Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, a leading Muslim reformer and educationist who was arguably the most important political voice among Indian Muslims in the latter half of the 19th century, was born on 17 October 1817 in Delhi (which was then the capital, albeit nominal, of the fading Mughal empire). Sir Syed, who established a Muslim centre of learning that later evolved into the renowned Aligarh Muslim University, died on 27 March 1898.
His forefathers had in all likelihood migrated from Arabia to Iran and then to Afghanistan at the time when Akbar was the Mughal ruler and emperor of India. The family remained in service of subsequent Mughal emperors in various capacities. Sir Syed’s father, Mir Muhammad Muttaqi, was the personal adviser of Akbar Shah II, the penultimate Mughal emperor of India (reign: 1806–1837).
But by the time Sir Syed was born, the Mughal state had shrunk to near-irrelevance and occupied little territory outside Delhi. Even in Delhi, the British administration had a much greater say in the state of affairs.
Sir Syed grew up in a spacious house in Delhi. From an early age he and his elder brother, Syed Muhammad Khan, were very well acquainted with Mughal traditions and politics. Sir Syed studied Arabic, Urdu, Persian, Islamic law, astronomy, medicine and mathematics. He got a thorough grounding in Islamic religious thought. He took part in sports as well. But financial constraints after his father’s death in 1838 made him stop pursuing formal education.
Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, awarded the title of ‘Arif Jung’ to Sir Syed. He joined the civil service of the British East India Company, and was initially made a court official at Agra. He later became a munshi, and in 1858, a high-ranking official at the Muradabad court.
Thus began his keen engagement with the British.
Two years before the First War of Independence, Sir Syed completed his scholarly edition of the Ai’n-e Akbari. He gave the book to Mirza Ghalib to write a flattering foreword. But the great poet, mischievous as ever, wrote a clever poem criticising Sir Syed for wasting his energies eulogising a courtly Mughal culture that was long dead.
An excerpt from a rough English translation goes:
“One who isn’t capable of admiring his quality
Would no doubt praise him for this task,
For such a task, of which this book is the basis
Only an hypocrite can offer praise.”
The 1857 revolt and its quashing by the British marked the formal end of the Mughal empire. Muslim intellectuals like Sir Syed were acutely aware that after nearly a millennium, Muslim power was ebbing in the subcontinent.
In 1859 he wrote a booklet titled Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind (The Causes of the Indian Revolt). In it he showed as baseless the idea that the revolt was planned by Muslim nobles who were frustrated at the declining influence of Muslim rulers in the country. He, instead, quite courageously, blamed the British for their policy of aggressive territorial acquisition and insufficient knowledge of India’s cultural traditions. The book was generally well-received in both India and England.
Sir Ahmed’s range of scholarly interests was wide. He wrote extensively in Urdu and published many works on subjects ranging from the monuments of Delhi to impressions of the Bible. While he wrote a lot on religious issues, history, science and archaeology were his main areas of interest.
After 1857, he took it upon himself to promote better understanding between the British and the Muslim community. He began to feel the need for reforms in the community, with a particular emphasis on education. One of his first steps in this direction was the founding of a modern madrassa in 1859 in Muradabad, a unique religious school that had scientific education as part of its curriculum.
By the time he was transferred to Aligarh in 1864, he had turned into an enthusiastic educator. Among the institutions that he founded was the Scientific Society of Aligarh, which was modelled after the Royal Society and Royal Asiatic Society. His championing of Western science and technology, however, landed him in confrontation with some of the more orthodox Muslim clerics.
In 1869 Sir Syed and his son visited England. Here the Order of the Star of India was conferred upon him. While travelling within England, he was deeply impressed by the traditions of learning in great institutions like Oxford and Cambridge. On his return to India he was determined to establish what he called a “Muslim Cambridge”.
He set up a modern school in Aligarh and laid the foundation of the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College in May 1875. Scientific and modern subjects went side by side with religious education here. The college later became the Aligarh Muslim University.
Politically, Sir Syed was critical of the proposals of the newly-formed Indian National Congress, and feared both the marginalisation of Muslims and domination of the national discourse by the Bengali Hindus, the country’s most educated community. His political mobilisation of the Muslim elite ultimately led to the formation of the All India Muslim League after his death.
Some of his views on Hindus, and his aggressive championing of Urdu as an exclusive language of Muslims, were indeed communal. As the book India’s Struggle for Independence puts it: “[Communalism] in India got its initial start in the 1880s when Syed Ahmed Khan counterposed it to the national movement initiated by the National Congress.”
However, it’s worth remembering that much of the criticism of Sir Syed comes from a modern, secular point of view (and, of course, from the Hindu Right). It’s useful perhaps to look at Sir Syed as a product of his times, when it was nearly impossible to imagine an India not ruled by the British, and a Muslim elite was trying to come to terms with its loss of power and prestige.
His contribution as a scholar and outstanding educator who never tired of stressing the importance of education for uplifting the Muslim masses is considerable. As he once said: “When you (Muslims) shall have fully acquired education, and true education shall have made its home in your hearts, then you will know what rights you can legitimately demand of the British Government. And the result of this will be that you will also obtain honourable positions in the Government, and will acquire wealth in the higher ranks of trade.”
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was a complex and remarkable man who started off as a noble in the Mughal court and changed with the times to embrace the twin ideals of social reform and education that the British brought along with their colonial enterprise; however, he could not bring himself to support the Indian National Congress, which he mistakenly regarded as working mainly for a narrow Hindu cause.