Sir Syed: The Man Who Became A Movement

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan

Raza Naeem

SIR SYED AHMAD KHAN emerged as a key leader of the Indian Muslim community in the aftermath of the War of Independence of 1857, as a thoroughly modern Muslim in a thoroughly pre-modern age.

He is credited for originating the two-nation theory, founding the Aligarh Movement and being a founding father of Pakistan, but less celebrated are his achievements in providing a modern, scientific and rational interpretation of Islam and the Holy Quran, as well as his debates on culture that — in the face of stern opposition from fundamentalists and detractors — sowed the seeds of enlightenment and progress.

His views on culture

Sir Syed was probably the first intellectual to present the meaning of culture as it was prevalent in the West in the 19th century. When defining the aims of his journal Tehzeeb-ul-Akhlaq in its first edition, he wrote: “The objective of issuing this journal is to persuade Indian Muslims to adopt a complete degree of civilisation, meaning culture, so that the hatred with which the civilised (cultured) nations view them should go away and they may also be said to be [one of the] exalted and cultured nations of the world.”

Expounding on this, he wrote two detailed essays in Tehzeeb-ul-Akhlaq, ‘Culture and its Definition’ and ‘Civilisation or Sophistication and Culture’, based on a book by British historian Thomas Buckle.

Buckle had tried to write the history of human civilisation in the light of scientific knowledge and also fashioned a few ‘laws’ based on inductive reasoning; for example, the law of seasons, that showed that the physical environment greatly affected human culture. Although Buckle’s ‘ideologies’ went against historical facts (the physical environment of the ancient Indus Valley, Nile River Valley and Mesopotamia was different from Europe, but no one can deny the greatness of these cultures), the West enthusiastically welcomed them because Buckle had fashioned the dominance of the white nations and slavery of Asian nations into a natural law, thus presenting an ideological justification for Britain’s imperialist interests.

What Sir Syed wrote about man and human culture 150 years ago continues to hold true. For example, he said, “There is a close relationship between human actions and the laws of nature,” meaning that the laws of human society and the movement of nature are identical. Then, “human actions and the work of their mutual milieu are subject to some predetermined law and not coincidental.” Third, “Man’s actions are not the results of his wishes, but the results of past events.” Fourth, “Any human society is not free of culture” and fifth, “Man changes nature and nature changes Man and all events are made from this mutual exchange.”

In mentioning the specific qualities of man, Sir Syed wrote that man’s “organs and body are … not his only superiority, but the work he is able to do with the help of his intelligence, as well as with such hands, because of them he is able to live a happy, comfortable life … able to make his self into an artificial existence and, compared to the status of his natural life, is able to provide it with a lot of luxury.”

Aligarh Muslim University.

A comprehensive review of Sir Syed’s intellectual services is beyond the scope of this essay. However, we must admit that he was the first Indian Muslim thinker to explain changes in 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.

His own evolution

When Sir Syed was compiling the Aaeein-i-Akbari in 1848, and later when he was writing Asar-us-Sanadid, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib wrote asking what was of worth in the ancient texts. He desired to know why Sir Syed was engaged in nourishing the dead. He demanded Sir Syed to come out of worshipping the past and see the amazing scientific inventions the savants of the West had pioneered, such as the steam-powered ship and other machines, the electric wire, the matchstick and — even greater than these — a code, a law and a system.

“Put aside the Aaeein, and parley with me/ Open thine eyes in this old world/ And examine the life of the Englishmen/ Their style, their manner, their trade and their art,” wrote Ghalib, greatly upsetting Sir Syed.

Yet 20 years later, the very same Sir Syed set up the Scientific Society of Aligarh, earning the epithets of kafir and zindiq from representatives of the ancient ruins. This internal intellectual revolution was caused by the Western-style administration, lifestyle and education; had Western influence not been so dominant, perhaps Sir Syed would still be engaged with the ancient ruins.

One of Sir Syed’s ardent disciples, Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali, wrote in Hayat-i-Javed, his biography of the former, that at a time when Raja Ram Mohan Roy was demanding the English language and modern education, the Muslim ulema, by means of 8,000 signatures, proclaimed that the new infidel education was not needed; teaching Farsi and Arabic was enough. Sir Syed expressed his embarrassment at this organising of Muslims against modern education in which religious scholars played a prominent role.

Sir Syed viewed the intellectual changes taking place at a level further than Ghalib. He understood that without engaging in the new form of scientific education, Indian Muslims would not only be left far behind, but might not even be able to maintain their identity. When he set up the Scientific Society — the basis of which was rationalist, or using reason — he was denounced as an Anglophile and an apologist for the colonial masters. From the fundamentalists came fatwas, while the nationalists called him a lackey who, in his passion for adopting new visions, had become an ally and propagandist of the British government.

This objection was, to a great extent, true. Sir Syed was politically conservative, believing that India’s security lay in British rule and instead of reconciling himself with India’s national aspirations, he saw Muslims as a separate nation. But from a social perspective he was progressive. He ran a proper campaign to organise views in favour of modern ideas and against the worship of superstition. His own viewpoint had changed; from his 1848 essay Qaul-i-Mateen Dar Abtaal Harkat-i-Zameen in which he tried to refute the theory of the movement of the earth, his thought had adopted a scientific turn.

In religion, his basic inference was that there could not be a contradiction in the Word and Work of God. He meant that nature could not be against the Word of God and if it appeared to us as such, we were definitely making a mistake somewhere in understanding the Word. That was why we needed to have commentary and exegeses of the Word of God on new lines.

Consequently, Sir Syed emphasised a new education of the Word (ilm-ul-kalaam). He opened educational institutions and schools, but — in what could be considered a flaw — kept Cambridge and Oxford as his models and gave the leadership of his institutions to the British. As a result, his policy for educational institutions was limited to being openly patronising of the British, which was undoubtedly a great defect in his scheme. But all this was part of his political thought.

The second major flaw in Sir Syed’s educational scheme was that he did not pay attention to the teaching of industry, handicrafts and technology, although a nation cannot progress economically without technical education. Until the 1930s and 1940s there was no arrangement at Aligarh for the teaching of technology, engineering and medicine.

Even so, Sir Syed’s role in our cultural and intellectual history has been undeniably unique. As for him being a British loyalist, that objection is not really significant anymore because he turned our intellectual current towards scientific thought, liberating us from a worship of superstition and religious preconceptions. His personality and intellectual steadfastness drew groups of enlightened people round him — even today we refer to them as the Sir Syed School. The man proved to be much more than an individual; he was a movement unto himself.


It has been observed above that Sir Syed was politically conservative and socially progressive. But the movement he started also had both political and social effects that led to reactions both against and in favour of the former. In the literary domain there was a notable reaction against him, for example, from the Lucknow school that included Pandit Ratan Nath Sarshar and Munshi Sajjad Hussain and which supported old values. The whole Awadh Punch group disfavoured him and his comrades. Some detractors composed poems calling him a new prophet of naturism: “He [Sir Syed] is the messenger of ‘natural religion’/ This natural religion was indeed ‘revealed’ to him/ He alone knows the secrets of the Book, because/ All the esoteric knowledge has been vouchsafed to him/ The evidence of his prophethood is visible to all/ It is visible in the pages of his Tahzeeb-ul-Akhlaq.”

Other notable opponents were the distinguished Pan-Islamist thinker and activist Jamaluddin Afghani and the eminent humorous Urdu poet Akbar Allahabadi. According to Allahabadi: “What our respected Syed says is good/ Akbar agrees that it is sound and fair/ But most of those who head this modern school/ Neither believe in God, nor yet in prayer/ They say they do, but it is plain to see/ What they believe in is the powers that be.”

One of Sir Syed’s disciples, Deputy Nazeer Ahmad, bitterly satirised his mentor in the novel Ibn-ul-Waqt [The Opportunist]. Another disciple, Shibli Nomani, abandoned his mentor and founded another institution, the Dar-ul-Uloom Nadwa. Much was written against Hali’s Muqqadima-i- Sher-o-Shairi that, “it is trampled like the field of Panipat.”

Writers and poets split into two distinct groups, one favouring enlightened, progressive thought while the other favoured obscurantist and past-worshipping ideas. As the noted Urdu poet Ehsan Danish observed in his tribute, Sir Syed Ki Ruh Se [To Sir Syed’s Spirit]: “What was lit by the sparks within your chest/ That secretly burning fire could not grow cold until now/ Your foresight has granted lamps to the future/ Despite which the air is polluted by the smoke of the past until now.”

c. Dawn


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