Source: Sir Abdul Qadir, “Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: Founder of Aligarh University”, Great Men of India, ed. L.F. Rushbrook Williams (The Home Library Club, 1939), 606

Syed Ahmad Khan

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was born at Delhi on October 17, 1817. Under the influence of his parents, he had a deep love of religion, which took a pragmatic course for him in his later years and induced him to preach changes and reforms.

In 1836, he entered British Service as a Reader in a court. The Indian Mutiny of 1857 played a heavy hand in scripting out the course of his later years. After the fall of Delhi, he returned to the corpses of his uncle and cousin and the subsequent deaths of his mother and her servant after a prolonged period of suffering. These experiences led him to write a book titled the “Asbabi-Baghawat-i-Hind” or “The Causes of the Indian Revolt.” He made it his aim to interpret the advice contained in his book to both the government and the people so as to generate a greater understanding between both. One of the means he proposed for this end was education, which he saw as the cure for all the social and political ills of India. This conclusion led him to open a school for the study of modern history in 1858.

In 1862, he was transferred to Ghazipur where he made the acquaintance of Colonel Graham. Khan enlisted Graham’s support in establishing a society for translating useful books from English into Urdu. The proposed society was realised and developed into the Scientific Society of Aligarh.

After another transfer to Aligarh, he was transferred to Benares in 1867, the repository of ancient Hindu learning. He continued his advocacy of the study of Western knowledge there as well, exemplifying his words not only by sending both his sons but his own self to England. He intended to study England’s education methods and civic institutions so as to obtain models for his own enterprises in India.

Upon his return, he aimed at establishing a residential college on lines similar to those of Oxford and Cambridge. For its curriculum, he intended to infuse Eastern and Western elements, with an emphasis on religious teaching.. He formed the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College Fund Committee in 1872 to achieve this objective and his plans saw fruition in 1877 with the establishment of the M.A.O College.  He went on to found the Mohammedan Educational Conference and worked extensively on promoting the cause of modern education among the Muslim community.

He was also actively involved in social reform in his community and was the editor of the Tehzib-ul-Akhlaq, a periodical which was a vessel for his message of reform to his readers. In his efforts for religious reform, he met with keen opposition from orthodox individuals who looked askance at his advocacy of adopting rational explanations for religious doctrines and reconciling religion with science. In 1866, he played a key role in establishing the “British India Association”, the fore-runner of the Indian National Congress, which aimed to keep the Association up to date with the Members of the House of Commons.

Though politics was not a live issue when he commenced his educational work, he was not particularly fond of it and felt it prudent that his co-religionists should not join it. He felt that the Congress movement had been initiated rather prematurely and felt that the Muslim community ought first to focus on rectifying their shortcoming in modern education. For his thoughts, he had been misunderstood to have encouraged separatism between Hindus and Muslims. He died in 1898 and was laid to rest within the grounds of the M.A.O College.

Sources: Sir Abdul Qadir, “Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: Founder of Aligarh University”, Great Men of India, ed. L.F. Rushbrook Williams (The Home Library Club: 1939), 606-615; “Sir Syed Ahmed”, Eminent Mussalmans, 1st ed (Madras: G.A Natesan & Co., 1926), 1-37


The Life and Work of Syed Ahmad Khan (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1885)

Review on Dr. Hunter’s Indian Mussalmans: Are They Bound in Conscience to Rebel Against the Queen? (Lahore: The Premier Book House, 1872)

The Causes of the Indian Revolt (Benares: Medical Hall Press, 1873)

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