It could have meant a completely different Indian Subcontinent as we know it. After centuries of subjugation under the East India Company, subcontinental Muslims made their biggest stand in an uprising against the British – the Indian Rebellion of 1857. If successful, perhaps it might have been the sign that would embolden colonised people everywhere, to inspire them to revolt against a burgeoning and constricting European colonial grip on the world.
However, as Allah Most High had willed it, the events of 1857 became known as one of Islamic history’s most costly and bloody failures, another nail in the coffin of an independent vision for an Islamic politics.
Tired of British colonial rule and oppression, the people of various parts of India rose up against the British colonialists. The rebellion started when sepoys, soldiers employed by the British East India Company, revolted after continued and increased discrimination and harmful relations. This would include imposing acts upon them that contradicted their religious beliefs, and this was the case for both Muslim and Hindu sepoys. An infamous example is sepoys having to use lard (pig fat) as a greasing agent in rifles issued by the British, despite protests over its being a filthy substance in the eyes of Muslims.
From its roots in regional triggers such as the rifle issue, the rebellion gained momentum around the more core and fundamental issues of subjugation to the British and oppression by them; it became a rallying call for pent-up hatred of the British and quickly spread to other people, including civilians and some Nawabs – British approved local rulers who turned along with their subjects despite having for some time been subservient to the British agenda in return for local power and protection.
The spiritual leadership of the revolt lay with the final Mughal Sultan – Shah Alam – who was deposed following the revolt by the British (the Mughal Sultanate was officially disbanded with this fateful final act) and the last Sultan was deported to Burma to die in obscurity a few years later.
One of the most important elements of society that the rebellion spread to was the Muslim scholars – the ‘Ulema. These numbered in the tens of thousands and had sway over districts within major towns and villages in rural areas. India’s population was already large and Muslims formed a significant portion of it: the size of the ‘ulema then is hardly a surprise.
Islamic scholarship remained strong despite the general decline in learning during the era of the Nawabs. It was testament to the strength of traditional Islamic learning in India in preceding centuries, particularly the traditions and preservation of the Hanafi Madhab. At this point in time, most scholars were united by a general movement called Jamiatul ‘Ulema, which consisted of tens if not hundreds of thousands of people – scholars and students of knowledge alike. These scholars actively urged people to rebel, especially the Muslims; in Mosques, sermons were given exhorting people to rise up against colonialists who were popularly felt to have much overstayed their “welcome” (one which unwitting previous members of the Mughal dynasty had in part granted them, no doubt none the wiser about their nefarious intentions which would manifest in following centuries).
Interestingly, despite their obvious cultural and creedal issues, even Muslims and Hindus in numerous instances in this struggle worked and fought together. In the case of rebelling Hindu elements, they recognised the leadership of Shah Alam as the guide of the revolt. The Mughal authority was by 1857 mainly confined to Delhi and its surroundings, which is where Shah Alam coordinated and advised others from.
While Hindus revolted along with the Muslims in many places – and were independent of Muslims in others – for the large part the revolt is seen as a Muslim rebellion. It was Muslims who had the greatest motivation in revolting, in part to regain lost power and prestige, and possessed most of the power in the northern half of the subcontinent (with designs on the rest) until the British East India Company invaded.
The rebellion was made up of smaller wars and conflicts in various parts of India between the rebels and the forces of the British as well as the many British agents, especially the Nawabs who remained dedicated servants to the EIC. They used “loyal” employees who had been bought for money and patronage in return for guarantees of safety – both “Muslims” and Hindus. These were utilised by both the British as well as the regional Nawabs who remained loyal to the British in order to quash the various uprisings.
In certain places resistance was confined to protests and demonstrations. In other parts, battles ensued, some going for months, but as time went on the resistance was eventually defeated. One by one the centres of rebellion were neutralised by the British and their agents.
What followed was what is known in Arabic and Urdu as qatl ‘aam – widespread and indiscriminate killing. It was bloodshed, massacre and revenge by the British on a massive scale, in which the blood of the rebels and their supporters flowed in rivers. The British would share the burden of slaughter with their client Nawabs, and the Nawabs would in turn have the relevant people and rebels executed by their subjects. As such, Indian was forced to kill Indian, and often “Muslim” forced to kill Muslim. The repercussions from the British machinery were brutal. People were killed en masse, with the preferred mode of killing being public hanging, in order send a clear message to detractors of the colony.
The class of people that suffered the most were the ‘Ulema/scholars and their students and supporters. They were rounded up and made an example of, and indeed used as a deterrent for others. They were butchered in their tens of thousands, if not more. It was known that they were the root of dissent and the inspiration behind much of the rebellion in several centres, and thus held to account.
A most common report and articulation of the extent of the massacre was that for the 180 kilometres between Delhi and the city of Moradabad, the road was such that there were trees on either side of the road, forming a canopy and tunnel of sorts for the vast extent of this road. It is reported that there was not one tree on this road on both sides of the road except that a corpse of a Muslim scholar/member of ‘Jamiatul Ulema was hanging from it.
The uprising was put to an end, and the revolution that could have been was lost. Indian lives suffered a huge massacre, but so, too, was lost a great wealth of knowledge and leadership with the immense losses of the Muslim scholars. And through the absence of those who lit the fire of resistance, the spirit of the people would falter permanently.
For at least a generation or two the Muslims lost almost any willingness to resist, and when it returned, it did so in other forms and never consisting wholly of a dedication to an Islamic present and future.
The failed 1857 mutiny is probably the single greatest disaster in the history of the Muslims of Hind. We are still feeling the impacts of this today. But let it also teach us that courage exists in those who don’t make do with a status quo. As well as this, it should be heartening to note how revolution was stoked from the pulpits of mosques, and by none other than the Scholars and Shaykhs of the time. Indeed dissent, or “enjoining the good and forbidding the evil”, is a noble part of the Islamic scholarly tradition, and by no means are the masses discouraged from the innumerable rewards it entails.
May Allah raise these uncompromising martyrs to ranks they deserve, and may He show us such courage from our leadership in this life as well. Ameen.