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Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: A Leading Muslim Liberal Thinker

by Afzaal rehan
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Afzaal rehan

Today, the entire world, especially Pakistan and India, is observing “Sir Syed Day” with simplicity and humility. It is an earnest desire that, at least in Pakistan, the 17th of October is celebrated with traditional fervor and enthusiasm. In many ways, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was a moderate, liberal, and scientifically inclined thinker whose legacy should be celebrated, and future generations should benefit from his remarkable contributions. Sir Syed played a crucial role not only in uniting nations, particularly Muslims and people of other Abrahamic faiths but also in reshaping the destinies of disheartened and dejected Muslims in the aftermath of the failed 1857 uprising.

We present our claim in the language of Moulvi Abdul Haq: “Sir Syed Ahmad Khan started the reform movement at a time when the Muslim community was in shambles, and despair and desolation had overtaken them. They were embroiled in various misconceptions, prejudices, and disputes. Sir Syed, with great compassion, decided to address these issues. With his profound moral courage, he examined every aspect of national life. No sector of national life escaped his scrutiny. He critically assessed everything, exposed hypocrisy, and wrote boldly, what he considered the truth. “This stirred a great commotion.”

His writings, especially those published in the “Asar-us-Sanadid,” were presented in a sensational manner, particularly in the “Oudh Punch.” People were amazed, and a public outcry ensued, with accusations of infidelity, atheism, irreligion, and even labeling him a Christian conspirator. At times, when unjust accusations and allegations were raised, Sir Syed responded, and his responses were characterized by eloquence and sophistication. For instance, when Moulvi Ali Bakhsh Sub-ordinate Judge Gorkhpur, and Moulvi Imadad Ali Deputy Collector Kanpur were among his strong opponents, these eminent figures wrote letters and articles countering Sir Syed’s views. They published newspapers and propagated bizarre allegations.

Moulvi Ali Bakhsh even wrote a book titled “Taeed-ul-Islam” in response to which Sir Syed wrote an article titled “Daafi-ul-Buhtan,” and the closing words of his response were, “Anyone who reads this essay of mine will wonder why Mr. Syed Al-Haj accused me of such severe and unfounded allegations. Apparently, it seems that Mr. Syed Al-Haj, when he wrote this treatise, was about to embark on a pilgrimage to Mecca. He must have thought, ‘Why not get all my sins forgiven during Hajj? After all, all sins are forgiven after performing Hajj.’ Just as some people observe the utmost caution when they want to take a bath (to cleanse themselves) and think that after the bath, everything will be washed away, so Mr. Syed Al-Haj should know that although all sins are forgiven during Hajj, the rights of the slaves of God are not forgiven, and no good news can erase them. It is the duty of a true believer to perform Hajj and seek forgiveness for his sins. Otherwise, he may not be forgiven for eternity. Therefore, it is imperative that after wearing the Ihram for the pilgrimage of Ahmed, Mr. “Syed Al-Haj should confess his sins, or else they cannot be forgiven, and the sins will become obvious on the Day of Judgment.”

When Sir Syed returned from the pilgrimage and issued “Tehzib-ul-Ikhlaq,” Moulvi Imadad Ali sent him a pamphlet, warning him of the Fatwas regarding the apostasy of Sir Syed issued by Mufti Saadullah Khan. In response, Sir Syed wrote, “First, we were alarmed to hear, ‘Who is this Mufti Saadullah Khan?’ Then it struck us that it was the same Mufti Saadullah Khan that we had seen in Delhi. He is the same Mufti Saadullah Khan who, with the aim of declaring the Qadianis (followers of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani) as infidels and calling for their execution, climbed up a hill in Hanuman Gadi (near Ghazipur) and attempted to send a message to Lucknow. When we learned about this, we calmed down and understood that issuing fatwas of apostasy and murdering the descendants of Ali (the family of the Prophet) is a long-standing profession of this Mufti Saadullah Khan.”

Sir Syed Khan said, “What is my concern if I am striving to preserve my Islamic faith? “To the best of my ability, I am placing my own Caliphate and will ultimately succeed.”

Sir Syed added, “I had no intention of working for anyone during this conflict. I would have set up my own Caliphate and been quite successful. Hearing this, the gentleman was ecstatic and thought that they had won.

He said, “Why, sir! If I were to be present at the time of this dispute when some people wanted Caliph Ali to succeed, and some wanted Amir (Hazrat Ali), if you were to attempt at this time, for whom would you have strived?”

Sir Syed responded, “If I were not meant to be there, then who cares about striving for someone? To the extent I can, I should establish my own Caliphate and be successful.”

This statement made the gentleman ecstatic, and he realized that a wise man might fall into a puddle, but a madman swims in it.

Sir Syed wrote, “We were informed by our friend that discussions were being held about our case in Saharanpur District. Someone said, ‘He is a Christian, but if our nation benefits, it will be because of this Christian.” Hearing this quote, we were elated and said, ‘If indeed we turn out to be such a Christian, a thousand Muslim followers.’ “The phrase ‘Christian’ became a source of national pride for me.”

The Government of India elected him as a member of the Legislative Council. All reports on the council were in English. Sir Syed wrote his speeches in Urdu, had them translated into English, and then transliterated them into Urdu script. This way, he could present his speeches at the council. These speeches were often so intense that after a council session ended, Lord Lytton would follow him and put his hand on Sir Syed’s shoulder, saying, “I have never heard such a profane speech.”

It’s no less than a testament to his greatness that Mahatma Gandhi honored Sir Syed Ahmad Khan as the “Prophet of Education.” Jawaharlal Nehru paid his tribute, saying, “Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was a great reformer who wanted to create a strong bond between religion and modern scientific thoughts through a new interpretation of Islam.”

If we appreciate his greatness, the real secret of Sir Syed’s greatness lies in the fact that he was the first Indian Muslim who not only perceived the need for a modern interpretation of Islam but also made relentless efforts to establish a strong connection between religion and modern scientific ideas.

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