Sitting high above ground in a basket suspended between two scaffolds parallel to the enormous Qutb Minar, Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817–1898), a young munshi (clerk) of the English East India Company, read and tried to reproduce the indecipherable inscriptions on the tower in his book Asar-us Sanadid (Traces of Noblemen, also called Great Monuments of Delhi). The determination, courage, and resourcefulness demonstrated here were the hallmarks of Sayyid Ahmad's life, which was full of formidable challenges. With his imaginativeness and a keen sense of history, along with his conviction that evidence of progress is within the Muslim community, Sayyid Ahmad embarked on a progressive vision for Muslim community development in British India. His rationalist approach combined with an ethical outlook and passion transformed the lives of Muslims in India and abroad forever.
Sayyid Ahmad was born on 17 October 1817 in Mughal Delhi. He belonged to an aristocratic Muslim family who traced their genealogical roots to Prophet Muhammad. In 1864, Sayyid Ahmad moved to Aligarh – a small town, approximately 100 miles southeast of the capital city – where he spent the rest of his life. In Indian nationalist historiography, Sayyid Ahmad appears, at times, as a promoter of Hindu–Muslim unity in his early years – to him, Hindus and Muslims were ‘the two eyes of the beautiful bride that is Hindustan’. By contrast, Pakistani historiography remembers him as the architect of the two-nation theory, which eventually led to the creation of Pakistan. It is strange to attribute to him a historic event not anticipated during his time: he passed away in 1898 – forty-two years before the Muslim League raised the demand for the creation of Pakistan. Regardless of this contrasting retelling of history (one from India and the other from Pakistan), Sayyid Ahmad can be considered a true historical marker for Muslims in South Asia. Even today, he remains the unchallenged champion of Muslim modernization and community reform. Throughout his lifetime, Sayyid Ahmad envisaged a modern Muslim society by making efforts to promote modern Western education, scientific knowledge, rational thinking, religious pluralism, political accommodation, and participatory community associations founded on ethics and justice.