Shi‘is and the Revolt in Awadh, 1857-1859
An attempt to resurrect Nishapuri Awadh, at first within the framework of a resuscitated Mughal Empire, inflamed North India with some of the fiercest battles it has ever known. Because the uprising began among Indian troops of the British army, it has become known in Western historiography as the Sepoy Mutiny—a misnomer, since the revolt drew in the great landholders and peasants of North India, as well as the old Awadh notable class, who reconstituted their kingdom under Shi‘i leadership. The role of Shi‘is and of the Shi‘i ulama in the revolt, although raised, has never been described in detail. The accounts given by Shi‘i historians after the British victory in 1858-59, and followed by some writers in English, say that the Shi‘is participated less vigorously in the revolt because of their conviction that holy war, jihad , was illegitimate in the time of the Imam's Occultation. This assertion will be tested in the following account.
It should be said at the outset that the proposition of Shi‘i quietism, however well founded doctrinally, seems unlikely to be true. Stokes characterized 1857 as "secondary resistance," and a post-pacification revolt, a second stage on the way to modern nationalism between the violent primary resistance to colonialism of traditional elites and the organized political parties of a later time. It engaged the totality of society, throwing up new forms of leadership partially rooted in religious ideology. Mukherjee has recently characterized 1857 as both a war of religion and a war of restoration, which called upon Awadh's Muslims and Hindus to rise against Christian hegemony. Given the importance of religious ideology in the revolt, and the leading role
played by a revived Awadh nawabate, that most Shi‘is showed apathy seems an extraordinary proposition, since the British annexation of Awadh, the abolition of the seminary, and the abortive 1857 invasion of Iran all affected Shi‘is directly and adversely.
Shi‘i participation in the failed revolution can best be understood if we look at the community according to its social divisions into "orders" (tabaqat ), rather than monolithically. Tradespeople and laborers (cavamm ) in the large villages and urban centers, the Shi‘i large landholders (tacalluqdars and zamindars ) in the countryside, court notables (umara' ) based in the cities of Lucknow and Faizabad, and the Shi‘i learned men, or ulama, all reacted differently to events.
The mutiny of the Indian troops began in Meerut on 10 May 1857. These troops made for Delhi, where the garrison likewise rose up and massacred the British population, placing at the head of their revolt Siraju'd-Din Bahadur Shah II (r. 1837-57), the Mughal king the British had reduced to a puppet. On 14 May the restored emperor demanded that revenue collectors submit their taxes to him. Thereafter the troops downriver along the Ganges began revolting, as word spread of the events in Delhi.
Let us consider first of all the participation of Shi‘i commoners in the Awadh revolt. The expected conflagration came in Lucknow on 30 May, as Lucknow sepoys mutinied all night. The next day a force of five or six thousand tradesmen and laborers crossed the Gomti to loot the cantonments in coordination with the revolting troops, but, finding that Lawrence's forces had dispersed them, the crowd returned to the Husaynabad quarter and ran riot. The city crowd, drawn from the poor of the old city, must have included both Shi‘is and Sunnis as well as Hindus. A firsthand Persian account suggests that such mobs typically included some notables and Muslim sermonizers who led bands of butchers, weavers, carders, and other tradesmen, and the same source says that Shi‘i commoners participated widely in the revolt. Later, during the siege of the British residency, Gubbins often heard the cry of "Ya ‘Ali" (O ‘Ali) from the besiegers. Shi‘is, the partisans of ‘Ali, were most likely to use this war cry. Therefore, Shi‘i tradesmen, laborers, and soldiers participated in the revolt without any special reservations, and these probably represented the majority of the Shi‘i community.
Events in June raise the question of the role of Shi‘i rural magnates. The
uprising now began to spread into Awadh's interior, though many waited to see what turn events would take in Lucknow, where the British reasserted control for a few weeks. The troops at Sitapur revolted, and in that and neighboring districts the Shi‘i great landlords of Mahmudabad and Bhatwamau, joined by some Hindu rajas, issued a proclamation including an oath to fight against the British, couched in both the Shi‘i terminology of Karbala and in Hindu symbology.
On 8 and 9 June the regiments at Faizabad mutinied, forcing Europeans to flee. The troops briefly placed at their head Ahmadu'llah Shah, a Sunni Sufi leader of the Qadiri order, who had been preaching holy war against the British to avenge the martyrdom of Amir ‘Ali Amethavi (whose ill-fated holy-war movement, centered on the Hanumangarhi, had led to his massacre and that of his followers seven months earlier). After two days, however, other leadership emerged in the Faizabad area, including Raja Man Singh, a dispossessed Hindu large landholder, and Muhammad Hasan Khan, a governor under the old monarchy.
On 29 July a vanguard of revolutionaries from Faizabad and Sitapur arrived at Chinhat near Lucknow, on their way to liberate the capital; they were led by Khan ‘Ali Khan, the deputy of the Shi‘i Raja of Mahmudabad. Lawrence rode out with troops to counterattack, but returned in defeat, and was killed a few days later. Victorious rebel troops entered Lucknow, looting and plundering, and jockeying for leadership began as Ahmadu'llah Shah tried and failed to establish his own police network in Lucknow. The British retreated to the residency, facing an attack on 2 July, which they drove off with heavy fire. Especially after the fall of Lucknow, rural magnates joined the revolution in great numbers. Although Hindu rajas dominated much of the countryside, some Shi‘is played a crucial role. Mihdi Husayn, the governor of Sultanpur, emerged as the "key figure, at least in southern Awadh, for the organizing of rebel forces in the districts." Shi‘i rural leaders gave no evidence of holding back because holy war was illegitimate during the Occultation; rather, Shi‘i tacalluqdars , such as Mahmudabad and Bhatwamau, moved in the vanguard of the rural revolt.
Two groups, Shi‘i urban-based notables and the learned men, reacted in a
more complex manner to the revolt, and their behavior gave rise to the characterization of Shi‘is as quietists. Even they, however, can be shown to have supported the war, by and large. Many Shi‘i notables at first had reservations about a popular revolt, for two reasons: first, they feared for their own (considerable) property should order break down, and second, they still bore allegiance to the ancien régime of Vajid ‘Ali Shah, on his way to appeal to the queen in England.
The Shi‘i notables did not long enjoy the luxury of equivocation. The liberation of Lucknow faced them with a moment of truth, for the revolutionaries, rural landholders and their peasants and rebel Indian troops, felt a need to establish their legitimacy. They wanted a member of the Nishapuri family installed as king, but the main candidate, Ruknu'd-Dawlah, was imprisoned in the residency, and others refused. Several of Vajid ‘Ali Shah's harem officials, including ‘Ali Muhammad "Mamun" Khan, then put forth Birjis Qadar Mirza, only ten years old. The son of Vajid ‘Ali Shah by a former courtesan who belonged to the second rank of the king's wives, Birjis Qadar had the advantage of being young and malleable. His mother, Hazrat Mahall, appears to have actively sought the position of king for her son, although other wives of the: king opposed the move as disrespectful or endangering to Vajid ‘Ali Shah, interred in British-held Calcutta.
The revolutionaries wished to restore an Awadh government under Birjis Qadar in a manner consonant with the ideology of the Delhi revolt, which proclaimed a resurrected Mughal Empire. They therefore reverted to the pre-1819 formulas for Awadh rule, proclaiming Birjis Qadar a nawab rather than a shah. Shi‘is found this move easier because of their widespread conviction that Bahadur Shah II had adopted Shi‘ism around 1853. In that year the powerless king of Delhi had sent a letter to Chief Mujtahid Sayyid Muhammad Nasirabadi expressing his love for the family of the Prophet and declaring as non-Muslims all those who did not love them. He had an offering made on his behalf to the shrine of ‘Abbas's standard, Lucknow's holiest Shi‘i shrine. A year later he sent an envoy to Tehran, who informed Iran's Nasiru'd-Din Shah of the Mughal's adoption of Shi‘ism and his request for political support. Shi‘is probably took Bahadur Shah's subsequent denials of his Shi‘ism as pious dissimulation (taqiyyah ), whereas Sunnis believed them, making the last Mughal emperor an ideal rallying point for India's Muslims.
The child Birjis Qadar was installed as Awadh's ruler on 5 July 1857, with the understanding that he would obey the orders of the Mughal emperor in Delhi and would give the revolutionary military a say in choosing the cabinet and army commanders. The "Zafarnamah" explicitly says that Birjis Qadar was made "nawab," rather than shah, and all sources agree that one of the revolutionary leaders, Shihabu'd-Din Khan, placed a turban on his head (rather than a crown, which had also been brought as a contingency). The new government rapidly appointed its chief officers, mostly former Awadh dignitaries, threatening recalcitrant candidates with execution for British sympathies if they refused to serve. They pressed Sharafu'd-Dawlah into service as chief minister, although some Shi‘i notables objected to his being a Sunni. The Hindu Maharaja Balkishen reluctantly took over the treasury department once again. Mamun Khan became overseer of the royal household, a powerful post in a patrimonial government with a child ruler. The new government rehired displaced bureaucrats and secretaries, and issued orders to revolutionary troops to cease looting, regularizing military salaries, though plundering continued and the troops retained great power. During the next several months, many of the Shi‘i notables in Lucknow recognized the new government and supported it in one manner or another.
The revolutionary government made major assaults against the British residency on 20 July and 10 August, but never succeeded in reducing the British stronghold, though by August it held most of Awadh. Outside Awadh, the tide began to turn in favor of the British. The help that the Indians expected from Shi‘i Iran never arrived. Mamun Khan sent an emissary to Bahadur Shah, requesting his approval of Birjis Qadar's installation, but he arrived after Delhi fell to the British on 20 September, and returned to Lucknow. Mamun Khan sought to suppress news of the Mughal emperor's arrest, and proclaimed that Bahadur Shah had recognized Birjis Qadar as king, having salutes fired accordingly. His regents later minted a coin with the couplet:
The emperor [badshah ] of every body, every eye, Birjis Qadar
Struck coins in gold and silver, like the sun and the moon.
This verse indicates that after the fall of Delhi the revolutionary government reverted to claims of independent monarchy in Awadh.
The Birjis Qadar government failed to prevent the "relief" of the residency led by Havelock and Outram in late September, which opened a new front at Alambagh, and the assault of Campbell in the winter of 1857-58, which in March drove the revolutionaries out of the capital. From the autumn of 1857 the Lucknow revolutionaries had split into two camps, with the Shi‘i and Hindu notables supporting Hazrat Mahall and Mamun Khan, the child ruler's regents, whereas the Sunni intermediate strata and laboring classes went over to Ahmadu'llah Shah, who in Sufi style made grandiose claims to divinity. The two camps continued to cooperate in assaulting the British position at Alambagh. From Maich of 1858 when the British reconquered Lucknow, the competing leadership cliques established themselves in different areas of the countryside, still aided by revolting tacalluqdars and their peasants, which the British did not subdue for almost another year.
What was the relationship of the Shi‘i ulama, who once wielded such power under the Nishapuris, to the new regime? The younger Nasirabadis, although they did not regain their control over the judiciary, joined the government in various capacities. Sayyid Muhammad Baqir Nasirabadi Munsifu'd-Dawlah, in constant attendence on revolutionary leader Mamun Khan, sought to regain the post of chief justice for himself; it went instead to Mir Mihdi, the Shi‘i tutor of Birjis Qadar. Mir Mihdi, however, did employ Sayyid Muhammad Baqir as an intelligence analyst obtaining information on the movement of British troops. The revolutionaries also offered him the command of a regiment, the ‘Ali Platoon, which he delegated to his half-brother ‘Ali Muhammad Nasirabadi. Sayyid ‘Abdu'l-Husayn, another son of Sayyid Muhammad Nasirabadi, was listed by the British as a "mutineer." Sayyid Muhammad Taqi, son of the late Sayyid Husayn Nasirabadi (d. 1856), at age forty one of the more prominent Shi‘i ulama in Awadh, constantly attended at the restored court, praying for Birjis Qadar. At the revolutionaries' request he used his knowledge of divination to name the fortunate days for attacking the Lucknow residency.
What of ulama outside the Nasirabadi family? Of twenty-three major Shi‘i ulama in Lucknow (mostly former teachers, and some students, at the abolished seminary) whom the British later investigated, twelve took salaries
from or actively served with the revolutionary government, two applied unsuccessfully for jobs (one for a command), and nine attended at court and prayed for the government's success. Mirza Muhammad ‘Ali used his influence to get for his brother command of the Fath Jang Platoon under Husamu'd-Dawlah. Sayyid Asghar Husayn and Mir Khadim Husayn were employed in the Najib battalion, and Mawlavi Hakim Hamzah ‘Ali by the assistant to Mamun Khan, as well as by the revenue office. Mawlavi Mihdi Shah served in the News/Intelligence Department. Little evidence is available about the activities of Shi‘i ulama outside Lucknow, but we do know that Jacfar ‘Ali Jarchavi (d. 1896), a renowned Qur'an reciter trained as a Shi‘i scholar in Lucknow under the Nasirabadis, was arrested with the Sayyids of his town in Bulandshahr in 1857 for participating in the revolution.
Some exceptions to Shi‘i ulama support for the revolution can be noted. Sayyid Icjaz Husayn Kinturi, an employee of the British bureaucracy, helped the British despite their tearing down his house near the residency. Sayyid ‘Ali Deoghatavi, Shi‘i prayer leader in Faizabad, denied involvement in the revolt.
The most celebrated instance of a major Shi‘i scholar keeping his distance from the revolutionary government, that of Chief Mujtahid Sayyid Muhammad Nasirabadi, deserves a closer look. As was noted, one of his sons had a command, another was a "mutineer," and a third served as intelligence analyst. Sayyid Muhammad himself "made constant private visits to the Begam and Brijees Kudr," bringing along his close students to pray for the success of the revolution. The government stationed guards at his house to protect him and his great wealth. Yet he refused to call for a holy war, and during the British siege in the winter of 1857-58 he expressed disapproval of the war. This seemingly contradictory behavior puzzled British intelligence agents.
A chronological approach might help. Sayyid Muhammad often attended at court in the summer and autumn of 1857, when his sons took government service. With the British siege of Lucknow that winter, however, and the increasing power of the Sunni zealot Ahmadu'llah Shah, he may have seen the handwriting on the wall. Hindu informers spying on him from November 1857 to March 1858 reported that he
refused to give his sanction to the Rebellion raging around him. He urged when called upon to grant his Futwas that this could not be sanctioned by any passage or warrant of the Koran, that war against the infidels could only be justifiable when waged by an Emam and not otherwise. It was also reported that in his own circle the Moojtahid condemned the war as quite unjustifiable and against the spirit of the Law as contained in the Koran.
The British report noted, however, that the chief mujtahid "permitted his disciples" to preach jihad , and to enter the revolutionary government's service.
Within the Nasirabadi family, therefore, a generation gap is apparent. Younger members of the family preached holy war and took jobs with Birjis Qadar's administration. Sayyid Muhammad, not given the sort of power and recognition he had in the 1840s, gave less-devoted support to the revolutionaries. Since he had given a ruling in the 1830s allowing defensive holy war when the lands of Islam were attacked, and since many Iranian mujtahids sanctioned Iran's wars against Russia earlier in the century, Sayyid Muhammad took an extremely cautious doctrinal position in 1858. Perhaps he thereby hedged his bets on whether the British would win, or the revolutionaries. Or maybe the "large sums" he held in British Government securities divided his loyalties. Finally, in refusing to recognize the struggle as a holy war, Sayyid Muhammad may have attempted to distinguish his style of religious leadership from that of Ahmadu'llah Shah. A similar conflict took place in Allahabad, where Shi‘i ulama refused to call for jihad , although the Sunni radical Mawlavi Liyaqat Husayn did so. The important point is that Shi‘is did not need the banner of holy war in order to fight against the British, which they almost universally did.
Given the prominence of Shi‘i commoners, tacalluqdars , and troops of the restored Shi‘i government in Lucknow, and of the Shi‘i ulama in the Awadh revolt of 1857-59, one can only wonder how the story of this community's ambivalence began. The answer lies in the witch-hunting atmosphere of the victorious British raj after March 1858. The British (inaccurately) put primary blame for the revolt on Muslims, and Shi‘is who wished to keep their lives and property had a strong motivation to convince the British of their innocence. British troops vindictively defiled the Great Imambarah and the Shi‘i Friday prayers mosque, turning the complex into a barracks. But the refusal of some older Shi‘i high ulama to call for a holy war served suddenly to differentiate their community from the Sunnis. The British, seeking to rebuild their ties with local elites, swallowed the lie about Shi‘i quietism with alacrity. Although British officials in Lucknow made a rather damaging circumstantial case against Sayyid Muhammad Nasirabadi, the governor-
general awarded the chief mujtahid his full stipend from the British government:
That which seems best supported by evidence is that he opposed the preaching of a religious war: and this, for the High Priest of Lucknow, is a great deal.
I think it not only just to give him the benefit of this, but politic; and I would seize this opportunity of finding a Mahomedan Priest who has practised moderation, and dissuaded from bloodshed & fanaticism to mark our approval of such conduct.
Sayyid Muhammad also used pro-British Shi‘i friends like Sayyid Icjaz Husayn Kinturi to pull strings for him with them. The myth of Shi‘i quietism thus cynically suited both Shi‘i ulama and notables fearful of British punishment and British officials seeking a "politic" rapprochement with local elites.
Younger members of prominent ulama families took advantage of British willingness to make up. Sayyid Ghulam Husayn Kinturi, former treasury official at the Shi‘i seminary, became deputy registrar under the deputy commissioner in Lucknow, in the chowk bazaar area. His brother-in-law and cousin, Sayyid Icjaz Husayn Kinturi, continued to work as a bureaucrat (munsarim ) for the British government of Oudh. One of Sayyid Muhammad Nasirabadi's sons, Sayyid ‘Ali Akbar, became the deputy commissioner for the British in Bahraich. In some ways this move into administration under the colonial masters continued earlier trends of Shi‘i ulama's becoming government judges and officials.