Islam & Modern World: The Failure of Sir Sayyid Ahmad : Girilal Jain

The point that developments in Indian Islam must be viewed in the larger context of the world of Islam cannot be over-emphasized. For central to Muslims in India, as anywhere else, is the ummah, the universal community of believers. This does not mean that Indian Muslims have been at the receiving end in this world-wide interaction of Islamic thought and practice. On the contrary, Indian Muslim theologians have, from time to time, made valuable contributions to the ummah. It is not for nothing that one of the best known Arab historians, Mr Albert Hourani, has ascribed the 18th as the century of Indian Islam.

This membership of the larger ummah does not also mean that there has been nothing specifically Indian about Indian Islam. It would have been surprising if this had been the case. But the period we are concerned with, in connection with an assessment of Sir Sayyid Ahmad’s role, had been preceded by powerful movements seeking fairly successfully to purge Indian Islam of much that was specifically Indian in it.

Significant Figure


To call them reform movements, which is how they are generally described, is to miss their avowedly anti-Indian orientation. Indeed, that too is not all. For, these movements referred to in this space (February 11/12), also closed what small openings existed for the entry of modern ideas and values into Indian Islam. This process was fairly well advanced by the time Sir Sayyid emerged on the scene as a significant figure.

In his work Modernization of Indian Tradition (Publications Division, Delhi), Prof. Yoginder Singh has compared and contrasted Sanskritisation among Hindus with Islamisation among Muslims. Both are forms of upward mobility whereby lower sections of society seek to improve their status. But there the comparison ends. Prof. Singh notes two differences. First, “while revolt against hierarchy through Sanskritisation implies a withdrawal from tradition – an indirect release from its psychological contours – and might eventually accelerate modernization,” Islamisation, “as a movement of revivalism of basic virtues in the Islamic tradition… might contribute to greater conservatism by increasing the hold of the religious elites on the population.”

Secondly, he writes: “The movement of Sanskritisation is in no way approved by Brahmin priests and yet it goes on. Islamisation, on the contrary, is not only engineered by the religious elites but results in an enhancement of their hold on the Muslim masses. It is thus a traditionalizing movement par ex­cellence. “

Two Propositions

Seen in this perspective, two inter-related propositions become obvious. First, the determined bid by Faraizis, Wahhabis, al-Hadithis and Tablighis to remove Hindu influences and practices from the lives of ordinary Muslims and to block Western idea and ideals were part of one single movement and, as such, one programme could not be separated from the other. Secondly, the presence of Hindu elements in Indian Islam alone could make its modernization possible by way of exposure to, and acceptance of, Western values; their elimination inevitably closed Indian Islam to modernization.

Sir Sayyid was greatly influenced by the Naqshbandi order, Shah Walliullah, the 18th century ‘re­former’, and Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi, the Wahhabi leader who revived the principle and practice of hijra (migration from dar-ul-harb, land of war) and jihad (holy war). Sir Sayyid saw the world as a Muslim, as Prof. Francis Robinson puts it.

This does not mean that Sir Sayyid’s attempt to interpret the Koran in terms of laws of nature, or Western learning, did not in­volve innovation. It did. If men such as Sayyid Jamal ad-Din Afghani, the leading pan-Islamist of the 19th century, ridiculed him as a wacheri, they were justified. But his own intention was to strengthen the appeal of Islam, to “reveal to people the original bright face of Islam,” as he put it, and make it possible for young Muslims to imbibe Western learn­ing and yet remain Muslim.

His intentions apart, however, Sir Sayyid did not have the capacity to impose his view of compatibility between the Koranic revelation and miracles, on the one hand, and modern science, on the other, on the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental college which developed into the Aligarh Muslim University. The whole enterprise would have ended in smoke if he had not surrendered control of theological education at Aligarh to Ali Baksh, one of his bitterest critics, on that issue.

So fierce was the opposition that Sir Sayyid had to agree not to have anything to do with students in order to pacify his critics. Of his two successors, it may be noted Viqar al-Mulk was profoundly interested in increasing the Islamic content of education and daily life at Aligarh and Muhsin al-Mulk played a leading role in the politics of the Muslim League.

This brings us to Aligarh’s central role as an instrument of Muslim separatism. It produced young men deeply conscious of being Muslim and capable of operating effectively in the modern world which the ulema by and large were not. While the latter could provide support to modern political move­ments, as they in fact did to Khilafat and the Muslim League’s campaign for a separate homeland, they could not promote and lead such movements. The leadership of the Khilafat movement, it may be recalled, centred on Muham­mad Ali and Shaukat Ali, both products of Aligarh, and not on Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. Aligarh students served as the League’s storm troopers.


Muslim Presence

It has long been accepted that the cause of education among Muslims in the then North-West Province would not have suffered if the Aligarh university had not been established. Muslim presence in educational institutions in Bengal was abysmally low. In the North-West Province it, if anything, was in excess of the size of the Muslim population. Aligarh only gave education a Muslim and therefore separatist dimension.

Sir Sayyid himself was not a separatist for much of his life. But he became one in the last phase. But that issue is not under discussion in this piece. It concerns his role in modernization of Islam and therefore in checking the gen­eral retreat of Islamic civilization discussed in this space (January 14/15 and January 28/29).

My assessment is that he did not succeed. Circumstances were hostile to his endeavour. Just as the Wahhabi movement had preceded his exertions for British-Muslim reconciliation, pan-Islamism intervened to hamper his efforts. Indian Muslim opinion was critical of British neutrality in the Russo-Turkish war in 1878-79. Worse, including the powerful Khilafat movement, followed Sir Sayyid’s demise as did partition (1905) and annulment of partition (1911) of Bengal. All in all, he left on history a stamp different from the one he intended.

The Times of India, 25 February 1993

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