Syed Ahmad Khan

In a chapter titled New Orientations, in his scholarly work titled, Muslim Communities of the Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent, Ishtiaq Husain Qureshi analyses the positive role of Syed Ahmed Khan and the Anglo-Mohammedan College he set up in Aligarh, in helping the Muslim community gain back its self-respect. He speaks in very laudatory terms about the contribution of the Aligarh college in preserving the dignity and heritage of the Muslims in British India. But, Qureshi does not shy from pointing out that Syed Ahmed Khan was criticised for his religious views and “even today a good deal of what he said is not considered to be sound”.

Let’s read about Sayyid Ahmad in Qureshi’s words:

“The Muslim community in the subcontinent had reached a dead end; many of its attitudes had to be changed if it wanted to recover from the state of utter exhaustion into which its policies and efforts had plunged it. This needed a careful assessment of the situation so that feasible objectives could be defined and pursued with some consistency. However heartrending it might be, such an assessment had to take into consideration the fact that the old dream of a Muslim empire in the subcontinent must be abandoned. The world in which Muslims had built an empire and sustained it for so many centuries, had changed. Internationally Islam was no longer a political force of the same vigor as it had been in the heyday at its most powerful. Now the Christian nations of the West had come to the forefront and had developed a strength that defied resistance…. They had developed techniques of efficient government and effective warfare, to which the East possessed no answer…..Even many nations that were predominantly Muslim were beleaguered in their own homelands.

“In the Subcontinent itself, the challenges come not only from the West but also from the non-Muslim communities. In the beginning the armed risings of the latter had looked like the more serious danger even to such a thinker as Shah Wali’ullah, but soon the West had turned the tables on the Muslims and the non-Muslims alike. ….Disasters which overtook the Muslims after the failure of the revolt in 1857- 58 demonstrated most unmistakably not only the futility of an armed revolt against the British, but also the isolation of the Muslim community. No foreign Muslim power came to their help; indeed none was in a position to cross swords with the British. Inside the subcontinent the Sikhs had been guided by their dislike of the Muslims to cooperate with the British who had only recently subjugated them. With the turning tide, the Hindus found it more politic to impress the British with their loyalty. Many of them betrayed the Muslims by turning informers against them. …This naturally resulted in resentment against the Hindu community.

“There had never been much cohesion or unity of sentiment between the Hindus and the Muslims. No ruling people can hope to win the affection of a subject race to that extent. The best that the Muslims could achieve, they had achieved. They had succeeded in getting their rule liked by large sections of the population while it lasted; when it came to an end there was little burning indignation against them. …When a people is distinct and separate, it has its own outlook upon life, it’s emotional reactions are peculiar to it and it has a distinctive view of history. Therefore, it was not impossible to create a distaste for the memory of the Muslim rule in the minds of the Hindus. In the interest of their hold upon the subcontinent, the British made such an effort deliberately; it was successful within a few decades and brought in its wake ill-will and hostility.

“The economic pattern that emerged as a result of the new conditions did not contribute to a sense of solidarity between the Hindus and the Muslims. There was considerable conflict in the interests of the two communities. The large Muslim population of Bengal consisted mostly of peasants; these were exploited and oppressed by the new class of landlords, were generally Hindus. The decline and the distress of the wealthy Muslim families everywhere drove them to the necessity of borrowing money from Hindu moneylenders at exorbitant rates; The remnants of the property of these families soon passed into the hands of the moneylenders. The Muslim peasantry of the Punjab was chronically indebted to the same class of moneylenders, who’s exactions left the peasant with little to sustain themselves and their families. The humbler traders and petty shopkeepers had been Hindu throughout Muslim rule; when the East India Company’s trade was abolished, this class found new opportunities. Their economic power began to rise rapidly; The Muslims had only a meager share in this prosperity. Similarly, …the Muslims were backward in education and consequently, they were not well represented in the professions. The Hindus came to have a comparatively more prosperous middle class, which soon became active and vocal. The Hindu acquired a new feeling of strength; It was natural that sometimes his newly gained power should be directed against the Muslims, who could not fail to notice these developments. The Muslims had now only an insignificant part in the life of the subcontinent; the important roles were played by the British and the Hindus; The Muslims hardly counted. …the problem now was to save the situation from further deterioration.

“It was Syed Ahmed Khan who assessed the situation for the Muslims and gradually chalked out a clear-cut policy for them. He was born at Delhi on 17 October 1817 and came from a prominent family of that city. ….Entered the service of the British government and through his ability and good work became the sadr amin at Bijnor in 1855. When rebellion broke out in that district, he rendered meritorious services to the British cause. He was convinced that the rebellion was a mistake, because the British were too strongly entrenched to be shaken by these methods. …however, his attitude towards the struggle was not dictated by any selfish reasons, for when he was offered a large estate as a reward by the government, he refused to accept it. He was greatly moved by the suffering that followed the revolt and its suppression.

“….His first concern after the restoration of the British authority was to soften the brunt of British vengeance. He, therefore, at great risk to himself, wrote a small outspoken pamphlet on the causes of the revolt and sent copies to the members of the British parliament and others in authority…. A conciliation between the government and the Indians remained the cornerstone of his policy.

“Syed Ahmed Khan pondered over the causes of the progress made by the West. He rejected the theory advanced by the Christian missionaries that Christianity was responsible for the phenomenon; like many others he reached the conclusion that the strength of the European countries was built upon their intellectual prowess, especially their proficiency in the physical sciences. It would be wrong to think that he did not take into consideration the spiritual elements in the progress of the West, because throughout his life he attached the greatest importance to strength of character in the achievement of all objectives, but he did not consider this as peculiar either to the West or to Christianity. With this diagnosis in his mind, he reached the conclusion that his people must first be acquainted with the achievement of science in the West. Syed Ahmed Khan was endowed with great energy and a burning desire to serve his people. He, therefore, made up his mind to chalk out a program of work. He issued an appeal “to the Indian people regarding the educational progress of the people of India ” in which he expounded the need of popularizing the Western sciences, through translations into Urdu, among the people of the subcontinent. The Scientific Society was established in 1863 at Ghazipur, where Syed Ahmed Khan was posted at that time.The following year he was transferred to Aligarh and the Scientific Society migrated with him. His enthusiasm, devotion and energy soon produced results and the society made rapid strides; It came to own a building and a printing press and several works were translated into Urdu and were published. Syed Ahmed Khan even put some of his own savings into the project.

“This, however, was only a fraction of what he intended to do in the field of education. He was responsible for the establishment of a new school at Ghazipur which was financed by private effort and was later raised to the standard of a College. The addition of just another institution was not what he had wanted; it was useful in its own way and many institutions like it have since played their part in furthering Western education in the subcontinent. His dream was of a University which would be a beacon of light for the Muslims of the subcontinent; which would produce a valuable synthesis of Western knowledge with Islamic values; where students would develop those traits of character that built empires and conquered new spheres of knowledge for the human mind. Where could he get the pattern for such an institution? He himself was not fully acquainted with the system of Western education that had produced these results in Europe, but he must have heard a good deal about it . Therefore, he must go himself and study it at close quarters.

“It was not easy for him to find the money necessary for such a venture. He sold his library and mortgaged his residential property and sailed for England. It was during this journey that he wrote his Khutabaat. The rest of the time was devoted to the study of the educational system. He was greatly impressed with Cambridge and came to believe that an institution on that pattern would be suitable for his community. His ideas gradually crystallized and he set them forth in an appeal addressed to the Muslims and the government regarding the education of the Muslims of the Subcontinent. It was sent to his friend, Muhsin-ul-mulk, who did not publish it because he was not certain of its reception. It was published after Syed Ahmed Khan returned from England. He had also reached the conclusion that he had to bring about a revolution in the outlook of the people if they were to benefit from his schemes and be persuaded to cooperate with him. He, therefore, started his magazine Tahdib-ul-Akhlaq, through which he tried to carry out a programme of reform on a wide front. Nothing escaped his enthusiastic zeal; from table manners to dress …. More especially his essays in the interpretation of Islam were vehemently resented.

“Undaunted by the opposition and other difficulties, Syed Ahmed Khan established a committee for the progress of education among the Muslims. It started work with the organization of an essay competition to discuss the causes of the unpopularity of the new education among the Muslims. These essays seem to have been of considerable merit because they helped the committee in the clarification of its own ideas. A subcommittee was appointed for raising funds and despite growing opposition succeeded in collecting a tidy sum. Syed Ahmed Khan, then, after consulting the donors and other sympathizers, decided to establish the institution at Aligarh. The storm of opposition displayed no signs of subsiding; the institution was meant for the Muslims; therefore, it was necessary to remove some misunderstandings. The general feeling was that the proposed institution would teach the “heresies” of Syed Ahmed Khan’s beliefs. He therefore was persuaded to open a primary school first so that by seeing how it worked and that no effort was made to impose any religious views upon the students, the public might feel a little reassured. The school was therefore established in 1875.

“This was the humble beginning of the Muslim University of Aligarh, which has played such an important role in the life of the Muslim community of the subcontinent. Syed Ahmed Khan felt that the new institution would require all the time he could give it; therefore he retired from service and settled down in Aligarh in 1876. The following year Lord Lytton laid the foundation stone of the Mohammedan Anglo Oriental College. This was but a partial fulfillment of Syed Ahmed Khan’s dream, because he had hoped to establish a center of Muslim education, where the Muslims would work out their own intellectual destiny. The new college was affiliated to Calcutta University and was, therefore, bound by its rules and regulations for Syed Ahmed Khan had, however, planned on a liberal scale and even when the institution was just a college it had developed into a big center of education. The idea of making Aligarh the center of Muslim education for the entire subcontinent, in the sense of giving it statutory powers to affiliate Muslim institutions, was never realized, but even before it was constituted into a residential and teaching University, it had attracted students not only from the entire subcontinent but also from some neighboring Muslim countries. Several years after Syed Ahmed Khan’s death, Aga Khan III  took up the cause of converting the college into a university and, through efforts made under his leadership, sufficient funds were collected for the purpose….

“….The Muslim University did not develop into a great creative center which would restore to Islam its traditions of learning and discovery; under the circumstances in which the institution worked, it would have been unfair to demand such an achievement from it ….. It played an important role in the development of the Muslim community after it had reached so near the brink of the abyss. It gave it a new hope, a new sense of mission. From the deepest despair it pulled the Muslims out onto a new field of fruitful activity. It brought up a generation of Muslims who were aware of the new developments in the world and its thought, without undermining their fundamental loyalty to Islam. ….Without Aligarh, the Muslims would have lagged even further behind the other communities in the political and intellectual life of the subcontinent….

“Syed Ahmed Khan was criticised for his religious views; even today a good deal of what he said is not considered to be sound.

“Syed Ahmed Khan did not create a system of theology, nor did he found a school; but he defined a method for the modern mind continuously to adjust, so far as it is possible, it’s understanding of religion to the growth of scientific knowledge. ….In the field of presenting the teachings of Islam in a rational manner to the non-Muslim world of his age as well, he was a pioneer. Without his initial efforts, the confidence that the educated Muslims possessed today about the validity of their fate would have remained weak.

Syed Ahmad Khan’s Politics

“Syed Ahmed Khan was a realist in politics. As a Muslim he defined his political creed as radical republicanism tempered with a little economic socialism. However, he said in the same breath that his religion wanted him to be loyal to the government if circumstances made him subservient to a foreign power. Thus, whereas he believed in the ideals of democracy, his political actions and policies were governed by the overwhelming consideration that the government was too strong to be shaken by the efforts of the Muslims. He seems to have started with the belief that the Hindus and the Muslims had common interests, being the inhabitants of the same land…throughout his life he remained a believer in the need of cooperation and good relations between the Hindus and the Muslims.

His political realism, however, asserted itself when he found the Hindus adopting policies that Syed Ahmed Khan thought were not based upon similar feelings of cooperation. The first Hindu movement that disillusioned him was for the recognition of Hindi as the second official language of the Northwestern provinces instead of Urdu. He himself records his reactions in the following words:

Hindu Revivalism and Syed Ahmad’s Reaction

“When this movement spread to Benares, I was talking to Mr. Shakespeare who was posted as commissioner in that city. I was talking about Muslim education. Mr. Shakespeare was astonished at the tenor of what I was saying. At last he said to me: This is the first occasion when I have heard you speak solely about the progress of the Muslims; before this you always spoke of  the welfare of all Indians’. I replied: ‘Now I am convinced that the two people will not be able to cooperate sincerely in any venture. This is only the beginning; Later, because of the educated classes, this hostility will increase. Those who live long enough will see it grow.’

“Later developments have confirmed this foreboding. Syed Ahmed Khan was a shrewd observer of events and tendencies. He was able to understand the real significance of the agitation in favor of Hindi. For many years the educated Hindus like their Muslim compatriots, had used Urdu as their own language….To the Muslims Urdu had been a symbol of their identification with the subcontinent, because to the extent they had taken to Urdu, they had left Persian … .This was one of the bridges created by the Muslim community for spanning the gulf between themselves and the native population. In their view the demand for replacing Urdu for Hindi was tantamount to denunciation by the Hindus of the ties built up in the course of several centuries.….

“Insofar as the existing pattern was more deeply influenced by the recent Muslim past to the subcontinent, all efforts at revivalism by the Hindus would be departures from this common heritage and would, in their wake, bring about estrangement from the Muslims. Such conscious revivalism is always the handiwork of the educated classes, and its significance is understood also by the corresponding classes in the other communities. This seems to have been Syed Ahmed Khan’s understanding of the Hindu agitation for Hindi. As revivalism, once it starts seldom stops, he was right in his conclusions that time would only make the breach between the communities wider

Syed Ahmad’s First and Last Love

“Syed Ahmed Khan died in 1898. ….It is given to few to bring about such profound changes in the outlook of their people within a lifetime as Syed Ahmed was able to do; he brought the Muslim community out of medievalism into the new age; he found it backward and set it on the path of progress so that it might be enabled to meet the demands of a fast-changing world; he found it downtrodden, suspected by its rulers and a victim of its impossible obsessions and left it in a position to face the greatly changed circumstances. He left his impression on the politics, culture, literature and religious thinking of his people; he will long be remembered as a historian who edited texts and explored ruins, a writer who released Urdu prose from the shackles of artificiality and made it flow like limpid waters with natural ease, a religious thinker who laid the foundations of the interpretation of Islam to suit the modern mind, an educationist who was able to think clearly on the educational needs of his community, a social reformer and ardent  philanthropist, and a fearless fighter for justice and truth.

“His first and last love was the Muslim community of India, but this never made him an opportunist or unfair to others.

Another Perspective on Sayyid Ahmad Khan and the Anglo-Mohammedan School

Though Barbara’s book is focused on the ‘ulama and their role in establishing a network of educational institutions or madressahs starting from the 1860s when the famous Darul-Uloom was established in Deoband, she has also included in her work the establishment of the Anglo-Mohammedan School in Aligarh and the role of Syed Ahmad in revival of Muslim culture and self-confidence in the aftermath of the Mutiny of 1857.

Here, let us see Barbara’s incisive analysis of the School established by Syed Ahmad in Aligarh. She is very candid in expressing her reservations about Syed Ahmad in so far as his religious and political stands were concerned, and liberal in showering praise on the sincerity of the architect who left behind an institution which is still a great source of pride for Muslims of the subcontinent. In comparison with Qureshi’s account, Barbara’s is less apologetic, and her arguments are more in line with traditional Islamic ethos and principles.

The following excerpts have been painstakingly culled out from her book so as to represent her appreciation of the role of  Syed Ahmed Khan, despite his religious views. When both the assessments are read together, Qureshi’s and Barbara’s, the image that emerges is of a giant among men who salvaged whatever could be salvaged of the heritage of a community that ruled India for centuries. Yet, the chinks in the armour were not glossed over, in line with objective scholarship.

“During these years in the capital, Sayyid Ahmad had known Europeans through Delhi College and through his family’s ties to the East India Company. His maternal grandfather had held a prestigious position in the Company service, and Sayyid Ahmed Khan himself joined the Company in 1837. He subsequently rose form record-keeper, to sub-ordinate judge, to chief assessment official, and was posted in Bijnor at the time of the outbreak in 1857. Like many religious people, Sayyid Ahmad had been troubled by serving these non-Muslim rulers, yet in the Mutiny he decisively threw in his lot with the British, risking his own life to save British lives, and actively opposing the rebels…He saw Muslim families ruined, their lands confiscated, the king disgraced. Delhi which he so loved, was occupied; large areas razed; his favourite buildings destroyed. The psychological turmoil that this experience engendered was for a time so overwhelming that Sayyid Ahmad contemplated emigration, leaving India to retreat, as had some of his teachers in Delhi, to the Hijaz. Gradually he became convinced that British rule was long to stay and that those Muslims aligned to it would be true to their religion and prosperous. He had to convince his fellow Muslims of the truth of this position….

Sayyid Ahmad also ambitiously undertook an investigation into the sources of Western power. He sought that key initially not in cultural values but in the techniques of the British….In 1864 he founded the Scientific Society, later called the Aligarh Institute, to translate useful Western works into Urdu and to provide practical demonstrations of Western inventions.

“The work of the society was predicated on the assumption that the British were technically superior to the Indians…The theme of self-deprecation that had crept in was perhaps the only way that Sayyid Ahmad could reconcile his admiration of the English with their evident disdain of him and his countrymen. His acceptance of their image of Indians became far more pronounced after his trip to England to place his son in school in Cambridge. This trip marked another major turning point in his life.

“Previously convinced of the shared values of Muslim and Christian civilization, he was stunned by the gap he now perceived. Turning again to the fundamental solution he knew; he devoted his thoughts to religious reform.

Was Syed Ahmed a Worldly Man who Exploited Religion

“Sayyid Ahmad was not a worldly man who tried to exploit religion; he was, rather, a deeply religious man who felt with other reformers that Muslims, as recipients of the final revelation, would prosper in this world as well as the next if they were faithful to that revelation.

“He never wavered in his absolute belief in God, the authority of the Quran, the mission of the Prophet, and the obligatory nature of Muslim religious duties.

Barbara is very forthright in stating what she believed was Syed Ahmad’s mistake of taking his standards for analyzing his religion from outside.

“…He took his standards for analyzing his religion from outside—and sought approval for his work from outside…Indeed his writings were taken up by Western and Middle eastern readers more than by his fellow countrymen. Only his defense of the Prophet (khutabat-I Ahmadiyyah), written in England, was at all popular in India.

“…Both religious and intellectual life at the school were, in the event, to lack vitality. The school itself had little to do with the reformulation of Islamic thought that Sayyid Ahmad envisaged. The school’s uniqueness rested rather on its ability to transform students from divergent backgrounds, heretofore bound by family ties above all, into a cohesive group whose members shared experiences and values  and were committed to the Aligarh thesis; that the Muslims of British India had been rulers; had now declined in comparison to non-Muslim Indians; but could, through English education and Islam, once again be great. The school, with a core of devoted Englishmen on its staff, placed an emphasis on character more than scholarship, and encouraged good deportment, lively debating and conversational skill, gamesmanship and manliness.

The emphasis on secular education and its emphasis on adopting British manners, endeared the school to the British. They saw the school as indicating “the end of Muslim opposition to their rule.”

However, Barbara Matcalf  observes that:

“Religion was significant at the school, for even if Sayyid Ahmad’s own religious thought was not shared, religious identity was overwhelmingly important and a concern with instruction in a basic standard of Islam was important, too.

Was Sayyid Ahmad Opposed to Deoband

To those who believe that Sayyid Ahmad was against the Deoband madressah, and that scholars from Deoband shunned the Aligarh school, it will make interesting reading to note the following:

“On the occasion of Muhammad Qasim’s death he wrote an obituary in the Institute Gazette, lauding Qasim’s character, his founding of Deoband and other schools, and his influence on thousands. ‘It is not enough to weep over him. Our nation talks and does not act. Deoband is his memorial and must be kept alive’.”

Matclif mentions the names of two prominent Deobandi scholars who took up service in the Aligarh school, in evidence of the fact that Deobandi scholars did not shun Aligarh

 “Maulawi Muhammad Akbar Kandhlawi, was first professor of Arabic and Sunni theology at the school and managed the boarding house until his death in 1886. And in 1893 Muhammad  Abd’ullah, Muhammed Qasim’s son in law, joined the staff to supervise the religion of the Sunni boys. The religious guidance offered by ‘Abd’ullah and other Muslims at the school was, interestingly, reinforced by the efforts of some of the Englishmen at the school. T.W. Arnold, most notably, himself donned Indian dress and turban, attended the mosque at prayer time, and noted the names of those absent; he invited students and teachers to break the Ramazan fast at his house; and he always provided his guests with water for ablution…

Contrary to expectations, “Many associated with the school in fact espoused the cause of traditional religious education. … One graduate of Aligarh, for example, Maulana Hamid’ud-Din Farahi, left a position in the Hyderabad judiciary to be the first director of an important religious school—the Madrasat’ul-Islah in Sara’e Mir near Azamgarh.

Deoband’s Response to Aligarh’s Liberalism

Qureshi has this to say, “With all its conservatism, the seminary at Deoband, which stood aside from the contemporary controversies, had a practical outlook and concerned itself with its work. It did not throw any stones at Aligarh, though it could not approve of Syed Ahmed Khan’s opinions or actions. It had a group of scholars who were no less ardent believers in pan-Islamism than Shibli or Abul Kalam; they, however, did not carry on any publicity to popularize the idea. They bided their time and, through the institution of the Hajj, tried to establish relations with the Sublime Porte.”

What Kind of People Opposed Syed Ahmad

“Then there were several facets of Sayyid Ahmed Khan’s activism that were not liked in some circles. These factors combined to produce a reaction. It is generally believed that the opposition came from the Orthodox theologians and  the great theological seminaries like the one at the Deoband; this, however, is not correct. The main leaders were men with conservative views, yet not unaffected by the new trends and by no means ignorant of the nature of the problems that faced the community….

Shibli’s Role in Aligarh

“One voice of dissent at Aligarh itself was that of Shibli Nu’mani, who joined the staff as Persian and Arabic teacher in 1883. He shared Sayyid Ahmad’s concern to answer the historical criticisms of Western scholars… Shibli was drawn to the genre of biography as a way of epitomizing the glories of the Muslim past and of  setting forth ideals of exemplary behavior. One student, later to be a powerful political figure, recalled his classes as an awakening to the excitement of the Islamic past and to the power of its message. Unlike Sayyid Ahmed, Shibli felt Muslim interests were best served by serious cultivation of Islamic learning, not Western learning; and he did not accept the political structure imposed by the British. Like many of the ulama, he wanted a society organized by the shari’ah, and political influence shared by religious scholars.

How end came to Sayyid Ahmad

“….The cost of this influential role–and of its apparent success –seemed high. Sayyid  Ahmed himself was to die a disappointed man. His death coincided with short-term difficulties at the college, to be sure, but his sense of defeat had more profound roots. Aligarh had not been the locus of far-reaching reformulation of religious thought, and indeed—Shibli aside—religious life at the college seemed attenuated and flat. Moreover the political strategy envisaged by Sayyid Ahmad had not materialized as he had expected. However warm individual Englishmen might be, however skilled in Western culture some Indians might become, the pall of arrogant racism, inherent in the colonial situation, meant that the full acceptance of Indians as equals never happened. Justice Sayed Mahmood, Sayyid Ahmad’s Cambridge-educated son, should have been a model of full assimilation, but he was never accepted by his British colleagues and died a broken man. Even the expectation of a continuing special relation with Englishmen on the part of Muslims who eschewed pressure tactics and active politics was, by the end of the century, showing strain: the inclusion of Hindi as an official language seemed little less than a betrayal.

Aligarh people versus the Ulema:

The constraints imposed by the colonial situation in the late 19th century meant that the various trends among Muslims of the period operated within a narrow spectrum…..All, given the reality of British power, sought to define a personal sphere in which the shari’ah was to be followed. The ‘ulama had held more clearly to the ideal of Islamic norms in all aspects of life, and accepted the limitations imposed on them more guardedly and more unwillingly than people at Aligarh. They tended, in these early decades, to avoid political issues, whereas the Aligarh people sought  out a place for themselves in the councils of the rulers. But both groups, as evidenced by the presence of reformist ‘ulama at Aligarh, exemplified in fact if not in theory, an inward-looking sphere for their religious life, while at the same time they moved toward an acceptance of “Indian Muslims” as their fundamental social identity.