Question: The president of the country, Field Marshal Ayub Khan recently declared the late Sir Syed Ahmed Khan to be a great leader, reformer and saviour of the Muslims. Do you agree with his opinion?
Answer: As for the late Sir Syed Ahmed Khan being a great leader, it is a fact and a reality that he was an eminent leader of the Muslim nation. He served the Muslims at a very critical juncture in history and with sincerity which is unparalleled in the recent past.
Due to his sincerity, he gathered around himself men of extremely high moral virtue, character and calibre. None of our other leaders, other than him, managed to bring together so many people with such competence and qualities – Shibli, Hali, Nadhir Ahmad, Muhsin al-Mulk, Waqar al-Mulk, to name just a few. Each one of them is a source of pride for all Muslims due to his knowledge and service to the nation. All of them supported Sir Syed and did so with great fidelity. Mawlana Shibli disagreed with some of his political ideology but, despite this, was so concerned of his sincerity to the nation that, when he heard of his passing away, in a letter, declared it a great national calamity.
My mentor Mawlana Farahi (may God have mercy on him) considered Sir Syed's Tafsir a fitnah but was a great admirer of his high character and honesty of purpose for the nation.
Though we have not met him, yet have heard many valuable accounts of his concern for the nation. That is why we consider him a very great leader of the Muslim nation. However, I am a bit wary of the terms "reformer" and "saviour." The meaning of these words varies from person to person, but to me according to the realistic meaning of these expressions, the saviour is only God Almighty and I consider reformers only those who have tried to correct the ills of the world in the way of the prophets.
Nevertheless, one should remember that Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was not only a leader of the Muslim nation, but an orator and a writer as well. In his day, he wrote responses to the objections on Islam and on the Prophet of Islam (sws) raised by English Orientalists and priests and also wrote an exegesis of the Qur'an with this in mind.
Now every knowledgeable person knows that orators are not always conversant with the rules and elements of the faith. They are primarily concerned with the questions and answers of their opponents and objectors. They sincerely believe it their duty to furnish a response to silence an objector if they come across an argument against Islam even though their answer may be far from reality. They also do not think it wrong to provide an incorrect explanation if they cannot answer criticism on Islam. An aspect of this weakness is that orators/ writers of every era have tried to fit Islam to the standards of wisdom of their time. When Greek philosophy spread in the Muslim world, some tried to fit Islam to its standards. When new western philosophy appeared some people tried to match it to its scale. The correct way to serve and promote Islam would have been to highlight Islam's wisdom as opposed to the perceived wisdom of every era. But not many can have the God cognition of Ghazali, the vision of Ibn Taymiyyah, the wisdom of Shah Waliullah nor the imagination of Allamah Iqbal. Could Sir Syed do better than the ordinary level in this field? In order to do something exceptional, profound knowledge of the philosophy of the time and understanding of Islamic affairs was required. As far as western thought and philosophy were concerned, he had no direct knowledge of them, just what he had heard. Similarly he had no direct learning of the faith. It was that he was a very intelligent man and had the sympathy and consideration to try and help the Muslim cause. For this reason he tried to provide answers to what he perceived as objections to Islam and to the Muslims but the way he adopted to respond was that he considered western thought, philosophy and way as the real standard and then tried to fit Islam to it. If he succeeded well and good but if he saw that he could not find a plausible explanation he dared negate its presence in Islam.
I try to view both these aspects of Sir Syed's life as distinct from each other. I have a lot of respect for him as a national leader but consider him an ordinary level writer / speaker and when I read such things by him I wish he had not written them. May God forgive these errors and exaggerations of his.
(Translated by Rakshanda Chaudry)