Sir Syed Ahmed Khan: A Life
Other men have written books and founded colleges; but to arrest as with a wall
the degradation of a whole people — that is the work of a Prophet and this remark
conveys a correct judgement of his personality.
Sir Theodore Morison, Provost, MAO College, Aligarh (1898)
The 102-year-old Aligarh Muslim University in India — founded as the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College in 1875 — is regarded by some as the hatchery of the partitionist Muslims and by others as a symbol of Muslim identity and advancement in India. Whichever side one is inclined to take, the fact is that its founder, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817–1898), was an inspired and determined moral and intellectual reformer. His upbringing in a conventional upper middle-class Muslim household had not prepared him for the path-breaking role he played in the modernisation of Muslims in India. In this essay, I will explore his life’s evolution, highlighting his struggle and achievements. But first I should say a few words about the world in which Sir Syed started his long life.
Sir Syed was born at a time when much of India was under the rule of the British East India Company (BEIC) and the Mughal Emperor Akbar Shah II (1760–1837), confined to the Red Fort, was a ruler in name only. The Mughal Empire — its foundation was laid by Zaheer ud Din Babur in 1526 — started to disintegrate after the death of Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707. He wasted two decades (1689–1707) in the Deccan trying to bring the Marathas under his rule. By 1720, while the various claimants to the throne in Delhi were fighting and killing each other, the Maratha armies raided the northern parts. By the middle of the century, Hyderabad Deccan and Awadh had become independent dynastic states and the BEIC had taken over Bengal and Bihar. The Mughal empire “became a mere shell empty of puissance;” its condition was of “a carcass inviting the birds of prey.” The administration became a mere pretence that cloaked the rapine, pillage, and the marches and countermarches of armies of one power against another.
In the meantime, the Persian Nadir Shah (1688–1747) invaded India, looted its capital, and killed thousands in the process in 1739. He was followed by the Afghan Ahmed Shah Abdali (1722–1773) who invaded India several times between 1748 and 1761, a year when his armies crushed the Maratha forces at Panipat. After that Abdali was harassed by the Sikhs in Punjab and the Marathas receded to the south. The BEIC defeated Shuja ud Daulah (1732–1775), the Nawab of Awadh, in 1765 and made him their vassal under a treaty. In 1774, the Nawab of Awadh aided by the BEIC defeated the Rohillas and occupied their lands. In the meantime, the Marathas returned to the north and took over the Mughal court in Delhi. They controlled a large territory in the northern, central, and southern parts of India. They also threatened the Nawab of Awadh with whom the British were in alliance. For the British, Marathas were the last obstacle to capturing the Mughal capital. In 1803, their forces defeated the Marathas and assumed protection of Shah Alam II (1728–1806) and his court at Delhi. Following this victory, Governor General Lord Wellesley sent a long dispatch to the Court of Directors of the BEIC in London.
A general bond of connection is now established between the British government and the principal states of India, on principles which render it in the interest of every state to maintain its alliance with the British Government, which preclude the inordinate aggrandizement of any one of these states by usurpation of the rights and possessions of others, and which secure to every state the unmolested exercise of its separate authority within the limits of its established dominion, under the general protection of the British power.
In the next twenty years, the BEIC dislodged the Maratha clans from other areas as well. By 1850 the Company had taken over the territories of Sindh (from the Talpurs) in 1843 and Punjab (from the Sikhs) in 1849. India was now a British colony.
The initial responses of the Indians, divided as they were by religion, ethnicity, caste, and class, to the establishment of the British rule in India were quite diverse since there were winners and losers. Generally, Muslims showed little inclination to welcome the change or to seek reconciliation with the new rulers. Nor did the new rulers make much effort to get the Muslims on their side since they suspected them of disloyalty. A substantial proportion of the British officials held the view that Muslims were a united body antagonistic to the British rule. The rejectionist attitude of Muslims was based on the loss of political power, loss of estates and other property, and the cultural shock. The Hindu response ranged from neutral to enthusiastic. Certain class of Hindus, merchants and moneylenders in Bengal made gains in the emerging economy. The upper caste Hindu reformists, such Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833) in Bengal and Jotiba Phule (1820–190) in Bombay, wanted reformist laws and modern education. They were supported by the new rulers in various ways. The fact is that, in sixty years, from Nawab Siraj ud Daulah’s defeat in 1756 to the birth of Sir Syed in 1817, the two communities had diverged greatly in education, government employment, professions, and businesses. The Hindu-Muslim gap was widening in favour of the majority community throughout India. Muslims who were once rulers fell and became subordinate. The question was: how can they re-emerge in the Indian society? It is to address this question that we must turn to Sir Syed.
Sir Syed was born in Delhi on 17 October1817. He was raised in the class-conscious Muslim culture of northern India. His family belonged to the ashraf (plural of sharif or superior) class: well-connected, well-endowed (safed-posh) , literate, respected ancestry, status and rank, gentle manners, civil behaviour, aspirational, and motivated. They were the upper middle class, belonging neither to the nobility (umara) nor to the working class (awam). On his father’s side, Sir Syed claimed that they were Syed, descendants of Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima. His great-grandfather had arrived in India from Persia and settled in Delhi. On his mother’s side, the family had come from Kashmir and settled in Delhi. Both families had connections with the Mughal court. Sir Syed’s father, Syed Mohammad Muttaqi. had a more respectable status in Muslim society than his maternal grandfather, Khwaja Farid ud Din Ahmed, who had however a higher standard of living. Muttaqi and Farid had one thing in common: both belonged to a sufi tariqa (mystic order) and followed their pir (spiritual leader). Sir Syed was brought up in his mother’s family; he was greatly influenced by his grandfather and his mother. In fact, he always acknowledged this influence with much love and respect. His mother, Aziz un-Nisa Begum, set a high standard for good character: she had dignity, generosity, empathy, truthfulness, and integrity.
Sir Syed received a traditional education for his class of boys, starting with the recitation of the Qur’an in a maktab, followed by learning of the Arabic, Persian and Urdu literature. He did almost all of his basic education at home, tutored by well-known teachers. He learnt basic mathematics, geometry, and algebra, from his uncle Khwaja Zain ul Abdin Khan. He also pursued medical education, hikmet (Unani or Greek medicine) at the clinic of Hakim Ghulam Haider Khan and did some practice under his supervision. But Sir Syed learnt no English. (Later he acquired sufficient proficiency in English to carry on a conversation though haltingly.) For some reason, unlike some of his contemporaries, he did not attend classes at the Delhi College. At the age of nineteen, Sir Syed was married to Parsa Begum and was done with education. Until the death of his father in 1838, he had a comfortable life that included company of friends and visits to places and gatherings for entertainment (song and dance). Some members of the Mughal nobility were also among his friends. He showed little interest in the affairs of either the family or the community. He did assist his elder brother, Syed Mohammad, at his book shop and in the print shop. He probably started writing in his brother’s magazine, Syed ul Akhbar, as well. Sir Syed’s life took the first big turn after his father’s death. The family lost part of the income to maintain its standard of living and Sir Syed was now twenty-one-year-old without any profession or work. According to Altaf Husain Hali, his time for ghaflat (irresponsibility) was over.
Sir Syed asked his uncle, Khalid Ullah Khan, who was Sadr Amin (sub-judge) in the court at Delhi, to teach him the routine of judicial proceedings. Some months later, he was employed as a Sarishtidar (recorder-secretary) in the same court. In 1839, Sir Robert Hamilton took him to Agra as Naib Munshi (deputy secretary) in the office of the Divisional Commissioner. There Sir Syed started to bloom. He drafted the civil law digest (Dastur al ‘amal) and wrote two pamphlets: a history of the Mughal kings (Jam-i-Jam) in Persian and the Cult of Pir and Murid in Urdu. By the end of 1841, Sir Syed was promoted to the rank of Munsif (judge of small cause) and transferred to Mainpuri. He had to pass a competitive examination for this position. Soon after that he was transferred to Fatehpur Sikri, once the capital of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, where Sir Syed spent about four years. Here he was given a title by the Mughal king and a salary of one hundred rupees per month. He wrote a biography of Prophet Muhammad in 1843 and translated al-Ghazali’s Kimya-i-S’adat into Urdu in 1844. He started to show talents as a writer in Persian and Urdu.
After four years in Fatehpur Sikri, Sir Syed got himself transferred as Munsif in Delhi soon after the death of his brother Syed Mohammad in 1846. This sad event had a life-changing effect on him. He spent the next eight years in Delhi — he was in Rohtak as Acting Sadr Amin for short periods in 1850 and 1853. In Delhi, he tried to keep his brother’s magazine going, but couldn’t save it. Sir Syed made a name for himself by writing an archeological history of Delhi, Asar al-Sanadid, in 1847. It was revised in 1854 and translated into French and English. He made no money, but it won him honorary membership of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1864. During his stay in Delhi, Sir Syed studied under the guidance of reputed scholars. His studies included pieces of literature in Persian and Arabic, Islamic jurisprudence, and the Qur’an. In 1850, he wrote in Urdu a pamphlet, On Innovation in Religion.
In early 1855, Sir Syed was transferred to Bijnor as Acting Sadr Amin. The same year, he published an Urdu translation of Abul Fazl’s A’in Akbari. The revolt (mutiny) of 1857 was the watershed for both Sir Syed and the BEIC in India. The revolt in Bijnor lasted for over a year, during which Sir Syed saved some British officials and their families and managed to contain the excesses of the rebel leader Nawab Mahmud Khan in the district. Hindus joined the British in praising Sir Syed’s role in Bijnor. He was promoted and transferred to Moradabad as Sadr al-Sadur (judge for small cause court) in April of 1858. Sir Syed wrote a comprehensive account of the events in Bijnor in his History of Revolt in the District of Bijnor. He proved to be a loyal servant of the British, for which he was offered a land grant which he refused. When he visited Delhi in September of 1857, his mother and others in the family were in a state of destitution like many other Muslims. He moved them to Meerut where some months later his mother died in 1858. Sir Syed was given a pension of two hundred rupees per month and compensation for the damage done by the British forces to his ancestral home in Delhi.
In Moradabad, Sir Syed did two things that elevated him even more in the assessment of his employer and put him on the national platform in India. First, as administrator he put his time and energy in providing relief to the victims of famine in the region. He made sure that everyone, Hindu and Muslim, received help. John Strachey, the District Collector, took note of it. At this time Sir Syed wrote a memorandum in Urdu, Asbab-i Baghawat-i Hind (The Causes of India’s Revolt) and sent it to the British Government. It was not published until 1873 when an English version was made public. Sir Syed highlighted five major reasons for the revolt:
1. The activities of the Christian missionaries made Muslim and Hindus apprehensive about their intentions and plans in India.
2. Some of the laws, regulations and procedures of the Company were not in harmony with the indigenous mores and customs.
3. Government was insensitive to the Indian public opinion: lack of communication between the government and the governed.
4. The Company’s army was mismanaged as reflected by the change in the balance between British and Indians; insensitivity to and humiliating treatment of the Indian soldiers; retrenchment and reduced allowances; and imposition of secularised rules and regulations.
5. Indians, Hindus, and Muslims had no representation in the government’s Legislative Council and high administration. Some administrative reforms had reduced the services of the local officers.
The revolt of 1857 ended the BEIC rule in India and removed the nominal Mughal emperor from the throne. The British monarch became the sovereign of India. Queen Victoria issued a proclamation in which she promised religious tolerance; proposed to govern Indians according to their customs and traditions; confirmed treaties and engagements with the Indian princes; disclaimed desire for expansion of English territorial possessions in India through encroachment; granted general amnesty to those responsible for murder of English subjects; and declared that all irrespective of creed or race may be freely and impartially admitted to offices to serve the imperial government according to their talents, abilities and education. The actions and policy of the British government during and after the revolt had a highly negative impact on the attitudes of Muslims towards the British since they were the major victims. Sir Syed tried to bridge the gap between the British government and Muslims by stressing the need for loyalty to the British rule and to acquire education to make a better future for the community. He also stressed the need for Hindu-Muslim unity since they were all living on the same soil (India).
The first practical sign of Sir Syed’s interest in education was a privately funded Panchayati Madrassah (Tehsil School) at Moradabad, opened in 1859 for Hindu and Muslim boys to learn in Urdu. Two years later the Government established a high school and absorbed the Madrassah into it. Sir Syed’s wife died in 1861, leaving three young children, two boys, Syed Mahmud and Syed Hamid and a girl, Ameena who died at a young age. He never married again and raised his children on his own. After his transfer to Ghazipur in 1862, he became more ambitious and founded an English high school — which was later christened as Victoria High School — for Hindu and Muslim boys. Hindu and Muslim landlords and others made generous donations for the school. Urdu was the medium of instruction and the curriculum included study of Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, and English. Much as Sir Syed valued the use of English for science and technology, he thought that the vernacular was a better medium for learning at the school level.
Also, in Ghazipur Sir Syed gathered his friends and supporters to start the Scientific Society to translate scientific and historical manuscripts from English and Arabic into Urdu and Hindi to make that knowledge accessible to the literate men and boys. Raja Jaikishan Das was his associate in the enterprise. The Scientific Society was shifted to Aligarh in 1864 when Sir Syed was transferred to that city. The Society made significant contribution to the stock of knowledge through translations. Two years later, he started publishing the Aligarh Institute Gazette as a bilingual (Urdu and English) monthly magazine to articulate his views and of others on a variety of topics and subjects. This magazine played an important role in Sir Syed’s crusade for education and modernisation until his death in 1898.
Sir Syed’s transfer to Benares as Judge of the Small Cause Court in 1867 did not bring him much happiness. For one thing, some Hindus in Benares demanded that the Government replace Urdu by Hindi (Devnagri) in the courts and offices not only in the Northwestern Province but all over India. This was the beginning of the Urdu-Hindi controversy in which Sir Syed stood firmly on the side of Urdu. It was the first sign of a breach between the two communities. In addition, the Government rejected his request to establish a vernacular university. He shifted his emphasis to English for Muslims. During his stay in Benares, Sir Syed kept writing on various topics, including homeopathy and religious affinity between the “people of the book”, i.e., Muslims, Jews, and Christians. In the meantime, the Scientific Society kept up its work of translation in Aligarh. Sometime in 1869 if not earlier, Sir Syed made the plan to visit England with his sons Syed Mahmud and Syed Hamid. He asked the Government to give him leave for eighteen months to see the British society, particularly its industry, trade, and education. He was allowed leave without salary, though his salary was restored once he was in England. To finance his long trip, Sir Syed had to borrow money and mortgage his house in Delhi.
Sir Syed left India in May of 1869 and returned in October of 1870. During his stay in England, he visited various cities, industrial establishments, universities of Oxford and Cambridge and the public (private) schools at Eton and Harrow, museums, and libraries; he met people of different classes, but mostly those well placed in the British class system, aristocrats, members of parliament, high government officials, and businessmen. He also had audience with Queen Victoria. He did not however visit any government funded school or meet the working-class men or women. Sir Syed had nothing but good to say about Britain and its people. Comparing them with the Indians, he went out of bounds.
Without flattering the English, I can truly say that the natives of India, high and low, merchants and petty shopkeepers, educated and illiterate, when contrasted with the English in education, manners, uprightness, are as like them as a dirty animal is to an able and handsome man.
Sir Syed was impressed particularly by the private enterprise system in Britain and likewise its private schools. He was sceptical of the role of government in people’s lives. Meanwhile he kept writing articles, letters, and a travelogue. He wrote a memorandum to the Government titled “Strictures Upon the Present Educational System in India,” in which he tried to show how the government schools in India were not suitable for the material and spiritual development of Indians. He outlined his educational philosophy and the desired educational system for the differentiated Indians. The government showed no sympathy for his ideas. Sir Syed also published essays in response to Sir William Muir’s The Life of Mohammad and History of Islam to the Era of the Hegira (1867).
After Sir Syed returned to India, he resumed his service in Benares. But he also got far busier in his writings and in pushing the cause of education of Muslims in India. On the writing front, he started a weekly magazine in Urdu, Tahzib al-Akhlaq, to communicate his views on education, religion, and politics. The magazine lasted until 1897 with interruptions from 1877 to 1878 and from 1882 to 1893. Sir Syed wrote two pamphlets. In the first one, he elicited the opinion of the Government, Hindus, and Muslims about education in India. In the other pamphlet, he rebutted the arguments by W.W. Hunter in his book, The Indian Mussalmans: Are They Bound in Conscience to Rebel Against the Queen? (1871). Sir Syed laid blame on the Permanent Settlement in Bengal, removal of Muslims from positions of power, and their lack of access to education. In the 1870s, he devoted most of his time to issues related to education and religion. In fact, his evolving views on religion did not go well with some sections of his community for whose well-being and progress he was struggling.
On religion Sir Syed argued that Muslims should abandon taqlid (blind following of the Ulama and Pirs) and adopt the practice of ijtihad (rational judgement). He also stressed the need to read and follow the Qur’an only since the word of God cannot be contrary to the work of God (natural laws). This much was consistent with the ideas of Shah Wali Ullah (1703–1767), but Sir Syed went far beyond. He refused to accept any miracles attributed to the Prophet: Qur’an was the only miracle. He claimed that Satan, Jinn, Hell, Heaven, and the ascent of the Prophet (m’iraj) were mere allegories or metaphors. He also maintained that Western science and technology were consistent with the teachings of Islam. Finally, he defended the legitimacy of the British rule in India and saw no reason why Muslims should not adopt certain (good) manners and social practices of Europeans, such as dressing and eating — sitting on the table and using knife and fork. A large section of the ulama and some of his supporters were deeply offended by these ideas. He drew their wrath in the form of ridicule and fatwas (religious edictas). It certainly did not make it any easier for Sir Syed to work on the education front.
On education, Sir Syed published the following view in Tahzib al-akhlaq.
The human soul without education is like the rough piece of marble, and unless the sculptor works on it and removes its roughness. . . . its good qualities remain hidden in it, and its fascinating shades, beautiful views. . . . do not appear. The same is the condition of the human soul. However gentle-hearted a man may be, unless he is educated, all sorts of good qualities and graces that are latent in him cannot emerge without the assistance of education
Later, in the same magazine, he wrote angrily about the Muslim attitude to modern education and its role in national progress.
The blind prejudice of Muslims is preventing them from emulating [Western] education, sciences, and technology; Muslim society erroneously admires the blindness of those who are stubborn and haughty and consider all nations except their own inferior. There is not a single nation in the world which acquired excellence, material progress, and spiritual happiness entirely by virtue of its own efforts. Nations always benefit from each other; only bigots deny themselves the fruits of their fellowman’s labour. They are like wild animals, happy in [the narrow life of] their flock and are deaf to the sweet melody of the nightingale and the chirping of little sparrows, and know not how the garden [i.e., world] was laid out and what makes the flowers bloom. Prejudice and progress will never meet.
Soon after his return from England, Sir Syed formed the Committee for the Better Diffusion and Advancement of Knowledge Among Muhammadans in India. This Committee invited the public to write essays on various aspects of education and evaluate their merit. The Committee was of the view that proportionately Muslims lagged the Hindus in school enrolment throughout India. It was certainly true in Bengal though not in Punjab and the Northwestern Province. In colleges and universities, this was certainly the case throughout India. The Committee proposed several reasons for the situation, among which poverty and secular curriculum were regarded as the basic reasons. In response, A. C. Colvin, Secretary to the Government of the Northwestern Province wrote the following to the Secretary of State for India in April of 1873.
There is nothing in the system itself which is repulsive to Muhammadans where they have a desire to learning; but there is unfortunately very little desire, and for the higher and more scientific and European teaching a large class of Muhammadans entertain a positive dislike. Religious feeling and the natural desire of training of their children in the tenets of Islam and the literature of the East have no doubt something to do with the paucity of Muhammadans in upper schools and colleges; but there is also wide-spread over the country an unreasoning, if not fanatical aversion from anything that is foreign and non-Muhammadan, and the study of English and of European philosophy and science is regarded with repugnance.
But the success or failure of his [Sir Syed’s] scheme will depend on whether he can overcome prejudice and render the higher teaching of an Anglo-Vernacular course acceptable to his own people. There are not wanting indications in the native press of a strong and growing opposition, and His Honour looks with some anxiety to the result. Meanwhile the attitude of the Government towards the movement is what it should be; the state stands by, looks favourably on, and is prepared at the proper moment to afford its aid in furtherance of the secular classes [in the MAO College].
Sir Syed gave up his efforts to convince the Government to overhaul the educational system and allow him to establish a vernacular university. He started to work on establishing a privately funded residential school primarily for Muslim boys at Aligarh. Students will get modern education within a familiar social environment — it will help build their character, infuse discipline, impart new knowledge, and prepare them to go out to get respectable positions and help the community as leaders. In May of 1872, the Committee for the Better Diffusion and Advancement was turned into the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College Fund Committee with Sir Syed as its life secretary. Its goal was to collect one million rupees. Money was raised by individual donations, large and small, from all over India, organised events, and lotteries. In June 1875, the school was opened in a building bought for that purpose. Eleven students were enrolled. H.G. I. Siddons was its Headmaster and Maulvi Salim Ullah Khan was made its administrator. The school was affiliated with Calcutta University. John Strachey, Lieutenant Governor of the Northwestern Province granted 74 acres of land previously used by the army in the cantonment area at Aligarh.
In January of 1877, Lord Lytton, the Viceroy, laid the foundation stone of the MAO College. Theodore Beck was its principal until his death in 1900. He was followed by Sir Theodore Morison who was Provost at the time of Sir Syed’s death. Most of the students were drawn from the middle class of Muslims and Hindus, representing mostly the Urdu-dominated areas of India. About one-third of the students received financial aid without which they couldn’t afford to study. The curriculum included four broad areas: studies related to Islam; literature of Arabic, Persian, Urdu, English and Latin, and social sciences; mathematics; and natural sciences both basic and applied. The requirement of residence and participation in extracurricular activities, including sports, were expected to encourage cooperation and develop social skills. The faculty included Indian and British scholars with good standing in their discipline.
Sir Syed retired from the government job in 1876 to devote his time and energy to the educational institution for the modernisation of Muslims in India. In the next twenty years, he spent little time for anything else. But that was not all. He was confronted by opponents in his own community because of his idiosyncratic views on religion and his loyalty to the British rule in India. He did pick up support outside the Northwestern Province particularly in Punjab and Bengal. In Bengal Nawab Abdul Latif (1828–1893) and Syed Ameer Ali (1849–1928) were promoting the cause of Muslim education and modernisation through organised committees not only in Bengal but in other provinces as well. Similarly, the Anjuman-i-Islam in Bombay, led by Badruddin Tyabji (1844–1906) and the Anjuman-i-Punjab and Anjuman-i-Islamia in Lahore were actively promoting the same cause. In fact, following the example of the Aligarh School, numerous organisations, committees and anjumans, throughout India started to establish schools and colleges for modern education primarily for Muslim boys. In the meantime, the MAO College grew but not without serious disputes and financial problems, especially in the 1890s.
The graduates of the MAO College were starting to make their mark in the society by getting into government services, businesses, and professions. But it was a slow and difficult process given the competition they had to face with the more advanced Hindu community. Sir Syed’s political platform was limited to supporting the British Government in India, maintaining good relations with the Hindu community, except on the Urdu-Hindi controversy, and promoting the cause of Muslim education. In his opinion Muslims in India were a community and not a nation. In his writings and speeches, he used the word qawm (nation) in several ways. In an address to a session of the Society for the Diffusion and Advancement of Useful Knowledge at Lahore, Sir Syed had this to say about the concept of nation.
In my speech I have used the word nation several times. By this I do not mean Muslims exclusively. I think that all human beings form but one body. And I do not like religion, creed, or group to be regarded as the basis of a nation. If my opinion is correct the blackest and whitest, those who have attained the highest form of civilisation and those who are still living in intimate association with nature, are my brothers and form one nation. I desire that all human beings irrespective of caste, creed and religion should unite for one another’s well-being.
Then he gave a territorial definition of nationhood.
The word qawm is used for the citizens of a country. Various peoples of Afghanistan are considered a qawm (nation), and different peoples of Iran are known as Iranis. Europeans profess different religions and believe in different ideas, yet they are all members of a single nation. In a nutshell, since the olden times the word qawm (nation) is used for the inhabitants of a country, even though they have characteristics of their own.
In the context of India, Sir Syed defined nation in a somewhat romantic language.
I have said it many times and I say it again that India is like a beautiful bride blessed by two attractive eyes — the Hindus and Muslims. If they maintain enmity or hypocritical (nifaq) relations with each other, [the bride] will look one-eyed. So! Inhabitants of India, do as you will — make this bride cross-eyed or one-eyed [or preserve both her eyes.
In a similar way, in a speech to the Indian Association in Lahore in 1884, Sir Syed said the following about what a nation means.
By the word qawm, I mean both Hindus and Muslims. That is the way in which I define the word nation (qawm). In my opinion, it matters not whatever be their religious belief, because we cannot see anything of it; but what we see is that all of us, whether Hindus or Muslims, live on one soil, are governed by one and the same ruler, have the same sources of our benefits, and equally share the hardships of a famine. These are the various reasons why I designate both the nationalities that inhabit India by the term “Hindu” — that is, the nation which lives in India.
Sir Syed always emphasised the need for cooperation between Hindus and Muslims despite the strains by the resurgence of Hindu nationalism propagated by the Arya Samaj, Bharata Warsha National Association, Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s Shivaji festivals, and the various anti-cow-slaughter societies. Sir Syed was stirred more deeply by the anti-Urdu campaign. What had changed between 1884 and 1887? The most important development was the establishment of the All-India National Congress (AINC) in 1885. The organisation was dominated by Hindus, especially the upper caste from Bengal. Sir Syed did not like its political platform as well: democracy and bureaucratic recruitment on merit were not in the interest of Muslims. For the same reason, Ameer Ali and Nawab Abdul Latif were against the idea of elected representative bodies. Like Sir Syed, they supported: greater representation of Indians in the Legislative Council; local self-government; Indian judges to try Europeans; and the age for entry into the Indian Civil Service (ICS) should be raised to 21 years. Allan Octavian Hume wrote to Sir Syed for his support to the AINC but received no response. Similarly, Abdul Latif and Ameer Ali kept away from the AINC, but Badruddin Tyabji from Bombay joined the organisation. He was among a few Muslims who had joined the AINC.
In 1886 Sir Syed established the Muhammadan Educational Congress — its name was changed to Muhammadan Educational Conference in 1890 — the purpose of which was to articulate the educational, economic, and political interests of Muslim in British India. The Congress was Sir Syed’s answer to the political platform of the AINC. The two Congresses held their sessions at the same time in 1887, one in Lucknow and the other in Madras. In Lucknow, Sir Syed spoke this way. 
I am not given to speaking on politics, and I do not recollect having ever previously given a political lecture. My attention has always been directed towards the education of my brother Muhammadans, far from education I anticipate much benefit for my people, for Hindustan, and for the Government. . . . The reason why I stand here to address you today is because there has grown up in India a political agitation, and it is necessary to determine what action should be taken by the Muhammadan community with regard to it Although my own thoughts and desires are towards my own community, yet I shall discuss whether or not this agitation is useful for the country and for the other nations who live in it. If it be useful, we must follow it, but if dangerous for the country or our nation, we must hold aloof.
Also, in Lucknow he spoke more directly against the position of the AINC for democratically elected bodies and government employment based on merit, which meant Hindu domination.
Would our aristocracy like that a man of low caste or insignificant origin, though he be a B.A. or M.A., and have the requisite ability, should be in a position of authority above them and have power in making the laws that affect their lives and property? Never! Nobody would like it. . . . . Think for a moment what would be the result if all appointments were given by competitive examination. Over all races, not only over Mohammedans but over Rajas of high position and the brave Rajputs who have not forgotten the swords of their ancestors, would be placed as ruler a Bengali who at sight of a table knife would crawl under his chair.. . . . [I]f you accept that the country should groan under the yoke of Bengali rule and its people lick the Bengali shoes, then, in the name of God! Jump into the train, sit down, and be off to Madras, be off to Madras!
What Sir Syed was saying is that since one community (Muslims) were a minority and lagged the majority community (Hindus) in education, government employment, professions and business, the Government must protect the rights of the minority community and provide its members to advance equitably. In another statement, Sir Syed extolled the virtues of equal rights among humans.
Nobility and meanness should not be held to consist in riches and poverty. A man of low manners, if he only be rich, is treated by the world at large with the same consideration shown to a member of an ancient family. . . . [to economise] the rich and the noble however are not ashamed to travel by the railway in the same class of carriages which are crowded with the common people. All the creatures of God have equal rights. No man is entitled to allow one particular race of men to obtain the good things of this world, and to bar the rest from participating in them, and it is the duty of the Government to observe this divine law in all its integrity.
Sir Syed’s “patriotic” attitude towards the British was based on his belief that they were good rulers hence it was not a good idea to join hands with the agitators (i.e., AINC), but fight for the rights of the Muslim community in the British raj. Muslim solidarity was important. The MAO College and the Muhammadan Educational Conference were the symbols of Muslim identity and progress. Few Muslims dissented from this view. The dissenters, “nationalist” Muslims, argued that the AINC’s platform was good for the Muslims in India.
By the mid-1890s, Sir Syed had emerged as a prolific writer, forceful public speaker, and the leading spokesman for the Indian Muslims. Sadly, the last few years of his life were not as good as he would have liked or expected. One reason was that his trusted English language clerk had embezzled over one hundred and fifteen thousand rupees from the college funds. Consequently, there was shortage of funds, student enrolment fell significantly and there was turmoil in the faculty. It was a major crisis. Then there was a severe conflict between Sir Syed and his son, Syed Mahmud, who had left a high judicial position and tried to interfere in the administrative and financial affairs of the College. Sir Syed died at a friend’s house on 27 March 1898, a bitter and utterly disappointed man. He probably didn’t or couldn’t realise the long-term impact that the “Aligarh Movement” would have on India.
The Aligarh Movement was Sir Syed’s legacy. I will examine it in another essay, in which I will also address this question: What if Sir Syed had not existed? It is obviously a hypothetical question but not unreasonable for Muslims of the Indian subcontinent to address.
 I have used these publications. Altaf Husain Hali, Hayat-i-Javid, 1902; Shafey Kidwai, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: Reason, Religion, Nation, 2021; David Lelyveld, Aligarh’s First Generation: Muslim Solidarity in British India, 1996; Hafeez Malik, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan and Muslim Modernization in India and Pakistan, 1980; and Mohamed Abdulla Pasha, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan: His Life and Times, 1998.
 The BEIC came to India as a trading company in the early seventeenth century, followed by similar companies from the Netherlands and France. More than a century before them, the Spanish and Portuguese explorers had arrived in South and South-East Asia and established their bases. By the middle of eighteenth century, the BEIC started to participate, in competition with the French, in the disputes between indigenous rulers in southern India. Nawab Siraj ud Daulah in Bengal tried to dislodge the BEIC from Bengal, underestimating the power of the Company to resist and retaliate. Robert Clive and the BEIC army, with the covert support of some local elite, defeated the Nawab in 1756. Clive took over the land revenue administration (diwani) of Bengal (including Bihar and Orissa).
 I have examined a map of India (Mughal Disintegration and the Rise of Regional Powers, 1707–1766) that shows the successor states and claimants to the disintegrating Mughal empire. The Maratha Confederacy, comprising the contesting Maratha clans of Bhonsle, Holkar, Sindhia, and Gaekwar, was the largest in area, ranging from the Western ghats to Gujrat and covering most of the present-day state of Madhya Pradesh up to Orissa. There were five Muslim states in the Peninsula: Nizam of Hyderabad, Bijapur, Golcunda, Mysore, and Carnatic. In the east, there was the Muslim state of Bengal and Bihar. In the present-day Utter Pradesh, the Nawab of Oudh and the Rohillas controlled most of the area. Jats ruled over the area around Agra. Rajputs had several small states, including Ajmer, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Marwar, and Malwa. Kalhoras had Sindh up to the Kutch. The Ahmedzai Afghans had the states of Kalat, Markran, and Lasbela. The Abdali (Afghan) state covered Kandahar, Kabul, and western Punjab, including Lahore and Multan. The Sikhs occupied most of the eastern part of Punjab and part of Kashmir. There were small Muslim states in Baltistan, Gilgit, Hunza, and Chitral.
 Among the rejectionists was a large group of ulama, led by Shah Abdul Aziz (1746–1804), son of Shah Wali Ullah (1702–1762) who declared that the British rule was not legitimate and India was now dar al- harb (house of war). His fatwa (religious edict) prepared the ground for some to offer resistance and wage jihad (holy war) against the British and the Sikhs. A second group of the religionists took the attitude of resigned acceptance but emphasised reforms within the Muslim society based on the principles laid down by Muhammad ibn al-Wahab (1703–1792) in Najd (Arabia). This group founded a madrassah (religious school) in Deoband. (A dissenting group of the Sunnis, led by Ahmed Raza Khan Barelvi (1856–1921) did not support the Wahabi approach to reforming Muslims in India.) The third group took the attitude of coming to terms with the British rule within a Muslim-friendly environment. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was the most ardent advocate of this viewpoint. He argued that Muslims should become modern while maintaining their cultural identity in India. The rejectionist attitude had severely damaged the community while the Hindus had advanced and acquired positions of influence and power.
 In May 1866, at a gathering of the Scientific Society, Sir Syed spoke these words: “Gentlemen, if we look upon that period of India’s history which was passed by her under a despotic Government, we find kings and rajas possessed of unlimited power and authority over their subject-million, and we know that their Governments, instead of being guided by the laws of reason and justice, were carried on according to their arbitrary will, their caprices, or their passions.” Cited by Abdulla Pasha, p.166.
 Delhi College was established as a madrassah in 1772. The BEIC christened it as Delhi College in 1825. Sciences were taught in Arabic and Persian until 1834 when it started to teach English and Western education through the medium of English as well. This dual system was maintained until the college was merged with the Government College in Lahore in 1877. English replaced Persian as the official language of India in 1835 and was made the medium of instruction for higher education.
 He had asked Mirza Ghalib to write an introduction to the translated version. He was disappointed that Ghalib wrote a Masnawi in which he asked Sir Syed to forget the past and look towards the future.
 See Hafeez Malik, p.77.
 Of course, there were other reasons, including the grievances of Muslim landowners (zamindars and jagirdars) and the upper and middle-class Muslims who had lost employment because of changes in the requirements and their inability to compete with the Hindus. One effect of Sir Syed’s memorandum was the Indian Councils Act of 1861 allowing three Indians to join the 18-member Legislative Council. It may have also inspired men like Allan Octavian Hume, a retired civil servant, to establish the All-India National Congress in 1885.
 Bahadur Shah Zafar (1775–1862) was moved to Rangoon (Burma), where he died in 1862.
 Sir Syed organised a public meeting of Muslims in Moradabad to offer thanksgiving. Fifteen thousand of them congregated at a mosque for the invocation in July of 1859. Sir Syed extoled the British as “just rulers” and “impartial governors,” and the revolt of 1857 as the divine wrath. See Hafeez Malik, pp.80–81.
 In the 1866 session of the Scientific Society at Aligarh, Sir Syed said: “It is my firm conviction, one which I have invariably expressed both in public and private, that the greater confidence of the people of India in the Government, the more solid the foundation upon which the present Government rests, and the more mutual friendship is cultivated between your rulers and yourselves, the greater will be the future benefit to your country. Be loyal in your hearts, place every reliance upon your rulers, speak out openly, honestly, and respectfully all your grievances, hope and fears, and you may be quite sure that such a course of conduct will place you in the enjoyment of all your legitimate rights; and that this is compatible, nay, synonymous with true loyalty to the State, will be upheld by all whose opinion is worth having.” See Abdulla Pasha, p.166.
 Sir Syed took pride in the fact that the low and high-class boys sat together in each of the four classes. “I have placed my son in this school [and I] see my son seated among his poorer companions. . . . It is therefore a matter of astonishment if any dignitary should look upon it seriously as infra dignitatem to send his son to a public school.” During his tenure in Moradabad, Sir Syed wrote a pamphlet comparing the texts of the Qur’an and the Bible.
 On the issue of cow slaughter, Sir Syed remained on the side of Hindus.
 Sir Syed thought that the travel outside one’s own environment is good. In early 1869, he wrote in the Scientific Society magazine that ”I strongly feel, that for the better future of India and the Indians, as well for the Government of India, it is essential to establish a good working relationship between the Indians and the English. In pursuit of this aim, I would advise Indians to visit England that they could see and assess for themselves, the prosperity of the towns and countries of the Western world. . . .“ Cited by Abdulla Pasha, p.167.
 But he added that Indians could overcome their handicaps by deliberate activity. He wrote this in a letter to a friend in India soon after reaching England. See Hafeez Malik, p.96, and David Lelyveld, p.106.
 See Hafeez Malik, pp.191–94.
 He wrote a commentary on the Qur’an but did not complete it.
 See Abdulla Pasha, p.272. Sir Syed, like his contemporaries, held a conservative view on school education for girls. He thought that women, like his mother, should be educated at home and should learn such skills as are necessary to raise children and provide a health and stable environment for the family.
 Sir Syed’s view of civilisation or national progress included the role of (1) natural factors, (2) interaction among nations, (3) racial characteristics, (4) religious factors, and (5) role of government (laissez faire). See Hafeez Malik, pp.175–76.
 It was based on a report by M. Kempson of the Education Department of the NW Province.
 After returning from England, Sir Syed analysed the differentiated Muslim social system and published in Tahzib al-Akhlaq a plan for a stratified educational system to fulfil the needs of each class. He wanted a three-level approach to education. At the primary level, general literacy for boys and working-class men; at the secondary school level to produce clerks, office assistants, etc.; and the college (university) level to produce teachers, civil servants, engineers, lawyers, and doctors.
 Nawab Abdul Latif had formed the Muhammadan Literary Society in 1863 for educational purposes and Syed Ameer Ali founded the Central National Muhammadan Association in 1877 to gather Muslims on one platform to fight for their rights in India. Incidentally, Ameer Ali’s book, The Spirit of Islam, remains one of his great contributions to Muslim history.
 In 1888, the College’s affiliation shifted from Calcutta University to Allahabad University. The same year Sir Syed was knighted at Aligarh.
 Cited by Hafeez Malik, p.244.
 Cited by Hafeez Malik, p.245.
 Cited by Hafeez Malik, pp.244–45.
 Arya Samaj was started by Swami Dayanand Saraswati (1824–1883) as a Hindu reform movement from Bombay in 1875 and spread to other parts of India. B.G. Tilak in Maharashtra, Lala Rajpat Rai in Punjab and Bepin Chandra Pal in Bengal played a major role in the movement. Arya Samaj had two basic aims for the Hindus: to follow the Vedas and to proselytize. The issue of cow slaughter and the role of Hindi in India became part its platform especially in northern India. In the 1890s, there were numerous Hindu-Muslim riots on the issue of cow slaughter.
 He wrote to one of his friends from London that “Hindus are roused to destroy the Muslims’ [cultural] symbol embodied in the Urdu language and the Persian script. . . . “ Cited by Hafeez Malik, p.246. There was also the issue of government jobs for Muslims. In 1882, Sir Syed asked the Viceroy, Lord Rippon, to give waiver to Muslims for English language requirement to enter into the government service and to give financial assistance to Muslim boys to pursue their education schools and colleges. The British government was not receptive to these requests.
 The Muhammadan Educational Conference played a major role in spreading education among Muslims and developed their consciousness as a separate community from Hindus in India. It provided the impetus for the establishment of the Muslim League in 1906. The Conference held 45 annual sessions in different cities throughout India until 1937.
 Cited by Abdulla Pasha, p.275. The reference to agitation is a reaction to the Indian National Congress, its composition and demands.
 Cited by David Lelyveld, p.307.
 Principal Theodore Beck, Mehdi Ali and others were able to arrest the crisis, increase student enrolment and the College finances. Nor is this all. The Muhammadan Educational Conference moved out of North India with increasing financial and political support from the Muslim community. “The Muslim university movement developed into an effort to create an autonomous Muslim educational system on an All-India basis, centered at Aligarh. Ultimately, it represented a challenge to British control over the educational access to political power.” Cited by David Lelyveld, p316.
 Syed Mahmud was a brilliant jurist but suffered from excessive drinking and occasionally engaged in scandalous behaviour. He died at the age of 53 in 1903.