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.