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Syed Ahmad and His Two Books Called ‘Asar-al-Sanadid’

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 September 2010

C. M. Naim*
University of Chicago, 5840 S. Stony Island Avenue; #2-F, Chicago, IL 60637, USA Email:


The earliest writings of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817–1898), the famous Muslim social reformer and educationist, were in the field of History, including two books on the monuments and history of Delhi that bear the same title, Asar-al-Sanadid. This paper compares the first book, published in 1847, with the second, published in 1854, to discover the author's ambitions for each. How do the two books differ from some of the earlier books of relatively similar nature in Persian and Urdu? How radically different are the two books from each other, and why? How and why were they written, and what particular audiences could the author have had in mind in each instance? How were the two books actually received by the public? And, finally, what changes do the two books reflect in the author's thinking? These are the chief questions that this paper seeks to explore.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

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I owe a debt of gratitude to Christian Troll, whose essay on Asar-al-Sanadid proved invaluable, David Lelyveld, who pointed out my errors, and Asghar Abbas, who generously made available the photo-reprints of Syed Ahmad's books.


1 Syed Ahmed was allowed to use ‘Khan’ in his name as an inherited privilege, originally granted by the Mughals.

2 Reprinted in Panipati, Muhammad Isma'il (ed.), Maqalat-i-Sar Sayyad, Vol. 16 (Lahore: Majlis-i-Taraqqi-i-Adab, 1965), pp. 1374Google Scholar. The date, ‘April 1839’, occurs in the manuscript in the British Library (Or. 145). (It could be the autographed original.) I am grateful to Leena Mitford (British Library) for her help in allowing access to this manuscript.

3 The printed text of 1840 says that the book was written in ‘six months and twenty-five days,’ and was finished on 25 May, 1839. The chronological preciseness is intriguing.

4 The enthusiastic author could have slightly padded his bibliography, for Henry Elliot, the British administrator and historian, wrote to him, questioning the inclusion of one or two titles. See Elliot, Henry M. and Dowson, John, The History of India as Told by its Own Historians, Vol. 8 (London: Trubner & Co., 1877), pp. 430431Google Scholar.

5 The two latter books are also reprinted in Panipati, Maqalat, Vol. 16, pp. 785–856 and pp. 75–96, respectively.

6 Hali, Altaf Husain, Hayat-i-Jawed (New Delhi: National Council for the Promotion of Urdu, 1979), p. 62Google Scholar. According to Hali, Syed Ahmad and a cousin passed the test at their first try; the older brother, Syed Muhammad, passed at the second attempt.

7 The four are: Nawab Ziauddin Khan of Loharu, whose invaluable library provided the books for Henry M. Elliot's researches; Mufti Sadruddin Azurda, the highest ranking Indian officer in the British administration at Delhi; Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, the famous poet; and Maulavi Imam Bakhsh Sahba'i, the beloved teacher of Persian at Delhi College. The Nawab's paean was so esteemed by Syed Ahmad that he placed it before his own preface; the others’ came at the end of the book.

8 Muhammad Jamaluddin ‘Urfi (d. 999/1590–1591) came to India from Shiraz, and was patronized at Fatehpur Sikri, first by two of Akbar's chief courtiers, and then by the Emperor himself and Prince Salim (Jahangir). His qasa'id (‘odes’) later became a staple of Persian instruction in South Asia. This particular verse is from his famous ode in praise of the Prophet Muhammad, and links with a preceding couplet. Together they read in summary: ‘Though the ancient heroes of Persia, fighting over rank and wealth, destroyed their dynastic name, the ornamentations visible on the ruined walls are still their remnant signs.’ Syed Ahmad could have had both couplets in mind when he chose the title.

10 That particular section of a much older canal was built in Shahjahan's time to provide sweet water to the city—Jamuna being particularly brackish near Delhi—and had frequently fallen into disrepair. By the mid-eighteenth century it was of no use at all. Ochterlony had it fully restored in 1821. The famous Urdu poet, Shah Nasir, wrote an ode on that occasion, referring to him as ‘Loni Akhtar.’ See Alavi, Tanvir Ahmad (ed.), Kulliyat-i-Shah Nasir, Vol. IV (Lahore: Majlis-i-Taraqqi-i-Adab, 1988), pp. 8893Google Scholar.

11 Asar-1, p. 425.

12 Ibid., pp. 428–429. The indirect confession of his own wayward days is charming, and much in character for Syed Ahmad.

13 One additional Sufi, Rasul Shah, is described, but only to clarify a separate matter.

14 On site visits, Sahba'i often accompanied Syed Ahmad. At tall structures, Syed Ahmad, much to his senior friend's fright, would get in a basket hung from above between two poles to read the inscriptions. See Hali, Hayat, pp. 65–66.

15 Ibid., p. 655.

16 It was much reputed in Delhi that Qadir Bakhsh Sabir's Gulistan-i-Sukhan (1271/1854–1855), was actually written by Sahba'i—Ghalib always called it ‘Sahba'i's book.’ See my essay, ‘Shaikh Imam Bakhsh Sahbai'i: Teacher, Scholar, Poet, and Puzzle-master’, in Pernau, Margrit (ed.), The Delhi College (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 145185Google Scholar.

17 For a useful discussion of the issue, see Khan, Syed Ahmad, Asar-al-Sanadid (ed.), Anjum, Khaliq, Vol. 1 (New Delhi: Urdu Academy, 2003), pp. 148151Google Scholar; also Christian W. Troll, ‘A Note on an Early Topographical Work of Sayyid Ahmad Khan: Asar Al-Sanadid’, in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1972, No. 2, pp. 137–139 and p. 143.

18 Hali, Hayat, pp. 64, 66.

19 Troll, p. 135.

20 I owe this reference to Christian Troll (Ibid., p. 143, f.n. 29).

21 The letter is in Persian, and not included in any of the published collections; only a photograph of it appeared in the first edition of Ghulam Rasul Mihr's book, Ghalib, published at Lahore in 1936. My grateful thanks to Dr Haneef Naqavi, who provided a photocopy of the letter.

22 Syed Ahmad evidently took keen interest in his surroundings. He had the famous tank Anup Talao cleaned, and its floor raised and painted white. See Husain, A. B. M., Fathpur-Sikri and Its Architecture (Dacca: Bureau of National Reconstruction, 1970), p. 54Google Scholar.

23 When the Bishop of Calcutta visited Shahjahanabad in the last days of 1824, he went out to see Humayun's Tomb. He then wrote, ‘From the gate of Agra to Humaioon's tomb is a very awful scene of desolation, ruins after ruins, tombs after tombs, fragments of brick-work, freestone, granite, and marble, scattered every where over a soil naturally rocky and barren, without cultivation, except in one or two small spots, and without a single tree. . .. The ruins really extended as far as the eye could reach, and our track wound among them all the way’. See Heber, Reginald, Narrative of a Journey through the Upper Provinces of India, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea and Carey, 1828), p. 447Google Scholar. The same was true in 1846. In his note on the Old Fort (Purana Qil'a) in Asar-1, Syed Ahmad writes, ‘Old Delhi used to be to the west of this fort, but now it is totally desolate. Not even ruins exist here, only the heaped stones of a few buildings and some crumbling gateways’, p. 125.

24 Ghalib earned not one paisa from the sale of his books; most of the time he had to buy some copies to satisfy the publisher's demand.

25 The contract could not have been of the kind that Syed Ahmad later had with the publisher for whom he edited A'in-i-Akbari, in which case he received copies of the book worth sixteen hundred rupees, to keep or sell as he wished. See Hali, Hayat, p. 72.

26 Arshi, Imtiaz Ali Khan (ed.) Diwan-i-Ghalib (Aligarh: Anjuman-i-Taraqqi-i-Urdu, 1958), p. 105Google Scholar. The Newal Kishore Press edition (1876) of Syed Ahmad's book sold for Rs. 3/-, while the same press sold Ghalib's book for only four annas, i.e. one-quarter of one rupee. See Stark, Ulrike, An Empire of Books (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2007), p. 68Google Scholar.

27 Hali, Hayat, p. 62. It could have been the first ‘preparatory manual’ or ‘exam aid’ compiled in Urdu.

28 I am, of course, stipulating that Asar-1 was sold, at least for a while, both as separate chapters and as a single book, catering to different buyers; I must, however, also acknowledge that no chapter, sold as a separate book, has yet turned up in any archive.

29 It should be remembered that by 1800 the new cadre of British officers was better trained in vernaculars, such as Urdu or Bengali, and were no longer always proficient in Persian as had been the case earlier.

30 David Lelyveld, personal communication.

31 I owe this reference to Sharif Husain Qasimi. The titles are listed in Rieu (Or. 2030, Or. 1845), Meredith Owens (Or. 6371), and Ethe (I, 731). Though the books were not published, copies were made, and even illustrated.

32 And possibly also learn from them about the illustrated guidebooks on London, as distinct from travel accounts, that were beginning to be published around that time.

33 See Percival Spear, Twilight of the Mughuls, Narayani Gupta, Delhi Between Two Empires 1803–1931, and Frykenberg, R. E. (ed.), Delhi Through the Ages, in The Delhi Omnibus (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002)Google Scholar.

34 He was, no doubt, Badruddin Ali Khan, the most famous seal-engraver of the time. Syed Ahmad praises him in Asar-1: ‘There is none like him in all of Hindustan in the art of seal-engraving. This unique person makes the seals for all the officers, in particular the Nawab Governor General Bahadur’, p. 642.

35 Roberts, Emma, Scenes and Characteristics of Hindostan, with Sketches of Anglo-Indian Society, Vol. 3 (London: W. H. Allen & Co., 1835), pp. 171172Google Scholar.

36 Ibid., p. 185.

37 Thomas Bacon gives a colourful but informative account of a tour of Delhi that he supervised in October 1834. See Bacon, Thomas, First Impressions and Studies from Nature in Hindostan, Vol. 2 (London: W. H. Allen & Co., 1837), pp. 201242 and 277–323Google Scholar.

38 Roberts, Scenes, Vol. 3, p. 180. Bishop Heber, a shrewd person in financial matters, had a formal audience in December 1824. He records: ‘All the presents which [the Emperor] gave, the horse included, . . . were not worth much more than 300 [silver] rupees, so that he and his family gained at least 800 [silver] rupees by the morning's work, besides what he received from my two companions, which was all clear gain, since the Khelats which they got in return, were only fit for May-day, and made up, I fancy, from the cast-off finery of the Begum’, Heber, Narrative, Vol. 1, pp. 452–453. To give the Bishop his due, he also states that the money (nazr) he presented to the Emperor did not come out of his own pocket. The British administration provided it, then took away the Emperor's gifts and sold them to recover some of its losses.

39 Hali, Hayat, pp. 67–68.

40 Troll, p. 135. According to Troll, Sprenger later claimed that the book was compiled at his suggestion. Syed Ahmad knew Sprenger well, and his claim to influence cannot be discounted out of hand.

41 Elliot and Dowson, History, p. 431. Note that Elliot, one of the ‘new’ historians of India, praised the descriptions of the buildings alone; Delhi as a habitat did not matter to him.

42 Syed Ahmad had perhaps aimed too high in dedicating the book to Metcalfe—as a Munsif, he should have dedicated it to the Chief Judge at Delhi. One reason could have been a desire to gain full membership to the Archaeological Society of Delhi. Perhaps he also expected special appreciation from Metcalfe, who had recently put together a sumptuous album of Delhi's monumental structures for his daughters in England. Word of it must have spread among the Delhi painters, of whom many were well known to Syed Ahmad.

43 In September 1850, the Society had only three Indian members, one being Nawab Ziauddin Khan of Loharu. Syed Ahmad was made a member in June 1852. See Troll, pp. 141–142.

44 Troll, p. 142.

45 Irfan Habib, ‘Sar Sayyad Ahmad Khan aur Tarikh-Nawisi’, in Fikr-o-Agahi (Delhi), ‘Aligarh Number’ (2000), p. 123.

46 Zainul Abidin Shirwani, Bustan-al-Siyahat, Tehran: Kitabkhanah-i-Sana'i, 1897(?).

47 Some of the other cities besides Delhi that Shirwani visited were: Lahore, Multan, Faizabad, Lucknow, Azimabad (Patna), Calcutta, and Karachi. He also spent 18 months in Kashmir.

48 Shirwani, Bustan, pp. 317–318. Shirwani then writes about two of the notables he met at Delhi: Emperor Shah Alam II, and the famous physician Hakim Sharif Khan. He describes them in formulaic ways, and uses them more to talk about himself and his own views on assorted matters.

49 Qadir, Abdul, ‘Ilm-o-‘Amal: Waqai’-i-Abdul Qadir Khani, (ed.) Qadiri, M. Ayub, tr. Afzalgarhi, Mu'inuddin, Vol. I (Karachi: Academy of Educational Research, All Pakistan Educational Conference, 1960)Google Scholar.

50 Of the two, one is the same Hakim Sharif Khan whom Shirwani met.

51 Persian and Urdu poems called Shahr-Ashob (literally, ‘City-Distress’) also describe a city chiefly with reference to its residents—a flourishing city, by referring to its ‘distressingly’ handsome boys belonging to different trades (as in Persian poems), and a city fallen on bad times, by describing its ‘distressed’ practitioners of different professions (as in Urdu poems). See Frances Pritchett, ‘“The World Turned Upside Down”: Shahr Ashob as a Genre,’ in Annual of Urdu Studies, No. 4 (1984), pp. 37–41, and my brief addendum, ‘A Note on Shahr Ashob’, in the same issue (p. 42).

52 The Hindus given recognition in the fourth chapter of Asar-1 are: one poet, one calligrapher, and two musicians.

53 Abdul Qadir, ‘Ilm, p. 238.

54 Asar-1, pp. 137–139.

55 Abdul Qadir, ‘Ilm, p. 242.

56 Asar-1, pp. 155–159.

57 Asar-1, p. 158.

58 Beg, Mirza Sangin, Sair-al-Manazil, (ed.) Qasimi, Sharif Husain (New Delhi: Ghalib Institute, 1982)Google Scholar.

59 Ibid., pp. ii–iii. The book was likely commissioned before Metcalfe left Delhi in 1819, and completed soon after the death of Mirza Jahangir, the Mughal heir-apparent, in 1821. The author, apparently, prepared one copy for Metcalfe, duly dedicated to him, and then prepared another—included in the British Library, Or. 1762—that he presented to William Fraser, properly dedicated to him, and was suitably rewarded by both. A different manuscript included in Or. 1762 suggests that Sangin Beg's father, Ali Akbar Beg, could have been the tahsildar at Damwah who helped Henry Elliot in his research. Also see footnote 69 below.

60 Ibid., p. 2. According to Beg, the Nawab was then the Bakhshi of Akbar Shah II. However, no textual sources are mentioned in the book, and the error in the note (p. 80) concerning Adham Khan's death casts doubt on the man's expertise.

61 Ibid., p. xi.

62 The Urdu preface and title page were printed by the Emperor's press at the Fort, Matba’-i-Sultani, and carry the date, 1854. The three chapters and the appendix containing inscriptions were printed in 1853 at Matba’-i-Ahmadi, Delhi.

63 Figures 1 and 3 are reproduced courtesy of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, with their permission. I'm grateful to Steven Poulos for making it possible.

64 Figure 2 is reproduced courtesy of Manan Ahmed, whose help was invaluable.

65 The change may indicate an imitation of the practice in the English books and their Urdu translations that he saw; it could be a reaction to Henry M. Elliot's snide remark on genealogy in his 1849 note on Syed Ahmad's Jam-i-Jam; or it could simply reflect a sense of confidence in his own individual worth. Thenceforward, the title pages of the books that Syed Ahmad himself published carried only his own name, often without ‘Khan’ or any mention of his official rank. Only his edition of A'in-i-Akbari (1855), commissioned and published by a book-dealer, carries the same florid name on its cover as Asar-1.

66 The English pages, dated 1854, were printed at the Indian Standard Press, Delhi. Strictly speaking, Asar-1 was also bilingual since much of its preface was in Persian, but the use of Persian in formal contexts in Urdu books was then common practice.

67 Sadly, the Urdu has a letter missing in the word. The English, however, leaves out any equivalent for the Urdu ‘umda (‘excellent’) before ‘buildings’.

68 Troll uniquely explores Syed Ahmad's participation in the Society's activities in much detail (pp. 141–143). Both the translation and the summary were likely done by Arthur Austin Roberts.

69 Henceforward, I refer only to the Urdu title and preface.

70 The public crier in Delhi, we are told, would start by proclaiming, ‘khalq khuda ki, mulk padshah ka, hukm kampani bahadur ka’, ‘People belong to God; country belongs to the Emperor; command belongs to the [East India] Company Bahadur’.

71 Arthur Austin Roberts was also the person who, on becoming the Vice-President of the Archaeological Society of Delhi, had Syed Ahmad admitted to its membership in July 1852. See Troll, p. 142.

72 Asar-2, pp. 28–29. For the English version of the seven points, see Appendix 1.

73 The claim is intriguing. Every inscription was accurately transcribed in Asar-1, all that needed to be added was the name of the original calligraphic style. Could it be that in the interim Syed Ahmad had become acquainted with either of the following: Mirza Sangin Beg's, afore-mentioned, Sair-al-Manazil, whose one manuscript, now at the Red Fort, makes a similar claim. See Beg, Sair, p. iv; An untitled manuscript on Delhi's monuments by Hafizuddin Ahmad, now at the British Library (Or. 4595), in which each inscription is beautifully copied in the original style. More intriguingly, the transcriber of the latter is given as ‘Asghar Ali Beg, commonly called Sangin Beg’. (Was Hafizuddin's book the source for the inscriptions in Beg's own book?) The manuscript is dated 1817. Hafizuddin could have been the son of Maulavi Rashiduddin Khan, who taught at Delhi College, and a brother of Sadiduddin Ahmad, who taught at the same college and who published a short book (Rieu, III, p. 1028, Or. 1763) on the buildings of Agra in 1848. The father is much praised in Asar-1.

74 The English text says, ‘. . .the author also considers his duty to offer his gratitude to Mr. Edward Thomas, through whose aid and kindness he has been able to put the work in Type’. See Asar-2, p. 312.

75 The non-inclusion of the sketches is understandable. Getting them redrawn to fit the smaller page-size of Asar-2 would have cost extra money and time. Hali says that Syed Ahmad had new sketches made for Asar-2, but they were destroyed during the Mutiny of 1857 (p. 67). Asar-2, however, came out five years earlier. Could it be that Syed Ahmad had planned a third revised edition? The sketches of Asar-1 were badly reproduced—without acknowledgment—in Bahsiruddin Ahmad's Waqi'at-i-Dar-al-Hukumat-i-Dihli, 3 vols., published in 1919 (Delhi: Urdu Academy, 1990, reprint).

76 Asar-1, p. 144.

77 Asar-2, p. 143.

78 Asar-1, p. 159.

79 Ibid., p. 122.

80 Asar-2, p. 235–6.

81 Panipati, Maqalat, Vol. 16, p. 73.

82 The inherited title was ‘Jawwad-al Daulah’. The Emperor added a second title, ‘Arif Jang’, on his own. There is no record that he also renewed the land grant he had taken away earlier.

83 The note on Syed Ahmad in Gulistan-i-Sukhan includes seven verses of a panegyric in praise of Bahadur Shah II. See Sabir, Mirza Qadir Bakhsh, Gulistan-i-Sukhan (Lucknow: Uttar Pradesh Urdu Academy, 1982), pp. 127128Google Scholar. The occasion could have been the formal audience in 1842. The poem was most likely written by Syed Ahmad's friend Sahba'i, who allegedly wrote the book for Sabir.

84 Asar-1, pp. 338–339. The note is barely a page long, and reads like something by Sahba'i. It makes no mention of a projected or completed book on Zafar.

85 Ghalilb, as several of his letters show, never took Zafar very seriously, not even after becoming his ustad (mentor in poetry). Azurda begins his lament of Delhi after 1857 with the line: ‘The Calamity struck the city on account of the Fort’. Shah Abdul Aziz had both philosophical and personal reasons to despise the Mughals.

86 Around the same time Bahadur Shah had another book done that sounds suspiciously similar to Syed Ahmad's Jam-i-Jam. Mir'at-al-Ashbah-i-Salatin (Rieu, I, p. 285, Or. 182), authored by a Muhammad Fakhruddin Husain, lists the kings of Delhi, from Timur to Bahadur Shah, and includes the Pathan kings, as did Syed Ahmad's book.

87 Asar-1, p. 385.

88 Asar-2, p. 242.

89 The other two sections describe the two individual temples, Murat Mandir and Akas Mandir, both inside and outside (Asar-1, pp. 32–39).

90 Ibid., pp. 32–4.

91 Asar-2, pp. 233–35.

92 He ends the description of ceremonies by again quoting the line from Hazrat Nizamuddin.

93 Troll, p. 140.

94 Fortunately, when we turn to the section on Jama’ Masjid in Asar-2 we find that he still knows the famous steps. To Syed Ahmad's credit and our relief, the enthusiastic dilliwala still manages to break through in places in Asar-2.

95 That conviction stayed with Syed Ahmad for the rest of his life; it became the driving logic, for example, of his unfinished exegesis of the Qur'an in1880.

96 See Troll, p. 136, fn. 6, for a list of some of the editions of Asar-1 and Asar-2. In 1990, Khaliq Anjum published a new edition that combines the fourth chapter of Asar-1 with the text of Asar-2, with much useful supplementary information. Its fourth reprint (2003), available from the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language, New Delhi, is a befitting tribute to the book and its author. More recently, Sir Syed Academy, Aligarh, made the two original editions available as photo-reprints, together with useful introductions and indexes.

97 Troll, pp. 136–137, f.n. 6.

98 Hali, Hayat, p. 68.

99 David Lelyveld recently drew my attention to an important book: Ali, Arshad, Asar-al-Sanadid, Tahqiqi wa Tanqidi Mutala'a (Jehlum, Pakistan: Awaz-i-Alamgir Educational Publishers, 1998)Google Scholar. Ali thinks that the two editions should be regarded as separate books. He also points out that while earlier books about important places—he calls them asariyat (antiquarian)—contain some mention of the local people, it is not the case with books on religious sites. Ali also discusses a book on Delhi, ‘Imarat-i-Dihli by Ramji Das, whose sole manuscript dated 1854 is at the John Rylands University Library, Manchester, UK. According to Ali, Das plagiarized Asar-1 but also added some new information that was in turn ‘plagiarized’ by Syed Ahmad in Asar-2. In my view, Syed Ahmad could have easily gained access to the new information independently. Finally, Ali usefully brings together what information we now have on the errors of dating and misreading of inscriptions in Asar-1.

100 Asar-2, pp. 312–313.