Sayyid Ahmad Barailvi

BOOK - Sayyid Ahmad Barailvi

Sayyid Ahmad Barailvi – His Movement and Legacy from the Pukhtun Perspective

Author : Altaf Qadir

Sage Publications (I) Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi; Year:2015; Pages:224; Price:Rs.895

Reviewed by Brig. Suresh C. Sharma (retd.), freelance writer and advisor to the telecom industry.  E-mail:

The author has analysed the reform and jihad of the Mujahidin movement of Sayyid Ahmad Barailvi. He was born in 1786 in Raebareily in Oudh State. His family was known for its piety and had served the rulers of the State. After visiting various cities, he started a movement for purifying the Muslims of India. He selected NWFP to start the movement as it gave him an opportunity to confront the expanding Sikh rule.

The death of Aurangzeb in 1707 had resulted in the decline of central authority and rise of regional powers. The Battle of Plassey in 1757 laid the foundation of the British rule in India. The Sikhs took Lahore in 1799 and occupied Hazara as well as a large part of Kashmir. Some of the Hazara Chiefs invited Sayyid Ahmad to help them in liberating their country. Barailvi designed a strategy of jihad which continued to exert its influence on the Muslim activities for decades to come.

Sayyid Ahmad served in the army of Amir Khan and left it when Amir Khan signed a peace treaty with the British in 1817. He moved to Delhi and introduced a new order of Sufism which became increasingly popular amongst all segments of people – rich and poor. At the same time, he ordered his disciples to prepare for jihad which was more suitable in the prevailing conditions than of Muslims not being able to live peacefully. Widow Remarriage was an important part of his reforms. He performed Haj with about 750 followers which increased his popularity and helped in the call for jihad.

He realized that the hereditary rulers of India would not support him as they were under British protection. He had travelled to NWFP via Sind as Punjab was under Sikh rule. He visited Kabul and arrived in Peshawar in November 1826. About 900 Mujahidins attacked the 7000 strong Sikh army encamped at Khairabad. The intention was to check the Sikh army from crossing the River Kabul. About 500 Sikh soldiers were killed against the loss of 80 Mujahidins.  Sayyid was invited to establish a centre at Hund. The success was short-lived and the Mujahidins were defeated at the next battle at Shaidu. Sayyid’s weak organization was shattered and the centre at Hund was abandoned.

One of his allies, Nur Mohammad Khan walked over to the Sikhs and Sayyid went off to NWFP to recruit Pakhtuns. He tried to reconcile the feuding tribes. Some volunteers kept on coming from India with money and arms. He got support from ordinary people. None of the princes came forward to help him except Tonk and Hindu Rao of Gwalior. Some of the Chiefs from Hazara and Chitral assured support but could not agree on jihad against the Sikhs. Alarmed by these activities, the Sikhs concentrated their scattered troops to fight the Mujahidins. A few skirmishes took place. Some of the contingents started returning to Delhi and other cities in India.

Sayyid won a major victory at Utmanzai against the defectors but the victory was short-lived due to defection by allies. It was the first but not the last attack on Muslims. He moved to Panjtar and managed to get the loyalty of locals for jihad. Imposition of Sharia was not liked by the locals who preferred their tribal customs. The Mujahidins acted like masters and there were a few clashes. He secured Peshawar and handed it over to the Barakzais which annoyed the local leaders. A large number of Mujahidins were killed by the Pakhtuns in November 1830 and the local clerics declared them to be infidels. Sayyid was dubbed as a British agent. He moved from Peshawar to Balakot to challenge the Sikhs. He was killed in the ensuing battle at Balakot on 5 May 1831 and the jihad movement disintegrated. The Sikhs occupied the Peshawar Valley in 1834.

The tribes in NWFP were not used to be ruled by an external power. Sayyid had made no attempt to understand the local customs. He wanted them to obey his command or face consequences. The chiefs were compelled to take help from the Sikhs. It weakened the Pakhtun political power and paved the way for Sikh rule. It is of interest that the policy of eliminating the traditional leadership in this region was followed by Musharraf as well to bring the region into central stream.

Sayyid’s reference to atrocities on the Muslims by the Sikhs is not corroborated by other sources. He was concerned by the decline of Muslim power and could not undertake jihad in the presence of British forces. He chose NWFP for this reason and failed to establish an Islamic State. His legacy continues to influence the Islamic militants.

2 thoughts on “Sayyid Ahmad Barailvi

  1. Very good review and one could understand the subject in brief from the gist. As stated by Meera Sanyal in earlier post, one can analyse the current situation with much more clarity with this backgournd.


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