Skip to content

Revisiting Sir Syed’s Early Religious Writings

By Soheb Niazi


Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1896) is considered as the pioneering ‘modern’ reformer for the Muslim community of Hindustan. The vast scholarship produced by Sir Syed constitutes about six thousand pages and covers varied aspects of Muslim social and political life in nineteenth century colonial India. Religion, specifically Islam (and later its relation to Christianity) is one of the most important themes in Sir Syed’s large corpus of writing, ranging from his essays on akhlaq (morals) or pleas to the colonial government regarding political legislation. His quest to reform the Muslim community motivated Sir Syed to work on the exegesis of the Quran, a biography of the Prophet Mohammad, a commentary of the Bible, and an attempt to provide comparative framework for his arguments against religious dogmas. In addition, he wrote countless essays and pamphlets on matters of social practice which plagued contemporary society, seeking religious guidance and clarifications from the Quran and the Hadith.

Scholarship on Sir Syed’s religious writings has tended to study his religious views in terms of phases. The year 1857 is marked as an important ‘break’ in the kind of religious writings produced by Sir Syed. Writings before 1857 are referred as orthodox or old (qadeem), while the writings after are considered scientific, rational, and modern (jadeed).

Was Sir Syed a different thinker before the 1857 mutiny? Did the upheaval of 1857 bring about a transformation in his ideas and beliefs? Closer readings of Sir Syed’s religious writings before 1857, considered as his “early writings” suggest that the mutiny was not a single, unique event that completely changed his worldview. There were a host of varied tendencies that already existed in the writings of a young Sir Syed working in various administrative positions of the colonial government since 1838, where he was appointed as a judicial clerk at the Court of Law at Agra.

This short essay seeks to make a case for closer examinations of Sir Syed’s early religious writings that reveal continuities rather than emphasize a sharp break in his world view before and after the tumultuous year of 1857. Fissures, inconsistencies, and contradictions exist in Sir Syed’s oeuvre as with any other significant thinker whose writings span over five decades. A discussion of the background of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century Indo-Islamic milieu that Sir Syed inhabited allows us to understand the continuities in the different ‘phases’ of his writings on religion and his movement of reform for the Muslim community of Hindustan. To elucidate the significance of such a methodological approach this essay will examine a pamphlet (risala) produced by Sir Syed, titled Rah e Sunnat Dar Radd e Bidat in 1850[1]. This early text considered of marginal importance by most scholars of Sir Syed elucidates his attempt to determine the ‘authentic’ practice of the Prophet, the true Sunnah, and to decry innovation (bidat) as a deviation from the ‘Straight Path’.

Background to Early Religious Writings

In his book, Hayat-e-Javed, Altaf Hussain Hali has provided the biographical details of the early life and milieu that Sir Syed inhabited. Sir Syed’s maternal grandfather Khawaja Farid al din Ahmad Khan was a wazir at the Mughal court and later appointed as an ambassador to Iran and Burma for East India’s government in Calcutta. In Sirat-I Faridiyah, Sir Syed fondly recounted his childhood experiences, the aristocratic life and the sharif values he inherited growing up in his grandfather’s home, providing a fabulous description of life in the early nineteenth century. This text, written in 1893, reflected on his early life and a social milieu which preceded his acquaintance with a western worldview. The subtext underpinning the Sirat-i Faridiyah is to suggest that the spirit of scientific inquiry was already present in the worldview of his forefathers much before western influence brought any ‘change’ in his worldview. Sirat–i Faridiya mentions works in Persian written by his grandfather, such as a booklet produced by him on the theory of application of a special pair of compasses which Sir Syed translated to Urdu. While the importance of Sirat-i Faridiyah in establishing Sir Syed’s worldview is significant, it is also worthwhile to remember that the text was written much later in his life. The text can be read as Sir Syed’s nostalgic attempt to resolve the seemingly contradictory worldviews of his ashraf upbringing with a spirit of scientific inquiry, both of which remained close to his heart.

To make better sense of this resolution of two worldviews, it is insightful to understand the influences that shaped the themes of Sir Syed’s early writings on religion. Christian Troll in his seminal work on Sir Syed’s theological writings mentions three broad influences on his early religious writings: the Naqshbandiyah Mujaddidiyah, Shah Wali Allah (1703-62) and his school of thought, and the Tariqah -i Muhammadiyah movement.

Besides familial relations on his mother’s side with the family of the Naqshbandi pir, Khwaja Mir Dard (1721-85), Sir Syed’s early traditional religious education took place under the guidance of the renowned khanqah of Shah Ghulam Ali (1743-1824) and his successors of the Naqshbandi Mujaddidi tradition. This tradition emphasized Sufi practice against theory, bringing Sufism into the domain of everyday life in complete imitation of the Prophet and his Companions. This religious school of thought developed conceptions such as tasawur-i sheikh (contemplation of the Sufi Shaikh in one’s imagination) and suhbat-i murshid (in the company of the spiritual guide), themes that Sir Syed elaborated upon in 1852 in a text, titled Namiqah dar bayan-i masalah-i tasawwur-i sheikh (A Letter Explaining the Teaching of tassawaur-i sheikh).

With the decline in the Mughal Empire and its authority in the eighteenth century, Shah Wali Allah called for a radical reformulation of many of the basic principles in the Islamic corpus of concepts and thought. Wali Allah held an eclectic view regarding the different schools of Shariah law that made its impressions on various nineteenth century reformers such as Sir Syed. Wali Allah worked out a method of developing and adapting Shariah law by practising ijtihad (independent reasoning) through a selective reference to all four schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Nonetheless the Quran and Hadith as the two infallible sources of religious law overruled all other injunctions if any came into contradiction with them. The infallibility of these religious scriptures, however, went along with his exposition of the Sharia into two principal additional elements – al-masalih (salutary purposes in terms of human welfare) and al-fitra (human nature). Both these elements reoccurred at many instances in Sir Syed’s religious writings, taking up different forms across different ‘phases’ of his writings.

The recurrent theme of the importance of the Sunnah of the Prophet and Quran as the two most authentic sources of law was also common to the Tariqah-i Muhammadiyah (or the way of Muhammad), a movement for purification and revitalization of Muslims in the early nineteenth century in India. Sayyid Ahmad Barelwi (1786-1831), the founder of the movement, continued Wali Allah’s tradition of synthesizing the disciplines of the three major Sufi orders in India: the Qadiri, Chisti, and Naqshbandi and further united them with a fourth element of religious experience, the Tariqah-i Muhammadiyah. The objective of the mass movement was to restore and revive the original purity of Muhammad’s community of the Indian Muslims. Sayyid Ahmad based his doctrine primarily on the Quran and Hadith. In his writings and teachings there was an emphasis on a strict conformity to religious law and subordination of all activity of the individual Muslim to the devotion and service of God.

Several texts written by Sir Syed during his early phase reflect the concerns raised by the Tariqah-i Muhammadiyah movement. Jila al-Qulub bi dhikr al-Mahbub (Polishing of the Hearts by Remembering the Beloved) was a maulud (a biography of Prophet recited at gatherings commemorating his birth) written by Sir Syed in 1841 and was a precursor to his larger work on the Life of the Prophet that he published after his trip to England in the 1860s. Similar concerns are elaborated in Kalimat al Haqq (The True Discourse) in 1849, which dealt with the concept of piri-muridi followed by Sufi saints. In the text, Sir Syed discussed the notion of piri and came to the conclusion that the Prophet was the one valid pir and therefore all organized Sufi life must be strictly directed to following the Prophet alone, by adhering closely to the Quran and the Sunnah. This text exemplifies what Sir Syed perceived as an ideal all Shariah law personified in the life and practice of Muhammad. In this sense, the spiritual mystical path (tariqah) was identical with Shariah law. Thus, the one true pir was Muhammad and any other person could be a pir if he conformed to the ways of the Pir (Muhammad).

The reformist and revivalist movements of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century were influential in emphasizing the dissemination of their ideas to the common people besides being strong intellectual paradigms. With the help of the emerging print culture in the nineteenth century and the adoption of a simpler Urdu prose, the Muhammadiyah reformers sought to reach a larger audience among the common masses. These ideas were shared and developed further by Sir Syed and other reformers of the Aligarh movement through publications of numerous pamphlets and journals throughout the nineteenth century. 

Rah-i Sunnat dar radd-i bidah 

Rah-I Sunnat Dar radd-I Bidah was written in 1850 as a treatise explaining the importance of the Sunnah based on the life of the Prophet as the ‘Straight Path’, and Bidah as innovation and deviation from it. The focus on the life of the Prophet as an ideal followed from the teachings of the Tariqa-i Muhammadiyah tradition. Interestingly, in 1883 Sir Syed republished this text as part of his collection of essays on the Prophet. In the reprint, Sir Syed felt the need to provide a short review of the earlier version and elaborated on the reason for writing the text. In the preface, he suggested how he differed with some of the previous views which he claimed had been under the influence of wahabism.

The text begins with a Munajat, 10 couplets in praise of Allah. The life of Prophet and his Sahabas (companions) are the ideals. Sunnah was defined on the basis of the habits (aadat) and customs (rivaaj) of the companions. Any custom or tradition that was new or in other words was not practised by the Prophet or his sahabas was bidah or innovation and was considered a deviation. The sunnah was juxtaposed with the customs of forefathers (baap dada ki rasmein). While the former was the Straight Path, the latter was a new addition and a deviation from the customs of the Prophet. Bidah was further distinguished in terms of three categories based on the intention of the actors by which an opinion regarding degree of illicitness of the innovation can be decided.

In his review of the text, Sir Syed explained the immediate cause that drove him to write this text. A discussion at a meeting with Maulana Sadr al din Azurdah about the lawfulness of eating mangoes drove Sir Syed to argue – assuming that the Prophet himself never ate a mango – a person who does not eat a mango having known that the Prophet did not eat it would be kissed by angels at his death bed. This extreme position of following everything that the Prophet did as Sunnah and rejecting everything else as bidah was based on an understanding that matters of Shariah are applicable to both the realms of the religious (deen) and the worldly (duniya) and that there was no distinction between these two. It was precisely this distinction that Sir Syed later considered as important and essential. For as he explained in the review essay:

This pamphlet is divided into two parts, firstly those that are related to matters of faith and worship, which I now call mazhab (religion), secondly those that concern habit and are related to other worldly matters, like eating, drinking, dressing up etc. are things that are related to civilization and culture. All that I wrote regarding faith and worship, that even now I consider as truthful as I believed them to be before. The rest of the affairs, cultural and civilizational that I had considered under religion, I do not believe to be correct anymore.”[2]

The main argument presented in Rah-I Sunnat was derived from a Persian tract by Shah Ismail, a fact revealed by Sir Syed in his review essay. The text was written in Sir Syed’s characteristic lucid style of Urdu prose wherein he explains every point he makes with elaborate nuance and detail. This characteristic style of Urdu prose is similar to Sir Syed’s writings on religion, morality, and politics, especially his essays from the journal, Tehzeeb ul Akhlaq. Sir Syed profusely quoted from various Hadith traditions to painstakingly explain his ideas and thoughts. In his review essay, while Sir Syed clearly elaborated on his differences with the original text,  the style and method of argumentation were characteristic of his later writings as well. The fact that Rah-I Sunnat was republished in the Tasaanif-i Ahmadiya (A collection of essays on the life of the Prophet) proved that despite slight amendments the life of the Prophet, the guidelines of the Sunnah remained sacrosanct for Sir Syed throughout his life. 

[1] Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, “Rah-I Sunnat Dar radd-I Bidah” In Maqalat-e-Sir Syed, Vol V, ed. Ismail Panipati, 354-429. Lahore: Majlis-e-Taraqqi Adab, 1984

[2] Original Urdu: “Ye risala do qismon mein munqasim hai, ek vo jo aqaid v ibadat se ilaaqa rakhteen hain jis ko main ab mazhab kehta hoon, doosri jo aadat se aur aur baton se jo duniyavi amoor se mutalliq hain, ilaqaa rakhti hain, jaise khana, peena, pehenna, vaghera amoor tamaddun va maashrat, bas jo kuch maine aqaid va ibadat ki nisbat likha hai us ko ab bhi main waisa hi bar haq samajhta hoon jaisa ki jab samajhta tha. Baaki amoor maashrat va tamaddun ko jo main ne mazhab mein shaamil kar diya hai us ko sahi nahi samajhta.” (Sir Syed Ahmed Khan 1984 p. 428-429)

Selected References

Hali, Altaf Hussain. (1901) 1999. Reprint. Hayat-e-Javed.New Delhi: Qaumi Council Barai Farogh Urdu Zabaan.
Troll, Christian W. 1978. Sayyid Ahmad Khan: a reinterpretation of Muslim theology. New Delhi: Vikas.
Khan, Sir Syed Ahmad. 2009. Sirat-i Faridiya. 1896. Reprint. Aligarh: Sir Syed Academy.
Khan, Sir Syed Ahmad. 1984. Rah-I Sunnat Dar radd-I Bidah” In Maqalat-e-Sir Syed, Vol V, ed. Ismail Panipati, 354-429. Lahore: Majlis-e-Taraqqi Adab.

Photo: Aligarh Movement

Soheb Niazi is a Doctoral Fellow at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies in Germany.


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

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: