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Sir Syed’s notion of modernity

Sir Syed’s notion of modernity was paradoxical and complicated because it was characterised by his subservience to authority

Sir Syed’s notion of modernity

Some people invent new ideas; a few founds school of thought and very few lay the basis of a new epoch. Sir Syed belongs to the last category of great personalities. Ideas may be dismissed; schools can become outmoded but an epoch keeps influencing the future. The epoch began by Sir Syed is rightly marked with ‘modernity’.

While we are commemorating the bicentennial of Sir Syed (1817-1897), it seems appropriate to re-appraise his concept of modernity and its significance in the postcolonial perspective.

Understanding clearly, interpreting keenly and then aligning vehemently with the newly-emerged reality were the central planks of his concept of modernity. Chalo Tum Udhar ko Hawa ho Jidhar ki (head towards the direction of wind) was conceived as the basic tenant of modernity that he struggled to achieve through education, journalism, miscellaneous writings, educational addresses and through founding societies and associations. He remained adamantly passionate to all these till his death. He didn’t believe in resisting against the winds of time or struggling to change their direction. He was of the view that ‘clear road’ to modernising Hindustan can only be found by marching along the direction the ‘modern, Anglicist winds’ had taken. In simple terms, he had a firm belief in faithfully following the same path that was taken by the modern, European world.

While re-evaluating Syed’s concept of modernity, we should draw a distinction between the pragmatic approach adopted to solve the real social and educational issues and the idealistic perception of political authority which was internalised and made a quintessential part of all of his writings.

This does not mean there was no room for resistance in his notion of modernity. He rigorously resisted against the endeavours for a revival of the glorious past. He admitted there was an illustrious period in the history of Muslims which might be taken as a proof that our forefathers had answered to the call of their own age, but he saw no sense in initiating any attempt to bring that period back. Discontinuity with the past and yet going on with contemporariness was another hallmark of his notion of modernity.

Sir Syed knew that discontinuity originates a crisis by creating a sort of vacuum in historical consciousness. However, he had arrived at a solution — living in the present could fill that vacuum. He seems to be suggesting that crisis of historical consciousness can be overcome by confining all imaginative and intellectual powers to learning present-day useful knowledge. Sense of usefulness of the Present can defeat the haunting memories of the glorious Past. Achieving usefulness was meant to fully living in the present. He seems to propose that one can’t live fully in the present unless they do not become ‘civilized’ by getting modern, European education; embracing government jobs and attaining the freedom of thinking and expressing his ideas. He wrote in his essay titled Civilization Yani Shaistagi aur Tahzeeb per (On Civilization and Culture):

شا[Civilization can’t be achieved until man doesn’t enjoy freedom of expressing his thoughts and acting upon them accordingly]

In the same essay Syed says that “it must be admitted that there exists nothing that could delimit the expanse of civilization and human intellect”. We must admit that this was the true concept of modernity that has been proffered by all great minds irrespective of their race, nationality and age. It was almost the same idea that was illustrated by Ghalib: Hae Kahan Tamman ka Doosra Qadam Yarab/Ham Nay Dasht e Imkan ko aik Naqsh e Pa Paya. But soon Sir Syed realises that there exists something that demarcates the limit of creating and expressing ideas. On the next page of the above quoted essay, he seems impelled to mention the limits of freedom:

پ[So it is evident that advancement of civilization is linked to the proportion of freedom allowed by the governments to her subjects.]

It made his notion of modernity complicated. Subservience to authority became an integral feature of his modernity. Some people are of the view that Syed’s incessant stress on unconditional loyalty to colonial government emanates from his pragmatic approach. They argue that this was the only way to rid Muslim Ashraaf of North India of the wretchedness they suffered in the aftermath of 1857 War of Independence.

While re-evaluating Syed’s concept of modernity, we should draw a distinction between the pragmatic approach adopted to solve the real social and educational issues and the idealistic perception of political authority which was internalised and made a quintessential part of all of his writings.

This writer is of the view that his pragmatic approach was ‘transitory’ while his idealistic perception of authority which was ingrained in his notion of modernity acquired a sort of permanence and still continues to influence the minds of South Asian Muslims. We all know that a single leap of mind surpasses many steps of the body. So the question is: can modernity survive the incessant assaults of authority made from within? Theoretically, modernity and authority, i.e., freedom to create and express ideas and subservience to political or any other kind of authority, cannot go hand in hand. Sir Syed’s idea of modernity seems to remind us of Michel Foucault’s concept of governmentality which is a combination of government and rationality. It refers to the active willingness of people to govern themselves, and this is attained through their own rationality rather than sovereign power exercised by state.

The paradoxical nature of Sir Syed’s idea of modernity came under harsh criticism in his life. Lala Lajpat Rai (1865-1928) wrote some open letters to Sir Syed in response to his criticism on National Congress. In his second letter written in 1888, Rai says: “Remember that we are the product of that education which you so strongly recommended and which you have never been known to condemn. Our English education… [Not] prodigies of your Oriental language’’. Rai simply meant that it was the modernity achieved through English education that encouraged them to question the steps taken by the colonial authority. Sir Syed wished Indians to become modern through English, liberal education, but raising question on the rationale or policies of colonial authority was termed by him as an ‘uncivilized’ manner. Therefore Rai didn’t hesitate to say: “Sir your fall seems to remind me of the fall of Adam’’.

Akbar Allahabadi (1845-1922) mocked Sir Syed’s project of modernity by declaring it a sort of ‘official’ intellect:

[The intellect which is learnt (through modern education) is merely ‘official’.]

The self-centered ‘official intellect’ cannot allow it to see or count the other side of picture. One side of picture of colonialism was bright; it was marked with railway, telegraph, new irrigation system, English educational institutes and general enlightenment. But the other side was drastically dark. Sir Syed’s modernity with unconditional loyalty to authority had no room to see the dark side of the picture. One thing is quite clear: freedom from authority and freedom to question authority is a first and foremost step towards modernity. Freedom from authority cannot be achieved without first asserting the authority of rationality. There were some Hindustanis even in the 19th century — almost one and half century before Shashi Tharoor’s An Era of Darkness — who had achieved true modernity and who had the courage to fearlessly describe the dark side of ‘colonial modernity’. Amrita Lal Roy was one among them. He wrote an article on English Rule in India which appeared in The North American Review in April 1886. These lines from this eye-opening article need to be read by all those who are prone to see just bright side of colonialism:

“India has given to England wealth and fame; England has brought upon India penury and shame. Instead of being a means of civilization, English rule in India is almost an excuse to keep up barbarism in the nineteenth century…The fiction of “England’s mission” and “India’s progress” is kept up by the agents of three interested industries — the military, mercantile, and missionary — aided by the co-operative journalism, in behalf of privilege and power, in which the modern Muse prostitutes herself.”[Italics are mine.]

The last line of the quotation seems to forcefully testify the validity of the position that has been taken in this essay. That the modernity Sir Syed wished the Indians to embrace was ‘colonial modernity’, a kind of modernity that cherishes to grow under the blessings of official authority, restricting itself from challenging and questioning the legality or moral grounds of authority, dedicated to restricting the growth and expanse of intellect within the confines of pragmatic needs of the times. 

Nasir Abbas Nayyar

Dr-Nasir-Abbas-Nayyar copy
The writer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer and author of Urdu Adab ki Tashkeel e Jadid (criticism) and Farishta Nahi Aya (short stories).


  • In 1875 the governor of Bengal wrote to the Viceroy suggesting the introduction of modern science in the college curriculum so that the Indians could be made aware of their “absolute inferiority” to Europeans. The result was the opposite: Bengal produced a large number of scientists, including some outstanding ones. J C Bose discovered wireless before Marconi. S N Bose was appreciated by Einstein and his name occurs in physics: Bose-Einstein statistics, bosons, Bose-Einstein condensates. Sadly, this progress doesn’t seem to have reached the Delhi-Punjab region or other parts of India. The Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam made this clear when he revealed what he was taught by his teachers: electricity occurs in Lahore, nuclear forces in Europe and so on!
    It appears that the rest of India only achieved ‘colonial modernity’.

    • Bengal still paying price for extractive orientation of colonial rule. Richest Mughal province became destitute. These scientists didn’t help it.

      But, British now also entrapped by dependence on colonial dependency and that is why since 19th century German’s left them behind because created uncompetitive private sector- so even getting more than 2 X Marshal Plan aid then Germans left them behind in 20th century!

      Meanwhile former British India still stuck on outmoded and extractive colonial institutions.

  • I strongly disagree with this half-baked critique of what the author has termed as Sir Syed’s ‘modernity’. First of all, it is simply not possible to bracket the ideas of Sir Syed, at a number of levels, into any facile categories. Also, it must be understood by the meanest intellect that at any given time, ‘the hour produces the man’. Sir Syed’s life and times , his aims and objectives were quite obviously to be read against a colonial background , in specific contexts. In this instance, as a Muslim colonial employee of a certain aristocratic upbringing, in the post-1857 scenario when the Muslims of India had plunged to the most abysmal depths, it was only he, with precisely his colonial links , who could pull them up again. Look at other, similar examples of colonial reformers amongst the Hindus around that same time e.g Raja Ram Mohun Roy, Dabindranath Tagore etc. History has certain stages, evolutions, and all these people had very distinct roles.

    • Ayesha, You are correct, he was also a product of his times and that included a castest mindset.

      The boy and the country

  • Jamil Soomro , New York City

    Sir Syed Ahmad Khan a truly great Leader of Muslims of the British India who was historically the first person to
    announce the creation of Pakistan from the British India.We will always remain ever so grateful to you. Long live
    Sir Syed Ahmad Khan.

    • Please explain your mysterious comment that he “announced the creation of Pakistan” in the 19th century.

      • Jamil Soomro, New York City

        I am surprised at your “mysterious” question regarding the towering personality of
        Sir Syed Ahmad Khan.Pakistan Nationalism is the direct outcome of Muslim Nationalism
        which emerged in India in the 19th Century.Do note the following,”Its intellectual Pioneer
        was Sir Syed Ahmad Khan”.He was the first great Muslim personality to have laid the
        foundation of Pakistan.And what followed and culminated into in 1947 is open History?
        The British left.

        • Sorry, it remains mysterious. The founding principle of Pakistan, as far as I can see, is “We can’t tolerate the presence of a large number of Hindus”. Was this idea there in 19th century Muslim nationalism? In Sir Syed’s thought?
          According to this article, Sir Syed wasn’t even a nationalist; he only wanted Indians to embrace colonial modernity.

          • Jamil Soomro, New York City

            You have deviated from the main topic of discussion of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Pakistan
            and have started to quote what is written in this article.That is another issue unrelated to
            the reality of Pakistan our discussion has come to an end.

  • Jamil Soomro, New York City

    We all are ever so grateful to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan for all the good he did
    for the Muslims during the period of British India.Credit goes to him for the
    realization of Pakistan. Long live Sir Syed Ahmad Khan.

    • I agree that he did a lot of good to the Muslims. And Aligarh Muslim University continues to help Muslims. This is India.

  • Sir Syed had seen the 1857 ghadar at close quarters, as an employee of the company in north India. The British power and use of utmost brutality against Muslims elites then had shocked everyone and convinced him that the future lay with the British for all times to come. He therefore decided to make a choice that Muslims should see the British as followers of a common Abrahamic faith and align with them, as this would be in their best interest. He is known to have analysed the Mutiny and advised the British that they had made the biggest mistake in having common regiments of Hindu and Muslim soldiers who lived, trained and fought side by side, when they should have been kept separate and made to fight the other if required, on behalf of the British. Urdu was a language of north Indian Hindus and Muslims, but Sir Syed wrested the representational leadership for Urdu away from Hindus and projected it as Muslim’s only. So he can be seen both as a British lackey or a champion of Modernity.

  • Faqi.Khokhar.Malik

    Sir Nasir Abass Nayyar have a series on topic of the colonial era. His last but not least article on “The Problem Of Colonial Modernity” was also a researched based article like this. Nayyar Sb explained his articles totally with reasonings and references as it’s true that Sir Syed was a pessimist and he was influenced by Colonial masters and tried to persuade the people to exist in “The British Masters And Educated Slave relation.” Subcontinental freedom fighters being defeated in “War of independence” changed the mind of sir syed so he denied “The Theory Of Resist”. Obid Ullah Sindhi and his mentor Mahmood Hassan an honourable personalities of “kafal e fikr e wali ullah” were still remained on Resistive theory against Britan mastery… They were true optimist and wanted to see their contient as “Decolonized state”.

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