18th Century Ulema: The Unsung Heroes of the First Indian Independence War In 1857: By Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi

By Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi
29 August 2017
On this Independence Day, we need to also remember the freedom strugglers who have been forgotten almost completely. The first Indian freedom movement of 1857 should particularly be recalled in this context. While 70 percent of the soldiers came from the Hindu or Sikh community, the Ulema and Muslim leaders like Maulana Fazle Haq Khairabadi, Maulana Ahmed Shah, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Khan Bahadur Khan, Begum Hazrat Mahal, Firoz Shah and Azimullah Khan were the most prominent characters in the annals of the revolt. Remarkably, Nana Sahib, Rani Laxmi Bai and Tantya Tope declared Bahadur Shah Zafar, a Muslim King, India’s first independent ruler on May 11, 1857. Similarly, Ram Kunwar Singh, Raja Nahir Singh, Rao Tula Ram exerted herculean efforts and sacrifices to uphold the 1857 revolt.

During the 1857 revolt, India’s top Ulema declared the rebellion for freedom as “Wajib-e-Deeni” (religious obligation). They issued an anti-British fatwa while actively participating in the blood-spattered insurgents. Among the most forgotten Ulema and Maulvis who valiantly campaigned for an independent India were: Maulana Sadruddin Azurda Dehlvi, Maulana Ahmadullah Shah Madrasi, Maulana Fazle Haq Khairabadi, Maulana Kifayat Ali Moradabadi, Maulana Rahmatullah Kairanvi, Imam Bakhsh Sahbai Dehlvi and Maulana Wazir Khan Akbarabadi. These Ulema were imbued in an Indian strain of Islam with a pluralistic and nationalistic ideology originally underpinned by the Sufi mentors such as Mirza Mazhar Jaan-e-Jaanan (1195-1781), Shah Abdul Aziz Dehlvi (1239-1824), Qazi Sana’ullah of Panipat (1225-1810), Shah Rafiuddin Dehlvi (1233-1818) and Mufti Sharfuddin Rampuri (1268-1852). Their exhortation of nationalism called Hubb-ul-Watani (love for the country) was the driving force behind the Ulema’s fierce struggles and sacrifices in the Independence movements from 1857 to 1947. I suffice to reproduce three prominent examples from the Indian Ulema’s traditions and accounts.

Maulana Fazle Haq Khairadabadi (1797–20 August 1861)

A leading revolutionary in the 1857 revolt was Maulana Fazle Haq Khairadabadi, son of Allama Fazle Imam Farooqi, the Grand Mufti of Delhi in the 18th century and a disciple of the noted Sufi master, Shah Abdul Qadir (1230/1815). He rendered various services to the country but the anti-British fatwa known as “Tahqeeq al-Fatwa fi Ibtal al-Taghwa” (fatwa in refutation of the devil) was his most remarkable contribution to India’s first freedom struggle.

Vivek Iyer noted in his book “Ghalib, Gandhi and the Gita” that Khairabadi was a celebrated poet, philosopher and social scientist, but was most remembered as a freedom struggler of the 1857 Indian rebellion. He took up service with the government in 1815 but resigned from the job in 1831 and spent most of his time in an intellectual activism for the country’s freedom. He penned down a comprehensive historical account of the 1857 revolt in Arabic titled “al-Thaura al-Hindiya” (Indian rebellion). After his resignation from the services of the British government, Khairabadi got an opportunity to serve the Nawab of Jhajjar. He was also close to Bahadur Shah Zafar. When the 1857 revolt broke out, he travelled from Alwar to Delhi several times to hold meetings with Bahadur Shah Zafar. Munshi Zakaullah notes in his famous research work in Urdu “Taarikh-e-‘Urooj-e-Saltanat-e-Englishiah (History of the British government’s rise in India):

“When General Bakht Khan, along with his fourteen thousand soldiers, came for Bareilly to Delhi, Maulana Khairabadi delivered a Friday sermon before hundreds of Ulema in Delhi’s Jama Masjid. He put fourth an Islamic decree (Istifta) on the freedom fight for the country with the signatures of Mufti Sadruddin Azurda, Maulvi Abdul Qadir, Qazi Faizullah Dehlvi, Maulana Faiz Ahmed Badayuni, Dr. Wazir Khan Akbarabadi, Syed Mubaraksha Rampuri”.

No sooner did this fatwa against the British was declared and widely disseminated, the revolt intensified throughout the country. Some ninety thousand soldiers gathered in Delhi. Quoting from the “Akhbar-e-Dehli” of Chunni Lal, a contemporary Urdu researcher Khushtar Noorani writes: Maulana Khairabadi continued to hold gatherings delivering sermons on the significance of the jihad against the British to rescue the country which was Darul Islam (abode of Islam) in his view”.

In January 30, 1859, Khairabadi was arrested by the British authorities and a case was filed against him for ‘taking a leadership role in the rebellion’, as C. Anderson records in “The Indian Uprising of 1857-8: prisons, prisoners, and rebellion”. He was tried in the court and was sentenced to imprisonment at Kalapani (Cellular Jail) on Andaman Island with confiscation of his property by the Judicial Commissioner, Awadh Court. During the court proceedings, Maulana himself defended his case and categorically stated in the court that he had issued the anti-British fatwa with his free will, not by compulsion. He reached Andaman on 8 October 1859. Sir William Wilson Hunter, a Scottish historian and a compiler and a member of the Indian Civil Service, writes: “Fazl-e-Haq was an alim (Islamic scholar) who was sentenced to imprisonment in the Kaala Paani and whose library was confiscated and brought to Calcutta by the English government”. (Hamare Hindustani Musalamaan, [Urdu] Page: 203, Delhi).

Mufti Sadruddin Azurda Dehlvi (1804 -1868)

One of the most notable revolutionaries of the 1857 revolt in Delhi was Mufti Sadruddin ‘Azurdah’. An intellectual, spiritually inclined literary figure from the Kashmiri origin, Azurdah was a disciple of the renowned and authoritative classical scholar of Islam Maulana Fazl-e-Imam Faruqi (1244/1829) of Khairabad located in Sitapur (Uttar Pradesh).

Notably, Azurdah was Delhi’s Grand Mufti, an excellent Urdu poet and a bosom friend of Mirza Ghalib. His proactive engagement with the revolt of freedom in 1857 resulted in the loss and devastation of all his poetry during the riots. The only known collection of his poetry is the “Surviving Poetic work of Azurdah” compiled by A’bdur Rahman Parwaz from various Tazkiras (memoirs). One of the architects of modern Muslim mindset in India, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan mentioned Azurda in his book “Asaar-us-Sanadid” (the remnants of ancient heroes) as a “well-versed Muslim scholar of his age”.

When the Ulema of Delhi declared Jihad against the British, the fatwa was signed by Azurdah as published in the famous Urdu daily Akhbaar-uz-Zafar dated July 26, 1857. The newspaper is preserved in Delhi’s National Archives. Azurdah is also reported to have been the mediator between the English and Mughal elites in the early days of the British ascendancy in Delhi. He held meetings and consultations with Bahadur Shah Zafar in the Red Fort during the Mutiny to help the Indian revolutionaries further their cause. When the British curbed the 1857 revolt, a case for rebellion was filed against Azurdah. He was tried in the court and suffered a painful imprisonment. Consequently, a large part of his property was confiscated. The British authorities destroyed almost 3 Lakh books collected in Azurdah’s personnel library.

Remarkably, Azurda trained many Ulema and scholars like Maulana Ahmadullah Shah Madrasi and sent them to Agra in 1846 where they established a council of Ulema (Majlis-e-Ulema) to systematically campaign for the rebellion against the British colonialism.

Maulana Ahmaddullah Shah Madrasi (1787-1858)

In his well-researched work in Urdu, Taarikh-e-Jang-e-Azadi-e-Hind 1857 (page: 205), Syed Khurshid Mustafa Rizvi writes: “Ahmaddullah Shah prominently figures the list of ulema who prepared the whole country for the 1857 Revolt….He visited different parts of the country and instigated the people for the Revolt.”

Ahmaddullah Shah was a spiritually inclined Alim or Islamic scholar. He got fascinated towards a mystical lifestyle from his youth. Therefore, he left his home and travelled far and wide, from Hyderabad and Madras to England, Egypt, Hijaz, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. Back in India, he spent most of his life in mysticism and even in Chillahkashi (Sufi practice of mystical seclusion for 40 continuous days) at Bikaner and Sambher.

He attained the spiritual disciplehood of his Pir-o-Murshid (Sufi master) Mir Qurban Ali Shah in Jaipur where he was granted the Ijazat-O-Khilafat (spiritual succession and authorization). From Jaipur, he travelled to Tonk where he held the Mahfil-e-Sima (gathering for mystical music) which was criticized by the conformist Ulema. Dismayed by their objection, he left for Gwalior where he met another Sufi mystic Mehrab Shah Qalandar. Having granted him the Ijazat-o-Khilafat, Shah Qalandar exhorted him to work for India’s freedom movement. Therefore, he left Gwalior for Delhi in 1846.

In Delhi, he met Mufti Sadruddin Azurda who directed him to go to Agra which he thought was the best place for a better and successful preparation for the campaign against the British oppression. In Agra, he consolidated ties with the leading Ulema who cooperated him in the formation of Majlis-e-Ulema (Council of Ulema) to campaign against the British regime.

In the famous book, “The Indian mutiny of 1857” edited by Colonel Malleson, Maulana is mentioned as follows: “If a patriot is a man who plots and fights for the independence, wrongfully destroyed, for his native country, then most certainly, the Maulvi (Ahmadullah) was a true patriot”.

The British historian Malleson has described Maulana in these words: “The Maulvi was a very remarkable man…. In person, he was tall, lean and muscular with large deep set eyes, beetle brows, a high aquiline nose, and lantern jaws….. The British considered him a worthy enemy and a great warrior”.

Malleson further writes that “no doubt, the leader behind this conspiracy (1857) which had spread all over India was the Maulvi (Ahmadullah)…….. I think that he the brain behind the revolt”. During his journeys, Maulana introduced a novel scheme which is known as the ‘Chapati scheme’. He devised the circulation of Chapatis from hand to hand to disseminate the message amongst the rural population of the North India that a great uprising would take place. The English historian G.W. Forest heaps high praises on the Maulana for being a ‘practicing alim’, a ‘Sufi soldier’ and commander with great military skills (Kaye’s and Malleson’s History of the Indian mutiny of 1857-8).

In his article, “Maulvi Ahmedullah: The Unsung Hero of the Revolt” published in Radiance Viewsweekly, Mohd. Asim Khan depicts a portrait of how valiantly Maulana fought against the British: “Maulvi Ahmedullah Shah was a rare combination of both a writer and a warrior. He used his sword valiantly, and his pen effortlessly for awakening and mobilising the people against the foreign subjugation…..He wrote revolutionary pamphlets and started distributing them. It was too much for the imperialists and they ordered his arrest. He was tried for sedition and sentenced to be hanged”.

The British officers declared a reward of Rs. 50,000 for capturing Maulana alive. The proclamation reads: “It is hereby notified that a reward of Rs.50, 000 will be paid to any person who shall deliver alive, at any British Military post or camp, the rebel Moulvee Ahmed Molah Shah, commonly called “the Moulvee”. It is further notified that, in addition to this reward, a free pardon will be given to any mutineer or deserter, or to any rebel, other than those named in the Government Proclamation No. 476 of the lst instant, who may so deliver up the said Moulvee”.

Noted Urdu historian of Karachi, Prof. Mohammad Ayyub Qadri writes: “The martyrdom of Maulana Ahmadullah put an end to the [first] war of independence, not only in Ruhelkhand But in the entire country” (Jang-e-Azadi-e-Hind 1857, P. 303).

The author is a scholar of classical Islamic studies, cultural analyst and researcher in media and communication studies and regular columnist with New Age Islam.