Sir Syed was allergic to Muslims venturing into politics. He wanted them to be on the right side of the British rulers
Astudy of the 18th and 19th Centuries is crucial to making sense of the process of decline of Muslim civilisation, manifesting in various empires and making them vulnerable to the emerging power of the Western nations.
The process of decline was slow but steady. Muslims had faced partial decline in the form of an empire having been obliterated and loss of territorial control. The Muslim civilisation had shifted its locus of manifestation from Damascus to Baghdad to Cordoba to Constantinople and then to Delhi.
It can be argued with a measure of certainty that until the 18th Century, the medieval structure of the Muslim administration had survived obdurately. The reformers emerging during that century emphasised the ‘revival’ of Muslim civilisation.
The conceptualisation of the ‘revival’ was attempted through the translation of the foundational texts of Islam. Shah Walliullah translated the holy Quran and Mu’atta Imam Malik; Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab wrote a book, Kitab ut Tawhid in which he presented the literal version of religion.
The religion was ahistoricised because the pristinehood of any idea, be it religious or otherwise, can only be thought about by sequestering it from history. The central locus of the Islamic idea was the Arabian peninsula. Islam was geographically confined, and a de-historicised pack of dogmas and rituals based on taqlid (or imitation). The supremacy of shariah was thought to be the most efficacious panacea to stem and then reverse the process of decline.
However, these efforts by the reformers did not come to fruition and the process of decline continued. The reformers’ bid to bring about a ‘revival’ of pristine Islam did not yield the intended result. What it did achieve was a ‘ritualisation’ of religion, robbing it of its intellectual content by reinforcing taqlid.
Taqlid made religion extraordinarily rigid and inflexible. Any measure suggested to affect change was condemned as bid’ah heresy (or deviation). One may conclude that an intellectual stasis presaged the political decline largely because of the endeavours of the 18th Century reformers.
At least in northern India, the practical realisation of all such attempts aiming at the revivalism was relentlessly muzzled. Therefore, the situation in India called for a new strategy. Epistemologically, Muslim civilisation was substituted with Muslim nationhood. This came about when the 19th Century was well under way.
As the 18th Century ended, political decline was a foregone conclusion. All dissenting powers had been defeated one by one. For the first time, Muslims had no space left to call their own and exercise suzerainty over. At best, they retained a few principalities.
By the turn of the 19th Century, medieval institutional structures had been obdurately eroded. Therefore, the idea of emphasizing ‘revival’ was thought inadequate to stem the downward spiral plaguing Muslims of the subcontinent and beyond. In the words of Arnold Toynbee, the “creative minority” spearheading Muslims needed something far more drastic to infuse a new lease of life in the enfeebled body politic. Did they rise to the occasion? This is the question addressed in the rest of the column.
The 19th Century called for a synthesis of the ‘decadent’ Muslim structures, both cultural as well as political, and the ‘ascendant’ curve representing the Western dispensation. Simply put, Muslim culture, social ethos and epistemology had to be re-evaluated in the light of standards set recently by the West.
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) was the most prominent among such reformers along with Maulvi Chiragh Ali and Syed Amir Ali, to name a few. For Sir Syed, the yardstick for validity had to come from the West. Thus, he strived to ‘re-invent’ the Muslim elan vital in north India. He can therefore be called the father of Muslim modernism in India.
In contend that Sir Syed treaded the modernist path but did not go the whole hog. He wielded the modernist influence selectively. He did not turn his back on the Muslim tradition. In the realm of the ‘social’ he observed conservative values. That was the reason he did not subscribed to the idea of educating women folks. He castigated the efforts of Maulvi Mumtaz Ali to inculcate enlightenment among Muslim women. He consigned the manuscript of Haquq-i-Niswan, a journal brought out by Maulvi Mumtaz Ali to underline some feminist themes, to the dustbin in sheer indignation. “Mumtaz Ali, the British grabbed power from us, now you want our women to be snatched away from the Muslims of India”, was what Sir Syed said.
His ‘selective’ modernism was only for the consumption of the Muslim elite. He was thoroughly convinced that only Muslim nobility could deliver its co-religionists from the state of subjection they had been brought under. Once a few people from Bareilly invited Sir Syed Ahmad Khan to inaugurate a school meant to educate the commoners. In the welcome address, the chief organiser mentioned that English would also be taught in the school along with other subjects, Sir Syed did not appreciate the effort.
Teaching English to ordinary folks would not do any good, was his exhortation to the members of the management of that school. Modernism was also unrealisable without the ‘political’. Sir Syed was allergic to Muslims venturing into politics. He wanted them to be on the right side of the British rulers. Thus, the social dimension of the Muslims was informed by tradition and politics was a taboo. The modernity Sir Syed Ahmad Khan subscribed to, could be described as an ‘arrested modernity’.
That is what distinguished him from Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who professed modernity among his followers, Bhadra lok (Bengali middle class) and advised them to fully embrace Western liberal tradition. In the next column, we will continue with the theme. It is vital to understand the socio-political context in which Sir Syed grew up and the influences he imbibed in the first half of the 19th Century. The way Sir Syed Ahmad Khan interpreted the foundational texts would form a central postulate for the next write-up.