Monday, Sep 26, 2022

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s Rebuttal To Blasphemy

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan in an editorial made it clear that the abomination of blasphemy must not be allowed to unleash mindless violence and that it cannot be settled through violence on the road.

A photograph of a rally calling for the beheading of those insulting Islam
A photograph of a rally calling for the beheading of those insulting Islam Getty Images

Booker Prize-winning author Salman Rushdie was stabbed on stage in New York on Friday. Rushdie had earlier received death threats after writing the controversial book The Satanic Verses.

While the act is being attributed to hurting religious sentiments by writing the book, followed by a fatwa from Iran, it has again stirred the debate on the response to blasphemy. The book is banned in India where book sales, particularly of English books, are not so encouraging. If we put it for a thick novel, the sale may be termed poor by any means.

Time and again blasphemous acts come to the fore and the reaction after it gets maximum mileage. The Udaipur incident of the dastardly murder of a tailor under the disguise of religiosity is highly condemnable.

Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), regarded as a harbinger of Muslim intelligentsia, however, shows the way in a situation when the narrative is being set that an offender should part with his life. Does such an act of violence hold any validation?

India has never been devoid of polymaths and Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the founder of AMU, had already displayed with his works about the reaction in such a situation. He was totally against killing a person for something he has written or said, which is considered an abominable act.

In 1858, a year after the British crushed the mutiny; Sir Syed was picking up the pieces with the mission for educational empowerment of the community. However, during the same year, a civil servant and orientalist, Sir William Muir (1819-1905), published a lengthy contemptible, despicable book on the Prophet of Islam titled A life of Mahomet and History of Islam to the Era of Hegira. The book was in two volumes and later in 1861, it was reprinted with the addition of two more volumes. It was more than a century before Rushdie’s book rocked the Muslim world.

William Muir was Lieutenant Governor of North-Western Provinces in 1861 and later Finance Minister of the Legislative Council in 1874. Published by Smith, Elder, and Co., London, in 1861, the book made scathing attacks on percepts of Islam which infuriated Muslims and vociferous protests followed.

But Sir Syed Ahmed Khan took a different stand. As Prof. Shafey Kidwai, in his book, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Reason, Religion, and Nation, writes—"…He exhorted his co-religionists not to be swayed by emotion, as a written response to the profanity-filled book would be more effective. Sir Syed denounced the books for their innumerable historical inconsistencies but stressed that the Quran did not prescribe any corporal punishment for such a deplorable act and the Muslims must not seek vengeance on behalf of the Almighty or his messenger, the Prophet of Islam."

This is also true that intolerance has crept in so much that any attempt to criticise what is sacred in religion, gets grave consequences. Violent protests and an act of vendetta lead to the conclusion among others that the religion is intolerant.

On the controversy over Muir’s writing, Sir Syed did not join the debate. Rather in 1870 when he visited England and decided to prepare a rejoinder by cross-checking the sources used by William Muir. He consulted the books and references cited by Muir that were available at the British Museum and other libraries.

Penning down something when one is furious over reading something, still, Sir Syed held his nerves. He took more than eight years to complete the erudite rebuttal and got it translated into English in 1870. Sir Syed’s work debunked the misconception and misunderstandings created by Muir’s book.

This was not a sole incident. In 1873, Mumbai (then Bombay) witnessed violent clashes between Muslims and Parsis after a book translated by a Parsi allegedly contained objectionable and disparaging remarks.

By then, Sir Syed was regularly publishing The Aligarh Institute Gazette since 1866. He took to writing and wrote an editorial making it clear that the abomination of blasphemy must not be allowed to unleash mindless violence. It cannot be settled through violence on the road. Just a year before Sir Syed breathed his last in 1897, a Christian wrote a book against the wives of the Prophet. Sir Syed, though ill, again wrote a long and well-argued refutation that appeared in The Aligarh Institute Gazette.

Before it, a similar issue had emerged in 1884 when the Muslim community had raised objections to the inclusion of the book History of the Establishment of British Rule in India in the syllabus of Allahabad University. The book was published by Longmans, Green and Company, London. The issue was taken up by the Mohammedan Education Congress, an organisation set up by Sir Syed for the propagation of education. Sir Syed expressed his satisfaction that the Mohammedan Education Congress took the initiative to resolve it through peaceful means by approaching the authorities instead of taking it to the street. The book was later replaced.

Mindless violence will lead nowhere, instead, the path and judicious views shown by Sir Syed must be adopted as such blasphemy acts are erupting more frequently.

(The author is associated with Aligarh Muslim University. He can be reached at