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Why Sir Syed Ahmad Khan is not a positivist thinker

By Talim Akhtar

The central concern of this essay is to highlight the relationship between Syed Ahmad Khan and Positivism. In order to demonstrate how Syed Ahmad Khan understood positivism, this essay attempts to foreground certain prominent features of positivism, and then analyze his perspective towards them. The question with which this essay is concerned becomes relevant for the context in which Syed Ahmad Khan was writing, an age during which Positivism had a significant influence on the life of an individual in Europe and elsewhere. It is argued here that the relationship between Syed Ahmad Khan and positivism is extremely complex, and it is a gross error to consider him as a Positivist thinker, despite the fact that he religiously embraced some fundamentals of Positivism.

Positivism and Syed Ahmad Khan

By the beginning of nineteenth century Positivism became one of the prominent perspectives in the history and philosophy of science. It not only significantly changed the meaning of science, but also played an instrumental role in determining our understanding of society and politics. Nineteenth century witnessed many Positivist thinkers, from August Comte to Herbert Spencer and Emile Durkheim. Notwithstanding differences in their writings, there are three major themes which are centrally emphasized by all of them. These are as follows:

  • According primacy to human reason and rejecting other modes of realizing knowledge
  • Understanding history in terms of perennial conflict between science and religion
  • Postulating a teleological relationship between science and secularization

These three distinctive features of Positivism are absolutely central to Syed Ahmad Khan, who was not very well versed in this nineteenth century tradition of philosophy of science, but was nevertheless explicitly or some time implicitly engaging with it. From the very beginning of his public life, Syed Ahmad Khan emphasized the importance of modern science and human reason. He was convinced that only by embracing science Muslims of India can overcome their backwardness. In the backdrop of such an understanding of science and reason, Syed Ahmad Khan advanced his concerns for reforming the lives of Indian Muslims. He undertook this task by addressing multiple issues haunting his community, ranging from polygamy to educational backwardness. Though the centrality accorded to science and reason is evident in all his social and religious endeavors, it most concretely manifests in his commentary on Quran and the kind of curriculum which he lays down for the Aligarh Muslim University, an institution established by him. Syed Ahmad Khan emphasized on the rationalistic interpretation of the Quran and believed that there is no conflict between “the word of god” and “the work of god.” Such an understanding of science, reason, and the Quran is the reflection of a distinctive variant of theology which was emerging in the nineteenth century Europe. During this period in Europe, attempts were made to highlight the compatibility between Christianity and science and in doing so there emerged multiple interpretations of the Bible which demonstrated the same (compatibility between Christianity and science). By providing rationalistic interpretation of the Quran, Syed Ahmad Khan initiated the emergence of a distinctive variant of Islamic theology which portrayed Islam in the image of science. However, this does not entail that his understanding of rationalism was similar to that of Positivism. Syed Ahmad Khan invokes the idea of rationalism and science in multiple ways. On the one hand, he deploys rationalism in the garb of Mu’tazila (dissenters), whereas, on the other hand, he invokes it in the manner similar to many nineteenth century Christian theologians of Europe. Both Mu’tazila and the nineteenth century Christian theologians emphasized on reconciling faith with reason, though the reasons, and probably methods too, for undertaking such exercise were qualitatively different from each other. Thus, unlike Positivism, Syed Ahmad Khan does not reject those modes of realizing knowledge which are not premised on reason. He rather maintained that both reason and faith should complement each other.

Another perspective through which the relationship between Positivism and Syed Ahmad Khan is problematized in this essay pertains to their respective understanding of history. The nineteenth century positivist thinkers understood history as a progression from antiquity to present age. They believed that the history of human civilization is marked with perennial tensions and conflicts between religion and science, which would eventually culminate in the victory of the latter and disappearance or decline of the former. Such an understanding of history, on the part of positivist thinkers, not only postulated conflictual relationship between science and religion, but also portrayed science as the domain of knowledge which was always separate and distinct from religion. Syed Ahmad Khan contests such understanding of science, and maintained that the relationship between science and Islam is one of compatibility. He demonstrates the compatibility between science and Islam by taking recourse to history. He asserts the evolution and growth of science during the early years of Islamic civilization, and, as he embarks on that project, thinkers like Ibn Rushd in particular occupy significant place in his narrative. He emphasized on the contributions of Islam in the making of European Renaissance, which many nineteenth century European writers thought was solely the result of Europe’s genius. Such an understanding of the relationship between science and Islam, and the contributions made by the latter in the making of modern age is in contrast with positivist conception of history. Thus, unlike Positivism, Syed Ahmad Khan did not perceive history as a linear and progressive movement in which the coming of modernity is comprehended in terms of marginalization of religion from all spheres of man’s life. Instead, he thought of history as a domain which is influenced and shaped by religion.

Syed Ahmad Khan also engages with another distinctive feature of Positivism, namely one which postulates a teleological relationship between science and secularization. Many positivist thinkers professed that with the growth in the field of science and technology, society would become secularized and, as a direct consequence, religion would either disappear or decline from our lives. Such an understanding of the relationship between science and secularization significantly shaped Syed Ahmad Khan’s perspective on modern science. He was wary of secularizing consequences of modern science, and his anxieties and concerns regarding this aspect of science are evident from the vision and objectives which he laid down for Aligarh Muslim University. Regardless of what kind of curriculum Aligarh University actually adopted even during the life span of Syed Ahmad Khan (the curriculum being essentially English and western in character), one of the objectives this institution was supposed to fulfill was to attract English educated Muslim youths so that they can be rescued from becoming secularized under the influence of western education. Thus, like Positivism, Syed Ahmad Khan wrongly postulated teleological relationship between science and secularization, but it would be an error to label him a positivist thinker on this ground, as doing so would lead us to subscribe to a very simplistic understanding of his thought and actions.

Talim Akhtar
teaches Political Science at Hindu College, University of Delhi, Delhi, India.


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

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