We consider here an important work by a Pakistani American scholar on the Mujadidi Sufi networks that spread after the collapse to the Sikhs of Sirhind in Eastern Punjab. Ziad provides a riveting account of how history has buffeted the fortunes of the Mujadidi Sufis, from Punjab to the Peshawar valley, Kabul, Bukhara and Turkey. Amongst the more famous Mujadidi Sufis is Imam Shamil of Chechenya, who fought Tsarist Russia. What happened to the Mujadidi transnational network is described in Ziad’s book – of which we offer here an overview.
The expansion of Mujadidi khanaqah networks went hand in hand with the mid-eighteenth-century political upheavals in the Mughal heartlands and contributed to a dramatic reorientation of trans-Asiatic religio-scholastic and commercial networks. Ulama and Sufis forcibly displaced from Mughal centres including Sirhind, Sialkot, Lahore, and Delhi were encouraged by rulers and tribal elites to relocate towards Khurasan, Transoxiana, and beyond. Correspondingly, cities like Kabul, Kandahar, Bukhara, Srinagar, Shikarpur, Thatta and Peshawar emerged as sacred-scholastic hubs for new north-south networks through which ulema and sufis from as far afield as Bukhara, Baluchistan, and Altishahr could access scholarship and literature from across the Mughal Empire.
The short lived Durrani Empire was a critical catalyst for these reorientations. By the early nineteenth century, Mujadidi institutions in Durrani territories linked Hindustan’s towns with scholastic networks as far north as Siberia. A rapid movement of scholars into urban, tribal and rural areas generated literary production in Persian, Arabic, and local languages including Pashto, Chagatai, Tatar, Sindhi and Punjabi. But this revival of Durrani urban centres like Kabul and Peshawar as scholastic entrepôts in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has been largely erased from historical memory.
The Durrani Empire, Khoqand, Khiva, Kalat, Bukhara, or smaller regional polities – required a scholastic and spiritual institutional base. Moreover, since most of their ruling families lacked historical legitimacy, Sufis and their institutions provided symbolic capital to strengthen the new dynasties. In a time of political turmoil there was a high demand for religious services such as blessings, faith healing and charity.
The Mujadidis had some distinct advantages in the region since their college at Sirhind had produced generations of scholar mystics. With the Sikh destruction of Sirhind in 1760, these Sirhindi Sufis could then fulfil the demand for religious figures in South and Central Asia.
Peshawar’s distinctive position in the Durrani Empire allowed it to host a religious-scholastic infrastructure where ideas could gestate and travel northward
Fazl Ahmad, born into Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi’s family in 1744, was a product of the active milieu of the late Mughal Sirhind. He stressed the interdependence of Sufism and sharia in spiritual growth. Like so many other Sufis, Fazl Ahmad’s family fled in the wake of the wars of the mid-eighteenth century. Both Fazl Ahmad’s father and brother were killed in battle against Sikh militias who eventually occupied Sirhind. One of his earliest recollections was set against the backdrop of a Sikh campaign; Fazl Ahmad related to his disciples that he was seated at the mouth of a well, reciting chapters from the Quran, when a Sikh warrior attacked him with a spear. He was divinely protected, and the spear was not able to penetrate him.
In the mid-1760s, Fazl Ahmad migrated to Peshawar, where he established himself at a humble mosque in Peshawar’s Kaka Jama’dar quarter. Here he earned a favourable reputation among the people of the town by supplying vast quantities of free bread from his langar during a harsh drought. He eventually inaugurated a new Khanaqah near Yakatut gate in the southeast side of Peshawar (circa 1770). The new khanaqah was in a neighbourhood that eventually came to be known as Muhalla Fazl-i Haqq after Fazl Ahmad’s son Mian Fazl-i Haqq.
Peshawar’s distinctive position in the Durrani Empire allowed it to host a religious-scholastic infrastructure where ideas could gestate and travel northward. In the mid -1780s, Fazl Ahmad embarked upon the first of five journeys to Bukhara, via the Khyber Pass, Kabul, and Mazar-I Sharif, setting up khanaqahs and teaching circles enroute. Upon arriving in Bukhara, he established another khanaqah, where the celebrated state-builder Shah Murad (r.1785-1800) and his son and successor Amir Hayder (r. 1800-1826), in addition to numerous ulema and nobility, became his devoted disciples.
The ideal king is still the Perso-Turkic empire builder, administrator and military commander. But to this is added the humble Mujadidi scholar ascetic who walks the streets with his head low, simply dressed, carrying a walking stick; gives daily lectures on exegesis, law, and doctrine; and guides his own students in advanced meditative practices. He is the accessible ally of the masses, the Sufi miracle worker and a magnanimous patron of khanaqahs and madrassas, a king who stripped off the gold from Amir Timur’s mausoleum in Samarkand and donated the proceeds to scholars and Sufis. The Mujadidis themselves embraced these Bukharan ideals of kingship and sainthood as embodied by Shah Murad. In fact, Shah Murad was the exemplary dervish-king conforming to a Sirhindian model, a benchmark for other rulers of the age.
At the time of the Sikh expansion toward the Peshawar valley, Fazl Ahmad approached the Durrani leader Mahmud Shah (ruled.1809-1818) and insisted on taking part in the fight against the invaders. Mahmud Shah refused the offer. He told Fazl Ahmad that he was far too valuable, and the people of Peshawar required his spiritual guidance. This incident probably occurred at the time of the Sikh occupation of Attock in 1814. Though Fazl Ahmad never entered the battlefield, his son Fazl-i Haqq organised a major campaign against the Sikhs, likely to be the first phase of the decisive battle of Theri near Nowshera in 1823. Thousands of Fazl-i Haqq’s followers and disciples were joined by the brave Yusufzais, Mohmands, Khattaks and people of Buner and Tirah who fought with “guns, swords and spears, and eventually, even resorted to sticks, stones, and earth.”
At the battle in March 1823, large contingents of tribal levies had gathered at the Theri hills. The ghazis were to be joined by regular forces from Kabul. Ranjit Singh decided to move against the ghazis before the Kabuli forces could assist. The Sikhs mustered a force of 24,000, both regular and Akali forces. The ghazis were attacked by the bloodthirsty Akalis. But the Akalis were decimated by well-aimed bullets and large boulders pushed upon them by the ghazis occupying the hill heights. The ghazis followed the retreat, inflicting many casualties, and came down to the fields to confront a weakened Sikh army.
Upon witnessing the retreat, Ranjit Singh mobilised his regular armies and surrounded the ghazis on the Theri hills. As darkness fell, the tribal forces were being assailed from all sides and withdrew under the cloak of darkness. Despite facing a formidable trained army the tribal forces are estimated to have inflicted between 2,000 to 2,500 Sikh deaths.
As Durrani Barakzai and Saddozai fought for domination of the Durrani Empire, the Sikhs under Ranjit Singh took advantage of the turmoil to raid Peshawar city in 1823. Ranjit Singh retained the Barakzai ruler of Peshawar Yar Muhammad as governor. However, the region was devastated and much of Peshawar, including the Bala Hissar fortress, the seat of government, was razed. The loss of revenues and fiscal burdens imposed by the Sikhs would certainly have had a debilitating impact on funds available for mosques, madrasas and khanaqahs.
As the Barakzais gradually lost control of Peshawar to the Sikhs in 1834 and Kabul’s authority weakened, the tribes looked to new leaders. The Akhund of Swat Abdal Ghafur was originally from a Gujjar family and had been to Peshawar for religious studies. Eventually he met the celebrated Sufi master Shu’ayb Tordher in nearby Swabi who inducted him into the Qadiri, Christi and Suhrwardi Sufi orders. By 1835 his reputation reached the ears of Amir Dost Muhammad Khan, who sought the Akhund’s aid at the battle of Jamrud against the Sikh occupation of Peshawar. He was regularly consulted for religious opinions and before long was the most esteemed spiritual leader among the Eastern Afghans. In 1863, when the British attempted a campaign in the region, Abdal Ghafur resisted them, inflicting a decisive defeat on the British at Ambeyla south of Swat.
Circumstances changed radically with the second Anglo-Afghan war and the accession of Amir ‘Abd al-Rahman in 1880. This was undoubtedly one of the key episodes that fractured Fazl Ahmad’s hidden caliphate, severing the surviving links north and south of the Amu Darya. The war’s geopolitical backdrop was an intensifying struggle between Russia and Britain. Russia occupied Tashkent by 1865 and was eyeing Afghanistan, at the time in Britain’s orbit. Britain switched to a “forward policy” and in November 1878 sent 30,000 troops to formally take Afghanistan. This occupation escalated into the Second Anglo-Afghan war. During this crisis, the British government offered Kabul to Abd al-Rahman, the exiled nephew of Sher Ali, who had been living in Russian-occupied Samarkand. He was declared Amir at Kabul in July 1880, and his ready acquiescence to Britain’s imperial oversight, engendered widespread consternation across the country. In return, however, he was promised arms and a sizeable stipend for defence against foreign incursions.
Sher Ali’s son Ayyub Khan led the resistance to the new Amir. As was typical, the Sufi-ulema were among the chief mobilisers. We don’t know if Fazl Ahmad’s followers were directly involved, but their associated Mujaddidi lineages definitely were. Several of these Sufis issued a fatwa at Kandahar in support of Ayyub, declaring the British puppet Abd al-Rahman a traitor. Though the war was a military defeat for Britain, with the last troops withdrawing in 1881, they emerged the political victors. Abd al-Rahman redoubled his efforts to win ulema support against Ayyub Khan. Towards this end, the Amir requested that the Akhund of Swat’s son, Mian Gul – who aspired to become the king of Swat – come to Kabul to publicly acknowledge his sovereignty. He further demanded that Mian Gul deploy his father’s reputation to convince the Afghan ulema that revolt constituted a violation of Islamic law. Mian Gul was accompanied by a delegation of leading politically astute tribal leaders including Muhammad Sa’id of Miankli (in Bajaur), Mullah Khalil of Mohmand and Fazl Latif. Collectively, they were expected to win over the ulema of Kabul as well as the tribal and religious leadership in their respective jurisdictions. Mian Gul, Muhammad Sa’id and Mullah Khalil acquiesced in return for generous stipends, although it is unclear where Fazl Latif stood. Eventually, through similar arrangements, the Amir managed to secure the support of 400 ulema against Ayyub Khan. Just two weeks later, however the Amir, wary of Mian Gul’s influence in Kabul, sent him back to Swat.
The rule of Amir Abd al- Rehman fore shadowed the eclipse of Sufi orders in the face of colonial ruling elites and their clients dismissing Sufi masters as vestiges of a bygone primitive order
The war continued until Amir Abd al-Rahman defeated Ayyub in October 1881. But rebellions continued across his nominal territory. With his sizeable British stipend, Amir Abd al-Rahman relied on brute force to neutralise the opposition movements. His aim was to consolidate political and fiscal power at Kabul for the first time in the region’s recent history. This vision was key to Britain’s objective of establishing a robust buffer state that would not be swayed by internal pressures.
Throughout this process, potentially troublesome Sufi leaders were systematically purged or subdued. Those who had approved the fatwa in favour of Ayyub Khan were summarily executed. The Amir undertook a broad ranging project to restructure and reorient the country’s religious apparatus toward the court at Kabul. On account of their loyal base of support, financial holdings, tax exemptions, and salaries, the new country’s spiritual leadership – specifically the Sufi orders – posed an existential threat to the Amir’s authority. Earlier rulers had frequently invoked justice and sharia, but their reform efforts were rarely to the detriment of the established scholarly-religious networks. In a sort of protomodern project by contrast, Amir Abd al-Rehman assembled a committee of ulema to compile handbooks defining the duties of Muslim subjects. The Amir became the source of sound Islamic doctrine. He argued that his subjects were bound to obey the ruler, pay taxes to strengthen the “Islamic state” and participate in jihad in the frontier regions. The Amir refused to allow foreign sayyids or other holy personalities to settle in Afghanistan, publicly declaring such figures either avaricious frauds or European agents. The ulema of his own time were, according to the Amir, lazy beggars and extortionists, feeding on an ignorant population.
Even ulema and Sufi land ownership rights were overturned. Titles granted to religious families could no longer be sold or transferred. These lands, moreover, were no longer exempt from taxes and could be repossessed by the state at the Amir’s discretion.
The rule of Amir Abd al- Rehman fore shadowed the eclipse of Sufi orders in the face of colonial ruling elites and their clients dismissing Sufi masters as vestiges of a bygone primitive order.
Key Mujadidi lineages boldly reasserted their independence after Amir Abd al-Rahman’s death. The Mujadidis remained the most widespread Sufi order in Afghanistan, enmeshed in Afghan politics over the next century. Khwaja Safiullah’s descendants – the Hazrat of Shor Bazaar, Char Bagh and Kohistan – played leading roles in anti-British and pan-Islamic agitation under Amir Habibullah (1901-1919), culminating in the Third Anglo-Afghan war in 1919. Sufi popular authority remained intact into the late twentieth century, so much so that the Mujadidis became key mobilisers in the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s. A member of their family Sibghatullah Mujadidi became the first post-Soviet invasion mujahideen head of state in Afghanistan.
Mujadidi Sufis were also active in Kemalist Turkey. In 1926, the Kurdish Mujadidi Sufis rose up under Shaykh Sa’id to fight for the reestablishment of the Caliphate against Mustafa Kemal’s Republican forces. It was for this reason that the Sufis and their establishments were banned by Kemal. Similarly, after the rise of communism in Central Asia, the Mujadidi ties to Bukhara came to an end.