Family and Social Milieu Born in the twilight of the Mughal Era in the Indian subcontinent to a distinguished family, Sayyid Ahmad Khan is the eldest of the five prominent Muslim modernists whose influence on Islamic thought and polity was to shape and define Muslim responses to modernism in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Like the four--Sayyid Amîr Alî (1849-1928), Jamâl al-Dîn al-Afghânî (1838-1897), Nâmik Kemâl (1840-1888) and Shaykh Muhammad Abduh (ca.1850-1905)--Sayyid Ahmad Khan was deeply concerned with the state of Muslims in a world dominated by European colonizing powers.
Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s forefathers claimed direct blood relationship with the Prophet of Islam through his daughter Fâtimah and son-in-law Alî. They had migrated to Iran, then to Herat in Afghanistan and finally to Shahjahân Abâd, which the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahân had built in 1648 near old Delhi. Ahmad Khan’s father, Sayyid Muhammad Muttaqî, and mother, Aziz al-Nisa, were both endowed with great intellectual and spiritual qualities. Aziz al-Nisa was the oldest daughter of Khwajah Farîd al-Din Ahmad (1747-1828) whose family had originally migrated to Kashmir from Hamadan in Iran. Khwajah Abd al-Azîz, the grandfather of Khwajah Farid, finally settled in Delhi where the future father-in-law of Ahmad Khan was born in 1747. The Khwajah family was a family of merchants while the Sayyid family belonged to the Mughal aristocracy. The great grandfather of Sayyid Muttaqi was a commanding office in Emperor Aurangzeb’s (1658-1707) army. Emperor Alamgîr II (1754-1759) had bestowed the title of Jawâd Ali Khan and the rank ofyak-hazari (commander of one thousand) on Sayyid Hadî, the father of Sayyid Muttaqî.
Ahmad Khan’s father, Sayyid Muttaqî, was mystically inclined and frequently visited the monastery of Shah Ghulam Ali. His income was derived from the agricultural land and the pension granted by the Mughal Court which, in those uncertain times, was rather irregular and much less than the promised amount. By the time of his marriage, Sayyid Muttaqî’s lofty ancestral house near Jamia Masjid in the prestigious northeast section of Delhi had become unsafe and unfit. He lacked the will and resources to restore it and after his marriage to Aziz al-Nisa, he moved in with his father-in-law who lived in a palatial mansion built by the famous architect Mehdi Qulî Khan.
It was in this palatialhaveli (mansion) ¾ known as Haveli Mehdi Quli Khan ¾ that Sayyid Ahmad Khan was born on October 17, 1817. He was the third child of his parents. Two years before the birth of Ahmad Khan, his maternal grandfather, Khwajah Farîd, had been appointed the Prime Minister of Emperor Akbar Shah with the high sounding titles ofDabîr al-Mulk, Amîn al-Daulah, Maslah Jang. This was the crowning achievement in a career which had taken Khwaja Farîd to various parts of the crumbling Mughal Empire which was quickly losing its power to the British India Company. In 1781, he had gone to Lucknow where he studied mathematics for three years with the famous scholar Allama Taffadal Husain Khan who was also amunshi (tutor-cum-clerk) first to General Palmer and then to W.W. Hunter. He returned to Delhi to spend the next thirteen years but he
was back in Lucknow in 1797 where he gained access to General Martin and other high-ranking British officials who recommended him to be the Superintendent of the Company’s newly established Calcutta Madressah (Maddressah Aliyâh).
In Calcutta, Khwajah Farîd impressed Lord Wellesley with his diplomatic skills and was sent by him to Iran in 1803 as an attaché of the British Embassy. Khwajah Farîd had a specific mission: he was to convince Emperor Fateh Ali Shah of Iran to send another ambassador to India in place of Ambassador Haji Muhammad Khalîl Khan who had been “accidentally” killed by the Company’s soldiers on July 20, 1802. Khwajah Farîd was able to accomplish his mission and Muhammad Nabî Khan of Shiraz was appointed as the new ambassador of Iran to India. The Company promoted Khwajah Farîd to the position of Political Officer at the Court of Ava in Burma. After a few month’s stay in Burma, Khwaja Farîd returned to Calcutta and was appointedTahsildâr (revenue officer) of the newly conquered territories in Bandiylkhand.
Once the British power was consolidated in that area, a permanent revenue officer was appointed and Khwajah Farid returned to Delhi in 1810, which had been conquered by Lord Lake in 1803. After a few months, he went back to Calcutta for about five years (1810-1815) before being appointed as the Prime Minister of the helpless Mughal Emperor Akbar II who drew his pension from the Company and who was under severe financial constraints. The Emperor expected Khwajah Farîd to obtain more money from the Company to pay his debts. Instead, Khwaja Farîd slashed the royal expenditures by reducing the allowances of the Salatîn, who numbered almost 3,000 and by abolishing the two royal kitchens that prepared lavish food for hundreds of court employees. This made him very unpopular in the Red Fort and eventually he resigned and left Delhi for Calcutta. The Emperor attempted to negotiate with the British for increase in his pension but realized that he could not do so without the intersession of the Company’s trusted and loyal friend, Khwajah Farîd. In 1819, the helpless Emperor re-appointed seventy-two-year old Khwajah Farîd as his prime minister. He remained in that position for three years but when his authority was curtailed by the Emperor by associating Nawab Mîr Khan, Raja Kaydar Nath and Raja Sukh Ray with him as co-ministers, Khwajah Farîd resigned from his premiership in 1822. Six years later, he died; at his death, Sayyid Ahmad Khan was eleven and his grandfather had already become the most important influence in his life.
The second most important influence on the life of young Sayyid Ahmad Khan was that of his mother, who is described as an exceptional woman. Her generosity and piety were legendary. When her eldest son died at the age of 38, she “unrolled her prayer carpet and exclaimed: God’s Will was done.” [^1] She also urged her relative not to postpone the marriage plans of her daughter because of this death in the family. She maintained several helpless and indigent old ladies in specially built quarters adjoining her house and spent a great deal of money in charity.
In the Indian subcontinent Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) and his followers were the first champions of this reform agenda. Born in the
twilight of the Indian Tîmûrî era to a distinguished family, Sayyid Ahmad Khan was involved in a wide range of activities—from politics to education. He was to leave a deep mark on the new Islam and science discourse through his writings and by influencing at least two generations of Muslims who studied at the educational institutions he founded.[^2]