Revisiting Sir Syed In The Contemporary World

sir syed jamia

 “It is the first and foremost duty of all the well wishers of the country to strive for the welfare of all people irrespective of their caste or religion. For, just as human life and its health is not possible without the soundness all the organ of the body, the prosperity of a nation also is not possible without all round progress of the country.”

  • Sir Syed Ahmed Khan

Sir Syed was a great visionary and revolutionary man who not only devoted his life to safeguard the Muslims but the whole nation is indebted to him. What he did in fact is of much higher veneration and we can never do justice to his efforts for the 19th century Muslims who were sinking in the darkness of irrationality and ignorance by mere praise. We have to follow him to do that. It is not about what he a century backed rather his prescience, clairvoyance and prodigious vision for the future of Muslims. He was a polymath and a pragmatic man who dedicated his life for uplifting the Muslim community so that they could excel in every sphere of life the way western people were doing in his contemporary times. Muslims at that time were intoxicated in wealth and luxury or were  poor. In either way they were left somewhere back in time. Sir Syed wanted to establish an institution that welcomes modernist western outlook and could abate the Muslim downfall and reduce the intellectual gap between the Muslim and the intellectual elites of that time and so it happened. World witnessed a drastic transformation and its effects on Muslims is evident even today. He wanted his institution foster in a way that it becomes a powerhouse from where thousands of revolutionaries should arise with an influence alike of Sir Syed’s. It happened, the history holds many as their genesis was Aligarh Muslim University and left their impact on the world. Indeed, the verses of the University tarana holds true:

Jo abr yaha se utthega, wo sarey jaha par barsega

Har jooy-e-rawaa par barsega, har koh-e-garaa par barsega

Har sarw-o-saman par barsega, har dasht-o-daman par barsega

Khud apne chaman par barsega, gairo ke chaman par barsega.

The nineteenth century was a very critical phase in the history of Indian Muslims as it was to witness to the decline of the Muslim power in India and the rise of the colonial British rule. Transition affected the life of the Muslims in India on all aspects-social, religious, economic as well as political. The effects were so far reaching that the Indian Muslims continue to struggle to emerge from its impact. Sir Syed was a farsighted person who had visualized, in his time itself, the future degeneration of the Muslims of India under British rule. He also realized, that the Muslim leadership in India was shattered and also that the Muslim religious leadership did not realize, and as a matter of fact, was incapable of understanding, the gravity of the situation and was leading the Muslims to their doom. They had failed to grasp the fault in their own thinking and were looking backwards instead of looking forward. It was with this vision that Sir Syed took upon himself the task of the upliftment of the Indian Muslims to start educating them the modern curriculum, which as and was what the situation demanded, and also along with this, effect a change in their religious outlook which was wrongly directed by the narrow minded ulama of the time. It was primarily the ulama, and not the non-Muslims who were vehemently opposed to Sir Syed. To counter them Sir Syed himself took up the task of studying each and every aspect of Islam and through his writings he tried to explain to the general Muslims the true interpretation of the Quran and the Sunnah. In order to prove his point he wrote many books including an incomplete tafsir of the Quran. As one who improved Urdu prose and shaped it into vehicle of serious thought and speech, the name of Sir Syed will always be remembered. His practical temperament was admirably suited for the performance of this role. In 1866, Sir Syed started the Aligarh Institute Gazette, which lasted till the end of his life and for which he worked as an honorary editor.

Sir Syed was the one who had introduced the concept of national education i.e., education to be imparted in the mother tongue of the child. He believed that such an education would bring them closer to their civilization and culture. The most significant contribution that Sir Syed made was in the field of education. He realized that the times have changed and the people of his community had failed to adjust themselves to the changed situation. The Muslims were not the rulers but the ruled and in order to make the most of it they had to make a compromise with the changed times and at the same time also stick fast unto their religion. With this in mind, he started to implement the new education system, which not only catered to the requirements of the time but also took care of the religious aspects of the Muslims.

Sir Syed established the Muhammadan Educational Conference in 1886 and the first meeting of the conference laid down the aim of fulfilling the needs of all the classes of Muslims by promoting all types of education. It resolved to (1) spread among the Muslims European science and literature and promote it to very high level (2) find out conditions of religious instruction in English schools established by the Muslims for the Muslim education and to promote it to the best way possible (3) find out the condition of those receiving instruction in oriental disciplines and theology from ulemas and to adopt appropriate measures from continuance of such instruction (4) find out conditions of Maktabs commonly in vogue since long for the education of the general run of people and to rectify their degenerate condition and to adopt appropriate measures for the proper extension of the common type of education among common people (5) find out the condition of the Maktabs for the teaching of the letter of the Quranic text to the children of the common people and learning the whole Quran by heart in vogue among them but now on the wane and to adopt measures for the promotion and strengthening of the same. Sir Syed’s establishment of the Muhammadan Educational Conference fulfilled his aim of education for all because the first meeting of this conference discussed educational need of all classes like study of European science and literature for those who wanted to aspire for higher positions in government service, teaching of the letter of the Quranic text for ordinary people, promoting teaching of religion in English schools run by the Muslims for common people, promoting teaching for oriental disciplines and theology for the Muslim masses, promoting Maktabs for those common people who wanted and education up to a limited level, promoting Maktabs for learning the Quran by heart. In this way, the Muhammadan Educational Conference was established in order to cater more to the needs of Muslim masses, which could not be covered by the Muhammadan Anglo Oriental College.

“Sir Syed was an ardent reformer and he wanted to reconcile modern scientific thought with religion by rationalistic interpretations and not by attacking basic belief. He was anxious to push new education. He was in no way communally separatist. Repeatedly he emphasized that religious differences should have no political and national significance”.

-Jawaharlal Nehru, Founder Prime Minister of India.

Today’s generation should also revisit his Aligarh Movement and learn and understand his instructions for a cooperative and peaceful society as the Movement was secular in its outlook. Sir Syed told his students that there was no use of antagonizing the other communities. He advised them not to sacrifice cow and for and forcefully told his co-religionists that if by dropping cow-sacrifice, they could win the friendship of their Hindu brethren, it would be far better. In his college, both Muslims and non-Muslims got equal treatment and opportunities for developing their faculties. He encouraged the Hindu students by giving them medals and expressed his regrets whenever they left the College. These students carried with them throughout the length and breadth of the country ‘the gospel of free enquiry, large-hearted toleration and pure morality’. This created a glowing atmosphere in the country and brightened the gloomy firmament. The promoters of the Aligarh Movement never had any discrimination between the two communities and considered them one nation. They were to be identified only when they entered mosques or temples. Religion is a personal affair of man that has nothing to do with the day-to-day affairs of the country. The idea of two nations inhabiting India never occurred to him because he considered India a conglomeration of many communities forming one nation. This continued to be the glaring feature of the Aligarh Movement. To quote Jawaharlal Nehru, ‘He was in no way anti-Hindu or communally separatist. Supporting Sir Syed, Nehru says, “Syed’s decision to concentrate on western education for Muslims was undoubtedly a right one. Without that, they could not have played any effective part in the building-up of Indian nationalism of the new type and they would have doomed to play a secondary role to the Hindus with their better education and far stronger economic position. The Muslims were not historically and ideologically ready then for the bourgeoisie, as the Hindus had done. Syed’s activities, therefore, although seemingly, very moderate were in the right revolutionary direction.”

The Aligarh Movement stood for social reforms. Its object was to produce men who may prove their merit in the changed circumstances, and this could only be achieved if training in ‘morals’ leading to ‘character building’ was provided to them. For this, Syed and his co-workers wrote articles in the Tahzib-ul-Akhlaq for the refinement of etiquette and building of character. The MAO College was not to be a factory for producing educated men minus discipline rather it aimed for the holistic growth of the students. Its major task was to produce disciplined students to prove worthy of the charge entrusted to them. Hostels where the students lived, away from their family and society which were mostly full of evils and malice, were intended to train them in morals and to refine them to be good humans. The present hostels of the University have also preserved the rich traditions where seniors ought to be a role model to the juniors and the juniors be younger brothers and have made them part of the daily University life.

Pluralism is a term coined after Sir Syed’s time but his writings and ethos reflect two of his principle descriptors. First, by pluralistic it is meant that Sir Syed recognizes that other faith traditions also have the potential for leading their faithful into eternal salvation. Sir Syed wrote with full conviction that the biblical covenants in their present forms remain effectively salvific for their respective adherents. Second, pluralism also implies active engagement with other religious traditions. Sir Syed has made an original contribution to the Muslim study of the Bible by the commendation of the Bible’s authors and high esteem of the apostolic writings in the New Testament. And though he presumes the essence of New Testament revelation to be a restatement of pristine Abrahamic monotheism, which is similar to forms of Deism but very distant from the orthodox Christian view, still Sir Syed strives for objectivity and applies the same interpretative guidelines to both the Bible and the Q’uran.

Sir Syed’s vision for Muslim unity was not made at the expense of social integration with India’s variegated religious communities. Calls for Muslim participation in educational and employment opportunities were consistently featured Mohammedan Social Reformer and his other writings, but there is also the direct call for active conviviality with persons of other religions. This is most clearly stated in reference to social integration with Christians and Jews, but it can also be noted and observed to India’s majority religious expressions as well. During the Revolt of 1857, Sir Syed was posted at Bijnor. Many British women and children came and took shelter at Sir Syed’s house. Rebels came back to him and demanded that Sir Syed hand over the women and children to them. Sir Syed refused and asked the rebels to go back as ‘Islam does not permit the killing of innocent women and children in war.’ By doing this, Sir Syed won the confidence of the colonial government and portrayed to them the correct picture of Islam. This incident also depicts the far sightedness of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. Sir Syed wrote a book ‘Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind‘ in 1859, in which he told the British that Indian’s were not responsible for the revolt but it was the wrong policies of the British that led to the revolt. In this book, Sir Syed told the British Government that under-representation of Indians in government organs was also a reason for the revolt. The colonial government as an aftermath of his writings nominated three Indians to the Council. The far-sightedness of Sir Syed is seen in each and every building which was built or started to build in his time. While entering Victoria Gate a feeling comes that we are visiting a historical site. The first look at Strachey Hall shows us the dedication of Sir Syed that his vision and mission is standing tall even after so many years. When we have a glance at the Jama Masjid of AMU, it becomes hard to believe that it was built by the donations which Sir Syed received and not from the rich treasures of any Mughal Emperor. Recently, the intense issue of ‘Triple Talaq’ that has created unrest and havoc in Muslims was also talked of by Sir Syed. He was of the view that Triple Talaq is an easy and trivial way of divorce one cannot expel his wife directly saying ‘Talaq’ ‘Talaq’ ‘Talaq’. All these speak in volumes of how the Muslim Renaissance man was far ahead of his time.

“Oh! my brother Musalmans! I again remind you that you have ruled nations, and have for centuries held different countries in your grasp. For seven hundred years in India you have had Imperial sway. You know what it is to rule.” … “Our nation is of the blood of those who made not only Arabia, but Asia and Europe, to tremble. It is our nation which conquered with its sword the whole of India, although its peoples were all of one religion.”

–  Sir Syed Ahmed Khan

In the present scenario, Aligarh has to play a far greater role in India’s national life than anyone else. Sir Syed’s exhortation for secular approach, freedom of expression, large-hearted tolerance and communal amity have their own place and peace can be achieved only by adhering to these principles. Communalism, obscurantism and bigotry would not pay to modern India. What would pay today’s India is the true adherence to secularism, tolerance and provision of equal opportunities to every citizen irrespective of their religion and caste as preached by Sir Syed and his movement. Sir Syed was one of the architects of modern India who has contributed far more than any reformer in the development of Indian nation. His ideas on secularism, Hindu Muslim unity and Nation are of much more value and relevant today than in his own time.

He was a person with a many-sided personality to an unusual degree. He was a renaissance man who did not hesitate to fight for what he believed would uplift the community and result in holistic growth. He fought a tireless battle against those that he deemed were outdated and wrong and took extreme pains to reinstate what he deemed as right and futuristic. In every possible way, his effort was to defend Islam and the Muslim community and he strove hard to see that they do not remain objects of mockery and cynicism.

The question is how every person should think like Sir Syed, how we can revolutionize the world, why we do not value the principles of those profound thinkers like Sir Syed. The internal corruption and nepotism which has covered the institution in past decades should not be overlooked. The one major reason behind this is our ignorance towards Sir Syed’s lifelong struggle and also the lack of philosophical insight and critical thinking towards the benefit of the society. Society is becoming corrupt and humanitarian actions are diminishing. Do not ask who is right and who is wrong because frankly speaking it does not matter. What matters is that everything is happening right in front of our eyes and we are watching doing nothing. His idea of perfect man was that a man should consider humanity and morality as the most important traits of his character. In this view pen should be used in most of the situations as a nobleman do not use swords.

Indeed the dream of Sir Syed will be strengthened with the opening of five regional centers of Aligarh Muslim University across the country. The University must strive to rise and shine and reclaim its glorious past. It must put efforts to be an Institute of prime eminence and thus we would live the dream of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan.

Suhail Mohammed is pursuing his post graduation in English literature at the department of English, Aligarh Muslim University,Uttar Pradesh.




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