Sir Syed Ahmed

Sir Syed Ahmed

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was an Indian Muslim pragmatist, philosopher, educator and Islamic reformist. He served the East India Company and became a judge at a Small Causes Court. He was a British loyalist but didn’t hesitate to criticise British policies, which he believed spurred the Indian Rebellion of 1857, in his 1859 booklet ‘Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind’ (‘The Causes of the Indian Mutiny’). A progressive thinker, Sir Syed worked diligently towards social and educational upliftment of Muslims and attacked the rigidity and orthodoxy among Muslims. He backed Western–style scientific education and established modern schools and the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College in such pursuit. He also advised Indian Muslims to adopt Urdu as the lingua franca. An Indian National Congress critic, he influenced prominent Muslim leaders like Muhammad Ali Jinnah and first named Jinnah’s theory of a separate nation as “Two Nation theory.” He was also a reputed scholar and left an indelible mark with his writings.

Early Life

Syed Ahmad Khan was born on October 17, 1817, in Delhi, Mughal Empire, to Syed Muttaqi Muhammad bin Hadi Khan and Aziz-un-Nisa. Descendants of Muhammad, his family relocated to the Indian subcontinent during the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar–I. Many of his family members had served several administrative positions in the Mughal Empire. Those included his maternal grandfather Khwaja Fariduddin, his paternal grandfather Syed Hadi Jawwad bin Imaduddin and his father. The latter served as personal adviser of Emperor Akbar–II. However, by the time he was born, power and extent of the Mughal Empire diminished considerably and Emperor Akbar–II became a mere figurehead.

He was exposed to politics at an early age and learned to read and comprehend the Qur’an under the tutelage of a female teacher. He took training in Urdu, Arabic, Persian and traditional Islamic studies under the guidance of Lord Wellesley, and mastered subjects like Islamic jurisprudence, astronomy and mathematics from other teachers. He also excelled in several sports, including wrestling and swimming and participated in cultural activities at the Mughal court.

He began to study medicine but left it midway. Following his father’s death in 1838, he inherited titles of his grandfather and father while Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar awarded him the title of Arif Jung. He left formal education due to financial hardships and started working as an editor in his brother Syed Muhammad bin Muttaqi Khan’s journal ‘Sayyad-ul-Akbar’ while politely turning down offers to serve the Mughal court.


He started serving the East India Company in 1838 at the courts of law in Agra as a Serestadar (lit. Clerk). He was elevated to a munshi in 1840 and then promoted to a high ranking position in 1858 at the Muradabad court. While working at the courts he got exposed to British colonial politics. He was serving the Bijnor court as the chief assessment officer when a major uprising in India, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, began on May 10, 1857. He lost many relatives during the rebellion but managed to rescue his mother who, however, died in Meerut.

A Muslim Reformer

He strongly resisted the existing superstitions, evil practices and ignorance among the Muslim society in India and was aware and concerned of the gradually declining Muslim political power in the country. He believed that the rigidity of the orthodox beliefs would pose a threat to their future. Passion for education led him to go through different subjects in the 1850s. These included European jurisprudence as well. He gradually realised the advantages of Western–style scientific education and the way it can help in the progress of the Muslim community and started promoting it.

In 1859, he founded the Gulshan School, a modern madrassa in Muradabad which emerged among the first religious schools that included scientific education. In 1863, he set up another modern school the ‘Victoria School’ in Ghazipur. He also supported strong interfaith relations between Islam and Christianity.

Meanwhile, he formed a ‘Translation Society’ in 1862 that translated scientific books of European languages including English into Hindi and Urdu. After he was transferred to Aligarh in 1864, the society eventually developed into the ‘Scientific Society of Aligarh.’ Its objective was to promote modern education and Western scientific knowledge among Indian Muslims. He also published writings that advocated for progressive and logical elucidation of Islamic scriptures, but after strong opposition from religious Muslims, who called him a kafir (disbeliever), Syed restrained from writing on religious subjects and turned his focus towards education.

He became one of the noted advocates of Urdu language following the Hindi-Urdu controversy of 1867. He promoted adoption of Urdu as the lingua franca of the United Provinces (presently Uttar Pradesh) and was against making Hindi as a second official language of the United Provinces. He promoted Urdu language in his writings as well. He became part of a controversy garnering animosity from Hindu leaders across India after making remarks before the British-appointed education commission that “Urdu was the language of gentry and Hindi that of the vulgar.”

Accompanied by his son Syed Mahmood, Sir Syed went to England on April 1, 1869, where the British government awarded him the Order of the Star of India on August 6. During his England trip, he visited several colleges and was impressed by the learning culture developed following the Renaissance. He then resolved to build a “Muslim Cambridge.” On December 24, 1870, he started a journal Tahzib-al-Akhlaq (Social Reformer) that aimed at promoting reforms and creating awareness on modern subjects among the Muslim community. He established the first Muslim university in South Asia, the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College on May 24, 1875. Initially affiliated to the University of Calcutta, the college became affiliated to the Allahabad University in 1885, and later evolved into the Aligarh Muslim University in 1920.


A scholar in his own right, he came up with several literary and scholarly works on varied subjects. Some of his works include legal works like Act No. 10 (1862, Stamp Act); religious works like Tafsir-ul-Qura’n (Between 1880 – 1904); historical works like an illustrated edition of Abul Fazl’s Ai’n-e Akbari (1855); political works like Sarkashi Zilla Binjor, Agra 1858; and biographical works like Sirat-i-Faridiya, Agra, 1896.

Interestingly, when Sir Syed approached the legendary Urdu and Persian-language poet Mirza Ghalib, regarded as the last great poet of the Mughal era, to write a taqriz in his illustrated edition of Abul Fazl’s Ai’n-e Akbari, the latter wrote a small Persian poem criticising the 16th-century document that recorded the administration of the empire of Akbar. Ghalib also reprimanded Sir Syed for spending his time on dead things while lauding the “sahibs of England” who were actually in control of all the a’ins of his motherland. Following such incident Sir Syed not only refrained himself from praising the Ai’n-e Akbari in his writings but also showed less interest in archaeology and history.

Political Career & the Muslim League

He established the Muhammadan Association in 1878 to foster political co-operation amongst the Muslim community across India. The same year he was nominated to the Viceroy’s Legislative Council. He established the Muhammadan Civil Service Fund Association in 1883 to back entry of Muslim graduates into the Indian Civil Service (ICS).He founded the All India Muhammadan Educational Conference in Aligarh in 1886, an organization that promoted liberal and modern education for Indian Muslims. In the course of time he evolved as a leading Muslim politician of the 19th century in India who influenced the likes of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Allama Iqbal. A resolution was adopted later during the December 30, 1906, political session of the All India Muhammadan Educational Conference held at Dacca, British raj (presently Dhaka, Bangladesh) to form an All India Muslim League (AIML) political party. With time, AIML played a key role in the demand for a separate Muslim-majority nation, Pakistan, leading to the partition of India by the British in 1947.

Role in Freedom Movement & the Partition of India

Concerned about the future of Muslim community and its hostility with the British that was gradually posing a threat the community, Sir Syed resolved to work in uplifting the Muslims. In this endeavour he advocated for and made efforts in bolstering co-operation between the Indian Muslim community and the British authorities and encouraged the former to remain loyal to the British Empire. In 1887, Lord Dufferin nominated him as a member of the Civil Service Commission. A loyalist of the British Empire, Sir Syed founded the political organization United Patriotic Association at Aligarh along with Raja Shiv Prasad Singh of Benaras in 1888 to develop political ties between Indian Muslims and the British Empire. His loyalty towards the British crown led him to be knighted that year and was also awarded Knight Commander of the order of Star of India (KCSI). He received an LL.D. honoris causa from the Edinburgh University in 1889.

He once raised the question that who would rule India – the Muslims or the Hindus – in case the British leave India with all its weapons and canons. He believed that in such case two nations, that is, the Mohammedans and the Hindus cannot occupy the same throne and maintain equal power. According to him, the perspective that both will remain equal is not conceivable and it is necessary that one nation should conquer the other for peace to prevail in the land.

Death & Legacy

Syed Ahmed Khan died on March 27, 1898. He was interred within the Aligarh university campus beside Sir Syed Masjid. He left a rich legacy behind him. Notable alumni of the Aligarh Muslim University included the former President of India Dr. Zakir Hussain, first two Prime Ministers of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan and Khawaja Nazimuddin, and prominent political leaders like Maulvi Abdul Haq and Mohammad Ali Jouhar.

The India Post issued a commemorative postage stamp on October 17, 1973, on his 156th birth anniversary. A commemorative postage stamp was also issued by the Pakistan Postal Services in 1990 in its ‘Pioneers of Freedom’ series in his honour.


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