Sir Syed Ahmad Khan is hailed as one of the most iconic Muslim intellectuals to have ever existed in the Indian subcontinent. The Muslims living in this part of the world lionize him as a reformer who fought a fierce battle against religious orthodoxy. Sir Syed was born in the year 1817 in Delhi which at that point in time was the capital of the Mughal Empire in India. Working as a jurist for the East India Company, Sir Syed established himself as a maverick scholar and philosopher.
The appalling backwardness of the Muslim community in British India was a matter of great concern for Sir Syed. He opined that in order for Muslims to prosper economically, they required expertise in modern Western education so that they could compete with the Hindus who dominated jobs in the public and private sector. In the year 1875, Sir Syed booked for himself a place in Indian history with the establishment of the Muhammedan Anglo-Oriental College which has today evolved into the prestigious Aligarh Muslim University.
It’s very tough to objectively analyze the life history of a philosopher like Sir Syed. The orthodox mullahs have a history of demonizing him. They detest him for having pointed out that Muslims in India were in far urgent need of acquiring Western education in modern scientific schools rather than merely relying on religious education imparted in Madrasas. Many of the contemporary Wahabbist scholars have come to criticize him for his reformist approach towards Islam which they considered to be in contravention to the principles of Islamic Sharia as laid down by jurists. Sir Syed spoke in opposition to the misogyny which had taken deep root in Islamic societies. He did not approve of polygamy and the tilted laws of inheritance. He also criticized Hudud penalties in Islamic Sharia besides differentiating between usury and interest.
The right wing intellectuals in India have also taken barbs at the tactics which were employed by Sir Syed during the course of his life. They view Sir Syed as someone who was grossly sectarian by nature and indifferent to the problems of the Hindu majority. Moreover, opposition to the establishment of minority educational institutions pits India’s right wing directly against the man who can be called as the pioneer of such institutes as Aligarh Muslim University has held on to the baton of providing education to Muslims as an undeniable priority.
In order to settle the question of whether Sir Syed was a communitarian or a communalist, we need to assess the speeches and articles which he wrote. One such speech of Sir Syed which he gave in Meerut in the year 1888 clearly shows that Sir Syed turned to arguments fielded by religious fanatics in order to develop a communal alliance between Indian Muslims and British Christians. He said, “Our Hindu brothers of these provinces are leaving us and are joining the Bengalis. Then we ought to unite with that nation with whom we can unite. No Mohammedan can say that the English are not “People of the Book” (Quranic term referring to Jews, Christians and Sabians). No Mohammedan can deny this: that God has said that no people of ‘other religions’ can be ‘friends’ of Mohammedans except ‘Christians’. He who had read the Quran and believes it, he can know that our nation (Muslims) cannot expect friendship and affection from any other people. At this time our nation is in a bad state as regards education and wealth, but God has given us the light of religion, and the Quran is present for our guidance, which has ordained them (Christians) and us (Muslims) to be friends.”
It’s incredibly tough to explain as to how could a man with such a liberal outlook, mislead members of his community by referring to a possible verse (5:82) in Surah Maidah of the Quran which is usually invoked by radical preachers to spew venom and hatred. Did Sir Syed not read in the Quran, “He (God) does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with anyone who has not fought you on account of your faith or driven you out from your homes: God loves the just (60:8)?”
The problems associated with Sir Syed’s discourse do not end over here. In the same speech which he delivered at Meerut, he went on to declare himself as an enemy of the Christian faith and hinted at their alliance with them as God’s diktat. He said, “Now God has made them (Christians) rulers over us. Therefore we should cultivate friendship with them, and should adopt that method by which their rule may remain permanent and firm in India, and may not pass into the hands of the Bengalis. This is our true friendship with our Christian rulers and we should not join those people who wish to see us thrown into a ditch. If we join the political movement of the Bengalis our nation will reap loss, for we do not want to become subjects of the Hindus instead of the subjects of the People of the Book. And as far as we can we should remain faithful to the English Government. By this my meaning is not that I am inclined towards their religion. Perhaps no one has written such severe books as I have against their religion, of which I am an enemy. But whatever their religion, God has called men of that religion our friends. We ought not on account of their religion but because of the order of God to be friendly and faithful to them. If our Hindu brothers of these provinces and the Bengalis of Bengal and the Brahmans of Bombay and the Hindu Madrasis of Madras, wish to separate themselves from us, let them go, and trouble yourself about it not one whit.”
It would be unjust and a travesty of truth to generalize opinion on someone’s personality based on a few statements he gave during his long life of 80 years but such language doesn’t appear to be of a person who seeks communal amity and reconciliation.
Image Source: By Sir Syed Album, by Khaliq Ahmad Nizami, published by Idara-I Adabiyat, Delhi, 1983. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons