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Three theses concerning religion are now generally accepted by all enlightened students as well as practicing followers of different religions: (a) every religion is rooted in man's existential response to the mystery of the universe, (b) every religion is a nuclear core of relatively abstract ontological convictions or dogmas, and basic ethical values embedded in a concrete and extensive peripheral system of beliefs, laws, institutions, customs and folklore, and (c) the nuclear core rather than the peripheral beliefs and institutions constitute the stable identity and vital breath of the religion. Great religious thinkers attempt, from time to time, to distil the nuclear essence of a religious tradition from the tangled web of the socio-cultural environment of the religion concerned. Ram Mohan Roy, Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Tagore, Gandhiji and others performed this vital task for the Hindu tradition, while Tolstoy, Inge, Niebhur, Tillich and others for the Christian. More than a century ago Sir Syed did the same for Islam in a comprehensive and systematic manner.

Sir Syed was not a professionally trained philosopher, social scientist or historian. But his extraordinarily sharp intellect, intuitive insight and commonsense, and, above all, his intellectual honesty and moral courage enabled him to accept the above-mentioned theses. Taking his authentic faith in Islam as his point of departure Sir Syed proceeded to distil the nuclear core of Islam from its concrete historical forms in the past as well as in his own milieu. Indeed, Sir Syed himself adhered to the ideas of his Muslim milieu until he was about 45, though he had already come under the influence of the great philosophical theologian of Islam in the 18t century, Shah Waliullah of Delhi. It is instructive to recall that in his early phase Sir Syed criticized, in writing, the Copernican theory. Sir Syed also thought that Islam demanded complete adherence to the example of the Prophet in every walk and detail of life. However, in his mature phase Sir Syed outgrew this approach without rejecting the core concepts and values of Islam. Those who were unable to appreciate the growth in his ideas charged the great man of having abandoned Islam or distorting it for ulterior motives. In reality, Sir Syed remained rooted, as ever, in the eternal verities of Islam but he became open to the scientific humanism of the modern age. Half a century later Abul Kalam Azad went through a similar intellectual and spiritual development and had to face similar charges.

It is tragic that numerous contemporaries of Sir Syed failed to appreciate the genius of the person who they hailed as their leader and savior after the debacle of 1857. It is a continuing tragedy that the study and research on Sir Syed's writings on Islam are almost a taboo in the very university, which is looked upon as the embodiment of the great leader's vision and dedicated concern for the Muslims. Till very recently no collected works of Sir Syed had been published in the subcontinent with the sole exception of the laudable but incomplete 16 volume work, edited by Muhammad Ismail Panipati of Pakistan.

When Sir Syed's famous Urdu journal, Tehzibul Akhlaq, was restarted in the eighties, thanks to the initiative of the then Vice-chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University; the board of editors did not even attempt to capture the spirit or basic approach of the original organ of the Aligarh Movement. The continuity lay only in the name, format, and printing style of the cover; not in the intellectual and spiritual thrust of Sir Syed. Iqbal’s famous work, Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, on the other hand, has commanded far greater attention in the sub-continent than Sir Syed’s work more than half a century before Iqbal arose as an immortal star on the literary firmament.

One of the reasons for this peculiar situation seems to be that despite being a trained philosopher Iqbal never spelled out in detail his reconstruction of basic Islamic concepts and beliefs, while Sir Syed had done just the opposite. Iqbal’s brevity and allusive treatment of complex theological and philosophical themes in the English medium, as also the magic of his poetry made him, far more immune from traditional theological criticism. And the situation has not changed much even after the lapse of a century.

It is perhaps ironical that those very admirers of Sir Syed who celebrate Sir Syed's birth anniversary with much aplomb every year systematically ignore his great contribution to the evolution of Islamic liberalism in the Indian sub-continent. Till very recently his works were deliberately excluded from the syllabus of theological studies at the Aligarh Muslim University. The ulema still dismiss his writings on Islam as encroachments upon their own jurisdiction. Many sober and highly educated university people honestly hold that the curtain of silence that has been lying on the religious views and writings of a great statesman and social reformer should not be lifted at all. The great man should be honored but not read or discussed since any widespread discussion of his religious ideas would, in their honest opinion, open the floodgates of heretical ideas among the younger generation. These persons do not realize that the above approach is highly negative and reprehensible. Surface religious conformity and evasion of truth produce spiritual alienation and unending inner conflict, not genuine faith and felicity. Clarity, candor and conviction are writ large on every line of the voluminous writings of Sir Syed on Islam and they are far more voluminous than those of Iqbal or Abul Kalam Azad. The time is now ripe for their critical reevaluation.   

1. The Sociology of Religion

Every religion is related to a wider social and cultural environment comprising myths, ancient collective memories, tales, anecdotes, proverbs, jokes, folklore, customs, superstitions, images or stereo- typed concepts of various out-groups and so on. All these elements are enmeshed or intertwined with the basic spiritual dogmas, moral values and convictions of the group. The average believer does not separate the above ingredients of his religious tradition. Nor does he bother to distil the nuclear core of the cultural manifold in which he lives, moves and has his being. The ingredients hang together to form an integrated cultural pattern.

The guardians of the group tradition are apt to frown upon any actual or intended departure from the approved total pattern, as if the repudiation of even a small portion were a serious lapse from rectitude. However, one or a few religious leaders are given a measure of discretionary authority to innovate a little under changed conditions. No society can manage to exist as an island in the vast cultural ocean of the human family. Inter-action (both peaceful and violent) between different segments and wings of the human family is the normal socio-cultural mechanism for change and innovation in human affairs. Both the victors and the losers in the ongoing struggle for power change and learn from each other. At times the currents and cross currents of change are so powerful that the values and institutions of the weak and stagnating group become totally incapacitated to cope with the far reaching consequences of inter-action. Under such conditions one or two creative and dedicated souls from within the tradition may feel called upon to examine afresh their cherished concepts and values in the light of the fresh knowledge, insights and experience in the onward march of history. Thus human ideas, values and institutions develop and spread. The flame of progress sometimes flickers, grows dim and even dies out at particular time and place, but the light never entirely disappears from human society, if we view it as a single family of diverse races, religions and cultures. The dusk of culture in one wing of the human family is followed by a fresh dawn in some other.

The early Muslims borrowed from the Greeks and Romans, Iranians, Egyptians, Chinese and Indians and also enriched the family treasure house of human culture and civilization. All impartial historians of ideas and culture agree that the Islamic vision of the early Muslim savants represents a creative advance on the pagan, Jewish and Christian thought and institutions. The early Muslims dominated the others not only in the field of battle but also in the fields of natural science, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, surgery, geography, history, Historiography, logic, metaphysics, literature, music, painting, architecture, statecraft, navigation, agriculture, horticulture, and so on. What the Egyptians, Iranians, Greeks, Indians, and Chinese had done at different times by way of contributing to the ever-incomplete story of man's creativity the early Muslims did in the medieval times.

The western races took up the creative role in the modern era. The key-note of the modern era is the scientific paradigm of knowledge - empirical investigation, framing of tentative verifiable hypotheses or conceptual models for unifying, predicting and controlling the sequence of events here and now. In the above paradigm there is no room for myths, purposive explanations, cosmic moral order, Divine creation, Providence, life after death, angels or the devil, since such concepts are not verifiable in the scientific sense. Though no scientist denies or could, possibly, deny the importance of moral, spiritual and aesthetic values for the harmonious development of the individual and of society, yet the scientific temper of the modern age has bred extreme permissiveness and even indifference to belief or lack of belief in myths, miracles, all speculative theories, astrology, and the like, for the same reason. To the extent extraordinary or paranormal phenomena admit of controlled observation or statistical treatment many leading scientists and thinkers concede their relevance and importance for arriving at a rational and balanced worldview. Otherwise, all unverifiable explanations, which are empirically barren or neutral (devoid of operational significance), are looked upon as hangovers of the pre-scientific stage of human thought.

The scientific revolution started in the 17th century and its impact on religion came to be felt, in a big way after the lapse of more than a century. Earlier the Renaissance and the Reformation had already prepared the mental soil of the west for cultivating inner freedom and rational enquiry instead of the medieval emphasis on faith and the concern for salvation through dogma and miracle. The German Protestant thinker of the 20th century, Bultmann, has called the gradual process of distilling the lasting core beliefs and values of a developed cultural tradition the 'demythologization’ of religion. Bultmann dealt with Christianity, but his concept has a universal and timeless relevance. Indeed, Islam, as preached by the Prophet in its pristine form at Mecca, was itself a demythologized version of the two principal Semitic traditions of the region. In course of time Islam itself built a mythology of its own out of its Semitic roots. Much earlier, Buddha had demythologized Brahmanism, but later Buddhism also spun out its own myths and miracles out of its Indian roots. The same happened in the case of Guru Nanak.

It is in the light of the above framework of ideas that Sir Syed's contribution to Islamic thought should be examined. His authentic faith in Islamic monotheism implying that the Quran was the revealed ‘Word of God’, his sharp and perceptive mind which clearly grasped that the success of the western powers all over the world was based upon superior scientific knowledge, technology and administrative skill, his genuine admiration for British democracy, his intense concern for the rehabilitation of his uprooted fellow Indians after the debacle of 1857 led him to reflect on the proper concept of religion in general and Islam in particular. He put forward a program of education comprising (a) the study of western philosophy, natural and social sciences and (b) formulation of a demythologized approach to Islam based on the Quranic texts and to prune the Islamic tradition from all its Semitic or other cultural accretions during the course of time. In fact, Sir Syed had the same approach to Hinduism, but obviously he was not qualified to speak on the subject. Moreover, he felt that Hindu religious and social reformers had already undertaken this crucial task with very good results.

2. Sir Syed’s Islamic Liberalism

Sir Syed remained firmly rooted, as ever, in the essentials of the Islamic faith. However, he reconstructed some of its basic concepts as philosophical theologians routinely do to keep the faith alive and relevant to the needs of the believers in an ever changing and evolving human situation. Sir Syed took up the following main themes: (a) the traditional belief concerning the mode of Divine revelation through the mediation of the angel, Jibreel (Gabriel), or the Ruhul Quddus (Holy Spirit), (b) the traditional belief that the prophets of God, (including Prophet Muhammad) performed miracles, (c) God sometimes permits nature to depart from its course, (d) the occult powers of the Sufi saints, (e) the over-riding authority and infallibility of Quranic texts in all matters including natural science, (f) the basic principles of Quranic exegesis, (g) the status of Hadees, (h) the proper jurisdiction and scope of religion. I shall deal with the above themes in the given order.

(a) The traditional view is that God revealed Quranic verses piece meal through the agency of the angel, Gabriel, who used to appear before the Prophet sometimes as an angel (visible only to the Prophet) and sometimes in human form visible to others also. Gabriel, according to the traditional view, used to recite the verses, which got imprinted on the Prophet's consciousness and retained in his memory without effort or error. At his first convenience the Prophet dictated the verses to one of his several scribes and also indicated the sequence and chapter in which they were to be placed. The traditional view, or rather, views go into much greater details, which need not be mentioned, in the present context. The crucial point is that all of them are human projections or interpretations of abstract and almost bare Quranic references to the mode of revelation. And Sir Syed gradually became unwilling to accept any human interpretation as infallible or as having any divinely sanctioned binding power upon the believer. According to Sir Syed, the reference in the Quran to the Holy Spirit does not warrant the inference that Gabriel is an external being or the acceptance of any other belief about the concrete mode of Divine revelation. This is essentially a mystery or miracle indicative of Divine creativity and power.

Sir Syed holds that the Quranic name, Jibreel (Gabriel) or expression, (Roohul-Quddus) ‘Holy Spirit’ and which refer to the mysterious agency of God’s revelation of the Quranic text refer to God's gift of prophecy to some ‘Divinely elected’ human messengers of the Creator. Sir Syed holds this gift to be the highest level of divinely endowed gifts to created beings. These gifts are ‘potential talents’ which develop and mature with the passage of time and they include music, poetry, mathematics, creative imagination etc. Human beings become creative in the course of time through inter-acting with others. Their ‘artifacts’ remain imperfect because they are all the ‘work of humans’. However, the natural world, being the ‘Work of God’ and the Quranic text, being the ‘Word of God’ are perfect.

In other words, Sir Syed made a distinction between the belief that the Quran is ‘The word of God’ and the belief in the traditional conception or understanding of how the “Divine Word’ was revealed to fully human messengers of God. Sir Syed, thus, fully retained his faith in the Divine Source of revelation but rejected conventional views concerning the modus operandi of the revelatory process. He boldly said that the conventional views on this matter reflected Semitic myths or folklore and anthropomorphic conceptualizing of the contents of Divine revelation to provide a platform for rightly guided human decision-making and action.

Sir Syed holds that God inspires and guides created beings, high and low, from the meanest insect, bird or animal to man himself through a spiritual mechanism of internal guidance (in the form of instinct, intuition, vision, audition etc that is most appropriate to the level of the created being. Thus, the terms ‘Gabriel’ or Holy Spirit do not refer to some external being or agent, but to the higher prophetic talent or genius vouchsafed by God to the prophets, among whom, Muhammad occupies the highest rank.

Sir Syed's theory of revelation is basically similar to the views of classical Muslim thinkers and savants-- Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Khaldun et al. It is also adumbrated in the writings of Waliullah and Abul Kalam Azad.

(b) Sir Syed held that the universe had been created by the all powerful God who, in His wisdom, endowed His creation with specific attributes or fixed patterns of behavior, apart, of course from the freedom vouchsafed to human beings to choose between good and evil. Nature thus behaves in a uniform/manner, not because of any laws inherent in nature without reference to God's will, but precisely because nature is the ‘Work of God’. Science is the systematic empirical study of the work of God, and far from being opposed to religion, it makes mankind aware of the wonders and beauties of the ‘the Work of God’ just, as ‘the Word of God’ makes man aware of what is right and what is wrong in the sphere of human conduct.

Sir Syed's approach thus far is the same as that of theism, in general, according to which, there is no conflict between the scientific postulate of causal uniformity of nature and the religious belief in the omnipotence of God and His power to change the so called laws of nature at His sweet will. But having said so, Sir Syed holds that even though God's omnipotence implies His power to permit miracles He does not, as a matter of fact, indulge in miracle making. In other words, though miracles are logically possible there is no sufficient evidence that miracles take place. He holds that genuine faith in God does not imply faith in miracles. Nor does the occurrence of a so called miracle prove the existence of God, since what is prima facie a miracle or violation of the expected and usual pattern of events may, in reality, be in accordance with, as yet, laws unknown to humans at present.

Sir Syed is of the view that belief in miracles is a part of the folklore and the anthropomorphic thinking of early man when the scientific paradigm of knowledge was hardly possible. We feel amused at the miraculous elements in the folklore of others, but we rejoice at our own. And we hardly notice our double standards. The moment, however, somebody demands proof from us we fall back upon blind faith that we are right and the other wrong.

The source of Sir Syed's approach to miracles was not merely his intellectual honesty and scientific attitude but the significant fact that the Quran itself repeatedly declares the Prophet's inability to work any miracle in support of his claim to be a prophet when his opponents or skeptics demanded him to produce any miracle to support his claims.  It seems that Sir Syed argued that if Prophet Muhammad did not have the ‘gift of the miraculous’, how could earlier prophets have had this gift? He presumed that the followers and posterity of the earlier prophets wrongfully attributed miraculous powers to their holy figures because of early man's fascination for the miraculous. However, according to Sir Syed, the true miracles are the myriad processes of nature in all its breathtaking majesty and glory, and it is to them that the Quran repeatedly draws our attention. The regular motions of the heavenly bodies, the rhythms of night and day, life and death, growth and decay, the blowing of the winds, the songs of the birds, and so on and so forth, proclaim the power and the glory of the Creator. No need is, thus, left for believing in pseudo-miracles purporting to violate the laws of nature or rather the permanent pattern of behavior God has ordained for His creation.

Sir Syed’s line of argument appears to be valid if we confine ourselves to pre-Quranic scriptures. But his approach breaks down when one finds that the Quran itself relates several miracles performed by previous prophets. Sir Syed could not argue that the Quranic statements were false. He, therefore, was compelled to infer that Quranic reports of such miracles in reality refer to popular beliefs rather than to facts. This line of argument, to my mind, appears quite convincing in several Quranic narratives. Many of the Quranic texts that have been traditionally interpreted in supernatural terms could, possibly have been interpreted (with great plausibility) in an entirely natural and normal sense by a reader or hearer who looked at the world with bare eyes without any colored lens. Sir Syed points out several Quranic verses that can be so interpreted, and explains how supernatural interpretations came to be placed upon them. But this is not always the case. His painstaking and, to my mind, honest efforts break down and fail to convince us.

(c) Sir Syed, however, is not on such weak ground in the case of petitionary prayer to God. As is well known, all religions, including Islam, hold that God, as the loving Father and all powerful Sustainer of all creation, grants the sincere prefers of the faithful and the elect, without any hindrance from the laws of nature. Sir Syed holds that this belief also suffers from the anthropomorphic fallacy. The real function of prayer is not magical manipulation of reality by supernatural causation, but rather the giving of solace, heightening of morale and of human creativity. In this sense God always answers man’s sincere prayers. Sir Syed‘s scientific approach is thus quite compatible with his belief that prayer to God, though not a magical tool, is an effective source of Divine help. 

(d) In keeping with his scientific attitude Sir Syed also distinguishes genuine spiritualism and Sufi culture from superstitious beliefs and practices which in the course of time had come to be grafted upon the real thing. He followed Jalaluddin Rumi’s claim that he had ‘kept the kernel of the Quran and thrown away the bones to the dogs’. He rejected talismans, lengthy liturgical recitations, or a life-negating fatalism and stood for the gospel of rational action and spiritual prayer.

(e) There is no contradiction between the laws of nature as established by science and the statements found in the Quran. Seeming contradictions arise because of human misinterpretations of the language of scripture due tone reason other, projection of false or misleading notions current in the milieu upon the ‘Word of God’. But the contradiction vanishes if the text is interpreted in the right way. Sir Syed holds that no human interpretation of the ‘Word of God’ or for that matter, no scientific theory can claim to be final because of human limitations. If and when new facts come to our notice requiring revision of scientific theories presently held the Quranic text will also be found to yield fresh meanings in harmony with the facts newly discovered. This is a unique feature or the miracle of the ‘Word of God’—its remarkable plasticity which allows fresh dimensions or connotations to emerge on the canvas of the Arabic text without any ulterior apologetic twisting of the standard meanings and uses of Arabic words and expressions.

(f) Sir Syed was highly dissatisfied with classical works on the Quranic exegesis despite the enormous learning and scholarship of their learned writers. He held that their voluminous commentaries on the Ouran were based on reported sayings of the Prophet, Biblical stories and Greek philosophical notions. The truth of all there was itself questionable. Sir Syed pointed out the various sources of error in the proper understanding of the Quranic text—relying on the literal sense of the words without understanding the situational context of the revelation, confusion of meanings, anthropomorphic interpretations of Divine attributes and so on. He could not complete his monumental commentary on the Quran, nor could he do full justice to the principles of Quranic exegesis. However, his long article on the basic principles of Quranic exegesis remains extremely illuminating.

(g) Sir Syed adopted a very balanced approach to the status of Hadis. He did not blindly accept the judgment of the two top Sunni Muslim authorities, Imam Bukhari and Imam Muslim as to which reports were authentic and which were not. Nor was his approach one of wholesale rejection of all Hadis literature. Sir Syed held that despite their great learning, piety and labors the judgment of Muslim divines cannot be accepted as infallible and binding upon the faithful. One could never be sure that the reports, adjudged as absolutely authentic, were really so because he process of their collection and evaluation started some 200 years after the Prophet’s passing away. The great scholars did formulate and apply rigorous criteria for determining the degrees of authenticity of reports, but this labor and their methodology could create only a presumption but never certainty about what the Prophet said or did, quite unlike the quality and degree of certainty pertaining to the authenticity of the Quranic text

Sir Syed also holds that the Prophet never claimed that his judgment was infallible in worldly matters. Indeed, the Prophet used to consult his colleagues or followers and often heeded their advice. Sir Syed also makes a distinction between purely religious/spiritual issues and social or political and other worldly matters and holds that no preferences of the Prophet in the latter case could be deemed binding in an ever-changing world. There is nothing Islamic about purely social customs, proper names, style of living and dressing and so on, that prevailed in the time of the Prophet or were even retained by the Prophet himself. Neither these purely social matters nor even otherworldly issues of politics, economics, administration and scientific enquiry come under the jurisdiction of religion so long as no Quranic injunction is violated.

Sir Syed, thus, considerably reduced the scope of the shariah to purely moral and spiritual matters, and repudiated the view of many present day protagonists of Islamic renewal and revival that the proper scope of religion extends to each and every sphere of human life.

Sir Syed's approach, therefore, is far more radical than that of Iqbal who merely wanted the shariah to remain flexible and dynamic but did not question the scope of the shariah as Sir Syed did.  Despite Iqbal’s far greater exposure to modern thought Iqbal did not appreciate Sir Syed’s radicalism in this matter, and the net result of his remarkably enchanting Urdu and Persian poetry as well as his encouraging and extolling Mawdudi’s, as yet nascent project of revising shariah and Islamizing politics and economics in Muslim societies the world over, was to put the clock back, as it were. Iqbal's existentialist approach to religious faith was far more valid than Sir Syed’s theological rationalism  (implying the misleading claim that human reason could prove that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is His messenger), Yet, in the final analysis, Sir Syed’s groping and blurred project of not mixing religion and politics had a higher wisdom and a greater potential to promote the welfare of the Muslims of the sub-continent in the long term. Azad agreed with Sir Syed on this score, but Azad's voice of wisdom was lost in the dust and din of the politics of the time.

(h) Sir Syed really stood for the separation of religion from the state, though the words ‘secularism’, or the expressions, ‘Islamic state’ and ‘sovereignty of God’ did not occur in his writings. He generally adopted a secular approach on both Indian and inter-national issues. His clear and unambiguous rejection of Pan- Islamism earned him and his close supporters in the Aligarh movement the bitter criticism of Jamaluddin Afghani who was then the foremost champion of Pan-Islamism. Sir Syed looked upon the violent conflicts and wars in the Balkan region of Europe as a political confrontation between Balkan nationalism and Turkish imperial interests, not as a holy war between the Crescent and The Cross. Sir Syed also rejected the concept of ‘Khilafat’ as an integral part of the Islamic faith, though he accepted the idea of Muslim brotherhood. However his idea of Muslim fraternity did not exclude his idea of Hindu- Muslim fraternity. He called the Hindus and the Muslims the two eyes of the bride that was India-- the common beloved motherland which nourished all her children without any discrimination. He even said that all those who lived in and belonged to India were Hindus in the political sense. It is, however, true that some of his perceptions and political prescriptions differed from those of the Congress leaders who were demanding the immediate introduction of advanced political reforms. He felt apprehensive that Muslims, as an educationally backward group, in an extremely heterogeneous society that was fast being transformed by the English educated class of ‘Bengali Babus’ may become totally marginalized and feel like aliens in a world they just could not relate with. Whether these fears were reasonable or not, they were natural and understandable at that period of Indian history, and it would be an over–simplification to say that Sir Syed’s reservations were patently groundless. It must, however, be conceded that while Sir Syed had very clear and consistent ideas of on Islamic liberalism he lacked a clear and consistent modern political philosophy, Consequently, he was subject to conflicting pulls and pushes in his political responses. His references to ‘Bengali Babus’, Hindu domination, the character of the lower classes (both Hindu and Muslims), reflect the limitations and prejudices of his feudal milieu, which he could not transcend as adequately as he had outgrown traditional Muslim theology. The documented controversy between the two Muslims giants of the age, Sir Syed and Badruddin Tyabbji, on the question of Muslim participation in Congress politics shows the latter’s approach was far more integrated and far sighted. In any case, Sir Syed was not the father of the idea of partitioning the Indian sub-continent. The plain fact of the matter is that Sir Syed belongs to the galaxy of early Indian liberals- Hindu, Muslim and Parsi- who all hailed British rule as a Divine dispensation for the welfare of the world at large. Some traces of this approach had survived in the vision of the great Gokhle and Gandhi himself, though Tilak was always a tough-minded realist. Indeed, it was the tragedy of Jillianwala Bagh that transformed Mr. Gandhi into Mahatama Gandhi, but Sir Syed had already been dead and gone two decades before this transformation. Perhaps, Jawaharlal’s verdict on Sir Syed is the most balanced and valid of all the assessments made of the strengths and weakness of a truly great Indian.

Several critics accuse Sir Syed of being non-secular; others charge him as having reduced Islam merely to a system of prayers, fasting etc. on account of his separating politics form religion. According to these critics (influenced by Abul Ala Mawdudi), Islam is a complete code of conduct for life as a totality without any separation between the church and the state. This line of thinking totally misrepresents or distorts the issue. No sane Muslim asserts that mere prayer; fasting and pilgrimage etc. suffice to make a person a good Muslim. The performance of external acts of religious discipline must be supplemented by a high quality of individual and social life and the proper fulfillment of one’s obligations and duties at all levels. And surely, Sir Syed never neglected these aspects. Indeed, he laid the greatest stress upon these matters. He never said or implied what he is charged with, namely, that merely praying five times and fasting for one month etc. suffices to be a good Muslim. He also never said that to be a good Muslim; one need not bother about the pursuit of individual morality and social justice. All that Sir Syed said was that such matters fall in the realm of rational and free democratic discussion rather than in the domain of the shariah. The principled separation of religion and politics, by no means, implies separating morality or ethical principles from politics or public life. The Quran is concerned with faith in the Unseen, spirituality and wisdom, not with scientific knowledge, economics or administration. These latter should be left to democratic decision-making in the light of the moral principles of the Quran. The polity and administrative culture of independent Arab, Iranian, Turkish or other states in classical period of Muslim dominance has no normative religious significance for Muslims, according to the thinking of Sir Syed. He stood for an open mind, free enquiry and tolerance of dissent and totally rejected the language of heresy, apostasy and hatred of out-groups.

3. Limitations of Sir Syed’s Approach to Islam

Sir Syed accomplished his mature work on Islamic Liberalism in the mid 19th.century when the remarkable creative contribution of such intellectual giants as Darwin, Marx and Freud had yet to make their full impact upon the modern mind. Sir Syed remained in the intellectual company of rationalistic theologians—the Mutazalite theologians among the Muslim academics, and Descartes, Locke, Paley et al among the moderns (who, broadly speaking, claimed that reason could prove Theism), rather than in the company of the Sufis and of Pascal, Hume, Kant, Schleiermacher et al who never accepted the claims or pretensions of human reason to conclusively prove the truths of religion and theology. Today, it is the latter who stand vindicated, since the modern theologians and religious thinkers all have seen through the fallacies and limitations of medieval rationalistic theology, Muslim, Christian or Jewish. The existentialist approach to religious truth as initiated by the Danish Christian theologian, Kierkegaard (d.1855) has carried the day. Sir Syed, however, continued to operate in the framework of pre- Kantian thought.  Sir Syed’s key concepts- ‘the Work of God’, ‘The Word of God’, his concern to remove the seeming contradictions between the two, do not satisfy the intellectual difficulties or problems posed by several factors—the presence of unmerited pain and evil in the world, the tortuous path of trial and error in the course of biological evolution, the culture–bound limitations in the conceptual framework of all lawgivers (including divinely inspired prophets) that necessitate continual revision and growth of the believer’s heritage of moral and  spiritual values, and finally, the  disturbing feature of conscientious objection to some portion of scripture.

Sir Syed, to my mind, had successfully addressed the difficulties found in popular views of how God revealed the Quran through the angel, Gabriel, but his critical approach does not help us to reconcile the contradiction between the Quranic truth-claim that Divine wrath caused natural calamities or that God’s messengers performed miracles, on the one hand, and the scientific law of uniform causality in nature, on the other.

Sir Syed had rightfully broken the shell of unexamined dogma, anthropomorphic thinking, myths, miracles, and folklore. He had shown how many intellectual difficulties arose, due to wrong interpretations of Quranic texts rather than any inherent contradictions in the text itself. However, Sir Syed did not realize that equal stress upon the authority of reason and faith in any external authority (deemed as infallible) is untenable. This approach, inevitably, leads to inner tension and conflict, since it pushes the individual into the arms of Freudian ‘rationalization’ of an externally given truth, rather than Socratic free enquiry and going where the argument leads. Sir Syed saw the danger and the fallacy of allegorical interpretation (taweel) of Quranic texts, but he did not see the danger and fallacy of apologetical interpretation when one tried to give equal authority to human reason and faith in any external authority whatsoever. Thus Sir Syed’s reconciliation between reason and revelation breaks down if and when the seed of ‘conscientious objection’ begins to sprout in the depth consciousness of the believer who regards the Quran as the infallible ‘Word of God’. Since, however, Sir Syed did not hold the ‘word of the Prophet’ was also infallible just like ‘the Word of God’, Sir Syed’s approach leaves a way open for honest dissent in spite of sincerely venerating the Prophet. In this sense, Sir Syed’s rational approach to Islam is a half-way and shaky compromise between faith and reason without affirming either full human autonomy or extolling existentialist faith without the seal of human reason.

2. Another serious limitation of Sir Syed’s outlook is his inadequate background knowledge of modern history and social sciences as well as of ancient Indian and Chinese thought and culture. Precisely due to this limitation Sir Syed could not develop a mature sociological approach to the issues of Indian politics and economics. He could not envision the long-term future of India after the end of British imperialism in the context of an ever-evolving world order. 

Sir Syed was fascinated by British democracy and welcomed it to India. At the same time he was apprehensive of the success of the principle of adult territorial franchise, of the one-man-one-vote type in India as the land of caste. The liberal Western educated Hindus in general, understandably, were optimistic about the eventual success of the western secular democratic model. But the Muslims liberals were not so confident. And to be fair to them and to Sir Syed, their apprehensions and reservations were justified in view of the simple arithmetic of democratic politics. They could not easily visualize that the game of democratic politics was supposed to be played, not by simple monolithic groups of Hindus or Muslims but by the complex play of group- interests and ideals giving ample scope to all to exercise power in a secular democracy. What was needed was an act of faith in secular democracy. Such faith requires a profound grasp of modern history and social sciences. Perhaps, Sir Syed lacked this grasp, though as a genuine religious liberal, he was extremely friendly to all Indians who warmly reciprocated his affectionate sentiments and trust. Indeed, this was the general pattern of social relations in the entire medieval era of Indian history.

Though Sir Syed made an intensive study of the Bible and sought to remove mutual misunderstandings and ignorance of each other’s basic beliefs and values as a mean of promoting inter-religious harmony and human brotherhood, Sir Syed’s knowledge of Indian thought and culture was too limited to make him into a prophet of an integrated humanism to accommodate the diverse spiritual traditions of the human family. In other words, Sir Syed’s Islamic vision, broad and truly liberal as it was, did not have the range and depth required to make the appeal universal and timeless. Indeed, even the Muslims of India could not cherish his politics for long. Sir Syed’s contemporaries (including some of his closest associates) barely understood his religious genius, while many seized upon his limitations. This hampered the general acceptability of his religious approach

The Khilafat agitation weakened the appeal of Sir Syed’s religious liberalism and political moderation. Sir Syed had refused, on principle, to give a religious complexion to the Balkan problem, which remained a burning international issue throughout the 19th century. The leaders of the Khilafat movement deliberately combined religion with politics, but Sir Syed, in keeping with his genuine Islamic liberalism, had consistently kept politics and religion apart. The Khilafat leaders repudiated an essential plank of Sir Syed’s Islamic liberalism. A large majority of the Khilafat leadership entertained the traditional view that Islam stood for the organic unity of religion and politics and that Sir Syed and his school had been indifferent to true Islam.

The Khilafat movement, as we know, fizzled out by the mid twenties. It was followed by petty political squabbles in the environment of tough competition in the faced of extremely limited opportunities for a steadily growing educated and ambitious middle class among both Hindus and Muslims. This was quite enough to create ideologies that would help and favor one’s chances in the competition for jobs and economic gains. This was good soil for strengthening the appeal of the ideas of group solidarity and reservation quotas for different groups. Iqbal’s poetry stressing Muslim identity and solidarity and his philosophical affirmation of the organic unity of religion and politics in Islam, the revivalist slogans in some Hindu quarters, the requirements of British imperial interests all conspired to add to the already mighty obstacles in the way of Islamic liberalism and secular humanism.  Gradually there arose the fateful demand for the partition of the country.  It is really a ‘historical irony’ that the person who won the battle for Pakistan had been a renowned commander of the Indian liberal secular brigade right till 1936.

The bends and turns in the meandering stream of history, however, must not blind us to the direction of its flow. The direction is determined by several factors – technological, geographical, economic, political, apart, of course, from the felt desires and wishes and efforts of human agents. Indian Muslims of my generation who had entered the golden threshold of adulthood just before India and Pakistan won freedom in 1947 and had also been touched by Gandhiji’s vision of Hindu-Muslim unity and Abul Kalam Azad’s vision of the essential unity all religions will ever be haunted by Sir Syed’s metaphor of Hindus and Muslims being the two eyes of the Indian bride. Alas! the metaphor could not survive the onslaught of short term politics.   


4.  Sir Syed and the Future

Different religions, till very recently, have been cultural islands without any bridges due to difficulties of communication and of transportation. The communication revolutions of the modern age have greatly changed the human situation.  The ease of cross-cultural communications has initiated a chain process of dialogue between different wings of the human family. This dialogue is, progressively, revealing the significant similarities in the basic human needs, aspirations, fears, hopes, strengths, weakness of men and women, and also how different religious traditions satisfy them. Their significant differences are also becoming more accurately understood, thereby reducing the film of prejudice or misunderstanding that clouds our vision. The rigid shell of ethno-centricity is in the process of being broken by humanity in search of truth and universal peace.

The movement of inter-religious or cross- cultural dialogue and understanding, however, is not without resistance and opposition, which is as understandable as the process of dialogue. The resistance is partly due to cultural inertia, partly to fear of the unknown, and partly to a perceived threat to the vested interest of the religious high command. They honestly fear that religion is in danger, though what is really endangered is their own stagnant version of religion. These facts inevitably slow down the rate of the emerging religion of the spirit born out of honest enquiry and the concern to know the full truth without fear or favor. History shows that every age has a set of special needs and aspirations which demand fulfillment. Any religion or theological system that tends to frustrate these situational needs fails to retain an authentic grip over its adherents or win over fresh hearts and minds to its message. The dominant ‘situational need’ (zeitgeist) prevails over all obstacles and challenges to its movement even as a powerful urging flood sweeps over the surface of the earth. The zeitgeist is not a spirit or ghost in the socio-economic machine. Nor do socio-economic forces work blindly like electro-magnetic fields or lines of force. The zeitgeist may be likened to the ever-evolving nuclear core of the perennial human quest for value and perfection (by virtue of the Divine spark within the human). The world, however, is not perfectible and its polarities of good and evil, joy and suffering, harmony and strife ever persist. The zeitgeist remains ever pregnant with new life and with new promises, but the perfect fruit thus never grown upon the tree of human ideals and aspirations. The temporal fruit remains, sweet and bitter, nutritive yet somewhat toxic, an advance yet an arrest of the quest for value. Likewise, the perfection claimed to be present in any particular Divine revelation is like a new life ever in the womb of the ceaseless human quest for value. The truths of revelation may be perfect at the abstract level but when we interpret or try to apply them to the concrete human situation at any point of time they cannot but become time bound and provisional. If we treat them as final or closed they lose their power to inspire and create new forms of value. When one ignores the above motioned complexity of the human situation and either accepts truths of reason or of revelation, as absolute, or regards all values to be totally relative to the various stages of human development one falls into the trap of one-sided ideologies. Another error of one-sided thinking arises when we expect that the course of history always follows the demands of pure truth or justice without being deflected by negative or evil influences of human hubris and the struggle for power.

This struggle between ideals and interests goes on quite independently of all religions or ideologies. Individuals and groups cannot help using ideals as strategic reinforcements in the struggle for power. In other words, the human search for inner peace and self-respect in combination with one’s interests move individuals and groups to choose as they do. The different interpretations of Islam or of other basic thought patters and value systems are subject to this analysis of the human situation.

The Islamic vision and value system, as an open and ever growing response to the mystery of the universe, has been distilled, time and again from its rigid shell of time bound beliefs and codes of morality, thanks to the efforts of savants such as Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, Al-Beruni, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Arabi, Fariduddin Attar, Jalaluddin Rumi, Hafiz and others. Sir Syed also attempted to distil the nuclear essence of Islam in the framework of modern thought, as he understood it. It is high time, instead of merely glorifying his contribution to the educational and political advancement of the Muslims of the sub-continent, his admirers make Sir Syed’s Islamic liberalism the starting point for their fresh thinking on the meaning of Islam in the modern age.   

The Islamic Vision of Sir Syed
BY Jamal Khwaja

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Jamal Khwaja studied Philosophy in India & Europe. He was elected to the Indian Parliament in 1957. He retired as Professor and Chairman of the Department of Philosophy, Aligarh Muslim University. He is the author of seven major books. 

Khwaja’s work seeks to answer three inter-related questions: Firstly, What does it mean to be an authentic Muslim? Secondly, How should a believer understand and interpret the Holy Quran in the 21st century?  And finally, What is the role of Islam in a pluralistic society? 

Khwaja believes in judiciously creative modernization rooted in the Quran and firmly opposes shallow, unprincipled imitation of the West. His mission is to stimulate serious rethinking and informed dialog between tradition and modernity in Islam. 

Khwaja’s work is the definitive contemporary discussion regarding the collision of Islam and Modernity. Readers of his work will be in turn, informed, inspired, and intellectually liberated.