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Looking Back- Sir Syed Ahmed Khan

Looking Back- Sir Syed Ahmed Khan

Issue 99 December 2012

Hailed as the father of the Two Nation Theory, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s legacy is ingrained within the history of Pakistan, as Tam Hussein relates.


The idea of Pakistan is linked to the intense emotion caused by the Indian mutiny or, as Indians like to call it, the First War of Independence. William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal tells the story of how an act of supreme stupidity by the British resulted in rebellion in 1857. The British government supplied the Muslim and Hindu soldiers cartridges greased with pork and beef tallow, which the soldiers had to bite into. This act offended their religious sensibilities and was the last straw in a series of humiliations inflicted by their colonial masters. The soldiers mutinied and marched all the way to Delhi where the aging Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah, lived an indolent life concerned with poetry rather than rebellion. For a brief moment Bahadur Shah was made emperor of India once again. Ironically, had it not been for the British recruiting mostly Muslim mercenaries and the disorganisation of the rebels, Britain could have lost India.   

The failure of the rebellion had repercussions for Muslims and Hindus alike. Ringleaders were tied to cannons and blown to bits. Mutineer’s corpses were left to rot as a mark of British vengeance. However, it also forced many Indian Muslims to rethink their approach to dealing with Britain. Previously Muslims had viewed the British as occupiers that must be fought. With the failure of the mutiny many took a different approach; the foremost among them was Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, a polymath and nobleman from Delhi. 

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan grew up in the rich cultural milieu that counted Ghalib and Zauq, two of the most gifted Urdu poets, as its contemporaries. He was a considerable scholar having studied Arabic, Persian, Urdu and the sciences. Pre-mutiny period, his scholarly output focussed on the Prophet and mystical treatises of the Naqshbandi. Post-mutiny, he concerned himself with responding to the criticisms of Christian missionaries and Orientalists like Sir William Muir. Sir Syed was far from being a traditionalist; he embraced new ideas willingly. When the poet Ghalib reprimanded him for being too concerned with India’s Mughal past he abandoned it all together. In fact, despite Sir Syed’s excellent Mughal credentials his politics was always aligned towards collaborating with the British. His loyalty to them never wavered, even during the rebellion he worked tirelessly to save Indian as well as European lives. However, he never shied away from criticising the authorities. Immediately after the rebellion he published a pamphlet exploring its causes and accused the British of cultural insensitivity. 

Sir Syed’s politics also saw gradual evolution. Initially he had viewed the political destiny of Hindus and Muslims as indivisible. However, his political alignment shifted over the Urdu-Hindi language controversy. Many Hindus wanted to make Hindi the lingua franca as opposed to Urdu, which was spoken by roughly 45 percent of the sub-continent. Sir Syed’s belief that Urdu should be the language of choice led him to conclude that that the destinies of Muslims and Hindus were heading in different directions. This political realignment was accompanied by a change in religious outlook. From the 1870s onward when British ascendancy was unrivalled, Sir Syed changed his traditional religious outlook to a more ‘modern’ one. As he said, he wanted to adjust religion to the sciences of the day. He believed that if Islam could not adapt then it would be extinguished.   


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