Syed Ameer Ali traced his lineage through the eighth Imam, Ali Al-Raza, to the Holy Prophet (S. A. W.). One of his forefathers held office under Shah Abbas II of Persia. Another took part in Nadir Shah’s invasion of India. After the plunder of Delhi, his forefathers decided to settle in the Sub-continent and started serving Muhammad Shah. Another of his forefathers fought against Marhattas in the third battle of Panipat. After the death of his grandfather, his father Saadat Ali Khan was brought up and educated by his maternal uncle.
Saadat Ali Khan had five sons, Syed Ameer Ali being the youngest of them. He was born on April 6, 1849. His father, on the advice of some friendly British officers, made a break with the traditions and gave his sons an English education. Ameer Ali was educated at Hoogly College. He was a precocious child and learnt Arabic, Persian, Arab philosophy and history from his gifted father. He graduated in 1867 and became one of the first Muslim graduates in India. In 1868, he passed his MA in history, and law, and in the same year proceeded to England on a government scholarship to pursue his higher studies. In London, he joined the Temple Inn and made contacts with the elite of the city. He imbibed the influence of contemporary liberalism.
He returned to India in 1873 and resumed his legal practice at Calcutta High Court. The following year, he was elected as a Fellow of Calcutta University and was also appointed as a lecturer in Islamic Law at the Presidency College. He was one of the first leaders to clearly visualize that the Muslims should organize themselves politically if they were to have an honored place in Indian public life. With this devotion, he established the Central National Muhammadan Association on April 12 1877. He was associated with it for over 25 years, and worked for the political advancement of the Muslims. In 1878, he was appointed as the member of the Bengal Legislative Council. He revisited England in 1880 for one year.
In 1883, he was nominated to the membership of the Governor General Council. He became a professor of law in Calcutta University in 1881. In 1890 he was made a judge in the Calcutta High Court. He retired in 1904 and decided to settle down in England. This was a fateful decision of his career. Though, due to his influence in government circles, he contributed a lot for the Muslim community of India, while sitting in London, he was away from the main current of Muslim political life. Had he lived in India, he could have filled the gap in Muslim leadership created by the death of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan.
He established the London Muslim League in 1908. This organization was an independent body and not a branch of All India Muslim League. In 1909, he became the first Indian to sit as a Law Lord of the Privy Council. In 1910, he established the first mosque in London. His field of activities was now broadened and he stood for the Muslim welfare all over the world. He played an important role in securing separate electorates for the Muslims in South Asia and promoting the cause of the Khilafat Movement.
He wrote a number of books on Islam and Islamic history. His most notable contributions are “The Spirit of Islam”, “A Short History of the Saracens” and “Muhammadan Law”. His book “Spirit of Islam”, to some scholars, was the greatest single work on the liberal exposition of Islam.
He died on August 4, 1928 in Sussex.
This article was last updated on Sunday, June 01, 2003