Sir Syed Ahmad Khan

OCT 19

Preliminary   > Modern Indian History   >   Personalities   >   Social reformers

Why in news?

  • Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, an iconic social reformer and founder of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), which has completed 100 years, was born on October 17, 1817.

About Sir Syed Ahmad Khan:

  • Syed Ahmed Khan, born in a respectable Muslim family, was a loyalist member of the judicial service of the British government.
  • After retirement in 1876, he became a member of the Imperial Legislative Council in 1878. His loyalty earned him a knighthood in 1888.

Relation with British:

  • The British view on the revolt of 1857 held the Muslims to be the main conspirators.
  • This view was further strengthened by the activities of the Wahabis.
  • But later, an opinion got currency among the rulers that the Muslims could be used as allies against a rising tide of nationalist political activity represented, among others, by the foundation of the Indian National Congress.
  • This was to be achieved through offers of thoughtful concessions to the Muslims. A section of Muslims led by Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898) was ready to allow the official patronage to stimulate a process of growth among Indian Muslims through better education and employment opportunities.

View on religion:

  • He wanted to reconcile western scientific education with the teachings of the Quran which were to be interpreted in the light of contemporary rationalism and science even though he also held the Quran to be the ultimate authority.
  • He said that religion should be adaptable with time or else it would become fossilised, and that religious tenets were not immutable.
  • He advocated a critical approach and freedom of thought and not complete dependence on tradition or custom.
  • He believed in the fundamental underlying unity of religions or ‘practical morality’. He also preached the basic commonality of Hindu and Muslim interests.

View on education:

  • He was also a zealous educationist—as an official, he opened schools in towns, got books translated into Urdu and started the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College (later, the Aligarh Muslim University) at Aligarh in 1875.

Women empowerment:

  • He also struggled to bring about an improvement in the position of women through better education and by opposing purdah and polygamy, advocating easy divorce, and condemning the system of piri and muridi.

On national movement:

  • Syed Ahmed Khan argued that Muslims should first concentrate on education and jobs and try to catch up with their Hindu counterparts who had gained the advantage of an early start.
  • Active participation in politics at that point, he felt, would invite hostility of the government towards the Muslim masses.
  • Therefore, he opposed political activity by the Muslims. Unfortunately, in his enthusiasm to promote the educational and employment interests of the Muslims, he allowed himself to be used by the colonial government in its obnoxious policy of divide and rule and, in later years, started propagating divergence of interests of Hindus and Muslims.

Aligarh Movement:

  • The Aligarh Movement emerged as a liberal, modern trend among the Muslim intelligentsia based in Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College, Aligarh.
  • It aimed at spreading:
    • Modern education among Indian Muslims without weakening their allegiance to Islam
    • Social reforms among Muslims relating to purdah, polygamy, widow remarriage, women’s education, slavery, divorce, etc.
  • The ideology of the followers of the movement was based on a liberal interpretation of the Quran and they sought to harmonise Islam with modern liberal culture.
  • They wanted to impart a distinct socio-cultural identity to Muslims on modern lines. Soon, Aligarh became the centre of religious and cultural revival of the Muslim community

Add ons:

  • Syed’s progressive social ideas were propagated through his magazine Tahdhib-ul-Akhlaq (Improvement of Manners and Morals).


  • Though initially espousing Hindu-Muslim unity, he became the pioneer of Muslim nationalism in India and is widely credited as the father of the two-nation theory, which formed the basis of the Pakistan movement


Consider the following statements regarding ‘Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’:

1. He completely opposed western scientific education

2. He advocated for active participation of Muslims in national politics

3. He was the founding member of All India Muslim League

Which of the statements given above is/are correct?

(a) 1 only

(b) 2 and 3 only

(c) 1 and 3 only

(d) None of the above