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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: April 2019

5 - Creating a Community: Sir Sayyid and His Contemporaries

from Part II - Musalman-e Hind: Indian Muslim in a plural environment


In his short essay published in the Urdu quarterly Fikr-o Nazar, Khaliq Ahmad Nizami (1925–1997), an erudite scholar and eminent historian at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), makes an interesting observation: ‘Sir Sayyid, in India, had made efforts to prove the uniformity of conceptions of religion and scientific theories. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad has called it unnecessary and even though did not mention the name of Sir Sayyid but … [he] has referred to the same trends of thoughts.’ The ideas, thoughts, and movement represented by Sir Sayyid – as he is known popularly – continued to be debated, challenged, embraced, and opposed during and after his lifetime. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888–1958) was barely 10 years old when Sayyid Ahmad Khan died in 1898. The reference to Azad in this context was but a small part of the engagement Sir Sayyid drew. Succeeding leaders continued to invoke Sayyid Ahmad's thoughts and legacies. One can critique the shortcomings of his work but can hardly disagree that the nature of the tasks he undertook during his time and in the space he inhabited was pioneering. The reception of Sayyid Ahmad's ideas has never been unilinear – neither in his times nor in ours. In fact, as he went along trying to convince his cohorts of the ideas he was deeply committed to in the late nineteenth century, he garnered adversaries and critics alike.

Sayyid Ahmad found strong support in some of his lieutenants such as Nawab Mushtaq Husain Viqar-ul Mulk (1841–1917) and Sayyid Mehdi Ali Mohsin-ul Mulk (1837–1907), both of whom were very close to him – the founder of the Aligarh Movement – and carried on his message shoulder to shoulder, even more vigorously after his death. Those opposing Sayyid Ahmad included both conservatives and liberals, who curtly disapproved of his engagement with Western learning, critiqued his opposition to the Indian National Congress (INC) politics, criticized his deism, and called him naicari (‘naturalist’), a pejorative term meaning someone who had swallowed European agnostic naturalism. Regardless of the support, criticism, or outright rejection, Sayyid Ahmad was a persistent worker, thinker, negotiator, writer, orator, and leader, who tirelessly worked towards his goals, determined not to be cowed down in his vision and mission.