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A new book suggests that Wahhabism, the creed that Al Qaeda believes in, existed in India in the 18th century
“I think it would be better if I take off my spectacles,” says British historian Charles Allen, 65, when photographer Hemant Padalkar gets ready to take pictures. “I look different.”
Allen is feeling nervous because his book, God’s Terrorists (The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad) has ruffled a few feathers, especially among Muslim groups in Britain.
The thesis, as the intro suggests, is that the modern day jihad has its roots in the late eighteenth century, in Saudia Arabia, when an intolerant strand of Islam is adopted by a preacher, Al-Wahhab. He takes it from the teachings of Ibn Taymiyya, a 14th century jurist of Damascus. This is later called Wahhabism and, as Allen says, “it is deeply belligerent and hostile towards Shias, Sunnis, Christians, Jews and Hindus. Their argument is very simple: you either believe in our version of Islam or you die.” It is this creed that is the religious base of Al Qaeda and other jihadi outfits.
But the stunning revelation is that Wahhabism was present in India since the late 18th century. A young man, Syed Ahmad, “who is the Osama Bin Laden of his day,” according to Allen, goes to Mecca for the Haj and returns with this new ideology and starts preaching it all over the country. In Mumbai, the Sunnis unite to condemn him. “Most Muslims in India rejected the ideology,” says Allen.
Ahmad’s first jihad is against the Sikhs but in the famous massacre of Balakot on May 8, 1831, he is killed. The movement goes underground and members hide in a camp up in the hills, north of Peshawar. And remain there despite numerous efforts by the British to destroy them. In 1857, a group of Wahhabis take part in the Sepoy Mutiny in Delhi but, as is well known, the British crush the uprising. Among the Wahhabis are two fighters, Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi and Rashid Ahmed Gangohi, who later establish the famous Deoband Madrassah. “The Deobandis in India are law-abiding,” says Allen. “However, there is a Wahhabi element which they acknowledge but do not emphasise.”
The book is easy to read because the writing is lucid but it is difficult to understand because there are so many ‘Muhammads’ and ‘Ahmads’ peppering the narrative that it can get confusing. And Allen does not explain clearly how the movement has survived to the present in India.
Allen, who was born in Kanpur, won the Sir Percy Sykes Gold Medal given by the Royal Society for Asian Affairs in 2004 for his contribution to the understanding of Asian affairs. “I have mixed feelings about this award,” he says. “My work has contributed to the understanding of the British in South Asia but it has not contributed to the understanding of South Asian history. It is very one-sided.”
There is a feeling among Muslims that God’s Terrorists is also one-sided. Reviewing the book in Asharq Alawsat, an Arabic newspaper, journalist Amir Taheri writes: “Because Allen is unable to cite evidence that the anti-British rebels were Wahhabis, he falls back on spurious suppositions.”
When I read this out to Allen, he agrees it is a valid criticism. “My book is a work in progress and I have been drawing only on British sources,” he says. “The problem is that I can’t speak Urdu and, therefore, cannot access Urdu works.”
Allen has now moved off to other subjects. His next book is a biography of Rudyard Kipling, even though “he is a dyed in the wool imperialist. But Kipling had many good sides to him and loved India. This biography is about the first half of his life.”