A Late Nineteenth Century Muslim Response to the Western Criticism of Islam-An Analysis of Amir ‘Ali’s Life and Works

There were more than one scholar in the nineteenth century Muslim world working for the development of the community through their writings and political activities. Justice Sayyid Amir Ali was one of them in the Indian sphere of Islam. This article attempts to determine position within the development of Muslim community in India. Our aim is to examine ‘Ali’s views of Islam critically in order to find out the values he aimed at. We are not concerned with giving our views of Islam on the issues ‘Ali dealt with, but rather we will try to determine how his interpretation of Islam contributed to the development of Muslims in India.

The wave of modernity in the Indian sub-continent, in the sense of western technological development and philosophical ideas, was caused by British imperialism in the nineteenth century! Christian missionary activities also played a remarkable role in achieving this g0al.P The Muslims of India, however, considered the Christian missionary attitude of identifying western material development with Christianity as a challenge that was reflected through the intellectual activities of Muslim scholars. Their response was an attempt to absorb, transform, reject or adjust their belief system to the forces of modernity. Amir Ali was pursuaded to write on Islam by an American scholar.

Later he discovered that the knowledge of Islam in the west was, to a great extent, biased. Particularly after reading Sir William Muir's Life of Mahomet, Ali felt that the book "requires a refutation of every false theory stated in it." An academic approach to the study of Islam in the west began in the beginning of the modem period. This approach received a substantial boost with the contribution of Sir William Muir, one-time governor of the North-Westem Provinces of India. He was probably the first biographer of the Prophet of Islam who had an access to the original sources on the subject. Because of his access to these source materials and his adoption of a critical approach to these sources, he is considered the father of critical scholarship on Islam in the west. Even many modem Muslim scholars consider him an authority on many issues regarding the Prophet's life and contribution. But he was not free from medieval European notion* of a Muslim being "always armed with sword in one hand and the Qur'an in the other." Muir's contribution to Islamic scholarship and his pre-conceived notion can be summed up in the statement of Leonard Binder, who says, "Aside from the implicit anti-Islamic prejudice in his work, all students of the Middle East are deeply indebted to Muir. . . ."

  1. Richter, author of A History of Missions in India, notes about Muir's contribution that:

To provide missionaries with weapons in their difficult spiritual warfare with Islam, Sir William Muir, the learned and pious ruler of NW provinces and later principal of Edinburgh University, wrote a ‘Life of Mahomet’ in four volumes!’

Whatever may be the reason behind Muir’s initiative to write on Islam, his contribution is a substantial one in the development of critical scholarship on Islam.

Muir emphasized several issues, including the Prophet’s family life, his treatment of Madinian Jews, status of women in Islam, the spread of Islam through the non-Arab lands, Islam and slavery and the use of reason in Islam. Amir ‘Ali found Muir’s treatment of these issues full of anti-Muslim sentiments. Consequently ‘Ali in his own works on Islam treated the same issues at length and defended, in most cases, the traditional Muslim view points. Amir ‘Ali entered into a direct controversy on several issues on Islam at a later date with a few British writers, but he maintained similar views throughout on those issues!

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