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|Profile: Syed Ameer Ali
By Abdus Subhans
The life and work of Syed Ameer Ali is worth remembering on the occasion of his 150th birth anniversary. As an outstanding Indian he has left a lasting imprint on the political history of modern India. As a leader and representative of Indian Muslims, his was a household name in India and England; as a Muslim jurist, he had no equal; as an interpreter of Islamic history and beliefs, he was a recognized authority; as a reconciler of Islam with modern progress and enlightenment, he perhaps stood without rival; and as an ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity, he remained unsurpassed in an era when both communities relied on their own spokesmen.
Born at Cuttack into an aristocratic Shia immigrant family on 6 April 1849, Syed Ameer Ali was the fourth son of Syed Saadat Ali, a hakeem. Facing the anathemas of the myopic Maulvis, Saadat Ali sent his son to Chinsurah, on the Hooghly, to acquire English education through the good offices of his friend Moulvi Karamat Ali, the influential Mutawalli of the Hooghly Imambara, and got him admitted to Hooghly Collegiate School from where he passed the entrance examination in first division with a scholarship in 1863. Having graduated from Hooghly Mohsin College with honours in history in 1867, he took his MA in history and BL in 1869, being the first Bengali Muslim to achieve such distinctions. Soon after he applied for one of the scholarships freshly instituted by the Secretary of State for selected Indian students to study in England.
Ameer Ali won the State scholarship and went to England where he stayed between 1869 and 1873, during which he joined the Inner Temple and was called to the Bar in 1873. He was the first Muslim Bar-at-Law of Bengal.
During his stay in England, he had contacts with almost all the administrators concerned with India and with leading English liberals such as John Bright and the Fewcetts, Henry (1831-1898) and his wife, Millicent Fewcett (1847-1929), whose influences on young Ameer Ali helped mould his career and political thoughts.
While in England he wrote his first book, The critical Examination of the Life and Teachings of Muhammad, at the expense of leisure hours and got it published there before returning to India in 1873. The publication happens to be the first detailed presentation in apologetics by a Muslim in the English language, and coupled with its easy mastery of English, the book was an outstanding achievement for a man of 24. Reviewing the book soon after in The Calcutta Review, the eminent orientalist Major R. D. Osborn (1835-1889) wrote: ‘Regarded simply as a literary achievement, we have never read anything issuing from the educated classes in this country which could be compared with it; and the Muslims of India are to be congratulated on the possession of so able a man in their rank. It is impossible, if his after-life accords with this early promise that he should not leave his influence for good stamped upon the country in deep and enduring characters.’
Shortly afterwards he sailed for India and while returning, he stayed a few days in Paris to call on the great orientalist M. Garcin de Tassy (1794-1878), who was a great scholar of Urdu and preferred to talk to him in that language. His recitation of Urdu poetry form Sauda and Aatish, two famous Indian poets of Urdu, made Ameer Ali wonder-struck. A rousing reception awaited Ameer Ali at his alma mater, Hooghly Mohsin College, whose principal Robert Thwaytes declared a holiday as a mark of honour to its first alumnus coming back to India after a distinguished overseas stint. The young lawyer joined the Calcutta High Court Bar as an advocate in February 1873. He soon enjoyed a large clientele and earned a reputation for proficiency in Muslim law. ‘The English solicitors looked upon me as an interloper; the Hindus frankly disliked me; while the Muslims considered me a renegade because of the English style of life I had acquired,’ writes Ameer Ali in his Memoirs. But nothing stood on the path of his professional prosperity. In 1875 he visited London for three weeks to renew his English contacts. The same year he was elected fellow of the University of Calcutta.
In 1875 he was appointed lecturer in Mohamedan Law at the Presidency College, Calcutta, an assignment which he retained for five successive years and thereby earned the reputation of an acknowledge authority in Muslim jurisprudence. After five years of successful practice, he was selected in 1878 to fill the post of presidency magistrate. So well did he discharge his duties that, in a very short time, he was appointed officiating chief pesidency magistrate, the first Indian and Muslim to be appointed in this post. But difficult it was for a man, who had lived in the bracing atmosphere of the Bar to be cooped up in the official crib. So he relinquished Government service and joined the Bar once again. Running a lucrative practice, he rose in public esteem.
He was first made a member of the Bengal Legislative Council to represent the interests of the Muslims of India, whose cause he considered it his duty to plead with utmost devotion. In 1884, he won the Tagore Law Professorship, again the first Muslim to do so. In recognition of his many services, he was awarded the title of CIE in 1887, and was conferred the Honorary LLD of Cambridge University.
The year 1890 marked the apex of his professional life when he was appointed judge of the Calcutta High Court, the first Muslim to sit on this Bench. Justice Ameer Ali’s recorded judgments give ample proof of his legal acumen, breadth of vision and close application, apart from its literary qualities such as chasteness of language, simplicity of style, lucidity and conciseness of expression and rare command over the English language. His famous dissent in the full bench decision on the nature and character of Muslim Waqf, though not approved by the Privy Council, was accepted by the Muslim jurists as the right decision from the point of view of Islamic jurisprudence and it eventually paved the way for the setting aright of the Muslim law by. Jinnah’s Waqfs Validating Act in 1913. After fourteen years of arduous service in the Bench, Justice Ameer Ali retired in 1904, and chose to settle in England where he had in 1884 married Isabella, a daughter of A. Konstam and a sister of actress Gertrude Kingston.
In 1909, he was the first Indian to be appointed Privy Councilor and to be given membership of the Judicial Committee, the then Supreme Court of the Raj.
It was, however, as an Islamic leader that Syed Ameer Ali was best known all over the world. It was his chief ambition in his life to serve the interests of the Indian Muslims, both morally and materially, along practical and constitutional lines. He found that his community was deficient in political initiative, as the few Muslim societies which already existed at the time were mainly literary and scientific. His senior contemporaries, Nawab Abdul Lateef (1828-1893) of Bengal and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) of Aligarh, believed in political quietism, and both thought that imparting of English education was the surest way for the advancement of the impoverished Muslim society. Like Sir Syed, Ameer Ali distanced himself from the Indian National Congress because both believed that the ‘Muslim community tied to the wheels of the juggernaut of majority, would be in the end crushed out of all semblance of nationality; but unlike the Aligarh sage, he wanted the Muslims to acquire a distinct political identity.
Syed Ameer Ali sought to remove this desideratum in the political life of Muslims by launching the Central National Mohamedan Association on 12 May 1878, seven years before the Indian National Congress was born. The Association signified the first Muslim attempt in India to create a political consensus on problems confronted by the Muslims of the country. As an organization of the educated middle class, it grew in strength and popularity to such an extent that by 1888 the number of branches of the Association throughout India rose to 72, perhaps larger than the Indian National Congress. Ameer Ali himself describes his Association in his Memoirs thus: ‘It may be safely affirmed until the establishment of the Central National Mohamedan Association there existed no political body among the Indian Mohamedans, capable of representing to the Government from a loyal but independent stand-point, the hope and aspirations, the legitimate wants and requirements of the large body of Muslims in this country, who by their number and homogeneity continue such an important factor in all questions concerning the welfare of India’.
The promotion of Muslim nationalism was the raison d'etre of the Central National Mohamedan Association, of which Ameer Ali was founder-secretary for the first twenty five years. He successfully created a strong public opinion in favor of Muslim causes by contributing numerous articles and letters in leading British periodicals such as the Nineteenth Century and After, the Edinbrough Review, the Contemporary Review, the Asiatic Review, the Manchester Guardian, and the Times, London. The securing of separate Muslim electorate, which accorded constitutional regulation to the Muslims as distinct nationality, was the Association’s signal achievements for the political transformation of the Muslim community.
A Muslim memorial to Government which Ameer Ali inspired and drafted in 1883 led to a resolution of the Viceroy, Lord Dufferin, in Council in March 1885, recognizing these claims, which constituted a turning point in the history of the Muslim community of India. It paved the way for the formation in the early years of the present century of the All India Muslim League and for the reservation of seats for Muslims in the legislatures by the Morley-Minto reforms. He founded the London branch of the Muslim League and dominated its activities until the party’s machinery in India was captured by extremist elements.
Inspite of his persistent championing of the causes of his co-religionists, Ameer Ali was no separatist. He believed that the development of India on modern lines depends on the cordial co-operation of the Hindus and the Muslims. He exhorted his community to work in unity and harmony with all non-Muslims. As an educated Indian, he advocated wider application of the principles of local self-government, the employment of Indians in higher posts of state service and the admission of Indians to higher ranks of Indian army.
The importance of inter-communal harmony which found mention in the Association's constitution as well won the support of many non-Muslims too. Raja Inder Chunder Singh of Paikpara was one of its honorary vice-presidents and Babu Saligram Singh and KM Chatterjee were on the Committee of Management.
No sensible profile of Syed Ameer Ali can be complete without a reference to his scholarly contributions to the study of the history of Islam and its civilization. His monumental works, The Spirit of Islam and A Short History of the Saracens , that have seen numerous editions and reprints, are still among the most oft-quoted and widely-read books on the subject. The author’s expositions of Islam are characterized by a studied effort on his part to remove some of the misapprehensions and prejudices about the religion. The author lifts the veil of formalism and ceremonialism and lets us see the ‘spirit’ of Islam, dwelling at length on the universality and rationalistic practicality of the religion which was not endorsed by the traditional Ulama (theologians). He presented Islam as a great progressive force with potentialities to meet successfully the challenges of modern times to the life of the Muslims. Syed Ameer Ali made more positive and substantial contribution to the Muslim renaissance in India than any other leader of the community, long before the seeds of two-nation theory were sown in the Indian polity.
Ameer Ali almost wore himself out by his indefatigable labours during the last years of his life. He died nearly an octogenarian at Polingford Manor, Rudgwick, on 3 August 1928, and was buried at Brookwood cemetry four days later. He left behind his English widow and two sons, the elder of whom Tariq Ameer Ali, following the footsteps of his father, was judge of the Calcutta High Court from 1931 to 1944. In his death passed away a great Indian and the ‘Grand Old Man of Islam.’ On 30 June 1932 the Calcutta Municipal Corporation honoured the distinguished son of Bengal by naming a road after him in South Calcutta, which continues to this day.