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Indian Revolt 1857: the role of the Ulama 160 years on

The revolt led by the Ulama of India in 1857 & the Ulama of CVE in 2017

“The scholars are the inheritors of the Prophets.”[1]

160 years ago, in this very month of May, a significant world event took place. The Indian Revolt of 1857-58 was a major uprising in India against the rule of the occupying British East India Company which functioned as a sovereign power on behalf of the British Crown.

The revolt is known by many names, including the Sepoy Mutiny, the Indian Mutiny, the Great Rebellion, the Revolt of 1857 and the Indian Insurrection.

Resistance against British occupation began much earlier with the likes of Tipu Sultan and his father in Mysore between 1767-1799. In 1803, the son of Shah Waliullah, Abdul Aziz Shah, declared the first fatwa (edict) calling for armed Jihād against the occupying forces which was then taken on by his friend and student, Sayyid Ahmed Brelwi (1786-1831). Nevertheless, the uprising in 1857 is regarded as India’s First War of Independence because of its having spread nationally and not restricted to just certain provinces as previous revolts had been.


While the British East India Company had established a presence in India for “trading purposes” as far back as 1612, its victory in the Battle of Plassey in 1757 marked the beginning of its firm foothold in India.

The revolt of 1857 came about as a result of a number of factors relating to the mistreatment and oppression inflicted upon both Muslims and Hindus in India by the British. The Sepoys, who were local Muslim and Hindu soldiers, were recruited into the East India Company’s army. In line with the colonialist policy, Christian missionaries were exported to states occupied by the British to promote the “British Values” of its time, vis-à-vis ‘Christianity’, as was also the case in Africa as part of its global crusade to “Christianise” the world. A famous saying, often attributed to the African social activist and Kenya’s first Prime Minister (1963-1964) Jomo Kenyatta, comes to mind in highlighting this issue:

“When the Missionaries arrived, the Africans had their land and the Missionaries had the bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had our land and we had the Bible.”[2]

Although the missionaries were active in India right from the outset, by 1857 many Sepoy soldiers were convinced that the East India Company was masterminding mass conversions of Muslims and Hindus to Christianity.[3] The level of British oppression crossed the limit of tolerance when new ammunition cartridges for rifles were issued. The new cartridges were made out of paper and pre-greased.[4] To access the powder from the cartridges, the Sepoys were instructed to bite it open. However, there was a sinister purpose to this, it was widely reported that the grease used was sourced from beef and pork fat, thereby intentionally setting out to insult and offend both Hindus and Muslims respectively.

It was clear to the imperialists that some sort of rebellion over the cartridges was imminent. During April 1857, there was unrest and fires at Agra, Allahabad and Ambala. The spark, however, that would light the flames of resistance came from Meerut when some Sepoys refused the cartridges and were publicly humiliated and imprisoned with heavy sentences. On 10 May 1857, a group of Sepoys attacked and freed their brethren from prison. The Sepoys and those civilians who joined their cause escaped and made their way to the ancient capital and the then present seat of the Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, who was in Delhi. The growing resistance force petitioned Bahadur Shah Zafar to lead them against the imperialists, which he eventually and reluctantly accepted.[5] Despite having significant loss of power from preceding centuries, the Mughal name still carried great prestige in the hearts of the Muslims. The British underestimated this and were oblivious to just how many were willing to rally under the Mughal banner.

However, what aided the cause significantly and tipped the balance were the noble Ulama of India. For the first time since the edict issued by Abdul Aziz Shah another edict for armed Jihād was issued. This carried the signature of thirty-four Ulama of the highest eminence. Prominent among them were great luminaries such as Maulana Qasim Nanotawi, who later became one of the founders of the prestigious Dār al-ʿUlūm Deoband, Maulana Rasheed Ahmad Gangohi and Hafiz Zamin Shaheed who fought the imperial army under the leadership of Haji lmdadullah at Shamli Field.[6] The people were moved when they saw that their Ulama were at the forefront in showing resistance to the occupying forces. The mood of retaliation against the supercilious British dominance had extended right across India. The Ulama had inspired the civilian population to rise up.

For the British colonialists, the revolt posed a considerable threat to their power, and was contained only with the defeat suffered by the mujāhidīn in Gwalior on 20 June 1858. Although the resistance, which was being fought and spiritually led by the Ulama, made many gains early on, in the end the barbarity of the British in suppressing the uprising was unprecedented and their superior weaponry and brutality in defending their hegemony proved too much for the brave Muslims. Perhaps most damning of all was the role played by those Muslims who sided with the British imperialists in bringing the revolt to an end. Lord Canning (then Governor General) commented on one particular Indian Prince, saying: “If (he) 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.”[7]

The Ulama became the main target of the British oppression and persecution. The word ‘Maulvi’ became synonymous with ‘rebel’ in British eyes. At least 100,000 were killed of which a great proportion were the Ulama.[8] Right across India, in the Punjab, Ambala, Multan, Peshawar, Agra, Jhelum, Aurangabad and many other places, “mutineers” were tied to the barrels of cannons and blown away whilst others were hanged.

The lengthy Mughal dynasty now came to an end. Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was exiled to Burma in 1858 while his three sons were executed. Bahadur Shah Zafar died four years later in Rangoon, aged 87.

The rebellion proved to be an important watershed in Indian and British Empire history and led to the dissolution of the East India Company. The Government of India Act 1858 meant that India was now to be administered directly by the British government in the new

Points to Note

The Ulama that were involved in the 1857 revolt knew very well the consequences of their actions, however they were driven by the Islamic teachings in enjoining what is good by standing up for justice, and repelling what is evil by fighting oppression and tyranny. Their objective was to replace the corrupt, imperialist administration by establishing a government based on principles of equality and justice.

The ḥadīth “the scholars are the inheritors of the Prophets” is often regarded as being about knowledge only, but what is knowledge if it does not transform a person’s outward action? Knowledge and action go hand in hand and are often mentioned together in various verses in the Qur’ān.

An interesting point that followed the revolts were the cases brought against many Ulama. The sedition cases were generally known as ‘the Wahabi Cases’ or the ‘Ambala Conspiracy Case’. What is of note is that while many Muslims today divide themselves based on their Aqīdah (Creed), it makes no difference to our detractors. For the British imperialists it did not matter what the Aqīdah of those Ulama in India actually was; for them, they were all the same—an obstacle to their continued oppressive hegemony. The pejorative Wahabi used against them entered into the British imagination and is recycled by some even until today.

Unfortunately, some “Ulama” today are involved in programmes and actions that make them stand on the wrong side of justice and history. Many are involved in the misnamed global Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programmes and, in doing so, provide tacit approval for the crimes of oppressive regimes across the world suppressing popular grassroots movements for self-determination. Some have gone to considerable lengths to demonise non-violent activists and groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, supporting the likes of Sisi’s “deformation of Islām” project.[9] There have even been recent reports of concern from Egypt of Muslim scholars being arrested for holding harmless, mainstream beliefs, such as that Christians are disbelievers in Islām.[10] In India some sectarian “Ulama” have even supported India’s extreme Hindu nationalist government’s decision to ludicrously place Peace TV founder Dr Zakir Naik on an Interpol list![11]

In the UK we have some self-styled “Ulama” and “Imams” being used as proponents of our equivalent of CVE, PREVENT, albeit shrinking in number as the toxicity of the policy is better and better known. Though no one will argue that there is anything wrong in wanting to prevent actual violence, CVE programmes such as PREVENT fit into an ideological construct which sees too much ‘Muslim-ness’ as a threat to the public or to “Western” liberal values and, therefore, equates religious conservatism with violent extremism. As such, normative Islamic beliefs and concepts seen through the lens of national security and thus criminalised in a pre-crime space, with the aim of creating a state-approved, diluted and obedient version of Islām that coincidentally shields oppressive regimes from criticism and condemnation.

Perhaps some Ulama involved in these programmes believe that they are preserving their Islamic organisations and institutions. To these scholars, I say that history is indeed a wonderful teacher if only people took note. When we look at the example of Muslim Spain, we see that the Nasrids in Granada also believed in saving themselves at the expense of helping their brethren. For nearly 200 years, Granada was the last Muslim “stronghold” ruled by the Nasrids as a vassal state of Christian kingdoms until 1492 when Granada was taken. Muslims paid a yearly tribute to the Christians in order to remain in Granada. The first of the Nasrid rulers Muhammad I accepted King Fernando III of Castile as his sovereign and in 1248 helped him, as his vassal, against his fellow Muslims to conquer Seville as well as other Muslim cities.[12] Despite the odd conflict, successive Nasirid rulers by and large collaborated with the Christians to suppress Muslim “rebels” as part of the “Countering Violent Extremism” policy of that time. While their Christian overlords allowed them to continue to survive and build in the end the result of joining hands with them against their own brethren was total devastation. When the Nasrids were of no further use to the Christian kings they were removed and the ensuing inquisition, torture, mass conversions and expulsions which followed completely eliminated Muslims from the face of the Iberian Peninsula.

It is a sad indictment that the great legacy of the noble Ulama of India’s freedom struggle is today tainted by a minority of those who claim to be their “heirs” who, rather than resisting, work hand in hand with those committing injustice. What is the price they are being asked to pay? For the Ulama of 1857, they paid the ultimate price with their life. However the Ulama here today are simply being asked to reject these discriminatory and unjust policies without threat to life or limb, for most of them.

The noble Ulama who fought colonialists are not only seen as heroes by Muslims, but even their foes recognised them as such. The British Army General, Sir Mowbray Thompson, who fought against Muslims in the uprisings of 1857, wrote in his memoir:

“If to fight for one’s country, plan and mastermind wars against mighty occupying powers are (acts of) patriotism, then undoubtedly the maulvis (i.e. the Ulama) were the loyal patriots of their country and their succeeding generations will remember them as heroes.”  

As for the Ulama of the CVE programmes, unless they change tact, rather than being seen as heroes, they will be remembered more like the Abū Raghāls of their time.[13]

Source: www.islam21c.com


[1] Tirmidhi

[2] John Frederick Walker, A Certain Curve of Horn: The Hundred-Year Quest for the Giant Sable Antelope of Angola (2004)

[3] Metcalf, Barbara D.; Metcalf, Thomas R. (2006), A Concise History of Modern India (2nd ed.), Cambridge University Press

[4] Headrick, Daniel R, The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press, 1981

[5] Mason, Philip, A Matter of Honour – an Account of the Indian Army.

[6] M. Burhanuddin Qasmi, Recounting Untold History Darul Uloom Deoband a heroic struggle against the British tyranny.

[7] Forster and Further, The Tradition of Anglo-Indian Fiction

[8] Dalrymple, The Last Moghul

[9] https://www.islam21c.com/politics/war-on-terror-2-0-openly-a-global-war-on-islam/

[10] http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=83078

[11] http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/nia-approaches-interpol-for-red-corner-notice-against-zakir-naik/articleshow/58631670.cms

[12] Miranda, Ambroxio Huici, The Iberian Peninsula and Sicily

[13] Abū Raghāl: In the year of the Prophet’s (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) birth the army of Abraha descended on Makkah. Abraha was a Christian ruler in Yemen who had built a big church, al-Qullays. He sought to destroy the Ka’ba in Makkah, making al-Qullays the centre of worship and trade for all of Arabia. To do this, he set out to destroy the Ka’ba and eliminate any opposition. In order to do this, however, he needed a guide to lead his army for the best route to Makkah. A man called Abū Raghāl from the city of Tā’if agreed to be the guide against his own people and against his co-religionists for a lowly wage. As the army of Abraha got to the gates of Makkah, Abū Raghāl died and the army of Abraha was destroyed. The Arabs of that time would often curse the grave of Abū Raghāl for being a traitor to his own people and to his own religion for mere dinars. Treachery is such a heinous crime that Abū Raghāl’s name has been immortalised on account of this lowly act.

About Z A Rahman

Z.A Rahman is a community activist and a member of a large Mosque in the UK. He has a keen interest in politics and history, particularly Islamic history. He also enjoys traveling and has visited numerous countries in the Middle East and North Africa.


  1. Very interesting article. However, I think the name “Baharuddin” referred to the last Mogul Emperor is incorrect. The correct name is “Bahadur Shah Zafar”.

  2. just came across it; missed it in ramadaan

    very enlightening

    the picture, motivating.

    not frightened of death or ‘them’

    reminds one of sulooq,one of the many concentration camps they ‘put’ us muslims into…hanging of umar mukhtaar; hanging us and killing us, the norm in colonialist land.

    youll kill us, but not our faith

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