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Sir Syed, Urdu, and Tehzeeb-ul-Akhlaq

By Irfanullah Farooqi


Nineteenth century colonial India has generated interest for academics across the spectrum. Much of the interest of social scientists is around how colonialism was experienced in the colony – the colonial experience. Being fully conscious of the significance of an array of events that demonstrate uncontested bearing, academics have also looked at the period’s critical role in what it led to. So from constructions of nationalised religion and culture to a very flawed and narrow politics of integration and separation, scholars have successfully articulated the roots of the political and cultural crises of concluding stages of colonialism and decolonisation (and the trajectory of independent India so far) to 19th century colonial India. In what follows, I intend to look at an important moment in the 19th century where, as a consequence of the colony’s encounter with modernity, new paradigms were set up around the question of religion, culture, and literature. In this respect, I present my views on how Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) made a case for a more responsible literature through Tehzeeb-ul-Akhlaq, an Urdu journal that he started in 1870.

Situating Sir Syed Ahmad Khan

There is no dearth of credible literature (both in Urdu and English) on Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. The times in which he lived, the ideas he tried to spread through various channels, the trajectory of his unusually dynamic and productive life, the movements he single-handedly brought to life, the range of writings he produced during a life mostly devoted to solid ground work have all been reflected upon by first rate scholars from both India and abroad. So there is hardly any scope in that respect to add. However, in relation to outlining arguments around how Sir Syed set a new trend in Urdu literature, perhaps I can specifically highlight some aspects that facilitate a more informed entry into the core of this article.

Sir Syed’s life was a witness to some of the most striking episodes of colonial rule in India. He attended to each and every experience of his and that is the sole reason behind the richness and dynamism of the life he lived. Within the context of his experiences, the rebellion of 1857 acquires unusual significance. It is immediately after the rebellion that his experience becomes what can be categorically called a colonial experience. Even a not-so-close look at Sir Syed’s life reveals that the rebellion marks an absolute shift in his life. Prior to 1857, he was interested in Muslim history and culture whereas immediately after the fateful event his overall focus is found on getting the Muslim-British equation right. For instance, before the rebellion he has to his credit Aasaar-us Sanaadid, his first major text that records the monuments of Delhi and their inscriptions; a testimony to his deep and informed sense of culture and history. After the rebellion, he pens down Asbab-e-Baghaawat-e-Hind (Causes of the Rebellion of 1857), a treatise published in 1859 that attempted at drawing the colonial state’s attention towards reasons such as Christian conversions, lack of opportunities and unfair handling of the natives (Muslims in particular) by the British officials. The work, without questioning the essential foundations of colonial supervision, aimed at correcting the perception of the British vis-à-vis Indian Muslims.

The rebellion did not end on its own. It was suppressed. Muslims in particular faced the wrath of the British. Moreover, when the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was exiled, for many it symbolised the banishment of the entire community. Muslims officially became a ruled minority subject to a doubtful and sceptic colonial gaze. Amidst these exceptionally perplexing circumstances where the community was required to prove its loyalty to an recognizably foreign rule, think about its relationship with whatever was emerging from the remains of the rebellion, and look for other avenues of engagement within the realm of religion, Sir Syed outlined a path for Muslims in modern India and, in doing so, became the founder of Muslim modernism in India.

With the suppression of the rebellion, the British rule became the most uncontested of truths. While for the Hindus, the shift from the Mughal to British rule was one more departure in Indian history, the Muslims viewed that shift as a calamity (Habib 2000: 66). There was a historically informed and culturally rooted resentment among the Muslims of North India that made them question the suitability of the western model of progress, something that lay at the ‘heart of Muslim discourses about their present and future’ (Robinson 2000: 29). At such a moment of deep crisis, when Sir Syed articulated the inextricable relationship between modernity and progress, his courage was exemplary. He passionately advocated modernity but, unlike his renowned contemporary Jamaluddin Afghani (1838-1897), who clearly outlined a distinction between embracing modernity and identifying with the west, Syed Ahmad openly conceded the superiority of modern western civilisation (Keddie 1968). Consequently, he highlighted the pressing need of borrowing from the reservoirs of western civilisation and knowledge. In that respect, he outlined the primacy of the collective and made a case for the dire need of integration within the community for he held that unlike animals that indicate a certain preference when they flock ‘man is capable of co-operative endeavour’ (quoted in Malik 1968: 226).

Culture as the Intermediary between the Religious and the Modern

As Sir Syed set out on his agenda of reforming the Muslim community by bringing them closer to the fruits of western civilisation through English education, the key challenge before him was around bridging the religious and the modern. Any attempt in that direction was bound to create serious controversy and there was controversy. Many could only see the modernist in him. His open opposition to the national character of Congress spoiled his chances of acceptance for the later nationalists. However, there were few who knew that his efforts won’t go in vain. In 1923, Muhammad Ali voiced along those lines when he stated, ‘when the dust of controversy is laid a little more, Islam in India would recognise the worth of Syed Ahmad Khan’ (quoted in Hasan 1998: 1078).

Sir Syed was neither a stranger to the pivotal role that religion played in the life of Indian Muslims nor was he unaware of the distrust the community had towards British as an identified cultural and religious “other”. The strong and deep-rooted sentiment that held the colonial government as immoral could not be questioned easily, whereas the need of a healthy interaction between the ruler and the ruled (Indian Muslims) could not be more urgent. In such a situation Sir Syed emphasised on the lived aspect of religion by arguing that the doings of Muslims had a direct bearing on their religion i.e. Islam. It is in this context that Sir Syed articulated the idea of Tehzeeb roughly translated as culture. I will explain Tehzeeb a little later for it requires a detailed exploration of what all it connotes and the purpose it served in the larger reformist agenda of Sir Syed.

With the arrival of culture at the centre stage, religion got somewhat relieved from the clutches of the theological orthodoxy and there emerged an audience ready to embrace a humanistic interpretation of religion according to which helping others or cooperating with others became one of the paramount religious duties. Needless to say, this insistence on a certain lived aspect of religion found its audience among the high-caste Muslim elites of North India. However, what cannot be denied is that this new consciousness played an instrumental role in altering the very definition of religion. Instead of people’s obligations towards god, their obligation towards other people became the focus of this emerging assertion. With the primacy of culture gaining more currency, the everydayness of what it meant to be religious was explained through how a person conducted himself in his worldly life.

As Sir Syed drew linkages between the doings of Muslims and the reputation of Islam, the question of morality became exceedingly important. In fact, he insisted that ‘the real purpose of religion is to improve morality’ (Habib 2000: 63). Defining religion in terms of morality and universal values turned out quite instrumental in developing among Muslims a sense of self-worth and, consequently, a grand sense of future. In order to broaden the understanding of his audience with respect to the quintessential Muslim self, he wrote about the life of some of the prominent Sufis, specifically in terms of the social roles they performed because of which they were respected by the society within which they lived (Khan 2009).

Interestingly, as articulated by Metcalf (1982) and Robinson (2007) in their cited works on Islam in South Asia, the Ulama too had a reformist zeal and made a case for this-worldly Islam. However, Sir Syed’s call had an edge over the Ulama’s because the former advocated benefits of the material world without any compromise with respect to the hereafter. In his call the worldly was not at the cost of the hereafter. This insistence on religion as an informed way of life and not something restricted to timed practices and rituals directly affected the social and cultural ethos of Muslims.

Tehzeeb ul Akhlaq and the Emergence of Modern Urdu Literature

Driven by an undying spirit to reclaim the moral ground for the Muslim community, Sir Syed started a journal named Tehzeebul Akhlaq (from now on TA) on 24 December, 1870. Tehzeeb is a fairly layered term that, contrary to general perception, cannot be simply translated as ‘culture’ or ‘civilisation’. The English translation on the journal’s cover page says: “Mohammedan Social Reformer”. Given the way in which Sir Syed has used it in his larger project of reform and modernization, Tehzeeb refers to a process through which a person keeps getting better at his/her dispositions or morals. In that sense, it implies a pursuit or quest of sort vis-à-vis refinement of dispositions. Akhlaq is an Arabic word that subsumes within it a range of things such as ethics, morals, virtue, disposition, character, etc. There is a full-fledged tradition within Islam called the Akhlaq tradition wherein the focus is on attainment of a virtuous soul that is at complete rest. Tehzeebul Akhlaq, therefore, is an extraordinary construct that can be best translated as The Correction of Dispositions. While one could use refinement instead of correction, the way in which stages of development/progress are understood in refinement does not convey the essence. When we use correction, it implies a very clear assertion on the sheer need of perpetual movement.

Tehzeebul Akhlaq does not mark the beginning of Sir Syed’s career as a writer/journalist. He had started Aligarh Institute Gazette in 1866 and prior to that he had assisted his brother with the latter’s newspaper Sayyadul Akhbar. Moreover, Sir Syed’s was a life spent in writing on an exceptionally wide range of issues. Whatever concerned him somehow found its way on the paper. Yet, Tehzeebul Akhlaq deserves a special mention because the introduction of this journal was a result of deep anguish around the utter worthlessness of the erstwhile Urdu literature. It is well known that in 1869 Sir Syed travelled to England and during his stay he got introduced to two magazines/journals, namely The Tatler and The Spectator, started by famous writers and essayists Richard Steele and Jospeh Addison. These two journals in particular introduced Sir Syed to the possibility that literature offered in relation to social reforms. Consequently, as soon as he returned from England he started Tehzeebul Akhlaq wherein the fundamental idea was to carry out reforms by means of sensible and responsible literature.

Before we discuss the importance of Tehzeebul Akhlaq and the possibilities its philosophy offers in the present times, I must briefly outline the conditions that led to the emergence of Tehzeebul Akhlaq. As is well known, till the mid 19th century, Urdu literature was for the most part Urdu poetry. Whatever existed in the name of prose did not have anything distinct about it except that it was not metered. There was an unnecessary emphasis on ornamentation and embellishment of language and its potential was only seen and celebrated in terms of its form. There was excessive usage of Persian constructs so as to decorate the language and in many cases the prose was even rhymed. Since the writers were primarily interested in the setting of the words and not communicating to the reader, Urdu prose was burdened by too many metaphors and similes that further obfuscated the meaning. It was to show off the author’s literary command which is why it was meant to impress the readers rather than informing them. Consequently, Urdu prose, in pursuit of some ill-informed understanding of beauty lacked the required natural-ness.

Sir Syed distanced himself from this ‘colourful prose stuffed with pointless similes and hollow metaphors whose dignity is limited to words’ (Fatihi 2015: 173). Being a true reformist, he was more inclined towards understanding functionality of language in terms of effective communication of basic ideas to common people, rather than leaving the readers in awe. In that respect, he advocated a language that had certain everydayness to it but at the same time was not conversational either. He categorically attended to this thin line of difference because he was an ardent student of literature and culture. Despite making serious claims for reforms within Urdu writing, he could not compromise on the literariness of the text. He was perhaps the first one to assert that what was simple was not necessarily drab or mediocre. Famous Urdu scholar Maulvi Abdul Haq (1870-1961), also known as Baba-e-Urdu (Father of Urdu), had stated that alongside ‘simplifying Urdu’s style of expression Sir Syed also provided it vigour’ (quoted in Fatihi 2005: 170).

Shibli Nomani (1857-1914), a renowned Urdu scholar who had a love-hate relationship with Sir Syed, has argued that Sir Syed did not usher in this new phase of Urdu prose. While he played an instrumental role in promoting a new style of writing, Shibli maintains that the prose produced at Fort William College by the likes of Mir Amman (1750-1837) and letters written by Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) are to be taken as important precedents in that respect (Nomani 2008). While there is no denying that these precedents were important in terms of paving the way for Sir Syed, their reach was quite limited. Sir Syed introduced simple language for academic purpose as a result of which an unprecedented democratisation of Urdu took place and it was brought closer to common people.

Tehzeebul Akhlaq came into being as a result of Sir Syed’s ultimate motto of religious, educational, and social reform. He held morality as the common ground for all of these reforms that he earnestly wanted to carry out. He firmly believed that the political decline among Muslims (the most immediate of all the troubles) was related to none but their moral decline. The journal was a platform for what Oesterheld (2004) has called ‘advice literature’, while reflecting on the literary works of Nazir Ahmad. Outlining religious reasons for moral decline, Sir Syed highlighted the need to discard a series of practices that were considered Islamic but had nothing to do with the religion. Arguing for the need of reviving Islam, he presented his idea of Tehzeeb, which implied an endless pursuit of excellent character and morals. It is here that one realises how his conception of Tehzeeb is significantly entangled with his ideas around Qaum (community) and Taraqqi (progress). Consequently, he openly held that Muslims were an uncivilised lot and they could only progress by learning from the civilised ones (British in this case). Along similar lines, renowned Urdu writer and critic, Altaf Husain Hali (1837-1914) says, ‘As to those things related to progress of God’s creation, even if one becomes like someone else (appears like someone from another community), there is nothing wrong in that’ (quoted in Abbas 2015: 18-19). Needless to say, the Ulama did not support this kind of an unconditional bowing down before the British. While they had somehow come to terms with the political superiority of the British, their moral superiority could not be entertained at all. Sir Syed, however, held that the British were a triumphant and successful nation and Muslims, if interested in progress, ought to benefit themselves from them (Islahi 2015). As a matter of fact, there were also several Muslim modernists, who did not subscribe to that assertion of Sir Syed like Nazir Ahmad (1830-1912), Akbar Allahabadi (1846-1921), Shibli Nomani, and others.

Notwithstanding severe opposition from not only the clergy but also his own friends, Sir Syed continued with his reformist philosophy. He exposed the community’s faults and urged the Muslims to undertake self-introspection. He expressed the urgency of showing the real face of Islam to the entire world and in that context he asked Muslims to acquire Tehzeeb or become Muhazzab (betterment of conduct, behaviour and everyday doings). Renowned Urdu studies scholar, C. M. Naim has provided a wonderful description of what all was subsumed under Tahzeeb in the 19th century:

It was some time in the second half of the 19th century that the many diverse matters that earlier used to be considered separately under such rubrics as adab (“protocols”), akhlaq (“moral codes)”, ain (“administrative rules or constitution”), rusum (“customs”), riwaj (“local practices”), riwayat (“ traditions”),  funun (“arts and crafts”) and so forth, began to be subsumed within one overarching word, tahzib, whose main function it would appear, was to imply and then underscore a link between all of them and a single, and almost autochthonous, past (Naim 2012: 190-91).

Sir Syed was fully aware of how wide-ranging the term Tehzeeb was. In the opening of the first issue of Tehzeebul Akhlaq, acknowledging the extensive meaning of Tahzeeb, Sir Syed explains:

Civilisation is an English word which we have translated as Tehzeeb. However, it means something much broader. It implies elevating/refining to the highest possible level all the intentional human deeds, morals, conduct, social relations and dealings, civilisation and its essentials, utilisation of time, forms of knowledge and all kinds of sciences and arts…in a way that real happiness and health are attained…and the distinction between barbarity and humanity becomes clear’ (quoted in Siddiqi 2014: 196).

With this understanding, he drew linkages between progress and civilisation; for a community to progress it had to acquire culture and civilisation. Culture and morals also acquired significance in Sir Syed’s project because they drew attention towards collective life and not the individual. According to his understanding of “sites of religion or education”, morals were more important than beliefs for they help individuals in reaching out, connecting with fellow community members. He also articulated his idea of Islaah (reform) intelligently by seeking recourse to the Quranic teaching that addresses the Muslim nation as the ‘best of peoples’ ever raised because they enjoin good and forbid evil (Quran 4: 110). The condition for being the best of all the nations was highlighted without inquiring, for very genuine reasons, what acclaimed commentators of the Quran had to say about good and evil. In fact, Sir Syed developed his own commentary on the Quran that led to serious controversy.

While going through the first few volumes of Tehzeebul Akhlaq, Sir Syed’s deep concern for the community becomes as clear as daylight. Most of the articles were written by him. As a matter of fact the first issue that came out on the day of Eid had all the four articles written by him. He wrote on customs and practices, prejudice, religion and common education, sympathy, problems with blind following of traditions and customs and so on. As the journal gained more acceptance and other writers pitched in, Sir Syed demonstrated his characteristic courage and started writing on Hadith, teachings of the Quran, relations between religion and worldly life, issues with blind following strictly in the context of civilisation etc. He also wrote some excellent satirical pieces such as The story of a foolish believer and a wise worldly man and Insha Allah that critiqued the rotten portions of religiosity. It does not need to be mentioned that his later writings generated severe reactions to the extent that he was called atheist and naturist. That said, interestingly, the Muslim community could separate his theology from his educational policy which is why, despite serious differences with Sir Syed’s views on religion, people sent their children to Mohammedan Anglo Oriental College (Faruqi 2006).

Tehzeebul Akhlaq is considered a turning point in the history of Urdu literature but most of the reflections in that respect only highlight its contribution towards the emergence of modern Urdu prose. Faruqi (2006) has raised serious issues on that stance by arguing that literature is not just prose. Though he has pointed out the common flaw that characterises writings on Sir Syed’s contribution to Urdu, he has also explained at length how Sir Syed not only contributed to modern Urdu literature (both prose and poetry) but also the development of Urdu literary history and modern Urdu literary criticism. He has categorically mentioned that what was articulated by Hali and Muhammad Husain Azad (1830-1910) in the context of their Urdu movement was clearly expressed on many occasions by Sir Syed. I can perhaps extend the argument by saying that the experimentative and innovative poetics of Iqbal could find a wide audience because Sir Syed had done the ground work. What was articulated by Premchand in his presidential address delivered at the first Progressive Writers’ Association Conference was not novel. Sir Syed had questioned the beauty of expression and disconnect of literature from everyday life several decades ago. Therefore, it can be argued that if the 20th century Urdu poetry could associate itself with the problems of life, rather than philosophy of life, the credit goes to Sir Syed for initiating reflection along those lines much earlier.

There is no denying that the reformist zeal of Tehzeebul Akhlaq was of a different order. It identified Muslims as a separate community that needed separate attention. Sir Syed himself was clear that the journal was only about benefitting the Muslim community in their religious and worldly spheres. In fact, it brought the two together by repeatedly insisting on the importance of living an ethical life. Some of the stories written by Sir Syed in Tehzeebul Akhlaq such as Guzra Hua Zamaana (Times Bygone) beautifully and succinctly articulated the real world of possibilities. The journal ran for three phases, i) 24 December 1870 – 20 December 1876, ii) 23 April 1879 – 28 July 1881, and iii) 17 April 1894 – 03 February 1897. After exact 85 years the journal was re-started in February 1982 by the erstwhile AMU Vice Chancellor Saiyid Hamid and is in print till date. Unfortunately, the articles that get published these days do not exhibit the required rigour. More importantly, Sir Syed has been turned into one flawless superhuman and almost all the articles refer to the same thing in different ways. His ruthless Islamisation by the university fraternity has deprived the readers of engaging with the dynamism that leader carried. Lastly, while Sir Syed insisted on simple language, writers these days, because they have very little content to offer, use such embellished language that goes completely against the very fundamentals of the movement called Tehzeebul Akhlaq.

The Present Context

For the times in which we live, perhaps it is pertinent to ask ourselves what we can take from a movement of the kind Tehzeebul Akhlaq was. Is there any possibility of borrowing something from it so as to make a meaningful intervention in relation to the larger question of Muslim empowerment? I think there is no readymade answer to that. Nevertheless, there is significant scope for exploration. The importance of Tehzeebul Akhlaq for us lies in its well-defined location. It unapologetically defined Muslims as a distinct and separate nation that required large scale reforms. Given its stance, it never compromised on the question of Muslim identity and its distinct historical and cultural location. For instance, while Syed Ahmad extensively wrote against embellished Urdu prose, he unconditionally endorsed the importance of Arabic and Persian as markers of Muslim cultural identity without which Muslims would be estranged from their religion. Though he publicly criticised blind following in relation to acquiring civilisational progress, he was very clear about performing prayers and other obligations as part of the process of reclaiming the lost moral ground and self-worth. With that in the background, the question we might want to ask: What kinds of adjustments are needed to become empowered or part of the mainstream? One thing that comes to my mind is around the decline of Urdu and its bearing on Muslim culture. While it is somewhat problematic to present simplistic Urdu-Muslim narratives, there is some basis to the argument especially in the North Indian context. With reference to ensuring the survival of Urdu, there is a strong recommendation to introduce Hindustani which essentially means simple Urdu. Other than the fundamental problem that all Indian languages are actually Hindustani and therefore the usage of the term Hindustani for simple Urdu is silly, what we must also understand is how the essentials of a language are compromised. Sir Syed’s Tehzeebul Akhlaq remains a milestone, despite de-Persianising Urdu because it did not compromise on linguistic essentials. Shibli Nomani famously said that although he disagreed with few of Sir Syed’s ideas on religion and progress, he admired Sir Syed’s form of expression (Nomani 2008). This is the reason why scholars of Urdu are more comfortable with Sir Syed as compared to theologians.

Empowerment is not just about giving education and jobs. If that is how the process is understood, then the community will have to get into a very peculiar process of pick and choose. That choice will not be liberating but, in the long run, enslaving. There is perhaps a need to redefine empowerment itself. As we sit and read the first few volumes of Tehzeebul Akhlaq, we begin to think about empowerment not in terms providing jobs but raising a community that has long forgotten what it means to ask.



Abbas, Asghar (2015), “Sir Syed aur Hali”, Tehzeebul Akhlaq, 34 (10): 17-24 & 16.
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Robinson, Francis (2000), Islam and Muslim History in South Asia, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Siddiqi, Hamid Raza (2014), “Sir Syed Ahmad Khan ke Islaahi Kaarnaame”, Tahzeebul Akhlaq 33 (10): 194-199.


Irfanullah Farooqi
teaches at the Department of Sociology, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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