XIII. The Orthodox Reaction
THE OLD spiritual
orders of Islam in India adopted the practice of keeping out of affairs
of state, but toward the end of Akbar's reign a new religious group,
quite different traditions, entered the subcontinent. This was the
movement, which was introduced into India under the leadership of
Baqi Billah. The order's intention of seeking to influence temporal
is indicated in the statement of one of its leaders: "If I were after
prominence, no disciple would be left with the other saints. But I have
another mission—to bring comfort to the Muslims. To achieve this, I
to associate with the worldly rulers, gain influence over them, and
fulfill the objects of the Muslims."/1/
Billah was born
at Kabul in 1563, and after completing his scholastic education there
at Samarqand he visited several saints for spiritual training.
he was initiated in the Naqshbandi order by a leading saint of Bukhara,
who asked him to make India the center of his work. Khwaja Baqi Billah
came first to Lahore, where he spent more than a year before moving to
Delhi. Partly owing to his great spiritual powers, and partly because
represented the order belonging to the native land of the ruling
he acquired a prominent position in the religious life of the capital.
He was particularly active as a link between the various nobles who
displeased with Akbar's religious innovations. One of these was Shaikh
Farid, who, according to Jesuit accounts, extracted a promise from
Akbar's heir, to uphold Islam in the kingdom./2/
Other nobles who had great regard for the khwaja included Qulich Khan,
[] the devout viceroy of Lahore, Abdul Rahim
the commander-in-chief of the Deccan, and Khan-i-Azam, the deputy of
realm. In some of the khwaja's letters there are references to Sadr
(the head of the religious endowments under Akbar) coming to him for
training. The khwaja died in 1603, but before his death the Naqshbandi
order had been firmly established in India.
prominent disciple was Shaikh Ahmad, popularly known as Mujaddid Alif
(reviver of Islam during the second millennium). He was born at Sirhind
on June 26, 1564, and was educated there and at Sialkot. He established
himself at Sirhind, but he was soon attracted to Akbar's capital,
Sikri. Here he moved in the most distinguished intellectual circles,
seems to have favorably impressed Abul Fazl and his versatile brother,
Faizi. Shaikh Ahmad's views and temperament had little in common with
of the two brothers (though he himself passed through a period of
free-thinking and at one time wrote verses with the poetic surname of
the "heretic"), but they had enough respect for each other's learning
be able to carry on this intellectual comradeship in spite of the
in views. The shaikh is even stated to have helped Faizi in the
of his commentary on the Quran.
He visited Delhi
and went to see Khwaja Baqi Billah, who asked him to spend a few days
his hospice. Within two days Ahmad requested the khwaja to take him
discipleship. After having initiated Shaikh Ahmad into various stages
spiritual development under the Naqshbandi order, the khwaja wrote:
Ahmad is … rich in knowledge and vigorous in action. I associated with
him for a few days, and noticed truly marvelous things in his spiritual
life. He will turn into a light which will illuminate the world."
Sirhind, convinced that he had a major role to play in the religious
of the times. He twice visited Delhi during the lifetime of the khwaja,
who deputed him to work at Lahore. After the khwaja's death, he retired
to Sirhind, which remained the main seat of his activities. He carried
on his work partly through personal guidance and oral instructions, but
he had discovered his literary gifts, and believed that he could also
his mission by writing letters on religious and public subjects to
personages [] of the day. Khwaja Baqi Billah had, by his
praise and encouragement, made Shaikh Ahmad aware of his
He had also facilitated the achievement of his task by providing him
contacts with persons in key positions in the state. Shaikh Ahmad was
to make full use of these opportunities. A profound scholar, a master
polemics, and possessing a polished and forceful literary style, he
sending letters to important nobles bemoaning the sad state into which
Islam had fallen in India and reminding them of their duty./3/
The rhetoric and appeal of these letters kindled a religious fervor
although it took some time to bear fruit, profoundly affected the
of Islam in India by strengthening the position of the orthodox in
touched on more than just religious revival, and it was this that
him in serious difficulties. Some of his letters stated that in his
he saw that at one time he had gone ahead of all the Companions of the
Prophet. The theologians criticized these claims, and asked Emperor
to take action. The wazir, Asaf Khan, who was a Shia, could not have
fond of the anti-Shia views of Shaikh Ahmad, and he is said to have
out the political dangers inherent in the growing influence and
of Shaikh Ahmad. In 1619, through the governor of Sirhind, he was
to the emperor's court and asked to explain his statements. The shaikh
behaved at the court with great dignity and courage. He made it clear
there could be no question of his considering himself superior to the
of the Prophet, and gave an explanation of the relevant entry in his
The emperor seemed to be satisfied with this, but he took offense when
somebody pointed out that the shaikh had not performed the sijdah
(deep obeisance), which Akbar had prescribed for everybody coming in
royal presence. The shaikh's reply that he was not prepared to perform
the sijdah before any human being seemed to be open defiance, and he
imprisoned in Gwalior fort.
After about a
year the shaikh
was released from the fort, presented with a dress of honor and a
rupees for expenses and given an option of accompanying the royal camp
or returning to Sirhind. [] The shaikh preferred to remain
in the royal camp, and this enabled him to visit the whole of the
and even establish friendly contacts with the emperor. It appears that
Jahangir came to hold the shaikh in great respect; in his autobiography
he twice refers to having made large offerings to the saint, and among
the shaikh's letters there is one addressed to the emperor. In another
letter the shaikh gave a detailed account of a lengthy conversation he
had with the emperor on religious subjects, with the emperor apparently
taking a great interest.
Shaikh Ahmad was
in the royal
camp for nearly three years. His letters written during this period
few biographical details, but the entries in Jahangir's autobiography
that during this period the easy-going Jahangir was unusually
It would not be surprising if the emperor's orthodox mood were due to
shaikh's presence in the camp. For example, in describing the conquest
of Kangra and his visit there in early 1622, Jahangir says: "I went to
see the fort of Kangra, and gave an order that the qazi, the Chief
and other learned men of Islam should accompany me and carry out in the
fort whatever was customary, according to the religion of Muhammad.
… by the grace of God, the call to prayer and the reading of the khutba
and the slaughter of a bullock, which had not taken place from the
of the building of the fort till now, were carried out in my presence.
I … ordered a lofty mosque to be built inside the fort."/4/
It is more than probable that Shaikh Ahmad was one of "the learned men
of Islam" who accompanied Jahangir to Kangra. Soon after, the saint's
began to fail, and with the emperor's permission he returned to
Here he lived in seclusion, devoting himself to charity and prayers,
his death on December 10, 1624.
Shaikh Ahmad was
forceful and original thinker produced by Muslim India before the days
of Shah Waliullah and Iqbal. Indeed he occupies a high place in the
history of the entire Muslim world, for his exposition of tawhid-i-shahudi
was a distinct contribution to Islamic thought. Perhaps even more
was the attitude [] of vigorous self-confidence and
which he contributed to Muslim thinking, the like of which had been
rarely since the days of Ibn Taimiya in the eighth century.
The white heat of
fervor which one finds in his writings is not visible among early
of his order, the Naqshbandi. In spite of Shah Waliullah's emphasis on
moderation (see Chapter XIX), the Mujaddidiya revival, associated with
the shaikh, ultimately superseded other branches of the Naqshbandi
not only in the subcontinent but in the Ottoman empire as well. This is
remarkable considering that the main order was of Central Asian and
origin. The influence of the Mujaddidiya seems to have been a factor in
creating those forces which ultimately led to the rise and widespread
policy, reference was made to the circumstances which made its failure
inevitable. The inability of the Hindus and Muslims to evolve a common
spiritual brotherhood was the result of the basic fact that to the
the Muslims were (and are) untouchables. This attitude of the Hindus,
by the revivalistic fervor of the Vaishnava Gosains of Mathura, became
more marked during Akbar's era of toleration. The writings of the
which reveal the anguish he felt at the low position of Islam under
and even later, also militated against the success of Akbar's policy.
fact, it would not be wrong to say that the swing of religious policy
Akbar to Aurangzeb was in some measure due to the influence and
of Shaikh Ahmad.
His forceful and
letters addressed to the leading nobles at Jahangir's court, calling on
them to rise in defense of Islam and uphold the dignity of their
have great power and effectiveness. These letters were meant not only
the individuals to whom they were addressed; they were really "open
and were no less forceful than the poems with which Byron tried to
enthusiasm for the cause of Greek independence, or with which Hali
to reawaken Indian Muslims. Copies of them were supplied to the
disciples and admirers, and given wide circulation.
that Aurangzeb became a disciple of Khwaja Muhammad Masum, son and
of Shaikh Ahmad, [] but even though Aurangzeb's
the satirist Nimat Khan Ali, refers to it in his Wiqaya, the
is not certain, since it is not mentioned in the historical accounts of
the reign. The official history of the period, however, does refer to
visits to the emperor's court, where he received high honors and rich
After his death, his son, Shaikh Saif-ud-din, came to stay at the royal
capital and apparently was in close contact with Aurangzeb. The court
speaks of his being a formal witness at the wedding of Prince Azam
Next year, on June 3, 1669, the emperor visited the saint at his
for one hour late at night, and then returned to the palace./5/
these historic links between Aurangzeb and Shaikh Ahmad's family is the
fact that almost all the steps which are associated with Aurangzeb's
policy had been advocated so forcefully by the shaikh in his letters.
Ahmad had seen those days when, according to him, "non-Muslims carried
out aggressively the ordinances of their own religion in a Muslim state
and the Muslims were powerless to carry out the ordinances of Islam; if
they carried them out, they were executed." He had described with great
anguish those tragic days those who believed in the Holy Prophet were
and powerless, while those who denied his prophethood enjoyed high
and used to sprinkle salt on the wounds of the Muslims with ridicule
developments had filled
Shaikh Ahmad with anger and hatred against Akbar and the non-Muslims.
had troubled him even more was that with Akbar's withdrawal of
from Islam, and an aggressive religious revival among the Hindus,
had started persecuting Islam. "The non-Muslims in India," he wrote,
without any hesitation demolishing mosques and setting up temples in
place. For example, in Kurukshetra there was a mosque and the tomb of a
saint. They have been demolished and in their place a very big temple
been erected." Hindus were even interfering with Muslim observances.
non-Muslims openly carry out their observances, but Muslims are
to carry out [] openly many of the Islamic injunctions.
Ekadashi, Hindus fast and strive hard to see that in Muslim towns no
cooks or sells food on these days. On the other hand, during the sacred
month of Ramadan, they openly prepare and sell food, but owing to the
of Islam, nobody can interfere. Alas, the ruler of the country is one
us, but we are so badly off!"
Shaikh Ahmad was
that the considerations shown to Hindus in Akbar's reign had emboldened
them, and that this policy must be reversed. In a number of his letters
he expressed regret at the abolition of jizya and urged its revival. In
another letter he demanded the abolition of the ban on cow slaughter.
called upon the Muslim nobles not to associate with non-Muslims and
Muslims, including Shias. In a letter to Shaikh Farid, one of the chief
nobles, he went so far as to say that the company of Muslim
was worse than that of non-Muslims. Once the preacher at the principal
mosque of Samana did not follow the Sunni practice of mentioning all
four caliphs in his Id sermon; Shaikh Ahmad immediately wrote an open
to the religious leaders of the city, rebuking them for the neglect of
their duties, and for their failure to deal "aggressively and
with that "unjust preacher."
Shaikh Farid and
did not accept the extremist point of view, and in some of his letters
Shaikh Ahmad has expressed his disappointment with Farid's failures and
omissions. But his warnings and his denunciations had their effect, and
there is no doubt that he had a wide following in the highest places.
it a mere coincidence that the attitude which Aurangzeb had toward
least during his early days—was identical with that of Shaikh Ahmad?
saints and prophets were upholding orthodoxy with scarcely less vigor
success than Khwaja Baqi Billah and Shaikh Ahmad. On the northwest
Sayyid Ali Shah Tirmiz, known as Pir Baba, and his disciple Akhund
took as their special task the uprooting of the heretical Raushaniya
which flourished in the mountains. Pir Baba's descendants wielded great
influence among the Pathan tribesmen, and three centuries later
a rallying point against the Sikhs and the British.
of a somewhat different nature, but conducive [] to the
of the forces of orthodox Islam, were visible at about the same time in
Bengal. The religious history of Muslim Bengal is as yet unwritten, but
there are indications that after the vigor and energy displayed by
and his prominent disciples, and particularly the vigorous expression
their devotions and religious yearnings found in the new Bengali
Islamic influences in the area gradually weakened, especially outside
principal cities. This happened partly because the waves of the
Sufis and preachers had subsided, but the lack of knowledge of Persian
and Arabic among the general populace also prevented the propagation of
Islam. At the same time, a vigorous new Bengali literature was coming
existence, often under the patronage of the Muslim rulers. This was
largely with the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and the
masses, not well-versed in any language other than Bengali, heard the
poems and stories connected with these themes or saw them acted at
festivals under the patronage of the Hindu landlords. Their mental
thus became more Hindu than Islamic.
counter-measure to the
popular Bengali Hindu literature, marked literary activity among
Muslims took place at the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the
seventeenth century, with a special emphasis on the writing of lives of
the prophets and other saints in the language of the people. Sayyid
a leader of this movement, gave the reasons for the literary activity
All the Bengalis do not understand Arabic;
None understands the words of your religion.
Everyone remains satisfied with [Hindu] tales.
I, the despised and sinful, am in the midst of these people.
I do not know what Ilahi [God] will ask me in the afterlife.
If He asks, “ Having been in their midst, why did you not tell them
about the religion?” and blames me for this fault, I will have no power
to give a proper reply. Considering this, I have composed Nabi-vamsa
[a history of the Prophet's family] for the benefit of
For this reason many people blame me for having polluted this religious
When the learned read from the books, which are in Arabic, and do not
translate them into Hindustani [i.e., Bengali], how can our people
In whatever language God has given one birth, that alone is his highest
Thus, as men like Shaikh
Ahmad appealed to the upper classes to maintain the Faith through their
political power, men like Sayyid Sultan took the Prophet's message to
common people. Both appeals explain the resurgent power of Islam in the
century following Akbar's experiments.
N O T E S
/1/ For fuller
on religious movements, see S. M. Ikram, Ab-i-Kausar, Rud-i-Kausar,
and Mauj-i-Kausar (Karachi, 1958).
/2/ C. H. Payne, Akbar
and the Jesuits (London, 1926), pp. 204 and 248. The accuracy of
account is denied by I. M. Habib in "The Political Role of Shaikh Ahmad
Sirhindi and Shah Waliullah," Proceedings of the Twenty-Third
of the Indian History Congress, 1960 (Calcutta, 1961), Part I, pp.
209–23. The view given in the text, however, is the one usually
See Cambridge History of India (Cambridge, 1928), IV, 152.
/3/ Shaikh Ahmad, Maktubat-i-Iman-i-Rabbani
/4/ Memoirs of
trans. by Alexander Rogers and H. Beveridge (London, 1909), II, 161 and
/5/ Saqi Mustad
trans. by Jadunath Sarkar (Calcutta, 1947), pp. 49 and 53.