Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: The Pioneer of Progressive Culture in India

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was among a very few leaders produced by Muslim India, who like the Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah made a tremendous contribution in guiding the destinies of the Indian Muslims. He is widely acknowledged as the father of Muslim India and the most eminent Muslim figure of the 19th century, who played a prominent role of a bridge-builder between the British rulers and the Indian Muslim; and therefore it is noticed that Muslim politics, especially in the latter half of the 19th century, had been greatly woven around the remarkable personality of Syed Ahmad Khan. Having fully realized the state into which Indian Muslims had fallen after the failure of the war of Independence (1857), Syed began to work with an extraordinary devotion for the improvement of their conditions. He knew full well that the British had come to stay in India for a longer time and that his community had no choice but to make a lot of adjustments. In the aftermath of the “Indian Revolt” (as the British called it) Syed’s top priority was to establish a rapprochement between the British and Muslims and Islam and Christianity. This was due to the reason that the British considered Muslims, who had been the rulers of India in the past, as the most dangerous element under the Raj. Under these circumstances the Muslims were advised by Syed to be extremely loyal to the British and should not repeat the events of 1857; for such events, would again be advantageous to the Hindus at the cost of the Muslims.

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had a great political philosophy, understanding, and vision of the environment and he, therefore, decided to divert the Muslim mind to more fruitful and constructive works. It so happened that the learning of the English language had become a passport to government service and making progress as a whole. Syed had a much more difficult task to cope with as the Muslims tended to be much more orthodox than the Hindus in this direction. Syed, therefore, had to make hectic efforts in persuading the Muslims to learn English language arguing that the learning of the Western Education was not anti-Islamic, that Islam was a religion of progress, and that it posed no great problem of conscience. It may be mentioned that Syed was far-sighted enough to visualize that the British would also encourage his educational programme since it did not clash with British policies in India. He was also wise enough to have laid great emphasis on the two-nation theory after being frustrated by the revival of extremist Hindu organizations and their demands emerged to hurt Muslim interests. In this way Syed made a substantial contribution in awakening political consciousness of the Indian Muslims, creating a separatist movement and eventually paved the way for its consolidation This movement brought about productive results in a very short time; the Aligarh movement provided a core of educated Muslims who later played a key role in the freedom movement consequently leading to the creation of Pakistan.[the_ad id=”17141″]

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was born on October 17, 1817, in an eminent and reputable family having connections with the Mughal Court at Delhi until the reign of Akbar Shah 11, the father of Bahadur Shah Zafar. Syed’s father, Mir Muttaqi, a broadminded gentleman was a descendant of the Holy Prophet, Hazrat Muhammad (peace be upon him); his maternal grandfather, Khawaja Fariddudin was a renowned mathematician worked as Principal of the Calcutta Madrassa in the 1790s; he had also served the East India Company during Lord Wellesley’s time. Before coming to India it is maintained that Syed’s ancestors had been oppressed during the Umayyads rule and had to flee to Iran and then after some time settled in the Herat province of Afghanistan. It was perhaps during the reign of a great Mughal Emperor, Shah Jehan (1628-1666) that this noble family shifted to India.

During his childhood, Syed has imparted the convential education, (as happened in the Muslim families of the day) such as reading of the Quran, the study of Persian language using Bostan and Gulistane Saadi, or little Mathematics and Astronomy. Until the death of this fater, Syed spent a comfortable life; but soon the family wealth, property and possessions began to squeeze; stipends, jagirs and the Royal patronage reduced and lapsed. In these conditions Syed had to enter the service of the East India Company; it may be noted that his family did not approve of Syed’s joining the British Company. Anyway, Syed served at various places such as Agra (1839-41). Mainpuri (1841-42). Fatehpur Sikri (1842-46), Delhi (1846-54). and Bijnour (1854-58). By 1857, Sir Syed rose to the position of Sadre Amin (Sub. Judge in the Judicial Service of the Company). In the meantime, Syed continued with his literary activities. In 1847, Syed published his monumental work, Asarus Sanadid, which helped him to become a member of the prestigious Royal Asiatic Society. He also produced an edition of the Aain-i-Akbari. By this time Sir Syed had been concentrating on literary and cultural matters in the typical Indian milieu.

The year 1857 (call it a mutiny or the war of Independence ) is always remembered with a great deal of sadness and pain. It was a final blow to the idea of the Mughal Empire resulting in a total collapse of the Muslims in all walks of life. The finale of the Mughal dynasty came about in 1857; as such it disintegrated with a great deal of speed after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707; and yet another blow was Nadir Shah’s attacks on India in 1739. The result was that the foreigners, especially the British company went ahead with its designs to have territorial aggrandizement, pursuing their policy of divide and rule’. Nawab Siraju-ud-Daula was defeated in the battle of Plassey and then put to the sword. The British then chose to rule through puppet Nawabs like Mir Jafar. These Nawabs were made powerless to the extent that they were not allowed to grant lands and jobs to Muslims, hurting the upper-class Muslims in particular. Soon Mir Jafar was deposed and Mir Qasim was appointed in his place. In 1764 Mir Qasim, Shah Alam (the Mughal Emperor) and the Nawab of Oudh fought against the British at Buxur and were defeated. This battle established the British hold on strong footing, but they followed a tactful way. The East India company (EIC) exhorted the Diwani, collecting revenue and looked after the civil administration of Bengal, Bihar and Orrisa, sometimes adopting extremely cruel methods. It is relevant to point out that the Hindus were getting stronger whereas the Muslims were facing the political and financial losses. This situation caused a tremendous hatred and discontent among the Indian Muslims.[the_ad id=”17142″]

Furthermore, the year 1857 and its immediate aftermath is also highly significant; in that year a great revolt against the British was launched in India. These events were a trauma for the Muslims; the British were strong enough to suppress the war of independence. But the methods used by them shocked the civilized world. The destruction of Delhi as a centre of Muslims culture was horrendous; Bahadar Shah Zafar, 80 years old was tried and exiled to Rangoon; Lt. Hodson shot three Mughal princes and later 24 princes were tried and executed; a vast ocean of blood was seen; some Muslims were shot dead and their dead bodies were thrown into the river Jumna. The Muslim citizens of Delhi were required to pay 25% of the value of their property as a fine (Hindus had to pay only 10%). The Muslims were perceived to be more dangerous to the British rule; Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) says in his autobiography “the heavy hand of the British fell more upon Muslims than on the Hindus”. As a matter of fact, the British believed that the Muslims were responsible for the 1857 uprising and therefore were subjected to ruthless punishment, aimed at crushing their power once for all.

The traumatic events of 1857 were a watershed in Sir Syed’s life; he was posted at Bijnoor – he was forty years old and had an extremely difficult task ahead. The news of ‘revolt’ had greatly perturbed the European citizens; Syed assured them that their safety was his prime concern and therefore Syedd did his utmost to save the white-skinned. As soon as the normalcy returned, Syed wrote an Urdu pamphlet titled Risalae Asbab-i-Baghawat-iHind; it was later translated into English. Syed analyzed the causes of the revolt. He strongly criticized some measures adopted by the British administrators before the revolt; that Indians were not appointed members of the legislative councils; that interference in religions was regrettable; that there had been no intermingling of the rulers and the ruled; that the revolt was an outcome of the frustrations and accumulated wrongs of decades forfeiting the trust of the people who had been humiliated and degraded most often. Syed also blamed the missionary activities, for it was widely believed that the government had been financing and sponsoring these activities. He also pointed out that in village schools Urdu alone was taught whilst Persian and Arabic were completely ignored. The Muslim parents reckoned that it was a deliberate attempt on the part of the British to relegate Islam and popularise Christianity in India. Syed also pointed out that the indigenous industry was deeply hit due to the competition of cheap machine-made goods imported from British; he also criticized currency policies of the EIC. In the final analysis, Syed tried to correct the wrong impression of the British that the Muslims were responsible for the revolt of 1857. He also started a magazine titled The Loyal Muhammadans of India; Besides other things, loyal services rendered by some eminent Muslims were also reminded to the British.

In 1863, Sir Syed founded a Scientific Society in Ghazipur with a view to opening the minds of the Indians to the European literature, science and technology. It was widely acknowledged as a great educational and social enterprise; its main purpose was to translate the standard English works in various subjects into Urdu for educating the Muslims. Later on Aligarh became the headquarter of the Society; its membership increased manifold. The society employed a good number of translators owned a press and published a weekly newspaper (Aligarh Institute Gazette) widening the range of its activities by offering comments on such public issues as the reform of Railway management and the Native Marriages bill of 1869. Both the Society and the Aligarh Gazette chose to highlight the advantages to the Indians of the British rule and encouraged Europeans to become members by participating in meetings of the Society and by contributing articles.[the_ad id=”17150″]

In 1869, a great opportunity came to Sir Syed when his son (Mehmood) was awarded a scholarship for higher studies at Cambridge. With a view to investigating the methods of education in Britain, Syed decided to accompany his son; both the father and the son stayed together for nearly seventeen months. It was during and after his visit to England that Syed planned a ‘Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College’ modeled after Cambridge University; he was convinced that the medium of Instruction should be English in his proposed College. In 1870, Syed set up a committee and five years later, on 24 May 1876, with the assistance of British administration and with the help of subscriptions from Muslim princes and landed aristocracy, the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College was opened on Queen Victoria’s birthday. In 1877, Lord Lytton (the Viceroy) formally laid the foundation stone of the College. In 1878 intermediate and in 1881 B.A. classes were started; in 1881 a civil service preparatory class was also introduced. In 1887 the College started to prepare students to join the Engineering College at Roorkee. In a very short period of time, the College grew into a cluster of magnificent buildings, playgrounds, and spacious lawns, teaching punctuality and discipline to its students. The government gave also a great deal of support; many eminent Britishers also made personal donations; the Viceroy Northbrook contributed a handsome amount of ten thousand rupees. Even in its early stages, the College seemed to be a great success. It was noticed that the MAO College admitted Muslim students from all over India including a good number of those belonging to Punjab. It may be mentioned that Syed frequently visited Punjab where his educational plans were greatly appreciated by the eminent Muslim leaders of the province.

For more than a decade the MAO college was run almost single-handedly by Sir Syed and his son, Mehmood. But later Syed decided to have a good deal of association of European staff, even though some of his associates deeply criticized the rich salaries paid to the foreigners; Syed, however, pressed on to recruit this staff having in mind to raise the standard of teaching and also to be able to have a liaison between the government and the Muslims. Syed’s estimates proved right; educationists like Theodore Beck, Theodore Morison, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Sir Thomas Arnold were among the distinguished European staff who took a keen interest in the welfare of the college and raising its standard. Sir Syed also added (1897) twenty-one names to the role of trustees using his discretionary powers; Moulvi Mehdi Ali Khan (Mohsin-ul-Mulk) Moulvi Mushtaq Hussain (Viqar-ul-Mulk) and Altaf Hussain Hali became the three great pillars of the Aligarh movement. During his last years Syed dreamed of developing the MAO College into a University. But the government was opposed (it will be discussed later) and it was not until 1920 that the British government agreed to promote the College to the rank of a University.

Sir Syed Ahmad also provided another platform to the Indian Muslims by establishing the Mohammadan Educational Congress (later to be known as Muslim Educational Conference) in 1886. The aim Syed had in mind was to gather together Muslims from various provinces upon a common platform of public activity and to encourage the study of western science and literature by Muslims. The Conference presented a twelve point programme in the beginning. So far as educational programme was concerned it was decided that:[the_ad id=”17144″]

  • efforts would be made to spread advanced western education among the Muslims;
  • inquiries would be made into the state of rligious instruction in English schools established by Muslims;
  • to support the instruction of Eastern learning and religious subjects, which Muslim teachers were giving everywhere on their own and to make provision for it so that it could be kept up regularly;
  • efforts would be made to look at the state of instruction in the vernacular schools, which was given on traditional lines and making preparations for restoration of schools which had decayed.

Inquiries were to be made to discover as to why Muslim Youth were given inadequate Quranic instruction and to promote more intensive memorizing and study of the Quran. The Conference held its annual meetings preferably in a different town; Muslim academicians from all over India gathered to discuss educational issues and proposals, and various educational committees were formed to help the Conference’s programme. Various resolutions were passed by the Conference such as to seek help from various Muslim Anjamans for scholarship for poor students; appealing to the government to allow Muslims to receive religious education in government schools; pressing the Allahabad University for the exclusion of Cox’s history which contained chapters offensive to Muslims; compelling every Muslim to give at least one percent of his income for the growth of Western education amongst the Muslims of his district. These resolutions and Syed’s power of persuation had deep impact on various Muslim educational associations; these Anajamans established educational institutions for Muslim youth; Mohammadan Colleges of Karachi and Hyderabad (Deccan) should be mentioned in particular. Similarly, due to the influence of the Muslim Educational Conference, Anjaman-i-Himayat-i-Islam was established in Lahore; the Anjaman established a men’s College and later women’s College and a medical College; its annual meetings were attended by the leading literary and political figures of the Aligarh movement like Deputy Nazir Ahmad and Moulana Altaf Hussain Hali. In 1899 Allama Iqbal (the poet-philosopher of Pakistan) made his national debut by reciting his famous poem Nala-i-Yatim (Orphan’s cry) and the audience was deeply moved and touched. It may be noted that due to the electrifying effects of the Aligarh movement, the annual sessions of the Conference and the Anjaman-i-Himayat-i-Islam became a national phenomenon and highly sacred for Muslims.

Even though the Conference’s main emphasis was on its educational programme, it was also expected to safeguard political rights of the Muslims such as securing for them a fair proportion of jobs (places) for educated Muslims and their adequate representation on various political and administrative bodies. Sir Syed was convinced where majority’s opinion was to be a decisive factor, it was essential for the electors to be United by the ties of race, religion, manners, customs, culture, and historical traditions. He sincerely believed that the Muslims could be outmaneuvered by the Hindus. In the second session of the conference (December 1887) Syed, therefore laid emphasis on two points; one was that in case the higher service was to be filled by competitive examinations in India, they would all go to the nation (Hindus) that had an early start in education; secondly that the representative government in India would result in the permanent subordination of Muslims to Hindus. Syed believed that it was going to be a game of dice in which on a man (Hindu) had four dices and the other (Muslim) only one; he would prefer to have a distinct political personality for Indian Muslims.[the_ad id=”17151″]

As a matter of record, for a long period of time Sir Syed had great faith in unity giving historical statements such as that “India was a bride whose two beautiful eyes were Hindus and Muslims”; that he regarded Hindus and Muslims as his two eyes; that he did not care about religion – Hindus and Muslims were religious words, and that Hindus and Muslims must try to be one mind in matters which affected their progress. In 1878, Lord Lytton nominated Syed on the Imperial Legislative Council and Lord Ripon renewed his term of office. Being a member of this prestigious council, Syed strove for the welfare of both Hindus and Muslims, for he considered co-operation between the two essential for the progress of two great communities of India. But later Syed had to change his mind realizing that the interests of the two communities were not always identical. Many developments persuaded Syed to change his attitude. The linguistic controversy (Urdu-Hindi) played key role in this matter. Muslim rule in the upper provinces had left Urdu as the lingua franca; from 1835 onwards this language served as the court language and means of communication. In 1867, Hindus of Benaras started an agitation to stop the use of Urdu from official courts and substitution of Hindi, written in the devanagri script. The Hindus resented Urdu on the plea that it was developed during the Muslim rule over India which they despised. The Hindu Sabhas sprang up in Benaras and elsewhere with a central office in Allahabad, the aim being the adoption of Hindi as the official language. This pressure bore fruits; in the 1870s Hindi was adopted as the language of lower courts, first by the Lt. Governor of Bihar and then in the C.P. The Hindu agitation thus gained momentum. These circumstances had a shocking effect on Sir Syed’s mind; he was deeply disappointed and remarked that it was no longer possible for the Hindus and Muslims to be partners, also concluding that in this game eventually, the Hindus would be the losers. However, in response, the Muslims established Anjuman-i-Himayat-i-Urdu in Punjab and elsewhere. Later on after more assaults were made by the Hindus on Urdu, Mohsinul Mulk (1837-1907) and Viqarul Mulk (1841-1917) established Urdu Defence Association and Anjaman-i-Tarraqi-i-Urdu as an adjunct of the Muslim Educational Conference.

Sir Syed’s separate policy was also intensified due to the extremist movements launched by the narrow-minded Hindu leaders like B.G. Tilak (1856-1920). Tilak was a leader of the Arya Samaj’s reactionary movement who kept on reminding his nation about the struggle against Muslims and the British – and back to Vedas. The result was that serious communal riots broke out in 1893 and 1894 due to which 75 precious lives were lost and about 300 were seriously wounded. Tilak also started “AntiCow Killing Society” (Cow protection Society) provoking the Muslims; he also advised his countrymen to re-organize the festival of Ganesh (the Elephant God) which included theatrical performances and religious songs based on the legends of Hindu mythology, shrewdly exploiting the hatred against Muslims. In a matter of three years, there were more than 50 centers celebrating the Ganesh festival in Poona itself. It so happened that during the 10-day celebrations bands of young men paraded in the streets singing verses with a view to intensifying the feelings against the Muslims. Tilak also decided to organize an annual Shivaji festival; later it was regularly celebrated in Benaras, Calcutta, Karachi, and Madras. It may be mentioned that Shivaji had murdered a Muslim warrior, Afzal Khan and he had become a Hindu hero, called Lord Shivaji. Tilak also agitated against the Government ban upon music before mosques as offensive to the Hindu sentiments.[the_ad id=”17141″]

It may also be mentioned that the Indian National Congress did little to allay Muslim fears. The Congress was founded by a retired Civil servant, A.O.Hume with the blessing of the Viceroy Lord Dufferin. Hume arranged the first session of the Congress (1885) in Bombay and at his suggestion, W.C.Bannerjea was elected president of the Congress. By and large, the Muslims viewed the Congress as a platform for projecting Hindu aspirations. This proved correct when Congress was dominated by some fire-brands like Tilak and other Hindu extremist leaders like B.C.Pal and Lala Lajpat Rai, who had been offending the Muslims by their extreme political and religious views. Under these circumstances, Sir Syed felt concerned and thought that the Muslims should guard their interests and that the Congress would not look after their interests. As the Muslims were numerically fewer and educationally backward. Syed thought that they would be misguided by the Congress and that would jeopardize his programme of educational uplift. He, therefore, advised Muslims to keep away from the Congress forbidding them to join it. The Muslims generally kept aloof from the Congress; only 33 Muslims participated in its session of 1886. Hume requested Badruddin Tyabji to preside over the next session so as to attract Muslims. In the meantime, Syed Amir Ali had requested Tyabji to attend a Conference of Muslims separately from the Congress. Amir Ali’s National (since 1883 Central) Mohammadan Associaton had refused to participate in the Calcutta Congress in 1886. It may be safely concluded that the Indian Muslims, as a community, had from the very foundation of the Congress stood aloof from it chiefly due to the advice of Sir Syed.

Syed was also a greatest Muslim thinker and a religious reformer. He stood for a rational approach in this matter; the aim was to interpret Islam as a natural faith. His maternal grandfather, Dabirul Doula Faridu-ud-din Ahmad was a man of remarkable talents and was more distinguished for literary attainments. Syed’s father was a favorite disciple of Hazrat Shah Ghulam Ali of Delhi. Syed read the text of Quran and later began to read Arabic – Sharh-i-Mulla, Shrah-i-Tehzid, Maibaz, Mukhtasar Ma’ain and Mutavval; he also read Qaduri and Sharhi-Vaqaya etc. While writing on religious subjects, Syed argued that there is a strong affinity between Islam and Christianity; the motive behind this argument was that Syed liked to bring about a rapprochement between the Government and Muslims and between two great religions (Islam and Christianity). Syed’s contribution to religious matters could be divided into three groups. He wrote about half a dozen pamphlets before 1857; between 1857 and 1869 the most noteworthy are the Tabyani-ulKalam (a bilingual commentary on the Bible) and Risala-i-Taami-Ahl-i-Kitab). He argued that Islam did not forbid Muslims and Christians eating together; he also argued that Islam did not approve of treachery and rebellion (in normal circumstances) and that Jihad (holy war) was only allowed to get certain legitimate goals. It may be mentioned that Syed was deeply influenced by the teaching and methodology of Shah Wali-Ullah; he considered Shah Sahib as an authority. He believed that even though the Prophets communicated one Din to mankind, each one of them brought a different Shariat which was adopted according to the prevailing conditions of their times.

The third group of Syed’s religious writings are from 1869 to 1898; Khutbat-i-Ahmadiya, Tehzib-ul-Akhlaq and the Tafsir-ul-Quran belong to this phase. It so happened that in 1861, Sir William Muir (Lt. Governor of N.W.P.) published The life of Mohammad in four volumes, attacking Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) and Islam in many ways and which led to Islam-Christianity controversy in India. Syed prepared a reply and in 1870 (in London) published his famous Khutbat-i-Ahmadiya, which was a critical survey of the life and teachings of Prophet Muhammad (PBH) from the Muslim point of view and as an exposition of the rationalistic side of the Islamic system. But once again, Syed preached conciliation and understanding between Islam and Christianity. He interpreted Islam as a natural religion; that there was no contradiction between the word of God and the work of God (the laws of physical science and the scientific process). Syed proposed a dynamic exercise of Ijtihad to help to bring into being a sense of political community with the aim of discovering the nature and demands of Islam as a religion. Sir Syed’s Tafsir (commentary on the Quran) was perhaps his greatest work, even though his critics questioned his ability to undertake the job. He was unable to complete the commentary, it covered about three-fifth of the Quran; he discussed a limited number of verses, relating to most important questions of his time. It consists of seven volumes; six of which were published during Syed’s life time; the bulk of the Tafsir deals with the interpretation of things involving supernatural phenomena which Syed tried to explain in terms of natural causation; that is why he was called a naturist.[the_ad id=”17142″]

The impact and influence of the Tafsir has been tremendous; the Tafsir could truly be described a the crowning glory of Syed’s intellectual works, throwing new light on many of the obscure verses and apparently incomprehensible passages of the Quran.

After his return from England (October 1870) Syed published a weekly periodical, Tehzib-ul-Akhlaq; the first issue appeared on 24 December 1870. Syed reflected simplicity, honesty and other homely virtues by inaugurating a movement for improving morals and manners of his community; he argued that the Muslims should accept what was sound and attractive in European manners and social life. During the first six years of its existence (1870-76) Syed’s Journal served the cause of religious and social reforms among the Muslims. Syed was assisted by other eminent Muslims such as Mohsin-ul-Mulk, Viqar-ul-Mulk, Maulvi Chiragh Ali, Syed Mehmood, Moulana Altaf Hussain Hali, and Moulvi Zakaullah. However, it may be mentioned that the largest number of articles in the Journal were contributed by Syed himself; of 226 papers Syed wrote 112. It was he who tried his utmost to improve the conditions of his community by bringing them at par with modern culture and by diverting their attention into more useful channels. Syed did not wish to have a collision between the Government (or Christianity) and the Muslims (or Islam). It can be proved by the fact that out of 500 copies of his famous pamphlet, The Causes of the Indian Revolt. Syed sent 498 to England for the members of the British Parliament and other interested Englishmen. No Indian knew anything at all about it. Not only did some British authorities suggest punishment for Syed but some of his own community members turned against him and were able to procure Fatwas from 60 Moulvis, Muftis, and Qazis pronouncing Syed as the most hateful of Kafirs; some called him a “Dajjal”.

But Sir Syed, a most remarkable specimen of progressive humanity, a man with high spirits and moral courage, continued to do what he believed was right to improve the conditions of the Indian Muslims.

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