After the battle of Plassey in 1757, the East India Company became a political power, gradually expanding its hegemony over India. In 1803, when Delhi was occupied, the Mughal emperor fell under its tutelage and the East India Company became the de facto ruler.
Social and agricultural reforms were seen in Bengal which was the first province to fall under the control of the East India Company. The permanent settlement implemented by the British government slowly eliminated the Muslim landlords leading to the rise in power of the Hindu zamindars.
The new change created a conflict between the Muslim peasants and the Hindu feudal lords and although initially it was an economic issue, it eventually turned into a religious matter and led to the emergence of Faraizi, a new religious movement.
The founder of the movement, Haji Shariatullah (d. 1840), championed the cause of the Muslim peasants and united them by creating a spirit of brotherhood. He urged them to observe the original teachings of Islam. To give them a separate identity, he introduced a particular dress and advocated different styles of beards for his followers.
The peasants clashed with the feudal lords to fight for their rights creating a law and order situation for the British government which intervened on behalf of the landlords and crushed the resistance against them.
After the death of Haji Shariatullah, his son Dudu Miyan was unable to take the resistance forward and after compromising with the government, abandoned the cause altogether. As a result, the Faraizi movement collapsed and ended in failure but it left a religious impact on the peasant community.
Another religious movement appeared in northern India under the leadership of Syed Ahmad Shaheed (d.1831).This part of India went through social, political and economic changes under the British rule. After the decline of the Mughals, the ulema lost court patronage and employment becoming insecure and helpless.
The agenda of the new movement known as Tariqah-i-Muhhamadiyah was to purify the tenets of Islam from Hindu customs, traditions and cultural practices. Shah Ismail Shaheed (d. 1831), one of the followers of Syed Ahmad, wrote two books Taqwiat-ul-Iman and Sirat-al-Mustaqeem or the ‘Strength of Belief’ and ‘Right Path’ respectively.
His motive was to convince the Muslim community to purify Islam from Hindu influences and Shiite rituals. He was harsh in his criticism and believed that religion should be practised in its original form; a thought process which gradually evolved into a Jihad movement.
The mission of Syed Ahmad was to establish an Islamic state where the Muslim community could observe pure teachings of Islam. Since it was not possible to materialise his ideology in India where the British rule was powerful, so he decided to migrate to the north western frontier (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) to establish a religious state there. His migration was believed to symbolise the migration of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) from Makkah to Madinah.
Before leaving British India, he visited several important cities and towns mobilising the Muslim community for a holy war against the Sikhs of Punjab who also controlled those parts of the frontier to which he was migrating. It appears that the British government silently supported the movement without checking its activities.
Some Muslim rulers also provided financial support and funds were collected from Muslims without government interference. Most probably, the British government wanted to shift the troublesome elements from the territory under their control to that of the Sikhs’ in order to weaken the Sikh rule.
When the holy warriors reached the frontier, the pathan tribes who were unaware of their arrival were taken by surprise. There were clashes between the tribes and the followers of Syed Ahmad. Initially, he succeeded in defeating the tribes and established an Islamic state, proclaiming himself the caliph implementing the Sharia. His followers wandered through the villages and tribal settlements and publicly punished those who missed their prayers or violated the Sharia. They forcibly married Pathan girls and started to collect zakat and ushr.
There was a clash between tribal customs and the Sharia as well as among the ethnic groups. As a result, a conspiracy was hatched in the city of Peshawar and in just one night, Pathans massacred the holy warriors. Syed Ahmad escaped with a few of his followers but was finally defeated by the Sikh army at Balakot in 1831.
Traditional historians accuse the Pathan tribal leaders for not supporting the movement and betraying the holy cause. A more comprehensive study of the movement shows that it was launched on the assumption that Pathans as orthodox Muslims would support the movement without any hesitation.
But the leaders of the movement did not actually study tribal opinion, culture and their language and decided to establish an Islamic state there. They also assumed that the Muslim population of Punjab would rise against the Sikh rule which did not happen.
In fact, it was not a betrayal by Pathans but a miscalculation of the leaders of the movement to understand the feelings and sentiments of Pathans by interfering with their culture and everyday lives. The implementation of harsh punishments without providing any benefit in return resulted in a strong reaction against the movement. It was an example of dictatorial rule without consent from the people.
Both Faraizi and Jihad were revivalist movements aimed at creating an Islamic society. The Faraizi movement failed because it was propagated in the British territory and was crushed as soon as it became a threat. The Jihad movement failed because of the mistakes of its leaders and their lack of understanding of the social and political situation of the place and the people where they wanted to establish Sharia rule.
The failure of both the movements suggests that an attempt to revive the past in view of the present situation is not feasible.