Make your own free website on
Search the Republic of Rumi

Sir Syed Ahmed KhanDAWN The Review, August 2001

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan: the Pioneer of Humanism

Never was a greater intellectual born among the Muslims of India than Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. He was in a league of his own. There was no one like him before, and there came no one like him afterwards. Sadly, the only thing a proud Pakistani student remembers about him six weeks after exams is that he had a magnificent beard and that he opened some college in a far-off town called Aligarh.

Syed Ahmed was born in Delhi, 1817. Ghalib was twenty year old at that time, and a close family friend. Syed Ahmed, as he was growing up, began calling him “Chacha Ghalib” (or Uncle Ghalib) out of fondness, and the title stuck on the poet forever.

Syed Ahmed’s father, Mir Taqi (not to be confused with the famous poet), was a mystic who shied away from participating in the affairs of the world, leaving them all up to his father-in-law. He died when Syed Ahmed was twenty-one, but seems to have left little impact on him. Mother, Azizunnissa Begum was, however, a woman of clearly defined views and inexhaustible energies. There is a famous story about how the young Syed Ahmed was kicked out of the house by his mother for hitting an old servant. He was admitted back only through intermediation of some relatives, and after he had duly asked forgiveness from the servant. The Mughal society of Delhi was a rigidly class-based structure, and Azizunnisa Begum’s outrage at her son’s abuse of a poor servant might well have been due to the teachings of such reformers as Shah Abdul Aziz (the first translator of the Holy Quran into Urdu), of whom she was a devout follower. However, Syed Ahmed learnt only half his lesson: while he persistently showed respect for humanity, he nevertheless failed to gain control over his hot temper. To the end of his days he was known for his cataclysmic outbursts of anger.

Syed Ahmed was only nine when Ghalib undertook the arduous journey from Delhi to Calcutta. On his return, he was a changed man. Quite contrary to how Mr. Naseeruddin Shah was going to depict him on the screen one hundred and seventy-five years later (courtesy Gulzar), the historical Ghalib was all praise for the able administration of the British, and would fondly describe how the streets of Calcutta, the British Capital in India, were neatly maintained and designed to an order. Ghalib, at least it seems from his Divan, would literally swoon at the very mention of Calcutta: Culcuttay ka jo zikr kiya too nay humnasheen/ Ik teer meray seenay mien mara keh hai hai!

Syed himself wasn’t much interested in studies in the beginning (and he never mastered the English language to the end). According to his own admission, he was briefly drawn to the usual pleasures of those days, such as listening to music and watching dance. Life changed upon the death of his father. Syed was forced to seek the dual employment of the Mughal Court and the British East India Company. This was a common practice in those last days of the Mughal Empire, since the King himself was living off on a regular pension from the British. A “royal employment” would quite often mean nothing more than an impressive title – Jawwaduddaula Arif-e-Jang, or The Overseer of the Kingdom, The Sage of War, in the case of Syed Ahmed!

Syed Ahmed was forty when the upheaval of 1857 took place. Until then, he was torn between his nostalgia for the Mughal past and his admiration for the Western thought. His elder brother was a journalist, and from his press Syed Ahmed used to publish books about the former grandeur of the Mughals. One of these was Asarus Sanadid, an exhaustive study of the architectural heritage of Delhi. He literally risked his life while documenting inscriptions written on the ceilings of dilapidated buildings. It is said that he worked so hard that he seriously fell ill. Another was a thoroughly revised edition of Ain-e-Akbari (a medieval treatise on the government in the days of Akbar the Great). For this later effort, he received a frank rebuke from Uncle Ghalib in fluid Persian poetry: Ghalib urged his nominal nephew to wake up to the new age that had begun to dawn. Any effort to recall the glory of the Mughals, according to Ghalib, was “an effort in futility.” Syed Ahmed was still not so sure of that.

But what happened in the fateful summer of 1857 shook him to the core of his conscience. Today, many historians describe it as The War of Independence, but that wasn’t how Syed Ahmed, Mirza Ghalib, and other enlightened Indians of the times looked at it. To them, it was a conspiracy by backward looking forces to push their country back into the medieval times, and stop the advancement of rational thought. At the very outset of the revolt, the rebel leaders started killing every white man, woman or children that they could lay their hands on. Syed Ahmed was posted at Bijnour at that time. He risked his own life to save a British family from the hands of the freedom fighters. At one point, the fighters besieged his bungalow, demanding that he should hand over the refugees to them. Syed Ahmed resisted with an unmatched courage, something he was to display many times again in his life when pitched against the fanatics. Later, when the British Government offered him a huge estate in reward, he refused it. He had acted from conviction, not for reward.

Meanwhile, the freedom fighters at Delhi had issued a proclamation in the name of a Mughal prince, in which they outlined how they intended to rule the country once the British were ousted. They listed the cruelties committed by the British infidels, such as that “on the complaint of a common peasant, a maidservant, or a slave, the respectable landlords are summoned into court, arrested, put into jail and thus disgraced.” The freedom fighters promised that when they come into power, they would stop such atrocities, and “every landlord will have absolute rule over his property.” The idea of restoring the local monarchy over the Sub-Continent by overthrow of the British might have been a beautiful dream for some, but it was most certainly the worst nightmare of people like Ghalib and Syed Ahmed.

After the recapture of Delhi by the British army, Syed Ahmed went back to rescue Azizunnisa Begum, now a helpless old lady. There, he must have seen the fruits of the British revenge: it is said that for several miles outside Delhi the trees were strewn with the corpses of the citizens of Delhi, who were hanged on them after a summary trial. This scene, which was described countless times over the next hundred years to move sentimental patriotic crowds into a frenzy against the British Raj, failed to sway the rational judgment of Syed Ahmed even as he was looking at the ruins of Delhi – the ancient buildings he had documented with so much passion all turned into rubble now. But he was a historian, and he remembered that the earlier conquerors of Delhi had also allowed their armies to plunder. The massacre by the armies of Nadir Shah, just a little over a century ago, was perhaps just as bad as what was now lying in front of Syed Ahmed. The raids of the Marhattas, in their days of power, would culminate in ghastly scenes too. The British storming of Delhi was brutal mainly by the British standards. By the standards of the Indian history, it was just like many other captures of Delhi.

This is almost exactly what Syed Ahmed wrote in his account of the Revolt, which was published under the title, Tarikh Sarkashi-e-Zila Bijnour. “In India, people are not at all used to learn about former times from the facts of history, nor from reading books,” he lamented. “It is for this reason that you people are not familiar with the injustice and oppression that used to take place in the days of the past rulers.” Mirza Ghalib had already denounced the War of Independence (then known as the Mutiny) as “rustakheez-e-beja,” or a “Rebellion without a Cause,” which formed the subtitle of his own account of the uprising.

Syed Ahmed has been most misunderstood from this point onwards. While his detractors present him as a partisan of the British government, his defenders do him no less harm by maintaining that Syed Ahmed’s main concern was only the interests of his own community, for which purpose he feigned loyalty to the British Crown. The truth is that Syed Ahmed was far above either of these concerns. He was a rationalist, first and last. The uprising of 1857 had jolted him up to proclaim that the human beings can only be divided into two classes: those who listen to logic, and those who don’t. Only those who can use their rational faculty and rise above sentiments are capable of making ethical decisions.

In 1869, when Syed Ahmed went to London, he found a big chunk of the puzzle he was trying to solve. In a letter from there, he wrote, “Look at this young girl Elizabeth Matthews (a housemaid where he was staying), who, in spite of her poverty, invariably buys a half-penny paper called the “Echo” and reads it when at leisure… Cabmen and coachmen keep a paper or a book under their seats and after taking the passenger to his destination, or in case the coach has to wait, they take out their newspaper and start reading.” With an increased conviction than before, Syed Ahmed concluded that, “Unless the education of the masses is pushed on in India, as it is here, it is impossible for a native to become civilized and honored.” However, Syed Ahmed was not one to tone down his words once he was sure that he was speaking the truth. “Without flattering the English,” he wrote in the same letter. “I can truly say that the natives of India, high and low… when contrasted with the English in education, manners, and uprightness, are as like them as a dirty animal is to an able and handsome man.” It seems that the angry young boy who had struck at his servant with anger still remained unbroken somewhere inside.

In that same journey, the honorific of KCSI was bestowed upon Syed Ahmed, which entitled him to prefix his name with “Sir.” Hence he became “Sir Syed” from that point onwards. By that time he was the most prominent Muslim in India. He had penned down a series of comparative studies on Christianity and Islam, emphasizing similarities rather than differences between the two; he had established schools; he had also founded a society for the advancement of scientific thought, whose main function was to translate treatises on modern science from the European languages into Urdu.

However, his greatest achievements were yet to come – his famous periodical Tehzeebul Akhlaq in 1872, and the establishment of the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental School at Aligarh (which became a college in 1877 and was inaugurated by the Viceroy). Much has been written on these accounts. But what has often gone unnoticed is that the objectives of Sir Syed were not so much aimed along the communal lines (special provisions were made at Aligarh College for accommodating Hindu students, and Sir Syed generally preached that Muslims should refrain from slaughtering cows on the Eid), as they were along the divide of the rational faculty versus common sentiment. Sir Syed is most misunderstood in his opposition to the Indian National Congress, which was founded in 1885. It is said that he opposed it mainly out of a fear of the Hindu domination. Even if that may be true, it cannot be more than a half-truth. The complete truth, as may be gathered from his own writings (quite easily available), is that Sir Syed opposed the Congress because it was heading towards politics. He feared that any kind of politics in India would invariably resort to religious sentiments. This, in the opinion of Sir Syed, would disrupt the harmony, which he wanted to preserve above everything else. Mentioning the ideas of John Stuart Mill on representative government, he declared: “The aims and objects of the Indian National Congress are based upon an ignorance of history and present-day realities.” A utilitarian individualist of the same school of thought as Mill, he was of the opinion that the main purpose of a responsible government was to ensure personal liberties and maximum happiness for the individual. He had no time for totalitarian movements that asked for sacrifices in the name of abstract ideals. “I consider the experiment which the Indian National Congress wants to make fraught with dangers and sufferings for all the nationalities of India, specially for the Muslims,” he declared in his characteristic matter of fact style. You could hate him, or you could love him, but he would never give you words that could be interpreted in two different ways. “The Muslims are in minority, but…at least traditionally they are prone to take the sword in hand when the majority oppresses them. If this happens, it will bring about disaster greater than the ones which came in the wake of the happenings of 1857.”

Indeed, he was not expressing his heartfelt desire, but only his worst suspicions. Quite prophetically, this came true in the bloodshed of 1947. But nobody by that time was in a mind to remember the voice of reason that he had tried to infuse into his people. The Hindus had given up the ideals of the Brahmo Samaj and the Muslims had reverted back to that starry-eyed nostalgia against which Sir Syed had repeatedly warned them. Of course there were a thousand variables involved, and a thousand different ways to explain what followed between Sir Syed’s death in 1898, and the inception of two independent states in 1947, but if he were to come back on the eve of freedom, perhaps his only question to the two emerging nations would have been, “In what manner have you prepared yourselves?” And he, indeed, was the last man who could be satisfied with any answer that smacked of sentiment.

See Also

The torch-bearers of humanism

You could hate him, or you could love him, but he would never give you words that could be interpreted in two different ways.

Search the Republic of Rumi