Sir Syed Ahmad Khan : A Modern Man of Liberal and Scientific Thinking

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan : A Modern Man of Liberal and Scientific Thinking

Sir Syed Origional photo

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan

Prof. Iftikhar Alam Khan, Aligarh

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, although a product of the medieval system of education and thinking, was a modern and liberal man with a rational outlook. A number of incidences from his daily life give ample proof for the same. He had faith in the modern day financing system and despite radical criticism, actively used modern banking for financial transactions. He use to purchase promissory notes and justified the interest gained thereof. It is known that he had once organized a lottery towards collection of funds for the college. This was labeled as an act of gambling by the bigotry of his times. He was well in tune with both dance and music. His maternal uncle, the Dabeer-ul-dualla, Khwaja Zainul Abdeen Khan was known for his love for music. Sir Syed had in detail described the gatherings of Bee Junna, a singer of Dhurpad and Khayal. It was in these gatherings that maestros of music presented their performances (1). Sir Syed had no objection in being photographed, portrayed or sketched. This too was a matter of great criticism from his peer group. Wife of Sir ohn Strachey, who was an artist of some repute, had painted an oil portray of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. This is obvious from a letter by Mr. Theodore Beck (dated in 1887) which mentions that Syed Ahmad Khan use to visit Allahabad for sittings for the said portrait (2).

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s interest in western style of archaeology is obvious from the times of Asar ul Sanadeed, a book which was written by him. This interest was a life long passion and resulted in the voluminous archaeological collections in the Scientific Society which is now available with the archaeological section of the History department of the Aligarh Muslim University. He even had no objection in installing a statue of Sir William Muir within the campus of the MAO College. For this he had a resolution passed within the college fund committee meeting dated July 6, 1875. Although this resolution was not implemented, keeping in mind the negative and conservative reaction of the general muslim community of his times (3).

Sir Syed was himself a qualified Tibb physician of Yunani medicine and was for some time busy in popularizing homeopathic practice within the country. Having said that, he was a strong protagonist of modern medicine. He was in favor of following a healthy life style and giving up conventional, unhygienic, unscientific traditions and customs. He
emphasized clean clothing, nutritious food and a hygienic mannerism. Common men of his times had a general apathy towards western culture and life style. Sir Syed always condemned this unjustified attitude of his peer group. He said, “If we hate the culture and life style of different societies, however pristine they may be, because of sheer prejudice or because of age-old traditions, then what vision and hope do we have for our own development and progress?” (4)

He himself wore western dresses, adapted western mannerism and table etiquettes like the use of a fork and knife. In this regard he had said, “In all honesty we should accept that eating with a fork and knife is more hygienic and descent than having food by hand.”(5)

On the religious front, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was a critic of blind traditionalism. He supported the change of religious beliefs with changing times. In his essay entitled, “Time and Religion”, he writes, “Just as times change thought, lifestyle, and civilization; beliefs and religions too are influenced by changing times.” He added, “There was a time of faith and people believed in anything however irrational it may seem. This was the period of faith (yaqeen). But the present time is the time of suspect (shak). Truth needs proof”. (6)

He had an open mind towards religious beliefs. He believed that just like civilization changes with time, religious beliefs are also governed by changing times. In this regard he has written, “Just like ancient and modern philosophies have changed, religious thoughts and faiths have also changed with time. Ancient religious rules teach us that
man is meant for religion; modern rule being that religion is meant for man. Old rule tells us to find god blindly within the darkness of a night. Modern rule teaches us to search for god with open eyes, in light of ones vibrant environment”. (7)

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was in a strong denial of superstitions particularly miracles, magic and mystic. He had said, “There is nothing more damaging than a belief on superstitions like miracles and magic for the human mind and for the very existence of humanity”. (8) He denied and was against pan-islamism. The concept of Khalipha and Khilafat was
outdated for him. In his article entitled, “Imam aur Immamat”, he had clarified, “a present day analysis clearly shows that no one is worth the title of Imam and also no one, not even a head of state, is worth being entitled to be called a khalifa of the prophet. Although muslims governing an area can aptly call their monarch as sultan (king) of that
country, and in fact they are actually sultans, what so ever they may call themselves.” (9). He denied any contradiction between religion and science. He said, “Religion is the word of god and our surroundings are the work of god. An explanation of the existence of work of god is science. No contradiction is possible between science and religion as word of god cannot be in opposition of work of god. If a contradiction between religion and science exists in a mind, then it indicates cloudy thinking and therefore one should try to clear his thinking”. (10)

He was a strong supporter of religious understanding. He always emphasized the importance of religious tolerance. In this regard he has said, “In reality denouncing religious heads of other sects is actually denouncing the religious heads of ones own religion”. (11)

Sir Syed had a scientific and rational attitude. He worked to the best of his capability to be aware of the contemporary scientific thinking and knowledge. His contemporary scientific knowledge is well demonstrated in his urdu writings on the subject. He wrote a detailed essay on the solar system entitled, “Duniya kab bani aur kitni muddat mein”. The essay is a commentary on the prevailing theories on the subject. (12).

One of his articles entitled, “Naqsh-e tehqiqat-ul arz, hasbe ilme geology”, shows his grasp on the modern view of geology. It is a detailed manuscript with objective reasoning. The article deals with different stages of animal evolution, with different eras of evolution (namely Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic) and their sub-classification. The
article has a broad view of the animal and plant life of these geological eras. A paragraph from the said manuscript clearly explains this:

“In this era there were three periods, Devonioun, Carboniferous and Permian. During this phase fern vegetations and fishes were in ample. Third era was called Trisic. It had reptiles, flowering plants, Placeocerous, Ethiocerous and monstrous aquatic animals. Land animals like dinosaurus were found in the plains.” (13).

In the same article he has written about the human evolution. He writes, “Earliest existence of man in its primary form, is found in the tertiary period. Evidence of developed human form dates back to 2.5 lakh years. It is here that man made tools of stone and bone are also found.” (14)

In 1869-70 Syed Ahmad Khan was in England. Charles Darwin, who was alive at this time, had written the Origin of Species. The book was a focus of extensive debate.Fundamentalists, mainly from the English Clergy, were at the fore front of criticizing and ridiculing Darwin’s work. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had shown his interest in this on going
debate. As a result, he published a detailed urdu article entitled, “Adna halat se alla halat par insane ki taraqee”. He wrote on the origin and evolution of man. He negated the religious theories of evolution namely the Divine Theory and Theory of Spontaneous Creation. He had written, “I do not claim that all plants and animals, along with their
different species and sub species, were created together at one time. In fact we are unaware of the time frame in which these plants and animals came into being. We are compelled to accept the fact that in this process some came first followed by the others and so forth”.

This writing of Sir Syed clearly points towards his open mindedness for accepting scientific knowledge of his times without any religious prejudices. It shows that he had no hesitation in accepting rational thinking if the same has stood the test of reasoning. In the end, I would like to conclude that in view of increasing fundamentalism and
violence in our times, the value of people like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan cannot be over emphasized. His writings and thinking can show us the path even in this age and times. A reformer with religious tolerance, liberalism and broad mindedness like Sir Syed is the order of the day, but in the words of Iqbal, “barhi mushkil se hota hai chaman mein
dedawar paida”.

Muslim University Ki Kahani 388

1. Seerat-e-Fareedia by Syed Ahmad Khan. Edited by Mohd. Ahmad Barkati. Pak Academy ,1964, Pg 130
2. Letter from Mr. Theodore Beck addressed to Syed Ahmad Khan. 1886. Archives Sir Syed Academy, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.
3. Sir Syed’s letter to Sir William Muir, dated May 6, 1875. Archives Sir Syed Academy, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.
4. Rasmo Revaj ki pabundi k nukhsanat, Maqalaat-e-Sir Syed. Part 5. Edited by Mohd. Ismail Panipati. Majlees-e-taraqee-e-Adab, Lahore. Page 31.
5. Tareeq-e-Zindagi by Syed Ahmad Khan. Tehzeebul Akhlaq. 13 jamadi-ul-sahni, 1288 Hijri, Maulana Azad Library, AMU, Aligarh. Page 39
6. Zamane ka Asar Mazhab par, by Syed Ahmad Khan. Tehzeebul Akhlaq, Yakum Shewal 1311 Hijri. Maulana Azad Library, AMU, Aligarh. Page 14.
7. Mazhabi khayal (zamane khadeem aur zamane jadeed ka). Maqalat-e-Sir Syed. Part 3, Edited by Mohd. Ismail Panipati. Majlees-e-taraqee-e-Adab, Lahore, 1961. Page 23.
8. Karamat aur Mojeeza by Syed Ahmad Khan. Tehzeebul Akhlaq, 1296 Hijri. Pages 30-33.
9. Imam aur Imamat. Maqalat-e-Sir Syed. Part 1, Edited by Mohd. Ismail Panipati. Majlees-e-taraqe-e-Adab, Lahore, 1962. Page 170.
10. Quran Majeed ki tafseer. Maqalat-e-Sir Syed. Part 2, Reply to the letter of Mohsin ul Mulk by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Page 56.
11. Ghair mazhab ke peshwaon ka hum ko adab karna chahiye by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Maqalat-e-Sir Syed. Edited by Mohd. Ismail Panipati. Majlees-e-taraqe-e- Adab, Lahore, 1962. Page 184.
12. Duniya kab bani aur kitni muddat mein, by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Maqalat-e-Sir Syed. Part 4, Edited by Mohd. Ismail Panipati. Majlees-e-taraqe-e-Adab, Lahore, 1962. Page 12.
13. Naqsha-e-tehqiqat-e-tabqatul araz, husbe ilme geology, by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Maqalat-e-Sir Syed. Part 4, Edited by Mohd. Ismail Panipati. Majlees-etaraqe- e-Adab, Lahore, 1962. Page 12.
14. Naqsha-e-tehqiqat-e-tabqatul araz, husbe ilme geology, by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Maqalat-e-Sir Syed. Part 4, Edited by Mohd. Ismail Panipati. Majlees-etaraqe- e-Adab, Lahore, 1962. Page 14.
15. Adna halat se alla halat par insaan ki taraqee, by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan.Maqalat-e-Sir Syed. Part 4, Edited by Mohd. Ismail Panipati. Majlees-e-taraqe-e-Adab, Lahore, 1962. Page 4

Prof. Iftikhar Alam Khanhad served as a Professor at General Education Center, AMU Aligarh. He had also served as Director of Sir Syed Academy at AMU Aligarh from 1998 to 2002. To know more about Prof. Iftikhar Alam Khan and his work, please visit;

*The article and picture are a courtesy from

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