How Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s reformist ‘Tehzibul Akhlaq’ set off a culture war on Islamic traditions in pre-Partition India
Professor Dr. S. Akbar Zaidi is currently the Executive Director of the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi. His academic standing is rare in Pakistan, having completed his Ph.D. in History from the University of Cambridge in 2009; M.Phil. in Economics from the University of Cambridge in 1993; M.Sc. in Social Planning in Developing Countries from the London School of Economics; and Political Science in 1982; and B.Sc. (Hons) in Economics from University College London in 1980.
During his career, he has served as Professor at Columbia University, New York, and held a joint position at the School of International and Public Affairs, and at the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies, from 2010 to 2020, when he became the Executive Director of the IBA. Previously, he taught at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, from 2004-2005 as a Visiting Professor. He was also associated with the Applied Economics Research Center, University of Karachi, as a Senior Research Economist from 1983-96.
Sir Syed’s ‘reform’ movement
Today’s Pakistan doesn’t think much of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the founder of Aligarh University in India. But when Sir Syed wrote his famous reformist tract Tehzibul Akhlaq not all Muslims of his time welcomed it either. One of them was Maulvi Syed Imdadul Ali Sahib, Deputy Collector Bahadur, Kanpur and later of Aligarh. He was one of the earliest and most vociferous critics of Sir Syed Khan (1817–98). The noted essayist, writer and poet Altaf Husain Hali (1837–1914) had called Imdadul Ali one of the two most important people who campaigned against Sir Syed.
In 1872, Imdadul Ali published his critique as a forceful reply to the publication of Sir Syed’s Tehzibul Akhlaq, not long after Syed Ahmad Khan founded a journal of this name in 1871. On the very last page of Imdadul Ali’s 88-page diatribe against Syed Ahmad Khan, we learn why he wrote the tract. His spirit and core beliefs about Islam were provoked, he said, and he became angry and immediately wrote this tract in reply to Tehzibul Akhlaq.
Pious anger as true Islam
This trend of “becoming angry” after reading something and being compelled to write, often “immediately”, became quite commonplace, certainly among the ashraaf (well-born) of Hindustan, even at a time when “print capitalism” was still in its early phases. Imdadul Ali claimed that the journal Tehzibul Akhlaq was not only far removed from Islam but was blasphemous. In order to protect the beliefs of his Muslim brethren, he had his own text published and distributed for free. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had written to many individuals, including Imdadul Ali, seeking their help when he began to plan the establishment of his college at Aligarh.
After spending many pages on what constituted a proper Muslim dress, Imdadul Ali moved on to Syed Ahmad Khan’s planned dress code for the Madrasatul-ulum Musalmanan (Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College). He quoted Syed Ahmad, who wrote that each student would have to come to the madrassa wearing socks and shoes. Imdadul Ali felt that Muslims would object to this, saying that while this madrassa was supposed to be meant for Muslims, by imposing a condition of wearing angrezi juta (British shoes) it would force people away from their Islamic dress and they would begin to find the British style more pleasing.
Reform as ruination
He argued on the basis of a hadith (prophetic tradition) that Muslims should dress in a manner that was distinct from non-believers, and that they were prohibited from copying them. Imdadul Ali continued with a discussion on wearing a red hat and black alpaca overcoat as part of the dress code and explained why this was unacceptable and difficult for students, particularly poor students, to acquire. He was noticeably perturbed by the transformation of Muslims in colonial India and saw these changes as a clear sign of the loss of cultural and social mores, their “akhlaq-o-adab”, which had been so representative of the characteristics of the ashraaf. Imdadul Ali said he wrote because there was a feeling “that our qaum is being ruined and that we should do something about it.” Citing some other hadith, Imdadul Ali also argued that according to the Hanafi tradition, “which is in the majority in Hindustan,” the wearing of red clothes was not permitted.
He pointed out that at Syed Ahmad Khan’s madrassa, Muslims were to eat on a raised platform. Muslims would object to this “because that too is like a little table, and this would make them like the Christians who eat at tables. “In our country only they eat at tables and in the Islamic religion, Muslims have been prohibited to copy/resemble Christians and they have been commanded to oppose them.” He argued that Sir Syed had said that he would have photographs taken and put in the madrassa; but this too, was disallowed in Islam.
The concept of Zillat
Imdadul Ali said photographs were against Islam and would result in angels staying away from those houses where there were pictures. He quoted numerous hadith stating that those who make pictures will burn in hell. The extent of ridicule and contempt for those who were imbibing “British ways” was best illustrated by Imdadul Ali’s statement: “They urinate while standing so that they can become civilized.” For many like Imdadul Ali, who observed and wrote about changing cultural and social norms, such forms of deportment and practices were an embodiment of utter and extreme humiliation, “zillat”.
This cultural notion of zillat was emphasized further and repeatedly by Imdadul Ali in the bimonthly newspaper from Kanpur, Nurul Afaq. In its June 1874 issue, when Imdadul Ali was Deputy Collector in Aligarh, he wrote a reply to articles by Mazharul-Haq and Maulvi Mahdi Ali Sahib, Deputy Collector, Mirzapur. Addressing these heretics/infidels (mulhid), he said that they had destroyed their faith for jobs worth a mere 10 or 20 rupees. They had abandoned their Islamic dress, code and conduct, and wore jackets, pants, socks, shoes and red caps.
Sin of urinating while standing
He stated that the heretics stood and urinated, ate un-koshered chicken cooked in impure water and ate off impure plates with a knife and fork while sitting at tables. They tried to emulate the Europeans to become more like them, he argued. In this article as well as in earlier ones, Imdadul Ali supported his assertion that Muslims were not supposed to urinate while standing with references, noting that urinating while sitting was the correct Islami tariqa (Islamic manner).
Clearly, Imdadul Ali, himself in the employ of the British, represented this idea of debasement in cultural terms. Muslims in Hindustan had given up their more traditional cultural mores—their akhlaq—by acquiring British (or European) ways, which according to some was the manifestation, if not the cause, of “zillat”.
Humor to the rescue?
Oudh Punch was a witty paper (zarif), often very sarcastic, though serious in intent and subject. The exact phrase is khare ho kar peshāb kar ke muhazzib ban sake; some of the more religious-minded Muslims believed that they should be seated on their haunches while urinating, arguing that this was based on tradition. This question of a preferred posture of urination as a tradition was also discussed by Imdadul Ali in the Aug. 30, 1873 and June 6, 1874 issues of Nurul Afaq as part of a debate with other writers.
An Urdu journal, Oudh Punch was published from Lucknow in the middle of the 19th century and edited by Muhammad Sajjad Hussain (1856–1915). It was one of the iconoclastic periodicals of its era, widely read and never ignored. It was read by Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and the British alike, and had nawabs, munshis, divans, pandits, maulvis and various categories of government officials subscribing to it across north India. While it was a Muslim newspaper, it was syncretic, in that one did not see either pro-Muslim, pro-Islamic or anti-Hindu sentiments expressed. It included stories about Eid and Divali, both equally celebrated, and in this manner stood out amongst the many newspapers of north India. The Punch even wrote articles against its competitor, the Oudh Akhbar, for writing anti-Muslim articles.
Akhtar Shahanshahi in his biography of newspapers written in 1888 listed 1,512 newspapers between 1840 and 1880 and said that there was no better humorous newspaper than the Oudh Punch in the whole of Hindustan. It had amongst its readers Maulana Shibli Numani (b. 1857) who was said to have read the paper with great enjoyment. The Punch spoke of a very different culture in a very different language, humorous and caustic.
Culture as rebellion
In 1878, in the midst of a debate around how the term tahzib (culture) should be defined and used by Muslim writers, with major implications for how groups of Muslims reacted to colonial rule and how they imagined themselves, the Punch carried an article that defined tahzib in a way very similar to Imdadul Ali’s, which is as follows: “To call one’s countrymen semi-barbaric; to call one’s elders ‘old goose’; to wear a jacket and pants; to whistle while walking; to swirl one’s umbrella and hit one’s shoe on the ground; to urinate taking aim on the walls of one’s neighbors; to wear a cap with a tail; to enjoy eating potatoes; to drink wine; to eat a non-kosher chicken; to give up using oil and use the fat of a bear in one’s hair; to get a foreign wife; reading a newspaper [in English] whether they know English or not.”
Author Zaidi concludes: “I propose that what acted as an agentive force was the realization of zillat, the bitter humiliation that Muslims faced after the extreme form in which political loss here took place. From Urdu texts including those by less-known publicists, one gets the sense that the Muslim elites, confronted by a condition of zillat, began to define their collective sentiment as such. Zillat was not merely a cry of lamentation; it was instrumental in encouraging Muslims to redefine who they were. I see zillat as the motor which caused a revival, renewal of reform amongst Muslims, giving rise to them emerging and coming into being in diverse manifestations and multiple forms.”
This article is based on Making a Muslim: Reading Publics and Contesting Identities in Nineteenth-Century Northern India by S. Akbar Zaidi