Muslim Historical Literature in the Era of Early Muslim Nationalism: A Case Study of Sir Sayyid and Ta’ib

Mid-nineteenth century Muslim historical literature, particularly on the mutiny-rebellion of 1857, presents an interesting contrast, and offers a fascinating study of the state of Muslim mind before and after 1857. This clearly comes out in the writings of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (Risalah Asbab-i Baghawat-i Hind,‘ Tarikh Sarkashi Dil ’a Bijnawr, Hunter par Hunter, Loyal Mohammedans of India,), Fateh Muhammad Ta’ib (Tarikh-i Ahmadi)5 Asad Ullah Khan Ghalib (Dastabu in Kulliyat-i Nathr-i Ghalib), Mawlana Altaf Hussain Hali (Hayati-i Jawid), Sayyid Zahiruddin Zahir Dihlawi (Dastan-i Ghadr), Faqir Muhammad (Jam’ al-Tawarikh), Allamah Fadl-i Haq (Bughi Hindwtan), Mu’inuddin Hassan Khan (“Narrative of Mainodin” in Charles T. Metcalfe’s Two Native Narratives of the Mutiny in Delhi).”

Curiously, all of the above writers presented different interpretations of the revolt of 1857. Indeed this had to be the case. During the revolt India lost freedom of the press; known different interpretations of the “mutiny” by natives were tantamount to treason and were visited by condign punishments. This was particularly true of the Muslims. Many Muslim newspapers were suppressed and their editors jailed. After the “special” treatment which the Muslims received upon the fall of Delhi, the followers of Islam could not be sure of their destiny in South Asia in the post mutiny-rebellion period. It was so because the British assigned the primary responsibility for the revolt to Indian Muslims and rightly so. The reality of the excessively harsh British treatment of Indian Muslims is beginning to dawn upon the present-day British historians as well. Professor Peter Hardy in his very recent book, The Muslims of British India, observes:

For both the Muslims of northern India and the British, the events of 1857 were a trauma. The savage British suppression of the Mutiny and Rising, with its destruction of Delhi as a centre of Muslim culture, and the dispersion of the descendants of Akbar and Aurangzib by execution and exile, at last forced educated Muslims to realise not only that the British rule were in India to stay, but also that they intended to stay on their own terms. The last illusions that they were the mayors of the Mughal palace were dissipated; the last illusions that an education in Persian and Urdu and in the Muslim religious sciences would serve both a Muslim’s eternal and his wordly welfare were torn away. The British, though a mere handful of men, had successfully defied the hosts of Zion, or rather of Mecca.

Surely, the Muslims of India did fall under a heavy cloud. Condign, indeed barbaric punishments were reserved for them-punishments which offer few, if any, parallels in the nineteenth century history of the world. William Howard Russell, the well-known first war correspondent of the Crimean fame and who covered the mutiny for The Times, observed:

“Our antagonism to the followers of Muhammad is far stronger than that between us and the worshippers of Shiva and Vishnu. . . If we could eradicate the traditions of Muhammad by one vigorous effort, it would indeed be well for the Christian faith and for the British rule.”

Russell was not alone in his anti-Muslim feelings: his “our” and “we” were truly representative of a general sentiment among the British against the followers of Islam. Lord Roberts of Kandhar fame certainly spoke of his countrymen when on December 31, 1857, he wrote to his sister Harriet that the British should “work their life’s best blood. . . and show these rascally Mussulmans that with God’s help Englishmen will still be the masters of India.” Magistrate Philip Egerton and Judge Charles Raikes suggested the conversion of the aumi’ Masjid of Delhi into a church, with each brick named after a “Christian martyr.” Another Englishman condemned Delhi for total destruction. He observed:

The city which has been for centuries the stronghold of Islamism in India, and in which was hatched this last great conspiracy against the Christian religion should be utterly destroyed; and that on its site should be built another city, to be the centre from which victorious Christianity should radiate to every point from North to South, from East to West, from Bombay to Calcutta, from the Himalayas to the Cape Comorin.
Introduction of torture via thumb-screw and the rask was recommended for “respectable” Muslims of Delhi.18 The house of every follower of Islam in Delhi was ransacked and every Muslim inhabitant of the city was either banished or killed.

But the spirit of British vengeance was not confined to the city of Delhi; indeed, it was India-wide. The chief mosque of Allahabad was converted into barrackes for European soldiers. After having failed to convince Sir John Lawrence and Lord Canning “to raze Delhi to the ground. . . as a heavy blow to Mahomedan religion,” Major-General Sir James Outram,  a very devout Christian known as the “Bayard of India,” urged Lord Canning to at least destroy Lucknow instead. These were no mere suggestions. Captain Mowbray Thomson narrated to Sir Henry Cotton with the ease of a Cinderalla story, how some of his Muslim prisoners “were tied to the ground stripped off their clothing, and deeply branded over every part of their bodies from head to foot with red-hot coppers.”

Robert Montgomery, Judicial Commissioner of the Panjab, congratulated Captain W.S.R. Hodson for his cold blooded murder of three Mughal princes (Mirza Mughal, Mirza Abu Bakr, and Mirza Khejo [sic] Sultan) after they had surrendered to Hodson at his urging. Montgomery hoped that the Captain “will bag many more.” And Hodson, who admitted the “deliberate” character of his shooting, gloried in having “the last of the House of Timur eat dirt.” And a Captain of the 23rd Native Infantry described the “fiendish delight” with which, in his  magisterial capacity, he burnt villages and officiated as a hangman near Mhow. He emphasized that if the matters were left in his hands “every Mohammedan should be strung for his faith.”

Under these circumstances, Muslim writers of the time needed to be cautious, lest they suffered from British vindictiveness. That this was the case is clearly evident from the fact that Mu’inuddin Hassan Khan did not want his account of the revolt published until after his death-a pledge which Charles Theophilus Metcalfe, editor of the Two Native Narratives of the Revolt in India fully honoured.  To save his skin Zahir Dilhawi did not mind calling the rebels “bastards.” He feared chastisement by the British; in fact, he was under a cloud for a while, and therefore he assumed anti-Muslim, anti-rebellion attitude.  Ghalib and Hali were more of poets than chroniclers of events, even though a certain degree of sadness regarding the condition of their co-religionists during and after the suppression of the rebellion is evident in their writing.

Indeed, the only works which take clearly different points of view of the state of Muslim mind before 1857 are the ones by Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan and Fateh Muhammad Ta’ib-one a religious nationalist even after the revolt of 1857 was suppressed, the other a saviour of the Muslim community in India in the light of what happened between 1857-1859. Dr. Tara Chand, in his foreward to Dr. Shan Muhammad’s Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: A Political Biography correctly observes: “If greatness is to be measured by the depth of the impression made on society and the extent of transformation affected in its thought and action, then Sir Syed Ahmad Khan deserves to be reckoned among the great. Sir Syed‘s main aim was that Muslims in India should come out of the past and acquire the knowledge and technique of the West.”  Sir Sayyid was a realist and a far-sighted statesman. He clearly visualized the predicament of his coreligionists. He saw the difficult choices available to them: total submission to British rule with a chance of survival in the future, or virtual social, economic, and even physical annihilation. Dr. Muslehuddin Siddiqui in his unpublished Osmania University (Hyderabad, India) Ph.D. thesis rightly stresses that “the Indian revolt of 1857 left its indelible stamp on his [Sir Sayyid] thought world.’ According to Dr. I. Topa, during and after the revolt of 1857, Sir Sayyid’s soul was “in the throes of agitation and showed signs of awareness to a new social dynamics.’ Consequently, Sir Sayyid was motivated by one overriding consideration; it was to save the economic, political, and educational plight of fellow Muslims at every cost.

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