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The First War of India's Independence

By M. Burhanuddin Qasmi

150 Years: The First War of India's Independence: Recounting untold history
Let's have a real recounting of our strength in India-- the unity in diversity-- and make meaningful salutations to all our heroes alike. May 1857 was a month for rebellion against tyrants and May 2007, after 150 years, should bring real smiles to al
22 Jul 07 13:07:29 PM - 46 Views | comments rss:

Tags: India in 1857 Freedom Struggle Muslims in India
The First War of India 's Independence By M. Burhanuddin Qasmi

The First united War of India's Independence or the Indian Rebellion of 1857, as in the British records, also known as the Sepoy Rebellion, the Indian Mutiny, and the Sepoy Mutiny was a prolonged period of armed uprisings in different parts of India against British occupation. Small precursors of brewing discontent, as was the plan, involving incidences of arson in cantonment areas began to manifest themselves in January 1857. Later, a large-scale rebellion broke out in May that year and turned into what must be called a full-fledged war of independence in the country. This war brought about the end of the British East India Company's rule in India , and led to fidgety direct rule by the British government (British Raj) of much of the Indian subcontinent for the next 90 years.

In Thana Bhawan, a place under present Muzffar Nagar district of UP, Ulama gathered under the leadership of Haji Imdadullah Muhajire Makki. And in May 1857 the famous Battle of Shamli took place between the forces of Haji Imdadullah and the British army which ultimately drew an end with complete freedom from British tyrannical clutches after 90 years in August 1947. This May of year 2007 is making 150 years of those untold stories of the heroes of the India 's war of freedom. Many of them like Mongal Pandey and Lakshmi Bai, the Queen of Jhansi, though found tributes in the pages of modern Indian history yet the real braves, the torchbearers; the Ulama have been deliberately buried under bigoted attitude of government aided pages of history and await a real recounting from the sons of the soil to whose destiny they bestowed even the last sigh of their lives.
Islam teaches not to subjugate the free will of the people and it exhorts its followers not to submit to oppressive and evil forces. And it was this teaching of Islam that inspired Ulama of India to wage relentless war against the Company rule just after defeat of Sirajud Dawla at Palasi in 1757.
However, there are so-called intellectuals who won’t only ignore Ulama’s contributions to India ’s independence, but intentionally malign Muslim scholars and their educational institutions branding them anti national. The following statements of a British Army general, Tomson should be an eye opener for those who couldn’t see the selfishness motive of some so-called writers. The British army general, who fought against Muslims in the uprising of 1857, wrote in his memoir: (Rebellion Clerics:P-49):
”If to fight for one’s country, plan and mastermind wars against occupying mighty powers are patriotism, then undoubtedly maulvis (read Ulama hanged by the British rulers) were the loyal patriots to their country and their succeeding generations will remember them as heroes.”
But here these maulvis, unfortunately, happened to be otherwise-- let alone remembering them as heroes, their succeeding generations are even questioning their spirit of patriotism.

Shah Waliullah Dehlavi (1703-1762) led a revolution to change the whole system by drawing attention of the people towards degradation of European imperialism and rampant corruption among oriental rulers. During his pilgrimage to Makkah in 1731, Shah Waliullah was inspired by a vision to replace the imperialist and corrupt administration by establishing a government based on principles of equality and justice.

Shah Waliullah had seen the decline of Mughal rule in India and observed similar degeneration in other countries of Asia and Africa . The last revered and powerful ruler of Mughal dynasty Aurangzeb had already passed away (1707) and East India Company had assumed power to rule a part of Eastern India , defeating Sirajud Dawla at Palasi in 1757. Ultimately Shah Waliullah came to the conclusion that monarchist and imperialist tendencies were the main cause for worsening state affairs. He formulated certain principles, necessary for the revival of human values. In his book ’Hujjatullahil Baligha’ he laid down those principles i.e. "labour is the real source of wealth” and "only those who put in the physical and mental labour for the sake of betterment of the society, deserve to possess wealth.” People, he believed, are equal and the position of the ruler of a State is no more than that of a common citizen in matter of justice and freedom. Things like right to freedom, security and property is essential for all, irrespective of religion, race or colour.
It is to be noted that he propagated these ideas long before the French, American or Soviet revolutions took place. It is a pity that even today these noble ideas lie buried under the trash of imperialist history that was mainly written to tarnish the image of Muslims and Ulama in India . It could be termed as nothing but the tragedy of this nation that a stalwart like Shah Waliullah Dehlavi is deprived of a place in the modern history syllabus of schools and colleges.

During the period from 1757 to 1857, Muslims alone fought organized battles against the mighty British for the freedom of this country. On 4th May, 1799 Tipu Sultan was martyred in the battle of Srirangapatnam. On seeing his dead body Lord Harrisgloated: "Now India is ours.”
Tipu Sultan’s martyrdom has been a source of inspiration for the Ulama who fought tooth and nail against imperialist designs in India . They, however, later took a realistic view of the situation and came to conclusion that after Tipu Sultan’s death there was no ruler who could challenge the British power. And rightly so, later on history proved that the British occupied the whole of India in a short span of time after Tipu Sultan was martyred.
In 1803, the British captured Delhi and set up the rule of the East India Company, declaring ’people belong to God, country to the King and administration to the Company Bahadur’.
The common talk in Delhi at that time was, "the writ of Shah Alam does not run beyond Palam”. At that time Shah Abdul Aziz Dehlavi (1703-1823), the son of Shah Waliullah Dehlavi, issued the first edict (Fatwa) against the British rule that proclaimed, "Our country has been enslaved. To struggle for independence and put an end to the slavery is our duty”.

With this proclamation of Shah Abdul Aziz Dehlavi, the long drawn India ’s freedom struggle got a new momentum.
Ulama under the leadership of Syed Ahmad (1786-1831), the great martyr of Rai Bareli of UP took the task of executing the edict of Shah Abdul Aziz. The armed struggle against the British occupation started in 1808, when Maharaja Jaswant Rao and Nawab Amir Ali Khan jointly planned to fight against the British forces. Shah Abdul Aziz ordered his disciple Syed Ahamd Shaheed to merge his army with that of Amir Ali Khan. Syed Ahmad Shaheed fought jointly for six years before he came to know that Amir Ali Khan was contemplating to enter in to a pact with the British.
He left Amir Ali Khan and from the year 1818 to 1821 he toured the country to propagate and instill the spirit of independence in the masses. In 1824, he set up his base in the Frontier and began the struggle. Nucleus of freedom fighters met on January 10, 1827 and set up a provisional Government of Free India under the leadership of Syed Ahmad Shaheed.
In a tyrannical system, as the condition existed in those days, this was the first ever bold and courageous move by a representative body to denounce openly the British rule in India .
The Sikh warrior Ranjit Singh, an ally of the British imperialism, invaded North-West Frontier Province of present Pakistan in the year 1818. As the Province fell under Sikh control, it was annexed to Punjab and indirectly fell under the East India Company writ. Syed Ahmad Shaheed and Shah Ismail Shaheed with the help of the Mujahadeen, including the Swatis, Pashtun tribe of Balakot, and Syeds of Kaghan, led many revolts and attacks against the Sikhs. At last on 6th May 1831 during a fierce battle Syed Ahmad Shaheed and Shah Ismail along with 300 of their followers were martyred. Thus the Ulama leaders of the freedom struggle paid price of united free India through their lives and were defeated in the battle of Balakot.
Even after this setback, companions of the two great martyrs carried on the struggle for nearly half a century. Ulama of Sadiqpur continued their relentless struggle and went on fighting in the Frontier region for more than two decades between the year 1845 and 1871.

Indian freedom fighters kept on fostering anti imperialism revolt all over the country. In 1857 another edict for Jihad (call for war as religious obligation for Muslims) was issued. The edict carried the signature of 34 Ulama. Prominent among them were Maulana Qasim Nanautavi, the founder of Darul Uloom Deoband, Maulana Rasheed Ahmad Gangohi and Hafiz Zamin Shaheed who fought the British army under the leadership of Haji lmdadullah at Shamli battle and got martyrdom.
Threatened by such a radical turn of events, the British rulers poured in immense resources in arms and men to suppress the struggle. Although the rebels fought back heroically - the betrayal by a number of rulers such as the Sikh princes, the Rajasthani princes and Maratha rulers like Scindia allowed the British to prevail. Lord Canning (then Governor General) noted that "If Scindia joins the rebels, I will pack off tomorrow". Later he was to comment: " The Princes acted as the breakwaters to the storm which otherwise would have swept us in one great wave". Such was the crucial importance of the betrayal of the princes.
The British were also helped by the conservatism of the trading communities who were unwilling to put up with the uncertainties of a long drawn out rebellion.
But equally important was the superior weaponry and brutality of the British in defending their empire. British barbarity in suppressing the uprising was unprecedented. After the fall of Lucknow on May 8, 1858 Frederick Engels commented:
"The fact is, there is no army in Europe or America with so much brutality as the British. Plundering, violence, massacre - things that everywhere else are strictly and completely banished - are a time honoured privilege, a vested right of the British soldier..."
In Awadh alone 150,000 people were killed - of which 100,000 were civilians. The great Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib wrote from Delhi , "In front of me, I see today rivers of blood". He went on to describe how the victorious army went on a killing spree - 'killing every one in sight - looting people’s property as they advanced'.

Bahadur Shah's three sons were publicly executed at "Khooni Darwaaza" in Delhi and Bahadur Shah himself was blinded and exiled to Rangoon where he died in 1862. Refusing to plead for mercy from the British, he courageously retorted: "The power of India will one day shake London if the glory of self-respect remains undimmed in the hearts of the rebels".

Thomas Lowe wrote: "To live in India now was like standing on the verge of a volcanic crater, the sides of which were fast crumbling away from our feet, while the boiling lava was ready to erupt and consume us"
Nevertheless, the revolt of 1857 or the first war of India 's independence was apparently failed and thus Indians could not resist a long armed battle against the mighty British army. Ulama, thereafter, became the main target of the British oppression and persecution. The word ‘Maulvi’ was synonymous to ’rebel’ in the British eyes. Out of approximately 200,000 people martyred during the revolt, more than 51,200 were Ulama. Edward Timus admitted that in Delhi alone 500 Ulama were hanged to death.
There were five major sedition cases against the Ulama during the period 1864 and 1871. The sedition cases were generally known as ’the Wahabi Cases’ or the ’Ambala Conspiracy Case’. In all these cases the accused were either sentenced to death or to life imprisonment. Tomson, as stated above, the British army general who fought against Muslims in the 1857 revolt, detailed in his memoir, Rebellion Cleric, and honestly accepted that the real heroes of the 1857 revolt of India against East India Company were none other than Ulama, (Maulvis in his word).

After the defeat of 1857, some of the prominent Muslim leaders of the freedom movement found it very hard to save India from the cultural onslaught of the British. To counter the nefarious British plan to enslave India culturally, they planned to establish a revolutionary institution that would impart knowledge as well as enthuse fervour among student

"The English have perpetrated boundless acts of tyranny against the Muslims for their fault, if at all it was a fault, of the uprising in 1857 and their relentless endeavour for the independence of this country thereafter. They have left no stone unturned to plunder and obliterate the Islamic arts and science, Muslim culture and civilization. Endowments of Muslim educational institutions have been confiscated and as a result state funded schools have been virtually closed. It is therefore, necessary to adopt other method instead of relying upon the old system of endowments.”

The negative approach adopted by the British historians of the past, and even present day Western historians to paint Ulama and their struggle against oppressive forces into bad colours is understandable. What is not understandable is the purpose of poisonous writings of the votary of Hindutva movement like Arun Shourie and others. We simply cannot believe that these historical facts are hidden from them.

Mr. Shourie criticizes a government agency for what he thinks is a positive comment for Darul Uloom Deoband. Mr. Shourie, a known journalist turned politician, having (supposedly) an open mind cannot digest even a token of appreciation that the freedom fighters and alumni of Darul Uloom received from the government agency. One could think of the state of those minds that have been continuously feeded wrong information regarding Islam and Muslim scholars. Criticizing the government on account of Darul Uloom Deoband Mr. Shourie writes in his book "The World of Fatwas”:

"That praise for re-establishing orthodoxy in Islam, for purging it of bid’ at a condemnatory word heretical "innovation”, for purging it of "religious apostasy” which the study says had crept into it "under Western or local influences”, that approbation is from a publication of our secular Government!” (P. 46)


Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) while penning down his loyality to Queen Victoria after 1857 revolt of India, begins his long letter " The Causes of the Rebellion of India ” ( Asbâb-e Baghâwat-e Hind )with the following preface. The original letter or say essay, (which later turned to be a booklet) was writtenin Urdu, in the Year 1858 and was translated into English by more than one persons and now a part of history. We present the English translation of the preface only with courtesy to the Library of Columbia University.

"Obedience and submission become the servant;
Forgiveness is the attribute of God:
If I should do amiss
Reward me as seemeth right in Thine eyes." [in Persian]

In response to the revolt of Hindustan, the essay about the real causes of the rebellion of Hindustan that I had written-- although my heart now wanted to erase them from the page of the times, or rather erase them even from my heart, since the proclamation that Her Excellency the Exalted Ruler, Queen Victoria (long may she reign!) has issued, is a complete cure for every single real cause of that rebellion-- the truth is that having seen the matter of that proclamation, the pen would fall from the hand of the writers of the causes of the rebellion. There has remained no necessity for anyone now to analyze them, because now their cure has become complete.

But to reflect on the real causes of those agitations, and with one's best sincerity to describe the true causes, I consider to be an excellent piece of well-wishing toward my Government. Thus it is incumbent upon me that although their cure has been very well accomplished-- nevertheless, the causes that are in my heart, I should make them too manifest. It's true that many very wise men and experienced people have written on the causes of this rebellion. But I believe that perhaps no Hindustani man has written anything about it. It's better that the opinion of such a person too should remain.

--Sayyid Ahmad Khan [1859]"

In 1860-1861, he published another tract, (Risâlah Khair Khawahân Musalmanân) An Account of the Loyal Mahomdans (read Muslims) of India , in which he claimed that the Indian Muslims were the most loyal subjects of the British Raj because of their kindred disposition and because of the principles of their religion. He also wrote a commentary on the Old and the New Testament, Tabîyyan al-kalâm fî’l- tafsîr al-tawrâ wa’l-injîl c alâ millat al-islam (The Mahomedan Commentary on the Bible). He attached a fatwâ (religious decree) by Jamal ibn Abd Allâh Umar al- H anfî, at the end of the book. This fatwâ stated, “as long as some of the peculiar observances of Islam prevailed in [ India ], it is Dâr al-Islam ( Land of Islam ).” And therefore, Jihad against British Raj is Un-Islamic.

This was to counter the Fatwas that had been issued by many Indian Ulama, Ulama of Deoband were the pioneers, stating that the Indian subcontinent had become a Darul Harb, the land of war. This political overture of Sir Sayyid was favorably received in the British ruling circles in India as well as in Britain . And this, perhaps, was the root of all differences between Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, founder Mohamedan Anglo-Oriental College in 1857 which later became Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and Maulana Muhmmad Qasmi Nanautwi founder Darul Uloom Deoband which later became an ideologue for composite nationalism in India and a pure Islamic learning centre in the sub-continent, and not acquiring modern education or Islamic education by Muslims as wrongly portrayed by even some Muslim writers.


The 1857 revolt, which had forged an unshakable unity amongst Hindus and Muslims alike, was an important milestone in our freedom struggle - providing hope and inspiration for future generations of freedom lovers. However, the aftermath of the 1857 revolt also brought about dramatic changes in colonial rule. After the defeat of the 1857 national revolt - the British embarked on a furious policy of "Divide and Rule", fomenting religious hatred as never before. Resorting to rumors and falsehoods, they deliberately recast Indian history in highly communal colors and practised pernicious communal politics to divide the Indian masses. That legacy continues to plague the sub-continent till today. However, if more people become aware of the colonial roots of this divisive communal gulf - it is possible that some of the damage done to Hindu-Muslim unity could be reversed. If Hindus and Muslims could rejoin and collaborate in the spirit of 1857, the sub-continent may yet be able to unshackle itself from it's colonial past.

Let's have a real recounting of our strength in India-- the unity in diversity-- and make meaningful salutations to all our heroes alike. May 1857 was a month for rebellion against tyrants and May 2007, after 150 years, should bring real smiles to all the brave souls who gifted us the 'FREEDOM'.



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