261 Years Since Panipat: How A Sufi Preacher Reached Out To Abdali And Asked Him To Restore Islamic Supremacy In India

Rohit Sahasrabudhe

Jan 14, 2022, 02:14 PM | Updated 02:13 PM IST

Ahmadshah Abdali
Ahmadshah Abdali
  • Eighteenth-century Sufi preacher Shah Waliullah’s letters to Islamic rulers and nobles show that he was very keen on rejuvenating Islamic supremacy in Delhi, which had started to loosen it’s grip over the sub-continent after Aurangzeb’s death.
  • The general impression about Sufis in the Indian sub-continent revolves around spiritual, mystic or religious thoughts and practices. This is probably because their relevance and influence in politics of yesteryears is seldom mentioned, let alone highlighted, in modern historical narratives.

    Shah Waliullah Dehlavi (1703-1762) was one such well-respected Sufi preacher of the eighteenth century. He belonged to the Naqshbandi school of the Sunni sect. Mughal rulers and Ahmadshah Abdali also belonged to the Sunni sect and therefore, were seen as ‘protectors of the Islamic faith’ by these Sufi chieftains.

    Shah Waliullah’s letters to Islamic rulers and nobles show that he was very keen in rejuvenating Islamic supremacy in Delhi, which had started to loosen it’s grip over the sub-continent immediately after Aurangzeb’s death. These letters give us an insight into the thought process of this eighteenth-century Sufi preacher.

    Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi has authored a book, ‘Shah Waliullah and his times’, narrating the different aspects of his life, including political influence on local and foreign rulers of his time. While Rizvi has given some insightful extracts from Shah Waliullah’s letters, another author, Khaliq Ahmad Nizami, has given Urdu translations of selected letters in his book, ‘Shah Waliullah Dehlavi ke siyasi maqtubaat’ (Political letters of Shah Waliullah Dehlavi).

    Most of the letters in this collection are interesting but one is quite well-known. It is written to Ahmadshah Abdali, the invader from Afghanistan, who was challenged at Panipat, this day 261 years ago. It was the resurgent Maratha power under the leadership of Sadashivrao Bhau Peshwa which, despite their loss, battered the Afghan army to such an extent that they never could look back at Delhi and Hindustan, ever.

    The full letter takes about 13 pages in Nizami’s book, but if we compare it Rizvi’s extracts, there are some minor differences in the two texts. But for want of space and without further ado, let us look at some important points from this letter.

    I have mentioned the page numbers from Nizami’s book in square brackets for reference and words in round brackets are mine. Our author, Shah Waliullah, begins with an overview of the political situation at that time –

    [97] After prayers and wishes to God (Allah) I am writing these few words, may He carry them to the blessed ears (of Ahmadshah Abdali). Existence of an Islamic Emperor is a favour (of Allah). It should be understood that Hindustan (region north of Narmada river) is a vast country. Earlier Emperors have toiled very hard for a long time and through multiple attempts have managed to win over this country.

    Apart from Delhi, which has been the residence of (Mughal) Emperors, other regions were under the control of various rulers, for example, Gujarat Ahmadabad was controlled by a different ruler, Tatta (Sindh) was under the control of Raja Dahir, Bengal was ruled by another ruler, Awadh was controlled by some other person [98] known as the eastern Emperor. Deccan region was collectively controlled by these principalities – 1. Burhanpur 2. Berar 3. Aurangabad 4. Hyderabad 5. Bijapur. Each of these five regions had a separate King. Malwa was also ruled by a different ruler.

    Other kingdoms also had a King who had his own army and treasury. Each of these had established Masjids and Madarssas in their region. Muslims from Arabia and Iran (Arb wa Azm) migrated here and became the reason for propagating Islam. Till today, their descendants have been faithfully following the ways and practices of Islam. There is another region which almost came under the control of Islamic Emperor but continued to follow non-Islamic practices.

    Though it did happen that the Emperor started collecting [99] Kharaj (tribute) from those regions. The region being mentioned here is Rajputana. This region is spread across forty stages, from the border of Tatta (Sindh) and upto the border of Bengal and Bihar and from the borders of Delhi and Agra upto Gujarat and Ujjain over twenty stages. This is the vast extended region which did not become the dwelling of Islam. In short, Mughal Emperors formed a pact with Rajputs and assuming that this courage was inferior and that they would be secure and protected from this resistance, they gave up war …

    … There is a non-Muslim clan known as Marathas led by a General. This clan has raised its head from the districts of Deccan and has spread its influence all over Hindustan. Later Mughal Emperors, out of lack of foresight, negligence and fear of retaliation, gave away Gujarat province to the Marathas and due to same carelessness and fear gave away Malwa province and made them Subhedars of the region. Eventually Marathas gained strength and many times Islamic regions came under their control. Marathas started exacting tribute from both Hindus and Muslims and called it Chauth (one fourth tax).

    [100] Marathas could not gain supremacy over Delhi because it was inhabited by nobles who are descendants of previous Emperors, princes and nobility. Compelled by this situation, the Marathas treated them with respect and signed a pact with them. By establishing good relations with these nobles and by gaining their trust, they tactfully separated the Delhites. Late Nizam-ul-mulk’s son prevented these Marathas from gaining control over Deccan by his policy of creating dissent within Maratha ranks or sometimes by aligning with the British. In this way, Nizam-ul-mulk’s son established his control over big cities like Burhanpur, Aurangabad and Bijapur but the surrounding regions were left to the Marathas.

    In short, apart from key areas of Delhi and Deccan, the Marathas have overall control. It is not difficult to defeat the Marathas if the Ghazis of Islam make a strong resolve. Actually the Maratha army is insignificant but is held together by a General. If even one of their groups is distracted, the army will disintegrate and this defeat itself will make them weak. As this clan will assume bigger proportions, a similar sized army will be required (to counter) which will be numerous than ants and locusts, and courageous and will have ample provisions of war. In short, the uprising of Marathas is the biggest in Hindustan.

    [101] May Allah bless the person who will crush this uprising. Another non-Muslim clan is of Jats who reside around the areas of Delhi and Agra. Both these cities had residences for the Emperor. At one point in time, Mughal Emperor resided in Agra and their fear spread as far as Rajputana. Sometimes they stayed in Delhi and their name and fame spread to Sarhind and it’s environs.

    Jats used to engage in clashes in areas between Delhi and Agra. During Shahjahan’s time, they were ordered to not to mount on horses, not to carry guns and not to build any fortifications for themselves. Later Emperors did not pay much attention to them and using this carelessness as a boon, this clan built many forts, collected guns and started looting people. At that time, Aurangzeb was busy fighting for Bijapur and Hyderabad. He sent an army from Deccan under the leadership of his grandson to quash Jats. But the nobles from Rajputana opposed this Prince and a discord was caused in the army. The Mughal army returned after a little bit pleading from the Jats.

    The opposition from this clan increased substantially during the reign of Muhammad Faruqsiyar.”

    Third Battle of Panipat, Ahmad Shah Abdali, represented as sitting on a brown horse. (Source: British Library)
    Third Battle of Panipat, Ahmad Shah Abdali, represented as sitting on a brown horse. (Source: British Library)

    Then he describes few incidents about the Jats and how Surajmal Jat became one of the key players in the time before Panipat. About the battle with Surajmal and Safdarjang he says –

    “Safdarjang Irani who had given his word to Muhammad Shah, allied with Surajmal and together they attacked Old Delhi and ransacked it. Muhammad Shah’s son closed the city gates and retaliated with cannon fire. It was by Allah’s grace that after 2-3 months, facing failure they returned [103] and started peace talks. Emperor’s men were also tired of war so they felt this peace treaty was a boon. Then onwards, Surajmal’s influence increased. About 2 Kos (4 miles) from Delhi and upto Agra and from the border of Mewat to Firozabad and Shukohabad, entire region was under his control. Nobody had the power to chant Azaan or perfom Namaz in this region.”

    This shows that though while Waliullah's overtures were political, the driving factors and undercurrents of these conflicts were always religious. Since independence, many so-called ‘liberal’ historians have tried to present these conflicts as purely political, which actually goes against available contemporary records. Shah Waliullah then explains that the Jats can be defeated if a capable Emperor bestows his grace on the Muslim nobles, the true owners of the land taken away by Jats. If that happens, they would come together to fight Surajmal, he says. About the status of muslims he explains –

    [104] … And about the Muslims, there are over one lakh people in the Emperors service, including the infantry, cavalry, land-owners (Jahgirdars) and those on cash salaries. But due to the Emperor’s negligence, the land-owners find it difficult to maintain control over their lands. Nobody has paid attention (to the fact) that this has happened due to inaction. When the Emperor has no treasury, there won’t be any cash left. In the end, all servicemen dispersed and were subjected to begging.

    Everything else, save the (Mughal) name, has perished. When such is the state of the Emperors’ servicemen, [105] one can only imagine the state of those living on stipend or skilled work or commerce. People are frustrated due to oppression and unemployment. Amidst this poverty when Surajmal and Safdarjung raided Delhi, all the poor lost their homes, money and were distressed. This was followed by a famine.

    In short, the Muslims deserve your grace. Whole administration of erstwhile Emperors is now in the hands of Hindus. Their officers and accountants hold all posts and there are no Muslims in offices. All the riches and money flows to their (Hindu) homes. Muslims are enveloped by clouds of poverty and calamity. This narration may seem bit stretched but the nature of supremacy of non-Muslims over Hindustan is now clear and as stated above, the Muslims live in fear.”

    Surprisingly enough, even in the twenty-first century and given the political situation we are currently in, one can easily relate to the typical narrative of ‘Islam in peril’ from these words written well over 250 years ago. After all the explaining about the then current situation, he praises Ahmadshah in order to lure him for the invasion. He says -

    “In the present day, no other Emperor is more powerful and dignified than you and who can defeat opposing forces and has the foresight as well as experience of war. The responsibility of resolving to take over Hindustan, break the domination of Marathas and free poor Muslims from the clutches of non-Muslim (rule) falls on your shoulders O lord. Allah forbid, but if this dominance of Kafirs continues in the same way, then Muslims will forget Islam and in a short time they will behave in such a manner that there will be no difference between Muslims and non-Muslims. This also is a huge problem.

    [106] Nobody other than you O Lordship, has the capability to resolve such a big problem. We, the residents of Hindustan, believe in the almighty God Allah and pray in his name that the courageous person (Ahmadshah Abdali) bestowed with the good fortune of bravery would ride in this direction and face the adversaries, and that his name will be etched in Allah’s list of good deeds. And the names will also be written, of the Mujahideen who are on the path towards Allah. Many favours of this world will be showered (upon you) and Muslims will overcome the Kafirs.”

    Our scholar Shah Waliullah then continues with his commentary describing how Nadirshah’s campaign resulted in reviving Hindu supremacy –

    “After Nadirshah, the adversaries became dominant and due to the divisions in the Islamic army, the sultanate of Delhi was reduced to a childish game. May Allah protect us, if the Kafirs continue to behave in the same manner and the Muslims become helpless, then the name of Islam will perish. Allah has said in favour of the Mujahideen that he is merciful on them and merciless on others (non-Muslims). [107] Praising the Muslims Allah has said that, ‘Khuda-e-ta-ala (Allah) befriends them and they befriend him, He is kind to the Muslims and strict on others (non-Muslims)’.”

    This tells us that the Marathas had made inroads and almost dismantled the Islamic power structure in Delhi through some shrewd diplomacy. Apart from the slight exaggeration in Shah Waliullah’s existential cry, this presents a clear picture of the ‘Islamic supremacy’ mindset, which unfortunately survives in the current century and is manifested in Taliban, ISIS, SIMI like terrorist outfits and their sympathisers.

    After this, our scholar Shah Waliullah proceeds to describe the details of an Islamic invasion, how people should be treated differently based on their faith –

    “From this it can be understood that the Islamic troops which treat Muslims residing in a particular region as their sons and brothers and confront their (non-Muslim) adversaries like a lion, are fortunate enough to win. It is necessary to imbibe the intention of strengthening Islam in these Mujahideen warriors. When victorious (Islamic) armies reach a place where Muslims and non-Muslims reside, an administrator must be appointed and strict orders should be issued to him asking him to bring all Muslims living in the villages to the towns and cities and also appoint some officers in these places. These officers would ensure that the property and dignity of a Muslim will not be violated. As the Hadis-e-sharif says, ‘Destruction of the whole world is nothing compared to killing a Muslim’.”

    This kind of segregation is in stark contrast with his earlier reference that the Marathas are exacting Chauth tax from both, Hindus and Muslims. What makes this even more interesting is when our Sufi scholar lays out the strategy of overcoming local populace where the Muslim population is limited. He gives an example of the Mecca treaty –

    “When the Kafirs of the Qurraish tribe denied entry to Hazrat Muhammad in Mecca, the last apostle agreed to a treaty with them even though some of the respected followers were eager to fight and were not agreeable to that. [108] Hazrat Muhammad did not side with his followers and agreed to the treaty. When he returned after this travel, Allah revealed the wisdom and the winning destiny behind this treaty … even though there was a possibility of some harm to the Muslims, Hazrat-e-Ala (Muhammad) insisted on achieving their goals over a period of time so that the adversaries would accept Islam in one or the other manner and the Muslims would be protected from victorious Mujahideen warriors and it so happened that two years after this pact, Mecca was won over.

    The Prophet [109] reached Mecca with ten thousand followers and all of Mecca came under the protection of Islam and agreed to place their faith in Hazrat Muhammad.

    This victory over Mecca offers a peculiar lesson of foresight to Emperors. It tells that forbearance is necessary when faced with a situation where Muslims and non-Muslims intermingle. Firstly, the domination of those non-Muslims who oppose Islam, over Muslims should be removed. After that, Muslims will themselves side with the just and visionary Emperor.

    Though a bitter medicine may cure everyone, its bitterness is never liked by the patient. So the clever medical practitioner mixes it with honey. A just Emperor behaves in a similar manner. Where Muslims are distributed across areas controlled by enemies of Allah (non-Muslims) and they fear for their life and dignity and by their nature, do not appreciate the (non-Muslim) dominion, the just Emperor bestows royal favours on faqeers, lamenting people, nobles and ulemas (Islamic scholars) and keeps them safe by providing various comforts and giving assurances.

    So that news of this benevolent act [110] spreads to far and wide cities and all the people raise their hands in support of this just Emperor, and pray for his victory, and day-and-night plead to Almighty God (Allah) that this excellent Emperor, a manifestation of His generosity, would stay in our city …

    The places where Muslims might possibly lose need to be thought about. Presence (of Muslims) should be built up around Kafirs so that the objective can be achieved without losing any Muslim lives.”

    This is probably the most interesting part of the letter. He tells us that the Islamic Emperor should support four types of people in regions under non-Muslim control – poor, lamenting, nobles and religious scholars.

    One cannot help comparing this with present day politics of giving freebies, and sponsoring media and ‘intellectuals’ from educational institutions – a ploy used effectively by Islamists and leftists of the day.

    That said, this letter and many more like these tell us that there is much more to Sufism that meets the eye, and in a not-so-spiritual way. It also throws light on the strong religious undercurrents of the Panipat battle. The invite given by Shah Walliullah to Ahmadshah Abdali and the result thereof is summed up aptly by Rizvi in his book:

    “Shah Waliullah’s prophecies about vast amounts of booty falling to the mujahids (Abdali) were in part fulfilled, all other problems remaining unresolved” (p.307).

    Shah Waliullah died just over a year after this battle, in 1762 CE.

    After getting a masters in computers, Rohit Sahasrabudhe has worked in the software industry for more than 20 years. Out of his interest for Indian history, he has completed M.A.(Indology) few years back. He undertook a course in Persian after which, last year he translated Aurangzeb's official regnal account 'Masir-e-Alamgiri', in Marathi. This year he has translated 'Mughal Administration' by Shri Jadunath Sarkar, also in Marathi.

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