sharia system was had set up was jihad declared.[4] The jihad did not succeed however, due to the "treachery of the local khan".[4]

In December 1826 Sayyid Ahmad and his followers clashed with Sikh troops at Akora but with no decisive result. The inability of Sayyid Ahmad to shape local Pakhtun villagers into a disciplined and effective military force led to an 1827 decision consistent with his sense of proper relationship between religious and secular leadership. "It was accordingly decided by all those present at the time, faithful followers, sayyids, learned doctors of law, nobles and generality of Muslims that the successful establishment of 'Jihad ' and the dispelling of disbelief and disorder could not be achieved without the election of an 'Imam'".[9]

This moment of religiously inspired unity attracted the allegiance of maliks, shareholders and even the governors of Peshawar. However, during the next clash with Sikh troops at the south of Akora, the Peshawar rulers withdrew, leaving Sayyid Ahmad and his followers to retreat to the hills north of Peshawar. Yusufzai and Mandanr support for Sayyid Ahmad's movements was fragmented. In 1829 at the peak of his local influence, Sayyid Ahmad obtained agreement that the khans and general public would administer their principalities according to the laws of the Sharia and would give up the customary practices.[11]

The decisive moments for Sayyid Ahmad came in 1830. The Pukhtuns initially supported him but he soon assumed power, interfered in socio-political and economic fabric without homework. They rose against him and his around two hundred Mujahidin were killed in Peshawar valley which compelled him to migrate and try his luck in Kashmir, his long cherished dream.[12] In addition to the stated social agenda, Sayyid Ahmad also attempted to collect the Islamic tithe (usher) of ten per cent of crop yields. In coercing the reluctant Khans to pay, Sayyid Ahmad antagonized the chief of Hoti, Mardan and who then formed an alliance with Sultan Muhammad, governor of Peshawar. The alliance was defeated and the Islamic reformers finally occupied Peshawar. Over several months during 1830 Sayyed Ahmad tried to conciliate established power hierarchies. But before the end of 1830 an organized uprising occurred and the agents of Sayyid Ahmad in Peshawar and in the villages of the plain were murdered and the movement retreated to hills. There in the town of Balakot in 1831, Syed Ahmad was killed by the Sikh Army. He was beheaded. [9][13]


  1. ^ Adamec 2009, p. 54.
  2. ^ Jalal 2009, pp. 307–308.
  3. ^ Ahmad, M. (1975). Saiyid Ahmad Shahid: His Life and Mission (No. 93). Lucknow: Academy of Islamic Research and Publications. Page 27.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Roy, Olivier (1985). Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan. Cambridge University Press. pp. 57–8. Retrieved 16 August 2018.
  5. ^ Mortimer, Edward, Faith and Power, (1982), p.68-70
  6. ^ Metcalf, Barbara Daly (2002). Islamic revival in British India : Deoband, 1860-1900 (3rd impression. ed.). New Delhi: Oxford Univ. Press. ISBN 0195660498.
  7. ^ Bashir, Aamir (2013). Shari'at and Tariqat: A Study of the Deobandi Understanding and Practice of Tasawwuf. Dar al-Sa'adah Publication.
  8. ^ Abbott, Freeland (1962). "The Jihad of Sayyid Ahmad". The Muslim World. 52 (3): 216–222. doi:10.1111/j.1478-1913.1962.tb02616.x.
  9. ^ a b c d Wahhabi movement in India. Qeyamuddin Ahmad, (1994, p.50). open library
  10. ^ Islamic revivalism – the Wahabi Movement History India website, Retrieved 16 August 2018
  11. ^ Nichols, Robert, Settling the Frontier: Land, Law and Society in the Peshawar Valley, 1500-1900, Oxford University Press, 2001| p.98
  12. ^ Qadir, Altaf, "Ahmad Barailvi: His Movement and Legacy from the Pukhtun Perspective, Sage Publications India, 2015|
  13. ^ Qeyamuddin Ahmad, Wahhabi movement in India, (1994, p.55)


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