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Barelwī, Sayyid Aḥmad

By:
Barbara D. Metcalf
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Barelwī, Sayyid Aḥmad

Sayyid Aḥmad Barelwī (b. 1786) was a North Indian activist and leader of jihād. Born in Rai Bareilly in the old Mughal province of Awadh in North India, this dynamic visionary died in battle on the mountainous frontier of the Northwest. Three strands of experience in his life came together in this utopian military endeavor. First, he was born into a family of sayyids, known for their piety and learning but, like many of the educated and well-born, now impoverished and frustrated in finding employment in a princely court. Second, in Delhi from 1806 to 1811, he entered into the circle of the family of Shāh Walī Allāh with its program of the dissemination of scripturalist norms. Third, at about the age of twenty-five, he left Delhi to spend some seven years as a cavalryman for Amīr Khān (1768–1834) in central India, immersing himself in the world of local state-building so characteristic of this period.

Back in Delhi, Barelwī rejoined the reformist ʿulamāʿ but rapidly distinguished himself by more far-reaching and stringent reform, for example in opposing certain Ṣūfī practices and enjoining such aspects of family behavior as the remarriage of widows. His teachings were written down in two works, the Ṣirāṭ mustaqīm, compiled by Maulānā Muḥammad Ismāʿīl, and the Taqwiyat al-īmān; both circulated in the vernacular language of Urdu thanks to the newly available lithographic press. The texts identified practices derived from false Sufism, Shīʿī doctrine, and local customs; these were said to compromise God's unity (tawḥīd). It is notable that Sufism as such was not opposed (as it was by the Wahhābīs in Arabia and the Farāʿiz‥ī [Farāʿiḍī] in Bengal); it is also noteworthy that reformers rarely attributed deviations to Hindu influence, but rather blamed Muslims themselves.

With a small group of followers, Sayyid Aḥmad toured northern India in 1818–1819. In 1821 he undertook the ḥajj as a prelude to jihād, traveling downriver to Calcutta, preaching, and collecting a band of some six hundred for a journey whose very practice had long been neglected. In 1823 he returned to Rai Bareilly where he spent two years teaching and preparing for jihād.

His followers regarded him as the mujaddid (scholarly reformer) of the age; some considered him the Mahdī. They were prepared to abjure customs that had defined and given honor to personal and family status; many were prepared to leave their homes and even to die. The model for jihād, while seen as following Prophetic precedent, took its shape from the quest for new states in the post-Mughal period.

In 1826 Sayyid Aḥmad left for the frontier, an area of Muslim population as precedent required, to launch warfare on the Punjab, then under Sikh rule. Although he was called amīrulmuʿminīn (Ar., amir al-muʿminīn; “commander of the faithful”) by his followers, many of the local tribes disliked the reforms of the mujāhidīn and had their own quarrels to prosecute. Sayyid Aḥmad was trapped in Balakot with some six hundred followers and killed in 1831. Many cherished the idea that he was still alive because his body was not found. Followers kept the embers of the jihād alive until the 1860s; Sayyid Aḥmadʾs example and teachings inspired reformers long after his death.

See also ISLAM, subentry onISLAM IN SOUTH ASIA; and MESSIANISM.

Bibliography

  • Ahmad, Mohiuddin. Saiyid Ahmad Shahid: His Life and Mission. Lucknow, 1975. A detailed biography that also provides information on both primary and secondary sources available in Urdu and Persian.
  • Hardy, Peter. The Muslims of British India. Cambridge, 1972. The best overall survey, providing a good context for this and other religious movements.
  • Metcalf, Barbara D.Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860–1900. Princeton, 1982. Although focusing on a later Islamic movement of the colonial period, also provides material on the first half of the nineteenth century as background.
  • Muḥammad Ismāʿīl. “Translation of the Takwiyat-ul-Iman, preceded by a Notice of the Author, Maulavi Ismaʿil Hajji.”Translated by Mir Shahamat Ali. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society13 (1832): 479–498. An influential tract of Sayyid Aḥmad's movement.
  • Muḥammad Ismāʿīl. “Notice of the Peculiar Tenets Held by the Followers of Syed Ahmad, Taken Chiefly from the ‘Sirat-ul-Mustaqim,’ a Principal Treatise of that Sect, Written by Moulavi Mahommed Ismaʿil.”Translated by J. R. C.The Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal1 (1832): 479–498.
  • Sanyal, Usha. Devotional Islam and Politics in British India: Ahmad Riza Khan Barelwi and His Movement, 1870–1920. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
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