National integration through tolerance is an ideal for all of us; it was a reality with Syed Mahmood.

His persona and depth of thoughts transcended the realm of materialistic life and found solace in mysticism. His knowledge of Arabic and Persian helped him develop deep insights in Sufism while his command over Sanskrit language made him an avid reader of Ramayana and attracted him towards the philosophy of Vedanta.

Mahmood garnered heterogeneous experiences through his cross-cultural exposure – with his education commencing at a maktab and culminating at Cambridge via Queens College in the city of temples, pandits and ghats, Banaras.

As mentioned in Chapter 1, Mahmood moved to Banaras in 1868, where he was admitted to Queens’ College, which was widely reputed at the time as a seminary of English language and literature. There, Mahmood had the benefit of the tutelage of distinguished Anglo-Sanskrit scholar and poet, Ralph T Griffith – the famous translator of the Ramayana in English and author of the book of poems titled Idylls from the Sanskrit.

Queens’ College was envisioned as an alchemy of the Banaras Sanskrit College and the English Seminary. It adhered to a unique integrated pattern of education conscientiously assimilating the knowledge of the East and the West. Coincidentally, its educational philosophy and ideals mirrored those of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, and are believed to have largely shaped Syed Mahmood’s understanding of educational philosophy and pedagogy.

Moreover, being a son to a social reformer, author and civil servant added to his understanding of religion and cultures. His closest known friends were AM Bose (whom Mahmood fondly referred to as “my tutor” when he was at Cambridge), Satish Chandra Banerji, Tej Bahadur Sapru and George EA Ross. Satish Chandra Banerji, in one of his articles in Hindustan Review, wrote that Mahmood was a true liberal and a friend of progress; he visualised perfect fellowship between Hindus and Muslims and wanted them to join hands as one kin.

Interestingly, according to Lieutenant Colonel GFI Graham, the dinner hosted in honour of Mahmood’s return from London as barrister was the first dinner in the NWP at which Muslims, Hindus and English gentlemen sat down together.

At the aforementioned occasion, Mahmood delivered a short speech epitomising the composite culture and oneness of India in fostering unity amongst the countrymen. He said:

Having differences in religion does not eradicate the entire influence of those matters in which Muslims and Hindus work together. Those who know me well, also know that my training and upbringing was done in such a manner and in such an atmosphere that I value national unity (hum watani) and its enthusiasm and ideas above all other ideas of humanity. Differences in religion are not something by which the brotherly relationship engendered by national unity is done away...

Mahmood’s decision to appoint Theodore Beck as first the principal and later the honorary treasurer of MAO College was rooted in his conviction of merit over religion or region. Furthermore, in the scheme for the proposed MAO College presented before the fund committee on 10 February 1873, he recommended Sanskrit to be taught as an optional language.4 The scheme provided the following:

The course of study at the lower department of the College will comprise the following subjects.
Any two of the following languages:

• Arabic (language and literature)
• English (language and literature)
• Sanskrit (language and literature)
• Latin (language and literature)
• Greek (language and literature)

Similarly, the course of study of the upper department of the college included a compulsory subject on ancient Indian languages, available with the following combinations:

1. Sanskrit with Zend, Persian and philology
2. Sanskrit with Prakriti and Pali and philology5

Other combinations available were:
1. Arabic with Hebrew and Syriac and comparative philology of the Semitic language.
2. English with Anglo-Saxon and comparative philology of the Teutonic stock of languages.
3. Greek and Latin with philology.

He steered the policy of non-interference in religious beliefs and practices of the non-Muslim students and strived for harmonious coexistence in the residential life at the college. As evident from the MAO College scheme prepared by him, he framed a secular and modern curriculum for MAO College with a balance of religious and scientific education. The scheme expressly stated, “Of course every student will have a perfect right to study the theology of his religion in particular.”

In another instance, when Principal Theodore Beck removed the teacher of Sanskrit from service and discontinued Sanskrit instructions, Mahmood got him reinstated.

A multilinguist himself, he did not harbour a bias in favour of or against English. In fact, he placed equal emphasis on instructions in oriental languages and got interlanguage texts translated for proper dissemination of knowledge. At a conference in Allahabad, Mahmood urged his audience to undertake research on ancient Indian languages, trace the contribution of Muslims in the development of such languages and determine their proficiency in such languages.

Mahmood dressed every diversity in his strong sense of honour that was embedded in the moral and civilisational philosophy of Bharat. These moorings prompted him to write a book on the impact of Hindu culture on Muslims in India, which unfortunately, he could not complete as time stood still for him at a relatively early age.

The motivation for undertaking such work arose from him wanting to dispel the misunderstanding that Muslims do not take enough interest in the scriptures and texts of Hindu religion and culture. Even today, efforts to highlight writings of such work done by Muslims does not commensurate with the importance of the need to accentuate such works.

Freedom of religion and faith equality was an article of faith for Mahmood. In his Calcutta Review article “British Rule in India: Does It owe Origin to Conquest, and Its Maintenance to Physical Force” (1879) – directed at an audience of British officials and widely circulated in the higher echelons in Britain – he waxed eloquent to the Raj to earnestly adhere to the values of tolerance, humanity and mutual respect as the governance core for their stable rule in India. Illustrating the reign of Aurangzeb, whose wanton disregard for these values was the cause of downfall of Mughal rule, Mahmood wrote:

The reign of Aurangzeb, with all its martial glory and powerful administration, with all its conquests and physical force, succumbed to the law of nature, succumbed to the ardent and originally defensive opposition of the pious Brahmin, to the curses of the suffering devotee, to the united force of exasperated millions. He died whilst still at the head of a great campaign: the most glorious and the most inglorious of India’s Mohammedan rulers, the degrader of his ancestral heritage, the degrader of race and religion. He lies beneath the dust of those very plains which had seen his greatest martial achievements and had felt his greatest force.

In Mahmood’s estimation, Aurangzeb was a bad politician – his statesmanship relied for its success on martial discipline and physical force. He failed to appreciate the potential of “amicable modes” and “power of moral causes” that were relied upon by his ancestors, especially Akbar, in administration. He wrote:

What was it that made the reign of Akbar so illustrious and prosperous...whose armies were far lesser than he (Aurangzeb) mustered

The power of moral causes he entirely ignored; the feelings of his subjects he did not consult. He learnt the noble lesson but too late, that it is, 

“ – more humane, more heavenly; first
By winning words to conquer willing hearts
And make persuasion do the work of fear.”

Mahmood reproaches Aurangzeb for not paying heed to the advice of Maharaja Jaswant Singh of Jodhpur against his oppressive policies, an advice Mahmood deemed as “unsurpassed in its originality of wisdom, its earnestness of solicitude, its beauty of taste, and above all, its soundness of policy”. Relevant extracts of Maharaja’s letter to Aurangzeb were reproduced by Mahmood in his article. The Maharaja wrote:

During your Majesty’s reign, many have been alienated from the empire and further losses must ensue, since the devastation and the rapine reign without restraint...How can the dignity of a sovereign be preserved who employs his power in extracting heavy tributes from a people miserably reduced? At this juncture, it is said, from East to West, that the Emperor of Hindustan, jealous of the poor Hindu devotee, will exact tribute from Brahmans, et cetera; that regardless of the honour of his Timurian ancestry, he condescends to exercise his strength against the inoffensive religious recluse.

...If your majesty places any faith in those books by distinction called divine, you may there learn that god is the god of all mankind, not of Mussalmans only. The Pagan and the Moslem stand alike before him...In your mosques, it is in his name that the call to prayer is uttered. In the house of idols, where bells are rung, it is still he that is the object of adoration. To vilify the religious customs of other men is to set at naught the will of the Almighty. When we deface a picture, we necessarily incur the resentment of the painter.

Mahmood also referred to the distinction drawn by the Maharaja in the state of affairs during the reigns of Aurangzeb’s predecessors. It read:

Your royal ancestor, M Jalaludin Akbar, conducted the affairs of the empire in dignity and safety for fifty-two years, keeping every tribe and class in peace and prosperity; whether they were followers of Jesus, or of Moses, or Muhammad; were they Brahmans, were they (atheists); or equally enjoyed his countenance and favour, in so much that his subjects distinguished him by the title of “Protector of the Human Race.”


Jahangir also extended for a period of twenty-two years the shadow of his protection over his people’s heads; successful by constant fidelity to his allies, and vigorous exertions in the affairs of State.


Nor less did the illustrious Shah Jahan, by a propitious reign of thirty-two years, acquire to himself immortal fame, the just reward of clemency and righteousness.

With Mahmood’s vociferous denunciation of Aurangzeb’s intolerance, it comes as no surprise that he rather admired the enlightened philosophy of Dara Shikoh – the eldest Mughal prince murdered by Aurangzeb in a battle for the throne – widely believed to be the founder of academic movement of interfaith understanding in India.

Excerpted with permission from Syed Mahmood: Colonial India’s Dissenting Judge, Mohammad Nasir and Samreen Ahmed, Bloomsbury.