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DAWN The Review, August 2001

"The Torch-Bearers

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan Jeremy Bentham John Stuart Mill
Roy Shibli Nomani Iqbal
From left to right in the first row: Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill; Second row: Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Shibli Nomani, Dr. Sir Muhammad Iqbal

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832): British philosopher, who propounded the idea of Utilitarianism in the heyday of the Romantic Movement. Bentham believed that the human beings are moved by self-interest, and therefore must be left free to decide for themselves. He believed that the government’s aim should be to provide “maximum happiness for maximum number of people,” a formula which not only takes into account the number of people who receive benefit but also questions the quality of that benefit. Self-esteem formed the most important component of “happiness” in addition to material well-being. Hence, when food was distributed in areas affected by famine (such as those in the British India), the ones receiving it were required to repay by participating in relief activities.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873): British philosopher, who remained a staunch advocate of personal liberties. He is also known for a very humane innovation to the philosophy of Utilitarianism. Inspired by the poetry of Wordsworth, Mill pointed out that the rational faculty works best when in touch with one’s own positive emotions. The writings of Mill were a major influence on Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who extensively quoted from them.

Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1774-1833): Pioneer Hindu Reformer. A scholar of Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic and well versed in English, he was one of the foremost Indians to serve as a bridge between the Court at Delhi and the Parliament in London. He founded the Brahmo Samaj, a movement to reform Hinduism and denounced idolatry as repugnant to the spirit of the Vedas. As a boy Sir Syed might have seen him visiting the Mughal Court at Delhi.

Shibli Nomani (1913): Indian Muslim historian. Beginning as a teacher at Aligarh, Shibli rose to fame with his researches into the medieval Muslim history (profusely sponsored by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan). After Sir Syed’s death, however, Shibli became a severe critic of his educational ideas and opposed modern education. A highly sentimental personality, his position on hardly any issue remained the same for a very long time but his one-sided writings about the medieval history of Islam, although well-researched, went a long way in creating an antithesis to the humanist approach advocated by Sir Syed.

Iqbal (1877-1938): Poet, Philosopher. Probably the most prominent spiritual heir of Sir Syed’s movement, he observed with despair in the 1920’s that, “The Khilafat Movement has undone the work of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan by reestablishing the hold of the clergy on the Muslim mind through political fatwas. Nobody seems to be aware of it now, but it will have a disastrous effect in the long run.” Iqbal himself, however, was very much sympathetic to the ideas of Shibli Nomani and Akbar Allahabadi. He never swerved from his essentially humanistic stance but he departed from the approach of Sir Syed in introducing militant imagery to the literature of Muslim revival.

See Also

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan: the pioneer of humanism

This brief writer-up accompanied the article 'Sir Syed Ahmed Khan: the Pioneer of Humanism' in The Review

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