Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, born to a privileged family with his maternal grandfather as the Prime Minister under the reign of Akbar II, acquired knowledge from both traditional and contemporary domains. From learning Arabic (most importantly texts like Qutlu, Mukhtasar Mani), Persian (primarily books like Kareema, Amadnama), Mathematics, Logic, and Urdu (Mohammad 1), his receptive mind soon transcended borders to inculcate Western education. His academic prowess and traditional wisdom did not remain bracketed within the world of academia; instead stretched far and wide to inject rationality in the social, political, and cultural spheres.
To bring harmony to the diversity of India, Sir Syed aimed at pure reconciliation. His prophetic vision brought together the rationality and intellectuality of the Western world and the faith and traditions of the Eastern world. He was an ardent promoter of tolerance and scientific consciousness. Contextually, it is instrumental in layering out the aspects of his inherent interfaith idea. His interfaith dialogue emerged not simply in converging the East and West related conduct or to unite the religious customs of the Muslims and the Hindus, but also in collaborating the traditional and the modernistic approaches (in terms of getting balanced education and sieving through dogmatism).
His multi-dimensional personality was instrumental in infusing the Muslim community with a secular outlook and a pluralistic vision. It is misleading to think that Sir Syed’s ideologies were manifested merely from a Muslim standpoint. To make way for a progressive society with equal rights to education and enlightenment, his University (Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College; present-day Aligarh Muslim University) made provisions for Hindu and Muslim students. Likewise, (Khan 108) clearly states that by 1898, the University had students from both communities, with Sir Syed honouring mainly a Hindu student for receiving a first division with a gold medal. His University brought together books on history, religion, science, literature, language, and technology (Khan 114).
Emphasising the unification of all religions, Sir Syed dutifully cleaned up many hovering misconceptions regarding Christians. For instance, in his times, the Muslims believed that eating the food served by the Christians or with the Christians was sinful and was strictly against Islamic law. He penned down a literary piece titled Mohammedans Eating Food with Christians to bring harmony at the communal fronts and blow away the baseless misconceptions. He mentioned clearly in his article that hosting Christians for feasts was ‘not’ unlawful, and he further substantiates the claim from two other commentaries of the Quran, chiefly Maalim and Madarik.
Furthermore, his interfaith vision was based broadly on two premium aspects. Firstly, he accepted and educated his community to believe in one God, which entails that all Gods of the respective religions can guide their followers to eternal salvation. With the idea of one God, he also practised and preached the ‘invisibility’ of the Almighty. No God(s) cannot confine within the concrete walls in the name of ‘worship’. Secondly and more importantly, he wanted to instil in his people admiration for all the religions so that they revere all and hate none (Ramsay 296). Incidentally, his deeds, too, reflected his belief and preaching. Likewise, he engaged with various principles of the Bible through two of his famous writings, namely, Tabyin al-Kalam and Tafsir al-Quran. Upon the publication of these writings, both the religions- Islam and Christianity got accepted as a continuation of singular thought. The basic precepts of both the Holy books were the same. Thus, such a collaboration brought the British and the Muslims on much more amicable terms.
In the quest to achieve the true emancipation of humanity, Sir Syed delineated deeper into the ideas of divinity, virtues, and education, thus, keeping his lenses of rationality and pragmatism always clean and adequate. He believed that the dialectical relation between the intra and the interfaith was way more ambitious than simply being couped up in supporting the contemporary propagandist nation-building idea. Paraphrasing from Glimpses of Indian National Movement by Abel M., he refers to the episode when Sir Syed claimed the two existent communities differed in terms of mere linguistic and religious denotations. The most important conclusion drawn from his statement was that, be it Hindus or be it Muslims, they all had to subsumed into their only identity, that is, they all were Indians. This nationalistic approach was essential to uphold rather than battering the nation with petty religious interventions.
His vast array of periodical associations, particularly Zubdatul Akhbar and Sayyidul Akhbar, showcases his urge to educate his dear countrymen, not in terms of only academic degrees but also in the domain of political awareness. By featuring Sir Syed as the protagonist of the interfaith dialogue, it is essential to look into his views regarding all religions and Islam in particular. Though his contemporary society indulged in orthodox values, he focused on the liberating and the unifying tenets of Islam that subscribe to equal rights, tolerance, and freedom.
Such was Sir Syed’s role in keeping the string of humanity taut and intense that in 1888, the then British Empress, Queen Victoria, knighted him. His words and deeds resonated deeply with the British administration, which wanted to unite Christians, Muslims, and Hindus. In addition to bridging the communal gap between the Hindus and the Muslims, he was instrumental in uplifting the status of Muslims in relation to the British as well. Through discreet examples from The Loyal Muhammadans of India, he seemed to cajole the British that in accordance to their religion, Islam, indulging in bloodshed and warfare (against the colonisers) was unacceptable. Moreover, to level down the rift amongst the orthodox Muslims against Western education, he began a committee to resolve the superficial misunderstandings regarding studying the English language and culture-based curriculum. Beyond the religious and cultural tensions, Sir Syed openly spoke about the visibility of the genders. Likewise, when his contemporaries cited Islamic texts to oppress and domesticate women, he stood against the popularised views. He fought for women to claim their equal status in society, mainly in terms of authority and education.
Sir Syed’s journal The Aligarh Institute Gazette, which was published in 1866, scrutinised the dichotomy between the supposed mannerisms of the ‘colonised’ and their ‘colonisers’. To all the critics who claim Sir Syed to be pro-British, this journal stands out as a testimony to his beliefs that ‘Salaam Alaikum’ was way more respectable and courteous than the foreigner’s ‘How do you do?’ In the series of representative greetings, he further exemplifies that bowing while greeting rather than simply shaking hands unravelled the authentic flavour of a civilised community. In addition to gentility, the greeting also delivered a more extensive meaning with finesse (Kidwai 163). The greeting was capable of extending hospitality and acceptance of the other being. It is true that Sir Syed believed and even wanted his fellow friends to imbibe the scientificity of the West in exchange for the traditional orthodoxy (which mostly brewed superstitions and havoc in the road to liberal ideas). However, he never wanted his mates to forget their roots and their vibrant indigenous culture.
In addition to The Aligarh Institute Gazette, Sir Syed used his periodical Tahzibul Akhlaq to debunk the existing bigotry and sectarianism. Being a modern philosopher, he voted for nationalism rather than paltry ‘nation-building’. He proposed combining spirituality with ardent nationalism, which will ultimately side-line the inter and intra religious and community clashes filled with malice, violence, and hatred. To follow the staircase to truth, sanctity, and peace, he requested his countrymen to look beyond the borders and within. In a way, back in the nineteenth century itself, he eyed upon globalising his people wherein everyone would be duly uplifted by education and cooperation and not be dragged down by narrow religious constraints. To instil the genuine fervour of nationalism, he alluded India to be a beautiful bride. Metaphorically speaking, he considered the two religions and their respective communities as her two deep and lustrous eyes. To maintain the beauty of the bride’s face, just like both the eyes are essential similarly, to maintain the dignity and charm of the nation, both the communities are equally important.
Attempting to ‘realise’ the idea of nationalism and humanism, he persuaded his people to shun the ‘myth’ of cultural supremacy. He suggested cooperation from people of all walks of life but did not want them to adhere to any blind faith. With his clear objective to steer past the suffering of his countrymen, more often than not, he extracted lessons from the past. Likewise, Hafeez Malik remembering Sir Syed’s seminal works upon the 1857 Revolt, beautifully highlights his contribution in documenting the historical event and being a part of it (Kidwai 169). Historical episodes tend to be subjective, associating with the popular views, but contradictorily, his works were objective and uncontaminated by any prejudice. While critically probing into the 1857 revolt, Sir Syed saw it as a consequence of a disgruntled and unnecessary war against the British. Owing to his allegiance to British governance policies and thinking to be bearers of peace and sanity, he was labelled as a ‘kafir’ (translated in English as an ‘infidel’ and contextually, refers to be being an ‘ardent slave’ of the British). His views were neither heard nor understood adequately by his fellow people. He wanted them not to misunderstand the British policies and adhere to their education norms as the latter will be the gateway to the utopic Indian society in particular and the world in general. Amidst the chaotic situation of the revolt and the distrust of his people against him, he kept his mind above petty hatred and ill will. According to him, the revolt also showcased the age-old unity of the Hindus and the Muslims. Initially, he was extremely anxious as the Muslims and the Hindus were pushed to serve in a common regiment, but he stood corrected. The revolt of 1857 glued together the communities rather than picking up any kind of discrimination (Kidwai 178).
It is essential to highlight that Sir Syed’s reliance upon the British was not for some paltry monetary gains. He instead wanted to imbibe the radical thoughts, the independent stature, sensible administrative policies, and coherence in education and living from the British. Time and again, he pressed on the idea of religion and described it as a token of free will and not an agency of oppression or hatred of any kind. Be it Christianity or Hinduism, or Islam; he projected a multicultural and multireligious consciousness. He wanted the British vis a vis his countrymen to understand the unity rather than threading out the differences amongst the religions. Sir Syed was a part of the British administration. Thus, quite naturally fuelling anti-British thoughts could not be accepted on his part, but this could not limit him. He remained bold and fought bravely against the intangible racial intolerance and chauvinistic attitude looming in the coloniser’s dictum. He at once stood true to his country, his faith, and himself. In the timeline of maintaining the pristine interfaith dialogue, he kept his individuality way ahead of a herd mentality.
Being a well-read scholar and a great writer of his times, his impact on education remains noteworthy. The contemporary academic curriculum in the West profoundly influenced him and consequentially wanted to turn Aligarh Muslim University into the Oxford or Cambridge of the East. His visit to the United Kingdom in 1868-69 made him aware of a modernised version of the education system that would eradicate irrationalism and fanaticism. Moreover, he was so impressed by the periodical named Tatler and Spectator that he soon got involved in producing journals like Tahizul-ul-Ikhlaq to broaden the minds of his people in terms of the contemporary political, socio-cultural, and economic trends. From establishing the school at Muradabad (around 1858) to the Scientific society in 1864, his contributions to the scientific temperament to date remain remarkable. The Scientific Society was used to translate the Western books primarily in Urdu and Persian in the broadest terms. This society helped the Indians to access global affairs through the translated books. Apart from the scientificity, the Indian education system too was capable of instilling among the fellow countrymen the need to stand united and practice brotherhood. Through the refined curriculum, he aimed at making his people more responsible towards their community and, in general, accountable for their country. In addition to injecting the discourses of liberty and critical disposition (and not scepticism), he also wanted to free his University from the fundings of the British government. Influenced by the foreign universities, he was convinced that ‘autonomous’ universities would fare way better than those depending on the British government for constant help and support.
The educational institutions established by Sir Syed soon started to promote harmony and cooperation in all spheres. All the more, he was the one who truly accomplished the idea of education being open and accessible to all. From infusing the empathetic nature in his students, his lessons taught them to be great future leaders as well. While discussing his role in the interfaith dialogue, it is absolutely non-negotiable to discuss the curriculum’s ‘route’ and ‘root’ of the academic curriculum. He being a prolific writer, his institutions too reflected his ideals. His institutions had no space for sectarian and communal riots or misconceptions. In addition to the advent of technology and science, his institutions happily provided a seat for literature and cross-cultural debates too. More often than not, Sir Syed’s works were interpreted to be Muslim-centric. Seeing the contemporary situation of suppressing the minority voices, his deeds were and still are very important. The only reason he constantly wanted to uplift the Muslims from drudgery and superstitious darkness was to enjoy the genuine opportunities of the world in terms of academic status, political maturity, and equality. However, it was exemplary on his part not to eulogise the shady parts of the community like harbouring ill will against other religions or towards the government. With a progressive outlook, he aimed and, in turn, with his indomitable spirit, also achieved the sanctity of a united society garnished generously with humanity and tolerance.
Sir Syed’s preaching and deeds aligned with social justice to frame a future dipped in peace and progress. His role was and still continues to be very instrumental in contemporary times as well. However, sadly, India still wreaks with communal distrust, and violence coated with oppression continues in the name of religion. Sir Syed and many of his contemporary scholars have toiled hard to make way for a holistic approach to all available spheres. However, at present, miscreants have butchered present-day India in the name of ‘securing’ their religious stances. With better educational institutions and cultural unity, India will heal from prevalent religious prejudices and social dogmatism. However, all countrymen should work and explore all areas of rational education and try to re-stabilise the interfaith dialogue introduced by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Only in the spirit of true nationalism, by keeping at bay the parochial jargon, will the words and memory of Sir Syed be truly showcased and acknowledged.
Khan, Amjad Abbas. “Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and his Pluralistic vision.” Pakistan Vision, vol. 19, no. 2, p. 13.
Kidwai, Shafey. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: Reason, Religion and Nation. Routledge, 2021.
Mohammad, Shan. Writings and Speeches of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Bombay, Nachiketa Publications Limited, 1972.
Ramsay, Charles M. “Sir Sayyid and the Religious Foundations for a Pluralist Society.” pp. 288-307.