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Sir Syed, the Project of Rationality, and the Question of Women’s Education

By Shivangini Tandon 

Sir Syed was a product of an era when the British reformist policies were steeped in a rational Eurocentrist perspective. Some of these reformist projects were based on ‘conjectural’ history, the Benthamite principles of utility, and the more general intellectual heritage of the Enlightenment. One such proponent of the British Utilitarian thought was James Mill, whose History of British India echoed the Westernizing process of India to give it rationality and a scientific basis. Moreover, John Millar’s Origin of the Distinction of Ranks (1779) was quoted as the authority for the test of civilization provided by the status of women. “The condition of the women,” writes Mill, “is one of the most remarkable circumstances in the manners of nations. Among the rude people, the women are generally degraded; among civilized people they are exalted” (Mill 1848: 309). This, in some sense, forms the backdrop of Sir Syed’s views about women’s education in India, the central idea of this paper.

Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-98) is known to be one of the greatest educationists, thinkers, and reformers of the British Raj. He was a witness to the twilight days of the Mughal Empire and still kept his pragmatism and rationality intact. He can be appreciated for the fact that someone who was educated in the traditional Islamic discourse developed a keen sense of questioning the religious fundamentalism and dogma. His inaugural address to the Scientific Society which Syed Ahmad Khan founded on 9 July, 1864 at Ghazipur makes his agenda for reform and modernity amply clear:

…Looking at the state of my fellow countrymen’s minds, I find that, from their ignorance of the past history of the world at large, they have nothing to guide them in their future career. From their ignorance of the events of the past, and also of the events of the present – from their not being acquainted with the manner and means by which infant nations have grown into powerful and flourishing ones, and by which the present most advanced ones have beaten their competitors in the race for position among the magnates of the world – they are unable to take lessons and profit by their experience. Through this ignorance, also, they are not aware of the causes which have undermined the foundations of those nations once the most wealthy, the most civilized, and the most powerful in the history of their time, and which have since gradually gone to decay or remained stationary instead of advancing with the age . . .

Many scholars have pointed towards the fact that Syed Ahmad Khan’s reformist ideology had no place for women in them. Therefore, it comes as no surprise when his educational reforms are also labelled as being ‘male centric’. However, in this paper, I wish to argue that before reaching any concrete conclusion as far as his educational reforms are concerned, one needs to examine the context in which Sir Syed lived and was a part of. Many scholars like David Lelyveld, Gail Minault, and Mushirul Hasan have examined the life and contributions of Sir Syed but very little research has been done on his views about educating the Muslim women. This is probably because most of the works on Sir Syed are too quick to label him as someone who was against women’s education. This paper will try to explore Syed Ahmad Khan’s views on Muslim women’s education from the perspective of the ideologies, belief systems, and worldviews that he was a part of: The Filtration Theory, notion of companionate marriage, reforming the household, distinction between modern and traditional education, desire to enter government and administrative positions/jobs and, lastly, the discourse of rationality.

The British Utilitarians in India were proponents of the ‘trickle-down effect’ theory when it came to undertaking reforms, especially in a colonized country like India that had limited resources for progress and growth. Syed Ahmad Khan, too, believed in this model of development and used it to implement his welfare schemes. According to this model of development, any plans or policies should be implemented in such a manner that it benefits the upper sections of the society and leads to their overall growth and progress. In due course of time, the fruits of which will trickle down to the lowest echelons of society as well. Therefore, on the issue of imparting education to Muslim women, Sir Syed chose to remain within the traditional British utilitarian mould. He was of the view that since there was scarcity of resources to be invested in education, the elite/upper class Muslims or the Ashraf class should be given priority. Once they get educated, they would naturally help with the education of those who cannot afford it. Moreover, during Syed Ahmad Khan’s time, education was mainly seen as a tool for entry into administrative or government jobs and as women, in those times, were rarely an applicant or interested in such jobs, it was believed that it is male education that should get priority.

The 19th and 20th centuries were also a period that witnessed reforms in the sphere of the household and family. The notion of conjugality and companionate marriage became significant sites of reformist activity where the British concept of the ‘Victorian Morality’ was observed. Women now were seen as the ‘Angels of the Household’, responsible for the proper maintenance and organization of all domestic chores and the looking after of the children. Many reformers like Ashraf Ali Thanawi and Deputy Nazir Ahmad among others started focusing on the reforms needed by the Muslims in the Indian society and through their writings highlighted the roles of women in the house, in particular. In such a scenario, it was only considered appropriate that women be educated mostly in the ‘traditional’ subjects/disciplines that help them become better and more efficient home makers. However, in Sir Syed’s vision of education for the Muslim women, it had to be a combination of the sciences as well as the humanities. He advocated the teaching of a little bit of everything to Muslim women and not just home science, etc. He believed that logic and reasoning should be given preference over tradition and religious dogmas.

In conclusion, one can say that Syed Ahmad Khan was a product of his times and though his reforms and revivalist efforts might not have been revolutionary and path breaking, they were indeed far reaching. In order to analyse the feasibility and appropriate nature of his reformist project, it is essential to not examine them through a restricted lens. No matter how limited in its objectives, his reform efforts did pave the way for the development of modern and rational individuals.


Shivangini Tandon is Assistant Professor, Centre for Women’s Studies, Aligarh Muslim University and a Visiting Fellow, Centre for the History of Emotions, Max Planck Institute, Berlin.


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

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Khalid #

    very first line of the article says that Syed Ahmad was the product of his era, who is not the product of his /her era. Did Jytiba Phule, Savitri Bai, Raja Ram Mohan and Vidayasagar etc were not the child of their time. what they did for women in their time was not only radical but also very much against the popular perceptions of women. No matter how one could try to defend Ahmad Khan either by using big big jargons or in a very mild language of criticism, he will remain indefensible in his staunches castist and traditional notion about women. Till his end not a single woman was allowed to inter into that educational institution. it is really irony that these days, AMU is producing PhDs on the contribution of Ahmad Khan’s contribution of Women education. Forget about any woman, not a single Muslim lower caste male student was allowed to enter into AMU for getting modern education, in fact it is on record that he himself discouraged dalit Muslims and other lower caste Muslim groups to get modern education on many occasions. Till 1947, upper status (caste) of the students of AMU were clearly mentioned in their degree alone with other credentials. thus one could argue that probably AMU was the only educational institution in the modern India that had foundation on caste line.

    November 20, 2017

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