There is a striking similarity between the uprising of 1857 in India and the
9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in the United States. Both
events sparked off a heated public debate on the question of jihad in Islamic
law, and the obligation of Muslims to calls to jihad by clerics or private
After quelling the uprising, the British came down heavily on Muslims, whom they suspected of being the main fomenters of the revolt to fulfil their obligation to jihad. In fact, Lord Mayo mooted the question, "Are Indian Muslims bound by their religion to rebel against the Queen?"
In 1871, Sir William Hunter, who was asked to investigate the causes of widespread disaffection among Muslims, produced a book titled The Indian Musalmans, in which he asserted, "The Musalmans of India are and have been for many years, a chronic danger to the British power in India."
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan wrote a review of the book and strongly refuted the allusions of Hunter with particular reference to his poor understanding of jihad in Islam. He emphatically asserted that, "As long as the Muslims can affirm their faith in One God and preach it in peace, the religion does not permit them to rise against the rulers irrespective of their faith or race."
In addition to this review, Sir Syed wrote extensively to elucidate the concept of jihad in Islam. In a commentary to the Quran, Sir Syed wrote that Islam has permitted only two eventualities in which Muslims may resort to armed action. First, if the enemy, motivated by the desire to annihilate the religion, attacks Muslims, then they can take to arms to repulse such attacks. But this measure of self-defence shall be qualified as jihad only if it is certain that the aggression has been committed purely on account of enmity towards Islam and not for any territorial or worldly gains. Any other conflict, be it between two contending Muslim parties or between Muslims and non-Muslims, is strictly a temporal affair and has nothing to do with religion.
The other justification for armed action is when Muslims, on account of their religion, are denied safety and security and freedom of faith. In this context, Sir Syed points out that armed action can be taken only by a free people to help the oppressed, not by the oppressed themselves if they are living as a subject. Their option is either to endure the oppression or migrate to some other land.
Sir Syed describes this as the beautiful way out shown by Islam and asserts that this is the armed action that Islam permits and has named it as jihad. He then asks, can any fair-minded person describe this action to be against the principles of morality or justice?
Further he asserts that Islam admits no scope for mischief, treachery, mutiny or rebellion. In fact, whosoever guarantees peace and security, be he a believer or disbeliever, is entitled to Muslim gratitude and obedience.
Sir Syed describes the laws of war in Islam as just and noble, but criticises Muslim rulers for their barbarism and accuses them of profaning these pure laws. He also accuses the ulema [clergy] of violating the noble spirit of Islam by defending these rulers. Sir Syed held that rulers like Mahmoud Ghaznavi and Aurangzeb who oppressed people, did so in breach of Islam; their accountability is personal and individual and their evil deed must not be attributed to Islam.
Arif Mohammed Khan is a former Union Minister