Syed Ahmed Khan

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Syed Ahmed Khan

Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898) was a Moslem religious leader, educationalist, and politician. He contributed to the intellectual and institutional foundation of Moslem modernization in southern Asia.

Born on Oct. 17, 1817, Syed Ahmed trained himself in Moslem law and religion and was employed by the British government. He served in several Indian administrative posts, gave assistance during the 1857 mutiny, and retired with honor 20 years later to devote himself to social and religious reform.

Throughout his life Syed Ahmed showed concern with how Indian Moslems could adapt to intellectual and political change accompanying Western rule. His first mission became reinterpretation of Moslem ideology so as to reconcile tradition with Western education and science. He argued in several books on Islam that the Koran rested on a deep appreciation of reason and natural law and therefore did not preclude Moslem involvement in scientific methodology. These themes, mixed with a call for Moslem education, continually appeared in his journals, the Mohammedan Social Reformer and the Aligarh Institute Gazette.

Syed Ahmed's ideas became institutionalized despite criticism from theologians. In 1862 he formed a scientific society, and 13 years later he assisted in establishing the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College, which prospered and became the key intellectual center for Indian Moslems, Aligarh University. The success of the college was largely due to his leadership and a curriculum embodying both Western and Oriental studies.

At the same time Syed Ahmed's views on Islam in India fostered his political interest. First, he tried to assure the British of Moslem loyalty by countering the dual charge that Moslems had instigated the mutiny and that they were compelled by religious injunction to rebel against a Christian government. He also urged Moslems to avoid "seditious" political activity. These tactics reflected his belief that if the British were convinced of Moslem support, the resulting official patronage would help Moslems overcome their relative backwardness in education and employment. Two factors were judged necessary for Moslem advance, special British assistance and a reorientation of attitudes among Moslems.

Syed Ahmed increasingly opposed Hindu and nationalist leaders after the creation of the Indian National Congress in 1885. Although sympathetic to criticism of British injustice, he saw Congress as a potentially dangerous organization. If enacted, Congress proposals favoring open competition for jobs and elected legislative councils would further hamper the growth of the Moslem minority. Too, association with anti-British politicians might undercut Syed Ahmed's attempt to strengthen Moslem-British ties. He accordingly formed in 1888 an anti-Congress organization, the United Patriotic Association, and called on coreligionists to withdraw from Congress. The massive Moslem response left the Congress without significant Moslem cooperation for 3 decades.

By his death on March 27, 1898, Syed Ahmed had indelibly stamped the ideology and life-style of Indian Moslems. His institutions such as the college and the Moslem Educational Conference continued to influence intellectuals, while his political stance remained a basic determinant of Moslem attitudes toward agitation and nationalism.

Further Reading

English biographies of Syed Ahmed include G.F.I. Graham, The Life and Work of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1885), and Shan Muhammad, Sir Syed Ahmed Kahn: A Political Biography (1969). Aziz Ahmed, Islamic Modernism in India and Pakistan, 1857-1964 (1967), and a recent study on Aligarh by S.K. Bhatnagar, History of the M.A.O. College, Aligarh, provide background on Syed Ahmed's life and milieu.

Additional Sources

Graham, George Farquhar Irving, The life and work of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1974. □

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