Syed Ahmed Khan and Urdu

Posted by sepoy on August 20, 2010 · 24 mins read

I wrote this many, many moons ago, for a seminar - actually my first year in grad school. Legally, I am no longer responsible for its contents, but I thought I'd share at least the primary source material, here.

…We cannot for a moment imagine that the Government will forsake and ignore us or allow those things on which our life depends to come to grief. I do not believe that the Government will allow our language to die; it will keep it alive. But there is no doubt that if the efforts being made by the other side to kill our language continue it may suffer a setback at any time in future. These fears have led us to make these efforts to keep alive our language and, even if we cannot, to take out its funeral bier with great eclat.
--- Nawab Mohsin ul Mulk speaking at the Urdu Defense Association on August 18, 1900. Quoted in Allana, G. (ed.) Pakistan Movement: Historic Documents (Lahore: Islamic Book Service, 1977)

The growth of nationalism in India is traced usually to the rise of print culture and modernization of the educational system. Nationalism brought with it a new idiom of community, one that was based on a shared language and a shared sense of time and space. However, India was a land of multiple languages and multiple spheres of shared spaces. There were the intra-religious divides of Hindu/Muslim, the inter-religious divides of caste and creeds, the inner and outer spheres of knowledge and tradition. Needless to say, nationalism in South Asia was never a simple or straightforward concept - as various competing nationalisms sought to define the interests and boundaries of its constituents.

This paper is an attempt to look at one aspect of Muslim nationalism in the late 19th century: the Urdu language. This, in itself, is a rather broad and varied topic but I will attempt to situate it in the life and work of the leading Muslim thinker of the time, Syed Ahmed Khan (1817 - 1898). I will show that he played a pivotal role in the propagation of Urdu as the language of Muslims and provided the ideological and theoretical framework for the cultivation of separatist nationalism among the Muslims of India. The first section is a brief bio sketch of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan meant to place him in the socio-cultural context of his time. The second section on Urdu language provides the background of the Hindi-Urdu controversy of the late 19th century, the change in British policy and Syed Ahmed Khan's response.

Syed Ahmed Khan was born in Delhi in 1817. He belonged to a family steeped in the history and culture of Delhi. His forefathers had close ties with the Mughal court and were writers, poets and jurists in the Perso-Islamic tradition: more commonly known as a Sharif family. In Aligarh's First Generation, David Lelyveld gives the following characters of the Sharif class:

One usually defines Sharafat in terms of honorable descent. Sharafat also defined character: a sharif man was one who had honorable descent, dignified temperament, self-confident but not overly aggressive, appreciative of good literature, music, and art but not flamboyant, familiar with mystical experience. Sharif social relations involved a pose of deference , but were above all a matter of virtuosity within the highly restricted bounds of etiquette. ((David Lelyveld. Aligarh's First Generation (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1978). pp. 30))

He received traditional Muslim education at home consisting of Qur'an training until the age of seven, Persian at the local madrasa, Arabic grammar, and military skills like swordsmanship, archery, wrestling, horseback riding, and swimming. He also received some training in the fine arts like painting and music. Syed Ahmed Khan entered the governmental judicial system in 1838. In 1841 he was appointed as a munsif (a lower-level judge) in the court of Agra and he later obtained the position of Level 1 judge at the Delhi court. From 1841 until his death in 1898 he was involved in working both for the welfare of Muslims of Delhi and in presenting the Muslim case to the British. He started and published numerous newspapers, journals, magazines, publications etc. that touched on every manner of religious, cultural and political matters of the Muslim community. He wrote exegesis of the Qur'an as well as commentary of Hadith and jurisprudence. He advocated a rationalist approach to religion that created numerous opponents amongst the ulema class. He worked for and advocated English and technical education as well as programs for education Muslim women. He put forth ideas on nationalism and communal identity of the Muslims in pamphlets that were distributed freely to the people. He founded the Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College (Aligarh) geared specifically towards the education of Muslims. He poured just as much energy into presenting the Muslim case to the British. He wrote and published tracts on the causes of the 1857 riots, a refutation of Muir's thesis on Islamic history, pamphlets on the Muslim community and its political ambition, and was awarded the KSI in 1888. Perhaps because of his many achievements and honors from the British, Syed Ahmed Khan faced severe internal opposition from Muslims during his life. Roughly 25 years after Syed Ahmed Khan's death, Maulana Mohammad Ali addressed the Indian National Congress and said of Ahmed Khan:

Be it remembered that the man who enunciated this policy was not at the time persona grata to the major portion of the people he sought to lead. He was hated as a heretic because of the heterodoxy of his aggressive rationalism in interpreting the Qur'an, and his militant opposition to popular superstitions believed in the bulk of the orthodox and to shackling customs consecrated by time, though wholly unauthorized by Islam. He was abused and vilified by hundreds of thousands of his co-religionists, and for long the college he had founded at Aligarh was the bete noire of the pious Muslim. ((Jamiluddin Ahmed. Historic Documents of the Muslim Freedom Movement (Lahore: Publishers United Ltd., 1970) pp. 72))

In his book A House Divided, Amrit Rai speculates that it was in the early 18th century that Urdu began to separate itself from the common vernacular of the North Indian people — Hindi/Hindavi — which was a mixture of Sanskrit, Barj Bhosa, Punjabi, Persian and Arabic. Even though Hindavi was the growing language of social interaction between the common Hindus and Muslims, the elite, i.e. the courtiers of the Mughal Empire and the Sharif families of Delhi, had very little to do with it. Persian was the official language of the Mughal durbar and persian culture dominated these elites. The Hindavi they adopted was infused with persian words and grammar and called Urdu-i Mualla. This was a deliberate attempt by the Sharif culture to preserve their persian heritage. He concludes, “It is thus clear that the change-over from Hindi/Hindavi/Qadim Urdu to Jadid Urdu was not a step in the course of the natural evolution of this language but a side-step or a breaking loose from it, in order to create a class-dialect of the ruling aristocracy.” ((Amrit Rai. A House Divided (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1984). pp. 246))

The British used this split to categorize Persian and Hindoostani or Oordoo as the Muslim language and Sanskrit and Hindi as the Hindu language, completely ignoring the presence of Hindavi as the combined language of a majority of North India. They continued to use Persian as the court language and at Fort Williams College and other institutions, Persian grammars and Persianized Urdu texts were used and fostered. But this changed after 1857. English was declared the official language and the British turned their attention toward the development of other vernacular languages, especially Hindi.

The rise of print played a crucial role in this transformation. Hindu presses printed pamphlets and books that used the Hindavi vernacular but in the Devanagari script instead of the Perso-Arabic script. The language itself began to be stripped of any Persian or Arabic words. Christopher King, in One Language, Two Scripts, charts the production rates of books in the UP area from 1868-1925. He reports that while Urdu/Arabic/Persian texts were roughly the same percentage with Hindi/Sanskrit texts in 1868 (39.1% to 48.5%), by 1925 Hindi/Sanskrit texts were 76.6% while the Urdu texts had dwindled to 12%. ((Christopher King. One Language, Two Scripts (Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1994) pp. 38-39)) Urdu newspapers and monthly publications, along with religious texts, constituted the bulk of these publications. However, with roughly 5% literate audience these newspapers had very limited press runs, usually only around 100. Jam-i Jahan Numa, the first newspaper in Urdu was published under Munshi Sada Sukh Mirzapuri from Calcutta in 1822. After Jahan Numa, came several important publications: Delhi Akhbar (1837), Syedul Akhbar Delhi (1841), Jamai al Akhbar Madras (1842), Muhib Hind, a monthly from Delhi (1847), Syedul Akhbar Agra (1847), and Koh-i Nur Lahore (1850). ((Jamal Jalbi. Tarikh-i Adab-i Urdu vol2 (Lahore: Majlis Taraki Urdu, 1975), pp. 134))

Syed Ahmed Khan tried to rescue Urdu from these dire states. Even though he was a member of the Sharif, the same class Amrit Rai blames for the persianization of Hindavi. Yet Syed Ahmed Khan's lifelong goal was to create a simple and clear language that could function in the scientific age and serve the community of Muslims. He founded the weekly journal Aligurh Institute Gazette in 1866 with the motto, “Liberty of Press is a prominent duty of the Government and a natural right of the subject”. The journal was set up to translate telegraph news from London dailies and carry editorials and opinions written by Muslim notables. He wrote in the first issue, “The intention is to have a newspaper with fine essays written by Indian well wishing English and worthwhile Indians so that the general public would be educated as well as entertained”. ((Mushtaq Husain, ed. Makatib-i Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (Aligarh: Friends Book Store, 1970). pp. 45)) He looked toward the newly educated English-reading Muslim youths to contribute to the AIG:

The English educated youths are also responsible for the poverty and dearth of Urdu vocabulary. English educated Bengalis filled their language with treasures from European languages. Professor Shibli has expressed this as a sad state that the English educated youths are neglecting Urdu and wishes that a literal translation be made of European classics so that the language as well as the people can benefit from these qualities. ((ibid., p. 145))

In 1872, the Journal had its largest circulation of 381.

In 1870, Syed Ahmed Khan decided to publish a monthly for the social and political development of Muslims and named it Tahdib-i Ikhlaq/Muhammadan Social Reformer. On the subject he wrote to Muhsin ul Mulk, “We twenty friends will contribute 5 ruppees each every month and distribute the paper for free and also sell it. There will nothing in the paper except articles on the Muslim religious and social benefit. You and me will be the main writers and, if possible, we will ask Munshi Najmuddin to contribute articles”. ((ibid., p. 98)) He was clearly concerned with reaching a wide audience of common Muslims and the writings of his journals — especially Tahdib-i Ikhlaq - were known for their clarity of language and thought. In this journal, he made a conscious effort to clear the Urdu prose from overly Persian and Arabic stylings, writing that “although Urdu contains many words from Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit and many have been modified … [people] have developed a habit of either including too many Persian words or using Persian grammar to write Urdu. Neither of these practices are good and rob Urdu of its essence”. ((ibid., p. 32-3))

In 1872, Syed Ahmed Khan again took stock of the condition of Urdu prose and said, “In verse and poetry, no other age is worse than our age. Essay is nothing except romances. Even that does not highlight the higher ideals of humanity but points to those baser emotions that are opposite to civilized behavior”. ((ibid., p. 176)) He encouraged his companion Altaf Husain Hali to forgo Ghazals and write “natural” poetry. When he responded with thematic poems written in a clear and concise meter, Syed Ahmed was delighted and wrote, “The day of 1874 will live long in the history of Urdu literature as the day when the first gathering of Natural poets took place in Lahore”. ((ibid., p. 84))

Through his writings and his publications, Syed promoted the development of a clear, concise and comprehensive style of Urdu that was not bogged down with flowery prose and unnecessary stylistic complications. In 1875 he wrote in the pages of the Muhammadan Social Reformer, “As far as possible, we have tried to propagate Urdu language in these papers. We adopted a simple and clean style of writing and tried to correct the vocabulary and vernacular of Urdu”. He turned the attention of Urdu authors to literature that was socially constructive and beneficial. Under the influence of his thought, a circle of intellectuals emerged who became his companions and compatriots. Together with men like Mushin ul Mulk, Waqar ul Mulk, Charagh Ali, Muhammad Husain Azad, Nazir Ahmed, Altaf Husain Hali, and Shibli Naumani Syed adopted a rationalist and scientific approach to the world and started the Aligarh movement. Syed's efforts were not restricted only to the propagation of Urdu but also the preservation. He was very concerned with the position Urdu held in the Indian political and cultural arena. During the time the British used Persian as the court language, men from the Sharif class in particular and Muslims in general had an advantage over Hindus and others: in 1850, 72 percent of the judiciary in North Western provinces were Muslims educated in Persian. To secure their jobs, Syed was intent on keeping Persian as the court language. In 1868, Hindu nationalists started a campaign to recognize Hindi as the language of the courts, but Syed was quick to oppose. A strong advocate of Hindi was Babu Sarud Prasad, an official of the Education Board who had written textbooks in the Hindi Nagari script. During the Urdu-Hindi controversy he wrote to Babu Sarud Prashad, “In my consideration, the areas in the North and West and the province of Bihar should have a court language that is similar to the spoken language; which you call Hindi and I call Urdu. You are incorrect in asserting that Urdu contains many Persian words. The reason being that only those people include Persian words in Urdu who know Persian and those that do not simply use the common language”. ((ibid., p. 116)) Syed saw no need for Hindi to be identified separately from Urdu in the court system. In fact, he was a proponent of using the Roman script in the court documents for both Urdu and Hindi. But Syed saw that the Hindi movement was tied in with the rise of Hindu nationalism and knew all too well that the separation of these languages would lead to the ultimate separation of the communities. He wrote to Mushin ul Mulk in 1870:

I have received report that has caused me grief and anguish that Babu Shiva Prashad's movement has riled the Hindu people to eliminate the Urdu language and the Persian script which are the distinction of the Muslims. I have heard that they have asked the Hindu members of the Scientific Society to publish their paper in Hindi rather than Urdu. Books also should be translated into Hindi. This is a proposition that will cause disunification. Muslims will never agree to Hindi and if Hindus insist, the result will be that Hindus and Muslims will be separated. ((ibid., p. 123))

Another incident is mentioned in Hali's biography of Syed who narrates this incident:

During these days when the Hindi-Urdu controversy was going on in Benares, one day, in 1867, I met Mr. Shakespeare who was posted there as Divisional Commissioner. I was saying something about the education of Muslims and Mr. Shakespeare was listening with amazement, when, at length, he said, 'This is the first occasion when I have heard you speaking about the progress of Muslims alone. Before this you were always keen about the welfare of your countrymen in general'. I said, 'Now I am convinced that both these nations will not join wholeheartedly in anything. At present there is no open hostility between the two nations, but on account of the so-called educated people, it will increase immensely in future. He who lives will see'. Mr. Shakespeare thereupon said, 'I would be sorry if your prophecy were to prove true'. I said, 'I am also extremely sorry, but I am confident about the accuracy of this prophecy'. ((ibid., p. 153))

It is clear that for Syed Ahmed Khan the notion of language and community was intertwined with the ideas of nationalism. Again and again, he insisted that Urdu was the language of the Muslims and that any compromise of that was not possible. Syed Ahmed defined Muslim nation (qaum) on the basis of a shared ethnicity or religion. He believed that both Hindus and Muslims could share a language, even a script, and work together to benefit their condition.

However, as a reaction to the Hindu nationalist movement's appropriation of Hindi as their national language, he changed his stance to insist that Urdu alone was the language of the Muslims and strove to bring it up to par for modern needs.

In his letters and his speeches, he emphasized the development of Urdu as a modern language for Muslims that must supplant English as a vehicle for their uplift. Of course, he faced stiff competition from within the Muslim leadership on this issue. Many already considered him a persona non grata due to his reliance on western thought and his adherence to the principles of nationalism in religious commentary. Now others who sought not to antagonize the Hindu majority and work with them in the British Raj believed that he was wrong to label Urdu as the language of the Muslims.

While political realities had already forced two scripts and new vocabularies into the languages among the middle and higher classes, the debates were far from over. As late as 1937, we can still see the remnants of this debate in the political sphere, as this Muslim League resolution stated:

Urdu language was originally an Indian language and was the result of inter-action of Hindu and Muslim culture and it was spoken by a great part of the people of this country, it was best suited to develop a united nationality, and the attempt to replace it with Hindi might upset the structural basis of Urdu otherwise known as Hindustani and adversely affect the comradeship between Hindus and Muslims. All India Muslim league calls upon all Urdu speaking people of India to safeguard the interest of their language in every field of activity.


Jamiluddin Ahmad. Historic Documents of the Muslim Freedom Movement. (Lahore: Publishers United Ltd. 1970)
Ghulam Allana Pakistan Movement: Historic Documents. (Lahore: Islamic Book Service, 1977)
Moinuddin Aqeel. Tahrik-i Pakistan ka Talimi pas Manzir. (Lahore: Idara Talimi Tahqiq, 1992)
-----. Tahrik-ii Azadi mein Urdu ka Hissa. (Lahore: Anjuman Tariki Urdu, 1976)
Suriya Husain. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan aur unka Aihad. (Aligarh: Educational Book House, 1993)
Jamil Jalbi. Tarikh-ii Adab-ii Urdu. (Lahore: Majlis Taraki Urdu, 1975)
Christopher R. King. One Language, Two Scripts: The Hindi Movement in the 19th Century North India. (Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1994)
David Lelyveld. Aligarh's First Generation: Muslim Solidarity in British India. (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1978)
Hafeez Malik. "Sir Syed Ahmed Khan's Contribution to the Development of Nationalism in India" in Modern Asian Studies, 4, 2 1970. pp. 129-47.
Gyanendra Pandey. The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India. (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990)
Amrit Rai. A House Divided: The Origin and Development of Hindi/Hindavi. (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1984)
-----. Risalah Hindustani Illahabad, 1931-1948 se intikhab. (New Delhi: Taqsimkar Maktabah Jamiah, 1993)
Christopher Shackle. Hindi and Urdu since 1800: A common reader. (London: SOAS, 1990).


Jonathan Dresner | August 20, 2010

The linguistic argument is fascinating, as is the location of these tensions in the early-mid 19c.

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Amardeep | August 20, 2010

If you were writing this today, you might add Tariq Rahman's book, Language and Politics in Pakistan. He has a nice chapter on Urdu that covers some of this same ground. (I also appreciated the chapter on the Punjabi movement in this book.) Some of his history of Urdu seems to be excerpted here:

Aligarian | August 20, 2010

This is a very interesting facet of "Aligarh movement" that I wasn't aware of. In Aligarh we were mostly told about his emphasis on moral education and his idea of Quran in your right hand and Book of knowledge/modern education in the left.

Aligarian | August 20, 2010

Here is an intersting incident from Sir Syed's life, which shows his educational philosphy. The teachers in Darul Ulum Deoband always saw Saiyid Ahmad as an atheist, a British agent and anti-Deoband. Due to this I hated Saiyid Ahmad during the eight years of my stay there. At the end of my studies one day I took Saiyid Ahmad's Tafsir Qur'an to Maulana Qasim Nanotavi and asked him which of its chapters were objectionable, and he pointed out the relevant passages. I was furious and decided to crack Saiyid Ahmad's head with a rod. I rushed to Aligarh with this intention. When I reached MAO College and asked about Saiyid Ahmad, someone showed me his office. I entered the office and saw a distinguished looking old man. After greeting him I enquired about Saiyid Ahmad and he asked me why. I replied that I was coming from Deoband and wanted to discuss some questionable passages of his Tafsir. Saiyid Ahmad called an attendant and instructed him to bring a cold drink for the visitor. After drinking it I cooled down and changed my opinion regarding Saiyid Ahmad. Meanwhile a student entered the room and Saiyid Ahmad told him that an alim from Deoband was for the first time visiting the college. The student introduced himself very politely. Then Saiyid Ahmad asked me to counsel him because he was receiving English education in the college and ignorant of Islamic learning. I replied that I was just a new graduate of Deoband not an orator. Saiyid Ahmad said that it was the night of Mi'raj [27 Rajab 1294] and I should shed light on this event. I recounted a well-known hadith. Listening to this the student became furious and shouted that he was thinking that only Jews and Christians took irrational stories seriously, and Islam has everything logical in it. I [Mullah Dost Muhammad] became irritated but could not speak. Saiyid Ahmad told me to open his Tafsir and read how he [Saiyid Ahmad] had explained it. It was written in the book that Mi'raj was spiritual, not physical. Then the young student accepted this view. At this Saiyid Ahmad turned to me and said he had actually written his Tafsir for people like that student, not for the ulama, but at heart he fully accepted the teachings of the ulama. 'I established this college in order to change the perception of the government towards Muslims so that they may get good administrative positions. From the very beginning I made it clear that the student of this college will carry the Qur'an on his head and book of hadith in his right hand and other knowledge in his left. In my Tafsir, I followed Ibn Sina's (Avicenna's) book which is on the syllabus of Deoband. Surprisingly, they call me a mulhid (atheist)'. Hearing this I embraced Saiyid Ahmad and confidently told him that he must stick to his views and I will convey his message to the ulama of Deoband. Then and there I broke the rod which I had brought to crack Saiyid Ahmad's head. When I reached the railway station a man from Saiyid Ahmad gave me my ticket to return to Deoband and five gold coins to cover my travel expenses from there to Afghanistan. I reached Deoband and reported the overwhelming experience to the ulama and their prejudice against Saiyid Ahmad was considerably reduced by it. On my return to Peshawar and settling in Char Saddah and I used to recommend students from Peshawar, Kohat and Bannu for English education in Aligarh. Saiyid Ahmad was always especially kind to them. Tahzibul Akhlaq No. 10/20, (special Sir Saiyid Number), 1 October, 2001, pp. 67-71. (summarized from the Urdu version) the above site has some rare photographs and other material concerning Sir Syed's life.

Aligarian | August 20, 2010

Above is a Deoband scholar's recollections of his visit to Sir Saiyid on about [Tuesday 27 Rajab 1294/ 7 August 1877], by Mulla Dost Muhammad, a graduating Afghan student in Deoband