A Hijra to nowhere (2015)

‘Soon the Khyber Pass was clogged with caravans of bullock carts, camels and people afoot, carrying their few worldly belongings towards the promised land’.

‘There is another sister the same age as you, also from London with the same amount of cash as you, looking to make Hijrah roughly end of this month. You may come together so your alibi is stronger…Don’t discuss your Hijrah to anybody. Oh and delete all pictures from your phone of yourself in hijab or niqab. Make sure your phone is filled with games and random things, again nothing Islamic. Have a secured password’.

In the first of these quotes, the historian Gail Minault  conveys the scene when thousands of Muslims living in British India in the 1920 left their homes for an arduous trek to Afghanistan. They were convinced that it was religiously preferable to undertake hijrat to Afghanistan, an independent kingdom, rather than live as colonial subjects in British India.  

The second quote is from a British newspaper report of May 2015, and is a glimpse into the stratagems some young people are adopting to reach their idea of a ‘promised land’.

 The actions in 1920 were taken in times as confusing as today. The end of the Great War had led to the Paris Peace Conference and Treaty of Sèvres, in which the victorious Entente Powers imposed humiliating terms on the vanquished Ottomans.  At the same time, Britain abetted the Greek advances in Anatolia.  The Indian Muslims felt that Britain had betrayed promises made to them in 1915 to preserve the authority of the Ottoman Khalifa in the jaziratul Arab. Moreover news of the massacres committed by the Greeks also enraged popular feeling.  The Indian Khilafat Movement provided a political platform for this disquiet, and worked with Gandhi to launch an anti-colonialist campaign.  Into this melting pot were the actions of some religious leaders with their own ambitions, notably Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who had his sights on emerging as amir-e shariat of all Muslims in the sub-Continent. He issued a fatwa around April  or May 1920, declaring there was no shari’i alternative to hijrat: before the Great War the hijrat was commendable; but now it was mandatory. 

Other ulema of the main seminaries such as Deoband and Farangi Mahal were not convinced and stood aloof of this call. While Maulana Azad had also urged caution –  the exodus should be planned and organised in a proper way – there were unanticipated consequences.  A pro-hijrat propaganda machinery came into play, finding many gullible adherents.  The situation was further aggravated by statements from King Amanullah of Afghanistan. The historian of the Khilafat Movement, Naeem Qureshi, notes that the King, ‘ever since the Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919, had been trading on the excited state of Indian Muslims. In the call for the hijrat, the Amir found an excellent opportunity  to scare the British…The Amir undertook to welcome all those Muslims and Hindus who intended to migrate…the gesture was in fact never meant seriously by the Afghan government. Their motive in encouraging the hijrat was to harass the British and thereby strengthen their own bargaining position’.   

 There was no social media such as Instagram or Facebook in those days, but  as Naeem Qureshi describes, ‘Propaganda leaflets were widely circulated…the people were told stories of red carpet receptions which awaited the muhajirin: that the Amir had promised them a tract of fertile land in Jabal al-Siraj; that they would be helped and fed by their Afghan co-religionists; and that for three months they would have to do  no work at all… all this had great effect on the simple-minded peasantry and illiterate…crafty landlords and speculators, mostly Hindus, exploited the ignorant and encouraged them to emigrate in order to buy up cheaply the property and crops  of intending muhajirun.’

 The outcome was tragic and traumatic. Minault notes, ‘Tribesman fell upon the stream of migrants, looting their possessions and rustling the lifestock. As the tide of immigrants reached 30,000, the Afghan amir issued a proclamation urging no more Indians to come. Eventually, several thousand of disillusioned muhajirin returned penniless to the plains of India; many died en route’.  Within three months, almost all had left Afghanistan. Only a small number had managed to stay on. Even those who decided not to return to British India, but advance northwards to Turkomen territory, found themselves harshly treated.

 There are lessons to be learned from this misguided episode. First, the chief  ideologues for the hijrat,  like Abul Kalam Azad did not participate personally. Second, the King of Afghanistan was soon to embark on peace negotiations with the British, accepting financial assistance in exchange of suppressing the Indian Muslim political activists in his domain. Third, many of the educated muhajirin ended up disillusioned of Islamic causes and some became communists.

 It is not uncommon to hear young British Muslims today justifying their support for ISIS with reference to the hadith Innamal a’malu binniyat – actions are dependent upon intentions.  The suggestion is that so long as the niyyah is sincere, then actions ought not to be criticised – it is a matter between the individual and the Creator.  However, there is also the responsibility of the Muslim to be aware and discerning, and reflect on lessons from the past.  It is easy to become a pawn in someone else’s power game.

M. A. Sherif May 2015