Author: Muhammad Din jauhar


Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) embodies in his person our history of the last two centuries in a completely tragic way. A reformer, educationist, modernist, thinker, rationalist and savior; all these words are too small to encompass the breadth of his personality. Sir Syed is the founder of a new civilization in the subcontinent with very distinct features. The scholarly resources and ideological perspective of his created civilization is inadequate to understand his work and person. This ‘neo-civilization’ was not the organic result of a historical process; instead it was abruptly created as a reaction to a historical incident. This event occurred in 1857. Since, we live in the postlude of this civilization, its backdrop becomes hard to visualize.

A civilization is born when Ideology and Power blend with each other simultaneously in self and environment. Civilization constructs a new man to live in the new society then it provides new pillars of power to strengthen it. Ideology builds the new man and provides legitimacy to new Power. Civilizational idea takes root in the person and then spreads to engulf the surrounding environment. With regards to Sir Syed and his new civilization, this interaction between ideology and power becomes more complicated because it took place amidst and inter-civilization situation where the most brutal and triumphant Colonial power precluded the very need and space for the “other”. The “other” is a cultural construct to fulfill the political and economic needs of the colonialism. But if the political dominance is absolute then it is no longer required.

The civilization fashioned by Sir Syed is not the “other” of colonialism rather an inward extension of it but its outer shell is local. This is the reason why it has been so hard to correctly place it in history. Sir Syed’s neo-civilization is a whole but what is its basic ideology? What power moves it? And even before this how to properly study the person that built this civilization? As the founder of a new civilization Sir Syed towers so high and beneath the shadow of Empire his humiliating submission is so base that our question cannot span both extremes. The combination of this elevation and disgrace is quite unique in our whole history.

Our Hayat I milli (national life) now depends upon how we answer these questions because the wheel of History has completed a turn from 1857 to 2001. The end of new cycle is not in sight, the sky bears the hue of fire and its path is fraught with unforeseen dangers. 21st century Pakistan mirrors the political fate of all Muslims of the globe. This country is located at the junction of South Asia, MENA (Middle East and North Africa) and Far East. The established Imperial system has always exerted its full might on Pakistan. The forces at our door step are not a stranger to this region. They have converged on this region to protect the order they themselves left in place before. Living in this power system Sir Syed proceeded to create the framework of his neo-civilization.

Paradox is in theory and dilemma is in practice. Sir Syed symbolizes the nineteenth century decline of Muslims, their existential paradox and civilizational dilemmas. The existential paradox was the question that pierced our original civilization of Islam in subcontinent. While, the dilemma lay in choosing between submitting to the colonialism based on defeat or resisting it.

Sir Syed answered both questions in theory and practice and our current civilization is the fruit of it. All other alternative solutions were ineffective and meaningless and the tide of history has cast them aside. Those who rejected Sir Syed even lost the ability to realize their defeat. Today whatever we are on the level of individual, society and state; in our individual and collective endeavors; in our education and ideology, we belong to Sir Syed. It is a self-serving delusion that that the Project of Sir Syed has been unpacked or his basic ideas firmly rebutted because any attempt at answering him will require a civilizational and historical perspective. A mortal grip at the turn of history held Sir Syed and steered him. If our Religious Tradition had possessed a similar historical outlook then we might have conserved many valuable basic assets. In other words, if our Religious Tradition had a Sir Syed we might not have been so worse off.

Before proceeding any further, integrity demands that we clarify our stance on Sir Syed to prevent this debate from falling prey to sectarianism. So here goes, we love Sir Syed like one loves one’s own father and we detest Sir Syed like one detests ones father’s murderer.

In our tumultuous times, debating last two centuries of Muslim History feels like a breath or two of respite in this perilous journey of our millet (Muslim polity). We will look at Sir Syed from the lens of civilization. It is not possible to properly analyze Sir Syed from purely religious, social, political, literary or reformist frame of reference. It is imperative to scrutinize Sir Syed and his defense of neo-civilization afresh from the perspective of Muslim History because in the backdrop of current events it is hard not to see similarities between 1857 and 2001, Gitmo and Andaman Isles.

The vicious imperialist policies and global capitalist goals of the new millennium are strikingly similar to the year of 1857. After 2001 the regional political power system underwent a tectonic shift. Due to this radical transformation the neo-civilization built by Sir Syed cannot retain its elementary components. The world-view we inherited from Sir Syed is in need of deep-seated readjustments or else it will not be able to cope with the expanding power shift for long. In all this tumult the most dangerous aspect is that our national political consciousness is still firmly based on the old world-view and cannot register the basic changes in the regional and global power play.

Background: Sir Syed and Nobility:

When the sword fighting for the throne is wrapped in velvet sheath it becomes Nobility. The role of nobility is central to the creation and justification of political Power and Ideology. Sir Syed’s ancestors were attached to the Mughal court for many generations and had attained a respectable status in the noble hierarchy. As mentioned before, Sir Syed is the most tragic character of our history. All the formative elements of his personality were distilled from the illustrious cultural and religious tradition of UP (Northern India). The complete historical rise and fall of Muslim civilization in the subcontinent has become imprinted on the culture of UP. To this day this culture holds the inner kernel of our civilization.

In the subcontinent the importance of UP is central because almost all the practical events underlining the rise and fall of India’s Islamic civilization took place here and their results influenced the whole subcontinent. The basic reason for this is that UP was the home of the Muslim political power in the subcontinent. All those civilizational resources required for the sustenance of society and culture was available here for centuries. UP was a phenomenal cultural hub even though Muslims were always in minority. The social make up of UP was fundamentally religious but displayed a cosmopolitan disposition. In the culture of UP arts, mannerisms, architecture, oral and written sources of knowledge and linguistic standards had reached an unprecedented zenith. The kind of human personality that emerged from this culture possessed an unbelievable mixture of mysticism and militarism. It had equal and parallel capability to sever ties with the world and readiness to collide with it. In UP’s society human relations are constructed as a result of complex synthesis of aesthetics and dialectics. The myriad aesthetic feats in ideology and their civilizational expressions are proof that UP was the cauldron of Muslim civilization in the subcontinent that kept producing aesthetic marvels par excellence. In its culture the person-building was not specific to one religion instead it held such potential on purely human basis, that made inter-religious collaboration on individual and civilizational scale possible.

In the setting of sub-continent it can be safely concluded that no culture faced so many tragedies that befell UP despite which this culture succeeded in preserving its basic components. Its expansiveness, depth and strength were such that it took many centuries for it to degenerate into MQM. And even for this outcome, we have to account for massive geographical uprooting of partition. Still, MQM could not become the sole identity marker of that culture.

The decline, scattering and eventual downfall naturally impacted UP the most. The inner strength and expansiveness of UP was such that it reached its zenith when Muslim political power was already on the vane. The world history has but few such examples. It is a pity that in religious and linguistic squabbles we lost our biggest civilizational heritage. The only optimistic aspect is that all its basic elements are still preserved and accessible despite our utter defeat and displacement. It is one of the most well documented cultures in recent human history even though most of the physical traces have been lost. In current times, the basic Muslim identity in the subcontinent is the culture of UP although post-colonialism Muslims achieved geographical independence in regions remote from UP. Religions, political factions, languages, modernism and other modern ideologies jostled for space in that complex historical milieu that was the culture and civilization of UP. Add to it the fact that Muslims were always a minority there; this mosaic takes on miraculous rareness.

In the long centuries of decline and colonial dominance when our sword was broken and shackles were tightened, civilizational resistance entered a new mode. Our traditional exalted Ulema kept the civilizational essence alive bearing down the tips of spears empty-handed. It was akin to snatching possible from impossible. It is an ordinary sight in the annals for swords to clash with one another but standing up to the swords with just an ideal is the miracle of UP’s culture. In our hands whatever is left of Islam whether its symbols or scholarly interpretations, they are all the heritage of Up and the sole reason of their reaching us was the astonishing struggle of Ulema.

In the defense of their civilization and resistance against colonialists the blood of Ulema and people of UP turned Do’aba (the plains of UP flanked by two rivers) into Seh’aba (the land of three rivers) and the sun of our civilization forever drowned in those crimson waters. Sir Syed saw this sun set from the shores. He didn’t blink but he turned to stone.

Sir Syed was also a product of the same culture and possessed all the qualities our Ulema had. When the political pillars crumble the whole society undergoes a process of disintegration. This occurs under the pressures of the new power structures rising on the rubble. Sir Syed was an active member of the old nobility and saw a new power emerge in his life. He had a deep awareness of the colonial power in the political context and foresaw a new future unfold in subcontinent. In his mind, there was no doubt about the permanence of this new future.

Due to his Noble status, he understood too well the brutal and murderous dealings of Power. Two things fashioned his world-view. Firstly, he knew that the decline of Mughal Power was final and irrevocable. Secondly, he was certain of the ultimate dominance of British Colonialism and considered any resistance against it of no use. A lot has been said about Sir Syed from religious and political perspective, but no one has offered any solution to the existential crisis and civilizational dilemmas facing Muslims of that era. This question is still valid in the new millennium and demands a more urgent resolution due to the dangerous turn of events in this region and rest of the world.

In his personal character and morality Sir Syed was flawless, fully civilized, well spoken, acutely conscious of the old scholarly traditions and fully capable of using them to his ends. He was hard working to the point of self torment, exceptionally courageous, a friend of friends, confident of the validity of his own world-view, possessing deep commitment to the colonialism and his nation at the same time, fully cognizant of the historical cross roads of his era, a true heir to the religious and social traditions of his ancestors and equally convinced of their worthlessness in the modern times. He had the capability and wherewithal to “manipulate” Islam for his needs. If one day we sit down to decide the two greatest personalities born to the Muslims of India, one of them will be Sir Syed hands down. In practical details there is no room for doubt in the greatness of Sir Syed. Calling the durability of his work a mere accident or putting it down to British power is unjustified. Our civilization is the work of a powerless but great statesman engulfed in a mighty and hostile power.

The Great Achievement of Sir Syed:

The public life of Sir Syed is full of prominent tasks but his most excellent accomplishment was to lay down the foundations of a new civilization. Sir Syed does not represent a civilizational continuum rather the herald of a great rupture in both history and ideology.

This neo-civilization is neither Islamic in traditional sense nor purely European modernist. It has two main planks; a “modern Islam” articulated by Sir Syed and “colonial modernism”. It is imperative for us to elaborate further on both these terms because post-Sir Syed the prevailing identity of Religious thought is modernist Islam and we are the products of colonial modernism in its entirety. Our individual lives, our thoughts and education, our national politics, economy and collective identity are derived from this neo-civilization. The history and framework of both ‘modern Islam’ and ‘colonial modernism’ is Colonialism reincarnate. Instead of being the organic products of our traditional civilization, both basic elements of our current civilization are completely created and given life by colonialism. Therefore, they cannot be understood in a reductive and cloistered frame of reference that lacks the ability to discuss colonialism as a civilization.

In simple words, this is not a fight between “Sir Syed” and “Ulema” as it has been framed to this day. This is a problem arising from the civilizational and ideological interaction between a dominant and vanquished civilization. It is important to note that the process of colonization occurred on similar lines in the subcontinent as elsewhere with one difference. The difference was the centrality of religion and its exceptional role in the process of colonization i.e. in our case religion was a powerful mediator of colonization. (Therefore, the process of decolonization must take a different route from other regions. Globally colonization was mainly limited to political and cultural spheres while as Muslims of subcontinent we need decolonization on existential level too. It must be an added factor to the other two. It is precisely why Akbar Ilah Abadi and Iqbal are essential for decolonization project. Our cultural and civilizational recovery cannot happen without decolonization at existential level.)

The true meaning of Sir Syed’s great achievement cannot be properly expressed as long as colonialism, modern Islam and decolonization are not discussed. Sir Syed did not derive his ideological views from scholarly tomes in some library. Being completely submerged in the political schema of Colonialism he did not possess an independent status. He was the purported magical wand in the hands of Empire with which it undertook the process of a new civilization created in its image. (Here colonialism and Empire mean both the historical incident and civilizational idea. It is unfortunate that we lack any clear and objective description of the history of colonialism and no valid concept of colonialism as a civilizational force.)

After our defeat in the War of Independence in 1857 Sir Syed appeared like a polar star on the newly minted political horizons and fixed our direction for coming centuries. During the war, he practically opposed Muslims and other Hindustani fighters and did everything in his power to break their resistance. If he committed some secret act, he did not keep it hidden for long because he was not a conspirator or a spy. His loyalty and devotion was ancestral, he merely chose a new Master. His many actions during the war would never have come to light, if he had not mentioned them with pride. He was completely indifferent to the cause of freedom -fighters. Why are they “rioting” (the term used by Sir Syed for the war), what are their aims? Local Muslims and Hindus are alive or dead? How British colonialists massacred them after the defeat? How Delhi turned into a slaughter-house? Who survived, who didn’t? Etc. He was completely consumed by his zeal to save British officers at all costs, to help the British military and its rulers in crushing the Resistance government and freedom fighters so that this “Fassa’d” (corruption in the earth) is stamped out.

Even in receiving “awards” and “luxuries” for these services, he was “kind” to the Empire. He could have become one of the richest men of the subcontinent if he so wished but we all know he died heartbroken and poor. Our factional approach of branding him a traitor, Naturalist, spy and a British stooge is meaningless and yet to this day this is how piteously we debate our civilizational problems. Sir Syed’s great feat was converting a fateful tragedy of Muslims into a historical cataclysm.

Due to his special status and family tradition he possessed a deeper historical consciousness of political Power and its tendencies. In 1857 Muslims of the subcontinent were left with no choices and history had become their fate. Sir Syed foresaw the certain victory of Colonial forces in ‘the Great Mutiny’ and the permanent establishment of the Empire. On the other hand he was aware of those budding Hindu reformist movements that held certain views about Muslims of India and were not willing to accept Muslims with their religious identity. In retrospect, we might surmise that if War of Independence had not broken out, Muslims might have lived in equal political and social footing with Hindus to some extent under the political subjugation of the British but the war precluded this scenario. After the defeat Muslims were destined to be slave and vassals of both British and Hindus simultaneously and their status would have been no less than Red Indians. Sir Syed created the choice to opt for single slavery to this dual slavery and certain annihilation.

Sir Syed could read the writing on the wall after the War concluded i.e. a severe retribution was coming for Muslims. They were to be held the sole perpetrators of the War. British were forced to reconcile with Hindus because it was simply impossible to treat them as Red Indians due to their overwhelming majority. In the ensuing ruthless game of Power there would be no space left for Muslims and gradually they would have slipped into the chasm of dual slavery. There was no choice left for Muslims to adopt unitary slavery of either Hindus or British rather their destiny was a combined enslavement and final civilizational demise.

It was Sir Syed’s genius that converted a fateful certainty into a historical choice with great perseverance and bravery. With a superhuman will he created the ‘possibility’ of a choice to enter into the unquestionable slavery of the British Empire. Sir Syed was not a romantic, he knew very well that his slight mistake could eliminate the non-existent choice of slavery for Muslims and condemn them to share the fate of Red Indians. He was well aware that ‘Europeans’ did not award even “slavery” to the vanquished Muslims in History. It was his firm belief that alongside unshakable loyalty a firm position against Resistance and freedom fighters must be articulated too. During the whole duration of War, he painstakingly accumulated proofs of his works against freedom fighters, to be used when the time was right. After studying about the events of those bloody times, it is not hard to conclude that Sir Syed did not accept the slavery of the British Raj because amidst the doom of mid nineteenth century, he did not have the good fortune to choose between accepting or rejecting slavery, With his ‘unwavering’ loyalty he ‘bought’ the choice for Indian Muslims to become slaves.

Sir Syed was a desperate man and the luxury of choice was not available to him. He had to work hard to produce an artificial political choice of real slavery and paid a great price in the bargain. To this day, we never felt the need to calculate the price he paid, because we live in the land of fiction and half-truths. If only we could remember the true meaning of defeat in the realm of Power or some trace of historical conscience was left in us than we might have wonder about such things.

When the War of Independence was raging in India, the genocide of Red Indians was underway in North America even though they were willing to accept every term of servitude. Such genocides were happening in many parts of the world. According to credible estimates, more than 10 million people were put to the sword in India once the War ended so that no doubt was left in those remaining about the savagery of the Raj. And yet on the flip side we had Sir Syed who far from mentioning this brutality of colonialism always called it a “Divine Mercy” and exhorted rest of the Muslims to believe the same. After all, there must be a reason why Sir Syed would not even hint at what was taking place right in front of his eyes. Because doing so would make his loyalty to the Raj suspect; the same loyalty he intended to use as a vehicle to further the Muslim agenda. He could ill afford anyone questioning his loyalty by any act or speech. The rare occasions when he does mentions the poor plight of Muslims, it is only to show it a logical result of their fickle attitude towards the benign British Empire.

Sir Syed possessed political acumen and deep historical consciousness. It was not hard for him to deduce from the conduct of colonial Military in Bengal what was about to befall rest of the Muslims once the War was over. His great feat was to make possible the non-existent slavery for his society. By ‘non-existent choice of slavery’ we mean ‘annihilation’ of Muslims on the pattern of Spain. Sir Syed alone convinced the British Raj to accept Muslims as its vassals. All we are trying to state is that after the inevitable defeat in the War of Independence Sir Syed created an existential space for Indian Muslims and paid the same price that downtrodden and vanquished nations have always paid in History. Our problem is precisely that we forgot it was the price he paid and to this day have considered this civilizational ransom as some prized ideology and want to keep living in History with it. (One of the most important fact that is often overlooked with regards to the War of Independence in 1857 is that at the end of any War or hostility it is a custom to sign the instrument of Surrender in the presence of representatives of both the winning and losing sides. But the triumph of Colonial forces was so complete that they refused to accept any representation of the losing side let alone sign a treat of surrender. And those who could claim to represent the losing side; History tells us how they were dealt with. To fulfill their political priorities and civilizational needs, colonialism awarded Sir Syed the honour to represent the losing side.)

Power dynamics are a natural part of societies. One group always struggles to achieve power and another group naturally resists this. It is basic Human intransigence .Another cause for resistance is ideologies, beliefs and cultural ideals that provide both justification and a sense of direction. They also provide necessary political and economic resources for the organization of this resistance. Sir Syed undertook the permanent destruction of both these potential foundations of resistance against colonialism in the Indian Muslims and was quite successful. To neutralize their human intransigence (Hamiyyat) it was necessary to transform the basic agency or ground-state of Muslims and to destroy the second would-be source of resistance their civilizational arrest or transmutation was required. The ‘pen’ of Sir Syed altered the Indian Muslims on Existential level and his ‘actions’ mutated their civilizational disposition hence forging a new identity for Muslims of the subcontinent. As mentioned earlier, a new civilization cannot be created without first producing a new man.

We can understand this concept by another example. In the early twentieth century, Kemal Ataturk saved Turks from Greek serfdom by showing great leadership qualities. After such historic victory the leader’s word becomes all important and drowns out all else. Because, Islam was linked with Caliphate, he eliminated and expelled both from State machinery with great animosity. The source of Ataturk’s power was the political prestige he accumulated after saving Turks from possible enslavement but he could not provide sound ideological basis to his secularizing political project. In the mid nineteenth century subcontinent, the source of Sir Syed’s authority was his historical ‘choice’ of slavery for Indian Muslims and he succeeded in providing a strong ‘ideological rationale’ for it. The effectiveness of his strategy means that Muslim polity was aware to some extent the enormity of his feat, without getting diverted into unnecessary debate, Ataturk’s achieved his great victory by alignment of historical events, Military acumen and leadership skills while Sir Syed had to grapple with a fatal destiny to snatch the choice to slavery out of it. Sir Syed’s project was grander than that of Ataturk, because kemalism could not last a full century while time has only perpetuated Sir Syed’s legacy. This historical durability can only be explained by his creation of a “new ideology”.

The question still remains that why ‘creating the choice of slavery’ is considered Sir Syed’s greatest achievement? The answer can only be reasonably understood in the context of nineteenth century’s Global Colonialism. In many ways, subcontinent of 1857 was a bigger disaster than Spain and yet Indian Muslims were not completely wiped out. There are many reasons for this but the most important one is Sir Syed and his creation of “modern Islam” which put the Murderer on the pedestal of a Messiah and enshrined it as its core belief. The trilateral political situation of India was more dangerous than the bilateral confrontation in Hispania. Colonial forces employed genocides of conquered nations as state policy even though none of those nations waged a War on the scale of Indian War of 1857. Colonial project met with resistance in all parts of the world even though in many places it was in the form of sporadic and passive acts of violence. It is not hard to deduce that after their defeat in the National resistance of 1857, Muslim annihilation from the subcontinent was all but certain. We have no clue as to whether Sir Syed was cognizant of the global pattern of imperialist policies, but a man of his political stature could surely tell which way the wind was blowing. Therefore, it was not very surprising that he closed his eyes from every barbaric act of colonial Masters. He would only see what was good and advised his followers to do the same. After the War, Sir Syed’s thinking was purely survivalist and it is useless to expect ‘sanity’ or sense of balance from such a person. In the face of impending doom civilization does not prosper, it undergoes dissolution.

We, as a nation, always shy away from discussing the events of 1857 in a historical and civilizational point of view but after the bloody arrival of new millennium, these questions cannot be brushed under the carpet anymore. Sir Syed’s great achievement and his religious interpretations always evoke visceral reactions. In every debate surrounding him, two questions arise, which if not addressed render the whole argument meaningless. Both these questions are not scholastic rather accusatory and self-fulfilling. Firstly, “Can we doubt Sir Syed’s Intentions?” and secondly, “Did Sir Syed have another option?” The purpose of both these questions is to not allow the debate on Sir Syed to emerge from the permanent state of denial. We will try answering both questions to our limits. The first question has already been answered earlier but needs further elaboration. It is mainly raised because of the sheer impossibility to defend his work on ideological and religious grounds but it might be justified in the guise of “good intentions”.

First of all, what do we really mean by his Intention (Niyyet). One aspect of his intention is selfless loyalty to the well being of Indian Muslims visible through his works; no one doubts it. But there is another aspect of his intention, that of unconditional self-immolating devotion to the Colonial project in India, again plainly visible through his works. No one doubts this aspect either. This ‘intention’ is very complex and quite different from the intention that arises in our inner elf prior to any religious action. In other words, Sir Syed’s intention has deep religious and civilizational connotations. We all know the close relationship between Belief (Aqidah) and Intentions (Niyyet). Conscious expression of Aqidah in the inner self and the will to make it the source of action is termed Niyyet or Intention. Before undertaking the civilizational process, Sir Syed must have some Niyyet or intention but Historical records are silent on this matter.

It is not reasonable to confuse the intentions of civilizational actions, with the Intentions based on Belief that make the foundation stone of the actions coming under the remit of Islamic Sharia. After this explanation, we can safely state that the complex Niyyet of Sir Syed was not viable alongside the Islamic Tradition; therefore he needed a new Belief system to accommodate it. Sir Syed’s Intentions were likely noble and quite unique. He created a new Belief system to accommodate them i.e. his noble intent was so potent that he had to envisage a whole new Belief for it. In our religious Tradition ‘Intention’ was subordinate to Belief (Aqidah) but in the case of Sir Syed, Belief had become subservient to his intentions. This is a completely modernist phenomenon and the idea of changing beliefs with changing historical conditions stems from it that is as soon as a new intention is burrowed, Belief is modified accordingly to fulfill that aim.

Sir Syed was a great statesman; he created a Niyyet which in his thinking would have benefited Indian Muslims collectively. Nowadays, Intentions have become subservient to personal motives and our beliefs have become personalized too.

The second question was whether Sir Syed had other options? We have answered that too. He did not have any choice to begin with. He literally created the choice of slavery and that’s what we called his great achievement. A better question should have been whether Muslims could retain their human dignity and civilizational identity in the state of slavery? Here, Sir Syed actually had several options but he destroyed Muslim resistance to colonialism based on Human dignity and Religious beliefs. He renamed the term of “defeat” as “progress” and molded our individual and national consciousness on this foundation. Sir Syed erased all those signs from History and Muslim Self, which might have helped us in the rediscovery of ourselves as Humans and Muslims. Today, let alone the existential decolonization, Muslims of the subcontinent have not even attained the level of decolonization that the most oppressed nations of Africa and Latin America achieved a long time ago.

To be Continued.