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Islamic Personalities ( 22 Oct 2017, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: From Ruins to Reform – II

By Raza Naeem

20 Oct 2017

One of Sir Syed’s ardent disciples, Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali, has written in his biography of the former, Hayat-e-Javaid, about the attitude of Muslim notables in the 19th century. He writes that when Raja Ram Mohan Roy was demanding the English language and modern education, at the same time Muslim Ulema, by means of 8,000 signatures, informed the Governor-General that they did not need the new infidel education – and that the old Farsi and Arabic teaching was quite enough. These Muslims organised a front against modern education, in which the religious scholars played an especially prominent role. Sir Syed expressed his embarrassment over such a state of affairs.

With regards to influence and pervasiveness of views, in that period Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was at the very forefront. He viewed the new intellectual and educational changes at a level even further than Ghalib. He understood that without adopting these changes and embracing the new scientific education, the Indian Muslims would not only be left far behind in the race of progress, but possibly they might not even be able to maintain their identity. Therefore he began to emphasise the foundation of Muslim cultural thought on scientific lines; and for this purpose he set up the Mohammedan Scientific Society. The basis of this movement was rationalism, an emphatic insistence on the use of reason.

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan

He argued that nature cannot be against the Word of God and if it appears to us as such, we are definitely making a mistake somewhere

There were lots of objections against Sir Syed. It was said of him that he was an Anglophile and that his attitude in response to Western thought was merely apologetic. These objections still persist even today.

The objections were of two types. Firstly from the fundamentalists there were Fatwas of him being infidel and so on.

Secondly, the nationalists called him a lackey of the British: that in his passion for the adoption of new thoughts and visions, he had become a great ally and propagandist of the British government; and had come to appear as an Anglophile to an extreme degree in order to pave the way for British strategy and decision-making. Arguably, this second objection was based on truth, to a great extent. Sir Syed was a political conservative and believe that the security of India lay in the continuation of British rule. Instead of reconciling himself with the national aspirations of India, he saw Muslims as a separate nation.

Victorian Engraving Of A Muslim School In 19th Century India

But from a social perspective, his attitude was progressive. He ran a proper campaign to organise views in favour of modern ideas and against the worship of superstition. Viewed from such a perspective, even within him there was continuous change. In the beginning, he had written an essay Qaul-e-Mateendar Abtaal Harkat-e-Zameen (1848), in which he had tried to refute the idea of the movement of the Earth. But gradually his thought adopted a scientific turn.

In the matter of religion, his basic inference was that there cannot be a contradiction in the Word and Work of God. He meant that nature cannot be against the Word of God and if it appears to us as such, we are definitely making a mistake somewhere in understanding the Word of God. That is why we need to have commentary and exegeses of the Word of God along new lines – given the advances in our understanding of the natural world.

So Sir Syed emphasized a new education of the Word (Ilm-ul-Kalaam) and started a campaign against superstition and blind traditionalism. He opened new educational institutions and schools.

Sir Syed argued that Muslims would have to embrace the system of education brought by the British – not always a popular thought in the aftermath of the 1857 rebellion

The process was not without its flaws. He had kept the examples of the educational institutions of Cambridge and Oxford before him and gave the leadership of his educational institutions to the British. Due to this, his policy for educational institutions was limited to being openly patronising of the British. It was undoubtedly a significant defect in his scheme. But all this was a part of his political thought.

Another major flaw in Sir Syed’s educational scheme was that he did not pay any attention to the education and teaching of industry, handicrafts and technology – it is difficult to imagine a nation progressing economically at all without technical education. There was little space for industry and handicrafts in his educational model. So until the 1930s and 1940s, at Aligarh, there was no arrangement for education in technology, engineering and medicine.

With all of that said, Sir Syed’s role in our cultural and intellectual history has been undoubtedly unique, and one which cannot be denied. As for the fact that he was a British loyalist and a supporter of British strategy in India, that objection is not really significant any longer. After all, in the larger picture, he turned the intellectual current of South Asia’s Muslims towards scientific thought.

Some of Sir Syed’s religious works aimed to reconcile religious belief and the process of scientific observations

He liberated a huge community from the worship of superstition, religious preconceptions and an obsolete way of life. It was due to his strong personality and intellectual steadfastness that strong groups of educated people, enlightened and modern thinkers, gathered around him. Even today we refer to them as the Sir Syed School.

The position and importance of Sir Syed was much more than that of a mere individual; he was himself a movement in person. He was a movement which we now remember as the Aligarh Movement. He paved the way for the likes of Maulana Hali, Maulvi Muhammad Hussain Azad, Deputy Nazeer Ahmad, Shibli Nomani, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and most importantly, Allama Dr. Muhammad Iqbal.


It has been observed above that Sir Syed was politically conservative and socially progressive. The movement that he started also had both political and social effects – which led to reactions both against and in favour of it. In the literary domain as well, there was a notable reaction against the Sir Syed movement, for example, from the Lucknow School which supported old values; it included Pandit Ratan Nath Sarshar and Munshi Sajjad Hussain. The whole Oudh Punch group was opposed to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and his comrades. Some of Sir Syed’s detractors composed poems to call him a new preacher of naturism:

Other notable opponents of Sir Syed’s project were the distinguished pan-Islamist thinker and activist Jamaluddin Afghani and the eminent humorous Urdu poet Akbar Allahabadi.

According to Allahabadi:

What our respected Syed says is good

Akbar agrees that it is sound and fair

But most of those who heed this modern school

Neither believe in God, nor yet in prayer

They say they do, but it is plain to see

What they believe in is the powers that be

One of Sir Syed’s disciples, Deputy Nazeer Ahmad, bitterly satirised his mentor in the novel Ibn-ul-Waqt (The Opportunist).

Another disciple Shibli Nomani abandoned his mentor and founded another institution, the Dar-ul-Uloom Nadwa. A lot was written against Hali’s Muqadimah Sher-o-Shairi – that ‘it is trampled like the field of Panipat’, etc. Amaluddin Afghani as a pan-Islamist and anti-colonialist, found himself at odds with Sir Syed’s pro-British approach and his emphasis on Indian Muslims

Then on the other hand, there was the entrenchment of Deoband. Many Deobandis had a certain quality: politically they were nationalist, but socially extreme conservatives. At that time Aligarh was politically the citadel of conservatism and socially that of a progressive environment. The highest point for most people was to obtain jobs in government and civil service. There were also two distinct groups amongst writers and poets: one consisted of supporters of enlightened and progressive thought, whilst the other group had writers and poets who favoured more obscurantist ideas.

As the noted Urdu worker poet Ehsan Danish observed in an enduring tribute to Sir Syed, in his poem “To Sir Syed’s Spirit” (Sir Syed ki Ruh Se):

The heavenly revolution has done a lot until now

But the permanent colour remains in your construction until now

Had it not been for your awakening, bewaring the gardener’s mood

The traces of the garden would long have faded until now!

A thousand storms, a million tornados passed but

Your chandeliers are aglow in the darkness until now

What was lit by the sparks within your chest

That secretly burning fire could not grow cold until now

Your foresight has granted lamps to the future

Despite which the air is polluted by the smoke of the past until now

Is it any wonder that those who disrupted your intentions

Without you where would they have been in history until now?

The pulse of civilisation has remained in your hands such that

The cure of the hidden pain lies in your diagnosis until now

Let the age wander away from its centre, if it wants

Your fellow-travellers (are induced to) follow the caravan until now

Though an agreeable wind is blowing with great force

By the protection of God the branch of your nest is evergreen until now

Your knowledge of the destination has come to such a pass

The participants of the caravan are like Khizr until now

The promoters of the new order are bent on subversion otherwise!

Foreheads are awake within your particles until now

The prejudice of leadership is the denier of justice otherwise

Your ampleness stands as a supplicant until now

Until when will the history of Mankind be mutilated

By the grace of God some of your confidantes remain until now!

Read the Part One Here.

All the translations from the Urdu are by the author unless otherwise stated. Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and an award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore. He is currently the president of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. His most recent publication is an introduction to the reissued edition (HarperCollins India, 2016) of Abdullah Hussein’s classic Partition novel ‘The Weary Generations.’