Friday, January 25, 2008

Reflecting on Sir Syed

Reflecting on Sir Syed

Sir Syed Memorial Lecture delivered on October 17, 2007 under the auspices of Sir Syed Foundation, New Delhi at Jamia Millia Islamia.

By Anil Nauriya

November 13, 2007

Sir Syed never lived to see the twentieth century. He saw most of the 19th. How should an Indian in the 21st Century look upon him?

As a curiosity to be examined in an intellectual laboratory or a living being through whose life we could obtain a glimpse of the 19th Century? To gain an idea of the chronological distance at which we stand from Sir Syed, consider the fact that Maulana Azad was only 10 or eleven years of age, when Sir Syed passed away. And it is now going to be 50 years since the precocious Maulana Azad, after living a full and revolutionary life, himself passed away.

The historian’s task is often seen as cherry-picking, and choosing what the historian wishes to project.

In fact historians are often politicians in disguise as they carry on politics by other means.
All of us have a politics. When I write and speak as an Indian, I would have a strong tendency to look in Sir Syed for those things which reinforce my own perception of Indianness. If I were an officially oriented historian in, say, Pakistan, I might perhaps look for the things which emphasized the separate interests of communities. And if in addition I were a bad historian, I would do so to the exclusion of all else.

Fortunately for me, Sir Syed was a normal human being. And like all normal human beings he had his contradictions.

But I’m going to cherry-pick in a different way. Unlike the historian, I will cherry-pick not facts but themes. For today’s lecture I shall try, to some extent, to look also somewhat beyond the three aspects of Sir Syed’s life and thought relating to nation, class and gender. Much has been written and can be written and said on Sir Syed in relation to these matters.

Is there a Sir Syed beyond these issues? A man is not a prisoner of a few themes one way of dealing with this question is to ask: in what capacity do I approach him today?

As a so-called non-Muslim trying to understand the so-called Muslim mind? As simply a curious student of recent history? As a resident of Delhi trying to learn about one of its distinguished past citizens? As a lawyer reading the history of one who was a judicial officer, the Munsif of Delhi? As a conservationist interested in Delhi’s monuments, reading about the work of a pioneering scholar in the field? As an admirer of the many eminent figures directly associated with Aligarh – among them, to name only a few, Shibli Numani, the Ali brothers, Yusuf Dadoo, who was a student at Aligarh in the 1920s and later made his mark in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and Prof. Mohd Habib, the legendary historian and political scientist?

Or on a personal note, as one who has received the hospitality of that great university, having been more than once a guest lecturer at Aligarh, learning about the founder of that institution which would soon be completing 130 years since the start of teaching at the College there? Or do I approach him in my capacity as one with roots in Bijnor, trying to learn about one of that district’s legendary administrators?

So I come to this subject with all these relations and identities entwined together in my mind.
An interesting aspect of Sir Syed’s life is that it encompasses completely the life-span of Karl Marx. Sir Syed was born in 1817, a year before Marx. And he passed away in 1898, fifteen years after Marx.

Sir Syed as an observer of Delhi

It is of more than passing interest therefore that Delhi became the subject of the writings of both Marx and Sir Syed. Marx focused on Delhi because he was writing on the events of 1857. Sir Syed did so because it was not only his home, but because the task suggested itself to him while holding judicial office in Delhi. A few of you may be aware that there is a road in Delhi named after Sir Syed, and for good reason. For as an early and keen observer of Delhi he had trod, in his concern for its archaeological history, the ground of this city as few had before him. It is from Sir Syed’s book that I had learnt that the slanting walls of Tughlakabad Fort were of the Egyptian style rarely seen elsewhere in India.

His biographer, Altaf Husain Hali, has told us in Hayat – I-Javed (first published in Urdu in 1901) how Asar Us Sanadid came to be written. Making use of his holidays, the Munsif Syed would systematically study the old monuments around Delhi, drawing up maps and diagrams and working typically in the heat and dust. Hali writes: “Sir Sayyid found that some of the inscriptions on the Qutb Minar were too high to read. Therefore, in order to obtain an exact copy, he would sit in a basket, which had been suspended between two scaffolds parallel to the inscription” ( Hali, p. 35) If today’s judges and administrators were to take as much interest in their surroundings, life, for Delhi’s citizens, would be quite different.

As an administrator in Bijnor

Sir Syed in fact represented the hoary and disappearing tradition of Indian administration in which the administrators went out to do things themselves.

When he was transferred to Bijnor, he prepared a history of Bijnor.

Finding himself there in the midst of the events of 1857, he went on to produce Sarkashi Zila Bijnor.

Some of the things that he has to say here, even if from the standpoint of an insider of the Company Raj, may in some respects be categorized in tenor, if not in stridency, with Edmund Burke’s, albeit more overt, indictment of Warren Hastings in the 18th Century. As a judicial officer in Chandpur, Bijnor he was at the face of the coal fire in 1857. Sarkashi Zila Bijnor was the result of that first hand experience. It is of historical importance, though, of course, it is written primarily from the British point of view. However, Sir Syed notes that orders were issued by the rebels that temples should not be damaged and that before these events there were no religious conflicts between Hindus and Muslims of the district. We also know from him that in the rebel army weavers enrolled themselves in very large numbers.

The Events of 1857

The coordinates between Sir Syed and Karl Marx in relation to 1857 are not entirely unconnected.

Both saw, from different perspectives, that one age had come to an end and another had begun.

When Marx’s attention was drawn to some atrocities from the Indian side, he remarked that this was only the embodiment in concentrated form of the record of British conduct in India.

History is a tricky thing. This year we are celebrating the completion of 150 years since the struggle of 1857. A few days ago we celebrated the memory of Maulvi Baqar, Delhi’s and India’s first editor-martyr in the struggle of 1857 and we are remembering also Sir Syed at more or less the same time. We honor the Indian freedom fighters and we honor also Sir Syed who participated in these events from another side in Bijnor where he had exhibited considerable personal courage. We are able to do this, to some extent, because time places us above the din of the battle. But that is not the only reason.

If one reads Sir Syed’s work, Asbab Baghavat–I-Hind or Causes of Indian Rebellion, 1857 (of which an English translation by Jaweed Ashraf, perhaps the first after 1873, has only recently been published) there is much that Sir Syed says to the British literally between the lines. Within the framework of his general support for them, he is able to tell the Colonial rulers some home truths.
Let me give some examples. He outlines one principal overall cause for the events. He tells them that non--participation by the people in representative institutions was the real reason for the rebellion. He argued that while the involvement of the people of India in the British Parliament may be unrealistic, "there was no reason not to permit intervention in the Legislative Council". [Causes, p. 116]

He then identifies some individual causes.

One of these was that once the East India Company took over any place there tended to be attempts at interference in the religion of the people and to undermine their languages. He mentions Sanskrit and Arabic in this connection. During the famine of 1837, he said, there were attempts to convert orphans to Christianity and this was resented by the people. Government administrators in the country behaved like missionaries.

In discussing another cause he indicts the district administration as being ignorant of the conditions of the people: “Out of fear all would say appeasing things and our government functioned on the basis of personalized rule” (Causes, p. 143).

Another cause he mentioned was unemployment especially among the Muslims (Causes, p. 145)
But the greatest indictment he made, and it is remarkable that he did so considering the position he occupied, was that he suggested that the administration lacked feelings of love and unity with the Indians:

“Our Government till date has kept itself so separate and unaligned from Indians as fire and dry grass” (Causes, p. 152) the distance between them was increasing. The government instead “should have been with the subjects of India as the rock bearing mica that, in spite of being (of) two different colors, is one. In the white color streaks of black look very beautiful and in black background white manifests its own beauty.” (Causes, p. 52). He referred to the “(h) rashness and ill-tempered behavior of the District Administration” (Causes, p. 154).

Interestingly, he had a notion of progress and observed that the “progress” achieved during the period of Lord Bentinck had not been sustained. (auses, pp 157-158)

Sir Syed is also of significance in his aspect as a religious thinker in 19th Century India. Shibli Numani (1857- 1914) can be understood as being in part contemporary and part posthumous dialogue with him. And in a way Maulana Azad (1888- 1958) too is in a posthumous and indirect dialogue with him inasmuch as Azad writes on the same theme.

Sir Syed tried to advance the idea that one should either be able to refute modern science or show that it is in conformity with Islam. For, he argued, the word of God (the Quran Sharif) could not be opposed to work of God (nature).

Sir Syed’s theological doctrines have not had many takers. One scholar of very considerable understanding and excellence, writing three decades ago, observed that even in Karachi University, Sir Syed’s Tafsir had never been duplicated and perhaps not consulted (See Mrs. Mehr Afroz Murad’s , Intellectual Modernism of Shibli Nu’mani : An Exposition of His Religious and Socio-Political Ideas, Institute of Islamic Culture, Lahore, 1976, p. 117). Yet fully to understand the scientific and rational approach of Shibli it is necessary also to understand the work of Sir Syed. For Shibli tries to resolve the same problem by distinguishing between science and philosophy.

The effort to resolve the tension between rationality and religion is bound to continue.

Sir Syed as an educationist may be seen as part of a continuing dialogue on Indian education. He is part of a line that includes Badruddin Tyabji (1844 -1906), the founders of the Servants of India Society in the Bombay Presidency, Abbas Tyabji (1852-1936) and Amina Tyabji ( d. 1940 ) in Baroda, Rabindranath Tagore ( 1861-1941) and Maulvi Abdul Karim (1863-1939?) in East India and also the DAV movement and Madan Mohan Malaviya (1861-1946) elsewhere in North India.

Badruddin Tyabji was associated with the Anjuman –I-Islam in Bombay. By 1880 it had set up an educational institution. A school for Muslim girls came up also in Baroda.

While Aligarh was finding its feet in north India, the Jadavpur Technical College was also being established as part of the movements in Bengal. And in the South, in the first decade of the 20th Century, there emerged figures like Apu Nedungadi who established an institution for girls’ education.
In his work, The Indian Muslims, Prof Mujeeb makes a comparison between Sir Syed’s contributions to education with that of Maulvi Abdul Karim in Bengal. (The Indian Muslims, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1967, p. 546). These educational developments were part of the increasing post-1857 concern to come to terms with the challenges posed by the new era and did not necessarily speak in the same language or idiom.

Maulana Azad did not agree with Sir Syed’s political line, holding that “the wrong lead he gave in politics has been responsible for many of the evils from which we have suffered” (Convocation Address at Aligarh, February 20, 1949 in Speeches of Maulana Azad 1947-1955, The Publications Division, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Delhi, 1956, p. 76) But even he was otherwise of the view that, as reformists, a comparison between Sir Syed and Raja Rammohan Roy ( 1772 ? - 1833) to “a large extent” was “ valid” (Speeches, p. 77). Azad declared that “what Raja Ram Mohan Roy did for Bengal was done by Sir Syed Ahmed, 40 years later, for Northern India and especially for the Muslims of the country”. Jamia’s birth and continued existence is part of that continuing dialogue with Sir Syed. It was an acceptance of the challenge that Aligarh and the new times had thrown up.
Hali tells us how the Aligarh buildings were constructed under Sir Syed’s personal supervision. His biographer tells us: “For many years, without fail, however harsh the weather, he would spend afternoons and even whole days assisting with the work and giving instructions to the masons and builders. In spite of his bulky stature, he would hurry hither and thither in the sun and hot wind supervising the lay-out of the garden, ordering wells to be dug, having fields ploughed and setting out the garden-paths.” (Hali, p. 162).

It is when one understands what lay behind this great commitment that one may understand the hold that Sir Syed’s memory still has today.

Sir Syed may be seen as part of a dialogue on the emerging Indian civil society. Like a Governor General could act only in Council, Sir Syed is relevant when studied “in council”, as it were, with his contemporaries like Badruddin Tyabji and Lala Lajpat Rai (1865-1928). His well-known exchanges with Badruddin Tyabji in 1888 are part of the dialogue of the making of the Indian nation. The exchange concludes with Badruddin Tyabji’s prophetic observations in his letter dated September 22, 1888 to Sir Syed: “I would therefore beg you, in coming to a conclusion, to bear in mind that ‘united we stand, divided we fall’ and that therefore we ought to make common cause with our fellow countrymen of other races and creeds in matters in which religion is not in any way concerned.” (A G Noorani, Badruddin Tyabji, Publications Division, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, New Delhi, 1969, p. 185)

That was not to be at least for some time.

Yet it is significant that when Lala Lajpat Rai wrote his public letters to Sir Syed in the following three months, he appealed to Sir Syed’s own earlier writings and speeches and particularly to Sir Syed’s observations, in Causes of the Indian Rebellion, relating to the need for the Indian voice to be heard in legislative institutions. (See Lala Lajpat Rai: The Man in His Own Words, The Maharashtra State Lajpatrai Centenary Committee, Bombay, 1965, p. 4)

The Grand Old Man of India, Dadabhai Naoroji (1825- 1917) was, for much of Sir Syed’s life, a contemporary of the latter. It appears Naoroji had read a biography of Sir Syed, probably G F I Graham’s which became available in 1885, but quite possibly also Hali’s if any part of it was available in English by then. Naoroji refers generously to Sir Syed in his Presidential address to the Calcutta Congress in 1906 in the following terms: “Sir Syed Ahmed was a nationalist to the backbone. … In various ways, I knew that his heart was in the welfare of all India as one nation. He was a large and liberal-minded patriot. When I read his life some time ago, I was inspired with respect and admiration for him”. He quoted a presumably earlier statement of Sir Syed’s in which he had said: “In the word ‘nation’ I include both Hindus and Mohammedans, because that is the only meaning I can attach to it”. Naoroji recalled also Sir Syed’s earlier statement on Hindus and Muslims as the two eyes of India and declared that “our emancipation depends upon the thorough union of all the people of India without any obstruction”. (Dadabhai Naoroji’s Speeches and Writings, G. A Natesan & Co, 2nd Edn, Madras, 1917, pp 94-95).

In 1869, when Gandhi was born, Sir Syed was on a visit to England. In due course, half a century later, Maulana Mohamed Ali and Gandhi would call upon Aligarh College to break its connection with the Government. That heralded the birth of Jamia Millia.

Yet Gandhi referred to Sir Syed several times, always in positive terms -- in 1915, 1917, 1920, 1929, 1931, and 1947. [ See, for example, Gandhi’s speech at reception soon after arrival in India, January 1915, CW, Vol 13, p. 10n; speech at Aligarh in November 1917, Vol 14, p. 98n; speech in February 1931 at meeting of the Council of the All-India Muslim League, Delhi, Vol 45, pp. 216-217; and speech in March 1947, Vol 87, p. 152 ] On most of these occasions he mentioned Sir Syed’s oft-quoted remark about Hindus and Muslims being “the two eyes of the motherland”. There seemed to be an understanding among Indian nationalists that Sir Syed had been motivated by his desire to provide for the education of his community.

Another past president of the Indian National Congress, Surendranath Banerjea (1848-1925) too touched on Sir Syed’s role. His references to Sir Syed were also respectful. Referring to the earlier controversies, he simply said “We lost his championship and the great weight of his personal influence and authority in the controversies that had gathered round the Congress movement. But let bygones be bygones. Let us not forget the debt of gratitude that Hindus and Mohammedans alike owe to the honored memory of Sir Syed Ahmed. For the seeds that he sowed are bearing fruit; and today the Aligarh College, now raised to the status of a university, is the centre of culture and enlightenment which has made Islam in India instinct with the modern spirit, and aglow with that patriotic enthusiasm which argues well for future solidarity of Hindus and Muslims” [A Nation in the Making, (first published, 1925); Paschimbanga Bangla Akademi Edition, Calcutta, 1998, pp 45-46].

Jawaharlal Nehru in his autobiography gives us a more detailed analysis but there too, amid criticism of Sir Syed’s elitism, there is the recognition that “Sir Syed was unhappy about the backward condition of his community…”and that the decision to concentrate on Western education was the right one [An Autobiography,(first published, 1936); Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund Reprint (with OUP), New Delhi, 1984, p. 460 and p. 462] Nehru concludes with the observation on Sir Syed that : “It is possible that had he lived a generation later, he would himself have given another orientation to that message” ( Ibid, p. 464).

In this we cannot but agree.

Even so, Sir Syed had lived long enough to out span Marx. We cannot hold against Sir Syed the fact that he was not alive in 1919 to witness the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of an unarmed crowd and therefore did not, unlike Tagore, have occasion to re-evaluate the knighthood that had been conferred upon him.

There is much to be learnt from Sir Syed’s application and industry. Sir Syed was nothing if he was not thorough. Prof Mujeeb reminds us that when Sir Syed wished to prepare a commentary on the Bible, hoping to show that there was no conflict between it and the Quran Sharif, “he learnt Hebrew, set up a printing press, with Hebrew, English and Urdu types, and engaged an Englishman to translate his Urdu commentary into English”. (See M Mujeeb, The Indian Muslims, p. 447)

Further development of Sir Syed’s ideas

It was Sir Syed’s view that hubb -i- imani, love of faith, and can live side by side with
hubb –i – insani, love of humanity. (See M Mujeeb, op. cit., p. 451) It was left to Shibli Numani and Maulana Azad in later years to give political content to this philosophical aperture in the thought of Sir Syed. New times and new compulsions led to Shibli Numani’s famous article “Musalmanon ki Political Karwat” (1912) and in the same year Maulana Azad brought out Al Hilal. That in doing so, they were moving far beyond the political thought of Sir Syed is no reflection on the latter.
It is worth remembering that the strength of Marx’s contribution too had rested on his method, not on the essentiality of each individual conclusion.

Sir Syed needs further evaluation and re-evaluation. There are elements of his thought which can be developed in the current context to give new content to other elements of his thought. For instance, his emphatic opposition to slavery must now be seen to transcend barriers of class and gender.

(For Sir Syed’s views against slavery, see M. Mujeeb, op. cit., pp 450-451)
I may conclude with the story from Hali. When once Sir Syed had an opportunity for personal revenge against a person who had on one occasion injured him, his mother prevented him from carrying it out, saying that revenge belonged to the Almighty. This, his biographer tells us, had a great moral impact on him. (Hali, p. 14) Such an attitude must certainly have added to the quality of his public life.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: Architect of Modern India

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: Architect of Modern India
Naseem Ahmad
Aligarh Muslim University
Aligarh-202001 (U.P.) India

Combined in the illustrious personality of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) were many facets of greatness – an educationist with a vision; a writer with a sense of mission; a thinker with his eyes set on a bright future for his countrymen; a historian with insights into social dynamics; an activist with a remarkable quality of leadership and a democratic spirit; and, above all, an altruist who worked ceaselessly for social reforms, moral rejuvenation and public welfare, cutting across the barriers of caste, colour and creed.

Sir Syed strove for shaping a modern India, characterized with the ideals of scientific temper, critical enquiry, tolerance, Hindu-Muslim unity and peaceful co-existence. Hence the appellation of the architect of modern India befits him perfectly.

Born in an aristocratic family of Delhi on 17 October, 1817 Sir Syed started his career as a civil servant. Being a first-hand witness to 1857 upheaval, which saw the fall of Mughal Empire and the rise of British rule, he realized with his uncanny insight that a new order was in the offing which would transform every department of human activity. For undertaking his ambitious project which aimed at enabling his countrymen in general and his co-religionists in particular to adapt to the new socio-cultural order, he relinquished his job and devoted himself wholeheartedly to the task of nation building.

Gifted with both vision and pragmatism, Sir Syed perceived at the very outset the immeasurable potentials of education as an effective instrument for changing the mindset, for instilling fresh, life-enriching ideas and for social reconstruction. One of his immediate tasks, however, was to bridge the gap between the British rulers and Indians, which had been exacerbated by the 1857 uprising. His early major writings Asbab-i Baghawat-i Hind (Causes of Indian Mutiny) and Tab’in al-Kalam fi Tafsir al-Tawrat wa al-Injil (The Muhammadan Commentary on the Holy Bible) address the same issue, though from different angles. The former identifies the failings on the part of rulers and the misperceptions and anxieties confronting the Indian masses and pleads strongly for a better understanding and cordial relations between the rulers and the ruled. This work went a long way in bridging the gaps. The latter stands out as the first work urging Inter Faith Dialogue premised on mutual respect and tolerance between the two major communities – Christians and Muslims. Sir Syed’s voice of sanity and reason in an atmosphere surcharged with polemics and bigotry is a testament to his sagacity.

In 1864 Sir Syed established Scientific Society which aimed at infusing scientific temper, critical enquiry and objectivity, which helped Indians greet modern knowledge. This change in perspective was a prerequisite for transforming India into a modern country, free from superstitions and an exclusionist, isolationist attitude. Another important job accomplished under the auspices of Scientific Society was of carrying out extensive research studies in improving and strengthening the agricultural system of the country. Sir Syed managed to secure the invaluable cooperation of British experts in agriculture for this project. Needless to add, it went a long way in ensuring prosperity for his countless countrymen, for agriculture was their main source of earning. Sir Syed deserves credit for the application of the latest scientific techniques and technologies for the well being of the whole country. It also speaks volumes about his practical approach geared towards helping the maximum number of people.

His founding of a school at Ghazipur, with the emphasis on modern education, especially of science and technology, stemmed from the same commitment to making India a modern polity. Sir Syed’s stay in England in 1869 – 1870 convinced him fully of the need for popularizing modern education among his co-religionists. In pursuance of this aim the Muhammadan Anglo Oriental College was established at Aligarh in 1877, which blossomed into the Aligarh Muslim University in 1920. While advocating modern education Sir Syed, however, adhered close to the indigenous traditions of faith and culture. That he did not preach servile aping of the West is borne out by his oft-quoted assertion: “Philosophy will be in our right hand and natural sciences in our left and the crown of the creedal statement of Islam will adorn our head”. It was a stroke of Sir Syed’s genius to strike a balance between faith and modernity. The same note permeates his contributions to his periodical Tahzibul Akhlaq. Since its inception the Aligarh Muslim University wedded unflinchingly to the ideals of its founder, has produced good citizens characterized with a spirit of rational and scientific enquiry and which, in turn, has facilitated the task of nation building.

Through his influential writings Sir Syed emphasized the need for Hindu-Muslim unity and for maintaining and strengthening the composite culture of India. This conviction of his comes out at its sharpest in his observation: “India is like a bride which has got two beautiful and lustrous eyes – Hindus and Musulmans. If they quarrel against each other, that beautiful bride will become ugly”. In view of such writings of Sir Syed it is not surprising to note the following glowing tribute paid to him by Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, in his Discovery of India: “Repeatedly he (Sir Syed) emphasized that religious differences should have no political or national significance………..Remember that the words Hindus and Muhammadans are only meant for religious distinction otherwise all persons belong to one and the same nation”.
In sum, for introducing and popularizing modern education, for promoting scientific temper and critical enquiry, for inculcating socio-cultural and religious co-existence in a multi-faith society, for bringing out the universal ethics shared by members of all faiths and communities, for projecting religion as the most potent element in creating homogeneity at a time when it was abused as a divisive factor and for enlightening the heart and mind of his addressees, Sir Syed may be legitimately hailed as the builder of modern India. In so doing, he was ahead of his times and is of immense relevance for our times as well.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

From Antiquary to Social Revolutionary: Syed Ahmad Khan and the Colonial Experience

Annual Sir Syed Memorial Lecture - 2006
From Antiquary to Social Revolutionary: Syed Ahmad Khan and the Colonial Experience

By Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

It is an honour to deliver the Annual Sir Syed Memorial Lecture at Aligarh Muslim University, the institution which should stand as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s lasting contribution to the development of a modern India. Conscious though I am of the honour, I am also beset by doubts and fears about my suitability as a recipient of that honour. I am not a specialist of Syed Ahmad Khan’s literary work and social and theological thought, thought which, incidentally, I regard as a high point in the history of ideas in Islam. My interest in and knowledge of Syed Ahmad Khan’s life and works do not much exceed the level of a reasonably well-informed student of modern Urdu literature.

The only privilege that I can claim is that as a boy I was practically nurtured on Syed Ahmad Khan and Akbar Ilahabadi (1846-1921) whom my father admired greatly and didn’t at all see any dichotomy in admiring two very nearly diametrically opposed personalities. And this reconciliation of opposites was quite par for the course for people of certain Indian generations, because Syed Ahmad Khan and Akbar Ilahabadi too greatly admired each other. Syed Ahmad Khan had successfully canvassed for Akbar Ilahabadi being posted to Aligarh so that he could freely enjoy his friend’s company. In 1888, when Akbar Ilahabadi was promoted Sub-Judge and transferred to Ghazipur, Syed Ahmad Khan wrote him a congratulatory note saying that though he was sorry for Akbar (he addressed him as Munshi Akbar Husain Sahib) to leave Aligarh, yet he was happy for a Muslim to become a Sub-Judge with a long prospect of active service in the judicial department.[1]

Throughout his life Akbar Ilahabadi was a bitter critic and a very nearly implacable enemy, of Syed Ahmad Khan’s reformist ideas. His hostility to Syed Ahmad Khan wasn’t because of what Muhammad Ali Siddiqi characterizes as Akbar’s “cynicism” and his tendency to “view the truth through the spectacles of his own prejudices.”[2] Akbar’s hostility to Syed Ahmad Khan flowed from a deeper and more vital source: he did not approve of Syed Ahmad Khan’s educational, theological, and political ideas and schemes and believed that Syed Ahmad Khan had caused incaculable intellectual ans spiritual harm to the Indian Muslim community.[3] Muhammad Ali Siddiqi goes on to say that Akbar Ilahabadi developed soft feelings for Syed Ahmad Khan after 1894.[4] Yet we see Akbar Ilahabadi making a collection from friends and acquaintances in 1891 for the Building Fund of the M. A. O. College.[5]

I digressed a little to mention these transactions because Syed Ahmad Khan, for a vast majority of Indian Muslims until at least the first quarter of the twentieth century, was a saviour, a sage, a political-social leader of tremendous credibility. His theology didn’t enter into the matter at all. My father came from a family of strongly Deobandi Maulavis, but Syed Ahmad Khan’s so called nechariyat (atheism) counted for nothing in their eyes, just as it counted for nought in the eyes of my mother’s family who were strongly anti-Deoband in both theological and political matters. And this brings me to my second claim to some privilege in talking about Syed Ahmad Khan: Maulavi Mufti Muhammad Isma’il (1803-1888), a great-grandfather of my mother’s, was among Syed Ahmad Khan’s friends during the latter’s tenure in Banaras from August 1867 to April 1869 and again after his return from England. Mufti Sahib wrote a few tracts on Islam in refutation of the Christian Missionaries at the request of Syed Ahmad Khan.[6]

I began with two apparent digressions, but they actually contain one of the main points of my essay. Syed Ahmad Khan made many enemies and many friends and admirers. Ali Bakhsh Sharar Badayuni (1821-85) is an example of a consistent and acrimonious enemy, just as Altaf Husain Hali (1837-1914) is an example of a hero-worshipping follower and friend. Sharar’s venomous unfriendliness didn’t prevent any of his direct clan from gaining the benefits and advantages of an Aligarh education, and Hali’s acceptance of Syed Ahmad Khan’s mild politics didn’t stop any of Hali’s direct clan from becoming Congressmen or Marxists.

Syed Ahmad Khan’s general popularity across the board of Indian Muslim society suggests two things: First, the Indian Muslim was generally able to separate the founder’s theology from his educational policy and was willing to obtain education at the M. A. O. College so long as it didn’t preach atheism or try to convert its pupils to Christianity. Second, Syed Ahmad Khan gave to the Indian Muslim a sense of grand purpose and a strong and convincing signal for turning in a new and salubrious direction. Syed Ahmad Khan thus gave him a feeling of self-worth, and a hope for a return to the state of self-confidence which had been lost apparently forever in the aftermath of what Syed Ahmad Khan described as “The Indian Rebellion”, and not “The Indian Mutiny” or “The Indian Treason”, the preferred term with the English government.
Contrary to the culture of sycophancy and genuflecting before the colonial English authority promoted by the British and freely adopted by the Indians at that time, both Syed Ahmad Khan and his high profile and brilliant son Syed Mahmud strived to conduct themselves as if they were equal to the English. The incident of the Agra Durbar of 1867 was quite well-known to the Indian community, and not just the Muslims. Syed Ahmad Khan had stayed away from the Durbar because Indians had been given seats inferior to the English. A medal was to be conferred on Syed Ahmad Khan at that Durbar. Williams, the Commissioner of Meerut was later deputed to present the medal to Syed Ahmad Khan at Aligarh railway station. Williams broke protocol and showed his pique at having to do the task under duress and said that he was bound by Government orders, or he wouldn’t be presenting the medal to Syed Ahmad Khan. Syed Ahmad Khan accepted the medal, saying that he wouldn’t have accepted the medal, except that he too was bound by Government orders.[7]

Syed Ahmad Khan hosted a dinner at Banaras in 1872 to honour Syed Mahmud when he returned from England after having been called to the bar Lincoln’s Inn. Alexander Shakespeare, Commissioner of Banaras, presided. While responding to Shakespeare’s toast, Syed Mahmud spoke of his wish to unite England and India socially even more than politically. The English rule in India, in order to be good, must promise to be eternal; and it can never do so until the English people are known to us as friends and fellow subjects, than as rulers and conquerors.[8]

The Pioneer, where report of this dinner was published, doesn’t record the alarm that Shakespeare and other Englishmen present must have felt at this. But Syed Mahmud had made his point. And he made it again when, on becoming a High Court Judge at Allahabad (1882) at the young age of 32, he submitted a Memorial to Government to the effect that since he was English except in name and parentage, he should be treated on par with British judges. (Syed Mahmud’s English contemporaries said that his mastery of English idiom was of an incredible precision.)[9] Syed Mahmud was obliged to resign his judgeship (1893). His father issued a long statement to an Urdu newspaper on that occasion, asserting that the main reason why Syed Mahmud couldn’t continue in the service was that the English rob their Indian civil servants of their “self-respect”. He said: In my opinion the time is not yet, and will perhaps never be, that our European friends who are the conquerors of this country and who have the ascendancy and superiority natural to the conqueror, and Indians, who are the vanquished and are held in the contempt natural for the vanquished, can both sit together on the same bench and function with equal honour and pride, suitable to the rank that they both hold. If the Indian maintains his self-respect[10] which he should, were he to answer the demands of honesty and good breeding, then the life of both parties continues to be hard and bitter….It is not at all a secret now that there is the difference of black and white between how the English treat their own community and how they treat others….[Syed Mahmud] gets no pleasure in positions of power. Rather, he looks down upon power and considers it knavish to feel pride in a job with the Government.[11]
If there ever was an assertion of self-respect, dignity, and refusal to be browbeaten by an arrogant master-race, it was here. Never mind the blasphemous views that Syed Ahmad Khan was alleged to profess, or did profess. That was between him and his God. What was here and now was a new hope for regaining some of the moral ground since 1857. It was a hope that Deoband did not seem to provide. Seemingly, Syed Ahmad had a solution which gave the Indian Muslim a chance to get somewhat even with the material world without having to let go of the hereafter.

This seems to me to be the reason why a community more broad-based than that of the Indian Muslims, I mean the literate and literary community of Urdu speakers throughout the sub-continent, let Syed Ahmad Khan demolish the old-established notions about the nature of their literature. Furthermore, they accepted without demur Syed Ahmad Khan’s agenda to refashion Urdu literature after the English model. If our old literature was effete and decadent and if it would help us regain our self-respect were we to reject that decadent literature and embrace a new regime, so be it. The Urdu community felt much more comfortable with Syed Ahmad Khan on Urdu literature than the theological circles could ever be with his notions and pronouncements on the reality of miracles, the existence of angels and jinns, and the origins of the battle of Badr.

Historians and scholars of Urdu literature generally agree that the “Aligarh Movement” in Urdu literature brought a healthy change in Urdu literary culture, particularly in its prose. All agree that the Movement wrought, in fact, a revolution in Urdu literature and the reverberations of that revolution can still be felt by writers and readers alike more than a hundred years later. This Movement of which Syed Ahmad Khan (popularly known in the Urdu world as “Sir Syed”, but in English I prefer Syed Ahmad Khan) is universally regarded as the unofficial head hasn’t yet been studied in the post-colonial context. Again, however, there is consensus among historians of Urdu literature that the Movement did nothing but good to Urdu literature. Ali Jawad Zaidi, for instance, speaks of “the new prose which flourished under the benign shadow of the Aligarh movement[12].” Elsewhere, Zaidi says: It was Syed Ahmad Khan, who collected a group of writers to popularize a style, marked by clarity, simplicity, intellectual honesty, and modernity of speech. It was a vigorous prose. Through his journals, he also helped the evolution of new criticism, which had thrown up pioneers like Mohammad Husain Azad and Hali.[13]
One need not attempt here an analysis of words like “intellectual honesty” and “vigorous prose” or comment upon the air-brushing of names of many eighteenth-century secular and religious writers who exemplified “vigorous prose.” Suffice it to say that Zaidi is looking at Urdu literature and its history through nineteenth-century eyes, eyes that were dazzled by the bright lights of the revolution heralded by Syed Ahmad Khan. The great Shibli Nu’mani, not the most ardent of Syed Ahmad Khan’s admirers, conceded in his obituary of Syed Ahmad Khan that Syed Ahmad “did have before him some excellent examples of Urdu prose, especially Mir Amman’s Chahar Darvesh which was composed in 1802”[14] but Syed Ahmad Khan’s achievement was much greater.

All the great achievements of Sir Syed reflect everywhere the aspect of reformation[15] and improvement, but among the things that turned from a mere dust-mote to a blazing sun due to the improvements effected by him there is Urdu literature[16] too. It was only because of Sir Syed that Urdu has achieved the capability to strike out from the realm of love and loving and to express ideas from the realms of governance, politics, ethics and morals, history, and in fact from all other fields, and it can do so with a force, effectuality, concision or amplitude, simplicity and clarity, as has not yet fallen to the fortune of its mentor, Persian.[17]

It is clear that Shibli’s sub-text here is that Syed Ahmad Khan converted Urdu from being the language of mere poetry to a language of prose, especially “vigorous” prose. And this remained the received perception about three decades later in Ram Babu Saksena and even a century later in Ali Jawad Zaidi. Saksena says that Syed Ahmad Khan, “collected around him a devoted band of workers whose activities shaped the course of the Urdu literature[18]” and though he makes Syed Ahmad Khan seem like a construction engineer, it is clear that the term “literature” for him means “prose” and nothing else. He goes on say: Sir Syed’s style is vigorous, direct and simple. It does not boast of literary beauties and he was not a stylist in any sense of the word….He gave a deathblow to the highly involved ornate and artificial rhyming prose of the style of Zahuri and Bedil and showed the capacity of Urdu for matter of fact prose….He wielded Urdu prose with a mastery unknown in previous history. Hali, his Boswell, calls him the father of Urdu prose. Another remarkable quality is that he could expound the most intricate, complex and highly technical subject in simple and lucid language.[19]

One can see that both Saksena and Zaidi are paraphrasing from Shibli, except that Zaidi casually says that Syed Ahmad Khan’s journals also helped in the evolution of what he describes as “new criticism.” Shibli also said that all [Urdu] writers of the day developed under Syed Ahmad Khan’s direct influence, or were influenced by him, though from a distance, or some others cut their own path, but could not claim to have been entirely free from the benefit spread by Syed Ahmad Khan.[20]

Suraiya Husain extends Shibli Nu’mani’s argument to say that the influence of Syed Ahmad Khan’s thought and his prose writings can be seen in every [Urdu] literary work produced toward the closing years of the nineteenth century.[21] Suraiya Husain may be overstating a bit, yet the fact is that Syed Ahmad Khan influenced a great number of scholars, and not on the literary level alone. Zafar Ahmad Siddiqi has shown that even Shibli himself, and Hamiduddin Farahi and Abul Kalam Azad who professed to disagree strongly with Syed Ahmad Khan in matters relating to theology and Qur’anic exegesis, actually adopted Syed Ahmad Khan’s line in many important matters.[22]

What is not generally so well-recognized is the influence of Syed Ahmad Khan on the development and growth of the “new poetry” or “natural poetry” which became the dominant literary ethic of its time and much of the first organized literary theory and criticism in Urdu arose to provide justification for that poetry. It is of historical interest, though not relevant to us here, to note that the efforts of the late nineteenth century Urdu literary theorists and historians are the very first in India to produce what was then seen as “modern” and “westernized” literary theory Historians generally believe that the first moves in the project to reorder Urdu’s literary morphology were made in Lahore where new style musha’iras began to be held in 1874 and Holroyd made his famous pronouncements about Urdu literature being decadent and greatly in need of being rescued and revived. As Frances Pritchett notes, on 9 May, 1874, Muhammad Husain Azad delivered his lecture on the reform of Urdu poetry. Azad’s lecture was followed by a speech from Holroyd who began by saying, “This meeting has been called to discover means for the development of Urdu poetry which is in a state of decadence today.” Holroyd also “ emphasized the usefulness of poetry as a teaching tool” and proposed the establishment of a new kind of musha’ira.[23]

Frances Pritchett also notes, through Aslam Farrukhi, that Syed Ahmad Khan gave encouragement and support to Muhammad Husain Azad and quotes from a letter of Syed Ahmad Khan[24]. She translates as follows: Bring your work even closer to nature (nechar). The extent to which a work comes to nature is the extent to which it gives pleasure.[25]
In fact, there is more to this letter than what appears above. This letter is apparently in response to an earlier one from Muhammad Husain Azad, reporting on the new style musha’ira, enclosing a poem of his own, and seeking comfort and support from Syed Ahmad Khan in the new venture. In his reply Syed Ahmad Khan gave not only comfort and congratulations to Azad, he actually outlined a Reformist agenda. His letter thus needs to be translated more or less in full: One of my extremely long held wishes has come true with this musha’ira. I had been hoping for a long time for our poets to direct their attention to the narration of things as they are found in nature.[26] Your masnavi Khvab-e Amn [“A Dream of Peace”] arrived and pleased me very much. Without doubt you have given full rein to [the power of] poetry and the vigour of discourse. Still, it has much that is fanciful and unreal. Let your poetry incline yet more to nature. The more poetry inclines to nature, the more is the pleasure to be had from it. Do not fear the people’s taunts and derision. It is essential that ideas are taken from English poetry and expressed in Urdu. This task is so difficult, let’s see if there’s one to do it. Up until now we have no ideas based on nature. So what’s there for us to express in that line?[27]

There is no need to conduct an analysis of this text. It is clear that Syed Ahmad Khan disapproves of imagery, metaphor, and what may generally be described as imaginative writing. He wants Urdu poets to write “natural” poetry and also to write about “nature.” He believes that both are found abundantly in English and the Urdu poet must take ideas from English poetry because all English poetry is by definition worthy of emulation and all Urdu poetry is by definition devoid of things that deserve praise.

We mustn’t imagine that Syed Ahmad Khan’s letter is perhaps the effusion of a moment inspired by the news given by Azad. A full two and a half years before this letter, Syed Ahmad Khan made the following judgement on Urdu poetry. In the issue of Tahzibul Akhlaq dated 1 Muharram 1289 (=March 11, 1872), he wrote: There could be nothing worse or defective than the art and practice of poetry as in vogue in our time. Themes there are none except of love and romance, and even those do not convey the better human emotions. Rather, the theme [of love] points to those evil emotions which are opposed to true culture and morals.[28]
One can see that much of Hali’s theory and Muhammad Husain Azad’s fulminations against Urdu poetry (both of which came much later) are nothing but annotations of the above indictment. But Syed Ahmad Khan goes further: The bad and defective practice of expressing far-fetched and abstract themes, and the codes for using simile and metaphor, are now well established. These things do cause in our minds some kind of wonder or marvel; but they do not at all affect the heart, or our nature, or the human emotion which they are concerned with.[29]
These points were elaborated to the full by Muhammad Husain Azad, who also made much of Syed Ahmad Khan’s charge that Urdu poetry was confined to love and romance alone. Nafis Bano says in an apologetic vein that Syed Ahmad Khan was not against all romantic and love-themes in Urdu poetry; rather, he wanted to retain them and also enlarge the scope of Urdu poetry. She quotes from the Tahzibul Akhlaq of “1292” in support of her contention.[30] The actual issue that she quotes from dated 1 Muharram, 1292 (=February 7, 1875), and the passage in question doesn’t advocate retention of he old themes. It is, in fact, a celebration of the new musha’ira of May 1874. Syed Ahmad Khan said: A great shortcoming in the literary arts of our language was that its poetry was incomplete. The poets had devoted their lofty resolution to romantic ghazals and vasokht poems, and panygerics, and short qit’a poems of the pangs of separation and story-telling masnavis. I don’t say that those themes shouldn’t have been touched. No, they too are excellent themes and are very useful in the search for newer themes and for giving expression to the ingenuity of the poetic temperament. But the deficiency was that our language had nothing else. Themes of the other kind, which indeed are the true themes, and are related with nature, weren’t there…That day of 1874 when the musha’ira of natural poetry[31] was established in Lahore will always be remembered in the history of the literary arts of Urdu language.

The prophecy indeed come true, but not before the greatest excesses were committed on Urdu literature by Syed Ahmad Khan’s cohorts. Here is Muhammad Husain Azad almost deliberately elaborating upon the above passage. No translation can reproduce the malignant beauty of the original, but the sense is clear enough: It is an unhappy state of affairs that our poetry has become ensnared in the toils of a few trifling ideas: that is, romantic themes, carefree drinking of wine, creating illusory colors and scents without the rose or the rosegarden, bewailing the calamity of separation, delighting in imaginary union, feeling an aversion to the world, and on top of this experiencing the oppression of the heavens. And the outrageous thing is that if we want to speak of some real matter, we express that very idea in metaphors—the result of which is that we can do nothing. My friends! I see that the exhibition hall of arts and sciences is open, and all the people have been displaying the handwork of their literature. Don’t you see on what level our language stands? Yes—you can clearly see—she lies on the doormat![32]
I will conclude this part of my essay with one more quote from Syed Ahmad Khan. It’s from the same issue of Tahzibul Akhlaq ( February 7, 1875) from which I quoted above. Here he adopts an uncharacteristic triumphalist and derisive tone: Indeed, the New Urdu has inspired life in our national language. Whatever magical spells Mir and Dard and Zafar may have wrought in Urdu poetry, well they might have; Mir Momin (sic, Amman) of Delhi may have narrated some tale in polished language, well he might have. All this couldn’t have been more eloquent, more interesting and more idiomatic than a bedtime narrative told to the children by a toothless crone.[33]

It seems clear that Syed Ahmad Khan was out to give a big inferiority complex to the Urdu community, and that community cheerfully accepted the gift because it came, paradoxically enough, with the gift of self-respect, and a sense of purpose and self-worth.

In 1842, Bahadur Shah Zafar revived upon Syed Ahmad Khan the title of Javad-ud Daulah, held by Syed Ahmad’s grandfather Syed Hadi since about the middle of the eighteenth century. The Emperor added to it the additional title of Arif Jang. These titles didn’t mean much but their conferment was symbolic of Syed Ahmad Khan’s incorporation into the nobility of Delhi. This was something which was not in the power of the English. Syed Ahmad Khan was twenty-five years of age at that time and had developed into a historian and antiquary with an active interest in sufism as well as mechanics, geometry and astronomy. His interest in astronomy, though, didn’t persuade him to accept that the earth revolved round the sun and in 1848 he wrote a short tract in refutation of the theory.

Already in 1847 Syed Ahmad Khan had produced his first major text. It was Asar-us Sanadid, his great antiquarian text on Delhi. Erudite, accurate, and compiled at occasional but real physical risk to himself, the four-volume work stands as a lasting monument not only to the author’s industry but also to his sense of culture and history and his realization, well ahead of his times, of the need to record and preserve as much as possible of the monuments of Delhi and their inscriptions. It also contained a large section on the sufis, men of learning, and poets and artists of contemporary Delhi.

Divided under ten headings, there were 118 persons listed here. Syed Ahmad Khan said in his introduction: Though people might believe that patriotism would have guided me in writing the account of the personages of this city, …the fact is that the people of this place are such as would perhaps not be found in any other land. Every individual here is the aggregate of a thousand qualities and a bouquet of hundreds of thousands of accomplishments. Every one has a fondness for learning and for the arts and they have the taste for study, be it day or night.[34]
Javad-ud Daulah Syed Ahmad Khan Arif Jang became Sadr Amin (or Sudder Ameen, in the British spelling of those times) at Bijnore in 1855, by which time he was finishing his highly scholarly, very well researched and illustrated edition of Abul Fazl’s Ai’n-e Akbari, itself an extraordinarily difficult book. Having finished the work to his satisfaction, and believing that Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib was a person who would appreciate his labours, Syed Ahmad approached the great Ghalib to write a taqriz (in the convention of the times, a laudatory foreword) for it. Ghalib obliged, but what he did produce was a short Persian poem castigating the Ai’n-e Akbari, and by implication, the imperial, sumptuous, literate and learned Mughal culture of which it was a product. The least that could be said against it was that the book had little value even as an antique document. Ghalib practically reprimanded Syed Ahmad Khan for wasting his talents and time on dead things. Worse, he praised sky-high the “sahibs of England” who at that time held all the keys to all the a’ins in this world.[35]

Needless to say, Syed Ahmad Khan didn’t accept the taqriz. Volumes I and III of the Ai’n-e Akbari came out from Delhi in 1272 AH (=1855-56). The second volume could not be completed in time. The manuscript and the press on which it was to printed both perished in the aftermath of 1857.[36] His History of the district of Bijnore, much liked by his District Magistrate and sent by him to the Lt. Governor at Agra for approval before publication, was also destroyed during the turbulence at Agra in 1857.

Bijnore brought Syed Amad Khan much closer to the English than had been the case so far. He now was one of the senior officials of the district and in fact the administration of the district became his responsibility when the English fled Bijnore in 1857. Syed Ahmad Khan also negotiated the surrender of Nawab Mahmud Khan to the English after the cessation of hostilities. The administrative and diplomatic experience of Bijnore station during 1855-1858 and the administrative and human experience gained a little later in Moradabad apparently triggered the transition from Javad-ud Daula Syed Ahmad Khan Arif Jang to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan Bahadur , K. C. S. I., LL.D., (Edinburgh), Life-trustee, M. A. O. College, Aligarh, and much else besides, and author of Khutabat-e Ahmadiyya, Tafsir-ul Qur’an (in seven volumes), and much more.

The disorganized and unplanned and basically inefficient conduct of the Rebellion, the resilience of the English, their greater mastery of military technology and resource management, the misery and humiliation and near total destruction of the rebel population, especially the Muslims, after their defeat, obviously hastened the process of mental change in Syed Ahmad Khan.

Indeed, the transition may have begun, almost unperceived by Syed Ahmad himself, in 1854 when he reissued the Asar-us Sanadid but omitted the entire section dealing with the personalities of Delhi. No one knows why he did it. It is said that some Englishman advised him to excise that section. Or perhaps he himself, now more in contact with the English because, ironically, of the Asar-us Sanadid itself, had begun to feel that the elites of Delhi didn’t actually count for much in absolute terms. And his opinion may have been strengthened by Ghalib’s poem on the Ai’n-e Akbari. The poem was unexpected, but it came at the time when Syed Ahmad Khan’s thought and feelings themselves were inclining toward change. Ghalib seemed to be acutely aware of an European[English]-sponsored change in world polity, especially Indian polity. Syed Ahmad might well have been piqued at Ghalib’s admonitions, but he would also have realized that Ghalib’s reading of the situation, though not nuanced enough, was basically accurate. Syed Ahmad Khan may also have felt that he, being better informed about the English and the outside world, should have himself seen the change that now seemed to be just round the corner.

Ghalib’s taqriz on Ai’n-e Akbari is a poem that is often referred to but has never translated in English or even Urdu. In view of the important part that it seems to have played in determining the future course of Syed Ahmad Khan’s thought, I give it here in full. The translation is accurate if lacking the felicity of the original:

Ghalib’s [unpublished] Taqriz on Syed Ahmad Khan Arif Jang’s edition of A’in-e Akbari

Good news my friends, this ancient book’s door
Is now open, because of the Syed’s grace and fortune, 1

The eye began to see, the arm found strength
That which was wrapped in ancient clothes,
now put on a new dress. 2
And this idea of his, to establish its text and edit the A’in
Puts to shame his exalted capability and potential, 3

He put his heart to a task and pleased himself
And made himself an auspicious, free servant. 4

One who isn’t capable of admiring his quality
Would no doubt praise him for this task, 5

For such a task, of which this book is the basis
Only an hypocrite can offer praise. 6

I, who am the enemy of pretence
And have a sense of my own truthfulness, 7

If I don’t give him praise for this task
It’s proper that I find occasion to praise. 8

I have nothing to say to the perverse
None know what I know of arts and letters, 9

In the whole world, this merchandise has no buyer.
What profit could my Master hope from it? 10

It should be said, it’s an excellent inventory
So what’s there to see that’s worth seeing? 11

And if you talk with me of Laws and Rules
Open your eyes, and in this ancient halting-place 12

Look at the Sahibs of England.
Look at the style and practice of these, 13

See what Laws and Rules they have made for all to see
What none ever saw, they have produced. 14

Science and skills grew at the hands of these skilled ones
Their efforts overtook the efforts of the forebears. 15

This is the people that owns the right to Laws and Rules
None knows to rule a land better than they, 16

Justice and Wisdom they’ve made as one
They have given hundreds of laws to India. 17

The fire that one brought out of stone
How well these skilled ones bring out from straw! 18

What spell have they struck on water
That a vapour drives the boat in water! 19

Sometimes the vapour takes the boat down the sea
Sometimes the vapour brings down the sky to the plains. 20

Vapour makes the sky-wheel go round and round
Vapour is now like bullocks, or horses. 21

Vapour makes the ship speed
Making wind and wave redundant. 22

Their instruments make music without the bow
They make words fly high like birds: 23

Oh don’t you see that these wise people
Get news from thousands of miles in a couple of breaths? 24

They inject fire into air
And the air glows like embers, 25

Go to London, for in that shining garden
The city is bright of nights, without candles. 26

Look at the businesses of the knowledgeable ones
In every discipline, a hundred innovators! 27

Before the Laws and Rules that the times now have
All others have become things of yesteryears, 28

Wise and sensitive and prudent one, does your book
Have such good and elegant Laws? 29

When one sees such a treasure house of gems
Why should one glean corn from that other harvest? 30

Well, if you speak of its style, it’s good
No, it’s much better than all else that you seek 31

But every good always has a better too
If there’s a head, there’s also a crown for it. 32

Don’t regard that Generous Source as niggardly
It’s a Date-Palm which drops sweet light, like dates. 33

Worshipping the Dead is not an auspicious thing
And wouldn’t you too think that it’s
no more than just words? 34

The Rule of silence pleases my heart, Ghalib
You spoke well doubtless, not speaking is well too. 35

Here in this world your creed is to worship all the Prophet’s children,
Go past praising, your Law asks you to pray: 36

For Syed Ahmad Khan-e Arif Jang
Who is made up entirely of wisdom and splendour 37

Let there be from God all that he might wish for
Let an auspicious star lead all his affairs. 38

I don’t need to dilate upon the poem’s contents. It makes the pastness of the past extremely clear. The present and the future are here, and they are in the hands of the innovators, the technologists, the information expediters and controllers. Small wonder that Sir Syed Ahmad Khan never again wrote a word in praise of the Ai’n-e Akbari. In the Asar-us Sanadid he quoted Amir Khusrau with pleasure. He continued to quote Persian poetry here and there, but just to make a point, not to give or derive pleasure from it. In 1847 he had said about the people of Delhi that every individual was “the aggregate of a thousand qualities and a bouquet of hundreds of thousands of accomplishments. Every one has a fondness for learning and for the arts and they have the taste for study, be it day or night.”[37] In around 1893, he wrote thus about Delhi: Inauspiciousness and evil planetary effect still rains down on its Muslims, the dwellings of the Muslims, and the neighborhoods of the Muslims. Their temperament, their morals and manners, their customs and usages, their social[38] condition, all have changed so much that when sometimes I go to Delhi and happen to meet with someone, I feel astonished: what country and what land are they residents of? God took away everything that Delhi had. And that is the fate wrought by the Almighty, the Omniscient.[39]
This calls to mind the anguished cry of Ghalib, lamenting the state of Delhi after the English retook the city in 1858: I went toward Rajghat, via the Jama Masjid area. From the Jama Masjid to the gate of Rajghat--no exaggeration--a vast wilderness…Now for the iron roadway, the area from Calcutta Gate to Kabuli Gate has been levelled to the ground.....In brief, the city has become a wilderness….By God, there’s no city now. It’s a camp, a cantonment. There’s no city, no Fort, no Bazaar, no water-channel.[40]

But that was 1860, the English military was still in occupation. Syed Ahmad Khan wrote in or after 1890. But it wasn’t Javad-ud Daulah Arif Jang who was looking at Delhi then. It was Sir Syed Ahmad Khan Bahadur, K.C.S. I., and he never wrote a word about old buildings or cities or their citizens, past or present.

August , 2006 Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

Author’s Note
All translations from Urdu and Persian have been made by me, except where stated otherwise.

Works Cited

1. Abdul Qadir, Maulavi, Hayat-e Sabiq, Banaras, Iksir-e Azam Press, 1905.
2. Ali Akbar Dehkhoda, Lughat Nama, CD issued by the University of Tehran,
3. Azad, Muhammad Husain, Ab-e Hayat (1880), translated and edited by Frances Pritchett in association with Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Delhi, OUP, 2001.
4. Faruqi, Shamsur Rahman, The Power Politics of Culture: Akbar Ilahabadi and The Changing Order of Things, Zakir Husain Memorial Lecture, 2002, issued as a pamphlet by Zakir Husain College, New Delhi, n.d.
5. Ghalib, Mirza Asadullah Khan, Kulliyat-e Ghalib, Farsi, Vol. I, Ed. Syed Murtaza Husain Fazil Lakhnavi, Lahore, Majlis Taraqqi-e Adab, 1967.
6. __________________, Ghalib ke Khutut, Vol. II, ed. Khaliq Anjum, New Delhi, Ghalib Institute, 1985.
7. Hali, Khvaja Altaf Husain, Hayat-e Javed, Kanpur, Nami Press, 1901.
8. Husain, Suraiya, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan aur un ka ‘Ahd, Aligarh, Educational Book House, 1993.
9. Khan, Rashid Hasan, ed., Bagh o Bahar by Mir Amman, New Delhi, Anjuman Taraqqi-e Urdu, 1992.
10. Lelyveld, David, “Macaulay’s Curse: Sir Syed and Syed Mahmud”, in A. A. Ansari, ed., Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: A Centenary Tribute, Delhi, Adam Publications, 2001.
11. _____________, “The Mystery Mansion, Swaraj Bhawan and the Myths of Patriotic Nationalism”, in The Little Magazine, New Delhi, Vol. IV, Issue 4, 2003.
12. Muhammad Sadiq, A History of Urdu Literature, Delhi, OUP, 1984.
13. Nafis Bano, Tahzibul Akhlaq:Tahqiqi va Tanqidi Mutali’a, Aligarh, Educational Book House, 1993.
14. Pritchett, Frances W., Nets of Awareness: Urdu Poetry and Its Critics, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1994.
15. Saksena, Ram Babu, A History of Urdu Literature, New Delhi, Indigo Books, 2002. Orig. pub 1927.
16. Shibli Nu’mani, Maqalat-e Shibli, Vol. II, ed. Syed Sulaiman Nadvi, 4th printing, Azamgarh, the Ma’arif Press, 1984.
17. Siddiqi, Muhammad Ali, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan aur Jiddat Pasandi, Karachi, Irtiqa, 2002.
18. Syed Ahmad Khan, Dr. Sir, Maqalat-e Sir Syed, Vol. I, ed., Muhammad Isma’il Panipati, Lahore, Majlis Taraqqi-e Adab, 1984.
19. ___________________, Vol. II, ed., Muhammad Isma’il Panipati, Lahore, Majlis Taraqqi-e Adab, 1984.
20. ___________________, Vol. X, ed., Muhammad Isma’il Panipati, Lahore, Majlis Taraqqi-e Adab, 1992.
21. ___________________, Vol. XV, ed., Muhammad Isma’il Panipati, Lahore, Majlis Taraqqi-e Adab, 2001.
22. ___________________, Vol. XVI, ed., Muhammad Isma’il Panipati, Lahore, Majlis Taraqqi-e Adab, 1965.
23. _______ , Maktubat-e Sir Syed, Vol. I, ed., Muhammad Isma’il Panipati, Lahore, Majlis Taraqqi-e Adab, 1976.
24. _________________, Vol. II, ed., Muhammad Isma’il Panipati, Lahore, Majlis Taraqqi-e Adab, 1985.
25. Syed Muhammad Ahmad, “Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, 1817-1898” in the Qrly. Jamia, no. 95, July-Dec. 1998.
26. Zafar Ahmad Siddiqi, Sir Syed ke Asarat (Shibli, Farahi, aur Maulana Azad ke Khususi Havale Se) translated by Abdur Rahim Kidwai as “Impact of Sir Syed (With Special Reference to Shibli, Farahi, and Azad)” included in A.A. Ansari, ed., Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: A Centenary Tribute, Delhi, Adam Publications, 2001.
27. Zaidi, Ali Jawad, A History of Urdu Literature, New Delhi, Sahitya Akademi, 1993.
[1] Syed Ahmad Khan, Maktubat, Vol. I, p. 43.
[2] Siddiqi, P. 47.
[3] For some details of Akbar Ilahabadi’s views on Syed Ahmad Khan’s reformist agenda, see my The Power Politics of Culture: Akbar Ilahabadi and the Changing Order of Things.
[4] Siddiqi, pp. 50-52.
[5] Syed Ahmad Khan, Maktubat, Vol. I, p.44.
[6] Maulavi Abdul Qadir, p. 32.
[7] Hali, pp. 52-54 (of pt. 2).
[8] Lelyveld, 2004.
[9] Lelyveld, 2001.
[10] English in the original.
[11] Maktubat, Vol. I, pp. 139-40.
[12] Zaidi, Ali Jawad, p. 207.
[13] Zaidi, Ali Jawad, p. 236.
[14] Shibli Nu’mani, p. 58. The author called it Bagh o Bahar, though it was popularly known as Chahar Darvesh. The actual date of Bagh o Bahar’s composition is 1801. It was first published in 1804. (Khan, pp. 44-51), but these are minor details and don’t affect the argument.
[15] English in the original.
[16] English in the original.
[17] Shibli Nu’mani, p. 57.
[18] Saksena, Ram Babu, p. 269.
[19] Saksena, Ram Babu, pp. 271-272.
[20] Shibli, p. 57.
[21] Husain, p. 283.
[22] See Zafar Ahmad Siddiqi’s essay in English translation in A. A. Ansari, 2001.
[23] Pritchett, pp. 34-5.
[24] The date of this letter is now established as October 29, 1874. See Matktubat, Vol. II, p. 29. [25] Pritchett, p. 38.
[26] The word “nature” occurs a number of times in this letter. In all the instances it’s not a translation of some Urdu word. It occurs in English in the original.
[27] Maktubat, Vol. II, p. 28.
[28] Maqalat, Vol. X, p. 47.
[29] Maqalat, Vol. X, p. 47.
[30] Nafis Bano, p. 303.
[31] “Nature” and “natural poetry” are English in the original.
[32] Ab-e Hayat, p. 103.
[33] Maqalat,Vol. X, p. 115.
[34] Maqalat, Vol. XVI, p. 212.
[35] The word a’in can mean all or any of the following: character, convention, temperament, habit, rule, path, law (ecclesiastical or secular), creed, praxis, quality, intention, organization, management, system, decoration, beauty. (Lughat Nama-e Dehkhoda). There are about eighty meanings in all. These meanings seem to have developed over the centuries. Most were available to Abul Fazl; all were available to Ghalib.
[36] Hali, p. 55 ( of pt. 1).
[37] Maqalat, Vol. XVI, p. 212.
38 English in the original.
39 The date and addressee of this letter are not known. Apparently it was written around the time there was a proposal to hold a meeting of the Muhammadan Educational Conference in Delhi. Since its name was changed from “Muhammadan Educational Congress” to “Muhammadan Educational Conference” in 1890, this letter should date from around that time. For change of name, see Syed Muhammad Ahmad, “Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, 1817-1898” in the Qrly. Jamia, no. 95, July-Dec. 1998. For the letter, see Maktubat, Vol. II, p. 465.
[40] Letter dated 1860 to Mir Mahdi Majruh. See Khaliq Anjum, Vol. II, p. 524.