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Ameer Ali, Syed

By:
Gail Minault
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Ameer Ali, Syed

Syed Ameer Ali (1849–1928) was an Indianjurist and author of Islamic modernist apologia. He was born in Chinsura, Bengal into a Shīʿī family with a history of service to Persian and Mughal rulers and to the nawabs of Awadh, as well as to the British East India Company. He was educated at Hooghly College outside Calcutta, then studied law in London and was called to the bar in 1873. Returning to Calcutta to practice law, he also lectured in Islamic law at Presidency College of Calcutta University. In the 1870s he served as presidency magistrate. In 1881 he was appointed to the Bengal Legislative Council, and in 1883 to the Viceroyʾs Legislative Council. In 1890 he was named a judge of the Bengal High Court, where he served until his retirement in 1904. Thereafter he settled in England, his wife's home, serving as a member of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council from 1909 until his death in 1928.

Ameer Aliʾs distinguished public career was punctuated by frequent writings on Islamic topics for such British journals as Nineteenth Century. His books on Islamic religion and history were written in English with a Western readership in mind and established his reputation as a modern apologist for Islamic culture. His best-known works are A Short History of the Saracens (1889) and The Spirit of Islam (1891). He viewed Islam as the vehicle of rationality and dynamism during the age of European barbarism, and the Prophet Muḥammad as a messenger of moral humanism and progress entirely in tune with the modern age. These works had considerable influence on the thinking of Western-educated Muslims in India in their efforts to refute British or Christian missionary criticisms of their faith, and in their sense of an emerging political and religious identity.

Ameer Aliʾs position and politics allied him with the British, but throughout his career he endeavored to represent Indian Muslim opinion, as he saw it, to the government. In 1877 he founded the Central National Muhammadan Association with the purpose of petitioning the British government to safeguard Muslim interests. He also established the London branch of the All-India Muslim League in 1908; he lobbied for the establishment of separate electorates for Muslims, a provision of the Morley–Minto constitutional reforms of 1909. Ameer Ali also lobbied the British government for fair treatment of the Ottoman sultan-caliph in the treaties ending World War I, even though he took no part in the Khilāfat movement in India. His efforts on behalf of the Ottoman caliph included a letter that he and the Aga Khan wrote to the prime minister of Turkey in 1923, urging a restoration of the caliph's temporal powers. Ironically, this letter from the two Indian Shīʿī leaders had the opposite effect: the Turkish National Assembly, indignant at this foreign meddling, voted to abolish the caliphate early in 1924. See also KHILāFAT MOVEMENT.

Bibliography

  • Ahmad, Aziz. Islamic Modernism in India and Pakistan, 1857–1964. London, 1967. Good general guide to intellectual modernism in Indian Islam.
  • Ameer Ali, Syed. The Spirit of Islam: A History of the Evolution and Ideals of Islam with a Life of the Prophet. Reprint, London, 1965. Ameer Aliʾs best-known work of apologetics.
  • Aziz, K. K.Ameer Ali: His Life and Work. Lahore, 1968. A brief biography, plus reprints of many of Ameer Ali's articles from scatered journals; a very helpful compendium together with Wasti's, listed below.
  • Kurzman, Charles. Modernist Islam, 1840–1940: A Sourcebook. London, 2002.
  • Hardy, Peter. The Muslims of British India. Cambridge, 1972. The best short intellectual history of Muslims in nineteenth- and twentieth-century India.
  • Moaddel, Mansoor. Islamic Modernism, Nationalism, and Fundamentalism: Episode and Discourse. Chicago, 2005.
  • Wasti, Syed Razi, ed. Memoirs and Other Writings of Syed Ameer Ali. Lahore, 1968.
  • Wasti, Syed Razi, ed. Syed Ameer Ali on Islamic History and Culture. Lahore, 1968. Collected articles by Ameer Ali, some also contained in the Aziz work, listed above.
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