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Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898): A Modern Muslim in a Pre-Modern Age

By Raza Naeem

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) emerged as the key leader of the Indian Muslim community at a critical juncture in Indian history – the aftermath of the War of Independence of 1857, the strengthening of British colonialism, and the emergent crises for the Muslims of the subcontinent. He was a thoroughly modern Muslim in an age that was yet to become modern, responding to the changing material conditions and needs of Indian society. Yet he is marginalized in Pakistani textbooks as merely the originator of the Two-Nation Theory, founder of the Aligarh Movement, as well as the founding father of Pakistan. Less celebrated are his achievements in providing a thoroughly modern, scientific, and rational interpretation of Islam and the Quran (‘There cannot be a contradiction in the Word and Work of Allah’), as well as his debates on culture with his eminent intellectual rivals like Jamaluddin Afghani, the poet Akbar Allahabadi and, later, his own mentees like Nazeer Ahmad and Shibli Nomani. These intellectual efforts in the face of stern opposition from fundamentalists and his detractors sowed the seeds of enlightenment and progress among the Muslims of India, and established an intellectual front against blind following of tradition and rampant backwardness, later paving the way for personalities like Muhammad Iqbal.

While Sir Syed’s thought was politically conservative, it was socially progressive, evolving from a traditional, past-worshipping understanding to a more scientific and rational one. What follows is an attempt at tracing the evolution of Sir Syed’s thought as a modern Muslim in a pre-modern age, examining his thoughts on culture and his debates with his opponents and detractors. A pursuit of this nature, I suppose, is a timely tribute to one of our most important, albeit neglected thinkers on the occasion of his bicentennial (2017). 

Sir Syed’s Views on Culture

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was probably the first intellectual who presented the meaning of culture which was prevalent in the West in the 19th century. He comprehensively defined culture and also reviewed its elements and dynamics. While defining the aims and objectives of his journal, Tehzeeb al-Akhlaq, Sir Syed writes in the first edition (1870):

The objective of issuing this journal is to persuade Indian Muslims to adopt a complete degree of civilization meaning culture, so that the hatred with which the civilized (cultured) nations view them should go away and they may also be said to be exalted and cultured nations of the world. Civilization is an English word which we have translated as culture but its meaning is very vast. It means to raise all the intentional actions, morals and matters and society and civilization and its ways and the use of time and knowledge and every kind of arts and skill to a high quality of finesse and to deal with them with great excellence and method, which is the source of real happiness and bodily quality and from which dignity and grace and value and stature is attained and the difference between barbarity and humanity is witnessed. (‘Dabistan-e-Tarikh-e-Urdu’ by Hamid Hasan Qadri, Karachi, 1966 pp. 344)

Sir Syed has mixed up culture and civilization but he is not at fault here. In fact, around that time culture and civilization as ideas were not distinguished even by thinkers of the West. Sir Syed also wrote two detailed essays on culture in Tehzeeb al-Akhlaq. The title of the first essay was ‘Culture and its Definition’, while the second was titled ‘Civilization or, Sophistication and Culture’. These essays, as Sir Syed himself admitted, are based on the book by Thomas Buckle (1821-1862). Buckle was an eminent British historian. He wanted to write a detailed history of world civilization in multiple volumes. However, by the time he died (1862), he could only publish two volumes of this ambitious intellectual project. Buckle had tried to write the history of human civilization in the light of scientific knowledge and had also fashioned a few ‘laws’ of human history based on rules of inductive reasoning. For instance, reflecting on the law of season he tried to argue that physical environment and seasons greatly affect human culture. Though Buckle’s ‘ideologies’ were totally against historical facts (the physical environment of the ancient cultures of the Indus Valley, Nile Valley and the Tigris and Euphrates Valley were different from Europe but no one can deny the greatness of these cultures), the people of the West enthusiastically welcomed Buckle’s thoughts. This was so because he had fashioned the dominance of the white nations and the slavery of Asian nations into a natural law and thus presented an ideological justification for Britain’s imperialist interests.

Though the laws of the evolution of human culture had been discovered by Hegel, Marx, and other Western thinkers long before Buckle, perhaps Sir Syed was not aware of the thoughts of these thinkers. Nevertheless, it is no mean achievement for Sir Syed that he made us aware of the modern meaning of culture. While explaining culture, Sir Syed writes:

When a group of humans gathers together in some place and settles then often their needs and wishes, diets and clothes, knowledge and thoughts, joyful conversations and hate all become common and that is why thoughts of good and evil also become common and the desire to exchange evil with good is common in all. This collective desire for exchange or the exchange brought about by collective desire is the civilization of that nation or group. (‘Maqaalat-e-Sir Syed’, Volume 6, p. 3, Lahore 1962)

What Sir Syed Ahmad Khan wrote about Man and human culture 150 years ago still hold true and an informed engagement with the same significantly helps us in understanding the actual reality of culture. For example, he used to say, “There is a close relationship between human actions and the laws of nature” (Ibid. pp. 35), meaning that the laws of human society and the movement of nature are identical. Secondly, that human actions and the work of their milieu are not coincidental but subject to some predetermined law. Thirdly, that “Man’s actions are not the results of their wishes but the results of past events.” Fourthly, that “Any human society is not free of culture” and lastly, that “Man changes nature and nature changes Man and all events are made from this mutual exchange.”

While mentioning the specific qualities of Man, he writes that Man’s

organs and body are higher and better compared to other living creatures. This is not his only superiority but work which he is able to do with the help of his intelligence, as well as with such hands which are his very obedient workers; because of them he has a great superiority and due to both these sources he is able to live a very happy and comfortable life compared to other creatures and able to make his self into an artificial existence and compared to the status of his natural life, he is able to provide it with a lot of luxury. (‘Maqalaat-e-Sir Syed’ Volume 12, pp. 63-64, Lahore 1963)

A comprehensive review of the intellectual services of Sir Syed is out of the scope of this paper. However, we must say that Sir Syed was one of the first thinkers who explained the changes in the creations of the world and human society in terms of the laws of motion of society itself and its creation. He did not include the intent or desire of any supernatural force.

Sir Syed’s Evolution

If we review the thoughts of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, his services for the intellectual reform of the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent are known to all. He compiled Ain-e-Akbari in 1848 and later wrote the much talked about Asar al-Sanaadid. This was when the legendary Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib wrote to him inquiring about the worth of these ancient texts. He asked Sir Syed to provide reasons for worshipping the past and nourishing the dead. Ghalib urged him to come out of it and see the variety of amazing scientific inventions the savants of the West had pioneered like the ship, the electric wire, the matchstick, steam-powered machines and, even greater than these, a code, a law, and a system. Sir Syed became upset with Ghalib’s advice. However, twenty years later, the same Sir Syed set up the Scientific Society and earned the epithets of kafir and zindiq from the representatives of ancient ruins. Was this intellectual revolution within Sir Syed a mere coincidence or were there any social reasons and dynamics behind it? Even a person of ordinary intelligence will say that the changes in Sir Syed’s thoughts were due to the issuance of Western-style administration, lifestyle, and education in the country and had the influence of the West not been dominant, perhaps Sir Syed would still be engaged with the scenes of ancient ruins.

One of Sir Syed’s ardent disciples Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali has written in Hayat-e-Javaid, his celebrated biography of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, about the regressive attitude of Muslim notables in the 19th century. He has highlighted that when Raja Ram Mohan Roy was making a case for English language and modern education, Muslim ulema, by means of 8,000 signatures, made a request before the Governor-General in opposition to modern English education, one they called the education of the infidels. In fact, they held that the same old Farsi and Arabic teaching was more than enough. As a result, the Muslims organized a full-fledged front against the teaching of modern education, in which the religious scholars played an especially prominent role, about which, Sir Syed expressed his embarrassment years later.

With regards to influence and pervasiveness, the most firm and influential person of that period was Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. His views regarding the new intellectual changes at one level were more informed than Ghalib’s. He understood that without adopting these changes and fully embracing the new scientific education, the Indian Muslims would not only get far behind in the race of progress, but also, in all likelihood, lose out on their identity. Therefore, he began to emphasize the foundation of Muslim cultural thought on scientific lines and for this purpose he set up the Mohammedan Scientific Society. The fundamental premise of this movement was informed use of reason.

There were many objections against Sir Syed. He was thought to be an Anglophile and that his attitude in response to Western thought was disturbingly apologetic. These objections that still persist can be divided into two types: firstly, from the fundamentalists there were fatwas on Sir Syed being an infidel and nature; secondly, the nationalists called him a lackey of the British. It has been asserted that in his passion for 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. To a certain extent, this objection was not entirely baseless. Actually Sir Syed was a political conservative and understood the security of India to be in the hands of British for a fairly long duration. Instead of reconciling himself with the national aspirations of India, he saw Muslims as a separate nation and initiated efforts and struggles in a certain direction.  However, from a social perspective, his attitude was progressive. He ran a proper campaign to organize views in favour of modern ideas and against blind allegiance to superstition. More importantly, in terms of his reformist vision, he kept evolving.  In the beginning, he had written an essay, “Qaul-e-Mateen dar Abtaal Harkat-e-Zameen” in 1848, in which he had tried to refute the theory of the movement of the earth, but gradually his thought adopted a scientific turn.

In relation to 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. Along these lines he argued for the need for a commentary and exegeses of the Word of God on new lines.

Consequently, Sir Syed emphasized on 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. In doing this one of the flaws on his part was that he kept Cambridge and Oxford as models before him and gave the leadership of his educational institutions to the British. As a result, his policy for educational institutions was openly patronized by the British, a major defect in his scheme given the religio-cultural dimension of the erstwhile society. The second 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. There is little to contest that a nation cannot progress economically without reasonable technical education. Industry and handicrafts were given no space in Sir Syed’s thoughts on education.

Regardless of the inadequacies in his thought, Sir Syed’s role in our cultural and intellectual history has been undoubtedly unique, one that cannot be denied its due. He liberated us from blind following of superstitions, outdated religious practices and an obsolete way of life. It was due to his strong personality and intellectual steadfastness that educated people, who were enlightened and had a critical outlook on things, gathered around him. He built around him a community of progressive minded individuals, one that was subsequently called the Sir Syed School. More than an individual, Sir Syed is to be understood as a movement, one that brought about revolutionary transformation in the second half of the 19th century and paved the way for the likes of Altaf Husain Hali, Maulvi Muhammad Hussain Azad, Deputy Nazeer Ahmad, Shibli Nomani, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and, most importantly, Muhammad Iqbal.

Earlier it was mentioned that Sir Syed was politically conservative and socially progressive. However, even the movement he started had both political and social effects which led to both positive and negative reactions against him. In the literary domain, too, while on the one hand Sir Syed became the originator of modern Urdu prose, there was also opposition against him from the Lucknow School – eminent figures of the school being Pandit Ratan Nath Sarshar and Munshi Sajjad Hussain – which supported old values. The whole Oudh Punch group was against Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and his comrades. Other notable opponents of Sir Syed’s project were the distinguished Pan-Islamist thinker and activist, Jamaluddin Afghani, and the eminent humourous Urdu poet, Akbar Allahabadi.

One of Sir Syed’s disciples, Deputy Nazeer Ahmad bitterly satirized his mentor in one of his later literary works, titled Ibn-ul-Waqt (The Opportunist). Another disciple Shibli Nomani abandoned his mentor and founded another institution, the Nadwatul Ulama at Lucknow. A lot was written against Hali’s Muqqadima Sher-o-Shairi that it was ‘trampled like the field of Panipat’, etc. Then on the other hand was the entrenchment of Deoband. Deobandis had a unique quality; politically they were nationalist but socially they were extremely conservative. At that time, politically speaking, Aligarh was the citadel of conservatism and socially it was highly progressive. The highest point for most people was to obtain jobs in the government and civil services. There were also two distinct groups among writers and poets: one consisted of supporters of enlightened and progressive thought, while the other group had writers and poets, who favoured obscurantist and outdated ideas.

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

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

Sir Syed took up the mission of reform and progress of Muslims at a time when the land had turned away from the Muslims and the English were baying for their blood. They were blown up by cannons, hung on scaffolds, sent to Kala Pani, their homes were taken apart brick by brick, properties were confiscated, the doors of employment were closed on them, and all possible means of earning livelihood were gradually disappearing from the scene. Sir Syed had prepared his motto not from books but from his vast experience of 30 years. He observed that if quick efforts for the reform of existing circumstances were not made, Muslims would be no better than ‘syces, cooks, servants and grass-cutters’. Sir Syed felt that as long as the ruined Muslims of upper and middle classes would keep boasting about the achievements of their ancestors, continue with un-Islamic rituals and traditions, run after maulvis by accepting superstition as actual Islam, and hate the English language and Western education, they would remain humiliated and dependent. He had complete faith that the only cure to these intellectual and social maladies of the Muslims was the study of the English language and Western education. For close to half of his mortal life, he made an earnest effort for the attainment of this objective.

Note: All the translations from the Urdu are by the author unless otherwise stated.

Photo: Wikipedia

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 (Anjuman Taraqqi Pasand Musanifeen) 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 (Udas Naslein). He can be reached at:


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

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