Sir Syed Ahmed Khan

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and His Contributions

Allama Iqbal believed that, “The real greatness of the man (Sir Syed) consists in the fact that he was the first Indian Muslim who felt the need of a fresh orientation of Islam and worked for it.” While in the words of Jawaharlal Nehru, “Sir Syed was an ardent reformer and he wanted to reconcile modern scientific thought with religion by rationalistic interpretations and not by attacking basic belief. He was anxious to push new education. He was in no way communally separatist. Repeatedly he emphasized that religious differences should have no political and national significance”.

The great emancipator of the Indian Muslims Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was born in Delhi on Oct 17, 1817 . He belonged to a family which held prominent positions in the reign of Mughal emperors and his maternal family had already joined the East India Company where his maternal grandfather served in Iran and Burma under the British government. Sir Syed himself , was bestowed with the title of Jawa’d-ul-Daula and Arif-e-Jang by Bahadur Shah Zafar II. But he soon realized the crumbling position of the Mughals and their deviancy from religion, and hence kept at distance from them. This is the period when the great Mughal Empire was close to a complete collapse.

SM Ikram writes, “For this insight into the affairs of the state and first contacts with Western learning and civilization he was indebted to his maternal grandfather…” (S. M. Ikram, Modern Muslim India, p.18).

Early Life

Sir Syed Ahmed2

Sir Syed was very healthy by birth and his grandfather remarked: “A Jat has been born in our family.” (Ibid., p. 19). By the age of 18 he was skilled in Arabic, Persian, Mathematics and Medicine. The death of his father forced him to join the EIC as head clerk in 1839 and in 1841 he passed examination and became a sub-judge. The death of his brother made him serious and energetic to face the neuroses of life courageously. Another event that changed him entirely was the War of Independence in 1857, at the eve of the War of Independence he was performing the duties as sub-judge in Bijnore, he saved the lives of British women and children, in return for his bravery the British offered him a large estate with income but he refused.

He established educational institutions and after coming at Aligarh he rejuvenated his aspirations to work for the depressed Muslims of the Subcontinent. He devoted his entire life to make the Muslims adopt the academic and intellectual path in order to rise to a position of prominence to deal with national issues. He died on March 27, 1898 and was buried in Aligarh.

His Services

Sir Syed was extremely unhappy about the position of Muslims in the subcontinent. Ever since the downfall of the Mughals, the social, political and economic status of Muslims had declined sharply and the role of Muslims in the war of Independence had created a great rift with the British, as they took measures to ensure that their control was unchallenged. At this point most Muslims thought that British were no more than just invaders and they had nothing to do with them. Sir Syed Ahmed believed that Muslims had to accept that the British were there rulers and the collective situation of Muslims in India could only improve if they have a positive approach towards them. They needed to accept the British ideas and their education if they wanted to improve. Sir Syed wanted to see Muslims untied and prospering in their social, economical and religious fortune. He made this his Life’s ambition and founded Aligarh movement.

The Great Revolt


He took responsibility of the Indian Muslims when they had been thrown in backwardness, depression and humiliation. The British held them criminal of the War while the Hindus had won the British being anti-Muslim force. In such environment, Sir Syed guided his community to rejoin the life.

Improving Relation between the British and Muslim Communities

Sir Syed believed that the position of the Muslims in the subcontinent could only be improved if relations with the British were improved by the Muslims gained higher-quality education. There were two major obstacles to good relations.

  • The British had put the entire responsibility for the War of Independence in 1857 on the Muslims. Sir Syed wanted to ensure that this false view was corrected.
  • There was a deep-seated resentment of the British among many in the Muslim community. Sir Syed wanted to ensure that the benefits and advantages of British rule, in particular in the areas of science and technology were embraced by the Muslim community to improve the lives of the masses.
Convincing the British

In 1860 Sir Syed wrote “The Loyal Mohammedans of India”. In this work he defended Muslims and listed the name of those Muslims who remained Loyal to the British during the uprising. In order to convince that the British were wrong to fully blame the Muslims for the uprising so he wrote a pamphlet “Essay on the Causes of the Indian Revolt”. In this he pointed the reasons for the uprising. He told that British were unable to understand the Indians. This Pamphlet was circulated freely among the British officials in India and the copies were also sent to England were it was studied carefully. Many British thought that he was blaming them for uprising but others sympathetic and accepted the truth in his words. He also cleared the misunderstanding that Muslim called the British “Nadarath”, He told that this was no insult but the word came from Arabic word “Nasir” which means helpers.

Convincing the Muslims

Sir Syed was aware that the British knew very little about Islam. Indeed, on a visit to England he was so offended by an English book on the life of the Prophet (PBUH) that he immediately wrote his own work correcting the many errors, this proved to be a milestone in bridging the gap between Muslims and British. Sir Syed was aware that Muslim in India knew very little about Christianity. He tried to overcome this by writing “Tabyin-ul-Kalam” in which he pointed out the similarities between Islam and Christianity.

To Dr Qalb-i-Abid, “Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was among a very few leaders produced by Muslim India, who like Mohammad Ali Jinnah made a tremendous contribution in guiding the destinies of the Indian Muslims.” (Dr Q. Abid, Muslim Struggle for Independence, p. 11.)


Services for Education

He was one of those early pioneers who recognized the critical role of education for the empowerment of the poor and backward Muslim community. In more than one ways Sir Syed was one of the greatest social reformers and a great national builder of modern India. He began to prepare the road map for the formation of a Muslim University by starting various schools. His educational reforms started when he laid the foundation of a madrassa (Muradabad Panchayaity Madrassah) in Muradabad in 1859, which was one of the first religious academies to incorporate scientific knowledge along with the religious one. Here Hindu and Muslim students were taught Urdu, Persian and Arabic along with English. The school was run from Hindu and Muslim funding.

After a brief interval of four years, he established another English High school based on the rules of religion in Ghazipur in 1863. He instituted Scientific Society in 1863 to create a scientific temperament among the Muslims and to make the Western knowledge available to Indians in their own language. The Aligarh Institute Gazette, an organ of the Scientific Society was started in March 1866 and succeeded in transforming the minds in the traditional Muslim Society. Anyone with an average level of commitment would have backed off in the face of strong opposition but Sir Syed responded by bringing out another journal ‘Tehzibul Akhlaq’ which was rightly named in English as ‘Mohammedan Social Reformer’.

In 1875, Sir Syed founded the Madarsatul Uloom in Aligarh, his vision proved fruitful, and the viceroy of India Lord Litton elevated it to the level of a college on Jan 8, 1877. He patterned the MAO College after Oxford and Cambridge universities that he visited on a trip to London in 1869. His objective was to build a college in tune with the British education system but without compromising its Islamic values. He wanted this College to act as a bridge between the old and the new, the East and the West. While he fully appreciated the need and urgency of imparting instruction based on Western learning, he was not oblivious to the value of Oriental learning and wanted to preserve and transmit to posterity the rich legacy of the past. Dr. Sir Mohammad Iqbal observed that “the real greatness of Sir Syed consists in the fact that he was the first Indian Muslim who felt the need of a fresh orientation of Islam and worked for it— his sensitive nature was the first to react to modern age”.

The aim of Sir Syed was not merely restricted to establishing a college at Aligarh but at spreading a network of Muslim managed educational institutions throughout the length and breadth of the country. Keeping in view this, he instituted All India Muslim Educational Conference in 1886 that revived the spirit of Muslims at national level. The Aligarh Movement motivated the Muslims to help open a number of educational institutions. It was the first of its kind of such Muslim NGO in India, which awakened the Muslims from their deep slumber and infused social and political awareness among them.

He contributed much to the development of the modern society of the subcontinent. During Sir Syed’s own life time, ‘The Englishman’, a renowned British magazine of the 19th century remarked in a note on November 17, 1885: ‘Sir Syed’s life “strikingly illustrated one of the best phases of modern history”.

He established Muhammadan Educational Conference in 1886. Its importance surpassed all other institutions previously established. Great figures such as Maulana Shibli Naumani, Maulana Hali, Maulana Nazeer Ahmad, Nawab Muhsin-ul-Mulk, and others beautified the intellectual atmosphere of this institution and stirred up a flare of enthusiasm among many Muslims.

Sir Syed himself remained active in politics, yet he advised Muslims to keep away from it. He knew the educational backwardness of Muslims and their unawareness of political current. He also urged upon Muslims to remain at distance from Congress, because in his justified opinion, it was a party that was solely devoted to the cause of Hindus and detrimental to Muslims and their ideologies. This paved way for the establishment of Muslims League later in 1906.


Contribution in Literature

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was a man of versatile personality. He rendered memorable contributions in the field of writings. Beginning at the age of 23, he started his career as an author writing religious texts. He was the first Muslim to produce a commentary on the Bible in which he tried to show that Islam was very close to Christianity in certain aspects. His other valuable tracts such as Loyal Muhammadans of India, Tabyin-ul-Kalam and A Series of Essays on the Life of Muhammad (SAW) and Subjects Subsidiary Therein proved to be a milestone in bridging the difference between the British and the Muslims. Some religious works of him that deserve mention are Ahkam Tu’am Ahl-Kitab, Al-Du’a Wa’l Istajaba, Al-Nazar Fi Ba’z Masa’il Imam Al-Ghazzali, Tafsir-a-Samawat, Tahrir fi Usul al-Tafsir, Tarjama fawa’id al-afkar fi amal al-farjar, along with such miscellaneous works as On the Use of the Sector (Urdu), Syed-ul-Akbar, Qaul-i-Matin dar Ibtal-i-Harkat i Zamin, Tashil fi Jar-a-Saqil, Ik Nadan Khuda Parast aur Dana dunyadar Ki Kahani, Kalamat-ul-Haqq.

Sir Syed and Politics
In the political arena, Sir Syed carved numerous successes; he eradicated misunderstandings between the Muslims and the British infused due to the past particular incidents. Awakening among the Muslims about the political ups and downs and co-existence in the presence of other nations in India was another contribution of Sir Syed. He motivated the Muslims to absorb the modern education of the West because this was the very motive of the Western expansion in the world. He visualized the bright future of the Muslims if they engaged themselves in the Western learning.

Sir Syed won the British confidence and cordial relationship by saving their lives during the War of Independence. He utilized this relationship for the betterment of the Muslims. It was a subtle situation because the government had put the War crimes on the Muslim shoulders and assaulted their every aspect of life:

“These events were a trauma for the Muslims; …the methods used by them shocked the civilized world. The detestation of Delhi as a centre of Muslim culture was horrendous; Bahadur Shah Zafar…was exiled to Rangoon; Lt. Hodson shot three Mughal princes and later 24 princes were tried and executed; a vast ocean of blood there was; Some Muslims were shot dead and their dead bodies were thrown into the river Jamna…” (Ibid., p. 14).

All Muslims were ousted from land, property and employments that made them third grade citizens of India. This created revengeful sentiments among the Muslims who detested British, their culture and civilization. Sir Syed was of the view that British were a civilized, educated, wise and disciplined nation and occupied India with the new war strategy and munitions that could not be matched by the locals and particularly by the Muslims. Therefore at the juncture the Muslims should mould themselves according to the pace of time to avoid more disaster.

Urdu-Hindi Controversy
Urdu grew as common language of all the Indians regardless of origin or religion but in 1867 the Benarsi Hindus started campaign to replace Urdu by Hindi. This deeply saddened Sir Syed as he saw this as a sign of further division among the native people of India. Sir Syed supported Urdu as it united the Muslims of the India under one language. Due to this reason Sir Syed started “Two Nation Theory” telling that Muslims and Hindus were two separate kinds of people. Muslims opposed this and supported Urdu

Two-Nation Theory

Urdu was the national language for many years. But Hindus opposed it during the Hindi Urdu Controversy. This provoked Sir Syed to make his Two Nation Theory to tell that Urdu had a place in hearts of Muslims and was supported by them and can’t be replaced by Hindu which was the language of the Hindus. It was important because Sir Syed had realized that Muslims and Hindu couldn’t work together as the Hindus were not with the Muslims.

Another reason which led to the 2 nation theory was that Sir Syed did not support the parliamentary system because the Hindus were majority so by default they outnumbered the Muslims and this made the system inherently biased towards the Hindus. Sir Syed realised that separate electorate was the possible solution to this so in view of his Two Nation Theory. He made this decision of separate electorate demand for elections for the good of the Muslims.

Furthermore it was important was that Congress proposed competitive examinations for jobs while Muslims who mostly were not as educated as the Hindus, lost out on the opportunities of jobs.

‘the working relationship’ between the two nations as once he said: “Hindus and Muslims should try to be of one mind in matters which affected their progress.” He favored separate electorate for the Muslims in 1883 saying that the majority would override the interests of the minority. (P. Hardy, pp. 136-37)

United Indian Patriotic Association
In 1888, he set up the Patriotic Association to meet the propaganda of the Congress. Muslims and Hindus joined the Association. It advocated the Muslims’ emotions.

Mohammedan Defense Association
In December 1893, Sir Syed founded the Association. Its main purpose was to protect the political, religious and social rights of the Muslims.
Sir Syed was great because he contributed greatly to the Muslim struggle for identity. Otto von Bismarck served the German nation with the help of all government sources but Sir Syed did the same without all this. To Khalid Bin Sayeed, “Many tributes have been paid to Sir Sayyed, particularly by modern educated Muslims for being daring enough to put forward such views in an age which was by no means liberal or tolerant.” (Dr Khalid Bin Sayeed, Pakistan, the Formative Phase, p. 17).


Sir Syed Ahmad Khan breathed his last on March 27, 1898. He is buried right along the Sir Syed Masjid inside Aligarh University. His funeral was attended not only by thousands of Muslims but British officials as well. He revived the dormant consciousness of Muslims and through his educational and social reforms, he went down in Muslim history as arguably the most influential Indian politician of 19th century.

After his death, his Muslims and English friends started raising money to fulfill Sir Syed’s dream of making the MAO college in a Muslim university. People loved him, because in his life he was like a shady tree to them and after his death they remembered him and showed their love for him by making efforts for raising the status of the college to the university, which came finally in 1920.

Timeline :

* 1817 Birth at Delhi, October 17.
* 1828 Death of Khawaja Fariduddin, maternal grandfather.
* 1836 Married to Parsa Begum(Mubarak)
1837 Sayyid-ul-Akhbar started by Sayyid Muhammad Khan.
* 1838 Death of his father, Sayyid Muhammad Muttaqi.
* 1839 Appointed Naib Munshi at Agra.
* 1841 Appointed Munsif at Mainpuri, December 24.
* 1842 Transferred from Mainpuri to Fatehpur Sikri, January 10.
1842 Received the title of Jawad-ud-Daula Arif Jung from the Mughal court.
* 1842 Completed Jila-ul-Qulub bi Zikr il Mahbub.
* 1844 Completed Tuhfa-i-Hasan and Tashil fi jar-i-Saqil.
* 1845 Death of Sayyid Muhammad Khan, his brother.
1847 First edition of Asar-us-Sanadid appeared.
* 1849 Completed Kalamat-ul-Haqq.
* 1850 Completed Risala Sunnat dar radi bid’at.
* 1852 Completed Namiqa dar bayan masala tasawwur-i-Shaikh and Silsilat ul-Mulk.
* 1854 Second edition of Asar-us-Sanadid.
1855 Appointed permanent Sadr Amin at Bijnor, January 13.
* 1855 Edited A’in-i-Akbari.
1857 Revolt breaks out, May 10.
* 1857 Death of his mother at Meerut.
* 1858 Appointed Sadr us Sadur, Moradabad.
* 1858 Published Tarikh Sarkashi-i-Zilla Bijnor.
* 1859 Nominated member of special commission for hearing appeals about confiscated property.
1859 Published Causes of the Indian Revolt.
1859 Established a Madrasa at Moradabad.
* 1860 Published Loyal Muhammadans of India.
* 1860 Famine in N.W. Frontier Provinces and relief work by Sayyid Ahmad Khan.
* 1861 French translation of Asar-us-Sanadid by Garcin de Tassy.
* 1861 Death of his wife.
* 1862 Transferred to Ghazipur, May 12.
* 1862 Edited Tarikh-i-Feroz Shahi.
* 1863 Published a pamphlet on education.
* 1864 Laid the foundation of a Madrasa at Ghazipur but with some time Transferred to Aligarh.
* 1864 Elected Honorary Member of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain, July 4.

* 1865 Sends a memorandum to the Government about the intention of the Scientific Society to publish books on agriculture, December 30.
* 1866 Aligarh Institute Gazette started.
* 1867 Sends a memorandum to the Viceroy for establishment of a vernacular university, August 1.
* 1867 Transferred to Benares, August 15.
* 1867 Started homeopathic dispensary and hospital at Benares, September 25.
* 1869 Leaves Benares for England, April 1.
* 1869 Receives the insignia of C.S.I, August 6.
* 1870 Left London for India, September 4.
* 1870 Reached Bombay, October 2.
* 1870 Tahzib-ul-Akhlaq started, December 24.
* 1870 Established the Committee for the Better Diffusion and Advancement of Learning among Muslims of India, December 26 .
* 1873 Scheme for establishing a college presented.
* 1875 Inauguration of the college, May 24.
* 1875 Regular teaching starts at M.A.O. College, June 1.
* 1876 Retired from service.
* 1876 Starts writing commentary on the Quran.
* 1877 Lord Lytton’s visit to Aligarh, January 8 .
* 1878 Nominated member of the Viceroy’s Legislative Council.
* 1882 Appears before the Education Commission.
* 1883 Founded Muhammadan Civil Service Fund Association.
* 1883 Established Muhammadan Association, Aligarh.
* 1886 Established Muhammadan Educational Conference.
* 1887 Nominated member of the Civil Service Commission by Lord Dufferin.
* 1888 Established Patriotic Association at Aligarh. 1888 Received K.C.S.I.
* 1889 Received the degree of LL.D. honoris causa from Edinburgh. Circulates the Trustee Bill.
* 1898 Death at Aligarh, March 27


One Reply to “Sir Syed Ahmed Khan”

  1. After a brief interval of four years, he established another English High school based on the rules of religion in Ghazipur in 1963. His marvelous achievement , while he was posted at Aligarh was the establishment of MAO (Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental) High School in 1875, which was inaugurated by William Muir. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan wanted to upgrade its level to a college, and to attain this end, he speeded up fund-raising. Ultimately, his vision proved fruitful, and the viceroy of India Lord Litton elevated it to the level of a college on Jan 8, 1877.


Speak your mind.Give a voice to your thoughts.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: