Sir Syed Ahmad Khan

By: Maria Uzma Ansari

“The damage done by colonial powers to the heritage of the conquered peoples is irreversible; yet racial memory is a collective storehouse that time and history cannot eradicate”.
— Twilight in Delhi, Ahmed Ali

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, born Syed Ahmad Taqvi bin Syed Muhammad Muttaqi was a thinker, reformist and visionary who was born in 1817, at the dusk of the Mughal Empire and the dawn of the British Raj. The world Syed Ahmad was born into was constantly evolving, changing and transforming itself. He was born into a noble family that had close ties to the Mughal court but he died a British subject in 1898. His maternal grandfather Khwaja Fariduddin served as Wazir in the court of Akbar Shah II. His father was close to Emperor Akbar Shah II and served as his personal adviser.

Syed Ahmad had grown up in a cultural milieu where he had seen his noble family enjoy dignity and social affluence, which they retained by serving in the Mughal court; So, when he marched into adulthood, He strived to preserve that affluence and urged all of the Muslim community to do so, even if that meant changing sides. Syed Ahmad recognised that the Muslims had to be socially uplifted and modernised if they had to remain in power and work in the British Government institutions.

maiñ un ajdād kā beTā huuñ jinhoñ ne paiham[1]
ajnabī qaum ke saa.e kī himāyat kī hai
uzr kī sā.at-e-nāpāk se le kar ab tak
har kaḌe vaqt meñ sarkār kī ḳhidmat kī hai – Jagir;
Sahir Ludhianvi

The cultural context of Syed Ahmad’s world is such that the world of his forefathers, as they knew it was coming to an end. While Persian accounts and Shahr Ashob poetry recount political breakdown and moral decline, the time period in which the Muraqqa-i-Delhi of Dargah Quli Khan is recorded is also a time when the arts are prospering and there is evidence to prove that even Nadir Shah’s attacks did not prove to be vital enough in stifling the artistic allure of the court at Delhi in spite of the loot and murders [2]. Hence, when Britishers came to Delhi, they were fascinated by the nautch troupes, the poetry, the music, the opulent courts, and hammams of the Mughals, which led to the onset of an era that saw Anglo-Oriental cultural intermixing; the product of these were Anglo-Indians likes Colonel James Skinner.

The world of Sir David Ochterlony and William Fraser, the resident and the deputy resident of Delhi respectively, was in every sense the Orient— i.e. as it is engraved in the imagination of every average human today. It was the world of Scottish nawabs and Britishers enjoying living in Mughal havelis and borrowing from the dress of the Mughals.[3] Many of them were patron of arts and by default became admirers of this Era. They took Muslim wives, embraced Persian culture and even read Ghalib’s poetry, to whom patronage was extended by both, the British— who bestowed on him a jagir, as well as the Mughal court, as he was the poet of Bahadur Shah Zafar, succeeding his sworn enemy, the legendary Zauq.[4]

This high culture was revived at the Mughal court during the reign of Akbar Shah II but by this time the relations between Britishers and Indians had soured. If Sir David Ochterlony had marked the beginning of the era of cultural intermixing, the coming of Thomas Metcalfe to India in 1827 marks its end.[5] There was growing resentment among the Britishers throughout the 1830s and the 1840s towards Indians and Anglo-Indians. Unlike the older generation of Britishers, they had become intolerant towards cultural intermixing and would not have any ‘brown-blood’ in their veins, for which James Skinner’s kids were often ridiculed. The world where Britishers restored mosques (Skinner’s masjid) and read Ghalib was coming to an end. It was this culture that the Britishers first embraced, even preserved to some extent and then completely destroyed.

Syed Ahmad was raised within the city walls in strict accordance with Mughal noble traditions. His mother, much like Napoleon’s, raised him with rigid discipline and an emphasis on modern education. Syed Ahmad also owes a lot to a female tutor who taught him to read and understand the Quran. Sir Syed broke tradition by refusing to join the services at the Mughal court but instead joined the services of the East India Company at the age of twenty, at a time when even wearing English shoes was disliked by the Mughal nobility, as it was automatically taken as a sign that one had gone astray and could also adopt Christianity.[6] But, this decision of his in his youth was an early but an exemplary display of Syed Ahmad’s farsightedness.

He was an admirer of the Mutazila tradition that gained precedence during the rule of the Abbasid Caliphate Al-Mansur, as opposed to the Asariyya and it was his rational approach that invited plenty of criticism from Hindus as well as people of his own community. He has been called a non-believer, a friend of the British and has been accused of sowing the seeds of contention between Hindus and Muslims. However, what is significant is that a lot of his decisions were being shaped by the realisation that his world had already changed, which meant that his activities could no more be limited to the walled city.

The crown of India was already slipping out of Mughal hands. Somebody else was to rule India and the only way Muslims could survive in it was by making themselves indispensable to the new rulers of India. To adopt the ways of the English for Sir Syed, was necessary for one’s own survival so that one was not forgotten or obscured.

Sir Syed encouraged the study of the sciences. In his own family, there were mathematicians and Sir Syed was studying medicine but he didn’t complete his formal education due to the lack of funds. There was never just passive acceptance on Sir Syed’s part— where one accepts their fate silently for the sake of their own survival but there was no active resistance either, He remained loyal to the British as they served, the means to his end— that was ultimately the social upliftment of the Muhammadan nation but he critiqued the British Empire wherever he could, while preserving his own interests.

It is often said that Sir Syed Ahmad Khan has been to the Muslim Renaissance what Raja Ram Mohan Roy had been to the Bengali Renaissance[7]. While some like to point out that reformist movements within the Muslim community started later than they did among the Hindus; some even go as far as to blame it for the social poverty that Muslims faced at the time of India’s Independence. Nevertheless, it must be pointed out that while Raja Ram Mohan Roy organised the opening of the Hindu College along with David Hare in Calcutta in 1817[8] to impart modern education, The Calcutta Madrasah, a premier elite institution for the Muslims set up by Warren Hastings, had already been operative since 1782 and produced social reformers like Abdul Latif. Latif, was responsible for turning the Hindu College into Presidency College, opening it for up for the Non-Hindus as well. He championed the cause of the Muslim Renaissance and was one of its pioneers. The Suhrawardy family who later changed the face of Bengal Politics and Partition during 1947 are his descendants. It is said that to quell the partition riots in Punjab, it took 50,000 men but to quell them in Bengal, it took one man alongside Gandhiji, it was Huseyn Suhrawardy.

Even though there have been figures who championed the cause of modernisation among the Muslim community in India, and deemed modernisation necessary and indispensable for their continuation and sustenance, the attitude of the Muslim community towards the British and as a result towards English Education, remained hostile. The feelings were shared by both the sides to say the least.

The European powers had usurped power and control from the Mughals, whose political control though had been reduced drastically, they still enjoyed sacral authority as figureheads. This had left the Muslims angry; they were also awry about the fact that some of them, who belonged to the nobility would lose their patronage and affluence.

The British could never wholly trust Muslims and thought them responsible for the 1857 revolt – also called the first war of Independence, as a significant proportion of the mutineers in every city were Muslims. If one is being anachronistic, one can say that the mutineers acted in a nationalist manner or that Muslims acted out of Nationalist zeal[9] in rejecting the ways of the British, but that would be anachronistic. As even though the ideas of nationalism prevailed in Western Europe due to the rise of Napoleon, the ideas had yet to be diffused to India, which is why 1857— cannot be hailed as the first war of Independence.

The British might have changed their policy towards Muslims in the later period, to that of appeasement from hostility – as they tried to rule the different factions in India by driving rifts in between them and breaking up their solidarity by highlighting their differences so that Indians could never unite and rebel but even then Britishers like W.W.Hunter remained wary of the Muslims and lived in the fear of a Muslim rebellion. [10]

The Battle of Delhi fought between the Marathas and the British in 1803 had left the gates and the city walls of Shahjahanabad in ruins and the British anticipating a Maratha attack in the future had decided to strengthen the gates of the walled city. The defences of the city were strengthened, for which the city of Firoz Shah Kotla was cannibalised to acquire stones. The British added a second door to the northern gate of the city, the Kashmere Gate, they also installed cannon holders.

When action ensued near Kashmere Gate in 1857, the British army soldiers were trying to find a way to get into Shahjahanabad and crush the mobs of rebellion but they could not get through the very gate that they had strengthened in 1803. The city only fell two days later, on 16th September 1857 when the Kashmere Gate was blown up with the use of gunpowder.

Delhi was once a paradise,
Such peace had abided here;
But they have ravished its name and pride,
Remain now only ruins and care.
— Bahadur Shah Zafar

There are reasons we cannot resist drawing parallels between the life of Ghalib and Sir Syed. Ghalib rejects nostalgia and advices Sir Syed to do so as well. They are both loyalists of the British and accept that their world is being altered, though Ghalib has never been outspoken about his disdain with the 1857 revolt which he records in the Dastamboo, it is a known fact that he suffered not only economic losses but emotional trauma seeing his friends and relatives suffer during the revolt when their houses were looted and they were humiliated and exiled from the city. Though not very fond of Shahr ashob shayari written by his contemporaries he describes Delhi as a shell of the city, it used to be previously where life depended upon four things: the red fort, the Chandni chowk, the daily congregational prayer at the jama masjid and the annual gathering of the flower sellers.[11]

“ Allah Allah Dilli Na Rahi, Chavni Hai, Na qila, na shaher, na bazar, na nahar; Qissa mukhtasar – shahar Sahra ho gaya…”
 – Mirza Ghalib

Both Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Ghalib though loyalists of the British felt strongly about the destruction of the homes in Delhi and the exile of Muslims from the city, where they were not allowed to return to for many, many years. Sir Syed Ahmad was a bit more outspoken about his rage that culminated into ‘Causes of the 1857 revolt’ a pamphlet the Britishers found seditious. Ghalib too had requested that his correspondence with the Rampur Nawab be destroyed immediately after reading, which hints at the concealment of something.[12] Ghalib too was a visionary, when he was sure that the Mughal court was to be dissolved after the death of the Emperor, he had started to request the patronage of the British, in the efforts of which he composed a Qasidah in praise of Queen Victoria.

Sir Syed’s vision allowed the awakening of a Muslim self-consciousness. This sort of revival had obviously begun with the preacher Shah Waliullah’s visit to Mecca and the inspiration he drew from the Salafi movement there and by getting himself acquainted with Ibn Taymiyya’s works. Shah Waliullah’s ideas later sparked the Islamic revivalist Wahabi movement in the 1830s and 40s that led to the awakening of a Muslim identity and a pan-Islamic consciousness but it was strengthened with the activities that took place after the 1857 revolt. The persecution and constant hostility of the British administration towards Muslims, caused them to turn to look towards possibilities that stretched beyond the subcontinent.

After the 1857 sepoy mutiny was quelled, the British administration came after its perpetrators, behind which it found several Muslim names, these Indian Muslims were forced to flee sometimes from the British administration, and at the conjunction of the two great empires— the ottoman caliphate and the British Empire, as Seema Alavi writes in her book Muslim Cosmopolitanism in the Age of the Empire “a new Muslim network was born in the aftermath of 1857—buttressed by European empires, yet resolutely opposed to them”.

One such personality in her book is Haji Imdadullah Makki, whose disciples have been constructive to the creation of Jamia and the freedom struggle in general, directly or indirectly. These networks had made the dissipation of knowledge in the Muslim world easier— as printed books started being available and widely read by the Muslim community everywhere in the world, which lead to the spread of a pan-Islamic culture.

 Pan-Islamism was the cultural context of the world of Shibli Nomani, which is why it was natural for him to write against the British and other western powers when Turkey was defeated in the Balkan Wars, which is why it was natural for Dr. Mukhtar Ahmad Ansari to lead a Medical Mission to Turkey to help the Ottoman soldiers wounded in the Balkan wars, detailed accounts of which are found in his correspondence with Maulana Mohammed Ali Jouhar. This Pan-Islamism was best symbolised in the Khilafat, which is why its fall invited many protests from Muslims all over the world. Jamia too, indirectly in a way becomes a by-product of the awakening of the Muslim consciousness mixed with the Nationalist movement of that time.

It cannot be disregarded that people of the stature of Sir Syed and Abdul Latif actually laid the groundwork that would save Muslims from complete isolation, obscurity and from disappearance into oblivion. The foundation they laid also provided a base for the social upliftment of the Muslim community, based on this groundwork, other social reforms, political activities of Muslims could then be carried out.

[1]These lines are from Sahir Ludhianvi’s Nazm ‘Jagir’. Sahir, himself was very disappointed with his father, who was a feudal landlord and loyal to the British Raj.

[2] Dalrymple, William. City of Djinns, A year in Delhi.

[3] Dalrymple, William. City of Djinns, A year in Delhi.

[4] Guha, Ramachandra. Makers of Modern India.

[5] Darlymple, William. The City of Djinns. A year in Delhi.

[6] Ali, Ahmed. Twilight in Delhi.

[7] Guha, Ramachandra. Makers of Modern India.

[8] Spectrum. A brief history of Modern India.

[9] Islam, Shamsul. Muslims Against Partition of India.

[10] Tarachand, History of the Freedom Movement in India.

[11] Narang, G. C., and Leslie Abel. “GHALIB AND THE REBELLION OF 1857.” Mahfil, vol. 5, no. 4, 1968, pp. 45–57. JSTOR,

[12] Narang, G. C., and Leslie Abel. “GHALIB AND THE REBELLION OF 1857.” Mahfil, vol. 5, no. 4, 1968, pp. 45–57. JSTOR,

Leave a Reply