Ahmad Khan, Sayyid

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AHMAD KHAN, SAYYID (18171898), also known on the Indian subcontinent as Sir Sayyid; educational reformer and religious thinker. He was born in Delhi on October 17, 1817, and died at Aligarh on March 27, 1898. Raised in the house of his maternal grandfather, the Mughal noble Khwājah Farīd al-Dīn Khan (17471828), he received the traditional education of a Delhi gentleman, reading the Qurʾān in Arabic and Saʿdī's Gulistān and Bustān and the dīvān of āfi of Shiraz in Persian, together with a smattering of works on mathematics, astronomy, and Greco-Arab medicine.

At the age of nineteen Ahmad Khan entered the judicial service of the East India Company, where he was to rise, in the course of his thirty-eight years of service, to the highest ranks then open to native Indians. From the 1840s onward he published a number of short scientific and religious works, but it was his historical scholarship, and especially his Urdu-language topographical work on Delhi, thār al-anādīd (1846; rev. ed., 1852), that made him known internationally.

He always considered the British the legitimate rulers of India, but a major turning point in his life came with the failure of the Indian Revolution, known as the Mutiny of 1857. Only then did he become fully convinced that the best of Western civilization could and should be assimilated by the Muslims, because Islam, properly understood, the "pure" Islam taught by the Qurʾān and lived by the Prophet, was not simply unopposed to Western civilization but was in fact its ultimate source and inspiration. In the early 1860s, Ahmad Khan founded the Scientific Society, an association for the translation into Urdu and propagation of works of Western science and scholarship; after his visit to England in 18691870, these efforts led to the establishment of the Muhammedan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh, the beginning of the first secular university for Indian Muslims.

Against considerable opposition from the ʿulamaʾ, as well as from members of his own class, Sir Sayyid emerged in the mid-1880s as the leader of an important sector of Indian Muslims, the majority of whom in 1887 followed his advice not to join the predominantly Hindu, middle-class Indian National Congress. Parliamentary democracy demanded active participation in the process of governmental decision making, and for lack of effective political organization among Muslims he feared that such a congress would bring about the permanent subordination of Muslims to Hindus.

Besides countless editorials and aricles for the Aligarh Institute Gazette and for Tahdhīb al-akhlāq (The Muslim Reformer), two periodicals he founded, Ahmad Khan wrote a number of important religious monographs, including Tabyīn al-kalām (a fragmentary commentary on the Bible in three volumes, 18621865), Essays on the Life of Mohammed (1870), and a seven-volume Urdu translation and commentary on the Qurʾān up to surah 20 (18801904). Most of his articles and tracts, including important parts of his Qurʾān commentary, have been reedited in sixteen volumes by M. Ismāʿīl Panīpātī in Maqālāt-i Sar Sayyid (Lahore, 19621965).

In his earliest religious writings Sayyid Ahmad Khan strives to put the person and actions of the Prophet back into the center of Muslim life, and he forcefully denounces innovation. Highly conscious of the hiatus between original Muslim practice and the contemporary reality of Indian Muslim society, he stresses the ideals that should inform a corporate Muslim life and insists on the need for an interiorized ethics of the heart. These emphases point to three major influences upon his early outlook: the Naqshbandī Mujaddidī ūfī order, to which Sayyid Ahmad Khan was linked intimately by his family; the theologian, mystic, and social thinker Shāh Walī Allāh (17031762) and his house; and the Mujahidin movement led by Sayyid Amad of Rai Bareilly (17961836) and Sāh Ismāʿīl (17731831), without the political overtones of the latter's teachings and activities, however.

The political consequences of the British crushing of the 1857 "Mutiny" led Ahmad Khan to exclude from the purview of the injunctions of the holy law the whole area of culture and society on the grounds that they were "this-worldly" and not strictly religious (dīnī) in character. His teaching remained opaque, however, as to which basic principles of the lawas distinguished from its elaborate prescriptionscould and should inform Muslim sociocultural life with its distinctive Islamic quality.

Sayyid Ahmad Khan not only gave single theological answers to single challenges; by going back to the sources and principles of the various Islamic religious sciences, he attempted a consistent, comprehensively valid theological response. He tried to evolve a new Muslim theology on the pattern, as he saw it, of the Muslim response to Greek philosophy and science during the Abbasid renaissance. The Christian missionary attack under the British imperial aegis, in his view, could be met by accepting and interpreting the present-day scriptures of Jews and Christians as the revealed word of God. Freed from the distortions of an erroneous dogmatic interpretation, and in the light of the uniquely clear Qurʾanic message of God's unity, the gospel of Jesus continues to be relevant.

Critical studies of Muammad's biography and of earliest Islam by William Muir (18191905) and other scholars provided Ahmad Khan with the battleground for evolving, in defensive response, ever more severe canons of external and internal adīth criticism. Taking into account the long period of oral transmission preceding the codification of the adīth, along with the laws of the rise and growth of legends, Sir Sayyid accepts the results of post-Newtonian natural science as established truth and uses them to justify the need for metaphorical interpretation (taʾwīl) of biblical and Qurʾanic texts. Contemporary and later theological critics have not failed to censure Ahmad Khan for what they consider to be philological ignorance and willfulness in scriptural interpretation.

Besides the "new sciences," the plurality of religions (each claiming the exclusive possession of final, saving truth) led Sir Sayyid to postulate reason (ʿaql) as the ultimate criterion of the truth. And reason, for Sir Sayyid, is nothing but the "law of nature," actually, or at least potentially, accessible in full to the human rational faculty. Any happening against the "law of nature" would mean a breach of God's promise and is thus inconceivable. Such a conviction about an all-inclusive, fully determined, and closed nexus of natural law(s) implies the negation of miracles and supernatural events as well as the rejection of traditional views regarding the efficacy of prayers of petition.

In the theologically crucial area of theological epistemology Sayyid Ahmad Khan renews the teaching of classical Muslim philosophers (falāsifah ). The gift of prophethood, as a natural trait (malakah ) given to a person at conception, becomes part of the predetermined system of creation and is independent of divine choice. The credibility of the Qurʾān (as of any revealed scripture) is based not on miracles but on the intrinsic value of its content, in the same way that the unsurpassed and unsurpassable greatness of Muammad is due to the essential nature of his teaching and to his unparalleled moral effort to spread it.

However incomplete and superficial Sayyid Ahmad Khan's acquaintance with the new sciences and with Western philosophy and historical criticism may have been, and however rash he was in accepting what he thought to be their presuppositions and lasting results, it goes to his credit that before any other Muslim he saw the necessity of a radical reappraisal of Islamic religious thought with openness to modern science, scholarship, and philosophy.


My own Sayyid Ahmad Khan: A Reinterpretation of Muslim Theology (New Delhi, 1978), pp. 353366, lists the relevant printed primary and secondary source material.

The most comprehensive and substantial biography of Ahmad Khan is ayāt-i jāvīd by Alāf usayn ālī. The first, more strictly biographical part of it has been translated from the Urdu original into English by K. H. Qadiri and David J. Matthews as Hayat-i-javid: A Biographical Account of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (Delhi, 1980). The second part of the work offers a detailed analysis of Sir Sayyid's achievements, not least in the field of religious reform and thought. The book remains fundamental, notwithstanding the author's inclination, here and there, toward hero worship and rosy retrospect. J. M. S. Baljon's pioneering study in English, The Reforms and Religious Ideas of Sir Sayyid Amad Khān, 3d ed., rev. (Lahore, 1964), throughout deeply indebted to Hali's work, presents an overall picture of the man, subordinating Sir Sayyid's religious quest to his educational and sociocultural concerns. Bashir Ahmad Dar's Religious Thought of Sayyid Amad Khān (1957; reprint, Lahore, 1961) is the first monograph to bring into relief Sir Sayyid's positive contribution in the sphere of religious thought, analyzing its salient features in the context of the political, cultural, and religous situation. It describes, to some extent, the classical antecedents to which Sayyid Ahmad Khan related his own seminal ideas. In the line of B. A. Dar, my own Sayyid Ahmad Khan, cited above, further emphasizes, by way of a genetic approach, the interplay in Ahmad Khan's religious outlook and theological work between traditional Islamic ideas and the contemporary challenges of Christian preaching, historical criticism, and the "new sciences." It presents the overall structure of his new Muslim theology and, in part 2, offers a substantial choice of texts relating to Sayyid Ahmad Khan's credo, translated from Urdu into English for the first time. In chapter 3 of his edited work, The Rose and the Rock: Mystical and Rational Elements in the Intellectual History of South Asian Islam (Durham, N.C., 1979), Bruce B. Lawrence throws new light on Sir Sayyid's early phase of religious practice and thought. He detects there rational elements and mystical components important enough to merit serious attention in any critical assessment of Sayyid Ahmad Khan's later contributions.

Christian W. Troll (1987)