Muslims and Modernism: A Glimpse into Sir Syed’s Religious Philosophy

SHAFAQNA – The nineteenth century witnessed a great change in the outlook of Muslims of the Subcontinent. Colonialism, along with the development of scientific attitude , affected the religious universe drastically. And, this, in turn, led to a hot debate on ‘religious dogmas and rationality’; rather a paradigm shift in the thought of educated Muslims. This shift created a modernist school, comprised mainly of those Muslims who showed a keen receptiveness to western institutions of learning and who judged things through the prism of modernity.
This intellectual vibrancy took place in a more enthusiastic and radical way around the person of Sir Syed Ahmad khan, who was born in Delhi in 1817. To make the reconcilation between religion and western attitude, was central to his religious philosophy. He started a famous periodical ‘Tahdhib al-Akhlaq’ and set up a scientific society for translating English books into Urdu so that the Muslims of the subcontinent would get acquainted with the advanced/progressive ideas of the West.
While expounding the belief in naturalism, he stated, “’Today we are in need of modern ‘Ilmalkalam’ by which we should refute the dogmas of modern Science or show that they are in conformity with the Islamic creeds.” According to him, whole physical universe including man is the work of God and religion is His word, so there can’t be any contradiction between the two. “The only touchstone of a real religion can be this: if it is in conformity with human nature or with nature in general, then it is true and real.”
Like the modernists of Christian world, he too tried to relinquish the metaphysical realities from the realm of faith. Reason and empiricism, according to him, are the only yardsticks to measure the reality. Swathed with the ideas of rationalism , he maintained that there is no intermediary between God and the prophet(SAW). Gabriel is in reality a symbolic representation of the prophetic faculty. Eschatologically, he further maintained that paradise and hell described in a sensuous terms in the sacred text are just emblematical representation of the psychological states of individuals in the life after death. Ibn Khuldun, a great Muslim historian and thinker, dealt well with the people like Sir Syed who were the preachers of rationalism during medieval era and has rightly mentioned in his famous ‘Muqadimah’ that the mind is an accurate scale, whose recordings are certain and reliable; but to use it to weigh questions relating to the unity of God, or after life, or nature of prophecy or other such subjects falling outside its range, is like trying to use a goldsmith’s scale to weigh mountains.
To reconstruct the edifice of Muslim civilization, Sir Syed strongly advocated the ijtihadic endeavour. Apart from trying to untie the cosmic knots with reason and science, his buttressing to nullify ‘taqlid’ was very energetic and progressive. ‘Taqlid’’ is the sole reason , according to him, for the downfall of muslim Ummah. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan not only started a sort of neo-mutazilte understanding of the cosmos and the sacred text but also endeavoured to dilute the antagonistic attitude of western colonials. To meet this end, he dedicated himself to write an exegesis of the Bible in the light of Islamic intellectualism. ‘Tabayin al-kalamfi Tafsir al-Torahwa al-injilalamillahal-Islam’ is the name of that exegesis. It is not a commentary in a sense of Muslim tafsir of the Qur’an. It is a collection of critical essays on certain aspects of Christianity that tends to stress the common ground rather than the differences between the Christians and Muslims . The main contention of Sir Syed , as Syed Munir Wasti would put it, is that there is no fundamental difference between the account of Christianity given in the Bible and that given in the Qur’an.
The Muslim society in India was very much hesitant to get socially intermingled with Christians. In order to dismantle this social barrier , he wrote a booklet, entitled Ahkam-i Ta’am-i Ahli-Kitab, to explain that Muslim Jurisprudence doesn’t prevent muslims from dining with the people of Book provided Haram food is not served.
Sir Syed was criticized by many main stream ulamas for his different approach from the traditional way. Abul Hasan Nadwi, a reputed Islamic scholar , said that Sir Syed’s religious education had been of an average standard: his knowledge of theological sciences, the Quran and Sunnah was neither deep nor wide. Fazlur Rahman who is known for his modern Islamic thought, also negated the scholarship of Sir Syed in Islamic sciences. One can’t have any doubt on Sir Syed’s sincerity and dedication for the upliftment of his community . As Akbar Allahabadi said about him “ hamari tu batein he batein hai, Syed kaam kartatha.” ( We indulge in mere talk. Sir Syed was a man of action).

By Tahir Iqbal—The author is an Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies in the Higher Education Department. He can be reached at:

The views expressed here are the author’s own.

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