Family and Social Milieu
Born in the twilight of the Mughal Era in the Indian subcontinent to a distinguished family, Sayyid Ahmad Khan is the eldest of the five prominent Muslim modernists whose influence on Islamic thought and polity was to shape and define Muslim responses to modernism in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Like the four--Sayyid Amîr cAlî (1849-1928), Jamâl al-Dîn al-Afghânî (1838-1897), Nâmik Kemâl (1840-1888) and Shaykh Muhammad cAbduh (ca.1850-1905)--Sayyid Ahmad Khan was deeply concerned with the state of Muslims in a world dominated by European colonizing powers.
Khan’s forefathers claimed direct blood relationship with the Prophet of Islam
through his daughter Fâtimah and son-in-law cAlî. They had migrated to
Khan’s father, Sayyid Muttaqî,
was mystically inclined and frequently visited the monastery of Shah Ghulam
in this palatial haveli (mansion)
ľ known as Haveli
Mehdi Quli Khan
ľ that Sayyid
Ahmad Khan was born on
the British power was consolidated in that area, a permanent revenue officer
was appointed and Khwajah Farid
The second most important influence on the life of young Sayyid Ahmad Khan was that of his mother, who is described as an exceptional woman. Her generosity and piety were legendary. When her eldest son died at the age of 38, she “unrolled her prayer carpet and exclaimed: God’s Will was done.”[i][i] She also urged her relative not to postpone the marriage plans of her daughter because of this death in the family. She maintained several helpless and indigent old ladies in specially built quarters adjoining her house and spent a great deal of money in charity.
In the Indian subcontinent Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) and his followers were the first champions of this reform agenda. Born in the twilight of the Indian Tîműrî era to a distinguished family, Sayyid Ahmad Khan was involved in a wide range of activities—from politics to education. He was to leave a deep mark on the new Islam and science discourse through his writings and by influencing at least two generations of Muslims who studied at the educational institutions he founded.
It was during the decade of 1860s, that Ahmad Khan
developed his ideas of a “modern Islam” and a Muslim polity living under the
British rule. During this time, he wrote
(A History of
Insurrection in Bijnor District) and Asbâb-e Baghâwat-e Hind
(The Causes of Indian Mutiny). He sent 500 copies of the latter book
to the India Office of the British Government in
The first two decades after 1857 witnessed Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s increasing preoccupation with the
prevailing conditions of Muslims in
(i) to translate into such languages as may be in common use among the people those works on arts and sciences which, being in English or other European languages, are not intelligible to the natives; (ii) to search for and publish rare and valuable oriental works (no religious work will come under the notice of the Society); (iii) to publish, when the Society thinks it desirable, any [periodical] which may be calculated to improve the native mind; (iv) to have delivered in their meetings lectures on scientific or other useful subjects, illustrated when possible by scientific instruments.
Ahmad Khan and the Society moved to
Ahmad Khan now devoted all his energies and a portion of
his personal income to the Society. He was also able to receive small sums from
various Muslim and non-Muslim philanthropists. Ahmad Khan realized that the political
On April 1, 1869, Ahmad Khan, his two sons, Sayyid Hamid and Sayyid Mahmud, a younger friend, Mirza Khuda Dad Beg, and a
servant known only by the affectionate name of Chachu
left Benaras and arrived in London on May 4, 1869
after spending five days in Marseilles and Paris.
To pay for his trip, Ahmad Khan had to mortgage his ancestral house in
Ahmad Khan lived in rented houses in
His visit to
After finishing the book, Ahmad Khan was eager to return
After his return to
In his drive for modernization, Ahmad Khan wanted to
re-interpret Islam. “We need a modern
cilm al-Kalâm,” he said in a speech delivered at
In his attempts to re-interpret Islam to accommodate
modern Western science, Ahmad Khan exposed his weaknesses in both domains of
knowledge. He was severely criticized by the
culamâ’ for the
lack of qualifications to interpret the Qur’ân
Hadîth and the
shallowness of his knowledge of Western science and its philosophical
underpinnings was apparent from his own writings. He had no training in any
natural science or in philosophy of science and he had never finished his traditional
education. Yet, he tried to demythologize the Qur’ân and its teachings. His interpretation of
various fundamental aspects of Islamic teachings which could not be proved by
modern scientific methods, such as the nature of supplication (du‘â), which he thought was merely psychological rather
than real, met fierce resistance from the traditional scholars but in spite of
this, he gained widespread popularity among the ruling elite and in the early
1880s, he became the acknowledged leader of the Muslim community. He was loyal
to the British Raj, but he fought various
legal and constitutional battles with the British administrators in order to
secure fundamental rights for the Muslim community. He was rewarded by the
British in many ways. In 1878, he was nominated as a member of the Vice Regal
Legislative Council; in 1888, he was knighted as the Knight Commander of the
Star of India; in 1889, he received an honorary degree from the
Like many other Muslim thinkers of the nineteenth century, Ahmad Khan was convinced that Muslims need to acquire Western science and he attempted to show that modern science is in perfect harmony with Islam. Not only that, he went as far as proclaiming that the Qur’ânic invitation to ponder and reflect on the perfect system of nature was, in fact, a call to Muslims to excel in scienceľan argument that gained currency with time and is still used by many thinkers and rulers who want Muslims to acquire Western science.
Others who advocated similar ideas during the nineteenth
century include Khayr al-Dîn al-Tunisî
(d. 1889), Rifâcah al-Tahtâwî (d. 1871), Jamâl al-Dîn al-Afghânî (d. 1897) and
cAbduh (d. 1905). This trend also gave birth to modern
scientific exegesis (tafsîr
cilmî) of the Qur’ân. In 1880,
an Egyptian physician, Muhammad
ibn Ahmad al-Iskandrânî, published one such
Now that Ghadar is over, and whatever had to pass for the Muslims has passed, I am worried about improvement of our nation. I pondered hard and after a long reflection came to the conclusion that it is not possible to improve their lot unless they attain modern knowledge and technologies that are a matter of honor for other nations in the language of those who, through the Will of Allâh, rule over us.
As an aid to his mission, Ahmad Khan decided to write a tafsîr because in all previous tafsîr literature, he “could only find grammatical and lexicographical niceties, statements concerning the place and time of revelation and descriptions of previous tafâsîr.” In the preface to the first partial edition of his work, he wrote,
When I tried to educate Muslims in modern sciences and English, I wondered whether these are, in fact, against Islam as it is often claimed. I studied tafsîr, according to my abilities, and except for the literary matters, found in them nothing but rubbish and worthless (fadűl) discussions, mostly based on baseless and unauthentic traditions and fables (mamlu bar rawâyât dacîf wa modűc aur qasas bey saropa) which were often taken from the Jewish sources. Then I studied books of the principles of tafsîr according to my ability with the hope that they would definitely provide clues to the principles of the Qur’ânic interpretation based on the Qur’ân itself or which would be otherwise so sound that no one could object to them but in them I found nothing but statements that the Qur’ân contains knowledge of such and such nature… Then I pondered over the Qur’ân itself to understand the foundational principles of its composition and as far as I could grasp, I found no contradiction between these principles and the modern knowledge… then I decided to write a tafsîr of the Qur’ân which is now complete up to Suratul Nahl.”
Ahmad Khan’s tafsîr was published as it was being written. The work began in 1879 and was left unfinished at the time of his death in 1898. This tafsîr faced fierce resistance not only from culamâ but also from Ahmad Khan’s staunch admirers and friends. One of his friends, Nawâb Muhsin al-Mulk wrote to him two long letters expressing his anguish at Ahmad Khan’s radical interpretation of certain verses of the Qur’ân. In response, Ahmad Khan composed a short treatise to explain the principles of his tafsîr. This was published in 1892 as Tahrîr fi’l-asűl al-tafsîr.
Ahmad Khan declared that nature is the “Work of God” and the Qur’ân is the “Word of God” and there could be no contradiction between the two. But in his efforts to prove that there is no contradiction between the Qur’ân and the modern scientific knowledge, Ahmad Khan denied all miracles and insisted on bending the Word of God to suit his understanding of His Works. In the Ninth Principle of his tafsîr, he stated
there could be nothing in the Qur’ân that is against the principles on which nature works… as far as the supernatural is concerned, I state it clearly that they are impossible, just like it is impossible for the Word of God to be false… I know that some of my brothers would be angry to [read this] and they would present verses of the Qur’ân that mention miracles and supernatural events but we will listen to them without annoyance and ask: could there could not be another meaning of these verses that is consonant with Arabic idiom and the Qur’ânic usage? And if they could prove that it is not possible, then we will accept that our principle is wrong… but until they do so, we will insist that God does not do anything that is against the principles of nature that He has Himself established.
When he died in 1898, he was mourned by thousands. He had made effective contributions to take the despairing Muslims out of their unhappy lot after the demise of the Indian Tîműrî era in the Indian subcontinent but in doing so, he also embarked them upon a path that made no sense of their history and heritage and that led to the eclipse of the tradition of learning and excellence that had been the hallmark of Islamic civilization for more than a millennium.
Khan Bahador, Syed, C.S.I.,
A Series of Essays on the Life
of Muhammad and Subjects Subsidiary Thereto,
History of the Bijnor
Rebellion, tr. By Hafeez
Malik and Morris Dembo, (
—, Asbâb-e Baghâwat-e Hind, (Aligarh: Aligarh Muslim University Press, 1858)
—, Athar al-Sanadîd, (Delhi: Central Book Depot, UrduJamai‘ Masjid, 1965)
Baljon, J.M.S. Modern Muslim Koran Interpretation (1880-1960) (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1961)
Halî, Altaf Husain, Hayât-e Javid, (Lahore: Academy Punjab Trust, 1957)
Husain, Yusuf (ed.), Selected Documents from the
J.J. G., The Interpretation of the Koran in
Malik, Hafeez, Sir Sayyid Ahmad
Khan and Muslim Modernism in
Panipati, Maulana Muhammad lsma‘il (ed.) Maqalât-e Sir Sayyid, 16 vol. (Lahore: Majlis-e Taraqqi-e Adad, 1963)
Panipati, Maulana Muhammad Isma ‘il (ed.) Maktubât-e Sir Sayyid, 2 vol. (Lahore: Majlis-e Taraqqi-e Adad, 1959)
Shan, Mohammad, (ed.) Writings and Speeches of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, (Bombay: Nachiketa Publications Limited, 1972)
. Notably the
. “Proceedings of the
First Meeting of the Scientific Society”, Ghazipur,
Hafeez (1980), Sir Sayyid
Ahmad Khan and Muslim Modernism in
. Panipati, Shaikh Muhammad Ismacil (1976), Maktubat-e Sir Sayyid,(Letters of Sir Sayyid Ahmad, henceforth Letters), 2 vols., Majlis-e Taraqi-e Adab, Lahore, vol. 1, p. 413. Ahmad Khan’s letters to Nawab Mohsin al-Mulk, and Mawlavi Mahdi Ali Khan, written from England, were first published in Sir Sayyid’s journal Tahdhib al-lkhlaq, under the general title of Safar Namah-e Musafran-e London.
. Ahmad Khan’s letter of July 28, 1869, to the Secretary of State (George Douglas Campbell, the Eighth Duke of Argyll, 1823-1900), in Panipati, Shaikh Muhammad Ismacil (ed., 1993) Letters to and from Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Board for Advancement of Literature, Lahore, pp. 3-5.
. “One can easily live
here in one hundred and fifty rupees per month, except when one has to go for
visits. It costs four hundred rupees a month just for the coaches! And this
will only fetch a one-horse carriage with occasional two horse carriages. Last
night Mahmud was invited to the house of an
Englishman, he spent two hours there, he went there in a pathetic horse
carriage, the like of which one can fetch in Benaras
for two or three annas (one rupee had sixteen annas); it cost seven shillings, i.e. seven and a half
rupees...” Ahmad Khan’s letter of
Shaikh Muhammad Ismacil (ed.
. Letters, op. cit. vol. 1, p. 431.
by Trubner & Co., 1870. In
. Iskandarani, Muhammad b. Ahmad (1297/1880), Kash
al-Qurbaniyya fi-ma yata
callaqu bi al-Ajram as-Samawiyya wa al-Ardiyya wa al-Hayawanat wa al-Nabat wa al-Jawahir al-Macadaniyya, 3 vols.
Muhammad b. Ahmad (1300/1883), Tibyan al-Asrar al-Rabbaniyya fibl-Nabat wabl Macadin wabl-Khawass
. The 1857 effort to gain independence from the British rule was called “mutiny” by the British; its Urdu equivalent, Gadar, was used by some pro-British writers for this heroic effort which failed due to many reasons, including treason by Muslims and Hindus loyal to the British.
. See Panipati, Maulana Muhammad lsmacil (ed.,
1963), Maqalat-e Sir Sayyid, 16 vols., Majlis-eTaraqqi-e Adad,
. For a discussion on
Ahmad Khan’s reinterpretations, see Troll, C.W. (1979), Sayyid
Ahmad Khan: A Reinterpretation of Muslim Theology,
Oxford University Press,
[i][i] Malik, Hafeez, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan and Muslim Modernism in