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Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: A peek into lesser known facets in the glorious life of Aligarh Muslim University founder

·15 min read

The discourse around Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817€"1898), the founder of Aligarh Muslim University, whose 204th birth anniversary falls on 17 October, often tends to revolve primarily around his educational and social reforms. Sir Syed was deeply invested in the idea of India, and explored new frontiers of rationalism, radicalism, and non-conformism in the wide-ranging corpus of his writings that extend over religion, ethics, polity, education, patriotism, nationalism, human rights, Western civilisation, and modern sciences.

This is a fact that gets drowned in the eulogies and encomiums showered on him that invariably hail him as an avant-courier, a visionary, a covenant of amity, and a moderniser of Muslims, who emerged as a beacon of hope amid the darkness of degradation that besieged the Muslims in colonial India, especially after the revolt of 1857. Often, these eulogies end up evoking Sir Syed's description of Hindus and Muslims as the "two eyes of the beautiful bride that is Hindustan," and his call that a true Muslim must have "the holy Quran in one hand and the science in the other."

Eminent scholar and critic Shafey Kidwai's painstakingly researched and illuminating new book, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: Reason, Religion and Nation, breaks new ground in the studies around Sir Syed's life and work, as well as his contributions to the making of modern India.

"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," writes Kidwai in the Preface. True to this aim, he puts under scrutiny Sir Syed's role as a public figure, a lawmaker, a proponent of pluralism and a multifaceted Muslim renaissance man of the 19th century, to assess why he qualifies to be ranked as one of the pioneers who, in his own distinct ways, tried to "shape India's destiny."

Writing from the standpoint of an objective and dispassionate critic, Kidwai gleans the man from the archival material €" books, monographs, tracts, newspaper articles, editorials, lectures, and speeches €" assesses his encounters with tradition and modernity, and critiques both his strengths and shortcomings in order to offer a "holistic window" on the legacy of the 19th century leader, and underline his "invaluable contribution to the democratic consciousness in India."

Kidwai locates Sir Syed in the pantheon of 19th century polymaths like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Keshab Chandra Sen, Rajendra Lal Mitra, and Harish Chandra Mukherjee, who were driven by a strong desire to reshape the contours of social and political realities in the face of cultural servitude and subjugation during the British Raj. Each of them hoped to create intellectual awakening by building collective consciousness, often through new organisations and institutions, and bring into reality their dream of a civil society. "Sir Syed's writings, betraying his engagement with the social, moral, political issues, and the ideological undercurrents of his time, seem alive to the issues faced by contemporary Indian society. His views on vexed issues can mobilise us in the cause of mutual trust, coexistence, peace, justice, and social equality at a time when we need them most.... His views on the concept of blasphemy, jihad, cow sacrifice, gender equality, conversion, social conviction, cultural practices, Hindu-Muslim unity, Hindi-Urdu controversy, reservation for Muslims, and the question of nation and nationality, still have a strong bearing," Kidwai writes.

We owe most of what we know about Sir Syed to the accounts of his two widely known biographers €" Colonel GFI Graham and Khawaja Altaf Husain Hali. The latter wrote the most accessible biography of Sir Syed, Hayat-e-Javed (1901), which was published three years after his death. Kidwai finds Hali's narrative of Sir Syed's contribution to the collective life of 19th century India exhaustive, but he writes that it was an enterprise in which Hali "succeeded moderately." Most historians of the Aligarh Movement, including Rafeeq Zakaria and KA Nizami, however, have relied on Hali, often without "bothering about the veracity of the facts," writes Kidwai, who sets out to correct some discrepancies of names, dates, and years, and clear the omissions and commissions in Hali's biography as well as in the accounts of Sir Syed's other biographers.

Sir Syed was born into a noble family. His maternal grandfather, Khawaja Fariduddin Ahmad (1747€" 1828), was an influential personality of 18th-century Delhi, and boasted of close relations with both the British and the Mughal Court. He was made the prime minister with the title of 'Nawab Dabirudd Dowla Musleh Jung' during the reign of Mughal emperor Akbar Shah (1806-1837). Sir Syed's early childhood was spent at his maternal grandfather's mansion, where he lived among a large family. "The house was so spacious that dozens of children could play outdoor games such as cricket, football, and hide-and-seek. Sir Syed was very enthusiastic about games, and chess was his favourite indoor game. His father and maternal uncles were experts in archery and swimming," writes Kidwai.

Sir Syed's father, Syed Mohammad Muttaqi, too, was on good terms with the Mughal Court, and knew Akbar Shah personally when he was the crown prince. Muttaqi later became a disciple of a well-known saint, Shah Ghulam Ali, leaving the task of rearing their children to Sir Syed's mother, Azeezun Nisa, the eldest daughter of Khawaja Fariduddin, whom he married in 1805. Kidwai tells us that it was Muttaqi's spiritual prowess that left a lasting impact on Sir Syed. "One can see traces of the Naqshbandi sect of Sufism and Shah Waliullah's teaching on the early writings of Sir Syed," he writes. It was to his mother that Sir Syed owed his initiation to education, a fact he acknowledges in Seerat-e Faridiya (1896), in which he vividly portrays her amenable and caring nature. "Her wise counselling and altruistic behaviour inculcated equanimity, uprightness, generosity, and equality in him. Her insightful exhortations went a long way in shaping Sir Syed," Kidwai writes.

Sir Syed's elder brother, Syed Mohammad Khan, was a pioneer in Urdu journalism, who launched a weekly, Syedul Akhbar, from Delhi, which was the third Urdu newspaper of North India. He was also an outstanding calligrapher, who prepared the manuscript of Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri or Jahangir-nama, the autobiography of Mughal emperor Nuruddin Muhammad Jahangir. Safiyatun Nisa, his elder sister, was well versed with religious studies. Sir Syed received his early education, Quran lessons, from a maktab (seminary). It was here that he also got a chance to study well-known Persian textbooks, such as Gulistan and Kareema, the famous books of tasawwuf (mysticism) by Sheikh Saadi Shirazi, and Khaliq-e-Bari, the versified collection of Persian and Hindavi words by Ameer Khusrau. Though Hali finds his early education inadequate, Kidwai argues that Sir Syed had become proficient with three languages (Urdu, Persian, and Arabic), and his early writings not only bear testimony to it, but also do not seem deficient on scholarship count. "Sir Syed's early inclination towards objectivity owes much to his family's predilection for mathematics, and it instilled a sense of precision in him," writes Kidwai.

Reading was Sir Syed's cherished pastime. As an autodidact, he pored over books on a variety of subjects, and would visit famous poets and eminent scholars such as Mirza Ghalib, Mohammad Ibrahim Zauq, Momin Khan Momin, Imam Bakhsh Sahbai, Sadruddin Azurda and others in order to keep himself in sync with the literary zeitgeist.

Sir Syed, incidentally, shared his strong sense of humour and penchant for impromptu pun-filled quips with Ghalib. Quoting Hali, Kidwai writes: "When Sir Syed was an older man, he was noted for his sense of humour, but during his youth, he enjoyed a joke even more. For instance, there was a dancing girl called Shirin Jan in Delhi, who was renowned for her beauty. On the other hand, her mother was ugly and dark-skinned. Once Sir Syed was at a party to which the courtesan in question had come with her mother to give a recital. One of Sir Syed's friends, who had come from Qandahar, remarked, 'Her mother is very sour.' Sir Syed retorted, 'Indeed she is sour but has borne the sweetest fruit.'"

In Asar-us-Sanadid (The Archaeological History of Delhi, 1847), an authentic chronological account of the kings who ruled Delhi from 1400 BC to 1843 AD, which he wrote when he was 30, Sir Syed acknowledges that he learnt a lot from Mirza Ghalib. His every word is more than a book, and his "one flower is better than a garden," Sir Syed writes of Ghalib.

Before he turned 20, Sir Syed was married to Parsa Begum, alias Mubarak Begum, the only daughter of his youngest maternal aunt Fakhrun Nisa, though, Kidwai writes, he barely alludes to his wife in his writings. Their marriage lasted for 25 years; Fakhrun Nisa died in 1861, leaving behind two sons €" Syed Hamid (12) and Syed Mahmood (11) €" and daughter Ameena, who died at a very young age in 1970, when Sir Syed was on his way to England. Sir Syed was 44 when his wife died. His close friends and the elders of his family insisted that he remarried, but he brushed off their suggestion. "Sir Syed opted for celibacy to focus on his cherished goal of helping Indians, especially Muslims, escape from the morass of ignorance, apathy, and narrow-mindedness," writes Kidwai.

Before he joined the British judicial service in 1838, Sir Syed tried his hand at two Urdu newspapers€" The Zabdatul Akhbar (1833), a Persian weekly, and The Sayyidul Akhbar (1837) €" and one biannual and bilingual periodical, The Loyal Muhammadans of India (1860). "His experience with these periodicals equipped him with professional proficiency in writing on various topics," writes Kidwai, who underlines that Sir Syed's role in enlightening people at the start of his career has largely been undocumented, including his association with Sayyidul Akhbar. Later, Sir Syed also started two periodicals €" The Aligarh Institute Gazette (1866), the first multilingual newspaper of the country, and Tahzibul Akhlaq (1870). Sir Syed became a reader of The Zubdatul Akhbar when he got posted as a munsif in Agra (None of Sir Syed's biographers or historians of Indian journalism have discussed it, Kidwai informs us).

"Sir Syed's periodicals were instrumental in giving birth to public service journalism in India. His writing betrays a marked sense of authoritativeness, coupled with his inclination towards pluralism and liberal values.... Sir Syed subtly challenges the ancestral beliefs that actualised hatred, bigotry, discrimination, subjugation, and intolerance in Indians. For him, these traits would never free them from dogmatic belief. His narrative, encompassing a wide range of subjects, redefines Islam in many ways," writes Kidwai. Through his journalistic writings, Sir Syed aimed to bring about the awakening among his countrymen, who were left despondent in the aftermath of the 1857 revolt. Muslims, especially, faced prosecution, and were held under fabricated charges. Sir Syed tried to absolve the Muslims of such cases by publishing an authentic account of what they did when the rebellion erupted. He started a bilingual publication, An Account of the Loyal Mohammedans of India (Risala Khair Khwahan-eMusalmanan-e-Hind) from Meerut in 1860 for this purpose.

"To revitalise the Muslims, Sir Syed made them aware of the religious tolerance, freedom of expression, and other liberal values propagated by Islam at its peak, and before the self-opinionated ulema (clerics) abandoned its teachings," writes Kidwai. Sir Syed's non-conformist religious thought had alienated him from the ulema who charged him of apostasy €" a charge that trailed him all his life. Citing the Prophet's sayings, Sir Syed considered dogmatism, intolerance, and rigidity to be irreconcilable with the tenets of Islam.

When Sir William Muir (1819€"1905), a civil servant and Orientalist, ran down the Prophet in his contemptible book, A Life of Mahomet (1861), in which he also concluded that Muslim society was not capable of reform, as it believed in the infallibility of its theological and societal norms, instead of joining the vociferous protests against the book, Sir Syed wrote a rejoinder to Muir's profanity-filled book: Al-Khutbat al-Ahmadiya fi'l Arab wa'I Sirat al-Muhammadiya (A Series of Essays on the Life of Muhammad and Subjects Subsidiary Therein), in 1869.

"Sir Syed denounced the book for its innumerable historical inconsistencies but stressed that the Quran did not prescribe any corporal punishment for such a deplorable act, and that the Muslims must not seek vengeance on behalf of the Almighty or his messenger, the Prophet of Islam," writes Kidwai. Sir Syed's views ran contrary to the popular narrative on blasphemy that considered it as an unpardonable act for which offenders must part with their life. After the British stamped out the 1857 revolt, zealous Christian missionaries got emboldened, and launched a massive campaign for forced conversion "as a means to perpetuate cultural subjugation and colonise all that exists in society," often with the official support.

Kidwai writes that as a government employee, though Sir Syed could not directly denounce the government's tacit support to conversions, he poured scorn on the attempts to perpetuate xenophobia.

"For him, religion is a matter of personal free choice, and a maniacal attachment to one's religion is an immoral activity," writes Kidwai, highlighting that for Sir Syed, religion can never be a rigid and intolerant monolithic entity; it has to cultivate a multi-cultural society where peace is an essential way of life.

Sir Syed's views on jihad, reservation for Muslims, cow slaughter, and freedom of expression were equally radical. He believed that mindless violence and barbarity could not be linked with the term jihad. According to him, violence, by its very nature, denotes wilful defiance and utter disregard of the divine commands "The object of jihad is not to practice treachery and cruelty, and no sane man can, with the most distant approach to truth, apply that term to an insurrection characterised by violence, crime, and bloodshed," wrote Sir Syed, who termed violence to be "repugnant" to the basic teachings of Islam.

The 1857 revolt proved to be disastrous for Muslims as they found themselves reeling under economic, social, political, and moral hardships. While Sir Syed spoke about reservation for Muslims to save them from destitution, he denounced reservation in jobs, but favoured it at a political level. According to him, the government was not supposed to provide jobs based on religion rather than merit.

Kidwai writes that though Sir Syed had been accused of fomenting separatism in India, his speeches and writings hardly indicate communal insularity. "As an administrator, legislator, and public intellectual, Sir Syed did not give in to religious bigotry and linguistic prejudice, and there is no trace of the religious zealot in him. He sets out the details of living in a plural society to which the Muslims of India were not exposed, as they had always lived in a country ruled by a Muslim king. Pluralism was very dear to him, and he endeavoured to instil an all-embracing perspective among Muslims," writes Kidwai.

On the contentious issue of cow sacrifice on Eid-ul-Adha, Sir Syed urged Muslims to desist from the practice of cow slaughter voluntarily "for the sake of friendly relations with the majority community." He believed that such a gesture would result in mutual respect and harmony.

As a bureaucrat, journalist, a member of the legislature, educationist, and politician, held liberty in great esteem. He described freedom of expression to be "the bedrock of our social moorings." He believed that "if this fundamental human right was made accessible to all, the society would flourish." To Sir Syed, the opinion of a single individual was as important as the view of many. Though he had formal training in Muslim theology and a Sufistic upbringing, Sir Syed reckoned reason to be the "final arbiter of both immortal and ephemeral world".

In 1878, Sir Syed was nominated as an additional member of the Imperial Legislative Council, which he served from July 1878 to July 1880. Kidwai writes this was the highest position that an Indian could achieve in those times. A frequent traveller, Sir Syed was among the few Muslims who visited England in the 19th century. His journey, writes Kidwai, has been described as the "voyage to Modernism."

Initially, Sir Syed had pleaded the case for imparting modern education through the vernacular. However, during his visit to England (1869), he was left in awe of Cambridge and Oxford, which inspired him to establish Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College in 1875, which was renamed as Aligarh Muslim University in 1920.

In a separate chapter on female education, Kidwai dissects Sir Syed's regressive views on women's education that smacked of his patriarchal and feudal instincts. Sir Syed advocated setting up government schools for boys only, and laid emphasis on home-based tutor education for girls. He was widely pilloried for this discriminatory stance. "Sir Syed's views on female education betray a sense of ambivalence, naivety, and vacillation. However, his writings do not support the popular narrative that charges him with being against modern education for girls," writes Kidwai.

Sir Syed remains a figure revered and reviled, applauded, and assailed €" in life and in death €" for his iconoclastic ideas. It was largely because he lived in contradictions, constantly changing his attitudes and opinions on several matters of public interest. Kidwai has no qualms in dwelling on those contradictions, and alerts the reader, early on in the book, that Sir Syed demonstrates "scant regard for consistency" in his writings and speeches.

Kidwai tells us that Sir Syed is among those who do not insist on consistency at the cost of what they consider expedient in a changed situation, citing his anti-Congress stance as a case in point. "His books and articles simultaneously discuss contradictory views, and any attempt to draw them into a single narrative is destined to fail," he writes. Kidwai's book succeeds in drawing out a nuanced portrait of a man whose ideas continue to resonate even today, nearly a century and a quarter after his death, and is an invaluable resource for those interested in modern history.

Nawaid Anjum is an independent culture journalist based in New Delhi. He can be reached at

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