Shafey Kidwai’s revisionist reading Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: Reason, Religion and Nation does not try too hard to defend the man but it does save him from unfair criticism. It “seeks not to rephrase or eulogise Sir Syed’s intervention in education and socio-religious reforms, but it tries to tell how he crystallised the collective life of India.”
True to his claim, Kidwai dwells on Sir Syed’s role as an officer, administrator and legislator in improving the life of Indians. A discussion of Sir Syed’s admirable relief work during the famine in 1860, and his efforts to make the railways offer facilities of waiting rooms, shades and canteens for passengers put new light on the man. As a member of the Imperial Legislative Council, overcoming all opposition from conservative elements, he introduced the Small Vaccination Bill in 1882 and lent his voice to the idea of the codification of laws of the country.
His support for the Ilbert Bill which sought to allow Indian judges to hear criminal cases against British subjects was an article of faith for him. In fact, his role as a legislator was lauded by a deputation of the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj that met him in Lahore during his Punjab visit on 24 January, 1884. “It was my earnest and sincere desire that I should faithfully serve my country and my nation. By the word nation, I mean both the Hindus and Mohammedans,” he told the delegation.
A believer in cultural pluralism, he held that true religion teaches one not to disrespect the revered figures of other religions. He asked his coreligionists to desist from the practice of cow slaughter. When conversion to Christianity became an issue after the revolt of 1857, Sir Syed wondered if “encouraging conversion is compatible with religion.” He also wrote that the concept of jihad was not applicable in India. A scholar of Urdu and Persian, he was a great advocate of a language which could use common and easily understandable words and made no distinction between spoken Urdu and Hindi.
Not always very consistent in his political views, he maintained that reservation was not ultimately good for the progress of the Muslim community. However, influenced by John Stuart Mill, he believed that elections help the majority impose its will on the minority and instead preferred nominations. Kidwai reasons: “It is rather difficult to understand that the person who decries the demand for reservation in jobs, finds the provision for the nomination admissible and sustainable.”
His hostility towards the Indian National Congress softened after 1890 when his organization Mohammedan Educational Congress made it clear that “many think it is anti-Congress though it is not our aim.” Kidwai endorses Sir Syed scholar Iftikhar Alam Khan’s view that he would have joined the Indian National Congress if he had survived a few years more to see the rise of the nationalist movement.
Not an uncritical supporter of English culture, Sir Syed did not consider the handshake, an English custom, better than Indian customs of greeting, and found the Englishman “hasty in his temper, hasty in his words, hasty in his anger, hasty in conclusion.” He bemoaned the fact that despite being in India for more than a century, Europeans “cannot value, cannot appreciate native friendship.” However, Kidwai does bring out contradictions in his views when he quotes Sir Syed’s remark made in England when he held British etiquette and culture superior and appeared to endorse English people’s views of Indians as “no better than animals.”
His analysis of the causes of the revolt of 1857, where he did not strive “to safeguard the government’s cause” was a brave piece of writing. He has rightly been praised for his articulation of the exclusion of Indians in governance, his advocacy for their representation in the Imperial Legislative Council and his disapproval of the supercilious treatment of Indians by the British.
In his bilingual publication An Account of the Loyal Mohammedans of India, a precursor of The Aligarh Institute Gazette, he wrote against dogmatism, intolerance and rigidity. The Gazette, starting in 1866, was devoted to the idea of progress and change publishing articles on important subjects like functioning of parliament, new scientific discoveries and technological advancements. “Deeply touching tales of injustice, misery and exploitation frequently found space” in its pages. It took to task errant policemen, officers and judges, criticised the practice of flogging and sided with autonomous Indian states in cases of disputes between them and the government.
Another influential publication, Tahzibul Akhlaq, starting in 1870, tried to reform the morals and manners of people. It published articles on subjects like flattery, prerequisites of civilized behaviour, ancient and modern religious thought and education. Kidwai credits Sir Syed’s periodicals for “giving birth to public service journalism in India.”
Like many past icons, Sir Syed has also been subjected to scrutiny through a feminist lens and has been found wanting. He published articles on sati, widow remarriage, female infanticide, child marriage, women’s inheritance rights, dowry and divorce, but favoured “home based education with gender segregation”, which Kidwai dismisses as his male-centric percolation theory.
A rich source of new material on Sir Syed and a fresh interpretation of many of the known facts of his life, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: Reason, Religion and Nation, though lacking in rigorous copy editing, is a welcome addition to scholarship on Sir Syed and 19th century Indian society.
Mohammad Asim Siddiqui is Professor of English at Aligarh Muslim University.