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Jack Sepoy and the Dervishes: Islam and the Indian Soldier in Princely India*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 December 2007


Like other Britons in colonial India, Sir William Sleeman had a poor opinion of the traditional holy men who still formed an important part of Indian society in the nineteenth century. Reflecting his writings on the suppression of the Thugs that would make him famous, Sleeman declared that, “There is hardly any species of crime that is not throughout India perpetrated by men in the disguise of these religious mendicants; and almost all such mendicants are really men in disguise”.1 None of these holy men were considered more dubious – more superstitious and reactionary – than the dervishes and faqīrs. In popular Indian usage the terms darwīsh and faqīr referred to a class of Muslim holy men who were considered to possess a range of miraculous powers, powers which served to demonstrate their proximity to God; and so in turn to underwrite their considerable authority.2 For many British officials, it was this authority that stood at the heart of what they saw as the faqīr problem. As the rumours that surrounded the various ‘mutinies’ of the nineteenth century demonstrate, faqīr s were seen as the perpetual ringleaders of rebellion and sedition. Nowhere were these concerns more insistent than in the circles of India's colonial armies, which more than any other aspect of colonial society relied on loyalty to a formalised and rational chain of command. Yet in spite (and in some ways because) of these fears, the commanders of the various armies under British command in India were anxious to demonstrate their respect for the autonomy of the religious rights of the Indian soldier. Through the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Islam of ‘Jack Sepoy’ or the Indian soldier fell in between this tension of covert suspicion and official respect, and in different ways the careers of a series of Muslim holy men attached to the Muslim soldiers were shaped by this tension. Over the following pages, this essay examines the careers of three faqīr s connected to the Hyderabad Contingent, the army under British command in the nominally independent princely state of Hyderabad in South India, better known as the Nizam's State. Looking out from this princely corner of Britain's ‘informal empire’, the essay uses a number of forgotten small-town texts in Urdu to begin to reconstruct the religious history of the Indian soldier from the inside, as it were, and so to create an ethnohistory of Islam in the colonial armies of the British Empire.3

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Asiatic Society 2008

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Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Royal Asiatic Society and the Centre for India and South Asia, UCLA. I am grateful to both audiences for their stimulating and learned comments.


1 See Sir William Sleeman, A Report on the System of Megpunnaism or, the Murder of Indigent Parents for their Young Children (who are Sold as Slaves) as it prevails in the Delhi Territories, and the Native States of Rajpootana, Ulwar, and Bhurtpore (Serampore, 1839), p. 11, cited in W. R. Pinch, Warrior Ascetics and Indian Empires (Cambridge, 2006), p. 238.

2 On similar popular associations in Iran, see L. Elwell-Sutton, “The Darvish in Persian Folklore”, Proceedings of the Twenty-Sixth International Congress of Orientalists, 1964 (Delhi, 1968).

3 For the founding text of such new approaches to Indian military history, see Kolff, D. H. A., Naukar, Rajput and Sepoy: The Ethnohistory of the Military Labour Market in Hindustan, 1450–1850 (Cambridge, 1990)Google Scholar.

4 On the life of Afzal Shāh, see Sayyid Shāh Darwīsh Muhyī al-dīn Sāhib Qādirī, Afzal al-Karāmāt ma‘ Karāmāt-e-Sarwarī (Hyderabad, 1402/1981), henceforth Afzal. This edition was prepared by the author Muhyī al-dīn's son, Muhammad Murtazā Qādirī; details of the original completion of the text in 1913 are found on p. 161.

5 See Major Reginald George Burton, A History of the Hyderabad Contingent (Calcutta, 1905), Lieut.-Col. Stotherd, E. A. W., Sabre & Saddle (London, 1933)Google Scholar and idem., History of the Thirtieth Lancers, Gordon's Horse: Former Titles: 4th Nizam's Cavalry; 4th Cavalry, Hyderabad Contingent; 4th Lancers, Hyderabad Contingent (Aldershot, 1911). By 1826, the five cavalry regiments become known as the Nizam's Cavalry, which was also supported by a number of infantry regiments. The Contingent was formally disbanded as a separate force in 1902, its regiments absorbed into the British Indian Army. Here ended the long pretence of the Nizams’ control of the chief instrument of British policy towards Hyderabad. But the cantonments in which the Contingent had been posted continued to be occupied by soldiers and cavalrymen, and most people in the Nizam's State continued to refer to them by the term Contingent, which had long been absorbed into the Urdu of the Deccan.

6 See Cantonments of Secunderabad and Bolarum (map), scale 1:5,280 (Dehra Dun: Survey of India, 1901) and S. H. Bilgrami and C. Willmott, Historical and Descriptive Sketch of His Highness the Nizam's Dominions, 2 vols (Bombay, 1883–84), vol. 2, p. 386.

7 These were located at Aurangabad, Hingoli, Jalna, Amba and Raichur. See Hyderabad State Gazetteer (Imperial Gazetteer of India: Provincial Series) (Calcutta, 1909), p. 119.

8 On Hanamkonda cantonment, and the Contingent's suburb there known simply as Lashkar (‘Army’), see Bilgrami and Willmott, Historical and Descriptive Sketch, vol. 2, p. 750.

9 Afzal, pp. 76–80.

10 Afzal, pp. 71–73.

11 On sepoys overstaying leave, see D. Omissi, The Sepoy and the Raj: The Indian Army, 1860–1940 (Basingstoke, 1994), pp. 61–63.

12 Nonetheless, the Mīrzā seems to have been aided in this project by another sepoy devotee Nāmdār Khān, whom Afzal al-karāmāt later mentions as also being responsible for the construction of Afzal Shāh's mausoleum after his death (Afzal, pp. 111–112). With its arched ‘veranda’, the architecture of the mausoleum bore more than a passing resemblance to the colonial cantonment style. This stone mausoleum was demolished during the late 1990s in order to build a larger replacement.

13 Omissi, The Sepoy and the Raj, p. 98. On this humanist approach to saintly writings, see also G. Calasso, “La dimension religeuse individuelle dans les textes médiévaux, entre hagiographie et littérature de voyages: les larmes, les émotions, l'expérience”, Studia Iranica, 91 (2000).

14 On such regulations, see S. Alavi, The Sepoys and the Company: Tradition and Transition in Northern India, 1770–1830 (Delhi, 1995), p. 84.

15 This pattern of the esteemed discipleship of cavaliers was by no means new to the Sufi circles of India or beyond, and was also seen in the military history of the Mughal and Ottoman empires. See S. Digby, Sufis and Soldiers in Aurangzeb's Deccan (Delhi, 2001) and S. Faroqhi, Peasants, Dervishes, and Traders in the Ottoman Empire (London, 1986).

16 Afzal, p. 82.

17 For a taste of such legends, see R. E. Enthoven, The Folklore of Bombay (Oxford, 1924) and M. Frere, Old Deccan Days: or, Hindoo Fairy Legends Current in Southern India 2nd ed. (London, 1870).

18 Afzal, pp. 84–85.

19 See J. H. Brunvand, The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and their Meanings (London, 1983) and Ahmad Yādgār, Tārīkh-e-Shāhī (Tārīkh-e-Salātīn-e-Afāghīna), ed. M. Hidayat Hosain (Calcutta, 1939), pp. 99–108 (sections also translated in S. Digby, Wonder Tales of South Asia, Jersey, 2000, pp. 234–240).

20 On such Sufi antinomianism, see also S. Digby, “Qalandars and Social Disturbance during the Delhi Sultanate”, in Y. Friedmann (ed.), Islam in Asia, Vol. 1, South Asia (Jerusalem, 1984), pp. 60–108; K. P. Ewing, “Malangs of the Punjab: Intoxication or Adab as the Path to God”, in B. D Metcalf (ed.), Moral Conduct and Authority: the place of adab in South Asian Islam (Berkeley, 1984), pp. 357–371; and A. Karamustafa, God's Unruly Friends: Dervish Groups in the Later Middle Period 1200–1550 (Salt Lake City, 1994).

21 See Arberry, A. J., Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam (London, 1950), p. 119Google Scholar.

22 The life of Banē Miyān is preserved in Muhammad Ismā‘īl Shāh Qādirī, A'zam al-Karāmāt (Aurangabad, n.d. [c. 1340/1921]), henceforth AK. For a historical reconstruction of Banē Miyān's career, see N. S. Green, “The Faqīr and the Subalterns: Mapping the Holy Man in Colonial South Asia”, Journal of Asian History, 41, 1 (2007), pp. 57-84.

23 See Orwell, G., ‘Shooting an Elephant’, in idem., Inside the Whale and Other Essays (Harmondsworth, 1971), p. 96Google Scholar.

24 For a fuller study of this text and its hagiographical strategies, see Green, N. S., “Making a ‘Muslim’ Saint: Writing Customary Religion in an Indian Princely State”, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 25, 3 (2005), pp. 617633CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 See Anon., The Freedom Struggle in Hyderabad, 2 vols (Hyderabad, 1956).

26 On the emergence of a Dalit literature shortly to the west in the towns of the Bombay Presidency during the same period, see P. Constable, “Early Dalit Literature and Culture in Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Western India”, Modern Asian Studies, 31, 2 (1997), pp. 317–338.

27 On such latīfāt see C. Oesterheld, “Entertainment and Reform: Urdu Narrative Genres in the Nineteenth Century”, in S. Blackburn and V. Dalmia (eds), India's Literary History: Essays on the Nineteenth Century (Delhi, 2004), pp. 167–212.

28 AK, pp. 23–25.

29 AK, pp. 65–66.

30 AK, p. 70. Green (2007), This latter figure was the British officer Colonel Harry Ross (1869–1938), who during the first two decades of the twentieth century was the chief officer at the nearest significant Indian Army headquarters to Aurangabad in British India located at Ahmadnagar. Ross's handwritten memoirs are preserved in the India Office in London (OIOC, Mss Eur B235). Unfortunately, while a description of the contents of the memoirs makes reference to Ross's visits to Aurangabad, volumes 2 and 3 (dealing with the years 1901–1918 during which Ross was in Ahmadnagar) have been lost. It is therefore impossible to say whether Ross, who occasionally mentions local religious practices in the extant volumes of his extant diaries, ever noticed Banē Miyān in the cantonment during his visits to Aurangabad. Perhaps, in any case, Ross would have chosen to loftily ignore him.

31 AK, pp. 25–26.

32 On the slightly earlier Hyderabadi soldier-ecstatic Jama‛dār Sāhib (‘Sir Sergeant’, d.1839), who also gave up his family and his service in the Hyderabad military in a state of ecstatic distraction, see Murād ‘Alī Tulū‘, Tazkira-e-awliyā-e-haydarābād (Hyderabad, 1392/1972), pp. 92–95.

33 Alavi, The Sepoys and the Company, pp. 143–154.

34 See Mills, J. H., Madness, Cannabis and Colonialism: The ‘Native-Only’ Lunatic Asylums of British India, 1857–1900 (Basingstoke, 2000), p. 12CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35 Ibid., pp. 103–128. On colonial medicine in India more generally, see D. Arnold, Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-Century India (Berkeley, 1993).

36 Cf. Dols, M. W., Majnūn: The Madman in Medieval Islamic Society (Oxford, 1992)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Foucault, M., Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (London, 1971)Google Scholar and Porter, R., A Social History of Madness: Stories of the Insane (London, 1989)Google Scholar.

37 On European interns in colonial Indian asylums, see W. Ernst, Mad Tales from the Raj: The European Insane in British India, 1800–1858 (London, 1991).

38 Annual Administration and Progress Report on the Insane Asylums in the Bombay Presidency for the Year 1892 (Bombay, 1893), p. 2 and Annual Administration and Progress Report on the Insane Asylums in the Bombay Presidency for the Year 1893 (Bombay, 1894), p. 2.

39 See e.g. Annual Administration and Progress Report on the Insane Asylums in the Bombay Presidency for the Year 1881 (Bombay, 1882), p. 12. In occasional annual reports (such as that for 1890; p. 12) the term fakir was deleted, only to reappear in the tables of subsequent reports.

40 Annual Administration and Progress Report on the Insane Asylums in the Bombay Presidency for the Year 1895 (Bombay, 1896), p. 14.

41 On the contrasting social and religious meanings of poverty in medieval Egypt, see A. Sabra, Poverty and Charity in Medieval Islam (Cambridge, 2001).

42 On the institutionalisation of the Victorian morals of pious labour in India, see Fischer-Tiné, H., “Britain's Other Civilising Mission: Class Prejudice, European ‘Loaferism’ and the Workhouse-System in Colonial India”, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 42, 3 (2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

43 See Green, N. S., “Mystical Missionaries in Hyderabad State: Mu‘īn Allāh Shāh and his Sufi Reform Movement”, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 41, 2 (2005), pp. 4570Google Scholar.

44 AK, pp. 28–29, 51–52.

45 Omissi, The Sepoy and the Raj, p. 18. On the notion of the ‘garrison state’, see D. M. Peers, Between Mars and Mammon: Colonial Armies and the Garrison State in India, 1819–1835 (London, 1995).

46 The connection between sepoy mutinies, official attitudes towards the religious culture of Indian soldiers and the British ‘Evangelical Awakening’ of the early nineteenth century has already been noted. See especially R. Frykenberg, “New Light on the Vellore Mutiny”, in K. Ballhatchet and J. Harrison (eds), East India Company Studies: Papers Presented to Professor Sir Cyril Philips (Hong Kong, 1986), pp. 219–225.

47 I am tempted into the latter statement by the parallels between Tāj al-dīn and his erstwhile French contemporary, Antonin Artaud (1896–1948), on whose madness, holiness and absurdity see A. Breton et al., Antonin Artaud, ou, La santé des poètes (Paris, 1959) and M. Esslin, Artaud (Glasgow, 1976).

48 On the Nagpur asylum at the time of Tāj al-dīn's entry, see Report on the Lunatic Asylums in the Central Provinces for the Year 1892 (Nagpur, 1893).

49 On Kishan's career, see S. M. H. Jafri, “The Role of Maharaja Kishen Pershad in Modern Hyderabad (1864–1940)”, unpublished PhD dissertation (Osmania University, Hyderabad, 1991) and Mahdī Nawāz Jang, Māhārāja Kishan Parshād kī zindagī kī hālāt (Hyderabad, 1950).

50 See Mahārājā Kishan Parshād, Ānkh-wālā ānkh wālē kī talāsh mēn (Meerut, 1914). Kishan Parshād had resigned as prime minister in 1912. He is also mentioned as a devotee (‛aqīdatmand) of Tāj al-dīn in the biographical Tazkira-e-Bābā Tāj al-dīn Awliyā, where the sepoy is described as refusing a land grant that Kishan Parshād had brought from the Nizam. See Anon., Tazkira-e-Bābā Tāj al-dīn Awliyā: mukāmil sawānih ‛umrī (Nagpur, n.d.), p. 65. I am extremely grateful to James R. Newell for providing me with a copy of this text.

51 Parshād Ānkh-wālā ānkh wālē kī talāsh mēn, pp. 3–5.

52 Ibid., pp.14–15.

53 Ibid., pp. 22–28. Kishan was in any case always fond of adoring crowds, and on a visit to the hill station of Ooty he was once prohibited by his British host from his usual showy custom of showering onlookers with silver coins in thanks for his safe arrival. Moreover, Kishan Parshād's reception at the station and the nostalgia espoused for the late Nizam is perhaps ironic in view of the joke that began to circulate among the train carriages of Hyderabad a few years later, mocking the celebrated avarice and miserliness of his successor, Nizām ‘Usmān ‘Alī Khān (r. 1911–1948). Writing in 1921, the chief medical officer of the Nizam's Railway E. H. Hunt (who Kishan had perhaps recently consulted) described how there was “a usual ‘gag’ in a third class railway carriage, a gag which never fails to raise a laugh is this[:] ‘He [the Nizam] will soon be going from door to door, begging for dubs [a coin usually thrown to beggars].’” See “Notes on Politics of Hyderabad, April 7th 1921”, in Papers of Edmund Henderson Hunt, Oriental & India Office Collections, Private Papers, Mss Eur F222/10. For a more positive assessment of ‘Usmān ‘Alī Khān's character, see Tayiba Bēgam, Mīr ‘Usmān ‘Alī Khān aur unkā ‘ahd (Hyderabad, 2000), pp. 100–127.

54 The construction of new roads in the Nagpur district was one of the earliest policies pursued by the British administration after they took control of Nagpur. Despite Kishan Parshād's favourable impressions, the British use of contractors to oversee local labour arose considerable hostility towards the roads scheme. See P. Gadre, Bhosle of Nagpur and East India Company (Jaipur, 1994), pp. 251–253.

55 Parshād, Ānkh-wālā ānkh wālē kī talāsh mēn, pp. 46–50.

56 I have of course been influenced here by P. Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton, 1993).

57 On the popular associations of Sakkardara, see Girhe, K. M., Architecture of Bhonslas of Nagpur, 2 vols (Delhi, 2004), vol. 1, p. 56Google Scholar.

58 Despite Kishan's expression in the text of confusion at this deed, it seems possible that he may have included the scene for its potential for symbolic interpretation, in that the pigeon/dove (kabūtar) was widely regarded as a symbol of ill omen among the Indian Shi'a, whose traditions Kishan Parshād knew so well.

59 On development of Hindu nationalism in the period preceding the publication of Ānkh-wālā ānkh wālē kī talāsh mēn, see Zavos, J., The Emergence of Hindu Nationalism in India (Oxford, 2000)Google Scholar.

60 As such, the text forms an important supplement to the only other significant nineteenth-century sepoy memoir which scholars have used, Sita Ram Pandey's From Sepoy to Subedar: Being the Life and Adventures of a Native Officer of the Bengal Army Written and Related by Himself, trans. and ed. J. T. Norgate and D.C. Phillott (Calcutta, 1911).

61 On these emblematic leaders of colonial rebellions, see Gupta, P. Chandra, Nana Sahib and the Rising at Cawnpore (Oxford, 1963)Google Scholar and James, C. L. R., The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (London, 1980)Google Scholar.

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