The Guy on the Shop’s Shutters

If you’re wondering who the person is on our shutters (very kindly painted by artist 0707) it is a 19th Century Indian called Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan. More about him is written below, but in summary, he was a man well-able to read, discuss and think about issues of culture and religion, both his own and others. He engaged across boundaries.

Why is his picture not quite finished? Well, he was still seeking after truth when he died. He was not quite the finished article. May we cross boundaries, seek after truth and not finish before we have found it.

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan 

David Coffey has completed a doctorate on Muslim-Christian dialogue in nineteenth-century India. He now works for the Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies in Oxford. This summary of his research seminar given on February 23rd 2003 shows how historical studies can be relevant to present-day relationships.

Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) and William Muir (1819-1905) were contemporaries who interacted with each other through a formative period in east-west relationships; a period of rapid development of ideas and occasions of violence. Their backgrounds as well as their conceptual approaches were similar, and they were both powerful forces for inter-communal understanding and peace.

Muir was of mercantile aristocracy in Scotland, and Khan of a noble family in Delhi, but neither knew financial security and both lost their fathers as young men. Both received a good education, and both entered the service of the East India Company in 1837, Khan as a subaltern judge of the Criminal Court in Delhi and Muir to work on assessments of land revenue in Bombay.

Amidst so many similarities, there was one major difference: Muir was a member of the ruling British people, while Khan was a member of the subject Indian people. It would not have been surprising had Khan had inimical attitude to Britons and to British rule. He believed, however, that Muslim rule had not gone by accident; and he viewed India as a heterogeneous nation that must almost inevitably be ruled by others.

The 19th century in India was a period when Muslims and Christians strove to set forth their respective views in an alien culture. It was also a time when Indians rebelled against British rule, culminating in the Indian rebellion of 1857 which divided the Muslim and Christian communities. During the conflict, Khan saved the lives of British citizens at Bijnore, where he was a judge. Muir was, at that time, head of the Intelligence department in Agra. He had to shut himself and his family in the Agra Fort for safety during the actual rebellion, but was later able to protect Muslim communities in Delhi from repercussions and to restore property to victims of war. He was also responsible for preserving Islamic shrines such as the Pearl Mosque at Agra and the Jamay Mosque in Delhi from intended destruction by the British.

In the aftermath of the rebellion, both Muir and Khan embarked on a series of social, political and educational measures to bring together the Muslim and Christian communities. Muir worked on some of the conditions underlying the anger against the British, by bringing in reforms of land revenues. Khan worked on British perceptions of Muslims, by writing two books to challenge the idea that the rebellion was an Islamic Jihad against the British[1] and to chart the loyalty of many Muslims to Britain[2]. Perhaps their greatest achievements were in education, Muir establishing Muir College and University in Allahabad (1858) and assisting Khan in the establishment of Aligarh Muslim University (1875).

Underlying all this is a remarkable history of scholarship, and of discussion and friendship between the two men.

Both took great pains to understand, and enable others to understand, the other culture and faith. Khan not only studied European thinking extensively, but was, to the end of his life, involved in introducing Muslims to western thinking at Aligarh. His many books included the beginnings of a serious bi-lingual (Urdu and English) biblical commentary, The Mahomedan Commentary on the Holy Bible[3]. This argues for the authenticity of the Biblical text over against higher criticism, and then points out truths in Genesis 1-11 and Matthew 1-5 that are also found in the Qur`an and Hadith.

Muir became one of the foremost western scholars of Islam, and was eventually Principal of Edinburgh University and President of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. His Life of Mahomet (2 volumes, 1858 and 1861) was, at the time, an enormous step forward in understanding. It was based on extensive use of original sources, many of which were not yet printed, and held the field as the standard presentation, in English, of the career of the prophet of Islam[4] for many years.

As well as studying the other’s faith, both worked on understanding and communicating their own. Their extensive religious writings indicate an interaction so close that it can be termed `symbiotic`. In them, Khan and Muir developed, from Muslim and Christian perspectives, an approach of basing dialogue on admitted truths – that is, on truths that are admitted in both the Qur`an and the Bible. They saw the foremost among these as the trustworthiness of the Biblical Scriptures, the unique place of Jesus, and the nature and activity of God. This working from common ground on the basis of thorough study of both Muslim and Christian sources and western critical scholarship enabled a fascinating exchange in which Muir and Khan were able to develop understanding of each other’s positions, to develop their understandings of their own faiths, and to argue for the truth of what they believed in a peaceful manner[5].

Over the years, a close friendship was built up. It is evidenced by and exchange of letters which exemplifies their desire for good personal relationships even when they held differing views.

In 1869, Khan and his two sons went to England where one, Sayyid Mahmud, was recommended by Muir for a scholarship at Cambridge. While there, Khan wrote critically about British education policy in India and Muir called his statements into question. Khan asked whether Muir had accused him of a direct falsehood. Muir’s response reflects his concern to clarify the issue: “My dear Sayyid Khan, I should never had dreamt of imputing to you anything approaching to a misstatement of facts. I differed, and still differ, as to the inferences drawn by you therefrom; but that implies no disparagement whatever of yourself.” Khan immediately replied: “My dear Sir William Muir, I cannot tell you what a load your most kind and most gratifying letter of the 9th instant had taken off my mind. I thank you most heartily for having condescended to reply to my letter so soon, and I shall take the first opportunity of waiting on you at Allahabad in order personally to express my thanks.”[6]

Neither Muir’s nor Khan’s career escaped controversy. They debate with each other, but others have also debated with them. In his time, Muir was widely respected, but he has more recently been criticised for the negative aspects of his treatment of Muhammad[7]. Khan’s programme of understanding his faith rationally and in the light of modern thought led some Muslims to see him as an enemy of Islam[8].

However, the legacy of these two figures remains. Khan has been described as the most important religious thinker in the context of Islamic modernism in India[9] and, as recently as 1989, Hourani stated that “Muir’s books on Muhammad and the Caliphate are…still not quite superseded”[10].

Published with the kind permission of the author

[1] The Causes of the Indian Mutiny, Moradabad, 1858.

[2] An Account of the Loyal Muhammadans of India, 3 parts, Meerut, 1860-61.

[3] Published privately in three parts, Gazipore, 1862-65.

[4] C.J. Lyall, “Obituary notices: Sir William Muir”, in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1905, p876.

[5] See, for example, C.W. Troll, Sayyid Ahmad Khan: A reinterpretation of Muslim theology, New Delhi, 1978, chapter 4.

[6] G.F.I. Graham, The Life and Work of Syed Ahmad Khan, Edinburgh , 1885, p136.

[7] J.M. Buaben, Image of the Prophet Muhammad in the West, Leicester, 1996, p41.

[8] See J.M.S. Baljon, The Reforms and Religious Ideas of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Leiden, 1949.

[9] A. Ahmad, Islamic Modernism in India and Pakistan 1857 – 1960, Oxford, 1967, F. Rahman, Islam, New York, 1968.

[10] A. Hourani, Europe and the Middle East, London, 1989, p34.