From ruins to reform - I

Marking the great reformer's second bicentennial, Raza Naeem remembers Sir Syed Ahmad Khan as a modern Muslim in a pre-modern age

From ruins to reform - I
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) emerged as the key leader of the Indian Muslim community at a critical juncture in Indian history – the aftermath of the War of Independence of 1857, the strengthening of British colonialism and a moment of crisis for the Muslim communities. He was a thoroughly modern Muslim in a thoroughly pre-modern age, responding to the material conditions and needs of Indian society. Yet he is marginalised in Pakistani textbooks as merely the originator of the Two-Nation Theory, and the founder of the Aligarh Movement, as well as a founding father of Pakistan. Less celebrated are his achievements in providing a thoroughly modern, scientific and rational interpretation of Islam and the Quran (the idea that “there cannot be a contradiction in the Word and Work of Allah”), as well his debates on culture and with his eminent intellectual rivals like Jamaluddin Afghani, the poet Akbar Allahabadi and later his own mentees like Deputy Nazeer Ahmad and Shibli Nomani. These intellectual efforts in the face of stern opposition from fundamentalists and detractors sowed the seeds of enlightenment and progress among the Muslims of India, and established an intellectual front against blind worship of tradition and backwardness, later paving the way for personalities like Allama Iqbal. Sir Syed’s thought was politically conservative but socially progressive, evolving from a traditional, past-worshipping understanding to a more scientific and rational one. My essay traces the evolution of Sir Syed’s thought as a modern Muslim in a pre-modern age, and examines his thoughts on culture and his debates with his opponents and detractors, and is a tribute to one of our most important, albeit neglected thinkers on the occasion of his bicentennial, to be observed on the 17th of October, 2017, next week.

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan

Sir Syed’s views on culture

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was probably the first intellectual who presented the meaning of culture which was prevalent in the West in the 19th century. He comprehensively defined culture and also reviewed the elements and dynamics of culture. So in his journal Tehzeeb al-Akhlaq while defining its aims and objectives, Sir Syed writes in the first edition of the journal (1870) that:

The objective of issuing this journal is to persuade Indian Muslims to adopt a complete degree of civilisation meaning culture, so that the hatred with which the civilised (cultured) nations view them should go away and they may also be said to be exalted and cultured nations of the world.

Civilisation is an English world which we have translated as culture but its meaning is very vast. It means to raise all the intentional actions, morals and matters and society and civilisation and its ways and the use of time and knowledge and every kind of arts and skill to a high quality of finesse and to deal with them with great excellence and method, which is the source of real happiness and bodily quality and from which dignity and grace and value and stature is attained and the difference between barbarity and humanity is witnessed. (‘Dabistan-e-Tarikh-e-Urdu’ by Hamid Hasan Qadri, Karachi, 1966 pp. 344)
Sir Syed's thought was politically conservative but socially progressive

Sir Syed has mixed up culture and civilisation but the fault can hardly be said to be his. In fact, by that time, the idea of culture and civilisation was unclear to various thinkers of the West itself. Sir Syed also wrote two detailed essays on culture in Tehzeeb al-Akhlaq. The title of the first essay was ‘Culture and its Definition’; while the second was titled ‘Civilisation or, Sophistication and Culture’. These essays, as Sir Syed himself admitted, are based on the book by Thomas Buckle (1821-1862). Buckle was an eminent British historian. He wanted to write a detailed history of world civilisation in multiple volumes. But he had published only two volumes (1861) when he passed away.

Buckle had tried to write the history of human civilisation in the light of scientific knowledge and had also fashioned a few ‘laws’ of human history based on rules of inductive reasoning (e.g. the law of season) and had proved that the physical environment and seasons greatly affect human culture. Though Buckle’s ‘ideologies’ were totally against historical facts (the physical environment of the ancient cultures of the Indus Valley, Nile Valley and the Tigris and Euphrates Valley was different from Europe but no one can deny the greatness of these cultures), despite this, the people of the West enthusiastically welcomed Buckle’s thoughts, because he had fashioned the dominance of the white nations and the slavery of Asian nations into a natural law and thus presented an ideological justification for Britain’s imperialist interests.

Much had been written on the laws of the evolution of human culture by Hegel, Marx and other Western thinkers long before Buckle; but Sir Syed perhaps was not aware of the thoughts of these thinkers. Nevertheless it is no mean achievement on the part of Sir Syed that he made contemporary Indian Muslims aware of the modern meaning of culture. While explaining culture, Sir Syed writes:

When a group of humans gathers together in some place and settles then often their needs and wishes, diets and clothes, knowledge and thoughts, joyful conversations and hate all become common and that is why thoughts of good and evil also become common and the desire to exchange evil with good is common in all. This collective desire for exchange or the exchange brought about by collective desire is the civilisation of that nation or group. (‘Maqaalat-e-Sir Syed’, Volume 6, pp. 3, Lahore 1962)

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan wrote such reasonable things about Man and human culture 150 years ago, which still hold true, and reflecting on which, one is greatly aided in understanding the actual reality of culture. For example, he used to say, “There is a close relationship between human actions and the laws of nature.” (Ibid. pp. 35), meaning that the laws of human society and the movement of nature are identical. Second, that human actions and the work of their mutual milieu are subject to some predetermined law, and not coincidental. Third, that “Man’s actions are not the results of their wishes but the results of past events.” Fourth, that “Any human society is not free of culture”. And fifth that “Man changes nature and nature changes Man and all events are made from this mutual exchange.”

Victorian engraving of a Muslim school in 19th century India

While mentioning the specific qualities of Man, he writes that Man’s “organs and body are higher and better compared to other living creatures. This is not his only superiority but work which he is able to do with the help of his intelligence, as well as with such hands which are his very obedient workers; because of them he has a great superiority and due to both these sources he is able to live a very happy and comfortable life compared to other creatures and able to make his self into an artificial existence and compared to the status of his natural life, he is able to provide it with a lot of luxury.”(‘Maqalaat-e-Sir Syed’ Volume 12, pp. 63-64, Lahore 1963)

A comprehensive review of the intellectual services of Sir Syed is out of the scope of this essay; although we must say that Sir Syed was our first thinker who explained the changes in the world and human society in terms of the laws of motion of society itself and its creation. He did not include the intent or desire of any supernatural force.

Mirza Ghalib felt that Sir Syed, at least earlier on, was far too caught up in memories of past Muslim glory in South Asia

Sir Syed’s evolution

If we review the thoughts of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan; his services for reforming the intellect and sensibilities of the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent are known to all. But we see that he is compiling the Ain-i-Akbari in 1848. And later when he writes Asar al-Sanadid, Mirza Ghalib essentially asks him such questions: “What worth is there in these ancient texts? Why are you engaged in worshipping the past and nourishing the dead? Come out of it and see the variety of amazing scientific inventions the savants of the West have pioneered like the ship, the electric wire, the matchstick, steam-powered machines and even greater than these a code, a law and a system!”

Sir Syed becomes upset with Ghalib’s advice.

Ghalib writes:

Good news my friends, this ancient book’s door

Is now open, because of the Syed’s grace and fortune,

The eye began to see, the arm found strength

That which was wrapped in ancient clothes,

now put on a new dress.


And this idea of his, to establish its text and edit the


Puts to shame his exalted capability and potential,

He put his heart to a task and pleased himself

And made himself an auspicious, free servant.

One who isn’t capable of admiring his quality

Would no doubt praise him for this task,

For such a task, of which this book is the basis

Only an hypocrite can offer praise.

I, who am the enemy of pretence

And have a sense of my own truthfulness,

If I don’t give him praise for this task

It’s proper that I find occasion to praise.

I have nothing to say to the perverse

None know what I know of arts and letters,

In the whole world, this merchandise has no buyer.

What profit could my Master hope from it?

It should be said, it’s an excellent inventory

So what’s there to see that’s worth seeing?

And if you talk with me of Laws and Rules

Open your eyes, and in this ancient halting-place

Look at the Sahibs of England.

Look at the style and practice of these,

See what Laws and Rules they have made for all to see

What none ever saw, they have produced.

Science and skills grew at the hands of these skilled ones

Their efforts overtook the efforts of the forebears.

This is the people that  owns  the right to Laws and Rules

None knows to rule a land better than they,

Justice and Wisdom they’ve made as one

They have given hundreds of laws to India.

The fire that one brought out of stone

How well these skilled ones bring out from straw!

What spell have they struck on water

That a vapour drives the boat in water!

Sometimes the vapour takes the boat down the sea

Sometimes the vapour brings down the sky to the plains.

Vapour makes the sky-wheel go round and round

Vapour is now like bullocks, or horses.

Vapour makes the ship speed

Making wind and wave redundant.

Their instruments make music without the bow

They make words fly high like birds:

Oh don’t you see that these wise people

Get news from thousands of miles in a couple of breaths?

 They inject fire into air

And the air glows like embers,

Go to London, for in that shining garden

The city is bright in the night, without candles.

Look at the businesses of the knowledgeable ones:

In every discipline, a hundred innovators!

Before the Laws and Rules that the times now have

All others have become things of yesteryears,

Wise and sensitive and prudent one, does your book

Have such good and elegant Laws?

When one sees such a treasure house of gems

Why should one glean corn from that other harvest?

Well, if you speak of its style, it’s good

No, it’s much better than all else that you seek

But every good always has a better too

If there’s a head, there’s also a crown for it.

Don’t regard that Generous Source as niggardly

It’s a Date Palm which drops sweet light, like dates.

Worshipping the Dead is not an auspicious thing

And wouldn’t you too think that it’s

no more than just words?

The Rule of silence pleases my heart, Ghalib

You spoke well doubtless, not speaking is well too.

Here in this world your creed is to worship all the

Prophet’s (PBUH) children,

Go past praising, your Law asks you to pray:

For Syed Ahmad Khan-e Arif Jang

Who is made up entirely of wisdom and splendour

Let there be from God all that he might wish for

Let an auspicious star lead all his affairs.

(Translated from the Farsi by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi)

Tehzeeb-al-Akhaq - the publication through which Sir Syed expressed his reformist ideas

Sir Syed becomes upset with Ghalib's advice

However twenty years later, the very same Sir Syed sets up the Scientific Society and earns the epithets of kafir and zindiq from the representatives of those ancient ruins. Was this intellectual revolution within Sir Syed a mere coincidence or were there any social reasons and dynamics behind it? Even a person of ordinary intelligence will say that the changes in Sir Syed’s thoughts were due to the arrival of Western-style administration, lifestyle and education in the country and had the influence of the West not been dominant, perhaps Sir Syed would still be engaged with the scenes of ancient ruins…

All the translations from the Urdu are by the author unless otherwise stated. Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and an award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore. He is currently the president of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. His most recent publication is an introduction to the reissued edition (HarperCollins India, 2016) of Abdullah Hussein’s classic Partition novel ‘The Weary Generations.’ He can be reached at:

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979