Research Tips from Sir Syed

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan has a vast body of writing which defies any easy classification. He wrote on history, politics, sociology, Islam, comparative religion, art, literature and innumerable other subjects. He was a pioneer in the field of Urdu journalism. He was a public intellectual who had his views on all subjects that concerned his contemporaries, particularly Muslims. It baffles us how he could combine in him so many roles so effectively. He was truly, to use Pierre Bourdieu’s term, a collective intellectual.

His writings have never gone out of circulation and he continues to interest researchers and commentators. As it so often happens in the case of a past intellectual, his work is seen to contain seeds of the present. The fraught history of the twentieth century India also holds him responsible for many latter day events. Since his work belongs to undivided India, Pakistani scholars are also very much interested in his work going sometimes to the extent of crediting him(unjustifiably though) for the creation of Pakistan. He is often labeled as a British loyalist without seeing his work in its context. And since Islam and its politics interest everyone in the post 9/11 world, Sir Syed’s work is subjected to many revisionist readings. There is now a substantial body of work on his writings and his public life. In the bicentenary year of his birth many seminars and conferences are being organized and books and volumes written, which will throw more light on the value of his work. Not only seasoned scholars but also young researchers will discover new facets of his work.

With research now a major activity in higher education and with the study of social sciences and literature coming under a cloud in present day India, It will not be out of place to look at some of his works from the perspective of a researcher.  Young researchers have a lot to gain from his work not only because of the rich content of his work but also because of his methodology of research. Though social sciences and the humanities have followed different trajectories in the last hundred years or so (of late with focus on interdisciplinarity in research, there is a blurring of boundaries between the two), researchers can get some tips in research methods from Sir Syed’s work.

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Social sciences do not follow laboratory techniques, but they do emphasise the virtues of logic, objectivity, clarity and impartial judgement. All these qualities are visible in Sir Syed’s writings on different issues, particularly in his editorials in the Aligarh Institute Gazette where he debated current issues with remarkable objectivity. His essays in Tahzibul Akhlaq are always marked by logic and reasoning even though he was writing with a reformist zeal. Even when he wrote on abstract subjects like sympathy, hope, prejudice, reverence, excellence, hypocrisy or flattery, his characteristic method was to reflect on the subject using his logic and reason, substantiating with examples from history and culture and arriving at some conclusion. Thus, his essay on bigotry begins by defining the characteristic features of a bigot with disapproval, goes on to discuss the canvas and provenance of bigotry within and outside India, dwells on the nature of religious bigotry and concludes with an appeal to his countrymen’s reason to end bigotry because even “Allah loves truth”: “ So we must be very firm in our religion with great sincerity and honesty and cast aside bigotry which is a bad trait of our character. All the human beings are our brethren. It is our natural obligation to love them all, deal with them honestly, have sincere friendship and sincerely wish for their well being ( Selected Essays of Sir Syed Ahmad, Vol.1, translated by Muhammad Hameedullah). His short essay on flattery is also a very fine example of a reflective essay where he discusses all possible aspects of flattery using his faculty of reasoning. The same power of reasoning informs all his essays written in different periods of life. In fact, it was his love of reason and logic that guided him to take many practical decisions in life, which of course included the establishment of Mohammadan -Anglo Oriental College at Aligarh.

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A researcher in social sciences is often supposed to be a brave person who must not fear adverse remarks on his work. Sir Syed never shied away from expressing his opinions. He once chided Shaikh Abdullah, the founder of Women’s College at Aligarh Muslim University, for having expressed his opinions in an anonymous letter.  Khaliq Ahmad Nizami writes that  Sir Syed “gave a long lecture on fearless expression of views and asked him(Abdullah) to promise solemnly that never again in his life he would write articles or letters under fictitious names(Sir Syed Album 73).” This small incident brings out the researcher and the reformer in Sir Syed. The researcher is always concerned with the authorship question in different ways: quoting the source correctly, attributing a remark to the right source and in some cases establishing the authorship on the basis of the language of the text ( How Shakespeare scholars have puzzled over the authorship of some of ‘his’ texts). As such he or she must take full responsibility for his opinions.

The reformer, on the other hand, is of necessity a fearless person who always takes responsibility for his opinions, something that Sir Syed did all through his life. In his writings on religion Sir Syed was very close to a deist position, ‘naturi’ as he was sarcastically called, which attracted the ire of the conservative elements, who responded by issuing fatwas against him. Usually in matters of faith the qualities of reason and logic are not used. But Syed was certainly a man of conviction and courage both in writing a commentary on Quran and establishing harmony between religion and science.  How he would be trolled today if he were alive and writing, is anybody’s guess.

In the writings on literature and social sciences the researcher is supposed to keep his beliefs to himself. The researcher is supposed to write from an objective position where his beliefs do not matter at all. However, complete objectivity has proved to be a myth. The perspective of a researcher is often a reality. Even in sciences the relationship between the perceiver and his material is being established. Since Sir Syed had to write often on religious matters and his readers were both Indians and the Western people, he had to settle the issue of his beliefs. In his various writings Sir Syed made it clear that he was a believer and yet he was ready to enter into the shoes of others. In works like Life of Mohammad and numerous essays published in Tahzibul Akhlaq, he was speaking from the position of a believer and yet groups of traditional Muslims and the clergy suspected his beliefs. His willingness to enter the shoes of others while making an argument makes his position distinct among many writers on Muslim issues. A good researcher must learn to understand the other point of view whatever be the degree of his or her disagreement with that point of view. This becomes especially very important today when the social media has made the chasms between different groups so sharp.

Enough has been written about Sir Syed’s Urdu prose style. What the researcher can learn from Syed is his concern for good English prose. His Life of Mohammad was published in English many years before its Urdu version came out. Though he did not know English very well, he ensured that the English translation of his work met the highest standards. His Life of Mohammad reads better than the English translations of his other works, especially his essays, published after his death. The reason is that he was much more careful in employing a good team of translators for his work than his predecessors who did the same job on his work.

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Today ethnographic method of research is frequently used in the social sciences and the humanities. The method includes participant observation where the researcher spends some time with his object of study which is usually quite distant from his context, observing different forms of cultural behavior and commenting on varied aspects of life of a society. It is not always the distant land that interests an ethnographer; in recent years the focus on indigenous and multi locale ethnographies has resulted in ethnographers taking interest in cultures closer home. In the same way interest in microethnographies has put focus on some specific groups and settings like school, hospital, or sport arena.(Rachel Alsop’s essay “ The Uses of Ethnographic Method in English Studies” included in   Research Methods for English Studies(ed.Gabriell Griffin, Rawat Publications,2016{2005}, Indian Reprint) discusses these terms in greater detail) Another important fact about ethnographic method is its close ties with travel literature. As a genre travel literature covers various subjects ranging from history and geography to sociology and anthropology.

Urdu literature is full of interesting and exhaustive accounts of travels to both distant lands and lesser-known places within the country. Sir Syed’s account of his journey to England has now become something of a classic, rich as it is with his close observation of life in England as well as his comments on the political and administrative affairs of British imperial power. The method of his description can be described as ethnographic. An ethnographer is always supposed to keep a diary in which to note his observations which are used in his final account. In Hayat-I-Javed which arguably is considered Sir Syed’s most authentic biography, Altaf Husain Hali has written that “throughout the entire journey, Sir Sayyid kept a diary in which he noted anything of interest and made detailed comment on all that might be of use to a future traveler”.  The use of indigenous ethnography can be seen in his description of aspects of life in Bombay and multi locale ethnography in his description ranging from Bombay, to Egypt, to Versaillies, to France to finally London. His account of the education system in England can be considered an example of microethnography where the site of action is schools and colleges in England.

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Ethnographic studies have mostly been identified with Western scholarship.  They have also been charged with constructing knowledge about the colonial lands and the marginalized groups. Sir Syed’s ethnographic method is used from the position of the colonized and he mostly appears mesmerized by the progress made by the English people. But it was understandable as England at this time was at the height of its material progress. This usually was the reaction of any Indian visitor to England, a point also made by Jawaharlal Nehru, and Sir Syed was not alone in his effusive praise of England. It will be interesting to compare his account of England with Mark Twain’s account of England, Greece, France and other European countries in The Innocents Abroad(1869) written at almost the same time.

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Whereas Sir Syed is filled with a feeling of powerlessness at England’s tremendous progress, Twain’s confident posturing in the book celebrates America’s literary independence from the Old World. And even more interesting will be a comparison between Matthew Arnold’s lament about Britain’s loss of culture in that era of material progress and Sir Syed’s paean to English culture. Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1869), belonging to the same period when Syed was mesmerized by English progress, is a very trenchant criticism of English society.

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However, there are moments of postcolonial challenge in Sir Syed’s book. A researcher can very well be alert to such moments of postcolonial challenge in the work of a writer who is usually considered a loyalist. Thus In his observation on the collection of paintings at Versailles, Sir Syed appears to offer what in the twentieth century would be considered semiotic analysis, a staple of visual methodology. The textual analysis of a painting reveals much more than was probably intended. The painting depicting the capture of the women of Sayyid Abdul Qadir Jazairi, Sir Syed notes, is less about the French valour and more about their cruelty. In that picture, as Hali notes, “ the French soldiers had made the camels sit and were pulling off the seats; the women had been dragged from their places and were having their clothes taken off; the soldiers were standing around them and threatening to slaughter them with their bayonets(111).” One is reminded of Roland Barthes’s observation on a picture that he sees in a barber’s shop. When Barthes saw the picture of a black soldier saluting the French flag, he saw it as hiding the sordid history of French colonialism. The picture seems to be saying that in France everyone, regardless of one’s colour of skin, is equal before the flag. Barthes sees the clever displacement of the issue of racial discrimination in that picture.

Sir Syed’s use of visual methodology is very much on display in his analysis of the important monuments of Delhi in his famous work Asar us Sanadid. In an interesting essay titled “Visual Methodologies”, Gillian Rose discusses three very important methods in the reading of an image or art object: compositional interpretation, semiology, and discourse analysis(in Research Methods for English Studies, ed. Gabrielle Griffin). Before the art objects are subjected to close reading, they have to be described in explicit terms. What exactly is there in an object, what elements constitute it, what is its location are the questions taken care of by compositional interpretation. Sir Syed’s Asar us Sanadid shows his eye for details and his truthfulness in recording the physical description of the monuments. Thus all aspects of a building which include the description of doors, arches, stairs, the period of its construction, history of repairs and renovation, the people who undertook the construction and repair and myriad such details do not escape his attention. Departing slightly from compositional interpretation, he also occasionally uses metaphors to capture the essence of those monuments.


Sir Syed departs from traditional historiography in his Persian work Jam e Jam and Asar us Sanadid. Irfan Habib sees the influence of Western historiography in the two works. He lauds Sir Syed for writing a work of reference and for writing a history of buildings and monuments for which there existed no tradition in Persian historiography. Obviously the remarkable thing about Syed’s account was his use of his sources.

Sources were very much his concern in his Life of Mohammad . For a historian the authenticity of sources is everything. When he disagreed with William Muir’s account of the life of the prophet, he found fault with Muir’s sources. Sir Syed’s close study of Muir’s book revealed that among the Islamic sources that he used in his book, Muir depended on Al Wackedee heavily.  Sir Syed calls Wackedee in his Life of Mohammad “the worst author of all, and of the least credit, and all Mohammedan doctors and divines have declared him not to be, in the least degree, of any authority, as being the least entitled to credit(xx)”. Wackedee is liberally cited by Muir and he is repeatedly described as unreliable by Sir Syed.

Serious researchers are always very particular about using authentic editions of important texts.  One can debate endlessly about the richness of meaning of an important line in Ghalib only to discover later(to one’s embarrassment) that the line did not belong to Ghalib at all. Shakespeare’s texts have posed greater challenges before his many editors than maybe of any other writer. Ever since the beginning of printing printer’s devil has run riot. Editing of texts is a very important part of research. This subject is also related to what many books in research methodology call judging the reliability of sources. An editor is a very attentive reader, an able critic and an impartial judge. His labour develops resources for future researchers.

Sir Syed also distinguished himself as a very careful editor whose editing of texts has benefited future researchers and historians. He edited two important history texts, Ain-i-Akbari and Tarikh-i- Firozshahi. Ain-i- Akbari has been noted for its difficult prose. Its many manuscripts contained number of errors. Hali writes that Sir Syed collected all available manuscripts of Abul Fazl’s text, prepared a glossary of difficult words, and brought the system of weights and measures understandable to readers of his own time. Sir Syed also discussed at length the coins of Akbar’s time and illustrated the text of Abul Fazl with many sketches.

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Sir Syed’s editing and revision of Ziya ud Din Barani’s Tarikh-i-Firozshahi was no less remarkable. In editing this important work also he collected many manuscripts of Barani’s text ( Hali mentions four). His introduction to the work, which discussed the “ histories of the kings of Delhi written before it(Hali)”, adds value to his edition.

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By way of summing up it can be said that Sir Syed’s work teaches researchers the value of ethnographic method, close reading of manuscripts, books, pictures and monuments, reasoned thinking, understanding the other’s point of view, establishing the authenticity of texts and above all a passion for research.


Note: Originally published in Sir Syed Day Aligarh Magazine,2017, Ed. Dr. Shaheer Khan.


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