Category Archives: religion

Mughal Legacies Erased

From The Last Mughal, by William Dalrymple (Knopf Doubleday, 2006), pp. 478-479, 484:

The autocratic political structures of Mughal rule received a devastating death blow. Only ninety years separated the British victory at the gates of Delhi in 1857 from the British eviction from South Asia through the Gateway of India in 1947. But while memories of British atrocities in 1857 may have assisted in the birth of Indian nationalism, as did the growing separation and mutual suspicion of rulers and ruled that followed the Uprising, it was not the few surviving descendants of the Mughals, nor any of the old princely and feudal rulers, who were in any way responsible for India’s march to independence. Instead, the Indian freedom movement was led by the new Anglicised and educated Colonial Service class who emerged from English-language schools after 1857, and who by and large used modern Western democratic structures and methods—political parties, strikes and protest marches—to gain their freedom.

Even after independence, the arts that were cultivated by the Mughals—the miniature-painting tradition, the ghazal, the delicate forms of Mughal architecture—never really regained their full vitality or artistic prestige, and remained—at least in some quarters—as discredited as the emperors who patronised them.

Today, if you visit the old Mughal city of Agra, perhaps to see the Taj Mahal, the supreme architectural achievement of Mughal rule, note how the roundabouts are full of statues of the Rani of Jhansi, Shivaji and even Subhas Chandra Bose; but not one image of any Mughal Emperor has been erected anywhere in the city since independence. Although a Bahadur Shah Zafar road still survives in Delhi, as indeed do roads named after all the other Great Mughals, for many Indians today, rightly or wrongly, the Mughals are perceived as it suited the British to portray them in the imperial propaganda that they taught in Indian schools after 1857: as sensual, decadent, temple-destroying invaders—something that was forcefully and depressingly demonstrated by the whole episode of the demolition of the Baburi Masjid at Ayodhya in 1992. The profoundly sophisticated, liberal and plural civilisation championed by Akbar, Dara Shukoh or the later Mughal Emperors has only a limited resonance for the urban middle class in modern India. Many of these are now deeply ambivalent about the achievements of the Mughals, even if they will still happily eat a Mughal meal, or flock to the cinema to watch a Bollywood Mughal epic, or indeed head to the Red Fort to hear their Prime Minister give the annual Independence Day speech from the battlements in front of the Lahore Gate.

There was nothing inevitable about the demise and extinction of the Mughals, as the sepoys’ dramatic surge towards the court of Delhi showed. But in the years to come, as Muslim prestige and learning sank, and Hindu confidence, wealth, education and power increased, Hindus and Muslims would grow gradually apart, as British policies of divide and rule found willing collaborators among the chauvinists of both faiths. The rip in the closely woven fabric of Delhi’s composite culture, opened in 1857, slowly widened into a great gash, and at Partition in 1947 finally broke in two. As the Indian Muslim elite emigrated en masse to Pakistan, the time would soon come when it would be almost impossible to imagine that Hindu sepoys could ever have rallied to the Red Fort and the standard of a Muslim emperor, joining with their Muslim brothers in an attempt to revive the Mughal Empire.

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1857: Uprising as Class Warfare

From The Last Mughal, by William Dalrymple (Knopf Doubleday, 2006), Kindle pp. 154-155:

Whatever its causes, the response to the Uprising fractured along distinct class lines. From the morning of 11 May onwards, the most enthusiastic insurgents among the people of Delhi were the workmen of the lower middle class—especially the Muslim weavers and textile merchants—and the same Punjabi Muslim manufacturing and merchant class who had long supported the mujahedin movement. It was these people who immediately swelled the ranks of the initially very small number of sepoys who had arrived in the Mughal capital, creating a panic and allowing many of the poorer Delhiwallahs to set off on an orgy of looting.

In contrast, the Delhi elite, both Hindu and Muslim, remained divided on the merits of joining the Uprising, and were from the start dubious about playing host to large numbers of desperate and violent sepoys from the east of Hindustan. According to one angry eyewitness, the nobleman Abdul Latif: “The teachings of all religions were ignored and violated; even the poor women and children were not spared. The elite and the respected gentry of the city were appalled at the actions [of the insurgents] and were seen pleading with them. Ah! An entire world was destroyed, and as a result of these sins this city was struck down by the evil-eye.” Ghalib was also quite clear that he didn’t like the look of what was happening: “Swarming through the open gates of Delhi, the intoxicated horsemen and rough foot soldiers ravished the city,” he wrote. …

For Ghalib, the Uprising was more about the rise of the rabble of the lower classes than it was about the fall of the British. For him the most terrifying aspect of the revolution was the way his own courtly elite seemed to have lost control to a group of ill-educated ruffians of dubious ancestry: “Noble men and great scholars have fallen from power,” he wrote,

and nameless men with neither name nor pedigree nor jewels nor gold, now have prestige and unlimited riches. One who wandered dust-stained through the streets as if blown by an idle wind, has proclaimed the wind his slave … In its shamelessness the rabble, sword in hand, rallied to one group after another. Throughout the day the rebels looted the city, and at night they slept in silken beds … The city of Delhi was emptied of its rulers and peopled instead by creatures of the Lord who accepted no lord—as if it were a garden without a gardener, and full of fruitless trees … The Emperor was powerless to repulse them; their forces gathered around him, and he fell under their duress, engulfed by them as the moon is engulfed by the eclipse.

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Muslims Against the Mughals, 1850s

From The Last Mughal, by William Dalrymple (Knopf Doubleday, 2006), Kindle pp. 75-77:

JUST AS MILITANT Christians were a growing force among the British in the early 1850s, so among Delhi’s Muslims there was a parallel rise in rigid fundamentalism that displayed the same utter certainty and disdain for the faiths of others, as well as a similar willingness to use force against the infidel.

If the great abolitionist William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect had helped generate the spread of fundamentalist Evangelical attitudes in English Christianity, on the Muslim side the father of the radical Islamic reform movement was Shah Waliullah, an eighteenth-century Delhi divine who had gone to study at Medina in the Hejaz at the same time as Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of the Arabian Wahhabis. While there is no evidence that the two ever met, they shared an almost identical theology, and when he returned to India, Shah Waliullah quickly declared war on what he saw as the perverted and deviant interpretations of Islam practiced in Delhi.

Shah Waliullah and his sons—notably William Fraser’s friend Shah Abdul Aziz—strongly opposed the Sufi veneration of saints, which they likened to idol worship, and were especially outspoken about the syncretic practices they believed Indian Muslims had picked up from their Hindu neighbours: making pilgrimages to Hindu holy places, consulting Hindu astrologers, piercing the noses of women for nose studs, lighting lamps on tombs, playing music in holy places, and celebrating Hindu festivals. Even the practice of eating on banana leaves was anathematised. The Shah’s solution was to strip out all non-Islamic accretions and innovations, and to emphasise instead a strictly Koranic monotheism in which prayers could be directed only to God, and never through any saintly intermediary.

Judging human reason to be incapable of reaching divine truth on its own, Shah Waliullah emphasised the importance of revealed divine revelation and urged a return to the text of the Koran and the Hadiths. In order to make those texts easily available to ordinary people, the Shah translated the Koran into Persian while his sons later translated it into Urdu and disseminated both translations through the new Delhi printing presses. Like the Wahhabis, Shah Waliullah also opposed what he saw as the corrupt Muslim rulers of his day, and from his family stronghold in the Madrasa i-Rahimiyya he and his sons and grandsons encouraged Delhiwallahs to defy what he perceived as the decadence of the Mughals and not behave like “camels with strings in their noses.”

Shah Waliullah’s dislike of the Mughals was as much theological as political. For generations the Mughal emperors had intermarried with Hindus—Zafar was quite typical in having a Rajput mother—and the slow seepage of Hindu ideas and customs from the harem into the rest of the Palace had led the later Mughal emperors to subscribe to a particularly tolerant and syncretic form of Sufi Islam, aligned to the liberal Chishti brotherhood, at the very opposite end of the theological spectrum from the hard-line views of Shah Waliullah; many fundamentalists regarded such liberal views as bordering on infidelity—kufr.

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India Becomes a Mission Field, 1850s

From The Last Mughal, by William Dalrymple (Knopf Doubleday, 2006), Kindle pp. 61-62, 70:

India in the 1840s and 1850s was slowly filling with pious British Evangelicals who wanted not just to rule and administer India, but also to redeem and improve it. In Calcutta Jennings’ colleague Mr. Edmunds was vocal in making known his belief that the Company should use its position more forcibly to bring about the conversion of India. “The time appears to have come,” he wrote in a widely read circular letter, “when earnest consideration should be given to the subject, whether or not all men should embrace the same system of religion. Railways, steam vessels and the electric telegraph are rapidly uniting all the nations of the earth … The land is being leavened and Hinduism is being everywhere undermined. Great will some day, in God’s appointed time, be the fall of it.”

Nor was it any longer just the missionaries who dreamt of converting India. To the north-west of Delhi, the Commissioner of Peshawar, Herbert Edwardes, firmly believed an empire had been given to Britain because of the virtues of English Protestantism: “The Giver of Empires is indeed God,” he wrote, and He gave the Empire to Britain because “England had made the greatest effort to preserve the Christian religion in its purest apostolic form.” It followed that the more the British strove to propagate that pure faith, the more Providence would smile on their efforts at empire building. In this spirit, the district judge of Fatehpur, Robert Tucker, had recently set up large stone columns inscribed with the Ten Commandments in Persian, Urdu, Hindi and English and used “two or three times a week to read the Bible in Hindoostanee to large numbers of natives who were assembled in the compound to hear him.”

Such Evangelical enthusiasms had even spread to the British Army in India. According to one trooper of the Dragoon Guards, “a religious mania sprang up and reigned supreme … the adjutant and sergeant major having become quite sanctimonious, attending religious meetings every morning.” It became a watchword in such regiments that “no soldiers ever show themselves more invincible than those who can pray as well as fight.” It was a similar case in the Company’s own army, where officers like Colonel Steven Wheler, commanding officer of the 34th Native Infantry, were in the habit of reading the Bible to his sepoys as well as proselytising to “natives of all classes … in the highways, cities, bazaars and villages … [hoping that] the Lord would make him the happy instrument of converting his neighbour to God or, in other words, of rescuing him from eternal damnation.”

THE NEW ATTITUDES of the Evangelicals were only part of a more widespread and visibly growing arrogance on the part of the increasingly powerful British. Since they had finally succeeded in conquering and subduing the Sikhs in 1849, the British at last found themselves the masters of South Asia: every single one of their military rivals had now been conquered—Siraj ud-Daula of Bengal in 1757, the French in 1761, Tipu Sultan of Mysore in 1799, and the Marathas in 1803 and again, finally, in 1819.

For the first time there was a feeling that technologically, economically and politically, as well as culturally, the British had nothing to learn from India and much to teach; it did not take long for imperial arrogance to set in. This arrogance, when combined with the rise of Evangelical Christianity, slowly came to affect all aspects of relations between the British and the Indians.

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1857: The Sepoy Jihad

From The Last Mughal, by William Dalrymple (Knopf Doubleday, 2006), Kindle pp. 22-23:

For many the appeal of the Mughal Emperor was as much religious as political. As far as the Indian participants were concerned, the Uprising was overwhelmingly expressed as a war of religion, and looked upon as a defensive action against the rapid inroads missionaries and Christianity were making in India, as well as a more generalised fight for freedom from foreign domination. The Great Mutiny has usually been presented by the Marxist historians of the 1960s and 1970s primarily as a rising against British social and economic policies, as both urban revolution and a peasants’ revolt sparked off by loss of land rights and employment opportunities as much as anything else. All this certainly played a part. Yet when the Indian participants of the Uprising articulate the reason for their revolt—as they do with great frequency and at some length in the Mutiny Papers—they invariably state that they were above all resisting a move by the Company to impose Christianity and Christian laws on India—something many Evangelical Englishmen were indeed contemplating.

As the sepoys told Zafar on 11 May 1857, “we have joined hands to protect our religion and our faith.” Later they stood in the Chandni Chowk, the main street of Delhi, and asked people: “Brothers: are you with those of the faith?” British men and women who had converted to Islam—and there were a surprising number of those in Delhi—were not hurt; but Indians who had converted to Christianity were cut down immediately. As late as 6 September, when calling the people of Delhi to rally against the coming assault by the British, a proclamation issued in the name of Zafar spelled out very plainly “that this is a religious war, and is being prosecuted on account of the faith, and it behoves all Hindus and Musalman residents of the imperial city, or of the villages in the country…to continue true to their faith and creeds.” Even if one accepts that the word “religion” (for Muslims din) is often being used in the very general and non-sectarian sense of dharma (or duty, righteousness)—so that when the sepoys say they are rising to defend their dharma, they mean as much their way of life as their sectarian religious identity—it is still highly significant that the Urdu sources usually refer to the British not as angrez (the English) or as goras (whites) or even firangis, but instead almost always as kafirs (infidels) and nasrani (Christians).

Although the great majority of the sepoys were Hindus, in Delhi a flag of jihad was raised in the principal mosque, and many of the insurgents described themselves as mujahedin, ghazis and jihadis. Indeed, by the end of the siege, after a significant proportion of the sepoys had melted away, unpaid, hungry and dispirited, the proportion of jihadis in Delhi grew to be about a quarter of the total fighting force, and included a regiment of “suicide ghazis” from Gwalior who had vowed never to eat again and to fight until they met death at the hands of the kafirs, “for those who have come to die have no need for food.” One of the causes of unrest, according to one Delhi source, was that “the British had closed the madrasas.” These were words that had no resonance to the historians of the 1960s. Now, sadly, in the aftermath of 9/11 and 7/7, they are phrases we understand all too well, and words like jihad scream out of the dusty pages of the source manuscripts, demanding attention.

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Crucible of the Taliban

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 255-257:

The Taliban was a cross-border movement led by Afghan Pashtuns trained in Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan. Its ideological roots lay there, and its Afghan leaders had close ties with religious parties in Pakistan. The madrasas had grown at a tremendous rate in Pakistan under Zia al Haq, attracting a large number of Afghan refugee boys by offering free room and board along with education. During the Soviet war, the schools’ graduates joined the mujahideen to fight in Afghanistan in defense of Islam through the existing Peshawar party structure. But because the civil war now pitted Muslim against Muslim, the Taliban movement’s goal shifted to ending the disorder while also reforming Afghanistan’s religious and cultural practices by creating a pure Islamic state along Salafist lines. This ambition was shared by the religious parties within Pakistan, but the disorder in Afghanistan gave the Taliban a better chance of achieving it.

The Taliban was unlike other Afghan political movements not only in the exclusively clerical origin of its leaders but in the refugee origins of its followers too. The Soviet war lasted for so long and the refugee flow into neighboring countries was so great that over time they created a new class of people: refugee Afghans born in Pakistan who had never seen the country or experienced life there. Refugee camps are notorious hotbeds for radical movements of all types because they are generally poor, provide few opportunities for young people, and are under the control of political factions that manipulate their populations. The hope of recovering a lost homeland is a particularly powerful ideal, but as time passes the view of this homeland becomes more and more mythical because refugee children know of it only by hearsay. The past is idealized because the present is so miserable and the future is so uncertain. Groups with extreme messages, whether their ideologies are political, ethnic, or religious, galvanize their followers not only with the visions of reclaiming a lost homeland but also of then transforming it. Refugees in Afghanistan did better than most. They experienced a tactical victory when the Soviets withdrew and in theory could return to their homeland.

But the fighting among the mujahideen foreclosed that option for most. Even when the refugees did return, their homeland was not what they had known when they left it. Although poor before the war, the Afghan economy at least functioned, and there was general security for life and property. Now there was none. The mujahideen, who had been heroes in the anti-Soviet jihad, lost respect when they became mere factions engaged in self-interested and violent struggles for power with other similar groups. The Taliban drew on this discontent in two ways. First, they recruited men who had been too young to participate in the anti-Soviet war and gave them a chance to participate in a new type of jihad—one that would bring a “truer version” of Islam to Afghanistan. Jihad had been the focal experience for young men throughout the Soviet war, and a new generation of refugee youths was looking for a goal that was equally as idealistic. That the Taliban’s view of Islam was far more radically reactionary than any existing in Afghanistan previously meant little to people who had nothing to compare it with. For them it was far easier to imagine an ideal Afghan way of life, and to enforce it on others, because they drew their lessons from religious schools rather than the give-and-take of everyday life. Their hostility toward women may well have stemmed from being removed from their families and female relations at an early age to grow up in all-male religious schools. Second, the Taliban drew on the discontent of the population living in areas where chaos prevailed. For them, any ideology or regime that could bring about stability was preferable to the status quo.

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Religion and Rebellion in Afghanistan

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 122-124:

Until 1840 religion had played a minor role in internal Afghan politics because fighting had always been Muslim on Muslim. Raising the banner of jihad had been a popular way to mobilize Afghans outward for invasions directed at the polytheists on the Indian plain or their Muslim rulers. But the British occupation of Afghanistan in support of Shuja raised the question of whether his regime had lost the authority normally inherent to a Muslim ruler. If Shuja’s government was just a cloak for the rule of foreign infidels, then rebellion against it would be justified. The charge that the government had betrayed Afghanistan’s Muslims and deserved to be toppled was therefore a constant theme in the propaganda directed against the British and Shuja. It had surprisingly little resonance when the British first invaded. It gained traction as the occupation continued, particularly as the British began to direct more of the government’s workings themselves. Putting Afghan opposition in a religious framework also made it more difficult for the British to mobilize previously willing allies among the Ghilzai chiefs. These chiefs declared that it would be politically fatal to take a public stance against a popular jihad opposing foreign occupation when it was so strongly supported by their followers. Of course, as ibn Khaldun had observed, religion had always been the best way to unite tribes that were otherwise too divided to unite on any other basis. It also ennobled more self-interested political, economic, and personal motives. Shuja himself complained that “these men are not influenced by considerations of religion, they give their lives for the wealth of this world and do not fear death.” That may have been true, but leaping to a “defense of Islam” to justify resisting a regime in Kabul or its policies would henceforth become a sword that was rarely sheathed in Afghan politics, regardless of whether foreigners were actually present on Afghan soil.

The rebellions against the British did not originate within Afghanistan’s Durrani elite. Although those who had experienced a loss of power may have incited others to violence, they took on leadership roles only well after the fighting had started. Instead, the first rebellions were mounted by more marginal groups that had their own grievances. The most important of these were the Pashtun Ghilzai tribes to the east and south of Kabul, and the Tajik Kohistanis of the plains and mountains north of Kabul. Chiefs and clergy from these regions who mobilized their own fighters were at the center of the resistance, not the existing forces of the irregular cavalry that were commanded by the Durranis. The trouble was also localized. The Durranis in Qandahar did not rise at all until two months after Kabul had fallen and then failed to take the city. Nor were there uprisings among the Hazaras, the Uzbeks, or in distant Herat. But in spite of their crucial contributions to the success of the war, neither the Kohistanis nor the Ghilzais took the opportunity to put themselves into power. They instead sought out military and political leadership from the existing (and politically vacillating) Barakzai and Sadozai elite. For example, the Kohistanis initially raised troops in the name of Shuja until he denounced them for using his name and forged seals to justify their rebellion. When it became clear that Shuja was sticking with the British, the Ghilzais and Kohistanis then rallied around Akbar when he took command of the forces besieging their cantonment in Kabul. Although it was he who took the lead in dealing with the British politically, Akbar’s power then and in the months that followed depended more on his Ghilzai allies than his Barakzai kinsmen.

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