IAS online test series
 Home » Subject » Political Science » Notes » Indian Political Thought

Indian Political Thought: Sir Syed Ahmed Khan

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan:

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was eminent political figure and a great visionary. He was renowned Muslim reformer of the 19th century. He had a dream to make the community and country advanced and take them forward on modern shapes. His main interest was intellectual development of the people through modern education. He was the first Indian Muslim to contribute to the intellectual and institutional foundation of Muslim modernization in Southern Asia. Sir Syed had made magnificent contributions for the improvement and empowerment of the Muslims. His position in the judicial department left him time to be active in many fields. He was also a good writer and began his career as an author in Urdu at the age of 23. In 1847, he brought out an important book "Monuments of the Great" on the antiquities of Delhi. Even more important was his pamphlet "The Causes of the Indian Revolt". His interest in religion was also active and lifelong. He wrote on the Life of Prophet Muhammad (Sal-am) and dedicated himself to write several volumes of a modernist commentary on the holy Quran. In these works, he enlightened how the Islamic faith could go with advanced scientific and political ideas of his time.

While struggling for Independence, he saved the lives of many Englishmen. The Government centred the title of Sir on him. Thus, he won the confidence of the British Government. After the war of Independence, the Muslims undergone a critical phase. By rebuffing to acquire western education, they were not moving parallel with modern times. The Muslims hated English language and culture. They kept their children away from the schools and colleges. But in this way, they were unintentionally declining the interests of the Muslim Community. Their unfamiliarity 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 obtained high level government jobs. Syed Ahmed Khan was the first Muslim leader to realize the seriousness of the situation.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was very upset to observe the depressed condition of the Muslims everywhere. He decided to take extreme efforts for the welfare of the Muslims. He realized that there is a need to the exclusion 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 rebellion of 1857 and that only the Muslims were not to be held responsible for it. Additionally, he wrote "Loyal Muhammadans of India" in which he shielded the Muslims against the charges of unfaithfulness. These works restored confidence of the British in the Muslims to a large extent. Then, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan focused on the upliftment of educational part of his co-religionists. He told the Muslims that without obtaining modern education, they could not compete with the Hindus and other communities. He pleaded that there was no harm in accepting western sciences and in learning English language. He issued a magazine named "Tahzib-ul-Ikhlaq" which projected adoptable European manners. Afterwards, Syed Ahmed Khan wrote an interpretation on the Holy Quran. In this important work, Syed Ahmed Khan interpreted Islam on logical and scientific basis. Syed Ahmed Khan was one of the pioneers of the Two Nation Theory.

Although the Muslims remained aloof from British administration, the Hindus, Parsis and other communities forged forward in education and social development. The replacement of Persian by English as the language of the higher courts (1835) was disliked by the Muslims but was welcomed by the other communities. They embraced English education much more enthusiastically than did the Muslims. In 1878, there were 3155 college educated Hindus as against 57 college educated Muslims. In a country, growing poorer by the year due to Company practices, government service was a major career path for poor people and the Muslims missed these opportunities. The situation was particularly acute in Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. Since the fall of Bengal in 1757, all of the higher positions in civilian, military and judiciary service were reserved for the British. The more educated Hindus filled the lower positions that were open to Indians. The Muslims were practically shut out.

When appraised his contribution to his community, it is recognized that Syed Ahmed Khan sensed the dangers in this isolation. As long as mutual suspicion and hostility persisted between the Muslims and the British, the former would be excluded from participation in the political and social life of the country. Sir Syed visited England in 1870 and came back with a conviction that English education was necessary for the progression of the Muslims. In 1877 he established the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College" at Aligarh. The name of the college was self-descriptive and its orientation was decidedly western. It faced immediate hostility from the Muslim religious establishment.

Sir Syed supported the British during the 1857 revolution. This effort of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan had been condemned by some nationalists such as Jamaluddin Afghani. In 1859, Sir Syed published the booklet Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind (The Causes of the Indian Revolt) in which he studied the causes of the Indian upheaval. In his most famous work, he rejected the concept that the conspiracy was planned by Muslim leaders, who were insecure at the weakening influence of Muslim emperors. He accused the British East India Company for its belligerent expansion as well as the ignorance of British politicians regarding Indian culture. Sir Syed suggested the British to appoint Muslims to assist in administration, to 'haramzadgi', (a vulgar deed) such as the rebellion.

In the biography of Sir Syed, Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali wrote that:

"As soon as Sir Syed reached Muradabad, he began to write the pamphlet entitled The Causes of the Indian Revolt (Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind), in which he did his best to clear the people of India, and especially the Muslims, of the charge of Mutiny. In spite of the obvious danger, he made a courageous and thorough report of the accusations people were making against the Government and refused the theory which the British had invented to explain the causes of the Mutiny."

When he completed the work, without waiting for an English translation, Sir Syed sent the Urdu version to be printed at the Mufassilat Gazette Press in Agra. Within a few weeks, he received 500 copies back from the printers. His friend advised him not to send the pamphlet to Parliament or to the Government of India. Rae Shankar Das, a great friend of Sir Syed, pleaded him to burn the books otherwise he will be in danger. Sir Syed responded that he was bringing these matters to the attention of the British for the welfare of his community, of his country, and of the government itself. He said that if he gripped in danger while doing something that would greatly benefit the rulers and the subjects of India alike, he would happily suffer whatever befell him. When Rae Shankar Das saw that Sir Syed had decided to flash information about his writing, he wept and remained silent. After performing a supplementary prayer and getting God's blessing, Sir Syed sent almost all the 500 copies of his pamphlet to England, one to the government, and kept the rest himself.

When the government of India received the book translated and presented before the Council, Lord Canning, the governor-general, and Sir Bartle Frere accepted it as a genuine and friendly report. The foreign secretary Cecil Beadon severely criticised it and said that it is an extremely rebellious pamphlet. He wanted a proper inquiry into the matter and said that the author, unless he could give a satisfactory explanation, should be severely dealt with. Since no other member of the Council agreed with his view, his spasm did no damage.

The political career of Syed Ahmed khan began after 1857. He provided political leadership by uniting the people under a banner of Islam. He wrote various notable works in order to remove the mistrust of the Britishers towards the Muslims. To the Muslims, he advocated loyalty to the government and to the British he asked to review their policy, which would win the support of the largest minority in the country. This two-way policy resulted in the settlement of the Muslims.

In brief, major contribution by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan.

  1. The Causes of Indian Revolt: Syed Ahmad Khan was so overwhelmed by the trouble of the Muslims in the sub-continent that he decided to make efforts to save the Muslim Nation from total ruin. To remove suspicions of the British officers and bring them closer to the Muslims, he wrote his well-known pamphlet, The Causes of Indian Revolt, which Graham describes as 'true and manly words'.
  2. Pamphlet "The Loyal Muhammandans of India": In this pamphlet, he drew their attention of the critics to the services of Muslims families who had saved the lives of many Englishmen, women, and children at the risk of their own lives. He also pointed out that Muslims are not opposed to Christians.
  3. Indian National Congress: Sir Syed had known about the intention of the Hindus and advised the Muslims not to join it. He thought that Congress was mainly a Hindu body which worked for the protection of the rights of the Hindus. He requested the Muslims to get modern education first then come in the field of politics in order to protect their rights. He believed that the political activity would divert the attention of the Muslims from the constructive task and revive British mistrust.

Aligarh Movement: According to Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi, "Syed Ahmad Khan's contribution to Muslim renaissance in India can be summarized in one phrase, that it was the inculcation of self confidence in his people" (The Struggle For Pakistan).

Throughout his life, Syed Ahmad Khan remonstrated against the practices of purdah, polygamy, easy divorce and many other fallacies in his community. His main priority was advancement of modern western education, in Muslim society. He believed that his community can only enhance their status and progress when the Muslims accept western scientific knowledge and culture. In AD 1864, he established the Translation Society at Aligarh. It was later renamed the Scientific Society.

Sir Syed was condemned for inspiring communal divisions between Hindus and Muslims. He is recognized by historians as one of the earliest supporters of the Two-Nation Theory that Hindus and Muslims were distinct and incompatible nations. Historians debated that Sir Syed was emotionally incapable to accept the prospect that an independent India's Hindu-majority would come to rule Muslims, who had been the former colonial rulers. He also dreaded that Hindu culture would weaken the Perso-Arabic nature of Muslim culture, which had enjoyed a dominant status under Muslim rulers for centuries. His disapproval of Indian nationalists and profession of the incompatibility of Muslims and Hindus expanded the socio-political gulf between the communities that had emerged with the Urdu-Hindi controversy. At the same time, Sir Syed was strongly disparaged by religious Muslims who regarded his liberal reinterpretation of Islamic scripture as irreverence.

Followers of Sir Syed argued that his political visualization gave an independent political expression to the Muslim community, which helped its goal to secure political power in India. His viewpoint guided the creation of the All India Muslim League in 1906, as a political party separate from the Congress. Sir Syed's ideas encouraged both the liberal, pro-British politicians of the Muslim League and the religious ideologues of the Khilafat struggle. The Muslim League remained at odds with the Congress and continued to support the boycott of the Indian independence movement. In the 1940s, the student body of Aligarh committed itself to the establishment of Pakistan and contributed in a large measure in the activities of the Muslim League. Sir Syed's support of Urdu led to its extensive use amongst Indian Muslim communities and following the Partition of India, its adoption as an official language in Pakistan.

To summarize, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was great Muslim crusader and political leader of the 19th Century. After receiving education in Persian and Arabic, he joined the Government service. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan took daring step to guide the fortunes of his co-religionists and help them to survive in community. As a social reformer, a political leader, a religious thinker and as a moralist, a rationalist, a humanist, and a jurist, he made immense contribution in the field of theology, philosophy, religion, history, literature, education, and politics. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, one of the creators of the freedom movement of the Indo-Pakistan, was the main player in imparting modern scientific education to the down-trodden and illiterate Muslims of the sub-continent to empower them to stand up to the political and socio-economic requirements of the time.