Ameer Ali, Syed

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AMEER ALI, SYED (18491928), Indian Muslim historian, jurist, and politician. Ameer Ali was born in Chinsura, Bengal, a suburb of Calcutta. His family spoke Urdu, having migrated from Avadh shortly before his birth to join a small community of fellow Shīʿī Muslims of Iranian descent. Ameer Ali never had any significant contact with Bengali or substantial training in Arabic; his education was in English, supplemented with Persian and Urdu. He was also greatly influenced by Sayyid Karāmat ʿAli (17961876), a family friend who had written an Urdu treatise in the rationalistic Muʿtazili tradition of Shīʿī scholasticism. After receiving degrees in law and history from Calcutta University in 1868, he went to London on a government scholarship and qualified as a barrister in 1873. From 1890 to 1904 he was a judge of the Calcutta High Court, after which he retired to England, where he served from 1909 until his death as a member of the Judicial Committee of the Royal Privy Council.

During Ameer Ali's student years in England he wrote The Critical Examination of the Life and Teachings of Mohammad (1872), the first version of what in three subsequent revisions was to become famous as The Spirit of Islam. More than an apologetic response to Christian polemics and the challenge of nineteenth-century empiricism, as in the writings of Sayyid Ahmad Khan, The Spirit of Islam (1922) portrays Islam as a dynamic force, the ultimate generator of "religious progress among mankind" (p. xix). Ameer Ali sees "the achievement of Mohammad in the moral world" in terms of the traditional concept of his role as last of the prophets, the culmination and synthesis of all previous religious discoveries. But he also argues that the initial revelation of Islam is a continually creative "spirit," the source of the ongoing progress of universal human understanding and moral sensibility. Ameer Ali attributes "the present stagnation of the Mussulman communities" to an unwillingness to allow the inspiration of Islam to guide private judgment, to adapt the universal teachings of the Prophet to "the necessities of this world of progress with its ever-changing social and moral phenomena" (pp. 182183). At the same time, he insists that inspiration be constrained by rationalism and warns against "vulgar mysticism," which "unsettles the mind and weakens the foundations of society and paralyses human energy" (pp. 477478).

As a major figure in the development of "Anglo-Muhammadan Law," that is, the adaptation of Islamic ethical and legal principles to British judicial institutions and procedures, Ameer Ali made similar arguments for a continually adaptive reading of scriptural sources in the light of "changed circumstances." On this basis he argued against polygamy and female seclusion. In making these interpretations, he claimed for himself, as well as for the non-Muslim judges of the British courts, the right to override traditional Muslim authorities.

Throughout his adult life Ameer Ali was an active political publicist and organizer on behalf of what he deemed to be a homogeneous Indian Muslim community. In 1878 he founded the National Muhammadan Association, the first All-Indian Muslim political organization, with over fifty far-flung branches. He was instrumental in formulating constitutional arrangements for separate Muslim electorates and weighted political representation, on the grounds that Muslims had once ruled India. In 1924 he joined the Aga Khan in appealing to the Turkish Republic to maintain the caliphate, an intervention that Kemal Atatürk took as sufficient grounds for its final abolition. Ameer Ali defended the Sunni institution of the Ottoman caliphate as a "pontifical" headship of a world Muslim polity, but he remained ultimately committed to the "apostolic" Shīʿī imamatea contrast between democratic consensus "however obtained" and those truly qualified on the basis of intrinsic superiority (see his Mahommedan Law, 1912 ed., vol. 1, p. 6). His strong advocacy of British rule in India and opposition to Indian nationalism, especially insofar as it consigned Muslims to minority status, were founded on similar antidemocratic principles.

Except for some minor writings in Urdu, Ameer Ali wrote in English for a British public and, only secondarily, for English-educated Muslims. Although treated with contempt by Islamic scholars, his ideas and style have played a significant part in shoring up the self-confidence of Muslims not only in South Asia but throughout the Islamic world.


In addition to The Spirit of Islam: A History of the Evolution and Ideals of Islam, rev. ed. (1922; reprint, London, 1974), which centers on the life of Muhammad, Ameer Ali's other major works are A Short History of the Saracens, rev. ed. (London, 1921), and Mahommedan Law, 2 vols., 5th ed., edited by Raja Said Akbar Khan (Lahore, 1976). K. K. Aziz's Ameer Ali: His Life and Work (Lahore, 1968) reprints many of his writings, including the "Memoirs," and contains a useful bibliography.

David Lelyveld (1987)