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The muslim leader and reformer Sir Syed Ahmad Khan


Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was the greatest Muslim reformer and political leader of the 19th Century. After receiving education in Persian and Arabic he took up the Government service.

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan came forward to guide the destinies of his co-religionists and help them steer through stormy seas of ignorance and superstition to safe shores of confidence and fresh aspirations. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, one of the pioneers of the freedom movement of the Indo-Pakistan, was the torch-bearer in imparting modern scientific education to the down-trodden and ill-educated Muslims of the sub-continent to enable them to stand up to the political and socio-economic needs of the time. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan stands out as an important landmark in the development of Muslim thought in the South Asian sub-continent. Sir Syed was the founder of the Aligarh Movement which was the most important movement after the struggle of 1857. He opposed the campaign started by Hindus to replace Urdu by Hindi. The objective of this campaign was to ruin the Muslim civilization and culture by destroying Urdu.


Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was born in the year 1817 at Delhi in a renowned family of scholars and statesmen. He was educated like all Muslims of his day under the traditional system of education.

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan started his career by entering into government service as a Sarishadar at Delhi in 1836. After the War of Independence of 1857, he wrote his famous thesis entitled "Loyal Mohammadans of India". He wrote his Risala-dar-Asbab-i-Bhagawati-i-Hind and Ahkam-i-Ta'am-i-Ahl-i-Kitab and other pamphlets to further his educational ideas. In 1864, he established a School at Ghazipur where the English language along with eastern languages was also taught to Muslims. He founded a Scientific Society. Here he started the periodical which was first called Scientific Society Papers and later, the Aligarh Institute Gazette.

He visited England in 1869 and, on his return, started his famous movement for the establishment of the Muslim University. It started the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College in 1898 and gradually expanded it to be raised to the status of a University in 1920. He started a monthly journal called the Tehzib-al-akhlaq. It's object was to bring home to the Muslims the need for liberalizing their religious thought and turning to western education in order to regain their former prosperity. The Translation Society established at Ghazipur in 1864, whose objective was to translate books from European languages into Urdu, was being managed by Syed Ahmad's lifelong friend, Raja Jai Kishan Das. Similarly, the British Indian Association established in 1866 with the object of keeping in touch with the members of the House of Commons was composed of both Hindus and Muslims.

The establishment of Aligarh College was the crowning of his work and it is by that work that his name will always be reverenced amongst Mohammadans and, indeed, by Indians of other creeds. Syed Ahmad Khan had set out to achieve the following objectives:-

  1. “To protect Islam from the onslaught of Christian missionaries and to prove that it was the one true religion;
  2. To remove the bitter enmity which had arisen between the Muslim and the British for religious or political reasons and to establish friendly relations between them;
  3. To reinterpret the teaching of Islam and bring them in harmony with Modern Science and Philosophy so that educated Muslims while holding on to their religion, might take a rational and enlightened view of life and meet the demands of the new age;
  4. To persuade Muslims to learn the English language and Western sciences so that they might secure a substantial share in the administration of the country.
  5. To maintain Urdu along with English as an associate official language and to develop it through translations and original writings”.

Sir Syed Ahmad's services to his community may be summarized in three phrases; "loyalty to the British, devotion to education, aloofness from politics". He preached and practiced loyalty to the British rule. From his speeches, writings and letters, it is not difficult to read his mind.

In order to bolster up the morale of Muslims, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan took a number of measures that aimed at the cultural renaissance, social regeneration and the political rehabilitation of the Muslims in the sub-continent. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, during the early phase of his public career, believed in a United India but when the Urdu-Hindi Controversy and Hindu prejudices against Muslims rose in tempo, he began to express views indicating his belief in the Two-Nation Theory.

Hindu leaders of Benares proposed that "the Urdu language written in Persian Script should be discontinued in Government courts and should be replaced by the Hindi language written in Devanagri script". It was the first occasion, says the well-known Urdu biographer of Syed Ahmad (Hali) "when he (Syed Ahmad) felt that it was now impossible for Hindus and Muslims to progress as a single nation and for anyone to work for both of them simultaneously. He firmly believed that the crying need of the movement for his community was not their participation in politics but a comprehensive plan of education to fit them for life in a changing world. The need for stress on education can be gleaned from the fact that in 1872 "out of three hundred students on the rolls of the Hoogly College [which was maintained by the East-India Company out of the income of a Moslem Educational Trust] only three were Moslems". Syed Ahmad believed that Muslims were backward educationally and economically and were far behind the Hindus in every respect. There could be no co-operation between them in political struggle unless they were on a footing of equality. He therefore, worked ceaselessly to divert Muslim energies into literary rather than political activities.

Syed Ahmad was a great admirer of Turkey. He was perhaps the first Indian to don a Turkish cap - the Fez and make it part of student uniform in Aligarh. He constantly published articles on Turkey in his Tahzib-ul-Akhlaq. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan died in 1898 and was buried at Aligarh in the College Compound. [1]

Religious works

Sir Syed Ahmad had a versatile personality, and his position in the judicial department left him time to be active in many fields. His career as an author (in Urdu) started at the age of 23 with religious tracts. In 1847 he brought out a noteworthy book, Athar Assanadid ("Monuments of the Great"), on the antiquities of Delhi.

Even more important was his pamphlet, "The Causes of the Indian Revolt". In this booklet he ably and fearlessly laid bare the weaknesses and errors of the British administration that had led to dissatisfaction and a countrywide explosion. Widely read by British officials, it had considerable influence on British policy.

His interest in religion was also active and lifelong. He began a sympathetic interpretation of the Bible, wrote Essay on the Life of Muhammad (PBUH) (translated into English by his son), and founded time to write several volumes of a modernist commentary on the Quran. In these works he sought to harmonize the Islamic faith with scientific and politically progressive ideas of his time.

4. Ahkam Tu'am Ahl-Kitab, Kanpur, 1868.

5. Al-Du'a Wa'l Istajaba, Agra, 1892.

6. Al-Nazar Fi Ba'z Masa'il Imam Al-Ghazzali, Agra.

7. Izalat ul-Chain as Zi'al Qarnain, Agra, 1889.

8. Zila al-Qulub ba Zikr al-Mahbub, Delhi, 1843.

9. Khulq al-Insan ala ma fi al-Quran, Agra, 1892.

10. Kimiya-i-Sa'dat, 2 fasl, 1883.

11. Mazumm ba nisbat tanazzul ulum-i-diniya wa Arabiya wa falsafa-i- Yunaniya, Agra, 1857.

12. Namiqa fi Bayan Mas'ala Tasawwur al-Shaikh, Aligarh, 1883.

13. Rah-i-Sunnat dar rad-i-bid'at, Aligarh, 1883.

14. Risala Ibtal-i-Ghulami, Agra, 1893.

15. Risala ho wal Mojud, 1880.

16. Risala Tahqiq Lafzi-i-Nassara, 1860.

17. Tabyin-ul-Kalam fi Tafsir-al-turat-wa'l Injil ala Mullat-al-Islam (The Mohomedan Commentary on the Holy Bible).

18. Tafsir-ul-Qura'n Vol. I Aligarh, 1880, Vol. II Aligarh, 1882, Agra, 1903. Vol. III Aligarh, 1885 Vol. IV Aligarh, 1888 Vol. V Aligarh, 1892. Vol. VI Aligarh, 1895 Vol. VII Agra, 1904.

19. Tafsir al-Jinn Wa'l Jan ala ma fi al-Qur'an, Rahmani Press, Lahore, 1893, Agra, 1891.

20. Tafsir-a-Samawat, Agra.

21. Tahrir fi Usul al-Tafsir, Agra, 1892.

22. Tarjama fawa'id al-afkar fi amal al-farjar, Delhi 1846.

23. Tarqim fi qisa ashab al-kahf wal-Raqim, Agra, 1889.

24. Tasfiyad al'Aquid (Being the correspondence between Syed Ahmad Khan and Maulana Muhammad Qasim of Deobund).

25.He promote western and eastern education.[2]

Contribution towards Muslim Education

Perhaps the Muslims of the Sub-Continent owe their greatest gratitude to Syed Ahmed Khan. He flourished in the second half of the 19th century. His talent, deep-insight, love for Islam and hard work played a major role in the revival of Muslims in India. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was born in 1817 to a Syed family in Delhi. He started his career as a humble judicial official in the English East India Company. Later on he served on important jobs. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan alone among his contemporaries realized that the plight of Muslims could not be improved without a revolution in their attitude towards education. The Muslims were inimical to western education for three reason.

  1. They considered it inferior to traditional Islamic learning.
  2. It was being forced upon them by a foreign people, and
  3. They thought that an education saturated with Christianity might corrupt their beliefs.

During the war of Independence he saved the lives of many Englishmen. The Government centered the title of Sir on him. Thus, he won the confidence of the British Government. After the war of Independence the Muslims were passing through a critical phase. By refusing to acquire western education they were not keeping pace with modern times. The Muslims hated English language and culture. They kept their children away from the schools and colleges. But in this manner they were unconsciously damaging the interests of the Muslim Community. Their ignorance of the English language and lack of modem education kept them away from respectable government posts. On the other hand the Hindus acquired modem knowledge and dominated the government jobs. Syed Ahmed Khan was the first Muslim leader to realize the gravity of the situation. He was greatly pained to see the miserable condition of the Muslims everywhere. He decided to devote his full efforts for the welfare of the Muslims. The first need was the removal of mistrust about the Muslims from the minds of British rulers. For this purpose he wrote - Essay on the causes of Indian Revolt in which he proved that there were many factors which led to the uprising of 1857 and that only the Muslims were not to be held responsible for it. In addition he wrote “Loyal Muhammadans of India” in which too he defended the Muslims against the charges of disloyalty. These works restored confidence of the British in the Muslims to a large extent. The Sir Syed Ahmed Khan turned his attention towards the educational uplift of his co-religionists. He told the Muslims that without acquiring modern education they could not compete with the Hindus. He pleaded that there was no harm in adopting western sciences and in learning English language. He issued a magazine named “Tahzib-ul-Ikhlaq” which projected adoptable European manners. Salient features of the political, educational and religious contributions of Syed Ahmed Khan are as given below

  1. In 1863 Sir Syed Ahmed Khan established a Scientific Society. The purpose of this society was translation of English books into Urdu language.
  2. During his stay at Aligarh he issued a weekly Gazette called “Aligarh Institute Gazette”.
  3. In 1869 Syed Ahmed Khan visited England. There he studied the system of Education. Moreover he wrote Khutbat-e-Ahmedya in reply to Sir William Muir's book “Life of Muhammad”.
  4. In 1870 he issued his famous magazine named “Tehzib-ul-Ikhlaq” in order to apprise the Muslims of their social evils and moral short comings. This magazine promoted Urdu language immensely.

Shortly afterwards Syed Ahmed Khan wrote a commentary on the Holy Quran. In this work Syed Ahmed Khan interpreted Islam on logical and scientific basis. Syed Ahmed Khan was one of the pioneers of the Two Nation Theory. He openly declared that the Hindus and the Muslims were two different communities with different interests. He advised the Muslims to refrain from Joining Indian National Congress. In May 1875, Syed Ahmed Khan founded Muhammadan Anglo Oriental High School at Aligarh. Two years later in 1877 this school was elevated to the status of a college by Lord Lytton the British Viceroy himself. M.A.O College Aligarh was a residential institution. It rendered great services in imparting modern education to the Muslims. It boasted of the services of many renowned scholars of that period like professor T.W. Arnold in Philosophy, Sir Walter Raleigh in English, Maulana Shibli in Persian and Jadu Nath Chakarwati in Mathematics. In 1921 M.A.O College was raised to the status of Aligarh University. This seat of teaming played a significant part in infusing spirit of Islamic nationalism among the Muslim students. These students later on became the torch bearers of the freedom movement in Indo-Pakistan. With the view of promoting the educational cause of 70 million Indian Muslims, Sir Syed founded, in 1886, the Muhammadan Educational Conference which held its meeting at various places to provide a forum for discussing problems that affected the Muslims at large. The principal aims of the Conference were

  1. To make an effort to spread among the Muslims western education to the higher standard.'
  2. To enquire into the state of religious education in English schools founded and endowed by the Muslims, and to find out means to conduct it in the best possible way.
  3. To give some strengthened support to the instruction voluntarily imparted by Muslim divines in religious and other oriental learning's and adopt some measures to maintain it as a living concern.
  4. To examine a state of education and instruction in the indigenous primary schools and take steps to remove their present state of decay in directing them onto the path of progress. Muhammadan Educational Conference used to hold its annual meetings in various cities where by the cooperation of local Muslims steps were taken for the progress of Education.[3]

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