Religious Views of Sir Sayyid [Syed] Ahmad Khan

From an Article in Daily ‘Jang’

by Dr. Zahid Aziz

The Light & Islamic Review (US), November/December 1997 Issue (Vol. 74, No. 6, pp. 18–19)

An article has appeared in the London edition of the Pakistan-based newspaper Daily Jang (12 June 1993, p. 5) by Abu Amaar Zahid-ar-Rashidi, levelling criticism at Justice (retired) Dr. Javed Iqbal’s support for the reformist views of Sir Sayyid [Syed] Ahmad Khan on the religion of Islam. Our readers may be reminded that Sir Sayyid (d. 1898) made the most strenuous efforts to urge Muslims of India to acquire Western education, at a time when they had reached rock bottom in every field of life due to their reluctance and refusal to acquire modern knowledge. It is recognised that it was his struggle and his awakening of the Muslims to their future which led to the rise of Muslim nationalistic sentiments in India a few years later, culminating in the creation of Pakistan. He is thus honoured as a national hero whose work laid the basis of Muslim progress and freedom on the Indian sub-continent.

Sir Sayyid also attempted to represent Islamic beliefs as conforming to modern, rational thinking, and this is the ground on which the writer of the article in the Jang objects to his views. He devotes most of his article to giving a list of such objectionable interpretations given by Sir Sayyid in his writings on Islam. We reproduce this list below.

Views of Sir Sayyid quoted from Article:

  • It is erroneous to believe that the angel Gabriel is an actual being who brought revelation to the messengers of God. Prophethood is a higher form of poetic and literary composition which the prophets excel in. Prophets go into a state of trance and utter words in that state, to which the terms Gabriel and revelation are applied.
  • The fire of hell and the blessings of paradise have no external existence.
  • The whole story of Adam in the Quran, including God’s speaking to the angels, His teaching of the names to Adam etc., were not actual events but are merely symbolical descriptions.
  • None of the miracles of the prophets related in the Quran took place in reality, nor do they prove the truth of prophethood.
  • Abraham copied the customs of the pagans of his time in treating the Kabah as a symbol of Divine worship.
  • There is no Divine command for Muslims to face the Kabah in prayer.
  • In case of intentional murder, the practice of allowing the heirs of the deceased to forgive and accept blood-money is a custom of pre-Islamic ignorance.
  • Fasting was only included in Islam by the Holy Prophet because the Arab idolators believed in it as an act of worship.
  • Even a healthy young adult can choose whether to fast or to give charity in its place.
  • Muslim rulers misused the concept of jihad, as a religious duty, in order to conquer other countries. The books written by the Ulama [clerics] about the commandments relating to jihad have nothing to do with religion.
  • Kissing the Black Stone (hajr aswad) is only a way of counting the number of circuits around the Kabah. It has no other meaning.
  • The original purpose of hajj [pilgrimage] was only that Makkah should continue to be populated, and the sole aim of the sacrifice was to provide food for the people of this area. It was afterwards continued in memory of Abraham.
  • There are many forms of interest (on money), considered unlawful by the Ulama, which are legitimate.
  • Jesus was not born without a father. His father was called Joseph.
  • Jesus did not speak as a baby, nor was he raised up to heaven.
  • Cutting off the hand of a thief is a barbaric punishment. Where there are prisons, it is not right to apply this punishment.
  • The miracles of the Holy Prophet Muhammad did not take place as actual events, but were a form of mesmerism.
  • The raising of the dead from the graves on the Day of Resurrection has no reality to it.
  • The miraj [ascension] of the Holy Prophet did not take place while he was awake.
  • There is no separate creation called jinn. This term in the Quran is applied to people inhabiting remote mountainous regions.
  • It is not true that a record of man’s deeds is kept in a book.
  • Miracles are contrary to reason and the laws of nature.

Our Comments:

From this list of views, we can see just how far from certain Islamic fundamentals these Muslim thinkers had deviated due to the impact of the modern, rational criticism of religion in general and of Islam. But the holders of traditional views, before expressing too much shock and condemnation, should realise that their own conventional interpretations of matters spiritual had ceased any longer to satisfy the hearts and minds of thinking people, and could not stand up to the scrutiny of modern investigation. This was a main cause of the rise of the rationalist school of thought represented by Sir Sayyid.

There were two obstacles to belief in spiritual phenomena, such as revelation, miracles, etc. Firstly, these were presented like incredible fairy tales and myths, where there was no law or rule, but rather, God caused miracles to happen entirely at His whim, like a despotic king. Any improbable happening or phenomenon was accepted on the basis that “God has the power to do anything”. Secondly, nothing similar could be demonstrated or pointed to as taking place today. Understandably, the Muslim rationalists came to the conclusion that these events and phenomena were not actual realities, and the language used in the scriptures was purely figurative.

Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was a younger contemporary of Sir Sayyid, and he rejected the latter’s rationalism, but removed the two obstacles mentioned above. Firstly, he explained at length, the spiritual realm is governed by laws, as is the physical world, and there is logic and sense behind the super-normal occurrences of religious history. Secondly, he showed that these were all matters of continuing experience in the lives of the righteous followers of the Holy Prophet Muhammad. It was to this end that he so often referred to his personal experience of this kind.

In the above list there are one or two interpretations that the Ahmadiyya Movement accepts (e.g., “Jesus did not speak as a baby, nor was he raised up to heaven”). But our prime reasons for so believing are based on the evidence of the Holy Quran itself, and not on the rationalist view that anything which apparently violates the known laws of nature must be rejected. It is a mistake to think that, because we agree with some of Sir Sayyid’s conclusions, it means that we believe in his philosophy.