Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan was an exceptional man born into an exceptional family. While custom in well-to-do families dictated that a bride moved in with her husband’s parents, Sayyid Ahmad’s mother was the favorite daughter of a wealthy and distinguished man who wanted her to remain in his home. Sayyid Ahmad’s father enjoyed high status as a descendant of the prophet Muhammad, a sayyid, but he was relatively poor. Moving into his wife’s home gave him the leisure to pursue his interest in archery and swimming. In that way Sayyid Ahmad came to be reared in his maternal grandfather’s house.
The careers of grandfather and grandson resembled each other in many ways. The grandfather, Khwajah Farid ud-din Ahmad, not only held the post of chief minister in the much reduced Mughal court but also had the trust of the British, who sent him on a number of diplomatic missions. During an extended stay in Calcutta, he acted as superintendent of that city’s premier Muslim educational establishment, the Calcutta Madrasah. He enjoyed a reputation as a mathematician and astronomer.
Sayyid Ahmad’s early education took place in Khwajah Farid’s home. It involved learning the Koran and the rudiments of Persian grammar. One of his maternal uncles instructed him in mathematics. He then went to study Greek medicine (Yunani Tibb) with one of Delhi’s prominent physicians. Apart from this training, Sayyid Ahmad educated himself prodigiously in theology and history, while retaining a lifelong interest in the sciences. In addition to that small amount of formal learning, Sayyid Ahmad absorbed a deep religious seriousness. Both his mother’s and his father’s families were connected to the noted spiritual reformers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Ahmad Sirhindī and Shah Walliullah. These men and their disciples stressed a rational approach to Islam that avoided miracle-mongering and criticized the lax behavior of the Muslim masses. They also emphasized a moral earnestness that especially affected Sayyid Ahmad’s mother. He saw dedication to high moral values as her chief legacy to him.
In 1838, the year of his father’s death, Sayyid Ahmad began attending the office of an uncle who worked as a subordinate judge for the British. Before the latter instituted examinations and educational qualifications for government employees, this was the most common way of securing appointment as an official. Sayyid Ahmad soon began ascending through the ranks of the East India Company’s judiciary. He served as a magistrate in a number of north Indian district towns before retiring in 1876.
Sayyid Ahmad’s literary career began in the 1840’s. He wrote a number of religious tracts encouraging the reform of Muslim social customs. He contributed to a newspaper published by his brother and edited a number of Persian works, such as the memoirs of the Mughal emperor Jahāngīr. In 1846, he published a unique book, Āthār assanadīd (Asar-oos-sunnadeed: A History of Old and New Rules, or Governments and of Old and New Buildings, in the District of Delhi, 1854), which described some of the famous buildings and personalities of Old Delhi. Though his early style of Urdu imitated the flowery diction and indirect discourse of Persian, throughout his life his writing became more vigorous and straightforward. Later writers considered him a model of clarity and acknowledged him as the creator of Urdu political rhetoric. His collected writings and speeches occupied nineteen volumes.
The Mutiny of 1857 had a lasting impact on Sayyid Ahmad’s activity and thought. During the conflict, he remained loyal to the British, even risking his own life to save a number of Englishmen as well as the Bijnor district’s cash box. After the uprising, a number of British officials blamed Muslims for fomenting the rebellion. Sayyid Ahmad spent the rest of his life refuting that notion, constantly reminding the government that many of India’s Muslims stood firmly for the Empire. To his fellow Muslims, he repeated the message that the failure of the revolt proved that England’s way was the way of the future and that Muslims need not abandon their religion in order to adapt to the new order. He argued that in following the “new light,” they were being faithful to Islam’s highest ideals. After all, Islam’s advanced civilization had influenced that of Europe and made the Renaissance possible. The decline of his own day Sayyid Ahmad attributed to superstitions that had become commonplace only in the century or so before. Until then, Islam had been in the vanguard of human progress.
Sayyid Ahmad’s loyalty to the British and his liberal opinions about Islam brought him honors from the imperial government. In 1869, he became a commander in the Order of...
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Within Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s lifetime, the last shadows of Mughal glory disappeared and India became the brightest diamond in Great Britain’s imperial diadem. While his family had been attached to the Mughal court, Sayyid Ahmad’s achievements depended, in part, on his close association with the British. While his early education had been conducted along traditional lines, he founded a college with a curriculum and discipline modeled on Great Britain’s public schools. He somehow found time to write extensively on religious and social matters, presenting a bold theological program that incorporated elements from Islam’s classical tradition and European sources. In the realm of politics, he encouraged Muslims to develop a renewed self-confidence. The Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College went on to become a university that would attract thousands of students not only from India but also from Africa and the Middle East. This university, with its many buildings clustered around Sayyid Ahmad’s grave, is his most obvious and fitting memorial.