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Books and Documents ( 16 Oct 2021, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: Man with a Mission

By Mushtaq ul Haq Ahmad Sikandar, New Age Islam

16 October 2021

Education Will Pave Way For Progress Among Indian Muslims

Main Points:

1.    Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was not an apologist for British colonialism, but a pragmatist.

2.    Sir Syed Ahmad Khan believed that boycott and hate will not help Muslims.

3.    Sir Syed Ahmad Khan  thanked English and his fellow citizens both Muslims and Non Muslims for their contribution in foundations of Mohammaden Anglo Oriental College


The Life and Work of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan

Author: G.F.I. Graham

Publisher: Kitab Mahal Publishers, Srinagar, Kashmir

Year of Publication: 2018

Pages: 301 Price: Rs 1299



The movement for reformation of Indian Muslims initiates with the life and legacy of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. The British colonialism had brought in its fore plethora of challenges including political, religious, educational and economic. These challenges needed a holistic response. Muslims masses and particularly Ulema adopted a hostile approach towards British colonialism as the perception was developed that Muslim rule has come to an end, whereas the reality was that family rule of Mughals who happened to be Muslims had ended. The fate of common Muslim masses maintained a status quo. But perceptions help reinforce myths and common Muslims started boycott of British institutions and a campaign of hate was launched against them.

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was not an apologist for British colonialism, but a pragmatist who believed that boycott and hate will not help Muslims. As a pragmatic realist he believed that cooperation with the British government particularly in the field of education will help the Muslim masses overcome illiteracy and poverty. After the first war of Indian Independence in 1858 that resulted in the defeat of the freedom fighters, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan started a campaign to educate Muslims of India. He wielded his pen and directed his activities towards the accomplishment of the goal of educating Muslims in the contemporary idiom by adopting the British educational model. Sir Syed believed that the European powers are at their zenith because they have invested in scientific education.

Sir Syed believed that scientific education and temperament is to be developed among Indian Muslims, only then they will be able to compete with the European compatriots. To inculcate this scientific temper, Sir Syed also interpreted theology and Quran in the light of science. It did create a strong reaction and backlash, still he treaded on this path despite stiff opposition. It is this strength to continue with the mission despite opposition, that made Sir Syed as one of the greatest stalwarts of the last century. The fruits of his mission are still evident in the form of Aligarh Muslim University, whose roots were nurtured and nourished by him.


Sir Syed Ahmad Khan


The current book under review by a Britisher is the first biography written about Sir Syed. The biographer has detailed the events in the life of Sir Syed and documented his activities till year 1885 although he lived a decade and more after that. But publication of this biography during his  lifetime that too penned down by an Englishman G.F.I Graham is exemplary. Graham in the Preface calls this biography as a labour of love. The book does not document the early life of Sir Syed although he is mentioned as the writer of voluminous Aasarul Sanadeed. Sir Syed remained in Bijnore till the ‘Mutiny’ broke out in May 1857. Graham prefers to use the term mutiny although the Indian writers mention it as First War of Indian Independence. The biography not only mentions about Sir Syed and his activities but reading it helps to gauge and understand the mood of the era. In the aftermath of 1857, Sir Syed wrote a book about the reasons behind the rebellion in India titled as Asbaab e Baghawat e Hind. Some of its extracts were translated into English language by Sir Auckland Colvin and Graham, thus trying to understand the native modes of thought. Sir Syed is among the best writers of Urdu prose who broadened its scope beyond the romantic and metaphysical poetry by making it a language in which serious intellectual conversations can be articulated. One of the reasons for this rebellion according to Sir Syed was imposing Christianity and proselytization of Indian Muslims that was considered a threat to Islam and Muslim identity. Sir Syed appears to be a vocal critic of East India and British policies in this work and has not minced words while speaking out the factual realities.

Sir Syed then tried to bridge the divide that existed between Indian Muslims and British colonial masters by writing a rebuttal to W.W Hunter’s work, The Indian Musalmans: Are they bound by their conscience to rebel against the Queen. The rebuttal was titled as the Loyal Mohammadans of India, intending to ward off the negative stereotypes from Muslims. Sir Syed even translated Bible despite the fact that he was unlettered in English language. His travelogue about his visit to Europe and particularly England is a treasure trove and the letters he wrote during his stay in England give a peek into the mind and activism of Sir Syed. He wanted to replicate the educational model of Oxford and Cambridge in India. He was in awe about the way things were in England. He considered Englishmen as an epitome of civilization while trying to be blind about the havoc and atrocities European imperialism has created all over the world. This aspect renders him into an apologist for European colonialism, that paves way for genuine criticism against him.

While reading the biography we also come across the fact of Fatwas by Ulema against Sir Syed and some mullahs did call for his assassination given his unique views about Islam. Sir Syed initiated a project of exegesis of the Quran but could not complete it but whatever was published was deeply abhorrent to the Ulema who considered his views antithetical to Islam. Sir Syed continued despite their opposition. Alongwith his writings, he continued to build the foundations of Mohammaden Anglo Oriental College (MAO), for which he thanked both the English and his other fellow citizens both Muslims and Non Muslims for their contribution. He worked for the promotion of science and other allied subjects by getting the best books translated from English and other languages into Urdu.

The publisher has reprinted the original text without editing, thus the spellings like Urdoo, Allygurh has been maintained, new lexicon and spellings should have been added as footnotes that would have added to the academic merit of the work. The biography was rare and the publisher needs to be lauded for making it available to the readers and lovers of Sir Syed. It is an insightful work that helps us understand Sir Syed better in our contemporary times when conditions of Indian Muslims have not witnessed drastic changes.     


M.H.A.Sikander is Writer-Activist based in Srinagar, Kashmir.


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