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Revisiting Islaah and Tehzeeb

By Irfanullah Farooqi

It is not easy to contest Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s pivotal role in giving the Muslim community a sense of self-worth and purpose. There are arguments made in relation to the exclusivist nature of his reforms yet what cannot be denied is that even if the formative phase was driven towards the Ashraf, the subsequent phases of the movement witnessed considerable stretching of its boundaries. By the time the iconic reformist reached the last decade of his life, his popularity and, more importantly, acceptance had gone beyond the erstwhile circles of nobles and elites. Through his persistent endeavours with respect to social and educational reforms, he played an exceedingly significant role in helping the community reclaim its ground, both moral and intellectual.

While Sir Syed’s contributions as a reformist or thinker cannot be denied their due, what also merits our attention is how his core ideas responded to a specific moment in 19th century colonial India. They are to be situated and understood in the larger context of the “colonial experience”. Moreover, an equally deserving inquiry is with respect to how, at present, some of his ideas have been appropriated or flattened to serve regressive ends. In relation to exploring the connections between ideas and their politico-intellectual contexts, I want to critically analyse Sir Syed’s idea of Islaah (reform) and, with respect to ruthless flattening of an otherwise dynamic and forceful idea, I am interested in exploring the politics of repeated reference to Tehzeeb (culture in the sense of refinement). The former is a query situated in the past whereas the latter is rooted in the ongoing.

Situating Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s conception of Islaah

At the outset I want to specify in no unambiguous terms that I am reflecting on Sir Syed’s notion of Islaah with the awareness that I have not read everything written by him on the subject. Whatever I have to say is directly linked to Sir Syed’s reflections on the need for reform that I have come across in the past few years, while reading on Islam and Muslims in 19th century colonial India.

Much before many of his contemporaries, Sir Syed had this hunch that the British were not to leave the subcontinent anytime soon. However, what merits our attention is that despite being aware of the reality of the stay of the British, his intellectual aspirations were around the Muslim past. With the ruthless suppression of the rebellion followed by the symbolic banishment of the entire community (forcing the last Mughal Emperor out of India), Sir Syed was convinced that it was not just another shift from one rule to another. As the British became the reality of the day, Sir Syed, instead of critically engaging with the doubtful colonial gaze, started making endeavours in relation to bringing together Indian Muslims and the British. Amidst strikingly perplexing circumstances, on the one hand he tried to convince the British about the loyalty of Indian Muslims towards the Imperial rule, and, on the other, he earnestly strove to dilute the “foreign-ness” of the English rule. The Muslim resentment towards the colonial rule was informed through the vantage point of both history and culture. It was no easy task for Sir Syed to bring his community closer to the British. Being aware of the centrality of religion, Sir Syed endeavoured specifically in that realm and pleaded before his community to co-operate with each other. It is the primacy of this spirit of the collective that needs to be kept in the background as we proceed with an informed analysis of Sir Syed’s concept of Islaah.

As a reformist, Sir Syed began by urging his community to join hands with each other, a precondition for progress and development. He categorically insisted that Muslims should not distance themselves from their religious legacy.[i] This insistence had its roots in Sir Syed’s belief that Islam was fundamentally in sync with human intellect and principles of nature. In the course of asserting the connection, he went to the extent of considering Islam and nature as synonymous. Given his reading of Islam as a religion, it is important to note his reference to the Quranic verse (3:110) which means, “You are the best of the nations, raised for the benefit of the mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong…”

Sir Syed specifically dwelt on “raised for the benefit of the mankind” component of this verse. Insisting that the Muslim community was raised as an example for the rest of the nations, he appealed to Muslims to come out of their slumber and demonstrate their exemplary character. It was argued that in order to be deserving of “the best of the nations”, Muslims had to contribute to good things and put an end to corruption and other immoral practices. Islaah, therefore, was all about putting a check on the moral decline of the Muslims, something that according to Sir Syed had led to their political and intellectual decline.

Borrowing from the Quran in relation to making a case for Islaah, Sir Syed went ahead with a somewhat restricted understanding. While his reformist zeal is to be admired, an awareness of its location or politics cannot be denied its due. In Quran, Islaah is associated with the proselytising done by the prophets. Though the prophets did strive arduously to check evil practices and promote good, what needs to be understood in absolutely certain terms is that the credibility of all of this depended on Imaan (faith in oneness of God). Islaah in the absence of Imaan, as per the dictates of the Quran, is of no use. In fact the same verse (3:110), right after describing the importance of enjoining good and forbidding evil, refers to belief in (oneness of) Allah. Therefore, Sir Syed’s explanation of Islaah that secularises it by restricting it to maintenance of peace and prosperity demands critical inquiry. Drawing essential connections between Islaah and Imaan, he argued that every Muslim, by virtue of Imaan, was under the obligation to partake in Islaah. This argument is not incorrect but incomplete. There is more to Islaah than this-worldly secular endeavours vis-à-vis maintenance of social harmony and peace.

Sir Syed interpreted Islaah in a certain way for he was located in a specific political, cultural, and intellectual context. Given his vantage point there was little scope for deviating from this-worldly interpretation of religion. He could make a case for pursuit of material interests without letting go of the hereafter. As a result, for the most part, religion in his writings comes across in terms of moral appropriateness rather than a set of timed and fixed practices and rituals. He categorically insisted that the reputation of Islam depended on the doings of Muslims. These doings did not have to do with prayer and fasting as much as with compassion, kindness, and a genuine drive towards maintenance of a healthy social order. Perhaps, this is the reason why, undertaking a humanistic interpretation of religion, Sir Syed’s thoughts on the life of some of the prominent Sufis particularly focused on the social roles they performed (Khan 2009).

Any informed engagement with Sir Syed’s idea of Islaah must not shy away from taking cognisance of how he, relieving religion from the clutches of the theological orthodoxy, explained religion or religious duties majorly in terms of helping others or cooperating with others. High caste Muslim elites were more receptive to this interpretation as compared to ordinary Muslims. With obligation towards people overtaking obligations towards god, worldly life acquired an unprecedented prominence. Consequently, Sir Syed could pitch a certain reading of “best of the nations” and “raised for the benefit of mankind”. He could give a secular tinge to this concern that, as per the verse of the Quran, every believer should have towards fellow humans. Furthermore, it was not very difficult for him to argue that those who associate themselves with Islaah are verily the chosen ones. By expounding such an explanation wherein the Muslim was to cooperate with everyone, Sir Syed was paving the way for a fruitful Muslim-British relationship.

Islaah was all about informing the Muslims about their religious and moral obligation towards fellow human beings. Given the times, the British became the most immediate of all the contenders towards whom Muslims were obliged. It is worth mentioning that in many of Sir Syed’s reflections around the need to forge a fruitful Muslim-British relationship, the British right away become Christians, people (called the people of the Book) who are declared much closer to Muslims as compared to any other community. This renaming is a result of deep reflection on possibilities vis-à-vis emergence of long term alliances between two communities otherwise situated in different historical, political, and cultural contexts. However, what is truly ironical is that in the same verse that refers to this idea of Islaah (3:110), the last portion of the verse can be roughly translated as, “If the people of the Book (Jews and Christians) had believed, it would have been better for them. Among them, there are believers, while most of them are sinners.”

Tehzeeb: The flattening of an otherwise dynamic idea

Other than Islaah, if there is another concept that is quite central to understanding Sir Syed’s thought, it is Tehzeeb. As a matter of fact, Islaah and Tehzeeb are interrelated concepts. When Sir Syed makes an argument in relation to religion strictly in terms of how one conducts oneself in his or her daily life, he is articulating the desired markers of a Muhazzab (cultured or civilised) society. In fact, he outlined very clearly that he wanted to turn the Muslim community into a civilised and progressive one. In that respect, he argued that for any non-civilised society (read Muslims) progress was only possible when it learnt from civilised societies (read British). Therefore, it is not surprising that morality, conduct, and everyday dealings remained the core subject of many of his writings.

Sir Syed’s usage of Tehzeeb catered simultaneously to many concerns. Firstly, it was an earnest attempt at refining the conduct and doings of Muslims so that the rest of the world could get introduced to the real face of Islam. Secondly, it was a move to inculcate some kind of critical consciousness and openness to certain level of self-introspection. Thirdly, through Tehzeeb Sir Syed also wanted to strike an unusually fine balance between the collective and the individual; working towards improving the image of the community as a whole but at the same retaining a certain sense of individuality by not following something (practice or a ritual) that is often uncritically followed. All of these can be found in many of his articles written during the formative phase of Tehzeebul Akhlaaq, a journal started by him in 1870 that provided a new orientation to Urdu language and, consequently, literature.

Tehzeeb, according to Sir Syed, was a perpetual endeavour. According to him, there was no end to moral progress. In this regard he was directly borrowing from Islam where it is categorically specified that a believer must strive ceaselessly to improve his or her conduct till the last breath. It is the Prophet whose moral conduct is the standard for every believer and till the last moment one has to keep striving in that direction. Sir Syed made an extraordinary case for the progress and betterment of the community by highlighting the need for this unending struggle on the part of every single individual to become morally and ethically more responsible. By doing so, he, though indirectly, made a case for an ever-present need for self-introspection, constant and sincere engagement with one’s own faults, developing an informed consciousness around not just occurrence of events but also the essential reasons behind their occurrence, and so on. So Sir Syed’s Tehzeeb was not just an idea but a full-fledged philosophy around how to live a meaningful life.

While Sir Syed used Tehzeeb for a variety of progressive ends, it lost out on its promise and energy with the passage of time. With hopeless flattening of this otherwise remarkable concept, it is now restricted to a disturbingly uninformed perspective on appearance and practices. We at the academic institution founded by him need to ask ourselves if, at present, we truly subscribe to Sir Syed’s understanding of Tehzeeb. Are we actively involved in self-introspection, in exposing our own faults so that, if not better, at least a more informed tomorrow could be ensured? As part of the academic community, are we perpetually driven towards new learning? Do reckless curiosity and blatant honesty characterise our day to day lives at the university? In order to ensure the betterment of our community and society, are we open to learning from other academic/intellectual avenues? An earnest pursuit of these questions does not offer much hope. As of now, Tehzeeb is primarily restricted to dress code and few domains of interaction. Does Tehzeeb only imply not wearing slippers, pyjamas, and kurtas on campus or there is more to it? Can we really restrict it to the Islamic way of greeting (Assalamualaikum) and students standing at the arrival of the teacher in the classroom? Do these meet Sir Syed’s expectations and concerns with respect to Tehzeeb?

As a matter of fact, Tehzeeb in our case has ceased to cater to any progressive end. Having flattened it completely we often use it to avoid differences. As we homogenise the opinion on various issues, the logic of Tehzeeb comes in handy. In many cases our students do not ask questions because they think it is against the much talked about and, presumably, much-followed civility across the university. In the name of Tehzeeb, many girls and women are denied their agency. Sir Syed insisted on Tehzeeb so as to ensure that the community could take charge and be in a position of control; however, now it is increasingly used to silence and control. This silencing, controlling, and curtailment of agency merit our immediate attention.

Tehzeeb cannot remain a legend that is referred to every now and then. It has a life outside the frames of the “golden past” of the institution. The constituents of the institution must live it, negotiate with it, question it as and when needed, and help it reclaim its dynamism. Sir Syed wanted the community to be released from the pleasing grip of tales and poetry. It will be exceedingly unfortunate if something as crucial as Tehzeeb were to become simply a matter of tales and legends. We cannot sustain ourselves by repeatedly referring to what used to happen in the campus decades ago in the name of Tehzeeb. Alongside acknowledging its significance in the creation and sustenance of an incredibly remarkable institution, we must be willing to question the politics that gets constructed around it in the present context.

Sir Syed’s genius lay in his remarkable ability to dwell on his experiences and instantly decide on what the cognisance of any specific experience demanded. He did not let a single experience of his life pass by unattended. As we witness challenge and crisis of an unprecedented nature, there is a need to once again learn the lesson from Sir Syed’s life that urges us to draw linkages between experience and empowerment. Any informed quest for empowerment cannot afford to ignore the potential of registering experience(s). And every time we give experience its due, we deny finality to concepts and ideas. We question them and in doing so help them evolve and become more pertinent. Demonstrating true allegiance to the essence of both Islaah and Tehzeeb, we must ask questions with the conviction that, contrary to the generally held perception, doing so is not being ghair muhazzab (uncivilised or lacking in terms of moral character).

[i] His insistence on Arabic and Persian as markers of Muslim cultural identity is to be understood in that context.

Khan, Gulfishan (2009), “Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s Representations of Sufi Life of Shahjahanabad (Delhi): Asar al-Sanadid”, Indian Historical Review, 36 (1): 81-108.


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


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

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