An Intellectual History of Modern Muslim of Hyderabad 

When Jamaluddin Afghani was expelled by Egypt’s ruler in 1879, he headed for Hyderabad Deccan where he spent two years teaching and writing, as a guest of the top nawabs of the princely state. The following year, Syed Ahmed launched his Aligarh movement (1880-85);  among his supporters were many of those same Hyderabadi nawabs who had just returned from a 2-month journey to Europe, mainly London.  It was not quite 20 years since the horrific carnage of 1857.

Syed Ahmed Khan’s message was coming through loud and clear, at a time when Afghani was advocating a more difficult alternative: Standing up to the Colonists by getting organized, adopting major social and political reforms and eventually uniting all Muslim lands from Turkey to Malaya. 

By the end of his stay in India in 1882, Afghani seems to have given up on Indian Muslims’ support for his message and focused his attention on Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and the rest of the Arab world. His supporters in Cairo and Beirut had created political cells and were getting organized; the Ikhwanul Muslimeen or Muslim Brotherhood was aborning. Chief among them was Mohammed Abduh. Hasan al-Banna and later Syed Qutub later gave the movement a more violent turn. Eventually, the Ikhwan adopted an ideology that had social service at hospitals and schools as its operating principle. Remarkably, Jamaat-e Islami adopted a similar approach — but that’s another story that will be addressed later. 

By the time Syed Ahmed Khan’s death in 1897, it had become clear that his message of total surrender to the British Masters, and adoption of their ways, had triumphed over Afghani’s invitation to modernize society while resisting British domination. 

The “Sir Syed” narrative that has come down to us depicts the Muslims across the entire Subcontinent, about 25 percent of the population, as far more backward than the “Hindus”. This narrative always goes unsupported by any data from school enrollments or other indicators of Muslims’ conditions vis a vis the rest of the population. (It is not out of place to assess the educational levels in rural Pakistan today compared with a century ago.)

Both the Nizams and the Afghan-descended Begums of Bhopal had sat out the uprising, and curried favor with the Britishers, who conferred now shameful-sounding titles on them. Those damn titles meant a lot in those days to the diminished and almost enslaved people who coveted them. The Colonists fully utilized the Indians’ love of hierarchical order in society. 

Darul Uloom, Deoband, was founded in 1867, and evolved into an institution of intellectual resistance; they were spurred by the Christian Missionaries who followed the Colonists, entirely in cahoots with them, and started converting the lower classes, including, probably, Muslim lower castes of UP. For several decades, a tradition of religious debate contests, called munazra, got going in major urban centers. In Hyderabad in the 1870-90s, the Deoband seminary had established its base and its intellectual organ, the Maulvi, which provided a steady stream of ideas about resisting the Colonizers. 

Salar Jung the First, the popular title for Mir Turab Ali Khan, prime minister of the Hyderabad State, was a prominent Anglophile. He had led a 52-member journey to London, in 1876. That year’s most important event in the Western world clearly was the first centennial of the American Revolution. America had survived as a thriving nation, and the great promise of self-governance was realized for the world to see.  Newspapers must have been filled with condemnation of the British Colonists, and celebration of the budding American democracy. That may have prompted the British imperialists to stage an elaborate, royal welcome to Salar Jung I with his party that included many advisers and personal staff. The prince of Wales (head guy) had already visited Hyderabad and bestowed flowery titles on him. 

The gesture must have been designed to deepen the imperial policy of letting the princely states, more than 500 of them, continue with their pomp and circumstance, harems and all, but real power would be in the hands of the British agent living among them, in their capitals, and dictating terms.

As it happened, Salar Jung I’s ship docked at Rome first, where they were received by the elites. The Hyderabadis then sailed to Paris and lodged at a grand hotel. The big man slipped on the stairs of his hotel and broke a leg. The British king sent him a steamer to bring him to London. A royal banquet was held in his honor. The loyalist party slept in the royalist Buckingham palace. The mayor of London threw a big party in his honor, with 300 people attending, including the one-time prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. All London was agog at the appearance of this subject-prince from the land whose capital, Delhi, was so recently ravaged by their countrymen. The victorious Britishers hanged hundreds of the Mughal princes and other fighters. The bravest of them were tied to cannons and blown to bits. (Babar had cannons, too, but he is not known for the butchery practiced by the Colonists.)


Allama Mohammed Iqbal (“Sir Mohammed” sounds too odious to pronounce, but “Sir Syed” was found to be OK by Muslims) wrote a poem “about” Jamaluddin Afghani in Iqbal’s widely revered Javid-Nama. Iqbal poses a question, in verse, what’s to be done when the believers have no one to guide them in their search for the world of the Qur’an.

He then says what in his view Afghani is saying (From J. Arberry’s translation:)

It is a world lost now in our breast

a world awaiting yet the command “Arise!”

a world without distinction of race and color,

Its evening is brighter than Europe’s dawn;

A world cleansed of monarchs and of slaves,

A world unbounded, like the believer’s heart,

a world so fair, that the affluence of one glance

planted the seed of it in Omar’s soul.

Eternal it is, the impact of it ever new,

ever new the leaf and fruit of its sure foundations;

Inwardly it is anxious not of change,

outwardly, every moment is a revolution.

Behold, that world lies within your own heart;

Now I will tell you about its firm foundations.

— Allama Iqbal

I doubt if Afghani would have made any respectful reference to Khalifa Omar, but other sentiments could plausibly be those of the big thinker’s own.

Whatever views Iqbal attributed to Afghani, there’s some evidence to believe that Iqbal more than simply inspired and encouraged young activists such as Abul Ala Maududi and Abul Kalam Azad. They were seized by the idea of a united Muslim world. Maududi went much further in the pursuit of this pan-Islamic dream, but Azad modified it to make sense in India’s situation in which the majority population was looking forward to a modern India that left behind casteism, illiteracy, hunger, and great exploitation of the weak by the strong at every level of society.

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