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India had its Osama

Historian Charles Allen?s book says that Wahhabism, the creed Al Qaeda believes in, existed in India in the 18th century.

india Updated: Nov 20, 2006 18:07 IST

“I think it would be better if I take off my spectacles,” says British historian Charles Allen, 65, when our photographer gets ready to take pictures. “I look different.”

Allen is feeling nervous because his book, God’s Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad (Little, Brown) has ruffled a few feathers, especially among Muslim groups in Britain. The thesis, as the introduction suggests, is that the modern day jehad has its roots in the late 18th century in Saudi Arabia, when an intolerant strand of Islam is adopted by a preacher, Al-Wahhab. He takes it from the teachings of Ibn Taymiyya, a 14th-century jurist of Damascus. This is later called Wahhabism and, as Allen says, “it is deeply belligerent and hostile towards Shias, Sunnis, Christians, Jews and Hindus. Their argument is very simple: you either believe in our version of Islam or you die”. It is this creed that is the religious base of Al Qaeda and other jehadi outfits.

But the stunning revelation is that Wahhabism was present in India since the late 18th century. A young man, Syed Ahmad, “who was the Osama Bin Laden of his day”, goes to Mecca for Haj and returns with this new ideology and starts preaching it all over the country In Mumbai, the Sunnis unite to condemn him. “Most Muslims in India rejected the ideology ,” says Allen.

Ahmad’s first jehad is against the Sikhs but he is killed in the infamous massacre of Balakot on May 8, 1831. The movement goes underground and members hide in a camp up in the hills, north of Peshawar. And remains there despite numerous efforts by the British to destroy them.

Charles Allen is now writing a biography of Rudyard KiplingPhoto: Hemant Padalkar

In 1857, a group of Wahhabis take part in the Mutiny in Delhi but, as is well known, the British crush the uprising. Among the Wahhabis are two fighters, Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi and Rashid Ahmed Gangohi, who later found the famous Deoband madrasa. “The Deobandis in India are law-abiding,” he says. “However, there is a Wahhabi element which they acknowledge but do not emphasise.”

In his highly readable book, however, Allen does not clearly explain how the movement has survived to the present in India.

Allen, who was born in Kanpur, won the Sir Percy Sykes Gold Medal given by the Royal Society for Asian Affairs in 2004 for his contribution to the understanding of Asian affairs. “I have mixed feelings about this,” he says. “My work has contributed to the understanding of the British in South Asia but not to the understanding of South Asian history It is very one-sided.”

There is a feeling among Muslims that God’s Terrorists is also one-sided. Reviewing the book in Asharq Alawsat, an Arabic newspaper, journalist Amir Taheri writes: “Because Allen is unable to cite evidence that the anti-British rebels were Wahhabis, he falls back on spurious suppositions.”

Allen agrees that the criticism is valid. “My book is a work in progress and I have been drawing only on British sources,” he says. “The problem is that I can’t speak Urdu and, therefore, cannot access Urdu works.” He is now writing a biography of Rudyard Kipling.

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