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Aḥmad Khān, Sayyid

Hafeez Malik
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Aḥmad Khān, Sayyid

The family of Sir Sayyid Aḥmad Khān (1817–1898), an Indian Islamic modernist writer and political activist, claimed lineal descent from the prophet Muḥammad; his ancestors had settled in Herat in Afghanistan and then migrated to Mughal India in the seventeenth century. Despite their residence in India for nearly two hundred years, Sir Sayyidʾs family retained a consciousness of their foreign origin. This extraterritorial consciousness determined their outlook, and that of other upperclass Muslims, in the Indian environment. They viewed the culture and political problems of Muslims from this perspective, generally detaching themselves from the indigenous Muslim masses but associating with them closely in periods of political crisis.

Sir Sayyidʾs formal education was strictly traditional and was never completed; he ceased formal schooling at eighteen. What traditional education he had acquired was neither comprehensive nor intensive, and this later exposed him to the ridicule of conservative critics, who considered him unqualified to undertake his bold modernization of Islam. Yet this weakness was his real strength: unfettered by the discipline of rigorous traditional education, through personal study and independent investigation he reached out to new horizons of intellectual creativity and laid the groundwork for a modern interpretation of Islam.

Sir Sayyid was loyal to the British colonial regime, which appointed him sarishtahdār (recorder) in the criminal department of a lower court. In 1839 he was appointed deputy reader in the office of the divisional commissioner in Uttar Pradesh province, eventually rising to the position of subjudge. In 1855 he was transferred to Bijnor, where he participated in the upheavals of 1857. He emerged from this ordeal as both a loyal functionary of the British government and a staunch Muslim nationalist.

Immediately after 1857 Sir Sayyid undertook three projects: to initiate an ecumenical movement in order to create understanding between Muslims and Christians; to establish scientific organizations that would help Muslims understand the secret of the Westʾs success; and to analyze objectively the causes for the 1857 revolt. He was the only Muslim scholar ever to have ventured a commentary on the Old and New Testaments, in his Mohomedan Commentary on the Holy Bible (1862).

Against the British view that the rebellion of 1857 was led by Muslims, he advanced the thesis that a large number of Muslims had remained loyal to the British government. Between 1860 and 1861 he published a series of articles, collected in An Account of the Loyal Mahomedans of India, attempting to show that the majority of influential Muslims remained loyal to the British government. At the same time Sir Sayyid continued to urge Muslim loyalty to the British in order to elicit British support for a fair Muslim share in the Indian political system. His mission also fostered respect and understanding between Muslims and Christians.

In May 1869 Sir Sayyid arrived in London and remained in Britain for fifteen months. There he internalized positive aspects of British culture, including the value system of modern scientific education and the capitalistic form of economy characterized by social and political laissez-faire.

In London he published twelve essays on the life of the prophet Muḥammad, A Series of Essays on the Life of Mohammed (1870). In order to study British educational institutions he visited the universities of Cambridge and Oxford, as well as private preparatory schools. These educational models enabled him to plan the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College, which he established in 1875 at Aligarh; in 1920 the college became Aligarh Muslim University.

Equipped with modern ideas and orientations, Sir Sayyid returned to India in 1870 and initiated his movement of religious and cultural modernism among Muslims. He resigned his position in the judicial service in 1876 and until his death in 1898 devoted his life to modernizing the life of Muslims on the Indian subcontinent.

Sir Sayyid devoted most of his energies to promoting modern education among Muslims, especially through the All-India Mohammedan Educational Conference, which existed from 1886 to 1937. From 1886 to 1898 the Educational Conference was pitted against the All-India National Congress, which espoused secular Indian nationalism. Sir Sayyid, on the contrary, promoted a form of Muslim nationalism that accentuated separatist Muslim politics in India; this gave rise to the All-India Muslim League, which in the 1930s and 1940s spearheaded the movement for the creation of Pakistan.

In the field of religion Sir Sayyid promoted an Islamic modernism that drew inspiration from the writings of Shāh Walī Allāh (1703–1762) and emphasized a rational approach to Islam and social reforms in Muslim culture. What made Sir Sayyid controversial was his emphasis on a religious modernism that rejected the traditional practices and orientations of the orthodox, and his advocacy of modern education, which lured young Muslims from orthodox religious seminaries into Western-style schools and colleges. In recognition of his accomplishments, the British Government knighted him in 1888. See also ALIGARH and ALL-INDIA MUSLIM LEAGUE.


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  • Malik, Hafeez, ed. Political Profile of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan: A Documentary Record. Islamabad, 1982.
  • Malik, Hafeez, ed. Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan's Educational Philosophy: A Documentary Record. Islamabad, 1989.
  • Malik, Hafeez, and Morris Demb, trans. Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan's History of the Bijnore Rebellion. Delhi, 1982.
  • Robinson, Francis. Islam and Muslim History in South Asia. New Delhi and New York, 2001.
  • Troll, Christian W.Sayyid Ahmad Khan: A Reinterpretation of Muslim Theology. New Delhi, 1978.
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