Sir Syed and the Role of Educational Reform in Stabilizing British Occupation of the Indian Subcontinent

As part of the cultural campaign against Muslims in Pakistan, modern books published in Pakistan, whether educational or otherwise, generally present inaccurate and false information regarding the British occupation of the Indian Subcontinent, the War of Independence 1857 and the formation of Pakistan. Information about the past is presented in a twisted manner, so some people who are presented as heroes in history were actually British agents, who understood the colonialist agenda and acted as tools. They took to constantly deceiving Muslims, using Islam as a disguise, as is the case of colonialist stooges in occupied Iraq and Afghanistan today. Thus, whilst the Indian Subcontinent was under British occupation, the British groomed collaborators who stood by their side, distorting Islam in order to legitimize British occupation.

When the British invaded the Indian Sub-Continent, they started buying off the rulers, princes and the leaders of different regions to strengthen their foothold. For this purpose, the East India Company spent 90,000 Pounds Sterling annually as a political bribe, which when adjusted for inflation is similar to the huge amounts colonialists spend on buying up agents today. The total number of regions in the Indian Subcontinent was 635 and many rulers of these regions submitted to the British, helping them to establish a colonialist system that was completely in British hands. The rulers who refused to compromise and showed resistance, were fought and removed by force.

Those who were allies of the British and betrayed Allah سبحانه وتعالى, His Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم and the Muslims are known in some cases, such as Mir Jafar and Mir Sadiq, but many are not known. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan is on the list of the people who openly supported the British, sided with them, protected them from Muslim resistance and furthered their agenda. It is tragic that such people are presented as heroes of the Muslims, when in fact they helped the British to subjugate the Indian Subcontinent and brainwash the Muslims, making them think that the British were their allies and benefactors. These people were very valuable to the British as they were local and so made it easier for them to present the colonialist agenda and have it accepted by the others.

The British were well-aware of the fact that if they did not divide the strongly unified population of the Indian Subcontinent, they would neither dominate the region nor exploit the immense wealth of the Indian Subcontinent, which had been their motivation from the beginning of their occupation. Muslims and Hindus had lived together peacefully and prosperously under Islamic Rule for over eight hundred years, for Islam looks after the affairs of the non-Muslim citizens, the Ahl udh-Dhimma magnificently. The first thing the British did was to sow discord between them for the British were horrified by the Hindu support of the Muslim resistance. Thus, the British began to turn the Hindus against the Muslims, and encouraged them to view Muslims as enemies rather than providing them support.

One of the styles was language education, using the Urdu language. Soldiers were taught Urdu and an Urdu college was established by the British Governor, General Wilson, on 10th July 1800. Although this date was altered upon his instruction to 4th May 1800, the date that the heroic Muslim rulers of Mysore, Haider Ali Sultan and Tipu Sultan, suffered defeated at the hands of the British and their lands were taken over. A number of Muslim and Hindu writers were recruited for the college. Books written in foreign languages, steeped in Kufr culture that was alien to Islam, were translated into Urdu. This was during the period of intellectual decline of Muslims, so the books written in this era are a representation of the Western enslaved mentality of the Muslims. Urdu writers who fulfilled the intention of the British through prose were richly rewarded. For example, Moulvi Nazeer Ahmed wrote the first Urdu novel, Mir’aat-ul-Uroos, in which he held Queen Victoria in great esteem and praised her excessively. He was gifted a gold watch by the British and a generous sum of money.

Then in Fort William College, an Urdu-Hindi dispute began. The British were successful in convincing Hindus that the Muslims had never cared about them. They claimed the Muslims were now using the Urdu language to subjugate them, even though the language that had been widely spoken previously had been Urdu. The name of this language had changed in history; Lashkari, Hindwi, Hindi, Hindustani, Urdu-e-Mu’alla and at last Urdu. Throughout, however, the writing script remained the same as that of the Arabic language and Arabic had a strong influence on Urdu. The British encouraged the Hindus to break away Hindi in a Dev Nagri, Sanskrit, script of writing and Fort William College was not only the scene of the origin of the conflict, it nurtured it. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan began to study this conflict. Meanwhile, Nawab Mohsin-ul-Mulk delivered speeches in Hindustan, which strengthened the growing division between Hindus and Muslims, benefitting the British. This dispute led to a physical altercation between Muslims and Hindus, with the Muslims who died within it, praised as martyrs. The hidden agenda of the British, aided by Hindu bigotry, ultimately led to Urdu becoming a pivot for the Muslims. The energies of the Muslims that were supposed to be used against the British occupation, then started being consumed in defending and promoting the Urdu language.

This language division had a parallel in the British efforts for political division. Initially, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan tried to distance the Muslims from politics. However, the British realized that hatred towards them still existed and rebellions kept on arising. So, they set up a political party called Congress in 1885 at the house of an English Sir A.O. Holmes. Its aim was to provide a platform to the public where they could vent their frustration and discuss the problems they were facing as a society. However, the leaders of the party were still under the control of the British government. This provided the government with an opening to yet again create dispute between Hindus and Muslims. The top positions in Congress were given to Hindus, with Muslims left to feel that it was a Hindu dominated party. Sir Syed advised Muslims to stay away from Congress and then in 1906, the Muslims set up their own party called ‘All India Muslim League’. Thus the Hindus that had previously accepted Muslim political leadership, now were divided from the Muslims.

The British then encouraged another type of division to beguile the Muslims, which is the separation of their Deen from life’s affairs. In the field of education, they took steps to ensure the separation of Islamic knowledge from worldly knowledge. Before the British occupation, schools and other educational institutions taught both Islamic and worldly knowledge, side by side, in generous proportions; thus, Arabic, Persian, philosophy, medical studies, astronomy, arithmetic, geometry and poetry were taught besides Qur’an and Sunnah. Moreover, before Muslim rule, there is no evidence to suggest that these subjects were taught in such an organized fashion in any institute. People who studied from these institutions were the ones who ran the affairs of the citizens, for they attained the common government positions. These people also became biographers, engineers, doctors and teachers. The British set upon this hundreds of years of legacy, and set up a separate school to provide religious education exclusively in Calcutta and a separate college for other subjects. Now, the people who studied from the secular schools, where no importance was given to knowledge about Islam, went on to obtain posts in government. And the ones who studied from religious institutions were confined to the four walls of the mosques.

Consequently, the Muslims became divided into being religious or secular. Along with this, different sects and religious groups were set against each other in sectarian conflict. Naïve scholars wrote books against each other’s sects, which were published by the British from publishing companies that were set up, during the era of Fort William College. Ulema began arguing and issued Fatawas (verdicts) declaring others Kuffaar on the basis of difference of opinion which is allowed in Islam. This was in addition to attempts to make Muslims apostatize from Islam, so the British also created mischief of the Mirza Ghulam Ahmed Qadiyani. Thus the Muslims became entangled in sectarian issues and lost focus from the main project of expelling the British occupation and restoring the Islamic ruling.

It was within this context that Sir Syed showed his true colours. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan displayed a strong sense of loyalty towards the British during the 1857 War of Independence, saving the lives of twenty Europeans and then further guarding their houses at night wearing armour. The people whom Sir Syed saved and protected were not ordinary English people, rather they were the rulers of Bijnaur. It is just like a pro-American Muslim safeguarding the top brass of Americans who occupy Afghanistan today. If Sir Syed saved the lives of the Muslims who were being killed by the British, his name would have rightly gone down in history as a true Muslim hero. However, as a reward for his loyalty, the British gave Sir Syed a dress of honour worth 1000 rupees and a political pension of 200 rupees every month.

In 1875, Sir Syed set up an institution called MAO School in Aligargh. He convinced the Muslims that since they lacked modern and scientific education, they were regarded as disgraceful and inferior. Therefore, therefore, they must advance in the scientific field. English and Science were given special attention in Aligarh. By 1887, the government allowed the school to develop into a college, whose inauguration took place on 18th January 1887, conducted by the British governor Sir Luton. The college was not only funded by the British, special teachers from England were brought there to teach. Under the supervision of the Scientific Society which was established by Sir Syed, articles published in Europe were translated into Urdu and then published here. These articles contained literature that attacked the very foundations of Islamic thoughts, civilization and culture. The British aimed to promote their ideas, thoughts and concepts through Urdu writings to the people who were unable to understand English. Thus, the British focused the people of the Indian Subcontinent upon the Western personality as a standard through both Urdu and English literature.

The British were aware that until the Muslims detached themselves from their Islamic concepts, beliefs, lifestyle and the Qur’an, they will not wholeheartedly accept British occupation of the Subcontinent. Consequently, it was necessary for Islam to be explained and broken down in a way that would be favourable to the British occupation. Sir Syed, being a loyal agent of the British, did not hesitate in undertaking this task and presenting Islam, the Qur’an and Sunnah as mere theory. He laid a premise that the Qur’an is the Word of the Creator and the universe is the Action of the Creator. Therefore, it is not justified for the Creator to have contradiction between his word and deed. Then, he accepted flawed assumptions with regards to scientific principles regarding the universe and began to explain the Qur’an accordingly. He would accept Ayaat that complied with his scientific assumptions and if not, would give the Ayaat meanings from his own mind. Consequently, he headed on a path that is destructive in both this world and the hereafter and called others to it. He failed to accept or give regard to the fact that the standards he brought above the Qur’an and using as a basis for explanation, were merely scientific assumptions and theories, that would keep on changing over time because of new discoveries.

Thus, according to him, Angels were not a specific creation of Allah سبحانه وتعالى, rather powers made by Allah سبحانه وتعالى to help run the system of the universe. And since the existence of Jinn has not been proven by science, they are not a creation. He believed that the picture presented to Muslims regarding Jannah and the Jahannam was wrong and that in fact the peace and blessings of this world would be Jannah, whilst its trials and tribulations world be Jahannam. He openly rejected the miracles of the Prophets and Messengers in his books ‘Tafseer-ul-Qur’an’ and ‘Khutbat-e-Ahmadia.’ According to him the miracle of Musa (as) of twelve springs emerging from the rock he hit with his staff, is nothing but wrong explanation of Qur’an by the Ulema. In his book, ‘Tafseer-ul-Qur’an’ he writes that the Islamic Ulema made a glaring mistake in the Tafseer of the Ayah فَقُلْنَا اضْرِبْ بِعَصَاكَ الْحَجَرَ. According to him this Ayah never meant “And we said, hit the rock with your staff.” He stressed that the word ‘اضْرِبْ’ means ‘walk’ and the word ‘بِعَصَاكَ’ means ‘with your staff’ and ‘الْحَجَرَ’ means ‘mountain’. Thus the Ayah is conveying a meaning “And we said, walk on the mountain with your staff” and hence it does not describe a miracle. So according to him, Musa (as) walked on the mountain with his staff and found twelve springs at a certain place. For deriving his desired meaning, he completely changed the rules of Arabic. In Arabic, the meaning of ‘اضْرِبْ’ is ‘walk’ but if ‘ب’ is used as a preposition after ‘اضْرِبْ’ so the meaning will be changed into ‘hit with’, so according to this grammatical rule ‘اضْرِبْ بِعَصَاكَ الْحَجَرَ’ means ‘hit with your staff on rock’ instead of ‘walk on the mountain with your staff’. Secondly, the word ‘الْحَجَرَ’ means ‘rock’ but as to how Sir Syed took its meaning as ‘mountain,’ even he himself couldn’t justify. Similarly, he denied the incident of Isra’a and Miraj. Sir Syed did not view Sunnah as a reliable source and consequently justified his opinion. He believed that Ijtihad was not a method of understanding the conventional meaning of Islam so that any Islamic ruling which conflicted with Western ideas, should either be elucidated and changed, or removed from the religion.

As for the war of Independence 1857 that took place because of the Muslim spirit of Jihad and their growing resentment towards the British, Sir Syed labeled it as a ‘riot’ and ‘sedition.’ In his pamphlet, ‘Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind’ (Causes of the Hind Sedition), he made it clear that Muslim were guilty of sedition. In this pamphlet, he told the British that the Muslims were in favour of their rule, but rebelled because they had not been given any seat or position in government circles. So, he played along with the British plan to engage Muslims within the British rule, rather than act to uproot it and he himself took a government position.

Sir Syed also wrote a book called ‘Loyal Muhammadans of India’. It had three volumes and was published in the years 1860-61. Throughout the book, he proved his loyalty towards the British. In this book, he wrote, “I am extremely angry with the Muslims who rebelled and were defiant against the British and consider them bad because this outbreak by the Muslims was against the People of the Book, the who are our religious brothers, believed in the Messengers, accepted Allah’s rules and keep Allah’s revealed books with them which are part of our fundamental beliefs. Therefore, whenever Christian blood was shed, Muslim blood should have been shed too. And whoever stands against this and are ungrateful to the government, which is not tyrannical, have gone against their religion. They are extremely worthy of being angry with.”

Sir Syed seized every opportunity in giving a favourable opinion about the British. After the War of Independence 1857, Queen Victoria appealed to the Muslims for forgiveness and asked them to excuse the British for the mass murder that took place. Sir Syed told the Muslims in Muradabad that it was absolutely necessary to thank her. So a ‘Dargah Hazrat Shah Balaqi’ was suggested and on 28 July 1859, 15,000 people were gathered. To attract more people, food arrangements were made and after Asr Prayer, Sir Syed made a collective Dua. Some of the content of this Dua is as follows: “Oh Lord! You have shown mercy to Your people and the people of Hindustan by placing upon them just and equitable rulers and for this we thank You. In the preceding years, we had to face a curse of the absence of such rulers owing to our wicked deeds but now You have compensated it and provided us with such just and kind rulers. We thank You for this blessing of Yours from the core of our hearts. Oh Lord! Accept our gratitude! Ameen! The Indians who were caught into this unfortunate catastrophe, You molded the hearts of our rulers to be merciful to these Indians for the Queen issued an appeal seeking forgiveness just because of Your inspiration. We not only thank You but also pray for the Queen Victoria, wherever, she might be. Oh Lord! Accept our Dua! Ameen!” The cunningness, treachery and deceit against Muslims and Islam is obvious in these words. This Dua is a proof of the loyalty of Sir Syed to the British but the tragedy is that such a personality is presented to us as a role model.

In reality, the decline of the Muslims began with a decline in the comprehension of Islam and its wrong implementation. Sir Syed suggested a wrong way to come out of this decline. In his flawed understanding, the Muslims can make progress only by following the British blindly in science, inventions and their thoughts related to life, without adopting the systems springing from the complete Deen of Islam. In fact, we fell behind West, because we did not adopt Islam as ideology or a complete way of life. Therefore, if we want to be a progressive Ummah, we must first revive by holding fast onto our Islamic Aqeedah, instead of following the West. Moreover, if science and technology is the only way to success and if Islam mandates that the path to enlightenment is progress and evolution as envisaged by Sir Syed, then why didn’t Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم spread Islam and conquer through science and technology? How did the Khulafa-e-Rashideen establish the golden era of Islam without the inventions and discoveries of the Industrial Revolution? If science was so central to human existence, then wouldn’t the prophets and messengers have been scientists, or at least invented something for mankind?

It is true that the thoughts and beliefs emanating from Islam, result in scientific progress and advancing in technology is a must. The foundation of the Islamic society that the Prophet built in the state of Madinah became a technologically advanced society very quickly. The Islamic State rapidly acquired war weapons, ships, canons, scientists, doctors, philosophers, specializing in fields such as algebra, surgery, medicine, chemistry, mathematics, geometry, astronomy and everything that the West had not even dreamed of. However, all of this was a result of Islamic thinking and the Islamic belief upon which the society was established. This is what Sir Syed failed to acknowledge and thus he deliberately led the Muslims down the wrong path. The reality is that the reason for change in the thoughts of that society and progress is a result of this change.

As for as the reality of the Muslim rule of the Indian Subcontinent before the British occupation is concerned, it is presented in a completely distorted manner. The impression given to us of Muslim rule is that it was devoid of knowledge and expertise and was ignorant, illiterate and uncivilized. Till this day, we are told that our Muslim rulers were steeped in worldly pleasures and benefits. However, the Indian Subcontinent was regarded as ‘a bird of gold’ before the arrival of the British here. Prosperity reached to an extent that a man named Abdul Ghafoor had far more assets than the British East India Company. The ‘Jagat Hut’ family of Bengal had far more capital than the Bank of England. The amount of war booty collected after the Battle of Plassey in 1775 amounted to more than the GDP of whole of Europe. According to Captain Alexander Hamilton, there were 10,000 schools and colleges and 70 hospitals in Delhi alone and there were 80,000 schools and colleges in Bengal. Captain Alexander writes in his book, ‘A Case for India’ that in the Mughal era, students were taught medical education in 125,000 institutes. Ibn-e-Batoota wrote that there is a place near Mumbai called Hawaz, where there were two schools for men and thirteen for women and there was not a single person who did not memorize the Qur’an as well as its translation. The biggest steel industry in the world was in the Indian Subcontinent and it was present until 1880. Regarding ship-building, ships were produced in the greatest quantity in the Indian Subcontinent. The imports of the Subcontinent never exceeded its exports. In the area of Thatha, there were 400 great educational institutes. This strong foundation left its effects even under British occupation. In 1835, Lord Macaulay made it obvious in one of his speeches which he delivered in British Parliament that the prosperity in the Indian Subcontinent, despite the looting by the British, was not confined to a specific area or a group of people, rather the entire citizenry was generally prosperous. He said that he travelled from corner to corner of the entire of the Indian Subcontinent but he didn’t come across a single beggar or a thief. The population census of 1911 which was carried out by the British is still found in Anarkali’s tomb and states that the literacy rate of the Subcontinent was more than 90%. It then declined to mere 10% according to the 1941 census, owing to the education system of the British. Today if America constructs the World Trade Centre, White House, spacious roads and hundred storey skyscrapers, it is called economic and scientific progress, but the same act of Muslim rulers who built Shahi Fort, Badshahi Masjid, Taj Mahal, Lal Qalaand, Shalimar Garden is associated with their lust for status and worldly pleasures. The architects and the engineers of these masterpieces got their education in the same Muslim institutes, where the arts and sciences of the whole world were taught. These buildings are an obvious proof of the prosperity and the abundance of wealth of the state. Unfortunately, the eyes of Sir Syed were blinded with the inspiration of the British, even though the glorious past of the Muslims under Islam exceeds their state without Islam.

So, such are the people who had been deceiving the Ummah in the name of guidance, claiming sincerity to the Muslims but in fact placing their loyalties with the Western colonialists. Today a section of our society is unaware of its bright and matchless history and feels intimidated of the West. One of the obvious reasons is our educational system which presents to us those personalities who had a slave mentality as heroes. After the establishment of Khilafah, inshaAllah, history will be purified of all these wrong concepts. The dishonesty, treachery and deceit that our current rulers committed regarding our history will be wiped away with the help of a clean and true educational system of the Khilafah. May Allah grant us success in judging what is wrong and what is right and may Allah be our Helper! Ameen!

Written for the Central Media Office of Hizb ut Tahrir by

Irfan Pasha

1 Comment

  1. Could you kindly give reference of Captain Alexander Hamilton’s book ‘A Case for India’ please?

    Captain Alexander Hamilton when searched via google comes up with A new Account of East Indies Volume 1 & 2.

    I was asked to provide reference details that is why i have asked you. Thanks. Reply soon please.

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