Order of Multitudes

How to Create a Community Around Science: A Conversation with Sarah Qidwai

Sarah Qidwai is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto’s Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. In her dissertation, entitled “Sir Syed and Science: The Place of Polymaths and Popularizers in Nineteenth Century History of Science,” she argues that Sir Syed also known as Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898), a prominent intellectual figure in South Asia, can be considered a popularizer of science in his historical setting. Apart from her dissertation work, she has published articles about Islam and evolution in the nineteenth century and is interested in pedagogical approaches to teaching the history of science. We sat down to discuss her research on Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan and the process of excavating the scientific landscape of colonial South Asia, navigating archival challenges, and building an academic community during a pandemic. 

Sarah Pickman: Your research centers on Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, a leading scientific figure in nineteenth-century colonial India. I have noticed that you use both Sir Syed and Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan to refer to the same person. Why do you make this choice?

Sarah Qidwai: While he is commonly known as Sir Syed, I refer to him as Sayyid Ahmad in my dissertation because that is how his name would appear in Urdu. The title of my dissertation refers to him as “Sir Syed” and I’ve chosen that title because it is how most would recognize his name. I don’t use Khan because it was added later on to his name. He signed many of his letters as Sayyid Ahmad. 

Sarah Pickman: Who was Sayyid Ahmad, and how did his work become central to scientific discourse in India during his lifetime?

Sarah Qidwai: Sayyid Ahmad Khan founded a college called the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental college in 1875. It is now known as Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). He is known for his educational and religious reforms, but his entanglements with various “sciences” in the nineteenth century is relatively understudied. My dissertation examines his life as an employee of the East India Company (1839-1876) and examines his various attempts to translate, understand, and teach various subjects from the ‘sciences’ in the nineteenth century. 

Sarah Pickman: You’ve discussed, in an earlier interview, how much of the scholarship on how new scientific ideas have been received over time focuses on how scientific ideas were received by North American and Western European audiences. There’s lots of scholarly writing, for example, about how Charles Darwin’s ideas were received by European and North American audiences, but much less on how Darwin has been understood in other parts of the world. How does Sayyid Ahmad’s example challenge these biases? 

Sarah Qidwai: Well, I started my Ph.D. project examining evolutionary views for Muslims in South Asia during the nineteenth century. I was inspired by Marwa Elshakry’s monograph Reading Darwin in Arabic (2013). Although I found an article where Sayyid Ahmad discussed how humans developed from a lower animal kind, his view did not match the historiographical approaches in the history of evolutionary biology. So, I felt it was important to address that and write about the complicated approach to understanding scientific ideas in the colonial setting. Historical actors are not passive recipients of knowledge but actively involved in understanding, making sense, and transforming it for their own context. 

Sarah Pickman: In addition to his writing, Sayyid Ahmad founded the Scientific Society of Ghazipur (it later moved to Aligarh) in 1864. What were his motivations for founding the Society? What does this say about how scientific work was organized institutionally in the nineteenth century?

Sarah Qidwai: The Scientific Society of Ghazipur is such a fascinating organization. Even in a historical context where other self-help societies popped up, it was one of the largest and was supported by the government.

The aim of this society was two-fold: to translate texts from arts and sciences, and search for and publish rare and valuable so-called “oriental” works. In its first year alone, the focus of the society expanded and members raised funds to build an institute where the group could meet and store their collections. By 1866, the society developed a series of public lectures, and even published a journal, The Aligarh Institute Gazette, to keep members informed. In 1869, he visited London and Cambridge to work on another book. He then went back to India in 1870 and began working on his next major project: The Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College, established in 1875. As of 1920, it was given the status of a university and is now called Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).

While the bylaws of the society stated that no religious texts would be discussed there, Sayyid Ahmad was also working on a text called the Bible Commentary at the same time. The Bible Commentary is a fascinating document. It is a document that is written in Urdu and English side by side. There are also various Hebrew words in it. The full title is The Mahomedan Commentary on the Holy Bible and was published by Sayyid Ahmad in three volumes. While he started working on it around 1860, it was in 1862, when he had transferred to Ghazipur, that the publication came together (this is the same city where the Scientific Society first met). In Ghazipur, he used his own private printing press and employed several scribes to help with his translations into English and for various Hebrew inscriptions. To summarize the three volumes: Part I, titled “Introductory Discourses to a Muslim Reading of the Bible” is structured in the form of ten discourses. This volume dealt with the reliability of Biblical sources and discussed in detail the authorship of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament). Part 2 is titled “Introduction to the Old Testament and commentary on Genesis 1-11.” In this version there are several references to astronomy, geology and the origin of humans. Part 3, published last, is his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, the first book of the New Testament. I think it’s intriguing that while Sayyid Ahmad was working intently on this fascinating historical document and delving into religious scholarship, at the same time he founded the Scientific Society, where no religious books could be discussed. 

Sarah Pickman: As part of your work, you’ve traced Sayyid Ahmad’s scientific writing through various nineteenth-century Urdu publications. Can you describe your experience of navigating these archives? What kinds of archival biases or challenges have you had to encounter, even when dealing with digitized sources?

Sarah Qidwai: Well, I would like to say that I was really lucky at the start of this project. The year 2017 marked numerous bicentennial celebrations related to Sayyid Ahmad’s life and that meant a lot of digital archives were created and over 40,000 pages of primary sources were uploaded online. While I did have access to some physical archives, this process allowed me to view documents that, say, a colonial archive might not deem important to keep. Access to these sources was great. Unfortunately, the main archive, Sir Syed Today, is now down but at the time I was able to view hundreds of documents. Another online repository is Rekhta, dedicated to Urdu poetry but they digitized numerous books as well. This allowed me to have a bigger picture of the historical context in a way that was not possible before. In a way the digitization of these sources actually helped me create my narrative. I owe a debt of gratitude to all the archivists and those who scanned all the documents to make them accessible for free. It really changed the way we access sources. While there is definitely a bias about using state or government archives I think the strength here was the fact that this last repository was a private initiative.

Sarah Pickman: We’re all looking for ways to stay connected during the pandemic but you actually founded an online community of graduate students and early career scholars in history of science: the Virtual History of Science Technology and Medicine Community (also known as Virtual HistSTM). Can you talk a bit about what that process was like, getting the group started, and what it’s been like overseeing a virtual community for almost one year now?

Sarah Qidwai: So at the start of the pandemic, like many others, I panicked about so many things and really wanted to do something to help others. I have caregiver responsibilities, so I had to limit my movements as well. The idea of Virtual HistSTM came from a tweet but really it exists because of the enthusiasm of the wider history of science community. 

Since April, the Virtual History of Science Technology and Medicine group (also known as Virtual HistSTM) has been organizing a series of events for the wider history of science community. Now, this group has a distinct identity as a digital community for academics interested in various topics related to the history of science, technology, and medicine. While this group was created as a response to COVID-19 disruptions, it has grown into so much more. So far, we have organized over 20 weeks’ worth of events and our mailing list is composed of over 400 people from all over the world. We have anywhere from five to 60 people showing up for events, depending on the type of event. We have arranged events for a wide range of timezones. Initially, we started out by organizing a series of events and decided to set our programming based on the needs of our members.

We decided that it was important to think about things such as access and accessibility. While not perfect, we tried our best and consulted with people about things such as transcripts and access. Our programming is driven by an advisory board: Daniella McCahey, Eddie Guimont, Kelcey Gibbons, and Megan Baumhammer. There are several advisory board members who are working behind the scenes, and our model is pretty much to work with a collaborator or two for a specific theme, and we draw on experts in specific sub-fields (say, if we’re planning a series of events around the history of biology or disability in academia). The organization has depended on the generosity of scholars from all across the board. Moving forward, this group will turn into a pedagogical resource for the history of science community.