A study of modern Muslim ethics, focussed upon the lives and writings of Sayyid Ahmad Khan and Mawlana Mawdudi, this monograph sheds light upon the modern ethical problems of contemporary Islam. Sayyid Ahmad Khan, often called a liberal, a modernist, or an acculturationist, represents the 'liberal' trend of Sunni Muslim ethics. Khan's approach borrows much from reason, yet for Khanreason and revelation are not in conflict. Reason guides the interpretation of Islam when revelation is insufficient. In contrast, Mawlana Mawdudi's fundamentalism is, at least in part, anti-rational; it depends upon revelation (as it comes to one man in particular) and is very autocratic. McDonough is concerned with Khan and Mawdudi, both writers within the Indo-Pakistan Muslim tradition. Their conflicting views, their differing interpretations of ethics that suit Islam in the contemporary world, exemplify the difficulties and turmoil faced by Muslims the world over. For these men, modernity has not spelled the end of Islam; yet each has found a different way of relating Islam to the present and the future in faithfulness to traditional Islam. This monograph will be of interest to students of contemporary Islam, as well as to those interested in questions of comparative ethics, for the liberal/fundamentalist conflicts outlined in this monograph are analogous to manifestations of the same dichotomy in all world religions.
Sheila McDonough taught in Pakistan for three years at the Kinnaird Institute for Women and currently teaches Islam and Comparative Religion in the Department of Religion of Concordia University, Montreal.
Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898):
I have chosen the writings of Sayyid Ahmad Khan as illustrative of the main characteristics of the rationalist position in modern (that is, post-1800) Muslim ethical thinking. Sayyid Ahmad Khan was one of the first and most significant representatives of those Muslims who perceived clearly that the impact of the scientific and industrial revolutions would necessarily disrupt traditional Muslim society. He was self-consciously an ethicist because he believed that the most effective way to make a constructive adjustment to new challenges would be through a critical discussion of values.
He was born and raised in an aristocratic Muslim family in Mughal Delhi. He thus imbibed the courtly traditions of courtesy and diplomacy from his early youth. His maternal grandfather had been a scholar of mathematics as well as a diplomat who served in Iran. Traditional Muslim science was part of his heritage. As a young man, Sayyid Ahmad wrote a treatise refuting the notion of the earth revolving around the sun, but he later changed his opinion on this matter.
He also exhibited in early life an interest in the history of his immediate community, the Muslims of Delhi. He wrote a history of the distinguished personalities of Delhi. He also devoted himself to a study of the architecture and archeological remains of the city. One catches a glimpse of his personal qualities from a narrative that describes him hanging in a basket from the top of the immensely high Qutb Minar attempting to decipher inscriptions.1 The courage, imaginativeness, and resourcefulness indicated by that incident were to be demonstrated again and again during the tumultuous events of his active life. He was later made a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society for his archeological researches in Delhi.
Sayyid Ahmad Khan's training and interest in science and history were qualities he had gained from exposure to the cultured life of the aristocratic elite of Mughal Delhi. These qualities stood him in good stead when later in life he had to deal with the English. He owed nothing in the first instance to foreign influence. His supreme self-confidence in his own cultural roots was the profoundest source of his creativeness-one might say that he thought Muslims could do anything and that nothing human was foreign to them. He continued throughout his long life to meet the impact of the new with lively curiosity and ready interest. In attempting to disentangle the issues of rationalism in ethics, it is important to bear in mind that, in Sayyid Ahmad Khan's case, rationalism meant in part the distinguishing characteristic of a good scientist, historian, diplomat, or judge.
His own profession was that of a magistrate (sub-judge) in the British service in India. Legal and ethical problems were practical matters to him. His ideas about social change did not come from an ivory tower of academic contemplation, or from mystical insight into Utopian possibilities, but rather from immediate contact with the real disorders and conflicts of his environment. He was an avid reader of newspapers, a man always urgently concerned to try to understand the realities of given situations. He used the discipline acquired from science and history when he thought and wrote on ethical questions. His rationalism was linked to the dispassionate objectivity necessary for sound scholarship. A mind of this quality tends to be able to meet the new openly and to consider its viability freely without succumbing to debilitating emotional shock.
When he travelled to England in 1869, Sayyid Ahmad Khan wrote home. From these letters, we can see how busily his mind was at work observing everywhere how things were done:
From the cursory view of Egypt which I got I was astonished. . . . Its land seems to be splendidly manured, and the canals with their branches are innumerable. . . .
The special train that took us across Egypt consisted of first and second class, . . the second class in which my servant Chajju sat, being superior to those in use in India, they having leather cushions. . . . The engine-drivers, guards, and attendants are all Egyptian or Turks, and are well up in their work and very careful. . . . There is certainly one thing in favour of the Egyptians, contrasted with natives of India- i.e. that they can use . . . materials, which my unfortunate fellow-countrymen cannot. The reason why the Egyptians can do this is, that all the scientific words necessary have been brought into use in their language, and this must be the case with us before we can rise to their level. . . .
One great pleasure to me on board . . . was meeting M. de Lesseps, who, as all the world knows, is the maker of the Suez Canal, and who, although many of the first engineers of the age asserted the impossibility of its being made, stuck to his firm belief . . . and said he would do it himself. He did it, and has now united two oceans. M. de Lesseps was most kind to me. . . . . I was delighted to find that he spoke a little Arabic and conversed with him to some extent in that language. From that day he always met me cordially and we sat for hours daily at the same table writing. . . . It was a very great pleasure and honour to me to meet a man whose determination and pluck were equal to his science, and who has not his equal in the whole world.2
This quotation serves well to indicate Sayyid Ahmad's basic attitude. He was always particularly pleased to discover Muslims who knew their jobs and who did them well. He spent a lot of time talking with the Muslim pilot of the ship on this part of the trip. The comment about the workers on the train is typical. His admiration for de Lesseps shows that he valued highly a man who was able through his disciplined intelligence to solve a serious problem, and who then had the persistence and the courage to implement his ideas in the face of criticism, abuse, and disbelief from others. The emphasis on the necessity of having scientific works available in one's own language is also characteristic. Sayyid Ahmad Khan spent a good deal of energy organizing societies to translate works into Urdu for the benefit of Indian Muslims.
His rationality as a diplomat also had Islamic roots. One aspect of the Prophet Muhammad's career was his success in mediating disputes and in reconciling former opponents. Sayyid Ahmad's maternal grandfather had been a diplomat. The Mughal court with which his family had been associated had a background of many generations of traditional wisdom on the necessity of cultivated manners in solving problems between people. Sayyid Ahmad's biographers say that his mother strongly influenced his training in these respects. She taught him to treat servants well and never to respond to vituperation with anger or malice.3 Throughout his long life he was subjected to a great deal of abuse; it is a matter of public record that his responses were not characterized by personal vindictiveness.
In Sayyid Ahmad's role as a diplomat he was concerned to mediate between the Indian Muslims and their English rulers, to remove obstacles of misunderstanding that caused friction, and to smooth the path for good relations between them. The English control over most of India was a political reality that Sayyid Ahmad acknowledged regardless of personal bias or opinion. His concern was to discover how the English had achieved their superiority and then to teach his people how to reach the same levels of effectiveness in the world. One Englishman commented that Sayyid Ahmad was the arch-rebel; he taught his people how to play the games of the English and then how to beat them at those very games.4
Sayyid Ahmad's rationality as an historian was similar. His response to the disaster of the 1857 Revolt had been to write about it. The History of the Bijnore Rebellion is his account of his personal experiences in the district where he was stationed as he remained loyal to the English and tried to restore order into a chaotic situation. His life was certainly in danger there, although he comments that his people did not need to fear the artillery in the hands of the mutineers since they rarely hit the targets:
I feel a sincere need at this point to say something about the artillery. The artillery and artillery men . . . were of such a caliber that if the Himalaya Mountains were to stand in place of their usual targets . . . they would always miss the target. . . . On the day of his defeat . . . the artillerymen of the Nawab must have fired no less than 17 times at a building where the Deputy and I were staying. But they did not scare us a bit, although they had a clear range of fire and ample time to take most careful aim. When we began to fire on them from this house, with our . . . muskets, they removed the battery from directly opposite the house. I can swear that not one man will die in all this fighting from an artillery ball.5
This resembles the earlier reference to de Lesseps. Sayyid Ahmad always noted competence in the use of equipment and in solving problems. As he saw it, the persons agitating in the revolt were futile because of their incompetence. The mutiny in general would not solve the problems of his generation.
Rationality, however, does not preclude passion. The destruction of Delhi by the English after the failure of the mutiny was a matter of great personal grief to him. Nevertheless, his discipline was such that he responded to the crisis as a diplomat and as an historian, writing for the English a dispassionate analysis of the reasons why, in his view, the disaster had occurred.6
While Sayyid Ahmad's admiration for certain aspects of Western civilization was by no...