Thursday, June 1, 2023

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan – A Man, A Leader, A Legend

This detailed article will cover Sir Syed Ahmed Khan complete biography, including his early life, education, family history, career in British service, role in 1857 war, educational services (schools, colleges, and education institutes founded by Sir Sayyid Ahmad), political contribution, Aligarh movement, role in two-nation theory, contributions to Islam, introduction of reforms Muslims, list of written books, essay and journals, as well as his marriage, children, death, and honors (title and awards).

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan Biography: Early Life, Education & Family

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was born on 17th October, 1817 in Delhi. His father was Syed Muhammad Taqi, while his mother was Aziz-un-Nisa.

Aziz-un-Nisa played a very important role in the early life of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. She raised him with strict discipline as well as a strong emphasis on education.

Sir Syed Ahmad’s family was one of the most influential families in Delhi. Several of his ancestors had previously served in high ranking positions in Mughal courts.

In fact, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was himself awarded the title of Jawad ul Daula and Arif e Jang by the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II.

British Service Career History & Role in 1857 War

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan foresaw the decline of Mughals. Therefore, he joined the East India Company in 1837 as a Clerk (Serestadar) responsible for managing court affairs and record-keeping in the office of Sadr Amin in Delhi.

After getting several promotions, he became the Sub-Judge (Munsif) of Fatehpur Sikri in 1841. He later on became the Sadr Amin of Bijnor in 1855.

During the war of independence that started on 10th May 1857, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was working in Bijnor court as the chief assessment officer. Sir Syed saved the lives of scores of British officials and at least 20 British families during the 1857 war.

In 1858, he became the Sadarus Sudoor of Muradabad. Over the course of the next two decades, he served at key positions in Ghazipur, Aligarh, and Banaras, before retiring from govt service in 1876.

Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan also served as a member of the Imperial Legislative Council from 1878 to 1883 after his nomination by Lord Dalton. And, in 1887, Lord Defren made him member of Civil Service Commission.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan Educational Services & Contribution

Sir Sayed Ahmed Khan knew that the uplifting of Muslims of subcontinent was only possible by education. Therefore, he set up numerous institutes for the purpose. The most notable of which are as follows:

  • 1859: Gulshan School in Muradabad
  • 1863: Victoria School in Ghazipur
  • 1864: Scientific Society in Ghazipur to translate English works into Urdu
  • 1866: Aligarh Institute Gazette to promote information on history, agriculture, mathematics, and natural and physical sciences
  • 1870: Committee Striving for the Educational Progress of Muslims
  • 1875: Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental School (MAO School) at Aligarh (inauguration by William Muir). Commonly known as Aligarh School, it was an English school that went on to become Aligarh College in 1877 (by British India’s Viceroy Lord Litton) and Aligarh University in 1920.
  • 1886: Muhammadan Educational Conference. It met every year to discuss and solve the educational problems of the Muslims. The conference also worked to persuade Muslims to abstain from politics and get modern education. It later became the basis of Muslim’s political movement, as well as the spokes-body of the Muslims of subcontinent, ultimately paving way for the development of Muslim League.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan Political Services & Introduction of Reforms

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s educational movement was, in fact, the basis of his political movement/ services. He wanted to keep Muslims away from the politics of the subcontinent and attain the modern education required for their economic uplifting.

Sir Syed’s another notable political service was to improve the image of Muslims in the eyes of British colonialists. The objectives of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan political services/ movement (sometimes also knows as the Aligarh movement) are as follows:

  • Remove enmity between Muslims and British that arose due to political or religious reasons and to establish good relations between them
  • Persuade Muslims to learn Western sciences and English language so as to get a share in the administration of the subcontinent
  • Maintain Urdu as an associate official language along with English and to develop Urdu through original writings and translations of famous English books
  • Reinterpret Islam so as to find a harmony between it and modern sciences/ philosophy so that Muslims can meet the demands of the new age while holding on to their religion
  • Protect Islam against the attacks/ onslaughts of Orientalists and to prove that it was the one true religion

Stopping Muslims from the Politics of Sub Continent

Sir Syed’s biggest aim was socioeconomic uplifting of Muslims. He strictly forbade Muslims to join Congress as he was aware of the fact how susceptible uneducated Muslims were to the intrigues of this Hindu-dominated political party.

Though Sir Sayed Ahmad Khan didn’t want Muslims to participate in the politics of subcontinent due to their backwardness, his services – especially the educational movement/ Aligarh movement – went on to produce virtually all Indian political leaders.

In fact, Muhammadan Educational Conference that he started to persuade Muslims to abstain from politics became the very basis of Muslim’s political movement. It went on to become the spokes-body of the Muslims of subcontinent. In fact, it paved way for the development of All-India Muslim League.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan biography, including early life, family, educational services, political contribution, books, role in Muslims reformation
Sir Syed Ahmed Khan

Role of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan in Urdu-Hindi Controversy & Two-Nation Theory

Sir Syed was a strong proponent of Hindu-Muslim unity, often calling these two nations the two eyes of the beautiful Indian bride (subcontinent). However, the Urdu-Hindu Controversy of 1867 changed his mind.

During the 1867 Hindi-Urdu controversy, Sir Syed became a champion for cause of the Urdu. He opposed the adoption of Hindi as the 2nd official language of Uttar Pradesh (United Provinces at the time). Sir Syed believed Urdu as the lingua franca of the United Provinces that emerged due to a confluence of Hindu and Muslim contributions in India.

Urdu had been a secondary language to Persian throughout the Mughal period. And the demand of Hindi was equal to erosion of the centuries-old culture of Indian Muslims. The Urdu-Hindu Controversy of 1867 proved a turning point and Sir Syed became a supporter of two nation theory.

Effects of Sir Sayed Ahmad Khan Contribution (Role of Aligarh Movement)

Sir Syed’s ideology for the socio-economic uplifitng of Muslims of subcontinent was trifold: aloofness from politics, loyalty towards British, and devotion towards modern education. The main effects/ outcomes of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan educational  & political contribution /Aligarh Movement were as follows:

  • Development of Western Education among Muslims
  • Reduction in enmity between Muslims and British
  • Establishment of various Islamic Educational Institutes
  • Socio-Economic Development of Muslims
  • Development of Urdu Language
  • Emergence of Muslim Political Leadership (Maulana Muhammad Ali Johar, Maulana Shokat Ali Johar, Nawab
    Mehdi Khan (Mohsin-ul-Mulk), Nawab Wiqar-ul-Mulk, Nawab Ishaq Khan, Liaquat Ali Khan, Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar, Khawaja Nazimuddin, Malik Ghulam Muhammad were all from Aligarh. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Sheikh Abdullah were also from Aligarh)
  • Role in Pakistan Movement (since almost all leaders that had a role in Pakistan movement were from Aligarh)

Books Written by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan

The list of books written by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan can be divided into three main categories: Religious, Historical, Political. Here’s a brief introduction of all of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan books along with the aim/ goal behind them.

List of Major Political Books of Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan

Tareekh e Sarkashi ye Bijnor (1857)

Tareekh e Sarkashi ye Bijnor (History of the Bijnor Rebellion) was a first-hand account of the history of mutiny in Bijnor, where Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was posted as a chief assessment officer at the time of Independence War.

Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind (1859)

Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind (Causes of the Indian Revolt) is undoubtedly Sir Syed Ahmed Khan biggest contribution to the cause of Muslims. Sir Syed’s most famous book ever, it was a detailed account of what really caused the 1857 Indian War of Independence or the Great Rebellion as Britishers call it.

Through Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind, Sir Syed conveyed to British that the 1857 war/ mutiny wasn’t caused by Muslims as propagated by Hindus, it was in fact caused by the aggressive expansion of East India Company and the ignorance of British rulers/ politicians regarding the Indian culture.

Sir Syed also argued in Asbaab-e-Baghaawat-e-Hind that Britishers need to appoint Muslims to assist in Indian administration so as to prevent another such mutiny again. The timing and the content of the book meant grave consequences and even treason for Sir Syed. But he went with it, despite one of his friends practically begging him to burn all copies.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan sent around 500 copies to British parliament and were able to clear the position of Muslims to a great extent.

Risala Khair Khwahan-e Musalmanan-e-Hind (1860)

Risala Khair Khwahan-e Musalmanan-e-Hind (An Account of the Loyal Mohammedans of India) was a bilingual account of those Muslims who stood by the British during the 1857 mutiny/ war and saved numerous British families. It also differentiated Jihad and rebellion.

Hunter per Hunter (Review on Hunter’s Indian Musalmans)

Originally the Review on Hunter’s Indian Musalmans, Hunter per Hunter is Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s another great contribution.

Sir Syed authored this book in reply to William Wilson Hunter’s 1871 book “Indian Musalmans: Are They Bound in Conscience to Rebel Against the Queen?” in which Hunter linked Jihad with rebellion, saying Muslims will never be loyal to British empire due to their religious interpretation of Jihad.

Hunter’s book led to extreme marginalization and persecution of Indian Muslims. And this persecution was why Sir Syed wrote a series of articles to rebuff Hunter’s one-sided arguments. The articles were later compiled into a book famously called Hunter per Hunter.

List of Main History Books of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan

Jam e Jum (Jamshed’s Cup) 

Written at the behest of Robert N. C. Hamilton, Jam e Jum was a historical account of Delhi’s Timurid rulers from Timurlane to Bahadur Shah Zafar.


Silsilat-ul-Mulk was a compilation of the biography of Delhi rulers history.

Tuzuk e Jahangiri 

It was an edition of famed book Tuzuk e Jahangiri.

Asaar-us-Sanadid (1847)

Asaar-us-Sanadid (The Remnants of Ancient Heroes) is Sir Syed Ahmed Khan biggest historical contribution. This two-edition book brought unprecedented fame to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and earned him the reputation of one of the biggest cultured scholars of India.

Asar-us-Sanaadid is an extremely detailed account of Delhi’s history dating from the medieval era, and detailing all inhabitants. settlements, rulers, buildings, and Sufis that remained a part of Delhi.

Ain-e-Akbari (1855)

Ain-e-Akbari was a scholarly and illustrated edition of the famed book Ai’n-e Akbari written by Abul Fazl. It was a detailed account of Akbar’s governance model.

Sir Syed approached Mirza Ghalib to write a laudatory foreword for the book. However, the great poet reprimanded him instead for wasting his talent on a dead thing of the past. Sir Syed never again wrote a word in praise of the Ain-e Akbari and even gave up interest in history.

List of Major Religious Books of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan

Jilaa al- Quloob bi Zikr al-Mahboob (1842)

Jilaa al- Quloob bi Zikr al-Mahboob (Delight of the Hearts in Remembering the Beloved) was a biography of the Holy Prophet Muhammad SAW.

Tuhfa-e Hasan (1844)

Tuhfa-e Hasan (The Gift to Hasan) was an Urdu translation of 10th and 12th chapters of Shah Abdul Aziz Dehalavi’s book Tuhfah-e Ithna Ashariyya (A treatise on the 12 Imams), which was a critique of Shia beliefs.

Kalimat al-Haq (1849)

Kalimat al-Haq (The True Discourse) was a critique of the widely prevalent pir-murid relationship and other such Sufi practices as was much deviated from Islam. He argued that Holy Prophet Muhammad SAW is the only pir and role model all Muslims need to follow.

Rah e Sunnah dar radd e Bidd’ah (1850)

Rah e Sunnah dar radd e Bidd’ah (The Sunna and the Rejection of Innovations) was a critique of the religious beliefs and practices that had innovation or deviation from the true Sunnah.

Namiqa dar beyan masala tasawur-e-Sheikh (1852)

Namiqa dar beyan masala tasawur-e-Sheikh meant ‘A Letter Explaining the Teaching of tasawwur i sheikh’. In this book, he defended the Sufi practice of visualizing one’s spiritual guide within oneself.

Tabeen al-al-kalaam Fi tafseer altawarat Wa ‘I-injil’ala millet al Islam (1862)

Tabeen al-al-kalaam Fi tafseer altawarat Wa ‘I-injil’ala millet al Islam (Elucidation of the World in Commentary of the Torah & Gospel According to the Religion of Islam) was a commentary on Bible, aimed at explaining it in terms of Islam.

Al-Khutbat al-Ahmaddiya fi’l Arab wa’I Seerat al-Muhammadiya (1869)

Al-Khutbat al-Ahmaddiya fi’l Arab wa’I Seerat al-Muhammadiya (A Series of Essays on the Life of Prophet Muhammad and Subjects Subsidiary Therein) is Sir Syed’s most important religious book. It is also Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s biggest contribution to Islam.

Khutbaat e Ahmaddiya was a reply/ rejoinder to William Muir’s 1864 book ‘The Life of Muhammad.’ Like others, Sir Sayyid was also deeply distressed by Muir’s wrong portrayal of Islam and Holy Prophet SAW.

In order to write this book, Sir Syed went to England with his son. He conducted an unbelievably thorough research on Western arguments against Islam so as to counter them using West’s own contradictions.

Tafsir e Quran (1877)

Tafsir e Quran was a seven-volume commentary on 13 surahs and 16 paras of Quran.

Besides these books, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan published several essays, journals and pamphlets. For instance, Tehzeeb ul Ikhlaq was an important journal to reform Muslims and bring them to modern education.

Al-Du’a Wa’l Istajaba (1892)

Al-Du’a Wa’l Istajaba dealt with Islamic prayers and the concept of dua/ worship.

Marriage, Children, Death & Honors (Title & Awards)

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan married Mubarak Begum (real name Parsa Begum) in 1836. He had two sons Syed Mahmood and Syed Hamid, and a daughter Ameena. Sir Syed son Syed Mahmood went on to become a high court judge in British India.

Sir Sayyid spend the last twenty years of his life in Aligarh. He died there on 27th March 1898. He was buried in the campus of the Aligarh College (now Aligarh Muslim University) besides the Sir Syed Masjid.

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan became a Companion of the Order of the Star of India (CSI) in 1869. This title/ award was due to his role/ contribution as Sadr Amin. He was also bestowed with the suffix of ‘Khan Bahadur.’

In 1888, the British government also knighted him as a Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of India (KCSI).

Paying tribute to Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, C.F. Andrews and Girja Mookerjee write in The Rise and Growth of the Congress in India: “Other men have written books and founded colleges; but to arrest as with a wall, the degeneration of a whole people, that is a work of a prophet.”

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