The Great Deception: Taliban Jihad's Wahhabi Roots
Weekly Pulse
April 24-30, 2009
In the north-western frontiers of South Asia, history seems to have turned full circle, as the rise of militant Wahhabi-Deobandi Taliban movement in Pakistan’s Afghan border regions today has stark resemblance with the growth of violent Wahhabi-Ahle-Hadith movement in northern India at the start of the 19th century. The recent takeover of Swat Valley by Sufi Muhammad’s Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi has a historical precedent in the 1830 capture of Peshawar by Syed Ahmad Brelvi’s Tariqah-i Muhhamdiyah forces.

In fact, in al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his Taliban allies, we see the reincarnation of the thought of Syed Ahmed Shaheed: if a violent jihadi sanctuary can be established in a remote mountainous region with a conservative people sympathetic to the cause of violent jihad, it can be used as a springboard for spreading religious radicalism elsewhere. It is no surprise, therefore, that that the area chosen by al-Qaeda and Taliban for the purpose is the same as was selected by Syed Ahmed Shaheed two centuries ago, and Sufi Muhammad and his followers are as much zealous about expanding their extremist writ beyond Swat Valley as Syed Ahmad and his successors were a couple of centuries ago.

The same appears to be the case with the current myth surrounding bin Laden’s tactical disappearance from the scene of violent jihad with a similar myth about Syed Ahmad Shaheed, who had actually died in the 1831 battle of Balakot. His successors, especially brothers Wilayat Ali and Inayat Ali from north Indian region of Sittana, kept deceiving the followers of Ahle-Hadith movement in 19th century India for several decades later by claiming that their “Imam Saheb” was alive in a cave in Buner mountains and urging them to migrate to remote mountainous areas to lay the base for the final jihad, upon which, they forecasted, the “hidden Imam” would abandon the cave to lead them for final victory against the “oppressors.”

God’s Terrorists

In his pioneering work on the historical roots of modern jihad in South Asia titled God’s Terrorists, as cited in Part I of this article, Charles Allen cites numerous instances of how Syed Ahmad’s successors cashed in on the mystery and confusion surrounding the fate of Emir-ul Mo’mineen of Tariqah-i Muhhamdiyah at the battle of Balakot. Since no one had actually seen him die at the hands of the Sikh army, old and new, Shia and Sunni doomsday prophesies about the return of Imam Mehdi were used to claim his physical wellbeing and eventual comeback to lead the final battle between the good and the evil.

If Syed Ahmad was still alive, the violent jihad he had proclaimed could be continued. Thus, in 1835, Caliph Nasiruddin, one of the surviving leaders of the Ahle-Hadith movement, attempted a second hijra of the followers of Syed Ahmad towards Afghanistan to resume the fight against Sikhs. The hijra ended in a disaster. However, by then, a cult was surely found around Syed Ahmad.

Those who had been closest to Syed Ahmad Brelvi set down their recollections of ‘Imam Saheb,’ and collected his sayings. He was credited with saintly virtues and miraculous powers were attributed to him—one of which, seemingly, was the ability to rise from the dead. Such attributes were a departure from original Wahhabism of Arabia, as Ahle-Hadith movement embraced some features of the tradition of Sufism in the Indian subcontinent. Simultaneously, prophecies were used to justify Syed Ahmad’s eventual return to lead his followers in the path of violent jihad, including a Shia prophecy which gave the date of the forthcoming advent of Imam-Mahdi as the year 1260 AH, corresponding to 1843-4 in the Christian calendar. Maulvi Wilayat Ali was the leading proponent of the cult of Syed Ahmad and the chief ideologue and propagandist of the Ahle-Hadith movement across India. He campaigned for another mass migration of Ahle-Hadith members to fight against the British and their local collaborators during the British armed campaign in Afghanistan in 1830s and 1840s. One such attempt was crushed in Ghazni by the forces of Afghan Pashtun leader Shah Shuja, who was installed afterwards by the British as the Emir of Afghanistan.

However, within months, as the British received a drubbing in Afghanistan and withdrew their troops from the frontier, the violent Ahle-Hadith movement resurged. As Charles Allen writes, “The Wahhabi faithful in the Indian plains learned that their Hidden Imam in the mountains had at last ended his self-imposed exile and was preparing to resume personal command of the jihad from Sittana. It was announced that letters had been received in Patna, written by Syed Ahmad's first disciple Shah Muhammad Ismail but dictated by his master. They summoned the faithful to join him in the mountains of Buner [currently the scene of Taliban expansionism] so that the holy war might be resumed. Those who were unable to come themselves were to participate in the jihad by providing funds and food.

“Whatever their origins - and the suspicion must be that they were the work of Wilayat Ali - these letters had the desired effect. The mystique of Syed Ahmad, both as martyr and as lost leader in waiting, had grown over the years and to many young men of faith he now came to be seen as a unique symbol of Islamic resistance and resurgence—very much as Osama bin Laden became in later years.”

Deception Exposed

One of the highlights of Allen’s work pertains to how this great deception revolving around the messianic myth-making was exposed. The instance he mentions is worth-narrating in some detail.

Allen writes, “Large numbers of mujahideen volunteers responded to the call, among them a devout but unusually independent-minded mullah from Hyderabad [in present-day India] named Maulvi Zain ul-Abdin, who had been converted to Wahhabism by Wilayat Ali during one of his visits to the city. Traveling across India in small parties to escape detection, Zain ul-Abdin and almost a thousand recruits from Deccan made their way to Sittana to begin their military training. However, Zain ul-Abdin was determined to meet the Hidden Imam whose call he and his fellow Hyderabadis had answered. He demanded to see the Emir ul-Mo’mineem and, after being repeatedly fobbed off with excuses, was finally led up into the mountains above the Hindustani camp to a point from where he and a number of other curious mujahideen could make out a distant cave, at the entrance of which stood three figures dressed in white robes.

“These, he was told, were the Amir-ul-Mo’mineen and the two disciples who attended to his daily needs. The spectators were then made to promise not to go any closer, because if they or anyone else did so the Hidden Imam would again disappear, and remain hidden from the sight of man for fourteen years. Thrilled as he and the others were by this distant glimpse of their leader, Zain ul-Abdin found himself unable to contain his curiosity. “Finally, he and a number of comrades bolder than the rest went back up into the mountains to take a closer look. They clambered right up to the cave and found, to their horror, that the three figures were nothing more than effigies. As Zain ul-Abdin later reported, he examined the figure of the supposed imam and found that it was a goatskin stuffed with grass, which with the help of some pieces of wood, hair, etc. was made to resemble a man. The suppliant enquired from Qasin Kazzab [Maulvi Qasim Panipati, the Wahhabi's caliph at Sittana] about this. He answered that it was true, but that the Imam Human had performed a miracle, and appeared as a stuffed figure.

“Thoroughly outraged by this deception, Zain ul-Abdin promptly decamped from Sittana together with most of the thousand volunteers from Hyderabad. Thereafter he became a vociferous critic of the Wahhabis. 'This deception', he wrote, 'is only a small portion of the acts, idolatry and heresy of these people ... Now the errors and falsity of these people are as clear as noon-day, and [by abandoning them] I have saved my soul from sin.' Other disillusioned volunteers also decamped from Sittana, claiming that they too had been deceived. They included a number of unemployed weavers from Bengal, priced out of the market by cheap imported cotton goods manufactured in the Lancashire mills….the great majority of recruits who went to Sittana in order to fight were poor, illiterate and unskilled young men, while those who trained and indoctrinated them were almost invariably mullahs, older and better-educated. The same pattern continues to this day.”

The foot-soldiers of al-Qaeda and Taliban today hail from similar poverty-ridden and ignorant social backgrounds, and the leaders of Wahhabism-inspired violent movements at present, be it Afghan Taliban or their Pakistani affiliates, are essentially clerical. The myths about icons of jihadi militancy today are also as unfounded as they were in the middle of the 19th century in India. However, even if they were discredited then, by Zain ul-Abdin and thousands of other Wahhabis from Hyderabad, the bitter truth is that Wahhabi Ahle-Hadith leaders still “continued to send their missionaries out into the towns, villages and military cantonments, preaching jihad and the imminent return of the Hidden Imam.”

As Allen further writes, “The two Ali brothers, Maulvis Wilayat Ali and Inayat Ali, spearheaded the proselytising programme….Meanwhile, another Ali on the Wahhabi Council in Patna , Yahya Ali, youngest son of Elahi Bux, was focusing his efforts on restructuring the organization. Under his aegis, which lasted right through into the mid-1860s, the Path of Muhammad movement became increasingly sophisticated and increasingly covert…Within a decade the Wahhabi movement in India was transformed from a minority preaching sect into a highly effective organisation for Islamic revival and revolution, with branches throughout northern India and the support of a large popular constituency drawn mainly from the labouring classes.”

Maulvis Wilayat Ali and Inayat Ali “had not been long established in Sittana when it became clear that they differed on how the jihad was now to be prosecuted. Officially the dead Syed Ahmad was the movement's Imam and Emir but as long as he remained hidden the two brothers shared these two roles between them, Wilayat Ali as Imam and Inayat Ali as Emir. The problem was that the former believed they should wait until the movement had gained more support, while the latter saw it as their religious duty to resume Syed Ahmad's jihad without further delay.”

Wilayat Ali could, therefore, be called an equivalent of Abdullah Azzam, the late teacher of Osama bin Laden, who opposed Ayman al-Zawahiri’s use of rampant terrorism to emulate Mujahideen’s 1980s success against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the rest of the Muslim world ruled by perceived ‘apostate’ rulers and regimes. Inayat Ali could, therefore, be considered as 19th century replica of al-Zawahiri. The only difference is that Wilayat Ali died a natural death, and Azzam was assassinated in 1989, most probably on the asking of Zawahiri.

Just as Azzam’s assassination in 1989 would give a free hand to Zawahiri to orchestrate a wave of terrorism in the next two decades until today, Wilayat Ali's death left his brother Inayat Ali “free to act as he judged fit. He at once descended on Sittana, became the Imam of the Fanatic Camp and ordered the Hindustanis on to the offensive - their first aggressive act being the seizing of the fort at Kotla from the Khan of Amb.” Many more acts of violent jihad followed in the run up to the 1857 Indian revolt against the British and its aftermaths.

Arabist Shift

Charles Allen is not alone in seeing the roots of modern jihad in South Asia in the rise of Wahhabi extremism and militarism in the Indian subcontinent from the start of 19th century onwards. There are many others. For example, my friend Suroosh Irfani also traces the ‘Arabist shift’ in Pakistan’s religious creed to the “onset of the Indian Wahhabi movement in the early nineteenth century. ["Pakistan's Sectarian Violence: Between the Arabist Shift and Indo-Persian Culture", in Limaye, Malik & Wirsing eds, Regligious Radicalism and Security in South Asia (Honolulu, Hawaii: Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, 2004), pp 147-170]

“Although the Taliban are not Arab,” Suroosh argues, Talibanic Islam is a vigorous manifestation of the ‘Arabist shift’, of which Osama bin Laden has become the icon par excellence in Pakistan today.” He also confirms that “the moving spirit behind the Indian Wahhabi movement was the charismatic Syed Ahmed Barelvi, who remains an icon of Islamic revivalism in terms of a Wahhabi-Deobandi nexus, the dominant force of Islamic orthodoxy in Pakistan and Afghanistan today.

According to Suroosh, the avatars of such a nexus dominating Pakistan’s religio-political landscape include the various factions of the mainstream Sunni Deobandi Jamiyat-e-Ulama-e-Islam and several other sectarian and militant groups generally seen as Deobandi-Wahhabi organizations, such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Lashkar e Jhangvi, Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi, Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, besides many splinter factions.

Suroosh further argues: “Religious extremism in Pakistan has morphed into a jihadi culture with the militarization of Wahhabi-Deobandi Talibanic Afghanistan on the one hand and induction of jihadi outfits in the Kashmiri freedom struggle on the other. The convergence of local and cross-border extremism has led to a radicalization of hitherto ‘moderate’ religious sensibilities as well. An example of this is the radicalization of some Barelvi groups—the moderate ‘third force’ in the religio-political Sunni scene.

”Feeling hemmed in by Deobandi and Wahhabi hegemony, the Barelvi backlash took the form of the Sunni Tehreek—a militant movement that surfaced in 1992 for protecting Barelvi mosques and interests against the onslaught of the Deobandi SSP and the Wahhabi Lashkar-e-Tayyeba. Sunni Tehreek’s founder, Saeed Qadri was murdered along with five of his colleagues in May 2001, but there seemed no let up in the Barelvi turn to militancy. Indeed, the largest Barelvi religio-political party, the Jamiyat-e-Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP) ended up doing what its more radical rivals had desisted from: JUP’s Secretary-General Sheikh Mir Hamza put down his signatures on Osama bin Laden’s fatwa of February 23, 1998, calling on Muslims to kill Americans and their allies “everywhere”. Sheikh Hamza, then, became the only religious leader of Pakistan who co-sponsored a fatwa with Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri that declared a civilisational war on Christians and Jews.”


Decades before India formally became part of the British Empire in the middle of 19th century, a section of Indian Muslims who had deviated from the true path of Islam, a religion of peace and tolerance, had begun to spread their radical militaristic agenda in the Subcontinent, making its north-western Afghan frontier as a base for violent jihad. The Wahhabism-inspired Ahle-Hadith movement for such jihad was inspired by unfounded myths, and its largely ignorant and poor followers were lured into radicalism through lies and deceit. In the end, the revolutionary and militaristic path preached and practiced by the Ahle-Hadith followers of Wahhabism in India under the British came to nowhere. No surprise that no leader or entity motivated by radical religious ambitions played any role in the creation of Pakistan. Instead, the movement for establishing a separate Muslim nation in the Subcontinent was spearheaded by a democratic party representing Indian Muslim aspirations for freedom, the All-India Muslim League, under the farsighted and pragmatic leadership of Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a politician and lawyer par excellence.

Over sixty years since independence, Pakistan is confronting a far more mortal danger from the very radical forces who had opposed its creation and are now attempting to hijack its founding destiny as a progressive, tolerant and democratic nation. Just like their violent Ahle-Hadith ancestors, the militant Deobandi Taliban and their local and foreign affiliates are luring the hapless masses of the frontier and south Punjab towards extremism and terrorism. Whatever the level of social injustice in Pakistan, or its similarity to the status of Indian Muslims in pre-Partition era, the entire discourse of the bigoted clerical leaders of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammabi or Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan today reflects nothing but a repetition of the same myths, lies and deceit on the basis of which Wahabism-inspired militarism had thrived in Indian during much of the 19th century.

However, if modern history of the Subcontinent teaches us any lesson, it is that just as the followers of Wahabi militarism in the region could not succeed in achieving their heinous ambitions in the past, they should fail in realizing them now and in future as well. So there is glimmer of hope even in an otherwise dark horizon at present. Slowly but surely, as the state and society in Pakistan gears up to confront this mortal national danger, we can hope, or perhaps be sure, that the very democratic and moderate forces that had prevailed upon their theocratic and intolerant rivals in the run up to the establishment of Pakistan would not let these forces succeed in hatching their deceitful conspiracy to destroy Pakistan today.

-- This is second in a series of two articles on the historical roots of al-Qaeda-inspired, Taliban-driven jihad movement in Pakistan’s tribal mountainous regions, slowly spreading its tentacles across the country after recently establishing its foothold in the Swat Valley.

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