Tuesday, Sep 21, 2021

A Musafir To London

Today marks the 194th birthday of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. In 1869, he travelled with his two sons to England, from where he sent dispatches about his experiences for publication in India. Those dispatches reveal a man that is now little written about

A Musafir To London
A Musafir To London

Today marks the 194th birthday of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. In 1869, he travelled with his two sons to England, from where he sent dispatches about his experiences for publication in India. Those fascinating dispatches from England remained unavailable to general public until 1961, when Shaikh Muhammad Isma’il Panipati edited and published them from Lahore. Now, thanks to Dr. Asghar Abbas, the former Director of the Sir Syed Academy at the Aligarh Muslim University we have a new and different edition. It contains the text as it first appeared in the pages of the Gazette, to which he has added several previously unnoticed articles. It makes the new book the most complete collection of what Sir Syed Ahmad Khan wrote publicly about his experiences abroad.


In February 1869 the Aligarh Institute Gazette, the weekly bilingual journal of what was established in 1864 at Ghazipur as the Scientific Society, excitedly informed its readers that “the Institute’s Life Honorary Secretary, Maulvi Syed Ahmad Khan Sahib Bahadur, Subordinate Judge (First Class) and Judge (Small Causes) at Benares, was definitely traveling to England in April 1869.” It then reproduced in summary a statement Syed Ahmad Khan—henceforward SAK—had made to the government to obtain leave in order to make that great journey.

I am convinced that nothing is more urgent for the purpose of ideally promoting India’s prosperity (fal?h) and welfare (bahb?d?) and for giving due strength (istahk?m) and stability (p?ed?r?) to the aims of the British government—a government I am proud to serve—than an enhancement of good mutual relations between Indians and Europeans. To achieve that goal, in my opinion, Indians should be encouraged to travel to Europe, so that they may directly observe the progress and achievements of Civilization (sh?yastag?) in European countries, and gain an understanding of the prosperity (daulat), power (t?qat), and intelligence (d?n?’?) of the English people.[1] They may also learn, for India’s benefit, the many excellent and useful things that have come about there because the inhabitants of England are so capable (musta’id) in commerce, and because the country’s wealth and learning are increasingly being used to enhance the functioning of its factories, fields, hospitals and charity homes, and the cleanliness of its cities.

I therefore desire to go to England in person, and thus set an example for my compatriots. I firmly believe that not only would I personally gain from this journey but that I would also benefit my compatriots by informing them of my conclusions from the trip—to teach them what excellent things I learn and to encourage them to follow my footsteps.[2]

The journal also informed its readers that the government had kindly granted a scholarship to SAK’s younger son, Syed Muhammad Mahmud (b. 1850)—“who recently passed in First Division the Entrance examination of Calcutta University”—to study in England, and that the Life Honorary Secretary was planning to accompany his son, taking with him also his older son, Syed Muhammad Hamid (b. 1849). [3]

By the time SAK set out from Benares on April 1, 1869, the party consisted of five persons: SAK, the two sons, a trusted servant named Chhajju, and Mirza Khudadad Beg, a distant relative from Delhi who too had received the scholarship. Their first stop was at Allahabad, where SAK called upon Sir William Muir (1819–1905), the Lt. Governor of the North-Western Province, who had nominated Syed Mahmud for the scholarship. From there to Bombay the journey took six days and involved trains and bullock carts of various kinds. They embarked on SS Baroda on April 10, and reached Suez on April 23. A day later from Alexandria they took SS Poona to Marseilles, and eventually reached London on May 4, 1869.


On September 4, 1870, SAK and Syed Hamid started back for India, leaving the others in England. SAK’s stay in London had lasted seventeen months, and his “lodgings” in the city at 21 Mecklenburgh Square now displays a plaque to commemorate that fact.


We don’t know if SAK had been thinking of such a trip prior to January 1869 when the nominations were announced. Most likely he was, for the above reasons had been on his mind for some time. But there was also another matter that, according to his eminent biographer, Altaf Husain Hali, was causing him much anguish at the time, and ideally required a trip to London.[4] It was a highly contentious book, A Life of Mahomet and History of Islam to the Era of the Hegira (4 vols.; London, 1858–1864), authored by the same Sir William Muir. Hali contends that SAK had already started working on a rejoinder to Muir’s book, and was concerned about the paucity of relevant books in India. The scholarship awarded to his son, apparently, settled the issue. SAK mortgaged his property in Delhi and borrowed ten thousand rupees—one-half at 14% annual interest, and the other at 8%—arranged with a few close friends to keep him supplied with additional funds, and set off for London. In England, in addition to many meetings with officials and notables in London, he visited various educational institutions, including the colleges at Cambridge and a collegiate school for girls in North London, talked to various people on related issues, and thus equipped himself with new ideas that eventually resulted in his establishing a college at Aligarh. Simultaneously, he tirelessly worked, using the library of the British Museum and the help of an assistant, on a series of lengthy articles in Urdu in response to Muir’s book, which he then had translated into English and published from London in 1870.


Before his departure SAK had agreed to keep his friends and the readers of the Gazette informed by regularly contributing for publication accounts of the progress of his journey and his experiences and observations. That he did quite assiduously. His last such dispatch from London was sent in March 1870, and included an account of his trip to Bristol and Clifton. By then his social engagements and the demands of his research and writing were overwhelming. Additionally, his dispatches had drawn criticism from those elements among North Indian Muslim elite who considered him a fallen Muslim and a toady of the colonial power. His dear friend Raja Jai Kishan Das, the officiating editor of the Gazette, took up cudgels on his behalf, but SAK felt that unneeded controversy was not good for the Society and stopped.

His original ambition, however, had been different. A month after arrival he wrote to Muhsin-ul-Mulk Nawab Mahdi Ali Khan: “I wish that the travel accounts as they are published in the journal should be copied and collected in the form of a book. And that you should ask me for more details if you have any question concerning some matter, and then add to my account. In that manner, the book will benefit from your corrections and also become more comprehensive. It will then be ready for publication on my return. I will also bring some excellent drawings of important buildings that will be included in the book. In short, after a revision, the book will be fully comprehensive.”[5] Unfortunately it did not happen. SAK only made some minor changes, then reprinted the same articles in his newly founded journal, Tahz?b-ul-Akhl?q. Those fascinating dispatches remained unavailable to general public until 1961, when Shaikh Muhammad Isma’il Panipati edited and published them from Lahore. Now, thanks to Dr. Asghar Abbas, the former Director of the Sir Syed Academy at the Aligarh Muslim University and an ardent champion of everything related to SAK, we have a new and different edition. It contains the text as it first appeared in the pages of the Gazette, to which he has added several previously unnoticed articles. It makes the new book the most complete collection of what SAK wrote publicly about his experiences abroad.


The Panipati edition contains several appendices that add much to what the dispatches record. His “Appendix 3” consists of selected excerpts from the letters that SAK wrote from England to Muhsin-al-Mulk. Particularly revealing of the man are his efforts and anxieties concerning his rejoinder to Muir’s book. Five months after reaching London, he wrote: “I am sending you the first essay… Be careful. No one should know that a rejoinder to William Muir Sahib’s book is being written until the work is finished and published. Our enemies should be kept in the dark, for I do not wish Sir William Muir to know about it before its completion. At that time, I shall, inshallah, present him a copy with my own hands.” It is most moving to read in the same letter the details of his distress over the cost of the book and the paucity of his funds. “You should take this letter to Mir Zahur Husain Sahib; then both of you should take a loan of one thousand rupees from some mahajan. I shall pay the principal and the interest… I have also written to my people at Delhi and asked them to sell my books and furnishings, including all copper pots and utensils, and send me one thousand rupees.” [6] While he struggled with the dual tasks of writing the book and arranging its publication, SAK suffered an immense personal loss when his only daughter passed away in Delhi. He did not mention her death in what he was writing for the general public, but the few sentences he allowed himself in a personal note (May 27, 1870) speak volumes: “The life-wounding incident that Destiny brought about in Delhi—you most likely heard of it before I did. You can imagine what pain it must have caused me and to Hamid and Mahmud. You can also imagine the state of my mind at the time. But I thank God no matter what.”[7] The work on the book continued, and one of the excerpted letters gives the final account of cost and income: “The total income from the sale of the book has been Rs. 1691. Total expenditure was: Rs. 3948. Thus the uncovered cost came to Rs. 2257; it was paid from the loan taken out. Now I don’t have the money for the return journey, which will not be possible unless some more money is borrowed.”[8] Money, of course, was somehow found, and he and Syed Hamid reached home in October 1870. Unfortunately, there is no record available of his experiences during the journey back.

Muir was still the chief colonial authority in the North-Western Province when SAK returned, loaded with copies of his book. He had called upon Muir before embarking on the journey, and we can be certain that he called upon him again before proceeding to Benares. We can also be sure that, as promised to his friend, he personally presented Muir a copy of his own Essays, in which he had unhesitatingly stated the following concerning his boss’s book:

When [that] work appeared, the curiosity it excited among the reading public was only equaled by their impatience to peruse it, but no sooner was it found that the simplest and plainest facts connected with Islam and Mohammed had been strained and twisted and distorted, in short, subjected to the Procrustes’ process in order to make them the indices or exponents of the author’s prepossessions and prejudices, than the interest created by the announcement of the work fell, instanter, to zero.[9]

It may also be added that much later when Muir became the Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, he quickly conferred on SAK an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters, making him the second Indian to receive that honour.


SAK’s account of his experiences on board the two ships and in London is much more informative about him than the persons and places he mentions. One is both surprised and impressed by his ability to experience and find pleasure in new things and people. The man who, before 1857, had shown keen interest in levers and stars and written an extraordinary book on Delhi’s buildings and ruins, was still very curious about machines and architecture. He explored the ship, kept track of its progress by jotting down longitudes and latitudes, and took delight in discovering how he was able to summon a servant at a hotel by just pressing a button in his fifth floor room. He visited museums, observatories, and palaces, and enjoyed them in his own fashion. Though 52 he still retained much energy and keenness to observe, experience, and learn.

Also attractive is the fact that SAK never appears arrogantly judgmental of non-Indians, and never lets any non-Indian act in that manner toward him. Here is one telling anecdote. On board the ship from Alexandria, he met a woman—“no less amazing than the Suez Canal”—named Nasiban. A Pathan Muslim from Kanpur, she had worked as an ayah with many British families, and by her own account had traveled to England twenty-one times with her employers and then returned alone. “She speaks English fluently, and has seen England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Portugal and other places in Europe. I said to myself, “Bravo Nasiban, you are better than men.” One day I was talking to her on the deck when my dear friend Major Dodd came by. He asked the ayah, “What is your religion?” She replied, “Muhammadan.” Then Major Dodd, either in fun or in sarcasm, said to me, “Your qaum.” In all sincerity and with a smile I replied, “Yes, our qaum; indeed our qaum. Doubtless all human beings are our brothers, for we are descended from the same father, and all Muslims are brothers in religion because we believe in one God.”[10] Likewise, he unhesitatingly told the Deputy Commissioner of Delhi, whom he met on board SS Poona, that the existing British administration in the Punjab and Delhi was “despotic” and unconstitutional (be-q?n?n).

However, SAK was not dewy-eyed about Islamic history the way it became a fetish a generation later. As his ship passed Sicily and its capital Messina, he wrote only this: “Long ago, Muslims ruled Sicily for a long time. But we could not see any sign of that rule from the coast, though surely there must be some signs still there.”[11] His emotions are stronger, however, when later his ship passes the small island of Caprera near Sardinia. He wrote: “I was extremely desirous of seeing the straw cottage of Garibaldi, the most chivalrous and brave man of these times. It deserves more honor and respect than the largest palaces of today’s Caesars. Sadly, because of it was night, I was denied that boon and that blessing.”[12] One may wonder if it was Garibaldi’s anti-Papal convictions that appealed to SAK’s own latent Wahhabism, or the Italian’s fervent nationalism that had been blessed by the British for their own imperial purpose.

SAK’s feelings are quite vivid, however, in the incident with Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the just completed Suez Canal, who was traveling on that same ship. SAK was introduced to him by the ship’s captain, and could exchange a few words with him in Arabic. Then a reception was held in de Lesseps’ honour, where a General Tapp remarked in his speech how it would be more appropriate to name the canal after its builder. The Frenchman, however, averred in his response that it would mean nothing to him, for he would rather have it called the French Canal. When Syed Ahmad learned what had been said through the help of a friend, he rejoiced: “My heart filled with joy at the words of that brave and large-hearted man and at the fact of his holding in such high esteem his qaum and its honour. Then I thought of my own qaum, whose people do nothing but feel jealous of each other, conspire against each other, or make boasts among themselves. I felt much grief, and realized that it was these bad habits of theirs that had brought them so much misfortune and disgrace.” [13]


In one major respect, SAK’s journey to London was quite different from any previous such travel by an Indian Muslim. Radical improvements in post and transportation had made it possible for him to stay in touch with his readers while abroad—they included both supporters and detractors—and retain a lively sense of participation in what he called qaumi or national affairs in India. As his dispatches appeared in the Society’s journal, they brought forth responses from his critics in other journals. Abbas is useful in bringing to our attention some of those critiques and the comments that Raja Jai Kishan Das, the interim editor of the Gazette, and SAK published in response.

As was his wont, SAK could often hold extreme views and also express them too bluntly. His denunciations of fellow shurafa—the Indian Muslim elite—brought him much grief all his life, including when he was in England. One example would suffice. Soon after his arrival, SAK went to Bristol and Clifton and saw the newly finished suspension bridge over the river Avon. After describing how it was initially funded by a wine-merchant and how it was brought to completion by the cooperative effort of many citizens and engineers, he wrote: “Now I most humbly ask my compatriots, ‘Who are human, these people or we who are mired in our own selfishness?’ And concluded the dispatch by declaring, “I saw all the places and all the things at some length, and was pained to the utmost (dil jalkar kab?b ho-gay?) when I considered how badly and immorally the rich and prosperous people of my country spend their lives when compared to the people here who lead such excellent lives. I cannot write more for I greatly fear the frightening thunder from Kanpur. I am also afraid the highly refined, worthy, noble-natured, well-brought-up people of my country, who consider none as their peer, might take offense.” [14]

SAK stopped writing to the Gazette for six months. Then, much pressed by the editor, Raja Jai Kishan Das, he wrote a long letter in November 1870 that is included in both editions. After apologizing to his friend, he explained: “I had heard that some members of the Society found my freely expressed views most displeasing. I cannot conceal what I actually experience out of some fear of the members of the Society; nor can I not reveal the truths my heart gains as I travel, for in that case I would be committing the same sin that I accuse of my compatriot Hindustanis. Hence I thought it was better to stop writing altogether.” He then mentions all the many sites and institutions he had recently visited and the people he met there, followed by a detailed account of his lodgings in London, the couple who ran it, and the two young maids who served his entourage, pointing out the latter’s good qualities that made them superior in his eyes to most members of his own qaum.

The letter could not have won him many friends at home, but it contains some statements that allow us to understand his perspective more correctly. He writes, “I don’t give those matters any thought that are different in one country from another due to some unshared inherent attribute (kh?siyat). I talk only of those ethical and educational excellences and those refinements, perfections, and achievements that arise from education and training.” Then he further explains, “General qualities, both worldly and religious, have been given by God to Europe and in particular to England. By religious qualities I mean that these people fulfill more beautifully and with more refinement all the concomitants of the religion they believe in than the people of another country or religion, And it is due to [two things]: their men and women are in general educated, and their entire qaum is concerned to meet their shared goals. If the people of India become well-trained in general then India too, because of its certain inherent attributes, will become a garden, if not better than England then definitely quite equal to it.”[15]

The same letter contains another declaration—repeated in various dispatches—that is commonly not thought of when SAK’s ideas on education are mentioned. He writes: “The sole reason for all this progress in England is that its learning (‘ul?m) and crafts (fan)—everything it has—are in the language of its people…. The people who truly desire India’s good and progress should firmly understand that India’s good depends on only one thing, that its people receive instruction in everything, from the most elevated to the most mundane, in their own languages. These words of mine should be carved in big bold letters on the Himalayas. If India does not get instruction in all branches of learning in its own language, India will never gain any status for civilization (sh?yastag?) and refinement (tarbiyat). That alone is true, true, true.”[16]

Another remarkable statement comes near the end of the letter. Responding to the news that the Scientific Society had received some much needed financial aid from the government, he tells his friend: “The news delighted me and I thanked God. But my dear Raja, never ever give away the Society’s and the journal’s independence. India’s life and death depends on the goodness or badness of the Department of Public Instruction. You must always be judging it justly and honestly, thinking only of the welfare of the common man.”[17]

[1] Sh?yastag? (lit. worthiness; now commonly means “civility”) was the word that Sir Syed then also used “civilization.” Later, with a clearer grasp of the concept, he used the English word in his writings interchangeably with the Arabic tahz?b and tamaddun.

[2] In his dispatches, Sir Syed repeatedly encourages his compatriots to travel to Europe, and explains how they—as Sunni, Shi’ah, and Hindu—should be able to meet their separate needs concerning diet and other matters.

[3] Asghar Abbas (ed.), Sar Sayyad k? Safarn?ma: Mus?fir?n-i-Landan (Aligarh: Educational Book House, 2009), pp. 227–8. Henceforth: Abbas.

[4] Altaf Husain Hali, Hay?t-i-J?ved (New Delhi: National Council for the Promotion of Urdu, 1999, reprint), p. 417.

[5] Shaikh Muhammad Isma’il Panipati (ed.), Mus?fir?n-i-Landan (Lahore: Majlis-i-Taraqqi-i-Adab, 1961). pp. 220–21. Henceforth: Panipati.

[6] Panipati, pp. 248–9.

[7] Panipati, p. 261.

[8] Panipati, pp. 265–6.

[9] Syed Ahmed Khan, Essays on the Life of Mohammed (Delhi: Idarah-i Adabiyat-i Delli, 1981, reprint), p. xix. Emphasis original. The Urdu text could be published only in 1887, and was titled: Al-Khutbat Al-Ahmadiyya fi Al-‘Arab wa Al-Sirat Al-Ahmadiyya, Long neglected, Dr. Abbas published a photo-reprint of it for the Sir Syed Academy in 2003.

[10] Abbas, pp. 101–2.

[11] Abbas, p. 104. Compare it with Muhammad Iqbal’s Urdu poem on Sicily, written similarly on board ship (1905), which ends: “I’ll take your gift to India, and make others shed tears just as I shed tears now”—the “gift” being a reminder of Islam’s past imperial glory.

[12] Abbas, p. 103.

[13] Abbas, p. 100.

[14] Abbas, p. 146. According to Abbas, the “thunder from Kanpur” was a Maulvi Imdadul Ali, who too was a civil servant in the British administration.

[15] Abbas, p. 150; Panipati, pp. 185–6. Emphasis added.

[16] Abbas, p. 158; Panipati, pp. 197–8.

[17] Abbas, p. 159; Panipati, pp. 198–9.


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