Seyyed Ameer Ali (1849-1928)

 

Born toward the end of Mughal rule in India, Seyyed Ameer Ali was educated at the Muhsiniyya (“Hooghly”) College, near Calcutta. He was in England in 1869-73, being called to the Bar in 1873, and settled there permanently with his English wife (Isabelle Ida Konstam) on retirement from the Bengal High Court in 1904.

 

He belongs to that generation of Indian Muslims who found themselves at the receiving end of the tide and tried to defend their faith at a time when such a defense could only be an apology. His activities were significant in many fields: as a professor of Islamic Law, at the Bar, on the Bench, in social service, government administration, politics, and as a writer. In 1883 he became one of the three Indian members (and the only Muslim) on the Viceroy's Council, and in 1909 he was appointed the first Indian member of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. On the political front he founded in 1877 a “National Mahommedan [sic] Association", which was a nation-wide organization with 34 branches from Madras to Karachi; its program was primarily “to promote good feeling and fellowship between the Indian races and creeds, at the same time to protect and safeguard Mahommedan (sic) interests and help their political training”. After moving to England he was instrumental in setting up the London branch of the Muslim League; his loyalty to and real affection for Britain led him, however, to resign in 1913 when the League joined with the Indian National Congress in talk of “Home Rule”. He was involved in negotiations in London over the projects for political reforms in India. After the First World War he came into prominence as London champion of the Khilafat movement.

 

In an environment which was hostile to Islam, Ameer Ali attempted to defend his faith at various levels. He wrote a work on the life of the Prophet of Islam which was published in London (1873) and which became the basis of a developing work which he subsequently kept revising and republishing throughout his life; this was eventually published as The Spirit of Islam (editions in 1891, 1922, 1953). This was a liberal and modernist interpretation of Islam and was favorably received in the West as well in India. It has also been translated into Turkish.

 

His other major book (apart from legal works), A Short History of the Saracens (London 1899; 10th repr. (revised) 1951; also in Urdu trans.), was also an apologetic narration of Muslim history. And like such works of that time, he sought to show that Islam was a rational religion. He repeats the story of “achievements of Muslim scientists” and attempts along with the Orientalists’ formulation of the “decay of science” with an emphatic reference to the alleged contribution of al-Ghazali in the decline of science. However, because his works were published at a time when very little was known about Islam that was positive, they created a sense of hope for the Muslim youth and provided a much needed feeling of historical context in the colonized polity. There is very little one can ascertain by way of Ameer Ali’s personal views about the relationship between Islam and science other than the oft-repeated theme of importance of knowledge in Islam, which includes scientific knowledge as well.

 

 

 

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