People & Society

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s case for modern education

Updated Feb 07, 2019 10:01pm


Sir Syed with the first Muslim high court judge (left) and Sir Syed's son (right) |
Sir Syed with the first Muslim high court judge (left) and Sir Syed's son (right) |

Translation by Mushtaq Bilal

Part of the collection titled Last Essays, the following article was written between March 1897 and March 1898. In it, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan explores the phenomenon of supply and demand and how it has moulded the quest for religious and modern education.

There is a universal rule equally applicable to every age and nation. There are no exceptions to this rule. There cannot be any exceptions at all. The rule is: only the thing that is valuable is found in excess. In English, this rule employs the terms ‘demand’ and ‘supply’.

‘Demand’ and ‘supply’ are terms of political economy. In place of these terms, however, we will use the terms ‘value’ and ‘excess’ to account for both material and non-material objects.

There is another universal rule: whatever is done in the world is done for some purpose. Sometimes the purpose is to get paid and sometimes it is to excel in a particular field, which then creates a sense of accomplishment in an individual. Sometimes the purpose is to achieve a certain kind of distinction that is valued by people. Sometimes the purpose is just to help others without any reward and sometimes the purpose is to seek Allah’s blessings. Because of these reasons, whatever is valued is found in excess.

For example, poetry was extremely popular during jahiliyya, the Age of Ignorance in Arabia (1). Poets would gather in Okaz market every year to recite their poetry. Every poet aspired to best his competitor and wanted to achieve a sense of pride. Society accorded a great deal of respect to the best poet and he would become famous in the Arabian Peninsula. This was their reason for writing poetry and that is why poetry had value in Arabia. Poetry enjoyed enormous popularity during this age. Qasidahs (2) written by the most popular poets would be displayed in the Kaaba. Seven of these qasidahs are known and famous to this day. With the advent of Islam, idolatry and the practice of writing laudatory poetry for idols was forbidden. God said, “Only those who are lost in error follow the poets. Do you not see how they rove aimlessly in every valley; how they say what they do not do?”(3) So poetry no longer had as much value as it did during the jahiliyyah and it lost its prestige.

In Kitab at-tafsir al-kabir, Imam Fakhr ad-Din ar-Razi provides a valuable insight that with the advent of Islam, poets stopped telling lies and started speaking the truth as a result of which their poetry lost its force and was no longer popular. After Lubaid and Hassan embraced Islam (4), their poetry lost the finesse and suppleness it had before when they were not Muslims. There were some poets of the jahiliyyah still writing poetry when Islam was still a new religion. People who were born in the early days of Islam were influenced by these poets of the jahiliyyah. Farzook quotes such an example: when Hishām ibn Abd al-Malik went to perform Hajj, he could not make it to the Black Stone while circumambulating the Kaaba because the Black Stone was surrounded by a huge crowd.

But when our grandfather, Imam Zayn al-Abidin, reached the Black Stone while circumambulating the Kaaba, the crowd quickly parted to give way to the Imam. A Syrian asked Hisham about the person for whom the crowd had parted. Hisham replied casually that he had no idea who that person was. Farzook, the poet, who was standing nearby found Hisham’s remark very disrespectful. He started reciting extempore a qasidah in the honour of Imam Zayn al-Abidin. Here are some of the verses from that qasidah:

These verses could be translated as: This is a man whose footprint is even known to Mecca’s soil. The house of God, the antediluvian Earth, and all the plains and jungles on Earth know him. His father is the best of all human beings. He is pure and sacred and is known to all. He is a son of Fatima, even though you do not know him. His grandfather was the last of God’s prophets. He is so generous that he has never even uttered the word ‘no’. The only time he utters the word ‘no’ is when he recites the shahada. If it wasn’t mandatory to say ‘no’ in the shahada he would have said ‘yes’.

Poetry regained its popularity during the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates but it changed colours. The verses no longer had the passion of the jahiliyya nor did they have the same lucidity and finesse. But the subjects had become deeper and more delicate, subjects that no one could even think of during the jahiliyya. And beautiful words, which had been sidelined by the jahiliyya tradition of writing simple verse, found their place in poetry. But even then, this poetry was no match with that of the jahiliyya. Zahuri and Naziri have done a lot of versification and explored a variety of subjects in Farsi poetry. But compared to the unadorned simplicity and grace of Hafez’s verse, their poetry was no match at all.

After the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, poetry kept losing its value and popularity. These days, Arabic poetry is in such depths of neglect that even I can call myself an Arabic poet even though I have never written a single verse in Arabic nor can I write one. I cannot even read an Arabic verse properly. This effectively establishes that if there is no demand for a good, there will not be any supply of that particular good. In other words, if something does not have value, it will not be found in excess.

But one must keep in mind that a thing which has any use in the world never loses its value as long as it is not replaced or superseded by something better. In case of professions, people no longer choose a particular trade or there is no longer any reason for it to survive. So things lose their value. Poetry is such a thing that is valued as a profession. Once the demand for poetry dies, there will no longer be any supply for it.

Not much prose has reached us from the jahiliyya. Whatever scraps of prose have reached us cannot be completely trusted to be from the jahiliyya. Whatever poetry or speeches reach us from the early period of Islam cannot be completely trusted either because they reach us through tradition. The only text that can be trusted from that era is the Quran.

We regard the Quran to be the word of God. But when the word of God is revealed in a human language, we have to consider it along with the literature of that particular era. The text of the Quran is inimitable and no one has been able to produce anything like that and, we believe, no one will be. We have already demonstrated how Arabic literature declined over time and so it is not difficult to predict that there will never be any text like the Quran. These are the reasons why we cannot demonstrate how Arabic prose declined since the jahiliyya. The most eloquent Arab writers could not produce anything similar to the Quran and so we can believe that it was impossible to imitate the Quran.

One feels extremely sorry for those who think or argue that the language used in the Quran is inconsistent and that certain verses are very beautiful while certain others are less so. The source of this argument is their lack of comprehension. One must use the language best suited to the content of the message. One cannot convey the prospects of heavenly pleasure and the horrors of hell using the same kind of language, and, if one does this, one’s speech is not going to be eloquent.

When one intends to warn somebody of the dangers and perils of hell, one uses a certain set of words and sentence structures to convey the tone of warning. And when one intends to talk about love and affection and mercy, one uses a different set of words and sentence structures. When one narrates an incident, one uses simple words and unambiguous sentence structures for better comprehension. The Quran employs the best set of words and sentence structures to talk about a certain subject, as a result of which the manner in which a subject is mentioned in the Quran is matchless. Therefore, the argument that the Quran does not have a certain uniformity of expression is nonsensical.

The prose writers writing during the time of the Umayyads and the Abbasids had a high opinion of their prose but compared to the Quran it was utterly bland and insipid. Their prose did also not have the brevity and crispness of the prose produced during the jahiliyya, nor did these writers write about any of the themes that were explored by the prose writers of the jahiliyya.

The most sacred branch of knowledge is the field of hadith studies. During the time of Caliphs Abu Bakr and Umar, recording of any hadith in written form was prohibited. Caliph Umar personally prohibited people from recording any hadiths by writing them down. Those who did were punished by being whipped. Ibn Masud, Abu Darda and Abu Mas’ud Al-Ansari were incarcerated for writing down hadiths. Caliph Abu Bakr burnt whatever hadiths he had collected.

Although it is difficult to pin down the exact time when the practice of recording hadiths started, one can safely assume that this practice would have started after the death of Caliph Umar. The companions of Prophet Muhammad (may upon him be peace) started the tradition of recording hadiths and we can be sure that their intention was nothing but to seek Allah’s blessings.

During that time, hadiths were memorised. Those companions of Prophet Muhammad (may upon him be peace) who memorised the greatest number of hadiths were admired by their contemporaries. After the companions of Prophet Muhammad (may upon him be peace), the narrators of hadiths were also held in high esteem. Since narrators of hadiths were accorded respect, people started fabricating hadiths. They would just cook up something that resembled a hadith and fabricate a chain of narration to go with it and then claim that it was said by Prophet Muhammad (may upon him be peace). As a result of this, later scholars of hadith faced a lot of difficulties and they had to devise various methodologies to separate genuine hadiths from fabricated ones.

The tradition of memorising and narrating hadiths died down once scholars started compiling them in the form of books. The extensive research conducted by these scholars of hadiths and books like Imam Malik’s Muwatta made the tradition of memorising hadiths redundant.

Similarly, the collection of hadiths compiled by Muhammad Ismail Bukhari made the practice of memorising hadiths superfluous. The need to memorise hadiths was completely eliminated once all six – or rather seven – books of Kutub al-Sittah had been compiled. The practice of memorising hadiths had lost its value and there was no longer any demand for it.

Sir Syed enjoys an evening at his home with a group of Muslim intellectuals |
Sir Syed enjoys an evening at his home with a group of Muslim intellectuals |

The field of hadith studies then grew dependent on the books knows as Kutub al-Sittah. But there was still the need for biographical evaluation of those who had narrated hadiths and this was primarily done through narration. Over time, a collection of biographies known as Al-Kamal fi Asma' al-Rijal was compiled and the practice of recording the biographies of the narrators of hadiths through memorisation was dismissed. Thereafter, there was no more demand for the tradition of recording through narration.

Now the field of hadith studies has been confined to the reading of these books of hadith. Initially, those who could trace the chain of their teachers to one of the writers of the books of hadith were admired but then this trend too died down. Nowadays, a teacher of hadith considers his student as having read a whole book of hadith even if the student has only read certain parts of the book. But scholars of hadith continued to be held in the highest esteem by every Muslim. The personal traits and habits of these scholars of hadith also deserved unqualified admiration. Later, scholars of hadith did not have similar kinds of personal traits and habits and they were no longer revered; therefore, the study of hadiths declined and soon went out of fashion.

These days the books of Kutub al-Sittah are available with detailed exegesis of each and every hadith. The books of Al-Kamal fi Asma' al-Rijal can also be found in expanded forms. Anyone who knows how to read Arabic can read these books without any help from a teacher. No teacher can teach more than what is written in a particular book of hadith. These days no one reads a whole book of hadith. A teacher will confer a certificate of having read a whole book of hadith even if the student has only read a few pages of the book. Rarely does one come across a student who has gone through a whole book of hadith.

The second most sacred field of knowledge after hadith studies is that of fiqh. Before scholars had started engaging in ijtihad, people would follow whatever hadiths there were. Once the books of hadith were compiled, people started following the hadiths written in these books or they would follow scholars familiar with these books of hadith. Then books on Usul al-Fiqh started getting compiled and the four imams gained prominence in Sunni Islam. People started following imams nearer to them in terms of geography and the trend of taqlid gained popularity. Scholars stopped consulting the Quran and the hadith and instead restricted themselves to interpretative writings of these imams. As a result of this, the capacity to engage in ijtihad declined.

Initially, there were some scholars known as Murajjiheen fil ar-Riwayah who were familiar with the source of every injunction and knew how a particular injunction had been justified in the Quran and the Sunnah. With the production of expansive books on fiqh, Murajjiheen fil ar-Riwayah lost their appeal and went out of fashion. These days, jurists and judges consult only the books on fiqh and restrict themselves to whatever extracts of hadith are there in these books. They neither know what the source of a particular injunction is nor the justification behind that injunction. The real faqeeh is the one who does not consult an extract of a hadith to give a fatwa.

Nowadays, there is a faction that calls itself the Ahle Hadith. Among its detractors, this group is known as Wahhabists. People belonging to this faction argue that they do not follow anything but the hadiths and that they do not engage in taqlid. But they too engage in taqlid because they do not read the vast body of hadith creatively and consider it haram. The Ahle Hadith follows the hadiths the way these were recorded hundreds of years ago. Ahle Hadith engage in taqlid more than those who follow the four imams. They follow the narrators and recorder of the hadith. This shows that the supply of a particular thing is dependent on its demand. If there is no demand, there will not be any supply.

Then comes philosophy. Some scholars of Islam were really proud of their knowledge of philosophy while others declared it haram. Some scholars even went to the extent of declaring logic haram since it was also considered part of philosophy.

The philosophy that we have today has come to us through idol-worshiping Greeks. This philosophy is primarily occupied with ideas and unknown phenomena. So this should also be considered as a profession, but philosophy does not lead us towards incontestable truths.

Discussions on essence (5), form, and the smallest indivisible particle consume the lives of philosophers.

Islamic scholars invented the field of Ilm al-Kalam to combat philosophy. There were some philosophical problems that entered the field of Ilm al-Kalam but these were very few, probably none, because these Islamic scholars were experts in the field of philosophy. This led to the inevitable decline of philosophy and its demand vanished.

The field of literature gained prominence when kings started valuing it and teaching religious texts became compulsory. There have been very few people who learnt the Arabic language or acquired any competence in Arabic or religious studies to seek Allah’s blessings. People learned Arabic and acquired the knowledge of Arabic and religious studies because it promised them good jobs in the fields of judiciary and governance. The success of military campaigns depended on the knowledge of these fields and scholars were not only held in the highest esteem by the masses but also given gifts and grants. That was the incentive for acquiring knowledge in these fields. Once there was no longer any demand for these expertise, their supply declined.

Surprisingly, there used to be a lot of Sufis in earlier times but these days one rarely comes across one and, when we do come across one, we realise that present-day Sufis are no match for their predecessors. Whatever the reason for this phenomenon, it can be argued that demand and supply are directly proportional as is evident in this case too.

In earlier times, the biggest problem that scholars faced was that of the lack of freedom of expression. If a scholar researched a controversial topic that went against the established religious norms of the day, he would not express his opinion; and if he did, he would be faced with imprisonment and even death. As a result of this, scholars stopped conducting research in matters of religion. Al-Ghazali was courageous enough to publish papers like Faysal al-Tafriqa Bayna al-Islam wa al-Zandaqa (The Criterion for Distinguishing Islam from Apostasy). He was lucky to escape the wrath of Malik-Shah I, the sultan of the Seljuk empire because he could otherwise have been killed. His magnum opus, Ihya ulum al-din (The Revival of the Religious Studies), was a brilliant contribution and employed latest research methodologies. But the book was banned and burnt. A recent example is that of Shah Waliullah who was a great scholar of hadith. He also used modern research methods to conduct his research and even though he is considered a great scholar of hadith, his work was neither valued during his time nor has it received any validation after his death.

These days everyone has freedom of expression but now there aren’t any genuine scholars of religion as there were in earlier times. Present-day scholars, of both Muqallid and Ahle Hadith schools of thought, are nothing more than followers. These scholars lack originality and are merely plodders. There is a group of scholars which is committed to reviving the field of Arabic studies and we wish them all the luck but if there is no demand for their wares, there won’t be any supply.

In earlier times, generous grants from sultans and philanthropists and the prestigious social status accorded to scholars of Arabic studies kept the field alive and vibrant. There used to be a demand for Arabic studies which is no longer there. And there cannot be any supply without demand. There might be a few good-natured people who would like to acquire the knowledge of religion to seek Allah’s blessings but for millions of Muslims this cannot be motivation enough:

When I start praying at night,

the first thought that comes to my mind is

what will my children eat in the morning. (6)

But one can certainly earn his living by becoming an imam of a mosque or by teaching fiqh. And one can also choose to live like a secluded dervish.

These days there are a lot of madrasas that specialise in teaching Arabic studies but since there is no demand for Arabic studies, the condition of these madrasas is not enviable. They are a disaster for the populace. Muslims who learn the English language instead, often have to face accusations hurled at them — as the act of hurling false accusations on those who learn English is considered a religious duty. People who sympathise with both points of view are asked to “believe, as the others believe”; they reply, “Should we believe as the fools do?” and Allah says, “but they are the fools (7).” Our students of English counter-argue that people in earlier times did what was in demand then and today they do as is in demand these days. Henceforth, there is no difference between those learning English in the present and those who learnt Arabic in the past.

English language speakers argue that there is no need for them to learn Arabic since the scholarship available in Arabic is not only dated but also suffers from glaring mistakes and errors. There are various new and emerging fields of knowledge and they argue that they should either acquire proficiency in a new field of knowledge or an established field of knowledge that employs modern methodologies of research and pedagogy.

Scholars of religion criticise those who are learning English for their lack of religious knowledge. Students of English say that the reason they are not interested in reading religious books is because religious scholars have adulterated the archive of religious scholarship by adding arguments which have clearly been proved false. The students argue that these religious scholars will be punished in the afterlife because God and the Prophet (may upon him be peace) never meant to include the injunctions which these scholars have ended up including in the archive of religious scholarship. The students accuse these religious scholars of being unable to reconcile modern scholarship with religious scholarship and ask them to come up with a revived version of Ilm al-Kalam the way their predecessors did to counter Greek philosophy. According to these students, it is religious scholars’ responsibility to modernise the field of religious studies, but they warn the scholars to engage in this intellectual enterprise with a serious mind and sincerity lest they end up becoming a laughing stock.

A vast majority of religious scholars accuse those who are learning English of having compromised their faith. They even accuse these students of being apostates. There could be a few who fit this description but I personally don’t know anyone who does. But I do know certain people whose faith is severely compromised and they cannot speak a single word in English. If I did not believe in Islam being a tolerant religion, I would have certainly declared people like them non-Muslims.

People conversant in English are often considered heretics. Moreover, it is also assumed that they are completely unfamiliar with religious affairs. This might be the case with universities and missionary institutions in England. In addition to faculty, European universities often have a dedicated person who looks after the religious affairs of the student body. Such a person is designated as the dean of a college. We too have a very accomplished scholar in our college who looks after the religious matters of our students. His advice in religious matters benefits the students. Students in our college regularly offer salat al-jama'ah (congregational prayer). They are taught about religious beliefs and the history of Islam. Those who study Arabic as a second language (8) read these books in Arabic while others read them in Farsi. The assumption that our students are not familiar with religious matters is completely false. There are very few boys who practice religion as regularly and sincerely as the students in our college.

As far as unfamiliarity with religious affairs is concerned, I am yet to hear of a family whose boys are not studying English and are completely familiar with their religious duties. Or was there ever a family in the past whose boys were completely familiar with their religious duties? Or even adults? Apart from a small section of the society, the vast majority of Muslims are completely unfamiliar with their religious duties and obligations. Our students are much better off than the majority of Muslims as far as familiarity with their religious obligations is concerned. People are free to say whatever they want to.

Some religious scholars argue that if Muslims want to excel in their religion, they should start studying it backwards and not vice versa since by going backwards they will reach the companions of the prophet and eventually the Prophet Muhammad (may upon him be peace) himself. They fail to understand that while it certainly is possible to start backwards, it is impossible to reach the companions of the prophet or Prophet Muhammad (may upon him be peace) himself. I fear that if they keep going backwards, they will end up in a ditch. I would like to request these scholars to refrain from dispensing such advice. The present condition of Muslims is far from fortunate and they have lost respect the world over. If we go back any further, we might end up being completely obliterated. These religious scholars and their fake piety have stripped the Muslim body down to its underwear. Now do they want to take off the underwear too?

Our clear and fearless advice to Muslims is: Islam is a highly prestigious religion and expertise in worldly affairs, fame and wealth does not have any effect on its prestige. The prestige of Islam is dependent on the prestige accorded to Muslims. Islam is not an idol separate from the Muslim body politic that is worship in the Kaaba or a temple. If we go through the history of Islam, we will see that Islam and Muslims ruled the world when Muslims excelled not only in religious matters but also in worldly affairs. There are some scholars (probably Hanafi scholars) who argue that by studying English, one’s faith is compromised. They must realise that faith neither increases nor diminishes. They must reflect on these notions sincerely because there is no dichotomy between the desire to excel in religious matters as well as in worldly affairs. Instead of preaching that Muslims must go against the grain, these scholars should ask Muslims to keep abreast of the latest developments in the world. “God guides whoever He wills to a straight path. (9)”

Translated by Mushtaq Bilal


1) The Age of Ignorance, or jahiliyyah, is a term used to refer to the pre-Islamic era in Arabia.

2) Qasidah is a genre of poetry developed in pre-Islamic Arabic that is still in practice today. It is often a laudatory or elegiac poem.

(3) Quran Chapter 26 Verses 224 - 226. The Qur’an: A New Translation by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 238.

(4) Original footnote: Lubaid and Hassan were two famous poets. Hassan would compose qasidahs for Prophet Muhammad (may upon him be peace) and answers to satirical poems written by non-believers.

(5) Original footnote: Essence: The thing which makes a certain entity or substance. The reality of everything. Scholars have also defined it as the space where the physical form takes shape. Also known as the first cause. Form: The quality of a body that separates it from all other existences. Smallest indivisible particle: The smallest entity that cannot be divided any further. Greek philosophers were of the view that even the smallest indivisible particle is also divisible and tried to prove it. Islamic scholars, also known as Mutakalimin, were opposed to this view. They argued that if a body is infinitely divisible then the constituents of a single mustard seed could be used to cover the whole of earth. If there is no smallest indivisible particle then the process of division is infinite and a single mustard seed can be divided into infinite particles. Since the surface area of the earth is finite, the infinite number of constituents of a single mustard seed will easily cover the whole of the earth’s surface area and a superfluous quantity of these constituents will be left. These philosophical terms have been explained in simple words for the benefit of readers.

(6) This is a loose translation of a verse by Saadi. The verse in Persian reads: شب چو عقد نماز می‌بندم چه خورد بامداد فرزندم

(7) Quran Chapter 2 verse 13. The Qur’an: A New Translation by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 5.

(8) Here Sir Syed Ahmad Khan uses the English expression “second language”.

(9) Quran Chapter 24 verse 46. The Qur’an: A New Translation by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 224.

A translation of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan's essay on religious and secular education for Muslims of the Subcontinent.

Mushtaq Bilal is a Fulbright doctoral fellow at the Department of Comparative Literature at the State University of New York at Binghamton. His book Writing Pakistan: Conversations on Identity, Nationhood and Fiction was published in 2016.