Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898): A man with a mission

Print edition : March 12, 2021

“Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: Reason, Religion and Nation” by Shafey Kidwai (Routledge, 2021)

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898). His “considered opinion” on a wide range of issues, including blasphemy, conversion, jehad, cow sacrifice and reservation for Muslims, continue to be relevant in this day and age. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

An immensely readable biography of the reformist Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, and a corrective to existing studies of Muslim engagement with the colonial state and society in 19th-century India.

The 19th-century Indian reformist Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) is exceptional for many reasons. Yet, there has been no comprehensive assessment or biographical account of him in English until recently, perhaps owing to the fact that most of Sir Syed’s writings and speeches were originally in Urdu.

As research gaps continue to afflict studies on Sir Syed, Professor Shafey Kidwai attempts to fill this lacuna in his immensely readable biographical account of Sir Syed. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: Reason, Religion and Nation is a work of deep and intense engagement with primary sources.

Fluent in both Urdu and English, Shafey Kidwai has researched and written extensively on Sir Syed. In his Urdu book, Sawanih-e-Sir Syed: Ek Bazyaft (Revisiting Sir Syed’s biographies), which has run into many editions, he has identified and tried to rectify many factual errors in the official and semi-official biographical accounts of Sir Syed. Shafey Kidwai is also the author of Cementing Ethics with Modernism (2010), which analyses two journals, Aligarh Institute Gazette (AIG, launched in 1866) and Tahzib-ul-Akhlaque (or Mohammedan Social Reformer, launched in 1870), published by Sir Syed.

The book under review attempts to assess and evaluate Sir Syed in a holistic manner, taking into account almost every contentious issue associated with the man, and drawing upon his writings such as tracts, essays, editorials, reviews, speeches, letters/correspondences, and so on.

In the Preface, Shafey Kidwai writes: “Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) stands against repression and subjugation unleashed by the alien rule and strives for freezing out the dogmatic beliefs and superstitions by creating a bulwark in the form of the civil society... and by creating public spheres for the propagation of discourse of empowerment.... The book seeks not to rephrase or eulogise Sir Syed’s intervention in education and socio-religious reforms, but it tries to tell how he crystallised the collective life of India ... and the book intends to locate Sir Syed in the context of the daunting questions that surfaced repeatedly in the nineteenth century India” (page xvi).

Shafey Kidwai opines that Sir Syed has been evaluated more on the official/semi-official biographies, and therefore invites scholars to look deeper into Sir Syed’s own writings.

Thus far, Sir Syed has been essentialised as a collaborator of the British, without problematising the inevitable contradictions and inconsistencies in reformists and public activists in a colonial society. Kidwai draws on a lot of evidence in which Sir Syed articulated his dissent against British policies on several occasions, not only in his 1858 book, Causes of the Indian Revolt, but also in the 1860s and in the 1880s.

Strong Indian roots

Kidwai also lists in detail Sir Syed’s administrative contributions in discharging relief work during the famine, in educational administration since the 1860s, his keen and detailed interventions in the Legislative Council, especially his proposal of Bills for health, and his staunch opposition to the Ilbert Bill (1883).

Sir Syed resigned from the Hunter Commission on Education (1882) as “neither the agenda was circulated nor was enough time earmarked for serious discussion” in its first meeting in Calcutta (page 36). However, Sir Syed continued to publish detailed reports on the progress on the Hunter Commission and attacked the education policy document for ignoring India’s cultural ethos.

Sir Syed’s strong attachment to his Indian roots is evident from the fact that his book Asar-us-Sanadeed (1847) “carries an authentic chronological account of the kings who ruled Delhi from 1400 B.C. to 1843 A.D.” In fact, Shafey Kidwai quotes Sir Syed from AIG dated June 27, 1880: “As the people of the Aryan nations are called Hindus, similarly Muslims may also be called Hindus, i.e., those who live in India” (page 115).

Sir Syed’s Indian rootedness was not confined to intellectual expositions alone. His politics, too, stood against pan-Islamism. He rejected the notion of ummah (global Muslim ecumenical identity) and insisted on the Indian identity of Muslims (qaum). In his later writings and speeches, he became more conscious of the contentions associated with the word qaum, and clarified that he used this term in various contexts such as caste, linguistic and sub-regional identity, nationality, and so on.

Notion of nation

Shafey Kidwai engages with the issue of “nation” and the Indian National Congress (pages 114-120). He lays bare the semantic jugglery of watan (homeland), qaum and the debates around the issue. However, this writer feels that this segment needed more nuanced and historically informed engagement with the major debates on the evolving nationalism in colonial India, such as the studies by Partha Chatterjee and C.A. Bayly.

Chapter 3, titled “Unravelling Sir Syed” is particularly relevant to our times and the climate of intolerance that we face today. Kidwai argues: “[Sir Syed’s] considered opinion on blasphemy, conversion, reservation [in education, legislature and employment] for Muslims, gender equality, freedom of expression, jihad, nation, democracy, pluralism, education, subjugation, self-respect, and female education, punctuated with an abiding concern for human dignity, still seem pertinent in the fragmented world we live in” (page 86).

Responding to William Muir’s book which was contemptuous of the Prophet Mohammad, Sir Syed preferred “to prepare a dispassionate rejoinder by crosschecking the sources used by William Muir”. Shafey Kidwai notes that employing “deductive arguments, coupled with his grounding in history and jurisprudence, he questioned the conjectural methodology used by the author” and cited “several examples to highlight the Prophet Mohammad’s moral and social commitment to a humane society” (page 88).

Kidwai references Sir Syed’s writings in the AIG, testifying in detail about the assertion of Educational Conference (in its 1889 session) against history textbooks, the content of which sought to kindle Hindu-Muslim hatred. The session passed a resolution to delete in particular three pages of the book, History of the Establishment of British Rule in India by George W. Cox (1884), prescribed for the Allahabad University curriculum. Eventually, in 1892, the book was replaced with Wheeler’s Tales from Indian History.

On conversion and jehad

Sir Syed had strong opinions against religious conversion, be it by force or enticement. He believed that conversion destroyed the multicultural character of society. As Shafey Kidwai writes, “he spelled out the epistemological framework of co-existence revolving around inclusion and sharing” (page 92).

On the subject of jehad, Sir Syed strongly disagreed with Jamaluddin Afghani (1839-1897). He rebutted Hunter’s book, Our Indian Musalmans. Shafey Kidwai offers several pieces of evidences from a series of Sir Syed’s writings, although, he misses the pertinent fact that Sir Syed solicited the services of Moulvi Chiragh Ali (1844-1895) to write on how jehad was a misunderstood notion, and hence absolutely uncalled for. Kidwai has also skipped elaborating on Sir Syed’s struggle against religious bigotry and his abandoned project of religious reforms perhaps because Basheer Ahmad Dar’s Religious Thoughts of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (Lahore: 1957) and Christian W. Troll’s Saiyyid Ahmad Khan: A Reinterpretation of Muslim Theology (Delhi, 1978) have already dealt with this aspect. However, the reasons behind Sir Syed’s dropping his particular agenda of religious reforms await a detailed historical enquiry.

Against reservation

Shafey Kidwai needs to be lauded for highlighting certain writings of Sir Syed which remained un(der)used by scholars. In particular, Sir Syed opposed the demand (1877) of Punjab’s Anjuman-e-Islam on the issue of reservation in government services thus: “Indians, especially Muslims set their hearts on the goals but make no efforts to get themselves prepared for it. It harms both country and nation extensively.” Sir Syed reiterated his position in 1886 when “the Muslims of Bengal and Nawakhali sought his support for reservation”; he expressed his disapproval with these words: “we cannot support it ... Self-help is our motto, and we want that the Muslims must strive for the progress.”

Sir Syed’s speech in the Imperial Legislative Council (1883) opposed the introduction of the election system on the grounds that “a country like India where caste distinction still flourishes and where there is no fusion of races, where religious distinctions are still violent, where education in its modern sense has not made equal or proportionate progress among all sections of population, I am convinced that the introduction of the principle of election, pure and simple… cannot be safely adopted” (AIG, June 20, 1883).

Of late, in academic and political circles, certain speeches and writings of Sir Syed particularly contemptuous against the subordinated communities of Muslims have gained greater attention. However, these critics disregard several other instances where Sir Syed has shown his concern for the education of the weaker and oppressed sections. Moin Ahsan Jazbi (1912-2005), in his study (1959) of Hali’s political consciousness, was forthright in criticising Sir Syed on this count, albeit briefly. Kidwai has shied away from engaging with this aspect of Sir Syed.

Shafey Kidwai cites several writings of Sir Syed that consistently oppose cow sacrifice for the sake of communal amity. He refers to the exchange of letters between Badruddin Tyabji and Sir Syed on the question of Sir Syed’s opposition to the Indian National Congress. However, an engagement with Haroon Khan Sherwani’s essay on Sir Syed’s political thought (Islamic Culture, July 1944) and Denis Wright (Australian Journal of Politics and History, 1989), as well as a little more engagement with Iftakhar Alam Khan’s Urdu monograph, Sir Syed Ki Liberal, Secular aur Scienci Tarz-e-Fikr (2018) may have considerably enriched this specific segment of the book. Such an engagement was needed even more for Chapter 5, titled “Dialogic Affair”, where several instances of Sir Syed’s assertion against colonialism and racism are clearly brought out, in sharp contrast with the negative stereotype that has been created about Sir Syed.

In Chapter 4, Kidwai highlights certain limitations of Sir Syed with regard to the modern education to women. He cites some crucial evidence to disprove some melodramatic accusations made against Sir Syed with reference to Syed Mumtaz Ali (1860-1935) by Gail Minault (1990) and popularised by other scholars including David Lelyveld. Kidwai examines few more evidences wherein Sir Syed, particularly in his later writings, seems to emerge, not as big a ‘culprit’ on that count as he has been made out to be.

In the concluding chapter, titled “Intellectual Awakening through Periodicals”, the author argues that Sir Syed set a new standard for journalism. However, Kidwai seems to have missed out on detailing Sir Syed’s expositions on colonial ravages of agrarian economy and society and his economic nationalism, articulated through agrarian issues to improve agricultural production and rejuvenate rural India. This omission is surprising. Sir Syed’s editorial in appreciation of Dadabhai Naoroji’s nomination to the House of Commons was consistent with his efforts towards campaigning for agrarian issues.

One hopes a subsequent edition will take care of these omissions, besides rectifying some proof errors. The bibliography also needs corrections.

Overall, Shafey Kidwai’s book is a valuable addition to studies on Sir Syed. Its lucidity and analytical treatment of evidence makes reading it as much a pleasure and joy for generalists as it is enlightening for the specialists. This volume serves a great purpose in setting many records straight. It is a huge corrective to the existing studies of 19th century India, and Muslim engagement with colonial state and society in the era.

Mohammad Sajjad is Professor, Modern and Contemporary Indian History, Aligarh Muslim University.