Syed Ahmed Khan biography

Syed Ahmed Khan



       Syed Ahmed Khan was born to Syed Muttaqi and Azim-un-Nisa on 17 October 1817. His ancestors had come to India from Persia during the reign of Shahjahan and enjoyed the patronage of the Mughal emperors.
Ancestors from his wife’s side of the Syed Ahmed Khanfamily had held important posts under the Mughal kings; Azim`s grandfather, Khwaja Fareed-ud-din Ahmed, was prime minister of Emperor Akbar II for some time. He also enjoyed the patronage of the East India Company and was sent on a diplomatic mission to Persia (Iran) and later to Burma. Among his ancestors, Syed Ahmed was influenced more by his maternal grandfather than by anyone else, as he had spent his childhood in his house.
Syed Ahmed had no formal education but learnt Arabic, Persian, Urdu and some mathematics from private tutors, besides the study of Quran. But it must go to the credit of Syed Ahmed that in spite of his rather unsystematic education he developed a taste not only for reading but also for writing and was able to author some quite significant books and tracts. However, he picked up only a smattering of the English language and could not master the language even in later life. Almost all his written works are in the Urdu language.
His father died when Syed was twenty-one years old and the family was hard pressed for money. Through the good offices of his uncle Maulvi Khaliullah, he succeeded in securing a job in the employment of the East India Company, that of a petty judicial officer, or serishtedar. In 1839, he was promoted to the post of Naib Mir Munshi or assistant to the commissioner of Agra division. Privately he studied law and qualified in 1841 for the post of Munsif. In this capacity he worked for many years: in Delhi (1846-54) and in different towns in Uttar Pradesh: Bijnor (1855-60); Moradabad (1860); Ghazipur (1862); Aligarh (1864); Banaras (1867); Aligarh again (1877). He retired as a subordinate judge in 1878.
During these long years of service under the British government he had come to believe that it would not be possible to dislodge the British from India. The atrocities committed by the British on the Indians after the Mutiny also convinced Syed Ahmed that it would be better for the Muslim community not to antagonize the British in future. While he was posted at Bijnor, Syed Ahmed had saved the lives of about twenty Europeans from the wrath of the mutineers. The role played by Syed Ahmed in Bijnor earned him a distinguished position in the official circles and he utilized it fully for the upliftment of the Muslim community. Even while in service, he set before himself the twofold task of bringing about a rapprochement between the British government and the Muslims and to introduce the modern type of education among the Muslims to compete with the Hindus. Through his writings he tried to convince the British that Muslims were not against the British rule. He started with a pamphlet Tarikh-i-Sarkashi Bijnor followed by Risalah Khairkhwahan Musalman (The Loyal Muslims of India) in two parts (1860) and Asbah-i-Baghawat-i-Hind, which he got translated into English as The Causes of Indian Revolt. In it, Syed Ahmed tried to prove that the main cause of the revolt was lack of communication between the rulers and the ruled. Copies of it were sent to members of the British Parliament in London.
He also wanted the Muslims to shed their antagonism to Christianity While at Ghazipur (1862), Syed Ahmed started writing Tab’inulkalam, a commentary in Urdu on the Old and New Testament, emphasizing in it the points of similarity between Islam and Christianity and the fundamental unity that ran through the two faiths and among the People of the Book. To achieve his second objective, of educating the Muslims about Western science and literature, he founded in 1864, while posted at Ghazipur, Translation Society for the translation of important English books into Urdu. Soon after, he was transferred to Aligarh and he took the office of the Society with him to Aligarh. The name of the society was changed to Scientific Society. There he got several important English works translated into Urdu. In 1866, the society started a weekly paper The Aligarh Institute Gazette to put the views of Muslims before the government on various issues. In 1869, his son Syed Mahmud was awarded a scholarship to study in the Cambridge University. Syed Ahmed accompanied his son to England, taking with him the second son Syed Hamid also. Syed Ahmed stayed in England for seventeen months. There he met several British officials and literary men including Carlyle. While in London, he wrote Khutbat-e-Ahmadiya (Essays on the Life of Mohammed), in which he refuted the charges against Islam in William Muir’s Life of Mahomet. His visit to England inspired him to propagate the English system of education for the Muslim community in India with even greater zeal. In fact, “he had been much impressed by what he had seen of European civilization, and indeed some of his letters from Europe indicate that he was so dazed that he had rather lost his balance”.1 After his return from England in late 1870, Syed Ahmed settled in Aligarh and started to implement his plans of educating the Muslim community, on the lines of British schools and colleges. He could foresee the antagonism of the Muslim orthodoxy. To explain his ideas about modern education and culture, he started another Urdu weekly, Tahzibul-akhlaq (December, 1870). Through the columns of this weekly, he started vigorous propaganda against the fanatical ullema and in favour of social reform. He immediately became a controversial figure. The ullema sharply reacted to his unorthodox ideas and issued fatwas, condemning him as a kafir. To meet the challenge of the orthodoxy, he wrote a commentary on the Quran, (which he could not complete in his lifetime), giving a liberal interpretation and a rapprochement between religion and science which further infuriated the mullahs accusing him of making sacred religious beliefs subordinate to science. All this opposition by the orthodoxy could not shake his conviction that the emancipation and progress of the Muslims was impossible without higher education on the western pattern.
Undaunted, he succeeded in establishing the Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College in 1875 at Aligarh. (The college was raised to the status of a university, Aligarh Muslim University, in 1920). The foundation of the college was laid by the viceroy Lord Lytton in January 1877. In the address presented to the Viceroy, Syed Ahmed explained that the aim of the College was: to educate the students so that they might be able to appreciate the blessings of the British rule; to reconcile Oriental learning with Western literature and sciences; to make the Muslims worthy and useful subjects of the Crown and to inspire in them that loyalty which springs not from servile submission to foreign rule, but from genuine appreciation of the blessings of the good government." By making such faithful exhortations' he could easily win the favour of the government. It is surprising that even Syed Ahmed could not rid himself completely of Muslim orthodox beliefs and practices. In the M.A.O. College, The history of India commenced from the medieval period and students were given instruction in the traditional Shia and Sunni theology and religious laws. Even the religious instruction was based on the traditional interpretation of Quran and the Sunnah. The students were thoroughly indoctrinated through the columns of the Aligarh Institute Gazette. Namaaz was compulsory for both Shia and Sunni students. There was a prescribed uniform for students, a black achkan (gown) and red fez. There was no sign of liberalism in the college.
Morris Dembo, an American, scholar of (Indic Islam and Urdu literature) opines that “The puritan rational (or shall we say Wahabi) steak is, quite clearly evident in Syed Ahmed’s character. It was not in jest that Sir Syed once answered a question about his religion from an English official by saying I am a Wahabi”. Sir Syed’s sympathy for the militant anti-British movements of his day is most strikingly seen in his great work on the monuments of Delhi, the Athar-a-Sanadid." The book was translated into French in 1861 by Gracin de Tassy. The pro-British preaching of Syed Ahmed got a big jolt when Wahabi jehad against the British government continued even after the 1857 revolt. In September 1871, John Norman, judge of the Calcutta Supreme Court, was assassinated during a Wahabi trial in the court itself. This was followed by the murder of the viceroy, Lord Mayo, in February, 1872 by a Wahabi prisoner in the Andamans. W.W. Hunter in his book The Indian Musalman (1871) devotes three of the four chapters of his book on the Wahabi movement and the jehad against the British government. The ‘Wahabi streak’ in Syed Ahmed impelled him to come forward in the defence of the Wahabis. In a letter to The Pioneer dated 14 April 1871 Syed Ahmed argues that the Wahabi jehadis were not true Wahabis therefore “false charges have been laid against innocent men”. The forceful and persistent pro-British stance of Syed Ahmed prevailed upon the British to accept his pleadings in good faith. The Wahabi Movement was completely crushed by the early seventies, any Way. It is surprising how the British Government gradually changed their attitude from anti-Muslim to pro-Muslim within two decades after the Mutiny. The whole credit for this change must go to Sir Syed Ahmed and the resultant benefits he got from the government for his community.
     Syed Ahmed had to face anew the wrath of the Muslim orthodoxy because of his decision t0 include English and Western sciences and philosophy in M.A.O. College curriculum. They had started a virulent attack on Syed Ahmed once again. Many fatwas were circulated, declaring Syed a kafir. Maulvi Ali Baksh Khan even went to Mecca to get a fatwa against Syed Ahmed and his college. A part of the fatwa read: “No assistance is allowable to the institution. May God destroy it and its founder? N o Mohammedan is allowed to give assistance to or countenance the establishment of such an institution.” Consequently, Syed Ahmed was obliged to seek financial assistance from the non-Muslims, especially in Punjab and North-West Province (UP.) for his College. His oft quoted speech, in which he has metaphorically compared Hindus and Muslims as the two beautiful eyes of a bride, belongs to this period. However, soon the landed gentry of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and other Muslim dominated areas started sending their wards to the college and started giving it financial support. Syed Ahmed did not need the monetary help of non-Muslims. Gradually a sea change came in his thinking especially after the formation of the All India Congress in 1885. In this he was supported and even guided by Theodore Beck, who had joined the M.A.O. College in 1883 as principal. Beck was only twenty-four years old when he joined the college. Inexperienced and amateur as he was, Syed Ahmed started depending on Beck and he became an important member of the team which guided the destiny of the college and the political movement started by it which came to be called as the Aligarh Movement.
              From the very birth of the Indian National Congress, Syed Ahmed started a campaign against it and in speech after speech he advised the Muslims not to join the Congress. It is not difficult to understand the antagonism of Syed Ahmed towards the Congress. The Congress, from its very inception, demanded a representative government on British lines. This meant rule of the majority community. As the Muslim formed only one-fourth of the total population of the country they would always be dominated and ruled by the Hindus in a democratic setup, he argued. He felt this was not in the interest of the Muslim community. Hence, his virulent attack on the Congress. Thus, Syed Ahmed gave a distinctly new turn to Muslim politics which became anti-Congress and also anti-Hindu, because he looked upon the Indian National Congress as a Hindu organization. In a speech at Meerut on 16 March 1888 Syed Ahmed said, Suppose that the English community and the army were to leave India, taking with them all their cannons and their splendid weapons and all else, who then would be the rulers of India? Is it possible that under these circumstances, two nations – the Mohammedans and the Hindus – could sit on the same throne and remain equal in power? Most certainly not. It is necessary that one of them should conquer the other. To hope that both could remain equal is to desire the impossible and the inconceivable. At the same time, you must remember that although the number of Mohammedans is less than that of the Hindus, and although they contain far fewer people who have received a higher English education, yet they must not be considered insignificant or weak. – This thing – who after the departure of the English would be conquerors would rest on God’s will. But until one nation has conquered the other and made it obedient, peace cannot reign in the land." So explicitly, Syed Ahmed had sown the seeds of the two-nation theory. He gave similar speeches at Lucknow and other places, with only minor variations.
When Badruddin Tyabji presided over the Congress session in 1887 at Madras, he was reprimanded by Syed Ahmed through letters to the press and also through personal letters addressed to Tyabji. Tyabji was so unnerved that he wrote to Hume, secretary of the Congress, that the main object of the Congress to unite different communities and provinces have miserably failed; that the Mohammedans were divided from the Hindus in manner they were never before, that the gulf was becoming wider day by day”. He suggested that the Congress should be prorogued for five years. Of course, his suggestion was not accepted.
The last ten years of Syed Ahmed’s life were devoted mainly to political awakening of the Muslims against the Indian National Congress and the Hindus. In August 1888, Syed Ahmed formed the Indian Patriotic Association. The nomenclature was changed to United Indian Patriotic Association, with himself as secretary and Principal Beck as treasurer. He told that the association was formed as a rival to the Congress. Initially, both Muslim and Hindu landed gentry, who were opposed to the Congress, had joined the association. But after the Council Bill of 1892 was passed, the association was wound up in December 1893 and a purely Muslim organization called Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental Defence Association was established. In 1896, this association prepared a memorandum highlighting the Muslim demands for separate communal electorate, weightage in local bodies etc. Syed Ahmed in a speech broadly hinted that if the demands were not conceded the Muslim minority might be forced to take up sword to prevent the tyranny of the majority. (This is actually what the Muslim League did in through ‘Direct Action’). The memorandum formed the basis of the Simla Deputation to Lord Minto in 1906. In 1886, Syed Ahmed founded the All India Mohammadan Educational Congress (the world ‘Congress’ was changed to ‘Conference’ in 1890) to ‘propagate the idea of the Aligarh Movement throughout the country by holding annual conferences at various places.
The role of Principal Beck in directing the activity of Syed Ahmed during the last fifteen years of latter’s life cannot be over-emphasized. Soon after he joined as principal of M.A.O. College, he had become the right-hand man of Syed Ahmed; indeed his friend, philosopher and guide. Syed Ahmed’s lack of mastery over English made him depend on Beck for many crucial decisions. Beck made a systematic effort to alienate the Muslims from the Hindus and thus contributed considerably towards anti-Hindu bias in the Aligarh Movement. The personal influence exerted by Beck upon Syed Ahmed was believed to be so great that one Muslim writer humorously remarked that ‘the College is of Syed Ahmed but the order is of Beck'. Mr. Morrison, who succeeded Beck after the latter's death in 1899, followed the same policy as that of Beck. “Thanks to the efforts of the founder and the first two Principals of Aligarh College, an open manifestation of uncompromising hostility against the Indian National Congress formed the basic creed of the Aligarh Movement”. It is interesting that one Britisher (Hume) was guiding the destiny of the Congress, while another Britisher (Beck) was attacking it through the Aligarh Movement.
To be fair to Syed Ahmed, one must try to understand the reasons for his pro-British and anti-Congress policy. “The Aligarh Movement was to the Muslims what the Renaissance and National Movement of the nineteenth century was to the Hindus. It raised the Muslim community from the Slough of despondency in which it had sunk after the Mutiny and transformed it from the Medieval into the modern age. Syed Ahmed, who ushered in this movement, deserves the highest praise for his love of Muslim community and the far-sighted vision which he displayed regarding the problems of the Muslims”. At the same time, it must be admitted that in the process he created a schism between the Hindus and Muslims which ultimately resulted in the division of the country. Aga Khan in his Memoirs wrote. that “the independent sovereign nation of Pakistan was born in the Muslim University of Aligarh”. The famous Pakistani historian G. Allana Wrote, “Pakistan owes as much to Aligarh, as Aligarh owes to Sir Syed Ahmed Khan for its conception, establishment and development. In other words, Sir Syed Ahmed's contribution in the cause of the Pakistan Movement has been a spectacular one and deserves honorable mention in the annals of our freedom movement”.
Syed Ahmed received many well-deserved honours and positions in life. In 1878, he was nominated a member of the Viceroy’s Council. In 1887, he was made a member of the Public Service Commission. In 1888, he was decorated with KCSI and in 1889 an honorary doctorate was conferred on him by the University of Edinburgh. But his greatest reward was when in 1920 his M.A.O. College became Aligarh Muslim University.
In February 1938, Jinnah visited Aligarh. “I have from you today the greatest message of hope”, he told the students of Syed Ahmed Khan’s University. “Henceforth Aligarh was to be the ‘arsenal of Muslim India’ “. Even after four decades the message of Syed Ahmed was reverberating in the corridors of his College. No educational institution ever played such a decisive role in the fortunes of any nation as Aligarh did in the case of Indian Muslims.
Syed Ahmed died on 27 May 1898 in Aligarh at the age of eighty-one after an eventful life, and is revered in both India and Pakistan.

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