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Islamic Studies Sayyid Ahmad Khan
Sheila McDonough


Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817–1898) responded to the collapse of the Mogul Empire in India, following the failed rebellion of 1857, by diverse efforts to revitalize and to reform Muslim intellectual and social life. He made a powerful impact on his community by his insistence that the Indian Muslims must become as well educated as the British. As a descendant of minor aristocrats in the Mogul court and as a historian of Indian Islam, he understood that knowledge and power were linked. The controversies about him are in the areas of religious thought and politics. With respect to religion, he tried to encourage rethinking of Islamic theology and jurisprudence. In political matters, he favored supporting the British and was critical of the Congress Party. He was one of the foremost Muslim modernist thinkers of the 19th century.

Reference Resources

Consult the website South Asian Literature, Colonial Period, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan for English translations of his work. The website Major Voices: Sayyid Ahmad Khan offers a bibliography for Sayyid Ahmad Khan.


The first biography was written by George Farquhar Irving Graham (Graham 1974), an Englishman who was a personal friend and supporter of the Muslim reformer. Another contemporary, the Muslim poet Altaf Husain Hali (Hali 1994), wrote a biography that is considered a classic of Urdu literature. In the modern period, Hafeez Malik (Malik 1981) has looked at Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s life as a precursor of the movement for Pakistan. Khaliq Ahmad Nizami (Nizami 2002) has studied the Muslim activist as a significant reformer of Muslim thought and culture in the context of India. Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi (Gandhi 1986), has written about Sayyid Ahmad as one of the major leaders in the revival of Muslim intellectual and social life.

Early Years

Sayyid Ahmad Khan was raised in a cultured family in Delhi. He was educated at home by tutors, several of them from the Naqshbandi Sufi order to which his family members belonged. At twenty-two he began to work as an assistant civil judge for the East India Company. In his thirties he published a study of the historical monuments of Delhi and of the lives of Sufi leaders. Lawrence 1979 discusses the mystical and rational elements in Sayyid Ahmad’s early writings.


The rebellion against the British in 1857 had a harrowing effect on Sayyid Ahmad Khan. He perceived the mutual ignorance of the British and the Muslims as dangerous. He wrote two books explaining that the inept administrative practices of the British had helped cause the rebellion (Ahmad Khan 1983 and Ahmad Khan 2000). In order to encourage greater respect between Muslims and Christians, he wrote a commentary on the Bible, in which he used the results of contemporary biblical scholarship (Ahmad Khan 1862). An Englishman, William Wilson Hunter, had written a book claiming that the Indian Muslims would always be disloyal to the British (Hunter 1999). Sayyid Ahmad Khan knew this attitude was dangerous, and he therefore wrote a book refuting Hunter’s ideas (Ahmad Khan 2009).

  • Ahmad Khan, Sayyid. The Mohomedan Commentary on the Holy Bible. Ghazipur, India: Ahmad Khan, 1862.

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    First modern Muslim commentary on the Bible. English translation of Tabyin al-kalam.

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  • Ahmad Khan, Sir Sayyid. Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s History of the Bijnor Rebellion. Translated by Hafeez Malik and Morris Dembo. Columbus, MO: South Asia Books, 1983.

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    Sayyid Ahmad Khan gives his eyewitness account of the ineffectiveness of the rebels. English translation of Sarkashi-yi zi laʿ Bijnor. First published in 1972.

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  • Ahmad Khan, Sir Sayyid. The Causes of the Indian Revolt. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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    The original work, Asbab-i baghavat-i Hind, was first published in 1858, while the English translation was first published in Varanasi (Benares), India, by the Medical Hall Press in 1873. Ahmad Khan aimed to explain to the English that their errors had helped cause the revolt. His friends were afraid that he would get into trouble if he did this, but he wrote the book in spite of their fears.

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  • Ahmad Khan, Sayyid. Review on Dr. Hunter’s Indian Musalmāns. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2009.

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    The Muslim reformer’s comments on the Englishman’s analysis of the causes of the Indian revolt. First published in 1871.

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  • Hunter, William Wilson. The Indian Musalmāns: Are They Bound in Conscience to Rebel against the Queen? Lahore, Pakistan: Sang-e-Meel, 1999.

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    This was the document expressing doubts about the trustworthiness of the Indian Muslims that stimulated Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s vigorous response. First published in 1871.

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Call for New Thinking

Sayyid Ahmad Khan advocated a transformation of Muslim religious ideas from a medieval to a modern way of thinking. J. M. S. Baljon was the first Western scholar to write an analysis of the Muslim reformer’s religious ideas (Baljon 1970). The Muslim scholar Bashir Ahmad Dar subsequently published a detailed discussion of the themes of Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s original thinking (Dar 1957). Siddiqui 1976 looks at the social aspects of the reformer’s thought. Ahmad 1967 provides a thematic analysis of the writings of a number of Muslim modernist reformers. Troll 1978 studies Sayyid Ahmad Khan as a new type of Muslim theologian. Jones 1990 looks at the wider framework of the socioreligious reform movement in British India. Mohammad Shan edited a collection of Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s writings and speeches (Shan 1972).

Controversial Reforms

Sayyid Ahmad Khan initiated a number of movements to reform the Indian Muslim community. In 1864 he established a scientific society for the purpose of translating books on Western sciences into Urdu. He founded schools and promoted educational committees. He traveled to England in 1869. On his return to India, he was instrumental in establishing a modern university for Muslims in India. The Anglo-Muhammad Oriental College at Aligarh opened in 1875. Using the modern methods he had learned in England, Sayyid Ahmad Khan wrote a commentary on the Qur’an (Ahmad Khan 1891) and a series of essays on the life of Muhammad (Ahmad Khan 1968). He also published a journal, Tahzib ul-Akhlaq, which aimed to stimulate thinking about the reform of ethics and customs (Ahmad Khan 1938). He was knighted in 1888. The speeches and letters of Sayyid Ahmad Khan are available in Urdu. His son has written a history of the Muslim college at Aligarh. Lelyveld 2003 explores the impact of Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s work on the Muslim students who went to Aligarh. Many of the traditional religious leaders opposed Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s reforms. A new institution was set up at Deoband in North India to provide traditional modes of religious training for a new generation of leaders. In the Arab world, the Muslim reformer Jamal al din Afghani objected to Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s support for the British. He accused Sayyid Ahmad Khan of being a materialist.

Sir Syed Academy, India

The Sir Syed Academy in Aligarh, India, is a museum containing the archives relating to the various projects and associations established by Sayyid Ahmad Khan. The website has pictures of the museum and photographs of Sayyid Ahmad Khan and his family members. The museum also contains his personal effects as well as collections of writings by and about him. The archives include the records of the societies, projects, and associations established by Sayyid Ahmad Khan. The website contains the list of publications by the members of the academy.

LAST MODIFIED: 12/14/2009

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195390155-0069

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