Rethinking Indian Tradition and Hakim Ajmal Khan

Dr Ahmad Sayeed Indian Muslims

Unlike Western thinking, Eastern thinking is something in which figures from histories, cultural icons, and societal norms live their lives together. Multiple identities identify each. One thing seems associated with many other things. The sense of history and history writing, especially for a historian grown up in non-Western social set up, relates to various subjects. He hardly refers to clashes between identities and cultures rather he narrates an “embedded” sense of belonging which only differs on normative grounds. Hakim Ajmal Khan (d.1927) is one of those figures who are considered the product of history and a big stake for Indian society and culture. This perception is true since it brings nation-state features and relates it with the sort of nation-making project modern state is known for. The very sense of history writing based on Ajmal Khan’s most visible contribution puts him in a sacred slot of nationalism.

Nevertheless, this narrative could be challenged anytime because Eastern thinking is based upon varieties of subjects and multiple identities. It lacks a fixed denomination where ‘rational analysis’, ‘objectivism’ and ‘judgment’ serve to certain use of ‘reason’ which Eastern cultures and societies have been avoiding for so long. On the contrary, the East celebrates the abundance of subjectivities and a very complicated structure for objective and moral judgement. However, the challenge comes from Western scholarship. It merely applies “one size fits all approach” while narrating the Eastern society or what they call traditional culture. For example, it creates more tensions, seeding the culture vs identity, tradition vs modernity into a structural complexion, for general consumption of the knowledge. The modern/Western scholarship less bothers about ’embedded narrative’ instead, it projects the scientific/objective/fixed set of pieces of knowledge that rarely address the rooted nature of existence. By this, one refers relationship of the society with a local culture where the existence and “forms of the natural” implies a different society than ‘now’. One recognises it as the plural society in which modernity hardly had any role worth appreciating.

The problem of intellectuals in our time leads one to highlight the ‘resisting tone’ against Western scholarships and modern way of thinking, but they too come forward with an ‘adjusting bone’ that leads them to speak the very language their hearts deny accepting. Unlike earlier others, modernity reached us with a power-centric and materially defined ambition. Hence, it also brought packages of theories and ideas to understand and categorise societies in the East or to capture the ‘beloved dove’ the golden bird of Asia; India. The already prepared tools to understand Eastern society generated severe conflict; the prospects of war between social position and political possession increased.

One is recommended to think modernity’s contribution to the world only from a vantage point that refers to the “scientific shift”; mechanical deliverance to human need. To this level, modernity’s achievement is productive and neutral. Notwithstanding this, modernity from a vantage point, intrinsically social, seemed a failure; instead, it was domesticated with few exceptions. It served to the social paradigms since modernity itself has not played any role that could lead Eastern societies to the same direction of the “Eastern progressiveness”. One the same line, it hardly sustained Indian societies to the “Eastern” direction or “Indian progressiveness”. Since its quantitative techniques always understood Indian society as many or more than one; stagnant because of alien components though not broken.

Moreover, this idea always produced such images which posed threats before the “embedded” or rooted-nature of existence. It tried limiting Indian imagination to merely a “despotic juncture of the society”. One who knows Indian imagination of the society from this perspective also refers that imagination itself shares and contributes images from Afghanistan, China, and Bhutan to the politically invented existence of Pakistan and Bangladesh. In terms of rooted-nature of existence, all of them belong to the Indian imagination of society. Even in a terminological sense, “the long history” of the Indian society is about “rootedness” continuously contributing to the Indian image.

Ballooning History and the History:

To think about Ajmal Khan somehow invites to mention the changing shades of history too. One should not introduce him with borrowed tokens acknowledging following the development of Western theories or concepts. In a simple sense, one must clean the so-called “academic fogging” which refers ‘history as a battlefield’. Instead, it must be transparent and open to everyone. It should be resistive to manipulative agendas of modern rationalism while receptive to its constructive postulations. It leads us to acknowledge Ajmal Khan, not as a history product where the ongoing battlefield pushes one to join the enemy’s party. Even the idea of ‘enemy’s party juxtaposed with the sense of ‘historical enemy’ itself is the ‘modern given’. Ajmal Khan is a product of history because he tried to respond a more significant challenge whose universal agendas (modernity) were on controversial limelight. His activities significantly credited the historical references of Indian traditions and embedded subjectivities found and available in Arab, Turkish and Persian lands.

On the other hand, it seemed surprising that he appreciated the scientific shift of knowledge but resisted its application on the very Eastern social systems. He was well-aware with the world history of his time and knew the tradition’s functioning even for the scientific causes. In the juncture of history known for its challenges, he could not be convinced that a short-lived rebellious dexterity is better solutions in all spheres of life which were nurtured under a thousand years of traditional take care. For him, material developments cannot herald a historical revolution. It cannot break the social framework in which knowledge-functions are purely reconciliatory to humanity rather than ‘manipulated humanity’. He was circulating his ideas about an Indian society known for its divergence and plurality. For him, India is a land exemplary for the rooted-nature of development and progress. It makes one engage with more than one intellectual front, for example, literary genre and conventional career. It allows one to celebrate ceremonious wisdom and garners new ideas and bestows them to humanity. Amid rich mythological productions, modern historical perspective in the name of rational interpretation often gets lost since ‘anecdotal trust’, and ‘moral search’ through mythological productions intend to serve humanity.

The prospects of past and contributions to future are shaped through an awareness of history. Any attempt to re-narrate history cannot be launched without prior understanding of the people’s nature and its attitude toward historical coheres and its expositions for the outer world. Because of the Ajmal Khan, India cannot be a gemstone in modernity’s scientific treasury, nor it can be ‘historicised subject’ of one-dimensional reasoning. In his view, more incredible India is the real history one must go through. It is known with its deeply-seated relations with other more extraordinary histories of the world. It received others on the ground multi-directional subjectivities and exchanged multi-directional objectivities; science, ethics, and morality. In this argument, one finds that it is a modern historical understanding that often balloons Indian history with complicated subjective narratives.

“Irrationalising Society”, “Irrationalising Culture”; and Question of Indian rationality:

Indian image is not something that needed strategic policies, but it is about the manifestation of traditions found and lived during a long course of history or experiences extracted from the very “long history”. Its author is not but the tradition which includes the broader context of ideas, knowledge-works; knowledge contributions. One must approach Arab and Persian works of literature where India is always referred to as a society based on knowledge. These literature works also refer to Indian culture and society in which morality and ethics produce a sound system capable of carrying the burden of changes. These seem attracted by a variety of arts such as music, meditation, medical tradition and war. For them, medical tradition and war both are a matter of ethics and morality. These arts have enjoyed an important place in a social structure where great histories define the culture and society and produce great arts. In these cases, one finds no single interpretation that considers Indian societies and cultures; arts and thoughts are irrational. In this sense, Indian image served to very embedded subjectivities found and practised in other places of the world.

Now the question arises that what factors served to the logic of “an irrational society”? What is the “rationality of a society” or culture? Why one needs nationalism, reforms, revival, struggle, resistance, preservation (heritage), protection (values), education, production, reproduction, and most importantly, tradition related to health. Answering them all would be a specific task, but arguing based on a productive relativism could introduce a substantial framework.

In response, one sees that looking at “material relativism” instead of “historical materialism” is more important than other things. Western progress is the result of “material relativism” which consequently justifies its form of power in almost one-third of the world, whether in the form of ideas or structures. It advocates and propagates its scientific principle as “proof and claim”. Based on the extensive infrastructure of scientific development, the Western ideas’ political fronts raise questions upon Eastern societies’ rationality and their way of progression. In Western thought, the most attractive scientific gizmo such as evolutionary theory seemed responsible to change the ontological course of human knowledge. It led human to discover its origin from a non-human source.

On the contrary, as above has been discussed, the course of tradition, long history; science, morality, and ethics was embedded with other great histories, bits of knowledge and cultures. These paved a foundation for Indian rationality to extend its ideas and arguments. To explain this, one must mention that these histories communicate with more than one subjectivity equally as they lived with more than one history. Indian society is featured with multi-functioning subjectivities as well as multi-layered histories. It is society’s capability (Indian) that churn these histories in our everyday experiences without inviting any risks on social grounds.



Looking at the framework of the Indian society, the most suitable personality who worked on the line of “progressiveness” to the very Indian direction is Ajmal Khan. Other personalities such as Gandhi, Jyotiba Phule, B R Ambedkar, Maulana Azad, Muhamamd Ali Jauhar with sub-themed Ulama such as Hifzurrahman Seoharvi, Daud Ghaznavi, A B Saif Banarsi, scholarly schools of Deoband, Ahle Hadith Ulama at a very local level and Sufi authorities all were contributing, resisting and exchanging ideas with a multi-directional framework for Indian society.

In a sense discussed above, Ajmal Khan was one of the great scientists of Indian society. As he was a product of histories or multiple histories instead of a history dominated by a singular narrative, he learned Indian traditions that embedded subjectivities function in its utmost potential. He knew that history, traditions, and cultures were alive and breath well in an ambience he is part of. These also allow us to live its people together. As India’s plurality is not fabricated, it could be an exemplary model to the rest of the world. Anticipating this aspect of Indian society, he became a staunch believer by spending energies to unify the traditions, cultures and societies. For him, Indian rationality is an intrinsic property developed in thousands of years. It cannot be torn out neither a mechanised process for “delayering histories” or “quantifying the subjectivities” could do anything to relatively a different direction for re-establishing a grand Indian image.

To understand the new synergies resulting from modern thought, scientific achievement and new ideas, his world tour from Germany to Egypt much helped him. The world experience led him to define the tradition, eastern societies, cultures, and heritage in a way that dwarfed the body of modern knowledge; its scientific vision and most importantly its subsequent strategies to rule the eastern body. Despite this, he admired the form of passion development of science is providing to the western people. Hence, advocated that step of progress to be paired with Indian traditional thought.

Since political power speaks its own language, it never cares about the language of the others. Neither other politics nor subjectivities. It declares all forms of rationalities are not but the fruition of passivity. It exhorts that a man sat on the earth or mat cannot think like a man who sits on the chair. Therefore, the man sits on the chair is more rational, more active and more performative. He can take the world on a track where the mind’s speed wins the scientific-extra-worldly victory through a visible perceptivity. This ambition of scientific development declared societies, cultures, and thinking processes found and available in the East as irrational. Though scientific thoughts are not responsible for this, instead the parallel appropriation of the normatively modern ideas used scientific developments for their political purpose. The most important of them are civility, ungovernability and passivity. In this regard, the imperial expansion of the British empire, its colonising strategies, its Euro-centric attitude of the power prepared a fertile ground for anxieties in Eastern societies and cultures.

The colonialism’s language was discreetly sensed due to its civilisational project, political objection, and the very validity of the rationality. It also introduced (as in India) its form of knowledge, its culture and pattern of life which were later imposed, in some cases forcefully. Along with this colonial project, it tried re-narrating the realm of law according to the theories and concepts developed in the heart of Europe; France, London and Germany. In the case of erstwhile India/more incredible India, this was when the physicality of the external element, its power narratives and colonialist ambitions unified the spirits of those who wanted to defend the very tradition of a knowledge-based society. In this episode, three major themes define what we call the ‘modern India’, namely; nationalism, education and health.

Hakim Ajmal Khan, loaded with his modern experiences, vision, knowledge of past traditions, and plural society’s assertion and beyond this-worldly approach, reacted on the same three themes. His performance presently considered as multi-dimensional is just a glimpse of what he did for the Indian tradition, often provocatively.

On the level of the first theme, he taught modern upholders of knowledge that knowledge is a matter of common good, it must not be instrumentalised in favour of a geo-culture-centred requirement of power. Hence, scripting societies and cultures as irrational or anachronistic or outdated is a dangerous task. It can generate risk of counter-acts and or vindictive narrative. It can produce clashes between foreign and desi (native) cultures or societies too. Instead of imagining a productive and peaceful world order, this attitude disturbs the order of the thing. In Ajmal Khan’s view nationalism is also about working on constructive lines. It is about contribution ideas which define the acts of nationalist imagination. This could be noticed in works of literature, social activities and political moves taken by Ajmal Khan.

On the second theme, he introduces those things he learned from modern ideas of the West since it is about armouring Indian people with education. For this purpose, he established a chain of institutions, organisation and constructive spaces where one shares such thought which makes Indian people, not a slave of modern ideas but a contributor on the line of Indian intellectual heritage.

On the third theme level, his anticipation established an example for Indian politics as it belongs to nationalist struggle, defence of the tradition, society, culture, and heritage. In this case, he re-establishes order of the multiple histories and subjectivities. To be more precise, Ajmal Khan’s reaction in defence of Unani medical tradition is not about to assure the Mughalite heritage (since it cannot be judged on this ground) instead it is a rare and living example of the Indian plurality contributing to the same direction of “Indian progressiveness” or “Indianness”. At the same time, it is also an example of an anti-colonial struggle. To some extent, for researching prospects, one must look at the role of Indian medical tradition against modern canonisation of the legal principles. Throughout his contributions to the medical traditions, Ajmal Khan never forgets to purify the selfhood of Unani medical tradition. In this regard, one must refer his risk for re-interpretation of Unani medical canons’ texts, which later established his authority for the following generations. Another front worth mentioning is his attempt to define Unani medical tradition, not as an imported knowledge as in an age of modernity one feels to link everything with specific foreign references. However, he variously refers to the rooted nature of existence is acute defines Unani medical tradition.




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