Was Sir Syed Ahmed Khan A Nationalist Or A Communalist?

The question of whether the nineteenth-century Muslim reformer Syed Ahmed Khan, later known as Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, was a nationalist or a communalist, is particularly daunting. Complex as these terminologies and their nuances are, particularly in the context of Muslims of South Aisa, one finds that Sir Syed evinced characteristics of both of these distinct forms of ideology.

Distinguishing between communalism and nationalism is a perplexing task, especially when being regarded in relation with someone who led movements and pioneered new horizons for a victimised people. To attempt at definition, communalism can be understood as an ardent inclination of an ethnoreligious group that perceives its deep foundations as being threatened. Such a feeling especially rears its head when the equilibrium of a society where a number of ethnicities are used to mutually co-exist is violently jolted by actors who seek to fulfil their own evil designs. Such actions prove to be the recipe for the awakening of communal consciousness.

Nationalism, on the other hand, is broader, in both intensity and extent, in that it is a feeling shared by a huge group of people who share a common cultural heritage, language, territory, religion and/or a slew of other commonalities.

Quoting a snippet from Aasim Sajjad's book Politics of Common Sense, “National identity should be seen as rooted in historically shared symbols such as language, territory and broader aspects of culture.” This is one of many definitions advanced about “nationalism” by many scholars, none of which are incontrovertible. Sir Syed’s nationalism stands in line with the grand social movement which he spearheaded for his community, i.e. the Muslims.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan is known as the intellectual pioneer of the second wave of Muslim nationalism. The context in which Sir Syed’s services to the Muslim community proved to be so important was the particularly intense confusion of the time. Being intellectually established, and out of love for the people he belonged to, Sir Syed burned the midnight oil to remove these confusions and usher his people to a modern education system which was the need of the hour. These acts provide us with the vestiges of nationalism for which he is most commonly known.

Nadeem F. Paracha, in his article published in Dawn on August 18, 2016, “The Forgotten Future: Sir Syed And The Birth Of Muslim Nationalism In South Asia”, writes: “Pakistan nationalism is the direct outcome of Muslim nationalism, which emerged in India in the 19th century. Its intellectual pioneer was Sir Syed Ahmad Khan.” This remark places Sir Syed’s work squarely under nationalism. The most important reason behind Sir Syed Ahmed Khan's nationalistic as well as communal motivations stemmed from the War of Independence of 1857 that proved to a water-shed for the politics of British India. As is well known, the British held Muslims directly responsible for the “mutiny.” As Waheed-uz-Zaman writes in his book Towards Pakistan: “All competent observers agree that after the holocaust of 1857 the Indian Muslims came under a dark cloud.”

Aware that the Muslims had been the rulers for a thousand years, it was but natural for the British to look at them as their arch-enemies who were making efforts to regain their foregone empire. Muslims were also unyielding and tough in their resistance. Since Muslims were averse to western education as well as to the ruling system, there emerged a huge battleground of cultural and social mores between Muslims and the British. This was the time when Sir Syed Ahmed Khan wrote his famous essay on “The Causes of the Indian Revolt.” At the same time, he launched a new movement of Muslim renaissance.

Syed Ahmed was more of a social reformer than a politician. He harnessed his nationalistic feelings for his community for the revival of Indian Muslims rather than aligning himself with a political party. As Dr. Waheed-uz-Zaman writes, “He was neither a politician nor a political leader. He was essentially a social reformer and his panacea for all the ills of his community was education."

In fact, politics was amongst his pet aversions. Nevertheless, his ideas on modernising Muslims and making them more accepting of the new scientific age influenced a plethora of Muslim intellectuals, scholars, poets and other educated people. At the same time, his ideas irked conservative Muslims who considered him an enemy of Islam.

Another thing by which we can judge him to be nationalist were his organised form of endeavours to take his community out of the chasm of ignorance, the pride of faith, religiosity and other tendencies that can have debilitating effects. His two-fold strategy in the aftermath of the War of Independence – convincing the British, on one hand, that Muslims were not solely responsible for the Indian revolt, and, on the other hand, bringing Muslims in the fold of the western educational system to keep them away from politics – is a manifestation of his care and love for his community which was in a very dark pit at the time. Moreover, the substantial objectives of the Aligarh movement to persuade Muslims to keep away from politics, to introduce modern western education to Muslims and to create a mutual understanding between the British and Muslims were all meaningful efforts with Muslim nationalistic zest and zeal. Hence, by examples and quotes, it is clear that Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was a Muslim nationalist who laboriously travailed for his community for the sole purpose of bringing them up to speed with the modern world and instilling in them the thirst of science and education.

These are all the reasons that point toward the nationalistic character of Sir Syed’s mission. However, the point here to confirm is whether he was also a communalist or not. Communalism can be recognised with the moment when one community marks itself as distinct and discrepant with other communities sharing the same territory, and attempts to “part its way” from them and to work out the social problems of its members by itself. Religion is a major point that generates these discrepancies.

Examining Sir Syed’s letters and speeches, one finds clear evidence that he was a communalist in line with the protection of Muslim rights and educating them. Around 1867, Sir Syed was posted in Benares from where he wrote to the Viceroy, on behalf of the British Indian Association, asking for his help to build a vernacular university and a bureau of translation to translate books from English to Urdu. This proposal was countervailed by Hindu hardliners with an opposing proposal to replace the Urdu language written in Persian script in government offices with the Hindi language written in Devanagari script. This Hindi-Urdu controversy sent seismic waves of shock to Syed Ahmed Khan. Dr Waheed-uz-Zaman quotes Syed Ahmed’s biographer: “It was the first occasion when he [Syed Ahmed] felt that it was now impossible for the Hindus and Muslims to progress as a single nation." Further Dr Waheed-uz-Zaman quotes a British Commissioner of Benares with whom Syed Ahmed Khan met to discuss the problems of Muslim education: “‘This is the first occasion,’ he said, ‘when I have heard you speak about the progress of Muslims alone. Hitherto you have always been keen about the welfare of Indians in general.’” By these excerpts, it becomes evident that communal instincts began in Syed Ahmed Khan when he perceived the threat to Muslim identity at the hands of another community. This motivated him to do something different, thereby pioneering the two-nations theory. However, it must be borne in mind that he was not anti-Hindu. Notwithstanding his communal as well as nationalistic propensities, Syed Ahmed Khan was also, at times, in favour of a united India where Muslims and other communities could live harmoniously with mutual understanding. One bright example of this can be found from the event in 1864 when he appointed his durable friend, Raja Jai Kishan, Das as manager of the translation society whose object was to translate books from European languages into Urdu. This society was later developed into the Aligarh scientific movement.

In a nutshell, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was the intellectual pioneer of Muslim nationalism in South Asia. The Aligarh movement, establishment of the Anglo-Oriental College translation bureaus and several other nation-building enterprises affirm the nationalism of Syed Ahmed Khan. Architecting the two-nations theory could be called the point where Sir Syed Ahmed Khan first evinced signs of communalism in his mission. In the volatile climate of politics in India in the 19th Century, Syed Ahmed Khan was, therefore, both a nationalist and a communalist within the changing contexts and political atmosphere of the time.