Sir Syed and Cultural Pluralism


By Tanya Kainaat

On February 6, 1897, the Punjab Observer wrote the following about Sir Syed Ahmed Khan: “The venerable Syed is like a great solitary palm in boundless desert and serves as a landmark both for Hindus and Musalmans” (Sherwani 50).

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was a Muslim social reformer, educationist and philosopher in nineteenth century British India. He laid the groundwork for the Indian Muslims who were economically and educationally disadvantaged at the time. Sir Syed tried to wrest them out of their cage of superstitions and guided them towards scientific knowledge and Western education. He was a strong advocate of communal harmony and wanted to unite Hindus and Muslims. This is evident from his writings and his commitment towards religious unity in his great project for education, namely Aligarh Muslim University. One would have to take a closer look at the term ‘cultural pluralism’ in order to truly appreciate his contributions to the cause of human enlightenment.

Pluralism is not the same as tolerance, because tolerance implies simply accepting the other community while still believing in the superiority of one’s own. In our country, which is known for its multitude of cultures and peoples, there have always been differences, as there are bound to be in a place as diverse as India. Siddharth Shankar Ray, in his lecture on Sir Syed and his Relevance to the Present day, in 2004, called India “…a many splendoured, many flowered, many coloured, many scented garden where more than tolerance, acceptance is the basic soil” (Ray 558).

Different leaders in our country have more or less put forward the same views on pluralism at different points of time. Speaking at the Universalist church in Pasadena, California, on the 28th of January, 1990, Swami Vivekananda said:

Our watchword will be acceptance, and not exclusion. Not only toleration, for so called toleration is often blasphemy, and I do not believe in it. I believe in acceptance. Why should I tolerate? I accept all religions that were in the past, and worship with them all. I worship God with every one of them, in whatever form they worship Him. I shall go to the mosque of the Mohammedan and worship with him; I shall enter the Christian’s church and kneel before the crucifix; I shall enter the Buddhistic temple, where I shall take refuge in Buddha and in his Law. I shall go into the forest and sit down in meditation with the Hindu.

Along the same lines, Gandhi said,

If the Hindus believe that India should be peopled only by Hindus, they are living in a dreamland. The Hindus, The Mussalmans, the Sikhs, the Jains and the Christians who have made India their country are fellow countrymen, and they will have to live in unity. In no part of the world are one’s nationality and one’s religion synonymous terms; nor has it ever been so in India.

Among all these people was Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, who firmly believed and worked towards cultural pluralism in his country.

He is credited with laying the foundation stone of Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh. Born in Delhi on 17 October, 1817, he grew up in a large family full of cousins and siblings. He had a colourful childhood, which was not lax enough to allow him to do as he liked and strict enough to internalise morals and virtues at a young age. His mother, Aziz-un-Nisa, was a deeply virtuous woman, to whom Sir Syed credits most of his upbringing and was a constant influence on every stage of his life. His father, Mir Muhammad Muttaqi, was more of a carefree person and was free in his religious views, which was where Sir Syed probably got his ideas from.

Numerous incidents during the revolt of 1857 showed that Sir Syed was not just sympathetic to his own people, but even risked his life for the Europeans, to whom he owed nothing. When the revolt of 1857 broke out, Sir Syed was in Bijnor working as Sadr-e-Amin (chief commissioner). He guarded their houses day and night and made sure they made it safely to Roorkee before he left for Meerut, the epicentre of the revolt. A chronicler has said that he reached Meerut in tattered clothes and six paisas in his pocket. He risked his own life to save about twenty Europeans. As a reward, the British government offered him a taluqa (a big estate) which had an annual revenue collection of Rs 1 lakh then. Sir Syed felt hurt and refused the offer. Later he heard about his family suffering in Delhi and when he went to visit, his mother asked him to go back and see to the people that were being killed (Wajihuddin).

He was regularly in touch with the Collector and Magistrate of Bijnor. When the situation seemed to be turning unsafe there and his wife was anxious, Sir Syed assured her, “As long as I am alive, you have no cause to worry. The day you see my corpse lying before your house, then your anxiety will be justified” (Hali 47). And Sir Syed followed through on his words. All through the night, along with other Indian officers, he armed himself and kept a watch on the Collector’s residence and even patrolled the streets of the town.

In the Indian context, cultural pluralism often takes a religious form, mainly when it comes to the Hindus and Muslims, the two communities among which communalism has prevailed for quite some time in the country. Contrary to popular opinion, the two communities were not always opposed to each other. This divide was created by the British after the revolt of 1857 or the Sepoy Mutiny as it is popularly called, during which Hindus and Muslims were united in their stand against their oppressors. Threatened by this opposition to their rule, the British officials came up with the notorious policy of ‘Divide and Rule’, the fissures created by which have not healed to this day.

Even after 76 years of independence, the rift between communities remains the same, if not worse. In 1883, Sir Syed addressed the Hindus of Punjab and said, “You have used the term Hindu for yourselves. This is not correct. For, in my opinion the word Hindu does not denote a particular religion but on the contrary, everyone who lives in India has the right to call himself Hindu. I am, therefore, sorry that although I live in India, you do not consider me a Hindu” (Ray 559). This statement refers to the fact that the word Hindu originally meant those who lived on the other side of the river Indus, which was called Sindhu in Sanskrit. It is only later that religious connotations became attached to the word.

While it is easy to be misled by the fact that Sir Syed worked for the Muslims alone, there are countless arguments to suggest that this was not true. Although he did favour Muslims who were targeted more by the British in comparison to Hindus, who enjoyed higher positions, he was equally keen on having good relations with Hindus. Sir Syed’s close friendship with Raja Jai Kishan Das is testament to this. On the Bismi’il-lah of his grandson Ross Masood, Raja Jai Kishan Das held the child in his lap. Sir Syed made a short speech on the occasion. In his book History of the M.A.O College, S.K. Bhatnagar writes, “Sir Syed was a friend of the Hindus. He said nothing repugnant to their sentiment and continued to enjoy the goodwill and confidence of the Hindus till the last days of his life” (Sherwani 50).

For Sir Syed, education was a means to promote cultural pluralism. He acknowledged the contributions of Hindus in arts, science and literature, such as the concepts of Geometry and Trigonometry, algebra and epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. He also mentioned the Muslims, saying that “poetry was their natal gift.” They were also credited for the development of medicine and discoveries in chemistry and physics. Despite this, he was aware of the glaring discrepancies in the level of education of his people and that of the West. He said in a lecture, “Whatsoever our ancestors might have been, we can hardly acquire the quality possessed by them. They were undoubtedly the inventors of such subtle sciences which we are even unable to comprehend. We, therefore, should bemoan our present state of affairs instead of merely basking in their glory.” He thus emphasised Western education and urged Indians to learn the English language. He travelled all the way to Britain, which was unthinkable in those days. His book, Khutbat-i-Ahmadiya, chiefly aimed to clear up the misconceptions Christians had about Islam, in response to William Muir’s book, The Life of Mahomet, which created a misleading impression about the religion.

Sir Syed delved deeper into a study of Christianity while writing his book Tabyin, which is a commentary on the Bible. In the composition of this book, Sir Syed was trying to put forward a pluralist view of religion, by comparing Christianity and Islam, proving the similarity between both the revealed religions. He was against the idea of Islam being superior to other religions, which he sought to completely disprove. Instead, he sought to demonstrate a mode of religious interaction that was collaborative rather than competitive. There was of course a backlash by some Christians on the book, and these criticisms were not based on Sir Syed’s comments, but the fact that he demystified traditional lore.

In addition to this, Sir Syed also worked towards rejuvenating the Urdu language. The very origins of this language lie in cultural pluralism. It contains shared roots with Hindi, which later began to be written in Devanagri. It also has influences of Arabic, Persian and Turkish. Although it has somehow come to be connected with Muslims in India, there are many Hindu and Sikh writers who wrote in Urdu. The language suffered because during the British rule. It was the Hindus who benefited the most from English education, while the Muslims were side-lined. Thus, the Hindus now enjoyed more political power than ever before. Urdu faced the brunt of this oppression simply because it had come into being and developed under Muslim rule. When in 1867, some Hindus proposed for Urdu and the Persian script to be removed from the courts of law and replaced with Hindi, Sir Syed realised for the first time that Hindu-Muslim unity was an impossible dream. Sir Syed wrote numerous articles in defence of Urdu, even writing one just nine days before his death. This was how committed he was to his cause. Thankfully his relentless efforts did not go in vain, and the resolution was passed in 1900, two years after he died.

Therefore, Sir Syed’s life, work and writing symbolise the values of cultural pluralism in the loftiest sense. His pluralistic ideals went beyond the conventional limits of religion and attempted to bridge the rifts between different communities. He also gave great importance to the development of the Urdu language, fighting that battle quite literally to his dying day. Even while talking about education, he took care not just to favour the Muslims, but did his best to bring the whole country out of the darkness of ignorance. It echoes what Plato said in his Allegory of the Cave: that Sir Syed ascended to the pinnacle of knowledge, and then descended back into the dark in order to urge people to see the light.

Tanya Kainaat studies at Aligarh Muslim University. She is actively involved in the literary and cultural activities of the university. She is also a versatile writer who has published articles both online and offline. She is currently the Chief Editor of Women’s College Magazine, AMU.


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