BARELAVI, SAYYID AHMAD (1786-1831), leader of the militant Wahabi movement in India for the purification and rehabilitation of Islam, was born at Rae Bareli, in present day Uttar Pradesh, on 29 November 1786, in a Sayyid family. At school, he took more interest in sports than in studies. He attained proficiency in wrestling, swimming and archery and developed a robust physique. During 180304, when 18 years of age, he set out for Lucknow with seven companions in search of employment. For seven months, he lived on the hospitality of a local aristocrat who knew the family, but got no employment. 

He then went to Delhi where he became a disciple of Shah Abdul Aziz, son of Shah Waliullah (1702-63) of the Naqshbandi order, who became the moving spirit for the reform and renovation of Islam in India.About 1808, he returned to Rae Bareli and got married. He left for Delhi again in 1811 and, after a short stay there, proceeded to Central India to join Amir Khan Ruhila, an ambitious Afghan adventurer connected with the notorious predatory Pindaris.Amir Khan was later elevated Nawab of Tonk by the British.

He stayed with Amir Khan for about six years, and returned to Delhi in 1818. There he turned a religious zealot and began to preach and make disciples. He toured various districts of Uttar Pradesh, his following constantly increasing. In 1822, he visited Mecca and, on return to India the following year, proclaimed himself a reformer (mujtahid), preaching Wahabi doctrines. Sayyid Ahmad gathered around himself a motley crowd of followers, religious enthusiasts, mullahs, mercenaries, and all those willing to wage war in the cause of Islam.

Fearful of fomenting trouble in the British territory, he, in 1826, crossed over to Afghan Sikh borders. Among his supporters were the Nawab of Tonk and the Talpurian Amirs of Sindh. He reached Qandahar and fording the River Kabul, entered the turbulent Yusafzai hills. From the barren Yusafzai hills, he raised the cry of holy war {jihad) against the “infidel Sikhs” who, he proclaimed, had usurped all Afghan territories in India.

In a manifesto issued in December 1826, he charged Sikhs with having committed atrocities on Muslims. To their total annihilation he pledged himself. On 21 December 1826, Sayyid Ahmad crossed the Sikh frontier and fell upon Akora, near Attock, but the garrison under Buddh Singh Sandharivalia repulsed him.Sayyid Ahmad hastily retired, having lost a large number of his men.

Early in 1827, about 80,000 Yusafzais and 20,000 Durrani troops, with 8 guns, swelled the ranks of the Sayyid`s mujahidin. The host then advanced towards Buddh Singh`s new camp at Shaidu, a few kilometres south of Akora.The mujahidin had some initial .success in forcing the Sikh advance posts back to their camp, but ultimately the Sikhs won the day, though Buddh Singh himself was killed in the battle.

Sayyid Ahmad continued inciting the Afghan tribes against the Sikhs. In 1829, his men invaded Peshawar whose tributary governor, Yar Muhammad Khan, was fatally wounded, but the arrival of a force under Karivar Sher Singh and General Ventura saved the situation for the Sikhs.Sayyid Ahmad fled towards Hazara, but continued his campaign of calumny against the Sikhs. In 1830, a Sikh force commanded by Hari Singh Nalva and General Ventura drove him across the River Indus, but soon after he fell upon Peshawar, defeated its new governor, Sultan Muhammad Khan Barakzai, and occupied the town.

The jubilant Afghan tribes hailed him as the Khalifat ulMusalmin, i.e. the Caliph of the Muslims.He installed himself as the ruler of Peshawar and struck coins in his name with high sounding inscriptions. His rule was, however, short lived. The innovations he introduced in the agrarian system and in the administration of justice in accordance with his fanatical doctrines aroused the opposition of the Sunni mullahs.

Further, he imposed a tithe on the peasants. The Afghan jirgas denounced him as an impostor and the mullahs clamoured for his expulsion from among their midst. Sayyid Ahmad hastily surrendered Peshawar to Sultan Muhammad Khan Barakzai, the Sikh tributary, and fled across the Indus. In May 1831, a strong Sikh force under Prince Sher Singh overtook him, and in a short action at Balakot, on 6 May 1831, he was slain along with his few adherents. Maharaja Ranjit Singh ordered celebration of the event with illuminations and discharge of guns throughout the kingdom.

References :

1. Suri, Sohan Lal, `Umdat-ut-Twarikh. Lahore, 1885-89
2. Ahmad, Mohiuddin, Saiyid Ahmad Shahid. Lucknow, 1975
3. Hasrat, B.J., Life and Times of Ranjit Singh. Nabha, 1977
4. Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, vol. I. Princeton, 1963