Works and Ideas It was during the decade of 1860s, that Ahmad Khan developed his ideas of a “modern Islam” and a Muslim polity living under the British rule. During this time, he wroteTârîkh Sarkashî-e D il c a Bijnore ( A History of Insurrection in Bijnor District ) and Asbâb-e Baghâwat-e Hind ( The Causes of Indian Mutiny ). He sent 500 copies of the latter book to the India Office of the British Government in London and a personal copy to Lord Canning in Calcutta. The book was translated into English by Colonel Graham and Sir Auckland Colvin and published in Benares. In 1860-1861, he published another tract, Risâlah Khair Khawahân Musalmanân: An Account of the Loyal Mahomdans of India , in which he claimed that the Indian Muslims were the most loyal subjects of the British Raj because of their kindred disposition and because of the principles of their religion. He also wrote a commentary on the Old and the New Testament, Tabîyyan al-kalâm fî’l- tafsîr al-tawrâ wa’l-injîl c alâ millat al-islam ( The Mahomedan Commentary on the Bible ) . He attached a fatwâ (religious decree) by Jamâl ibn al- cAbd Allâh cUmar al- Hanfî, the Mufti of Makkah, at the end of the book. This fatwâ stated, “as long as some of the peculiar observances of Islam prevailed in [India], it is Dâr al-Islam (Land of Islam).” This was to counter the religious decrees that had been issued by many Indian culamâ’, stating that the Indian subcontinent had become a Dâr al- H arb, the land of war. This political overture was favorably received in the ruling circles.
The first two decades after 1857 witnessed Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s increasing preoccupation with the prevailing conditions of Muslims in India. He perceived Muslims as backward and in need of education. This period also saw an increasing degree of public involvement in educational and social arenas. On January 9, 1864, he convened the first meeting of the Scientific Society at Ghazipur. The meeting was attended, among others, by Ahmad Khan’s future biographer, Colonel Graham, who was convinced that India could benefit from England’s technological wealth. The Society was established with two clear objectives; two more objectives were added in 1867. Thus the goals of the Society were:
(i) to translate into such languages as may be in common use among the people those works on arts and sciences which, being in English or other European languages, are not intelligible to the natives; (ii) to search for and publish rare and valuable oriental works (no religious work will come under the notice of the Society); (iii) to publish, when the Society thinks it desirable, any [periodical] which may be calculated to improve the native mind; (iv) to have delivered in their meetings lectures on scientific or other useful subjects, illustrated when possible by scientific instruments.[^3]
Ahmad Khan and the Society moved to Aligarh in 1867 where he was able to procure a piece of land from the government for experimental farming. The Duke of Argyll, who was also the Secretary of State for India, became the Patron of the Society and Lt. Governor of the N.W. Province its Vice-Patron. Ahmad Khan was the secretary of the Society as well as member of the Directing Council and the Executive Council. In a memorandum of the Society to its President, Ahmad Khan wrote, in May 24, 1877, that for several years “the Society has cultivated wheat and barley according to the methods prescribed in Scot Burn’s book on modern farming and showed the results toTalukdars (estate holders) of Aligarh;
new instruments were used to cultivate corn by Burn’s methods; several vegetables were grown from newly developed European seeds and their seeds were distributed to farmers; the Society cultivated American cotton seeds, and demonstrated their superior product.” [^4]
Ahmad Khan now devoted all his energies and a portion of his personal income to the Society. He was also able to receive small sums from various Muslim and non-Muslim philanthropists. Ahmad Khan realized that the political realities of India dictated that Muslims should establish their own organizations. On May 10, 1866, he established The Aligarh British Indian Association. The inaugural session was held at the Aligarh office of the Scientific Society in the presence of a sizeable number of local landowners and a few European officers. The Association failed to achieve any degree of impact on the decisions of the government and, one after the other, its plans were aborted. Ahmad Khan wanted to establish a “vernacular university” for the N.W. Provinces but he was discouraged by the champions of Hindi who wanted such a university to teach in Hindi, rather than Urdu. In 1868, the Association announced assistance for persons traveling to Europe for educational and scientific purposes but at that time, most Muslims of northern India considered social contacts with Englishmen undesirable for their moral and religious integrity. Ahmad Khan had been elected an honorary Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London in 1864 and he decided to go to England himself to see the ways of the British in their homeland.
On April 1, 1869, Ahmad Khan, his two sons, Sayyid Hamid and Sayyid Mahmud, a younger friend, Mirza Khuda Dad Beg, and a servant known only by the affectionate name of Chachu left Benaras and arrived in London on May 4, 1869 after spending five days in Marseilles and Paris.[^5] To pay for his trip, Ahmad Khan had to mortgage his ancestral house in Delhi and borrow 10,000 rupees from a moneylender at 14 percent interest rate for the first 5,000 rupees and at 8 percent for the rest. He had also availed the opportunity created by the Government Resolution of the 30th June 1868, which had founded nine scholarships for the Indian Youth for their education in England and applied for a scholarship for his son, Sayyid Mahmud, who was then a student at the Calcutta University.[^6]
Ahmad Khan lived in rented houses in London. His seventeen-month stay (from May 4, 1869 to October 2, 1870) in England was full of social and literary activity as well as political activity. He was “in the society of lords and dukes at dinners and evening parties”, he saw “artisans and the common working-man in great numbers”, he was awarded the title of the Companion of the Star of India by none other than the Queen herself; this “elevated” him so that henceforth he would call himself Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan Bahadur, C.S.I.; he dined with the Secretary of State for India and though he was beset with economic problems, he fulfilled the protocol by hiring private horse carriages for his visits which drained his purse.[^7]
His visit to England convinced him of the superiority of the British. “Without flattering the English,” he wrote, “I can truly say that the natives of India, high and low, merchants and petty shopkeepers, educated and illiterate, when contrasted with the English in education, manners, and
uprightness, are like a dirty animal is to an able and handsome man.”[^8] Ahmad counted himself among the “animals” and felt the pain and anguish of being part of a degenerated culture.
While in England, Khan read William Muir’s biography of the Prophet Muhammad, which “burned his heart”, and its “bigotry and injustice cut his heart to pieces”. His outrage was both religious as well as personal; after all, Prophet Muhammad was his ancestor. He resolved to write a full-length biography of the Prophet as a refutation “even if its preparation would turn him into a pauper and a beggar for on the Day of Judgment, it would be said, ‘Bring forth the one who died penniless for the sake of his grandfather Muhammad!’”[^9] From the moment he started to read Muir’s book in August 1869, until he finished its refutation in February 1870, Ahmad Khan could do nothing but think about the rejoinder he wished to write. He wrote letters to friends in India, soliciting books, references and money for his rejoinder. Because his own English was inadequate, he had to hire an Englishman for polishing his draft which he wrote until his back ached. He also had to pay for the translation of Latin, German, and French material he used in his book. But when he finally published the refutation, it was merely A Series of Essays on the Life of Mohammad ; [^10] he hoped to write the second volume but he was exhausted and penniless.
After finishing the book, Ahmad Khan was eager to return to India. During his stay in England, he had visited universities of Oxford and Cambridge and certain private schools, including Eaton and Harrow; these would serve as models for his own Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College. Ahmad Khan returned home on October 2,1870.
After his return to India, Ahmad Khan started a periodicalTahdhîb al-Akhlâq to “educate and civilize” Indian Muslims. He remained in the judicial service until his early retirement in July 1876. After that, he settled in Aligarh where he established the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College in 1877. In 1920, the College would become Aligarh Muslim University, an institution that would have a decisive impact on the course of Islamic polity in India as well as on the history of India. In 1886, he instituted “The Muhammadan Educational Conference” which held annual meetings in various Indian cities.
In his drive for modernization, Ahmad Khan wanted to re-interpret Islam. “We need a modern cilm al-Kalâm,” he said in a speech delivered at Lahore in 1884, “by which we should either refute the doctrines of modern sciences or show that they are in conformity with the articles of Islamic faith.” But what became apparent in the subsequent writings was the fact that Ahmad Khan was not really interested (or qualified) to refute any modern scientific doctrine; all he could do was to re-interpret Islam to show that the “work of God (nature and its laws) was in conformity with the Word of God (the Qur’ân)”, an adage that earned him the title ofNaturî.
In his attempts to re-interpret Islam to accommodate modern Western science, Ahmad Khan exposed his weaknesses in both domains of knowledge. He was severely criticized by the culamâ’ for the lack of qualifications to interpret the Qur’ân and Hadîth and the shallowness of his knowledge of Western science and its philosophical underpinnings was
apparent from his own writings. He had no training in any natural science or in philosophy of science and he had never finished his traditional education. Yet, he tried to demythologize the Qur’ân and its teachings. His interpretation of various fundamental aspects of Islamic teachings which could not be proved by modern scientific methods, such as the nature of supplication(du‘â), which he thought was merely psychological rather than real, met fierce resistance from the traditional scholars but in spite of this, he gained widespread popularity among the ruling elite and in the early 1880s, he became the acknowledged leader of the Muslim community. He was loyal to the British Raj, but he fought various legal and constitutional battles with the British administrators in order to secure fundamental rights for the Muslim community. He was rewarded by the British in many ways. In 1878, he was nominated as a member of the Vice Regal Legislative Council; in 1888, he was knighted as the Knight Commander of the Star of India; in 1889, he received an honorary degree from the University of Edinburgh. In spite of his life-long interest in educational matters, Ahmad Khan did not produce any new theory of education; he was merely interested in promoting western education without reservation.
Like many other Muslim thinkers of the nineteenth century, Ahmad Khan was convinced that Muslims need to acquire Western science and he attempted to show that modern science is in perfect harmony with Islam. Not only that, he went as far as proclaiming that the Qur’ânic invitation to ponder and reflect on the perfect system of nature was, in fact, a call to Muslims to excel in science¾an argument that gained currency with time and is still used by many thinkers and rulers who want Muslims to acquire Western science.
Others who advocated similar ideas during the nineteenth century include Khayr al-Dîn al-Tunisî (d. 1889), Rifâcah al-Tathâwî (d. 1871), Jamâl al-Dîn al-Afghânî (d. 1897) and Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905). This trend also gave birth to modern scientific exegesis (tafsîr c ilmî ) of the Qur’ân. In 1880, an Egyptian physician, Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Iskandrânî, published one suchtafsîr [^11] in Cairo. This was followed by another work of the same kind, though not atafsîr .[^12] It is not clear whether Ahmad Khan knew about these publications or not. But in 1879, he wrote,
Now thatGhadar is over,[^13] and whatever had to pass for the Muslims has passed, I am worried about improvement of our nation. I pondered hard and after a long reflection came to the conclusion that it is not possible to improve their lot unless they attain modern knowledge and technologies that are a matter of honor for other nations in the language of those who, through the Will of Allâh, rule over us.[^14]
As an aid to his mission, Ahmad Khan decided to write atafsîr because in all previoustafsîr literature, he “could only find grammatical and lexicographical niceties, statements concerning the place and time of revelation and descriptions of previoustafâsîr .”[^15] In the preface to the first partial edition of his work, he wrote,
When I tried to educate Muslims in modern sciences and English, I wondered whether these are, in fact, against Islam as it is often claimed. I studiedtafsîr , according to my abilities, and except for the literary matters, found in them nothing but rubbish and worthless (fadûl ) discussions, mostly based on baseless and unauthentic traditions and fables (mamlu bar rawâyât
da cîf wa modû caur qasas bey saropa ) which were often taken from the Jewish sources. Then I studied books of the principles oftafsîr according to my ability with the hope that they would definitely provide clues to the principles of the Qur’ânic interpretation based on the Qur’ân itself or which would be otherwise so sound that no one could object to them but in them I found nothing but statements that the Qur’ân contains knowledge of such and such nature… Then I pondered over the Qur’ân itself to understand the foundational principles of its composition and as far as I could grasp, I found no contradiction between these principles and the modern knowledge… then I decided to write atafsîr of the Qur’ân which is now complete up toSuratul Nahl .”[^16]
Ahmad Khan’stafsîr was published as it was being written. The work began in 1879 and was left unfinished at the time of his death in 1898. Thistafsîr faced fierce resistance not only from culamâ but also from Ahmad Khan’s staunch admirers and friends. One of his friends, Nawâb Muhsin al-Mulk wrote to him two long letters expressing his anguish at Ahmad Khan’s radical interpretation of certain verses of the Qur’ân. In response, Ahmad Khan composed a short treatise to explain the principles of histafsîr. This was published in 1892 asTa h rîr fi’l-asûl al-tafsîr .[^17]
Ahmad Khan declared that nature is the “Work of God” and the Qur’ân is the “Word of God” and there could be no contradiction between the two. But in his efforts to prove that there is no contradiction between the Qur’ân and the modern scientific knowledge, Ahmad Khan denied all miracles and insisted on bending the Word of God to suit his understanding of His Works. In the Ninth Principle of histafsîr , he stated
there could be nothing in the Qur’ân that is against the principles on which nature works… as far as the supernatural is concerned, I state it clearly that they are impossible, just like it is impossible for the Word of God to be false… I know that some of my brothers would be angry to [read this] and they would present verses of the Qur’ân that mention miracles and supernatural events but we will listen to them without annoyance and ask: could there could not be another meaning of these verses that is consonant with Arabic idiom and the Qur’ânic usage? And if they could prove that it is not possible, then we will accept that our principle is wrong… but until they do so, we will insist that God does not do anything that is against the principles of nature that He has Himself established.