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David Lelyveld

The lifetime of Sayyid Ahmad Khan (“Sir Syed”) (1817–1898) spans profound transformations introduced to India and the wider world by the twin forces industrial capitalism and British imperialism. Sayyid Ahmad’s intellectual responses to a changing world and his leadership in the establishment of educational institutions, voluntary associations, and a broad public sphere all played a significant role in defining what it means to be Muslim, especially in India and what would become Pakistan but also in wider cosmopolitan and global networks. The development, compromises, and contradictions of Sayyid Ahmad’s ideas and projects over time track the challenges he faced. If these efforts pointed the way to some sort of modernity, it was rooted in the Indo-Persian and Islamic formation of his early years and developed by selectively adopting bits and pieces of European ideologies, technologies, practices, and organizational arrangements. He has been claimed or condemned by advocates and opponents of a wide range of ideological and political tendencies under circumstances that he would barely have recognized in his own time: nationalism, democracy, women’s equality, and religious and literary modernism. At different points in his career one may find mysticism, scriptural literalism, and daring rationalism with respect to religious texts; charters for Muslim “separatism” and calls for Hindu-Muslim unity; demands for autonomy and political representation and opposition to it; bold critiques of British rulers; and proclamations of “loyalty” to the colonial state. A major figure in the advancement of the Urdu language, he later argued for the superiority of English, of which he himself had little, for the purposes of education and administration. Most of all, he helped establish an intellectual and institutional framework for contemporaries and future generations to debate and pursue collective goals based on religion, language, social status, or class interest.


In South Asia the proliferation of Muslim settlements between the 13th and the 15th centuries was accompanied by the expansion of sufi fraternities. Sufis were revered as venerable figures due to their status as the possessors of spiritual grace and intuitive knowledge. Many sufis cultivated a comportment that was endearing, avuncular, and charismatic. They also gained renown for their textual productions, some more than others. Conventional historiography classifies sufis according to their affiliation to sufi silsilahs (spiritual order): Chishti, Suhrawardi, Firdausi, Qadiri, and several others. The linear perception of a silsilah as a chain of transmission of authority from a sufi pīr (spiritual master) to his murīds (disciple) and k̲h̲alīfās (spiritual successor), and the fixed notions about precepts and praxis have conflated the heterogeneous spiritual paths of individual sufis. Most of the spiritual orders did not expand in a unilateral manner. The classification of sufi silsilahs by similitude and differences precludes the complex, multistranded evolution of sufi praxis. The perception of a homogeneous silsilah is premised on the textualization of the genealogy of sufis in the taz̠kirāt (biographical dictionary).The perception that a hegemonic spiritual order is based on a linear and exclusionary chain of transmission of authority as evident in the taz̠kirāt can be challenged by taking recourse to the discourses of individual Sufis in the malfūz̤āt (utterances). The malfūz̤āt represent the spiritual path of charismatic sufi preceptors who relied on select historical personages from an “omnipresent past” to define their praxis rather than on a linear history of sufi preceptors. By contextualizing sufi texts in their contexts, the negotiation and competition among the lineal and spiritual descendants can be traced. In the 14th century neo-eponymous sufis effortlessly transited from one sufi affiliation to another (Nizamiyya to Chishti, for instance), but in the 16th century sufi texts highlighted the simultaneous, multiple affiliations of sufis, thereby complicating the history of the sufi silsilahs.