Sunday, 5 August 2012

An Afghan tale

In light of recent events in Punjab, the writer looks back at the story of Amir of Afghanistan and the Sahibzada 

The Amir and the Sahibzada

by Munir Khan

On the 16th of October 1901 a great Jirga had been assembled in the city of Kabul, Afghanistan. Representatives of all the various Pashtun tribes had travelled to Kabul to attend the Loya Jirga (great gathering of tribes) at which the coronation of the new King of Afghanistan was to take place. The death of Amir Abdur Rehman, who had been a cruel and despotic tyrant was an occasion for Afghans to select a new Amir who would supposedly lead Afghans into the 20th century and away from the medieval reign of Amir Abdur Rehman who had been described as the “Absolute Amir” by British engineer Frank Martin in his book of that name.

Hundreds of Kabul’s citizenry, along with the many Khan’s and tribal chiefs from all over the provinces of Afghanistan had gathered at the Jaamia Masjid where the coronation ceremony was to take place. During his crowing ceremony, the Imam of the Jamia Mosque, wrapped a head cloth of white muslin around Habibullah's head, presented him with a copy of the Quran, some relics of the Prophet, and a flag from the tomb of an Afghan saint. All this was to symbolise the ruler's religious obligations as well as the divine source of his power.

The Chief Mullah who wound the cloth around the Amir’s head and thus crowned him the new King of Afghanistan was a highly revered Muslim religious figure by the name of Sahibzada Abdul Latif. He had been given the singular honour of being the one who would perform the ceremony by virtue of his piety, honesty, vast religious knowledge and the respect that he was held in throughout Afghanistan.

Such was his fame and reputation for probity that when the British & Afghan governments decided to demarcate the Afghan/India border in 1893, Sahibzada Abdul Latif was chosen as a representative of the Afghan delegation along with Sardar Shirin Dil Khan. Sir Mortimer Durand led from the British side and the border was agreed between the two governments, and to this day is known as the Durand line. 

Sahibzada Abdul Latif came from the village of Syed Gah that nestled along the banks of the River Shawal in Khost province. His family had vast ancestral lands amounting to many hundreds of acres that comprised of orchards full of fruit trees, and various agricultural crops. In addition to being a religious divine he was a man of great substance and held the allegiance of many local Afghans in the area surrounding Syed Gah. He was a member of a Syed family. His father, Maulana Syed Mohammad Sharif was a descendent of the famous Muslim saint Data Gunj Bakhsh Syed. During the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb a famous descendant of the family settled in Saharanpur and then another prominent member of the family, Syed Saeed Ahmad, went to Khost in Afghanistan for educational purposes and eventually decided to settle there.

Before he wound the cloth around the Amir’s head and swear his own allegiance to the new Amir ,Sahibzada Sahibs told the Amir “I will swear allegiance to you only on condition that you will never act contrary to Sharia” .Upon the Amir signifying his assent , Sahibzada Abdul Latif completed the task of winding the coronation cloth around the Amir’s head, and thus legitimised his coronation as Amir of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has been in the news not just in the last few years but in fact has been at the heart of imperial power politics for over 100 yrs. The British novelist Rudyard Kipling referred to it as the “Great Game”, waged between Imperial Russia and the British Empire. Afghanistan was the gateway to India which was the “jewel in the crown” of the mighty British Empire and the British were fearful that if Russia gained a foothold in Afghanistan it would give Russia a platform to launch an assault on the heart of the Empire.

The Amir’s of Afghanistan played the great game well and conspired with both British & Russian agents, whilst at the same time ensuring that they were secure in their own position and able to repulse any attack upon the sovereignty of Afghanistan by either the British or the Russians. But to be able to do this they required the tribes of Afghanistan to rise up and unite and fight at the call of the Amir. But the fiercely independent tribes were not likely to rally simply upon the call of the Amir. For that to happen, another essential unifying ingredient was required - Islam.

The Amir knew that to remain in power he needed to be able to use the rallying cry of Islam and the call to Jihad in particular as a unifying factor. So whilst he was not known for his religious piety, he knew how to exploit the name of Islam  and Jihad in particular for his own political purposes. The raising of tribal Lashkar’s (war party), at the Amir’s behest without the call of Jihad was impossible, and any attempt to stifle the call of Jihad was a strike to the very heart of the Amir’s power.

At about this time Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian,India had started a revivalist movement that was to be known as Ahmadiyyat, in India that had caught the imagination of many in India . Of his many claims he also claimed that the days of violent 'Jihad' had come to an end, and for Muslims he advocated the Jihad i Akbar (reformation of self) as the primary Jihad as opposed to any other violent Jihad, and called for Muslims to adopt the Jihad of the pen and a return to an age of learning & reflection.

 But the message as preached by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad
 had swept throughout India and had reached the ears of Sahibzada Abdul Latif in Afghanistan who had been studying the message of Ahmadiyyat. He had been given a copy of the Mirza Sahib's book “Aeena i Kamalat i Islam” by an Ahmadi in Parachinar .

Sahibzada Abdul Latif sent one of his pupils Abdur Rehman  to Qadian to find out more about Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. He spent some months studying Ahmadiyyat and upon his return to Kabul brought back some books from Qadian. One of the books was a treatise that argued against the concept of Jihad as defined by the Muslim Ulema of the time. Upon his return Abdur Rehman was intercepted by the Amir’s spies and upon the contents of the book on Jihad being explained to the Amir he cruelly ordered the execution of Abdur Rehman; who was subsequently strangled with a silk scarf whilst still in his prison cell. In the eyes of Ahmadis Abdur Rehman became their first martyr in Afghanistan 

Sahibzada Abdul Lateef  in time also became an Ahmadi whilst on a visit to Qadian. He knew full well that the Amir’s spies would have informed the Amir that he had spent all his time in Qadian and that he had accepted Ahmadiyyat, and as a result felt it prudent to write to the Amir to seek his permission to return to Kabul. Once he received a favourable reply he proceeded to Afghanistan and headed to his ancestral home of Syed Gah in Khost. Sahibzada Sahib had a premonition that all would not be well in Afghanistan and that he could well be heading into a trap, but he did not hesitate and told some of his followers that he knew what was expected of him.

After a few days of his arrival in Khost, fifty heavily armed horsemen suddenly arrived one morning and told him that he was wanted by the Governor. Sahibzada Sahib saddled up his own horse and left Syed Gah knowing full well that his ordeal and test of faith had begun. Taking him to the Governor of Khost was simply a ruse to get him to make the journey to Kabul. From Khost he was taken to Kabul and he later entered the city of Kabul one morning escorted by eight armed horsemen.

Upon presentation before the Amir he was made aware of the Amir’s displeasure as the Amir refused to talk to him directly and instead ordered his detention within the palace. As a further punishment the heavy chain known as the Ghraghrab was placed around his neck. Weighing 32 kgs in weight it would have been a terrible ordeal for the elderly Sahibzada Abdul Latif to wear around his neck. To add to his torment,his hands were tied, and feet manacled with heavy chains, and he was then taken to the palace dungeon.

For the next four months Sahibzada Abdul Latif was kept in the palace dungeon, and was repeatedly called before the Amir and asked to repent and renounce his love of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. The Amir tried to entice him by stating, that were he to renounce his faith he would be released with full honour and dignity, but in every case he refused. 

 After four months of torment and captivity Sahibzada Abdul Latif was brought before the Amir and he was once again asked to publicly recant his belief in Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. He refused and instead he asked that Kabul’s religious scholars engage in a written public debate with him to establish the veracity of his claims. The Amir realised that he had to bring this matter to a head, and ordered that such a debate take place. Eight “scholars” were chosen including a Punjabi doctor from Gujrat was chosen as the Adjudicator of the debate. The injustice of this was clear from the fact that the Punjabi doctor was renowned for his hatred of Ahmadis and had done much to poison the minds of the Amir’s court against Sahibzada Sahib, and Ahmadis in general. Perhaps Sahibzada Sahib knew that his words would be twisted, which is why he asked for a written debate.

The debate began at 7am in the morning the next day and onlookers observed the passing of written questions and answers between Sahibzada Abdul Latif and the eight other “scholars”. All the time the debate was progressing, palace guards with drawn swords stood over Sahibzada Sahib to further intimidate him.

British engineer Frank Martin in his book the “Under the Absolute Amir” describes what happens next:
“...a jury of twelve of the most learned moullahs was convened, and even their examination of the accused could elicit nothing on which the man might be killed,and they reported this to the Amir. But the Amir said the man must be convicted, and so he was again sent to the moullahs, who were told that they must sign a paper, saying the man was an apostate and worthy of death. Again the majority of the moullahs made affirmation that he was innocent of anything against their religion, but two of the moullahs, who were friends of Sirdar Nasrullah Khan (the Amir’s younger brother), and had been talked over by him, gave their verdict for death, and on the finding of these two moullahs the man was condemned by the Amir”

 The debate came to an end by 4pm with Sahibzada Sahib resolute in his belief. Some of the “scholars” in frustration started to abuse him, whilst others tried to beg Sahibzada Sahibs to recant as they knew the terrible fate that awaited him at the hands of the Amir. But once again Sahibzada Sahib gave the same reply that he had given to the Amir himself and to all his representatives.

The judgement was a foregone conclusion and perhaps to hide the paucity of their arguments the “scholars” did not present the written arguments to the Amir, but  nor did the Amir deign to ask for the written record. Sahibzada Sahib was returned to his cell for one last time still wearing the chains and manacles that he had worn throughout the debate.

The next day the 14th of July 1903 he was brought before the Amir and the sentence was confirmed before the assembled court and the Amir ordered that Sahibzada Sahib be stoned to death. Even at this late point the Amir appealed to Sahibzada Sahib offering to restore all his lands and status, if only he would recant. Sahibzada Abdul Latif quietly but firmly declined the offer, but in the Amir’s presence prophesised that a great calamity would befall all of them.

Upon the verdict of death being handed down preparations were made, and it was ordered that Sahibzada Abdul Latif be taken to the main ground for the public execution. Public announcement were made in the streets and bazaars and the citizens of Kabul were told that the Amir himself would be at the place of execution. In a final act of unimaginable cruelty the Amir ordered that Sahibzada Sahib’s nose be pierced and a rope inserted and that he be dragged through the streets of Kabul by the nose. It is difficult to imagine the pain and suffering of Sahibzada Sahib as this final indignity was inflicted upon him, and yet he still did not waver, or seek mercy from his accusers.

Mr.B.A.Rafiq in his book “The Afghan Martyrs” relates:
“Sahibzada Abdul Lateef, the tutor of the King, a great spiritual leader of Afghanistan, the paramount Chief of Khost, was to be stoned to death. From the previous evening, by the beating of a drum it had been proclaimed that the following afternoon, on the 14th of July, people should assemble in large numbers opposite the Royal Palace. The proclamation directed that each individual should carry his own stones or brick bats with him, as because of his apostasy, the famous religious divine who was the Imam of the Royal Mosque, was to be stoned to death having been found guilty of 'kufr'. It was announced that the condemned Abdul Lateef was to be taken to the graveyard in a procession. As a further temptation they were advised that Sardar Nasrulla Khan and the King of Afghanistan, Ameer Habeebulla Khan, were to lead the march along with Mullah Abdur Razzaque and other distinguished scholars”.
Once his nose was pierced and a rope inserted, the edict of death was hung around his neck. Sahibzada Sahib was then taken in procession through the streets & bazaars of Kabul whilst hundreds of jeering, mocking citizens of Kabul hurled abuse upon him. The Amir along with the entire royal court followed the procession on horseback as Sahibzada Sahib stumbled and walked towards his own death. 
“Eyewitnesses relate that despite massive chains around his feet the Sahibzada was walking at a brisk pace. On the way a Moulvi said to him, "You are walking rapidly. Are you not afraid of death? Are you not concerned about your wife and your children? Can't you feel that your chains and shackles are heavy and you have been hand cuffed?" In answer he said, "I am carrying the chains, shackles and handcuffs for the sake of Hadhrat Mohammad Mustapha (PBUH) and to me they are like ornaments. I am walking briskly because I am impatient for a rendezvous with my Master. There was not the slightest trace of fear on his face nor was there any concern for the sadistic manner in which the population had treated him. He marched cheerfully and with great equanimity and the light of spiritual tranquility was evident from his blessed face. When he reached the site of execution the King and the notables alighted from their horses.
- The Afghan Martyrs by B.A.Rafiq

As was the custom a shallow pit had been dug in the main ground and Sahibzada Sahib was lowered into the pit up to his waist, and the ground firmed up around him. It was believed that if the accused could wriggle his way out of the pit he would be saved from execution, but Sahibzada Sahib made no attempt to break free. A Mullah stood in front of him and pleaded that he recant before it was too late. Sahibzada Sahib  with his arms tied behind his back and buried in the pit, shook his head fiercely and told the Mullah  not stand between him and his Maker. His tormentors meanwhile had formed a circle round him, and started to close in.The Amir stepped back and perhaps realizing the enormity of what they were about to do asked the Chief Qazi to hurl the first stone. The Qazi remonstrated and instead asked the Amir to be the first. The Amir firmly told the Qazi that it it was his duty to be the first, and with that the Qazi stepped forward and hurled a large rock at the head of Sahibzada Sahib which caused a huge injury. The Amir was next and hurled his stone after which the assembled mob joined in and before long Sahibzada Sahib’s body was covered in a mound of stones. 

Following the death of Sahibzada Sahib in Kabul his extended and immediate family were forced to migrate from their ancestral lands in Khost to Parachinar to seek refuge from the depredations of the tyrant Amir Habibullah and his court.To this day the family members (now spread all over the world) still recall the terrible events that their ancestor endured those many years ago in Kabul.   

A lawyer of Pashtun heritage currently working in the Gulf region who
 writes on regional affairs and can be reached at
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