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Sir Syed’s Old World

By Atul Mishra

It is clear in hindsight that Sir Syed stood a very slim chance of escaping the charge, or the complement, that he played an active role in politicizing inter-community relations in colonial Hindustan, which resulted in their eventual internationalization in the late 1940s. Both Indians and Pakistanis interpret his words and deeds to suit their politics. In India, he is credited by some for nudging Muslims towards educational and societal modernization – an always pressing need that has over the decades only become more urgent for Indian Muslims. Others in this country remain unhappy over his advocating that Muslims stay away from an incipient Congress-British dynamic that laid the foundation of independence. He is venerated in Pakistan for providing the signpost to progressive separatism. These are differing, sometimes contesting, interpretations; they are also simplistic. However, it isn’t hard to understand why they exist: he belonged to a world to which we are outsiders and he is an outsider to our world. He lived in a world of empires; we live in a world of nation-states. We can only misunderstand him.

I cannot in this short piece even outline the contours of the world to which Sir Syed belonged. But I hope to hint at how different that world was to ours by focusing on three key themes in his politics (of not doing politics). Concerned as I am with minimizing our misunderstanding of someone from another world, the obvious point I make below is that if we are to assess Sir Syed’s thought and practice, we must understand that we are bringing our world into conversation with his. This awareness can help us misunderstand him better. By this I mean that we can take away a thing or two from his politics that is relevant to our times; see that he was an intelligent modernizer cast in the colonial mould; and become wary of plugging his work uncritically into the nationalist histories of India or Pakistan.

At the heart of Sir Syed Ahmad’s ‘politics of not doing politics’ lay the idea that Muslims of Hindustan (upper India) in the late-19th century were better off keeping away from the politics which was then unfolding between the British and the ‘Hindus’, the latter represented institutionally by the Congress. Muslims would be outnumbered by a ratio of 3:1 if they got involved in representative politics. But they stood to gain much if they focused on modernizing themselves educationally, religiously, and by showing their loyalty to the British Empire. Sir Syed’s thought thus rested on three key notions: internal community reforms; loyalty to the empire; and steering clear of the emerging political relationship between the majority in India and the British. Each of the three elements originated in specific contexts, which need spelling out for a better appreciation of his positionality and practice.


Sir Syed’s insistence on educational reforms within the community led to him establishing a number of educational institutions that offered modern, western education. The Translation Society (later renamed as Scientific Society), the Aligarh Institute Gazette, and the Mohammedan Social Reformer as well as the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College, which later became the Aligarh Muslim University, illustrate this commitment. He sought equally to bring the tenets of the natural sciences and the doctrines of Islam in harmony, pleading thus for a modern Islamic theology. In these steps, Sir Syed was being of a piece with other subcontinental social and religious reformers, who appreciated the Enlightenment idea that human affairs are socially shaped rather than divinely ordained. While this in itself is easily discerned, what is not always noticed is that his reformist ideas were based on the sequentialist theory of stages of human progress that was so prevalent in British thought, especially with regard to the colonies, in the 19th century.

Crudely put, this very powerful theory stated that society, politics, and international relations represented three sequential stages in human affairs, and the transition from the social to the political and eventually to the international required a people to pass some tests. Social reforms were necessary for recognition as a nation, which was a political and a civilizational marker. Nationality provided access to self-government, but the nation governing itself needed to prove its capacity to sustain self-government. Only a proven capacity for sustained self-government could give it access to the international, the society of nations. The theory was a tool to perpetuate imperial rule. But it circumscribed what the colonized could think and do if they hoped for any concession or favour from the empire. Sir Syed was a partisan of this theory and believed that the political was not accessible to the Muslims. Hence the strong reformist character to his thought and practice.

Imperial loyalty

The background to his efforts to emphasize the loyalty of Indian Muslims to the empire is well known. The British conclusion that Muslims had sought an end to the Raj during the 1857 revolt had made Muslims suspect in the British eyes. It made tactical sense then to make public efforts to show that Muslims would have nothing to do with any effort to challenge or even reform British rule in India. But Sir Syed’s understanding of the political value of loyalty also betrays a political theory of empire, peculiar to the 19th and early 20th centuries but now out of fashion, which is necessary to understand his position as a subject who spoke on behalf of his people.

He was no alien to the right political relationship between an empire and its subject given his class position and place in the wider Muslim world. An empire lords over a variety of subject communities, each of whom shares the same relationship with the imperial centre regardless of its numerical strength in relation to other subject communities. In the imperial system, each community competes with others not to capture the centre – for the centre cannot be captured – but to gain maximum patronage and protection from it. Strong affirmations of Muslim loyalty to the British Empire thus served the purpose of positioning the community favourably in relation to other Indian communities, including the Hindu. The nation-state lens can prevent postcolonial Indians from appreciating this positioning and its politics. But Sir Syed belonged to a world of empires and not nation-states where this mode of politics was the only one that made maximum securing of Muslim interests possible. Could he be faulted for looking after community interests in a world of empires? This is a question that must be asked in any considered judgement of his politics. In fact, the more interesting question to ask regarding Sir Syed’s politics of loyalty is not that he professed it vis-à-vis the British Empire, which was not surprising given his familiarity with the world of empires, but rather that he asked Hindustani Muslims to reorient themselves vis-à-vis the Turkish Khalifa, which was, as the Khilafat movement later illustrated, a much more difficult ask.

Being ‘apolitical’

Because Sir Syed worked within the framework of the political theory of empire, it is easy to see why he counselled his people to stay ‘apolitical’. The highest tribute the colonial subject could pay to the empire was to not turn political as that, in the context of the British Empire in his times, meant asking for self-government for a dependency like India, along the lines of dominions like Australia and Canada. And self-government would have irritated the British and advantaged the Hindus more than his people.

At the same time, it is not quite correct to say that this counsel was the progenitor of Pakistan, the movement and the sovereign state. This is because in Sir Syed’s time, mere self-proclaimed distinction of a community as a nation did not open the possibility of it laying claims to a sovereign state. In the world of empires, a community could call itself a nation but had no recourse to even the dream of sovereignty. That possibility became open only after the end of the First World War, in the aftermath of what the historian Erez Manela has called ‘The Wilsonian Moment’. This was a point in world politics when the self-determination principle was introduced internationally and backed by American power. Its background was the dramatic collapse of four major empires – the Qing, Tsarist, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian – in the 1910s alone as well as the widespread destruction that was said to have been caused by the suppression of nationalistic passions by empires. Onwards of this moment, the consensus that empires were good broke down rather swiftly and the sovereign nation-state became the preferred form of political-territorial organization. The Muslim League benefitted immensely from this international support for the principle of self-determination and the preference of the sovereign nation-state form. But this was a new, different world and Sir Syed did not belong to it. He belonged to the world of empires. It is highly unlikely that he could even anticipate the turn Muslim politics took in the 20th century.

Sir Syed’s politics speaks less to the world of the nation-states of India and Pakistan and more to the imperial world of the Mughals and the British. He was a reformist in the colonial mould, conservative by political temperament and pragmatic overall. Nevertheless, the themes of his politics – loyalty to the governing power, steering clear of the majority political dynamic, and internal community reforms – resonate with contemporary India’s political scene, not always happily.


Atul Mishra teaches International Relations at Shiv Nadar University. Email:


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

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