Dr Altaf Qadir – Jihad Movement of Sayyid Ahmad Barailvi

Interview with Altaf Qadir author of Sayyid Ahmad Barailvi: His Movement and Legacy from the Pukhtun Perspective with Mark Ulyseas for Live Encounters Magazine

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Sayyid Ahmad Barailvi: His Movement and Legacy from the Pukhtun Perspective by Dr Altaf Qadir, Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of Peshawar, Pakistan – in an exclusive interview with Mark Ulyseas. The book is published by SAGE Publications.

Why did you write this book and what do you hope to achieve with it?

It was years back, prior to 9/11 when I was interested to write my MPhil thesis on militancy related issues. I visited a few of the militant camps in the Hazara belt and Kashmir in the summer of 2001. I usually found a reference to the movement of Sayyid Ahmad Barailvi in speeches and sermons of the leaders of different militant organizations. I started taking interest in the Sayyid Ahmad movement but I had the realization that it was an immense project for MPhil dissertation. My mentor Professor Sayed Wiqar Ali Shah also did not want me to spoil the subject for MPhil project with limited resources, time and vision. After completing MPhil I opted for this project. During the writing of the proposal one of my professors told me to see what options I had i.e. whether a new topic; whether I had new material on an old topic which were not consulted by the earlier writers; or new perspective with old material and topic. Though I had found some new material which was not cited previously in any academic work, my focus remained on looking to the phenomena from a regional/local perspective.

While the story of Sayyid Ahmad has been told in earlier narratives, this study discusses the movement at the very local level while also examining elements of the overall political, social, religious, and economic impact of the Jihad Movement on the North-West Frontier. The present book is perhaps the first academic attempt to analyze the Jihad Movement of Sayyid Ahmad from perspectives drawn from the immediate localities involved. One contribution is the recovery and interpretation of minute details of the movement, neglected or ignored by earlier writers. Earlier commentators and historians have blamed the inhabitants of the Pukhtunkhwa for the failure of the Jihad Movement.

I have attempted to illuminate the quite complicated factors responsible for the failure of the Jihad Movement. These include the original selection of the North-West Frontier region for the ‘jihad’ purpose, the mujahidin’s failure to understand the sensitivity of the many socio-economic dimensions of Pukhtun society, and the ultimately meager financial resources of the mujahidin movement that were insufficient to counter the Sikhs. Moreover, the so-called charisma of Sayyid Ahmad did not work well in Pukhtun society. He lacked, did not understand, or chose not to project the virtues and qualities respected in a Pukhtun leader; one always seen at the forefront and prepared to lay down his life for the sake of his people and movement. Though having limited knowledge of the religion, local poets had long contributed lengthy na’at, a form of poetry, that discussed the life and achievements of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) and provided the Pukhtuns a model of charismatic leadership. He had often been seen in the forefront in battles fought in the early days of Islam. The required model of legitimacy was missing in the personality of Sayyid Ahmad and he did not attract a majority of the Pukhtun population. This book aims to clear the existing myths in the mind of the readers.

Barailvi went on a pilgrimage to Mecca where it is believed he was indoctrinated by Wahhabi religious teachers and that it was this indoctrination that led to his founding of a jihad movement. Please comment.

I did not find reliable source to verify this claim. I understand that Sayyid Ahmad was an original thinker and though he was partly shaped by Shah Wali Ullah’s thoughts, he actually broke tradition by initiating and leading the Jihad personally. Wahhabi teachers were expelled by government prior to Sayyid Ahmad’s visit to Hijaz.

Why did Sayyid Ahmad Barailvi found the “The Way of the Prophet Muhammad”(Tariqah Muhammadiyyah)?

He knew that he would not get acceptability unless he followed the traditional Sufi way of preaching. He considered existing Sufi orders perverted and therefore a need arose for a new cult, an order with emphasise on the reformation of the general public. He started visiting people at their door steps, a long ignored practice. He focused more on the external aspect of Islam instead of internal spiritual training. He named his order as Rah-e-Suluk-e-Nabuwat, which was not merely a mystic order but a code of conduct for his followers. He stressed upon his followers to spend each moment in seeking the pleasure of Allah. Sayyid Ahmad urged his disciples to follow sharia, which was the real objective of taking bai‘at at the hands of a spiritual guide. One had to follow the commandments of Allah whether one stayed at home or travelled, earned a livelihood or spent what had been earned, and slept or was awake. One must live with lawful earnings, offer his prayers, keep the fast, go for pilgrimage to Makkah, and so on. By introducing his own order, he was able to attract not only the masses but also the religious, social and political elites of Indian Muslims.

Is it true that Barailvi, who was called Amir al-Mu’minin (“Commander of the Believers”) began a jihad against the Sikhs in the Punjab and NWFP because he believed Muslims should be ruled by Muslims? Or was this an attempt to gain independence for the Pashtuns, to create an Islamic State with Sharia Law?

There is no denying the fact that the jihad of Sayyid Ahmad was inspired by the teaching of the Qur’an and ahadith—traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). However, one cannot ignore the political situation of the subcontinent in his time. It was more a resistance movement against the Sikhs and later the British, not jihad in its pure technical meanings. The Muslim world was facing western imperialism for decades and they were upset with their crumbling political and social status and institutions. The colonizers were replacing India’s centuries-old institutions with their own. One might look at resistance in the name of jihad in other Muslim countries including Africa, Middle East, and Central Asia.

The situation in India, however, was more complicated from other lands. Indian Muslims were deprived of their previous ruling position by the Western colonizers on the one hand and were brought to the status of a minority on the other. The English occupation of Bengal and Mysore, the Company and native states subsidiary alliances, the annexation of Rohilkhand (parts of present Uttar Pradesh), the occupation of Delhi by Gerald Lake in 1803, English overlordship in Marathas territory, and Amir Khan’s peace treaty with the English East India Company were several of the factors which strengthened Sayyid Ahmad’s belief that observing Sufi beliefs and practices alone would not revive Muslim political glory in India. Being a disciple of Shah Abdul Aziz, son and successor of Shah Wali Ullah, Sayyid Ahmad was trained for quite a long time. His mindset was partly shaped by Wali Ullah’s tradition. Living in Delhi gave him extra insight into the existing situation. The spiritual training by Shah Abdul Aziz broadened Sayyid Ahmad’s vision. His personal experiences in Amir Khan’s army, extensive territorial tours for the reformation of society, and observations of the prevalent socio-political situation of India contributed to the preparing of his plan for jihad. Shah Abdul Aziz had accused the Sikhs and the Marathas, but did not issue any fatwa upon their occupation of Delhi. Still, they and other local non-Muslims forces who sought independence were considered rebels.

This, however, did not change the status of dar-ul-Islam. But on the English occupation of Delhi in 1803, a question was put before Shah Abdul Aziz, “Could a dar al-Islam become a dar al-harb?” Shah Abdul Aziz issued a fatwa, declaring India a dar al-harb. The fatwa of Shah Abdul Aziz was regarded as a very revolutionary document. The Jihad Movement of Sayyid Ahmad was a practical response to the fatwa and for that purpose Sayyid Ahmad, at the initial stage of his Jihad Movement, tried to form an alliance of the Indian communities to fight against the East India Company. However, he fought first against the Sikhs due to their proximity to his place of migration and he ultimately was killed in the battle of Balakot in 1831.

What impact did the movement have on the religious-socio-economic life of the Pashtuns?

The Jihad Movement left both positive and negative cultural and religious impacts. One of the positive impacts was the initiation of the teaching of the Qur’an and ahadith in the North-West Frontier. Earlier religious figures of the area did not emphasize such teaching and were more inclined to teach books of jurisprudence of the Hanafi School of thought. The leaders of the Jihad Movement, especially Shah Ismail, continued a series of lectures during his stay in the North-West Frontier. Consulting the secondary or tertiary sources on jurisprudence had limited the vision and knowledge of local ulama. First among the locals to follow the footsteps of the leaders of the Jihad Movement was Said Amir of Kotah. He began teaching the Qur’an and ahadith in his village and was followed by others. He faced severe criticism and was declared a ‘heretic’ and ‘infidel’ by his opponents for teaching the Qur’an and ahadith. His opponents wished to maintain their monopoly over religious matters and did not want interference from the public in their domain.

The most evident example of the new teaching was Muhammad Tahir (1913—1987) who taught the Qur’an in the present districts of Swabi and Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Pakistan. He was known as the founder of the Jama‘at al-Isha‘at Tauheed wa Sunnah, locally known as Panjpiri school of thought. This school claimed itself to be ‘real’ followers of the Deoband school of thought. The Panjpiris were spread across parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Punjab, and are commonly known for their uncompromising attitude towards people of opposing ideologies. Beside Panjpiris, there are others who emphasized the teaching of the Qur’an. Some among the activists of Jama‘at-e-Islami Pakistan think that the spread of the contemporary madrasa network is one of the legacies of the Jihad Movement.

Of the negative impacts of the Jihad Movement, the most important is the polarization of religious ideologues. Organizations and individuals who claim that they are ideologically inspired by the Movement narrate stories of Mujahidin successes against their opponents in public gatherings intended to arouse partisan sentiments in the general public. The public, typically having little knowledge of the historical facts, believe exaggerated and fabricated versions of such stories and many join these organizations. The most important of such organizations have been Jama’at-e-Dawa, the former Jaish-e-Muhammad and Harkat-ul-Mujahidin. The training camps of Jaish-e-Muhammad and Harkat-ul-Mujahidin were named after Sayyid Ahmad and Shah Ismail and training units of the new recruits after the leaders of the Jihad Movement. Masud Azhar, one of their leaders, has contributed hundreds of essays on jihad and the Mujahidin Movement in Urdu newspapers, besides his books on the same topic.

The recent wave of militancy may not be directly attributed to Sayyid Ahmad and his Jihad Movement. Many factors have combined over recent decades include state and non-state actors. Pakistan, USA, and Middle East countries during the Soviet Union intervention in Afghanistan and after are all responsible for elements of recent turmoil. However, all the organizations involved in the armed struggle in Afghanistan and Kashmir attract the general public by narrating stories of the Mujahidin of Sayyid Ahmad in their speeches. They have established a network of Urdu newspapers to reach the majority portion of the Pakistan population. They have started a programme in a popular seminary in Karachi, to train youth in the art of ‘Islamic journalism’. All such activities are continued with the active support of different state and non-state actors for different agendas. While dealing with the impact of the Jihad Movement we have attributed many things to the legacy of Sayyid Ahmad, but may simply point out the common nature of claims made by those involved in current armed struggle that they are ideologically inspired by the Jihad Movement.

Some claim that Barailvi’s life and teachings have become a reference point for many jihadists and would be jihadists? Please comment.

One can find many such references in the sermons and writings of different religious and militant organizations. He has not only been idealized but also elevated to the status of a person who could not make any error. This phenomenon has been also institutionalized by the State institutions of Pakistan by indoctrination of the youth. The fabricated and exaggerated details of the Jihad Movement have been included in the curriculum from grade 1 to 14. I have recently written a paper on the said subject, which is to be published shortly. 

What relevance does Barailvi have in the lives of the Pashtuns, today?

Pukhtuns, mostly illiterate even today and who have rarely taken any interest in history, know little about Sayyid Ahmad. But religious people and organizations refer to him in their speeches, sermons and writings and hence he is rarely recognized if the term shaheed is not written or spoken with Sayyid Ahmad. It is pertinent to note that many state and non-state actors have popularized Sayyid Ahmad as a great leader of revivalist Islam. He was, perhaps, the first person who initiated Jihad in private capacity and he has been idealized by all those associated with such organizations. One rarely finds any reference that Sayyid Ahmad’s entire plan was a failure from day one when he started migration with few hundred followers to fight the well trained and well-disciplined army of the Sikhs.


Dr Altaf Qadir, PhD, MPhil, MA, Associate Professor, University of Peshawar, Pakistan. Author of two books:  Sayyid Ahmad Barailvi: His Movement and Legacy from the Pukhtun Perspective. Delhi: Sage Publications, 2015. Reforming the Pukhtuns and Resisting the British: An Appraisal of the Haji Sahib Turangzai’s Movement. Islamabad: National Institute of Historical and Cultural Research, 2015 (in press).


  1. Zakir Minhas & Altaf Qadir, “The US War on Terror and the Drone Attacks in FATA, Pakistan” Pakistan, Annual Research Journal, Pakistan Study Centre, University of Peshawar. Vol. 50, 2014. pp. 15-28.
  2. Altaf Qadir & Sabeeha Atlas, “The War of Independence 1857 and North West Frontier: The Struggle of Mujahidin against the English” Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society, Karachi. January-March 2014—Vol. 62, No. 1. pp. 7-19.
  3. Altaf Qadir & Zakir Minhas, “Khyber Pass in Imperial Politics of the Mughals (1519-1707)” Journal of the Research Society of Pakistan, Lahore. July-December 2013—Vol. 50, No. 2. pp. 41-59.
  4. Altaf Qadir & Ishtiaq Ahmad, “Reflection of Swat Crisis in Folk Poetry” Pakistan Perspective, Karachi. July-December 2013—Vol. 18, No. 2. pp. 103-120.
  5. Altaf Qadir, “Anti-Colonial Movement: The Struggle of Haji Sahib Turangzai to do away with the authority of the British Raj” Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society, Karachi. April-June, 2008─Vol. 56, No. 2. pp. 111-123.
  6. Altaf Qadir, “Haji Sahib of Turangzai and His Reform Movement in North West Frontier Province” Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society, Karachi, July-September 2006─Vol. 54, No. 3. pp. 85-95.
  7. Altaf Qadir & Fatima Asghar, “Peshawar Under Durranis: A Survey of its Administration” accepted for publication by Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society, Karachi.

Conferences And Seminars (Paper(s) Presented)

  1. “Tribalism to Religious Extremism: Sayyid Ahmad Barailvi in Perspective” in Dynamics of Change in the Pak-Afghan Borderland: The Interplay of Past Legacies, Present Realities and Future Scenarios held on 25-26 June 2014 at Bara Gali Summer Camp, University of Peshawar, organized by Department of Political Science, University of Peshawar in collaboration with Hanns Seidel Foundation Islamabad.
  2. “Historiography of the Sayyid Ahmad Barailvi Movement: An Analysis of Muhammad Wazir Khan and Ghulam Rasul Mihr Works” in 24th International Pakistan History Conference on History & Historiography of South Asia held on 14–16 April, 2014 at University of the Punjab, Lahore, organized by Department of History, University of the Punjab and Pakistan Historical Society, Karachi, Pakistan.
  3. “Sayyid Ahmad Barailvi’s Performance of Haj: An Overview” in 23rd Pakistan History Conference on the theme ‘History of Colonial and Post-Colonial South Asia: Trends and Issues‘, 12–13 March 2013, organized in Karachi by Pakistan Historical Society, and Pakistan Study Centre, University of Karachi, in collaboration with Hamdard Foundation Pakistan.
  4. “The Working of Syed Ahmad Barailvi’s Khilafat” in 22nd International Pakistan History Conference held on 17-18 March at Bahauddin Zakariya University Multan, organized jointly by Pakistan Historical Society and Department of History, BZU Multan in collaboration with Higher Education Commission, Islamabad, Pakistan.
  5. “The War of Independence 1857 and North West Frontier: The struggle of Mujahidin against the English” in Three-Day International Conference on “Islamic Civilization in South Asia” held on 16-18 November 2008 at Dhaka Sheraton, Bangladesh, organized by IRCICA, Istanbul.
  6. “Militancy in Swat: Historical Perspective, Mismanagement and the Role of International Agents” in Pakistan Working Group on 16 May 2008 at South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg, Germany.
  7. “Haji Sahib of Turangzai and His Reform Movement in North West Frontier Province” in International Conference on “History and Civilization of the Muslim World”, held on 27-28th February 2006 at Lahore, organized by Department of History and Pakistan Study Centre, University of the Punjab.

Conference Organized 

  1. 2-Day International Conference on “1973 Constitution of Pakistan of Pakistan and Its Amendments: Theory and Practice” held on May 26-27, 2015 at Bara Gali Summer Campus of the University of Peshawar.

 Training/Workshop Conducted  

  1. Five-Day “Effective Implementation of Amended Frontier Crimes Regulation”, as a Master Trainer Organized by STEP, Mardan with financial assistance of US-Aid, 12-16 June 2013, held at Grand Hotel Peshawar.

 Training/Workshops attended  

  1. Three-Day “History Dissertation Writing Workshop”, Organized by American Institute of Pakistan Studies and Higher Education Commission, Islamabad, Pakistan 11-13 May 2009, held at American Institute of Pakistan Studies, Overseas Centre Islamabad, Pakistan.
  2. Six months (March-August 2008) study and research at the Department of History, South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg, Germany, funded by Higher Education Commission Islamabad, Pakistan under International Research Support Initiative Programme.
  3. One month training on “Teaching Method and Educational Psychology”,Organized by Higher Education Commission, Islamabad, Pakistan December 2005, held at Institute of Education and Research, University of Peshawar, Pakistan



© Mark Ulyseas

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