Steeped in Extremism: Balakot has been a hub of Wahabi ideology and radical Islam for far too long

Uday Mahurkar
Uday MahurkarFeb 28, 2019 | 10:39

Steeped in Extremism: Balakot has been a hub of Wahabi ideology and radical Islam for far too long

Balakot, one of the three places in Pakistan that Indian fighter jets targeted on February 26 to destroy the terror bases of the Maulana Masood Azhar-led Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), has a historic connection with followers of ultra Wahabi or the extremist brand of Islam in Pakistan and India.

Bits of debris from the payload reportedly released by Indian military aircraft at the JeM facility in Balakot. (Twitter/@OfficialDGISPR)


Balakot’s symbolic and sentimental value for terror outfits, such as Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), has been there for almost two centuries now. Even LeT co-founder Hafiz Saeed has strong links to Balakot. At one point, Saeed used to run his charity activities for local poor Muslims in the area.

Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed has been a regular visitor to terrorist camps in Balakot. (Source: Reuters)

Balakot was one of the favourite breeding grounds for Wahabism in South Asia.

Balakot is associated with the death of a famous Indian Wahabi preacher Syed Ahmad Barelvi.

Barelvi was killed in a battle with the army of the Sikh emperor Ranjit Singh in 1831. Barelvi was killed along with his lieutenant, Shahid Ismail, another Wahabi preacher who is not only revered by Wahabis in India and Pakistan but also in Saudi Arabia because of his prolific writing, condemning the practices of not just non-Islamic religions but also moderate Sufi Islam. When the battle took place, Barelvi was leading an army of his followers known as the Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen and had styled himself as Amir-ul-Momin of the Wahabis.

Shah Ismail belonged to a family of ideologues of radical Islam. His great grandfather had penned Fatawa-e-Alamgiri, a religious book for fanatical Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. It was Aurangzeb's commentary on the interpretation of Koran. Ismail’s grandfather was well-known radical Islamic preacher Shah Waliullah who invited Afghan invader Ahmed Shah Abdali to invade India in 1759 and defeat the ‘kafir’ Marathas and Jats who were controlling the Mughal throne and thereby re-establish Muslim rule based on puritanical Islam.


Significantly, both Barelvi and Ismail are known as people who played the most prominent role in laying the foundation of Wahabi tenets in India. In fact, Barelvi is also known as ‘Syed Ahmed Barelvi Wahabi’ in British records. He veered full-stream towards Wahabi Islam after visiting Mecca and Medina and coming in touch with the mainstream preachers there. He became a preacher of Wahabi tenets after coming back to India.

Ismail accepted Barelvi as his religious preceptor and eventually, the ‘guru and chela’ became inseparable. Surprisingly, Ismail’s teachings have also been praised by nationalist Muslims, such as Abul Kalam Azad, India’s first education minister and a favourite of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who was Congress president from 1939 to 1945, the most crucial years before India’s Partition and independence.

Ismail’s book Taqwiyat-ul-Iman (Strengthening of the Faith), which decries Sufism and the practices of non-Islamic religions, and is taught in all Wahabi madrasas (seminaries of Deoband and Ahle Hadis schools in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) for the last 150 years or more is said to be one of the main reasons for the radicalisation of Muslims studying in these madrasas.

The text Taqwiyat Ul Iman (Strengthening Of The Faith), Darussalam, which shaped radical Islam across South Asia.


Interestingly, the Sikh army in the Balakot battle was led by Ranjit Singh’s son, Kunwar Sher Singh, who later became the Sikh emperor for a short while. It is said Barelvi was apparently killed off by the Sikh soldiers and his body was never found — the body of Ismail Dehlvi was buried in Balakot.

Ismail’s tomb can be found in Balakot even today.

The battle was fought because Barelvi, a resident of Bareilly in UP, left India for the North West-Frontier Province (now known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) to canvass support for the jihad that he declared against the British, and later against the Sikhs.

Another Balakot location: Shahid Ismail’s tomb can also be found in Balakot. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Barelvi’s ultimate goal was the re-establishment of Muslim rule in India, based on a puritanical Islamic order. Like all Wahabis, he regarded emperor Akbar’s liberal policies as the root cause for the weakening of puritanical Islam in India. However, he saw the British as enemy number one and therefore tried seeking tactical support from Hindu and Muslim rulers of that time. But he was forced to migrate to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa because he didn’t get the desired support for his jihad against the British despite his best efforts.

Significantly, he first tried to enlist the support of his friend, the famous Pathan chieftain, Amir Khan Pindari, but Amir Khan refused as he had been made nawab of Tonk by the British to prevent him from harassing and looting the local princely rulers in Malwa and Rajasthan.

Next, he tried to seek support from Raja Hindurao Ghatge, the brother-in-law of the Maratha ruler of Gwalior, Maharaja Daulat Rao Scindia, but he also refused — interestingly, he is the same Hindurao Ghatge in whose erstwhile palace the Bada Hindu Rao Hospital is housed in Delhi today.

When Barelvi reached NWFP, he was warmly welcomed by the local Pathan tribesman. In fact, they virtually accepted him as their religious pontiff and declared him their Amir-ul-Momin. Barelvi lived at a place called Sittana in NWFP. But Barelvi practiced a severe brand of Wahabi Islam and in doing so, he inflicted heavy punishments on those who indulged in the worship of Sufi saints which is prohibited in Wahabism and seen as an import from the Hindu tradition of guru puja.

Syed Ahmed Barelvi was first warmly welcomed by the Pathan tribesman of the NWFP. He was then rejected. (Source: Reuters)

At that time, playing and listening to folk music was part of tribal Pathan culture in NWFP — but Barelvi, in keeping with Wahabi tenets, opposed it and punished its practitioners. Gradually, he came to be disliked by local Pathans — and eventually hated.

A point came when he was forced to leave NWFP with his band of less than 5,000 followers, after skirmishes with local Pathans, and look for refuge in Kashmir instead.

However, Barelvi had turned Sikhs into his cut-throat enemies while being in NWFP. Sikhs had been very harsh on the Pathans of NWFP and Barelvi wanted to take revenge on the Sikhs. So, he declared jihad against the Sikhs and fought battles with them. In 1831, when he was passing through Balakot on his return from NWFP, he suddenly came face to face with a Sikh army and had to engage in battle. The battle lasted for a few hours — before Barelvi and his lieutenant were killed and his army dispersed.

Today, if moderate Islam is battling radical Islam in South Asia, it is Barelvi and Ismail who are believed to be the reason behind this as it is they who spread Wahabi Islam.

That they died while waging jihad put them on a very high pedestal in the entire Wahabi world. Ismail is also regarded as a holy figure by Wahabis ‘because he spread Islam with both the pen and the sword’.

These are the main factors why the ultra-Wahabis or the terrorists have an emotional attachment with Balakot.

On the flipside, at a time Pakistan is trying to woo Indian Sikhs in the name of 'Khalistan' by using baits such as opening the Kartarpur Sahib Gurudwara for Indian Sikhs, episodes like the 1831 battle at Balakot act as impediments.

Last updated: February 28, 2019 | 20:06
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