Sayyid Ahmed Khan and the Aligarh Movement

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After 1857 the Muslims in India significantly responded to the cultural thrust of the West. Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan (1817–1898) first grasped the challenge of modernization that British rule had brought to India. His intellectual legacy is abiding, though his political tactics are no longer relevant.

Born 17 October 1817 into a prominent family of the later Mughal nobility, Sayyid received a traditional Muslim education, which ended when he was eighteen years old. Subsequently, on his own initiative, he acquired a profound knowledge of Islam. The death of his father and elder brother required him to take a modest job as sarishtadar (recorder) in Delhi's criminal court. In 1841 Sayyid was appointed munsif (subjudge); the last Mughal king, Bahadur Shah II, granted him the ancestral titles of Jawad ad-Daulah and Araf Jang (Supporter of the State and Wise Strategic Thinker). From 1846 to 1854, he remained in Delhi, writing six books on traditional religious themes. In 1847 he published an archaeological survey of Delhi, Athar Al-Sanadid, in recognition of which the Royal Asiatic Society of Britain made him an honorary fellow in 1864. In 1855 Sayyid was transferred to Bijnore, where he witnessed the tragic upheavals of 1857.

Sayyid remained loyal to the British government, for which he was rewarded with promotion to the rank of Principal Sadr Amin. However, he had emerged from the ordeal of 1857 as a Muslim nationalist as well. He completed in 1859 his Tarith Sarkashiy-I Dhilla Bijnore (History of insurrection in Bijnore district) and his critique of the British East India Company's misrule in India, Asbab Baghawat Hind (The causes for the revolt of India). To calm the outraged British government, he wrote in his Risalah Khair Khawahan Musalmanan: An Account of the Loyal Mahomdans of India that a large number of Muslims, throughout the "Mutiny" of 1857–1858, had remained loyal to the British government. To explore areas of harmony and to foster sympathetic understanding of Christianity among Muslims, Sayyid wrote Tabiyn al-Kalam fi Tafsir al-Tawrat was al-Injiyl Ala Millat al Islam: The Mohammedan Commentary on the Holy Bible, publishing it in 1862. In 1864 he established the Scientific Society, translating European scientific works into Urdu and arranging public lectures on scientific subjects. At Aligarh, Sayyid launched his British Indian Association in May 1866 to lobby the British Parliament for the rights of Indians.

Sayyid took a leave of absence from his position of subjudge and sailed to London in 1869, remaining in Britain until October 1870. For his trip he had mortgaged his ancestral home in Delhi and had borrowed 10,000 rupees at a very high interest rate.

Sayyid was enchanted by the dynamism of British society and culture, though he also began to develop a greater awareness of his own cultural identity during that trip abroad. That process of self-realization, called khudi (ego) by Indian Islam's poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938), was evident as Sayyid wrote from England in 1869: "My faith in the fundamental principles of Islam was strengthened more by exposure to the conditions of Europe ..than by going on a pilgrimage to Mecca." (Malik 1986, pp. 98–99).

Perceptions of 1857 and the Theory of Participatory Rule

Sayyid's view of the upheavals of 1857 was contrary to the prevalent British view of the events as a "grand mutiny." Sayyid argued that five major causes spawned the revolt: the people's misapprehensions of the intentions of the British East India Company government; the enactment of laws, regulations, and procedures that were not in harmony with Indian mores and their past political systems; the government's lack of information about the peoples' condition, folkways, and other "afflictions," which alienated their subjects from the government; the inefficient management and disaffection of the army; and the government's abandonment of practices that were essential to good government in India.

The Muslim rulers of India, reasoned Sayyid, were once, like the British, alien to India. Differing in faith and culture, the Muslims and the Hindus eventually succeeded in establishing friendship. Initially, and especially during the Turkish and Pathan Delhi Sultanate dynasties, contacts between Hindus and Muslims were minimal. A feeling of cordiality was first established in the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605), and continued through the reign of Shah Jahan (r. 1628–1658), but unfortunately ceased during the anti-Hindu reign of Aurangzeb (r. 1658–1707). The British could have won the affection and the loyalty of the Indians by inviting the upper classes to attend their viceregal courts. Governors-General Lord Auckland (1836–1842) and Lord Ellenborough (1842–1844) observed this practice, which later fell into disuse. Personal contacts between the ruler and the ruled disappeared, Sayyid noted, and mistrust and suspicions arose.

Reflective of Sayyid's recommendation was the Indian Councils Act of 1861, which added three Indians—the maharaja of Patiala, the raja of Benares, and Sir Dinka Rao—to join the newly created eighteen-person Legislative Council. In 1878 Lord Lytton appointed Sir Sayyid as a member of the Legislative Council, and in 1880 his tenure was extended for two more years by Lord Ripon. Allen Octavian Hume's endeavors for the creation of the All-India National Congress may have been inspired, at least in some measure, by Sir Sayyid's cogent advice to the British Raj.

The All-India Muhammadan Educational Conference

Established in 1886, Sir Sayyid's Muhammadan Educational Congress sought to channel the restless flow of Muslims' energies, accentuated by the rising expectations of educated youth, into a national organization. The organization was to combine the functions of articulation and aggregation of Muslim educational, economic, and political interests, while enabling Muslims to define their role in the polity of British India. Finally, the Educational Congress aimed at the politicization of the Muslim masses. Thus, Sir Sayyid renounced his apolitical role after 1885, recognizing that the establishment of the All-India National Congress that year heralded the dawn of a competitive political environment in British India. In 1890 he persuaded the annual convention of his Educational Congress at Allahabad to adopt "Conference" as its title, instead of "Congress," generating a clearer struggle for power between the National Congress and the Educational Conference, and the ideological successor of the latter, the All-India Muslim League, which was established by the conference's leaders in 1906 in Decca. On 28 December 1887, while the Indian National Congress met in Madras (Chennai), Sir Sayyid utilized a public session of the Educational Congress at Lucknow to oppose Muslim participation in the National Congress. On 16 March 1888, he reiterated more vigorously his opposition to the National Congress at a public meeting in Meerut.

To neutralize the growing power of the National Congress, Sir Sayyid organized a Patriotic Association in 1888. Hindus as well as Muslims of the land-owning classes of Bengal, Bihar, Madras, Bombay (Mumbai), Awadh, the North-West provinces, and Punjab supported the association. The Patriotic Association started sending memoranda to the British Parliament, articulating property owners' interests, which Sayyid believed were in harmony with those of Muslims, adding that the National Congress lacked true "national" representative capacity. However, regional Islamic associations were most conspicuous in the Patriotic Association's system of action, and gradually the role of Hindus virtually disappeared.

Theory of Muslim Nationalism

In the post-1857 period Sir Sayyid was the first to articulate the theory of Muslim Indian nationalism. Other leaders in subsequent generations essentially followed him, embellishing this concept in the light of their own time and erudition. Sir Sayyid, as a scion of Mughal nobility, discussed the concept of nationalism in the terminology of nineteenth-century Europe, and enunciated the creed of Viscount Bolingbroke's aristocratic nationalism. Sayyid believed that nationalism was an instinct, and that national solidarity distinguished man from animal. A mutual feeling of solidarity with those who share many common traits is the quintessence of Sir Sayyid's definition of nationalism. Muslims all over the world were a nationality because of their adherence to the creed of Shihadeh-La ilaha illa-i Lah Muhammadur Rasula-Allah ("there is no God whatsoever but Allah; Muhammad is the messenger of Allah"). Sir Sayyid maintained that "to Islam it was irrelevant whether a believer was white or black, Turkish or Tajik, an Arab or a Chinese, a Punjabi or a Hindustani." By Quʾanic dictum, "Muslims all over the world were the progenies of a spiritual father." Sayyid was aware that, despite their allegiance to a common creed, Muslims differed in their geographic locations and historical experiences. Consequently, he maintained that the Muslims' historical encounter with India had molded Indian Muslims into a distinct nationality. Muslim political power in India, from the advent of the Arabs in the eighth century to the heyday of Mughal power in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, maintained Muslim preeminence in politics, economics, and education.

In the nineteenth century, Sir Sayyid lamented, the Muslim nation was decaying rapidly from its lack of social solidarity. Sayyid also opposed the Congress's demands for the introduction of elections for the Viceroy's Legislative Council, and for a competitive examination for the covenanted services to be held in India. Relatively backward in acquiring English education, Muslim youth were not yet prepared, in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, to compete with Hindus. For a country like India, where cultural and religious heterogeneity was the rule, competitive examination, Sir Sayyid believed, would introduce elements of tension in the administration. On substantially similar grounds, Sayyid in December 1887 opposed the one-man, one-vote principle of election to the Viceroy's Council.

Framework of Social Reforms

Muslim leadership in India, traditional as well as modern, has always been called upon to define Islamic culture and the limits of its interaction with Hindu culture. Hindu culture has always been assimilative, but Islam in the Indian cultural environment faced the problem of preserving its distinct identity, which greater cultural relations with Hindu society would erode. Striking a balance between the two processes (i.e., cultural identity vs. cultural synthesis) has not been easy; and despite the creation of Pakistan in 1947 the problem for Indic Muslims has remained unsolved.

For Sayyid, Western science and technology strengthened Islamic convictions, since Islam was not dialectically opposed to reason. In fact, he expected modern education to be an ally of Islam, sustaining it with rationalist underpinning. However, Islam needed to be reinterpreted and updated in order to remove irrational accretions added by Muslim theologians. Consequently, for analysis, Sayyid's modernistic interpretations can be divided into three broad categories: the Qurʾan and the Apostolic Traditions; the demythologizing of Islam; and finally, the emergence of a modern orientation for Islam.

Sayyid was keenly aware of the need for ijtahad (the right of interpreting Islam) in modern times. On this subject he went back to the original sources of Islamic law, the Qurʾan and the Hadith (Prophetic Traditions). Essentially, Islamic mythology had developed through the Hadith literature and the Prophet's biographies. Twisting any Qurʾanic statement regarding the Prophet, the traditionalists and biographers often allowed their imaginations to take irrational flights. To the believer, these stories became a source of delight, but in the age of reason they embarrassed the educated.

After his return from Europe, Sayyid graduated to the Newtonian view of nature. Consequently, he adopted a rational approach toward fundamental Islamic convictions, including the role of the Prophet, revelation, and the "proofs" of prophecy, the miracles. This intellectual transformation earned him the sobriquet of Nechari, the "naturist." In his scientific approach, Sayyid saw an alliance between science and religion. Like Victorian theologians, he argued that whatever science one chose, it disclosed the power, wisdom, and goodness of God. Moreover, science and religion had two different sets of concerns, but they were not dialectically opposed; while religion dealt with the ultimate cause, science carried out observations and experiments to search for networks of connections.

Sayyid dismissed the traditionally accepted miracles of the prophet Muhammad as fabrications of zealous Muslims, who sought to match Muhammad's "miracles" with those of Moses and Christ. He did accept the Darwinian theory of evolution as a scientific and rational explanation of the descent of man, but refused to accept the alleged superiority of scientific knowledge over the Qurʾan. He asserted that scientists interrogated nature objectively in order to yield certain knowledge. This accurate scientific knowledge only served to establish the existence of God, and his rational religion, Islam. In this view, man could scarcely expect to go beyond that level of comprehension. Thus, the theory of evolution was yoked, by Sir Sayyid, to the service of Islam.

Hafeez Malik

See alsoAll-India Muslim League ; Congress Party ; Iqbal, Muhammad ; Islam ; Islam's Impact on India


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