Sir Sayyid’s reading on science-religion compatibility through the prism of tradition-modernity balance – Kashmir Reader

Emphasizing a “rationalist” approach to Islam and religious matters, Sir Sayyid believed that there was no contradiction between the Word of God (Quran) and the Work of God (Nature).

Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) was a multifaceted personality: a pioneer of Islamic modernism, an educational and political activist, theologian, journalist and the main organizer of 19th century Islamic reformist thought in the subcontinent. Recognized as the first Indian Muslim to feel the need and work for a new direction in Islam, Sir Sayyid called for a bold new theology (jadid ilm al-kalam) or reinterpretation of Islam. Its contribution is mainly to educational and socio-religious reform.
In the 1960s, Aziz Ahmad described Sir Sayyid’s achievements as a religious thinker in the context of Islamic modernism, which can be seen as tackling two largely separate problems: “the rationalization of the minutiae of non-essential dogma and the liberalization of the law”. Regarding the latter, “Sir Sayyid’s work is so dynamic and constructive” that it “has made a tremendous impression on modern Islam in general and on Indian Islam in particular”. Similarly, Wilfred Cantwell Smith remarked that “the ideas which Sir Sayyid put forward, and the religion which he fashioned, were explicitly and in fact an Islam quite compatible with progress,…, liberal and humanitarian morality, and his scientific rationalism.” This is how the thought and contribution of Sir Sayyid, as a socio-religious reformer, were perceived in the 20th century.
Coming straight to the 21st century, Dr. Farhan Ahmad Nizami states that Sir Sayyid was “one of the architects of a Muslim intellectual renaissance in India barely imaginable in the mid-19th century”, for his efforts and contribution as a ” scholar, social reformer, theologian, political thinker, journalist, legislator, cultural historian, pioneer of comparative religious studies, advocate of mass education”, and in many other fields. He and his legacy remain relevant even today. today for many reasons, and one of the main reasons, for Nizami, is that “the problems he faced 150 years ago are, for Muslim communities around the world, as current as they were then, and perhaps even more intractable.
These statements are self-evident regarding the impact, influence and relevance of Sir Sayyid’s scientific and rational thought, both past and present. In this context, and in view of the anniversary of the birth of this great reformer, this article presents an assessment of the scientific thought of Sir Sayyid, highlighting his position on the compatibility of Religion-Science.
Sir Sayyid’s position on “religion-science compatibility”: is Islam compatible with science? Or is there conformity between reason and revelation? This was one of the fundamental problems faced and tackled by 19th century Muslim modernists, including Sir Sayyid. In addition to “demythologizing” Quranic interpretation and calls for renewed ijtihad, one of the crucial and significant themes of Sir Sayyid’s writings was to characterize the congruence between the Holy Text and science and reason. A staunch supporter of Religion-Science compatibility, he considered natural law and divine law to be identical, for, he believed, revelation cannot oppose scientific actuality and only an agreement between the word of God and the work is essential. His aim was to eliminate the apparent contradictions between Islamic teachings and science – hence his oft-repeated thesis: “Islam is nature and nature is Islam”. He thus proposed a rule in the event of a perceived conflict between a law of nature and the Koranic verse: the Work (nature) qualifies the Word (verse) of God; that is to say, the Quran as the Word of God cannot conflict and contradict Nature as the Work of God: “There is nothing in the Quran which is in disagreement with the laws of nature.
In his lecture, he formulates this thesis in these terms: “It would be highly irrational to maintain that the work of God and the word of God are different and unrelated to each other. All beings, including humans, are the work of God, and religion is his word; the two cannot conflict. Thus, he concluded that “Islam is in full harmony with nature” because “Islam is nature and nature is Islam”.
Furthermore, Sir Sayyid argued that “if we bear in mind the principles deducible from the Quran itself, we will find that there is no contradiction between modern science, on the one hand, and the Quran and Islam, on the other hand.
He also believed that in secular affairs where Islam is silent, Muslims should emulate Western practices. He believed in religious pluralism and found it absurd to believe that the prophets of God appeared only in Arabia and Palestine to reform a handful of Arabs and Jews, and that other peoples were deprived of the knowledge of the divine. He can be considered, in Riffat Hassan’s analysis, as “a pioneer of what is now called ‘interreligious dialogue’… [as] he worked for greater understanding, goodwill and harmony between Muslim sects, and between Muslims and non-Muslims”.
Thus the ideas advanced by him, and the religion “shaped” by him, were, to use Smith’s terminology, “in fact an Islam quite compatible with progress” and “[Western] scientific rationalism”. It will not be an exaggeration to call Sir Sayyid as being, without a doubt, the most rational in his approach and ideas.
Sir Sayyid’s reformist legacy and its scholarly reception: Various writings, past and present, have highlighted and appreciated different areas of Sir Sayyid’s thought and activity – social, political, religious, educational and cultural – in which he made reforms. But almost all agree that his chief achievement was a revival of the morale and prestige of Muslims in British India, and that it is his credit for restoring the dynamism of Muslims in India. as a socio-political force. Sir Sayyid’s socio-religious reforms of all kinds, which he initiated and introduced, were highly praised, though sometimes criticized (by some ‘Ulama) as well. Against this background, below is a brief summary of the views – praise and appreciation – of some of the scholars and writers (both Muslim and non-Muslim), revealing both the importance and relevance of reformist thought. of Sir Sayyid.
His efforts are considered a “dynamic and constructive achievement” that made a huge impression on modern Islam. In the words of Khaliq Ahmad Nizami, Sir Sayyid was one of the most important figures in the galaxy of 19th century Muslim reformers, who worked zealously to bring about a change in Muslim thought and behavior and in fact contributed to many elements essential to development. of modern Indian society. Bashir Ahmad Dar projected this image succinctly in these words: “He [Sir Sayyid] was the first man in modern India to realize the need for a new interpretation of Islam that was liberal, modern and progressive”.
Similarly, for Francis Robinson, Sir Sayyid’s reform efforts “were aimed at molding Muslims capable of operating successfully in the world of Western knowledge and British power”. In his view, “Sayyid Ahmad’s achievement was more than just the way to shape Islamic modernism and the creation of the key institution of Muslim higher education; he inspired innovation on a broad front designed to help Muslims embrace “modernity”, which came to be called the Aligarh movement”.
Conclusion: A true heir to the reformist legacy of Shah Waliullah and one of the pioneers of Islamic modernism, Sir Sayyid emphasized, in high terms, socio-religious and intellectual reform. He is truly recognized as the initiator of a “revolution in Muslim thought”, which called for a new theology to respond to modern challenges and changes. Emphasizing a “rationalist” approach to Islam and religious issues, Sir Sayyid believed that there is no contradiction between the Word of God (the Quran) and the Work of God (the Nature). In line with his rationalist attitude, he emphasized the importance of Ijtihad and a rational interpretation of Islamic religious sources and thought, as he believed that both were necessary to make Islam acceptable for the new era, and that Muslims would not understand Islam and others would appreciate it only if presented rationally. He thus proved to be the pioneering representative of Islamic modernism in South Asia who presented a new orientation of Islam and reacted to the modern era.

The author is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at Govt Degree College Sogam, Kupwara. Comments to [email protected]

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