Saturday, November 28, 2009

Syed: the Birth of a Nation

On October 16, 1863, Syed Ahmad Khan addressed notable Muslims of Calcutta in Persian language. There he described his concept of nation. "Love exists at countless levels," he explained:
  1. Firstly, there is love for the whole creation, so that one feels pain even if a leaf or a stone is hurt in the universe. This highest degree of love is a gift of God and cannot be acquired on demand.
  2. Secondly, there is love for all living things.
  3. Thirdly, there is love for the entire humanity.
  4. Fourthly, there is love for one's own nation.
This was the theory of nationhood to which not only Syed but also Iqbal, Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar, Quaid-i-Azam and Liquat Ali Khan subscribed afterwards, and which is still alive in the hearts of the unschooled masses of Pakistan but seems to have slipped the grasp of the intelligentsia, somehow, since 1953.

In that same Calcutta Address, Syed also pointed out that the enemy of Islam was not Christianity but modern philosophy, and therefore we needed to consolidate our efforts on that front. It may be noted that he expressed this view only four years after the publication of Darwin's book, and long before Nietzsche even appeared on the scene.

For expressing these views, he was declared kafir by the conservatives, who left no stone unturned in opposing the college which he wanted to found at Aligarh for introducing quality education in the country. Returning hatred with love, Syed stayed out of the curriculum-design committee and invited Maulana Qasim Nanotvi, his foremost opponent and the founder of the Deoband seminary, to be part of it instead. Maulana took offence because Shia scholars would also be there although designing a separate syllabus for Shia students. Not bothering to reply himself, Maulana asked his deputy to write back that Syed should feel ashamed for suggesting that the Maulana or his representatives should sit in a room with Shias!

Conservative scholars were not the only enemies of Syed (and Islam). The British recognized him as the most potent threat for the Empire, at least in the long-term. On the pretext of writing sympathetic studies, Western scholars began to present him as a Westernized Muslim. The same line was towed by Indian National Congress, who was upset because Syed's concept of a nation based on love for all creation was opposed to the Western model of territorial identity which Congress tried to introduce in India twenty-two year after Syed's Calcutta Address.

Beyond his lifetime, Syed's most ardent defenders have been Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar and Iqbal. "It may be pointed out here that Syed Ahmad Khan, Syed Jamal-ud-Din Afghani and hundreds of the latter’s disciples in Muslim countries were not Westernised Muslims," Iqbal wrote in an open letter to Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru in 1935. "It is only the superficial observer of the modern world of Islam who thinks that the present crisis in the world of Islam is wholly due to the working of alien forces."

In the light of these views expressed by Iqbal, let's look into our conscience and see if we all have not been superficial observers?


  1. As you said earlier sir that things are going to be changed faster than our expectation so the hope of the revival for a nation is again there..................

  2. Shafique Sahib....

    I think we can't accept the change easily that is why we always at first oppose one who want to bring a change in the community or its thinking.

    One way to defeat enemy is to become like him and start thinking like him. May be Sir Syed did the same but people didn't get it right.

    Still we are opposing the personalities who would or can change the way of our living style or thinking. And that's the real problem.

    I don't think we observe at all. We start opposing as soon as we find something against our will.

    May Allah open our eyes n ears soon....hmmm... Ameen.

  3. In the letter to Jawaharlal Nehru cited above by Khurram Sahib Iqbal also said that Syed Ahmed Khan was "the first modern Muslim to catch a glimpse of the positive character of the age that was coming, but the real greatness of the man consists of the fact that he was the first Indian Muslim who felt the need of a fresh orientation of Islam and worked for it."

    I would quote few remarkable lines from a preface written by Syed Ahmed Khan that shows the approach that he had towards understanding of things ahead:

    "There are many people who witness the revolutionary changes in this world, yet few reflect upon them. There are even fewer people who realize the revolutionary changes in their own ideas and think about and seek to understand their causes. If someone were to call to mind the events of his own whole lifetime and try to understand them, he would realize that very surprising revolutionary changes have occurred in his ideas, revolutionary changes such as have not occurred in any other sphere of life."

    Reflection is a rare commodity with us!

  4. Urooj, Thinking and Akhtar, thanks. Akhtar Sahib, which book are you quoting from (the preface by Sir Syed)? I would like to read the whole preface :).

  5. Khurram Sahib, the preface is from TASANIF-E-AHMADIYAH, but I have quoted this from "SAYYID AHMAD KHAN-A Reinterpretation of Muslim Theology by C.W.Troll. You will have this book.

  6. I am enthralled by the quote from the preface written by Syed Ahmed Khan that "...few reflect...even fewer people who realize the revolutionary changes in their own ideas and think about and seek to understand their causes..." and appreciate the source given, the preface from TASANIF-E-AHMADIYAH, quoted from "SAYYID AHMAD KHAN-A Reinterpretation of Muslim Theology by C.W.Troll.

    I am also quite puzzled how any such vision of
    love for all humanity from Syed Ahmed Khan or prophecy of Allama Iqbal's as beautiful and longed for as this is can come about in the context of any one nation.

    Did not Allah intend that we find a way to rid ourselves of the artificial national boundaries that have been made by imperfectly by well and not so well intended people in power? Were we not meant to find a way to make of ourselves a spiritual "nation" of Love worldwide? Without imperial or nationalistic boundaries?

    We can seek to love the people within our borders yet can we love the borders themselves which are not divinely created like the people?

    Sorry if this sounds terribly removed from reality or the intent of this post...the hour is way too late for me.

  7. Akhtar, Connie, thanks. Connie's question shall be addressed in the next post :).