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Sir Syed and Aligarh Movement

Updated on November 11, 2012

Refom and revival in Islam in British India

During the 1870’s, the reformist-revivalist movements in Indian religions were gaining strength in British India, the former tending to be loyalist while the latter generally anti-British. The same is true for Indian Islam in which the reformist-loyalist group was associated with the Aligarh Movement and the revivalist- anti-British elements gave birth to the Deoband Movement. The leadership for the Islamic reformist movements came from the landlords and service class Muslims of the United Provinces. It was to the cultural sensibilities and social and political needs of these classes that the Aligarh Movement catered. The Movement was also in sync with the government policy based on the recommendations of WW Hunter and others to impart English education to Indian Muslims. The avowed objects of the Anglo Oriental College were two-fold and included bridging the gulf between the government and its Muslim subjects and bringing home to the Muslims the advantages of European education, science and technology. The claims that Aligarh helped promote separatist tendencies in Indian Muslims and that it was a movement that represented the Muslim masses of the entire Indian subcontinent are being increasingly contested, as is the idea of considering Indian Muslims of the colonial era as a homogeneous entity. Aligarh nevertheless produced the Muslim leaders who were accepted by the government to be the natural leaders of the Muslim masses and who came to play crucial role in the politics of the subcontinent.

Life and vision of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was born in 1817 in an aristocratic family in Mughal Delhi. Educated in the traditional Arabic-Persian education of the time, he however refused to serve the Mughals in favour of an employment with the East India Company. He continued in the profession until promoted to the post of the chief Assessment officer in the court. He was serving in this capacity when the revolt of 1857 broke out.

During the Revolt of 1857: Sir Syed remained loyal to the British during the revolt and was instrumental in saving several British lives. In the meantime he suffered severe loss in the overthrowing of the Mughal dynasty and the destruction wrought upon its nobility most of whom were his friends and acquaintances not to mention the pillage of his property and repercussions faced by his family. Harm done to the city of Delhi was no less with its monuments destroyed in the Vandalism that unleashed in the aftermath on the revolt, no doubt a major blow to Syed Ahmed, who had devoted years of his life in documenting the monuments of Delhi in his Athar al Sanadid in pre-1857 years. After the revolt he wrote Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind, which aimed to highlight, as the name suggests, the causes that led to the revolt of 1857 rightly lamenting the poor hold of the British officials on Indian opinion, culture and religion as well as the socio-economic aspects.

Sir Syed’s educational, reformist and political endeavours: The employment with the British and a trip to England, where he spent seventeen months, engendered in Sir Syed an admiration for European sciences and he resolved to convert the Muslims to the virtues and benefits of English education. To this end he founded English Madrasas in Moradabad and Ghazipur, a Scientific Society (1864), a modernistic Urdu-journal, Tahzib-al-Akhlaq (1870) and Anglo-Oriental College (1875). Religious reform remained a major concern of Sir Syed throughout his life. His interpretation of Islam emphasized the validity of ijtehad. His approach to Quran was that God’s words cannot be different but should inevitably reflect His laws as discovered by science. It was his attempt to harmonise religion and science that led him to draw far-fetched conclusions in his interpretation of Quran and landed him in the midst of religious controversies, even outright condemnation and accusations of infidelity and heresy by religious scholars.

Socio-political and economic background to Aligarh Movement

The assumption of Hunter in his ‘Indian Musalmans’, commissioned by Mayo that Indian Muslims was a backward community further impoverished by the revolt of 1857 of which it was considered to be a perpetrator has been hotly debated. It has been pointed out that Indian Muslims by no means formed a monolithic community. The need has been felt to differentiate between the Muslims of Bengal who had been impoverished by a century year old Company rule and its economic plundering of the region. It was the Muslims of Bengal who seem to have been generalised by Hunter in his work, ignoring in the process the socio-economic conditions of the Muslims of Hyderabad, Punjab and the United Provinces who hardly held anything in common other than their religion.

Social make-up of the United Provinces: United Provinces’ population in the 1870’s comprised of six million Muslims and Thirty eight Million Hindus, with Muslims forming a 13 per-cent of the population. Neither the Muslims nor the Hindus of the region formed a monolithic entity.

The agricultural lands were held by Muslims along with Rajputs, kayasthas and Kashmiri Brahmins, who had had historical connections with Muslim rulers in the past. The land was held in pattedari, zamindari and talluqdari. In the Pattedari system the land was allotted to an entire family, which used to gradually grow insignificant in size owing to its divisions and sub-divisions amongst the family members. Such classes traditionally depended on government service to augment their income. In zamindari the land was owned by a single individual and in Talluqdari vast estates of land were owned by the owners who paid lakhs of rupees in land taxes. These groups who owned lands and dominated the government services have come to be known as Urdu-elites. The political power in the region was predominantly held by these classes. The dominant commercial classes were the Brahmin, Khatri and Bania and most of the banking and trading concerns were Hindu owned, while the Muslim commercial classes included small shopkeepers and the like.

The influence of the commercial classes began to increase leading to the erosion of power of the traditional elites who were increasingly threatened by Hindu trader, money lender and professional groups buying up lands, capturing municipalities and obtaining job at its expense. This class of Muslim elites thus began to develop a political consciousness. The social basis of Aligarh movement was provided by Muslim landlords of Aligarh Bulandshahar region, the tallukdars of Awadh, and traditional service families. Sir Syed’s efforts were directed at importing Western education to these classes of Muslims and foster in them a sense of corporate unity.

Aligarh Anglo-Oriental College and its legacy

Sir Syed founded the Aligarh Anglo Oriental College in 1877. He observed that the trend of obtaining University education among Muslims was on the decline, a phenomenon which he attributed to the lack of religious education in the universities. He thus founded the Aligarh Anglo-Oriental College combining modern education with the religious one. Through the establishment of the college he both underlined and promoted Muslim loyalism to the government at the same time paving way for obtaining from the government patronage and political concessions for the Muslims. His scheme moreover coincided with the British policy of the time which aimed to “develop a rising generation of Mohammadens…tinctured with sober and genial knowledge of the West. At the same time they would have a sufficient acquaintance with their religious code to command the respect of their own community.” The British support for Aligarh movement was also a result of the panic caused by the trends in Indian Islam considered to be fanatic by the British the major example of which were the Wahhabi frontier wars and conspiracies of the 1860s. The tendency of Indian Muslims to sympathise with the distant figure of the Ottoman Sultan or Khalifa further alarmed the British.

The political character of Aligarh Movement is manifest in its participation in Urdu-Hindi controversy, question of Muslim representation in the event of introduction of representative political institutions in India and the formation of Muslim League. The Aligarh College promoted and enriched Urdu through publications of journals and translation of several works from English to Urdu and defended Urdu vigorously during the Urdu-Hindi controversy. The Urdu prose of Tahzib al akhlaq had important influence on the development of Urdu as a language, as did the Musaddas of Hali written in Aligarh at the suggestion of Sir Syed. Aligarh produced Muslim leaders including numerous presidents and members of the Muslim League with both separatist and anti-separatist inclinations as well as Muslim Congress leaders. Initially Muslim League remained a vanguard of the elites, Salimullah, Nawab Ali Chaudhari, Shamsul Huda and Muhsin ul Mulk, who maintained distance from the Congress along the lines of Aligarh policy of loyalty towards the government. In 1912, the League was captured by the so called ‘Young Party’ of Wazir Hasan, TAK Sherwani, Ali brothers, Hasrat Mohani and Fazlul Haq who paved way for greater accommodation with the Congress.


Aligarh Movement has long been viewed as a movement of social, economic, moral and political advance of the ‘backward Muslims’ of the Indian sub-continent. Modern research no longer supports this conclusion, which shows that the Muslim aristocracy of United Provinces among whom this movement originated was better off than their Hindu counterparts. The high tuition fees and the residential character of the College as well as political inclinations all are cited as evidence of Aligarh’s orientation towards political predominance of the Muslim aristocracy. The role of the Aligarh in the development of Muslim separatism has generally been exaggerated on the basis of the fact that the concerns expressed for the future of the Muslims in India by the Aligarh movement and its supporters were reiterated several times by the Muslim league which also remained in the hands of graduates from Aligarh. While arguing on those lines the fact that Sir Syed was never a communalist or anti-Hindu (as was the case with some of the avowedly anti-Muslim Hindu reformers) is overlooked. Sumit Sircar’s remark in this regard is worth mentioning, “Sayyid Ahmed started talking in terms of Muslims as a separate entity for the first time in 1869, and explicitly in context of script controversy- his scientific society had actually had more Hindu members than Muslims.” Moreover in so arguing the fact has been overlooked that the ‘Young Party’ mentioned above neither had anti-Congress or anti-Hindu inclinations nor were they from zamindari background.

Further Reading:

Language Religion and politics in North India, Paul R Brass

The Khilafat Movement: Religious symbolism and Political mobilization in India, Gail Minault

Great Muslims of undivided India, Nikhat Iqbal

The Muslims of British India, Peter Hardy

Education and Politics from Sir Syed to present day, Aligarh School, Shan Muhammad

A Voyage to modernism, a translation of Sir Syed’s Safarnama-i-Musafiran-i-London, rendered into English by Mushirul Hasan and Nishat Zaidi


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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      i like this

    • profile image


      5 years ago


    • Talha Rehman profile imageAUTHOR

      Talha Rehman 

      6 years ago from India

      amer786 Thank you. I am glad that you liked the hub.

    • amer786 profile image


      6 years ago from Los Angeles

      As-salaam-o-alaikum, very much enjoyed the Hub. This is a period of history of interest to me. I agree it does not seem that Aligarh was a essentially a seperatist movement but more to revitalize the condition of Muslims in India. Regrettably, things only seem to have gotton worse. Looks like Hunter's concerns on the Wahabi infiltrations in India were not that ill-founded.


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