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date: 19 October 2020

Ahmad Khan, Sir Saiyid [Syed Ahmed Khan]free

  • Francis Robinson

Ahmad Khan, Sir Saiyid [Syed Ahmed Khan] (1817–1898), Muslim leader in India, was born on 17 October 1817 in Khwaja Farid's haveli (mansion) near the Tiraha Bahram Khan in Delhi, the youngest of the three children (two boys and one girl) of Saiyid Muttaqi (d. 1838), a Mughal noble, and his wife Aziz-un-Nisa Begam, daughter of Khwaja Fariduddin Ahmad (1747–1828), envoy of the East India Company to Persia and Burma and prime minister of the Mughal emperor, Akbar II. His father's family were Husaini Saiyids, who had migrated to India from Herat in the time of Akbar; his mother's family, who claimed descent from the Sufi saint Sheikh Yusuf Hamadani (d. 1140), had in the early eighteenth century settled in Delhi as traders from Kashmir.

Saiyid Ahmad was educated in Persian and Arabic but when young was noted neither for ability nor for self-discipline. After his father's death, and against his family's wishes, he began to work in the judicial branch of the East India Company's administration, serving in Agra, Mainpuri, Fatehpur Sikri, and, from 1846, in Delhi. In 1855 he was promoted to assistant magistrate of Bijnor, where in the mutiny of 1857 he rescued the British population of the district. From 1858 he was magistrate in Moradabad, Ghazipur, and Aligarh, and then in 1867 was promoted to judge of the small-cause court in Benares, which he served until his retirement in 1876. From 1878 to 1882 he was on the central legislative council. He gave evidence to the education commission of 1882 and served on the public service commission of 1887. In 1888 he was made KCSI.

There were three transforming experiences in Saiyid Ahmad's life, the cumulative impact of which made him the outstanding Indian Muslim leader of his day. The first was the death of his elder brother in 1845. Up to this time he had pursued carnal and aesthetic pleasures; thenceforward he devoted himself to serious matters, growing a beard and attending Delhi's Madrasa Rahimiya to repair gaps in his education. The second formative experience was the mutiny uprising of 1857. It was a personal tragedy—many of his relatives and friends were killed—and a great human and cultural tragedy, in which tens of thousands died or were displaced, and Delhi was destroyed as a focus of Muslim culture. For a moment Saiyid Ahmad considered leaving India for good, but decided to stay and devote himself to his people. His third transforming experience was his seventeen-month visit to Britain in 1869 and 1870: it was here that he studied the sources of European ascendancy, and his ideas for Indian education crystallized.

After the mutiny it was evident to Saiyid Ahmad that education was essential to building a bridge between the north Indian élites and the government. His ideas about how to achieve this evolved gradually. One was the importance of using the medium of Indian languages: to this end he founded at Ghazipur the Scientific Society, the major activity of which was the translation into Urdu of European texts, on subjects ranging from mechanics and modern farming to mathematics and history. Another objective was the establishment of sympathetic educational environments for Indians, such as the schools he founded in Moradabad and Ghazipur in 1858 and 1864. These ideas came together in Saiyid Ahmad's unsuccessful proposal to the government in 1867 to found a vernacular university. It was only after visiting Britain and consulting fellow Muslims that he produced a plan that succeeded: it was to establish a college which was independent of government, adopted the residential model of Oxford and Cambridge, and taught English literature, oriental languages, and European science through the medium of Urdu. In 1877 the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College was founded at Aligarh (though market forces soon forced it to teach through the medium of English alone). In 1886 Saiyid Ahmad established the Muhammadan Educational Conference to take the message of Aligarh to the rest of India. Two points should be noted about his achievement: although the college would not have been founded without his energetic fund-raising efforts, it did benefit from government patronage; and although Saiyid Ahmad's early endeavours were for both Hindus and Muslims, and Hindu students were welcome at Aligarh, he came increasingly to work for Muslims alone after Hindus tried to replace the Persian script with the Devanagari, and Urdu with Hindi, as the government language in the late 1860s.

Successful educational reform required attention to custom and belief. One concern was countering the perceived threat of Christian missionaries. Saiyid Ahmad strove to alleviate fears through his commentary on the Bible (1862–87), which aimed to remove the suspicions of Christians about Islam, to refute the arguments of Muslims that the text of the Bible was corrupt, and to demonstrate how Muslims and Christians held beliefs in common. When necessary he went on the attack, publishing his Khutbat-i-Ahmadiya (1870) to refute the derogatory picture of the prophet in the Life of Mahomet by William Muir, the lieutenant-governor of his province. A second concern was to overcome Muslim religious prejudices which hampered progress. This was answered by the foundation in December 1870 of a new periodical, the Mohammedan Social Reformer, in which he and his supporters attacked injurious customs and beliefs. (The only chinks in his liberal credentials were his opposition to English education for women and his support for purdah.) A third concern was to foster an understanding of Islam which would not be troubled by European science. In order to answer this concern, Saiyid Ahmad developed a new Islamic theology, which he set out in his Koran commentary published over the years 1880 to 1904. Echoing the Christian natural theologians, whose work he knew, he began from the position that the work of God (nature) and the word of God (Koranic revelation) must be in harmony. He distinguished between the essence of the Koran and what belonged to the time in which it was revealed, and showed that this essence could flourish in the modern world without fear of scientific discoveries or social change. Many found Saiyid Ahmad's views too advanced, and he was bitterly attacked; he succeeded, however, in laying the foundations of Islamic modernism.

Saiyid Ahmad was a keen historian; his first notable work was Asar-i-Sanadid (1847), in which he recorded the inscriptions and buildings of Delhi and the lives of notable inhabitants. For this research he received an honorary fellowship of the Royal Asiatic Society; the book was also translated into French. Subsequently, he edited Barani's Tarikh-i-Firoz Shahi (1862), Abu'l-Fazl's Aء‎in-i-Akbari, and the Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri (1864), and wrote a history of Bijnor (lost in the mutiny) and a History of the Revolt in Bijnor (1858). A strong historical understanding underpinned his Islamic modernism.

Saiyid Ahmad had considerable influence over the style and content of Urdu literature. He championed the development of a simple and clear prose style over the florid forms of the day, aiming to fashion the language into an effective medium for serious ideas. He also encouraged Urdu poets to adopt the 'natural poetry' of the Victorian British, paving the way for verse to convey social, moral, and political messages. Thus he gave direction to the work of Hali, Shibli, Nazir Ahmad, and many others, who came to form the ‘Aligarh school’ in Urdu literature.

Such a man was bound to play a major political role. In 1858 Saiyid Ahmad launched himself in public life by publishing The Causes of the Indian Revolt, in which he demonstrated that the mutiny was not the outcome of a conspiracy, as many British thought, but of a breakdown of trust between society and government; what was needed, he felt, was education for Indians, and their representation on the central legislative council. Two years later, in order to demonstrate Muslim support for the British, he started his journal, the Loyal Muhammadans of India. In 1866 he founded the British Indian Association to improve the efficacy of British Indian government. He was a noted speaker in the central legislative council, and was the first Indian to propose a bill (for smallpox vaccination) of his own. Most significant was his opposition to the Indian National Congress: he objected in particular to its demand for elections to the legislative council, on the grounds that Muslims and the Hindu landed gentry of northern India were not ready for it. Saiyid Ahmad's opposition led to a generation of Muslims not joining the Indian nationalist movement.

Little is known of Saiyid Ahmad's wife, whom he married about 1835 and who died in 1861, leaving him a daughter and two sons, the younger of whom, Saiyid Mahmood, was to gain great distinction as a lawyer. On 27 March 1898 Sir Saiyid Ahmad Khan died in Aligarh from the effects of a stricture of the urethra; he was buried next to the mosque at his college in Aligarh. Physically, he was most impressive: 'a herculean frame, with broad and pensive forehead, compassionate but thoughtful eyes, leonine jaw and a white flowing beard, when he walked his majestic gait gave the impression of a “ship in motion”' (Nizami, 156). Indian and Briton acknowledged him as a natural leader—sincere, magnanimous, persevering, and courageous, as well as unusually energetic, buoyant, and humorous; his was a noble but, in his later years, somewhat autocratic temperament. Although he believed that Hindus and Muslims in India should form one nation, he laid the foundations of institutions and understandings which were to underpin the growth of Muslim separatism.


  • A. H. Hali, Hayat-i Javed, trans. K. H. Qadiri and D. J. Matthews (1979)
  • K. A. Nizami, Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1966)
  • F. Robinson, Separatism among Indian Muslims: the politics of the United Provinces' Muslims, 1860–1923 (1974)
  • C. W. Troll, Sayyid Ahmad Khan: a reinterpretation of Muslim theology (1978)
  • D. Lelyveld, Aligarh's first generation: Muslim solidarity in British India (1978)
  • G. F. I. Graham, The life and work of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan KCSI (1909)
  • H. Malik, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan and Muslim modernisation in India and Pakistan (1980)
  • C. Shackel, ‘English translation of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan's “Sirat-e-Faridiya”’, Islamic Culture, 46 (Oct 1972), 307–36
  • K. A. Nizami, Sir Syed album [1983]


  • Aligarh Muslim University, India, Maulana Azad Library


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