Fluid Temporalities: Saiyid Ahmad Khan and the Concept of Modernity

This article investigates the language the great Indian Muslim reformer of the nineteenth century, Saiyid Ahmad Khan, uses to conceive of temporalities. The attention is directed toward the way he imagined the relationship between the present and the past, on the one hand, and the future, on the other hand, and toward the changes these configurations underwent in the course of his lifetime. The article will follow up these questions in three sections, focusing on three phases of Saiyid Ahmad Khan's life: first, his early years as a colonial officer and scholar (1840sā€“1860s); second, the period when the comparative gaze became crucial, leading to the establishment of a scientific society and to a voyage to London (1860ā€“1871); and finally, the time when the Aligarh College occupied the center stage of his life (1871ā€“1898). On one level this can be read as a straightforward history of concepts and temporalities. At another level, the article contributes to the ongoing debate about the past, which is simultaneously absent and hauntingly present. It follows Reinhart Koselleck to India where he never went and listens to the conversations between him and Saiyid Ahmad Khan, who died before Koselleck was born, thus blurring the lines not only between the past and the present, but also between the emic and the etic, and between historians and those they study. Like any meaningful encounter, it transforms its participants and the concepts with which they entered the dialogue.