BARELAVĪ, SAYYID AHMAD (1786-1831), leader of the militant Wahābī movement in India for the purification and rehabilitation of Islam, was born at Rāe Barelī, in present-day Uttar Pradesh, on 29 November 1786, in a Sayyid family. At school, he took more interest in sports than in studies. He attained proficiency in wrestling, swimming and archery and developed a robust physique. During 1803-04, when 18 years of age, he set out for Lucknow with seven companions in search of employment. For seven months, he lived on the hospitality of a local aristocrat who knew the family, but got no employment. He then went to Delhi where he became a disciple of Shāh Abdul Azīz, son of Shāh Walīullah (1702-63) of the Naqshbandī order, who became the moving spirit for the reform and renovation of Islam in India. About 1808, he returned to Rāe Barelī and got married. He left for Delhi again in 1811 and, after a short stay there, proceeded to Central India to join Amīr Khān Ruhīlā, an ambitious Afghān adventurer connected with the notorious predatory Piṇḍārīs. Amīr Khān was later elevated Nawāb of Ṭoṅk by the British. He stayed with Amīr Khān for about six years, and returned to Delhi in 1818. There he turned a religious zealot and began to preach and make disciples. He toured various districts of Uttar Pradesh, his following constantly increasing. In 1822, he visited Mecca and, on return to India the following year, proclaimed himself a reformer (mujtahid), preaching Wahābī doctrines.

        Sayyid Ahmad gathered around himself a motley crowd of followers, religious enthusiasts, mullahs, mercenaries, and all those willing to wage war in the cause of Islam. Fearful of fomenting trouble in the British territory, he, in 1826, crossed over to Afghān-Sikh borders. Among his supporters were the Nawāb of Ṭoṅk and the Tālpurian Amīrs of Sindh. He reached Qandahār and fording the River Kābul, entered the turbulent Yūsafzaī hills. From the barren Yūsafzaī hills, he raised the cry of holy war (jihād) against the "infidel Sikhs" who, he proclaimed, had usurped all Afghān territories in India. In a manifesto issued in December 1826, he charged Sikhs with having committed atrocities on Muslims. To their total annihilation he pledged himself.

        On 21 December 1826, Sayyid Ahmad crossed the Sikh frontier and fell upon Akoṛā, near Attock, but the garrison under Buddh Siṅgh Sandhāṅvālīā repulsed him. Sayyid Ahmad hastily retired, having lost a large number of his men. Early in 1827, about 80, 000 Yūsafzaīs and 20, 000 Durrānī troops, with 8 guns, swelled the ranks of the Sayyid's mujāhidīn. The host then advanced towards Buddh Siṅgh's new camp at Shaidū, a few kilometres south of Akoṛā. The mujāhidīn had some initial success in forcing the Sikh advance posts back to their camp, but ultimately the Sikhs won the day, though Buddh Siṅgh himself was killed in the battle.

        Sayyid Ahmad continued inciting the Afghān tribes against the Sikhs. In 1829, his men invaded Peshāwar whose tributary governor, Yār Muhammad Khān, was fatally wounded, but the arrival of a force under Kaṅvar Sher Siṅgh and General Ventura saved the situation for the Sikhs. Sayyid Ahmad fled towards Hazārā, but continued his campaign of calumny against the Sikhs. In 1830, a Sikh force commanded by Harī Siṅgh Nalvā and General Ventura drove him across the River Indus, but soon after he fell upon Peshāwar, defeated its new governor, Sultān Muhammad Khān Bārakzaī, and occupied the town. The jubilant Afghān tribes hailed him as the Khalifāt ul-Musalmīn, i. e. the Caliph of the Muslims. He installed himself as the ruler of Peshāwar and struck coins in his name with high-sounding inscriptions.

        His rule was, however, short-lived. The innovations he introduced in the agrarian system and in the administration of justice in accordance with his fanatical doctrines aroused the opposition of the Sunnī mullahs. Further, he imposed a tithe on the peasants. The Afghān jirgās denounced him as an impostor and the mullahs clamoured for his expulsion from among their midst. Sayyid Ahmad hastily surrendered Peshāwar to Sultān Muhammad Khān Bārakzaī, the Sikh tributary, and fled across the Indus.

         In May 1831, a strong Sikh force under Prince Sher Siṅgh overtook him, and in a short action at Bālākoṭ, on 6 May 1831, he was slain along with his few adherents. Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh ordered celebration of the event with illuminations and discharge of guns throughout the kingdom.


  1. Sūrī, Sohan Lāl, 'Umdāt-ut-Twārīkh. Lahore, 1885-89
  2. Ahmad, Mohiuddin, Saiyid Ahmad Shahid. Lucknow, 1975
  3. Hasrat, B. J. , Life and Times of Raṇjit Siṅgh. Nabha, 1977
  4. Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, vol. I. Princeton, 1963

Sardār Siṅgh Bhāṭīā