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Another pan Islamist Ghadarite

Barakatullah Bhopali, the leading revolutionary

Another pan Islamist Ghadarite


Last week’s column was commented upon by several people who seem far more informed on the subject of the Ghadar Movement than myself. UK-based Punjabi laureate and scholar Amarjit Chandan is one of them. He very kindly drew my attention to two Muslim Ghadarites, Dada Amir Haider Khan from Rawalpindi and Dr Mohammad Iqbal Shedai of Sialkot. I am enormously grateful for his very helpful comments. I am aware of Haider and have read about him in Dam-i-Mauj, his biographical account by Dr Ayub Mirza, but did not know about Dr Shedai.

However, since I wanted to unravel the extent of pan-Islamism that had affected the Ghadar Movement, elucidating its inclusive character therefore I had focussed on Barakatullah and Ubaidullah Sindhi who epitomised Pan-Islamic thought. In this piece I will limit my analysis to the lesser known Barakatullah only.

Born somewhere around 1860 in Bhopal, Maulana Barakatullah was educated at Madrasa-e-Sulaimaniya in his native Bhopal, where he studied Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Islamic philosophy and qualified as an Alim in 1878. He must have been influenced by the scholar-prince Nawab Siddiq Hasan Khan Qanauji, one of the founders of Ahl-e-Hadith denomination.

Barakatullah left home at 19 to serve as tutor in Khandwa and Bombay, where he enrolled in Wilson High School and started learning English from a certain Mr Scot in return for teaching Urdu to him. Within three years he was proficient enough to qualify for university entrance examination. In around 1882 he met Jamal-ud-Din Afghani and was impressed with his pan-Islamist ideas. It seems the meeting with Afghani influenced Barakatullah, even though his political ideals led him down a different course.

He travelled to London in 1887 and earned his living teaching Arabic, Persian and Urdu, while himself learning German, French and Japanese. It was then that he was introduced to the British convert Abdullah Quilliam, who recruited him to teach at the Muslim Institute in Liverpool in 1895. He subsequently started teaching at the Oriental College, University of Liverpool. Also known as Haroun Mustapha Leon, Quilliam was born in a Christian Methodist household in Liverpool and embraced Islam after visiting Morocco at the age of 17, and went on to establish the Liverpool Muslim Institute with the mosque in 1889 . This was England’s first mosque, accommodating around a hundred Muslims, and was followed by a Muslim college, which offered courses for both Muslims and non-Muslims.

While in England Barakatullah made acquaintance with one Nasrullah Khan from Kabul, who was brother of the amir of Afghanistan. Barakatullah reportedly sent a weekly newsletter on England’s affairs to the amir’s agent at Karachi, his first political activity, which attracted the attention of the British Intelligence. Subsequently, he attended meetings of the Muslim Patriotic League in London and helped to edit a newspaper called The Crescent and a magazine, The Islamic World.

In 1899 at the behest of Muslim scholar and activist Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb, Barkatullah sailed to New York. Webb was an American writer, publisher, and the United States Consul to the Philippines. He converted to Islam in 1888, and is considered by some historians to be the earliest prominent Anglo-American Muslim convert. In 1893 he was the only person representing Islam at the first Parliament for the World’s Religions in Chicago. Barakatullah, spent six years in New York, where he taught Arabic for a living but invested most of his time writing articles on Islam and India which were published in Webb’s The Muslim World and also in some mainstream newspapers, The Forum being one of them.

In New York, Barakatullah forged contacts with Indian community in other cities of US and Canada and sought to instil a revolutionary spirit in them. He also kept in touch with the revolutionaries back home: he had a scholarly exchange with a nationalist-literary figure Maulana Syed Fazl-ul-Hasan, commonly known as Hasrat Mohani, and stressed Hindu-Muslim unity.

Peripatetic as he was, Barakatullah’s next destination was Tokyo where he went in 1909 and stayed there for five years as a Professor of Oriental Languages at the University of Tokyo. While there, he started looking after a monthly journal, funded by Ottoman government, called The Islamic Fraternity which he took over from pan-Islamist Egyptian Fadli Bey. It ran into trouble because of its anti-colonial content and so was closed down ostensibly at the behest of the British. Then he started a newspaper El Islam, which was banned in British India.

His political activism eventually caused the termination of his service from the University of Tokyo. Some analysts suspected that the Indian government exerted pressure on the Japanese authorities to “eliminate this annoyance” (referring to Barakatullah in Japan). That was the moment when he threw in his lot with the Ghadar Party and forged connections with Har Dayal and Sohan Singh Josh.

Most salient of all the features in Barakatullah’s revolutionary endeavours was his Kabul sojourn as a member of a Turko-German Mission in 1915 where, in the same year, the first Provisional Government of India was established with Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh as its President,  Barakatullah as Prime Minister, and Ubaidullah Sindhi as Home Minister. In 1919 he visited the Soviet Union and met Lenin who was greatly impressed by Barakatullah’s insights, particularly on Middle-Eastern politics. Throughout the early 1920s, he travelled extensively in Europe and Russia in a bid to organise revolutionary movements among expatriate Indians.

By 1927, the year of his death, he had acquired diabetes and a host of other ailments. He passed away when he was on his way to San Francisco, which was the headquarters of the Ghadar Party, and was buried in the Old City Cemetery of Sacramento in California. He was recognised as a great freedom fighter when the University of Bhopal was named after him in 1988.

Not only his methods but also his thoughts betrayed very strong pan-Islamist moorings which were entwined with the Ghadarite revolutionary ideology. He espoused only the social dimension of socialism which in order to have any meaning had to draw on the spirituality of religions. Similarly, he was antipathetic to Hindu extremism too.

All in all, Barakatullah was a fascinating person who had unflinching conviction in anti-colonial ideology.

(To be concluded)


Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

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