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Sir Syed Ahmad Khan
Man and Mission

Sir Syed Birth Anniversary

By DR. SHAKEEL SAMDANI

On October 17 Aligarh Muslim University is going to celebrate the 190th birthday of its founder Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. On October 18 and 19, the University shall be organising the first ever ‘World Summit of AMU Alumni’. Old boys from all over the world shall be attending the summit, in an endeavour to refresh their memories of their days at this University and discuss the problems of the University and find solutions thereto. Let us peep into the qualities of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan to disclose as to why the old boys of the University celebrate his birthday as if it were a great festival like Eid.
Whenever a historian will try his pen to write the history of modern India, he may not forget to mention the late 18th century when degeneration of the Muslim society in India began. It was at that time when Sir Syed came like a blitz on the horizon of India to embark upon a mission of Muslim empowerment. Failed mutiny of 1857 had shattered the soul and minds of the common Muslims. Elite Muslims were most suffered. It was a time of gloom. Muslims were a defeated community. In fact they had no arsenal to fight back. Educationally they were most backward. Economically shattered and politically defeated by the East India Company. Conquering this gloomy scenario, Sir Syed decided to lead his community towards overall development by arming them with most modern scientific education of the time.
Sir Syed was a distinguished son of India who transformed social and intellectual India after the failure of the First War of Independence (1857). He had a multifaceted personality. He was a social reformer, educationist, political ideologue, journalist and writer, historian, archaeologist and above all a humanist. He launched a crusade against orthodoxy and religious dogma. He took upon himself to cement the relations between Hindus and Muslims. By writing Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind at a time when it was unimaginable to utter a single word against the British, he proved his nationalistic approach towards problems and controversies then prevailing. He was the product of political and social changes resulting from the collapse of 1857 mutiny. Muslims were shattered in every respect. He appeared in that backdrop and decided to make constructive contribution to the task of regenerating and rejuvenating suppressed Muslims instead of simply making complaints and weeping.
Sir Syed believed that only Western education could empower them. Hence, he took up the task of setting up an institution for the purpose. M.A.O. College was established in 1877 at Aligarh, which later on became renowned Aligarh Muslim University. Sir Syed categorically stated the purpose behind the establishment of the M.A.O. College. In a speech, he said that, “I shall feel sorry if anybody thinks that this college has been established so as to show discrimination between Hindus and Muslims. The main reason behind the establishment of this institution was the wretched dependence of the Muslims, which had been debasing their position day after day. Their religious fanaticism did not let them avail the educational facilities provided by the government schools and colleges. It was, therefore, deemed necessary to make some special arrangement for their education. Suppose, for example, there are two brothers, one of whom is quite hale and hearty but the other is diseased. Thus, it is the duty of all the brothers to take care of their ailing brother. This was the very idea that goaded me to establish the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College. But I am pleased to say that both the brothers get the same education in this College.”
He appears to have been inspired by Tipu Sultan. But at the same time he had imbibed intellect of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who dedicated his life for enhancing education among Hindus and also for eradication of evil customs prevailing in the society. The personality of Sir Syed reminds us of combination of Tipu, Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Syed Ahmad Shaheed.
Sir Syed’s contribution towards promotion of secularism is too large to be recounted here. He worked hard to bring Muslims and Christians closer. For this purpose, he wrote commentaries on the Bible. He supported large-hearted tolerance between Hindus and Muslims and tried to bridge the gulf between them. It is an open secret that till last he tried to bring unity between Hindus and Muslims whom he described as “the two eyes of a beautiful bride”.
Sir Syed was of the view that both Hindus and Muslims should jointly embark upon nation building. He said in a speech, “We may call ourselves Hindus or Muslims here in India but in foreign countries we are all known as Indian natives. This is why the insult of a Hindu is an insult of the Muslims and the humiliation of a Muslim is a matter of shame for the Hindus.”
When he established M.A.O. College, he kept its doors open for members of each and every community. He never discriminated on the grounds of religion while appointing the faculties and staff. Thus, he appointed Theodore Beck Principal of the College despite the fact that he was a Christian. His secularism was perfect, practical and in motion. In fact today’s politicians should learn a lesson from him in this regard.
He was the first to use the term “scientific temper” which later on became a pillar of our Constitution. He started Scientific Society in Ghazipur to popularise Western knowledge and to inculcate scientific and rational temper in the people of the east. Subsequently the Society was transferred from Ghazipur to Aligarh as Sir Syed came to Aligarh. In addition to Oriental Studies, Sir Syed gave more importance to science-oriented education.
He was a large hearted person and his religious views were down to earth rational. He wrote a lengthy commentary on the Holy Qur’an, which is considered a rational approach to understand and interpret the Qur’an. Although orthodox people objected to certain portions of his Qur’an commentary yet he did not succumb to the pressure. At the same time, he was careful not to hurt feelings of others. The syllabus of theology in M.A.O. College did not reflect Sir Syed’s views. He never forced anyone to accept what he believed.
He was a champion of women’s rights. He pointed out evils of widowhood. He said, “The women is in need of gentle treatment at the hands of man because of her delicate nature and especially the widow deserves all human sympathies. At that time widow-remarriage was a taboo in the Indian society. He appealed to the Muslims “to encourage widow-remarriage and earn the blessings both in this world and the next for their virtuous deeds.” He pleaded for organised charity to fight the cause of widows. It is often claimed that he was against female education but the reality is otherwise. He was fully in favour of educating girls. But he was of the opinion that first the task of educating boys should be taken on priority basis.
A very notable feature of Sir Syed’s personality was that he was in government service but did not deter in pointing out flaws in government policies. He wrote Asbab-e-baghawat-e-Hind (Causes of Indian Revolt) to highlight that the policies of the British Government were responsible for the mutiny. Sir Syed’s fearlessness and straightforwardness is an example for our present bureaucracy, which toes the line of the government on most occasions.
As has been pointed out that Sir Syed had a multifaceted personality but basically he was an educationist and social reformer. It will be appropriate to evaluate his educational and social aspects in detail.
To take a glimpse of Sir Syed’s educational philosophy, let me quote him on College boarders. He wrote a short pamphlet entitled “College Life or New Life” for the resident students. Therein he says, “First and foremost of all, mutual love and amicable conduct towards one and another is the fountainhead of all bliss and blessings here. All the students, lying, as they are on the lap of this Alma Mater, no matter whether they hail from Hindustan or the Punjab, East or West or South, are your brothers first and last. If you did not treat and love them like brothers it would mean that you infringed the first principle of being the sons of one and the same “wise mother”.” This was the concept of Sir Syed in respect of brotherhood on the campus and certainly it was the base of what today we call “Aligarianship”.
His dream of the residential life may be understood from what he himself said about it. He said, “Just as the students of Oxford and Cambridge have to visit the church and attend the prayers regularly, so also the residents of this institution would be duty bound to visit the mosques and offer prayers. The students would be provided with black half-sleeved gowns and red Turkish cap. They would not be allowed to enter the institution without these gowns and caps. Students would be strictly forbidden against uttering bad or abusive words.”
Sir Syed also paid attention to such minor points as are often ignored even today. He was against flattery on which he said that, “of all the ailments of heart, the most injurious is fondness for flattery.” He was against sitting or wandering without any purpose. He said, “Idleness is a word whose meanings are not rightly comprehended by people. The real idleness is the idleness of heart and mind.” He gave importance to right attitudes. He advised students that, “a man should be upright, truthful and righteous even in dealing with his enemy.” He pointed out that for development, one should earmark his own weaknesses. In this connection, he said that, “there are two indications of a nation’s will to progress: first, they should realise that they have fallen deep into ignominy and backwardness and second, that they should struggle to make up leeway.” Sir Syed opined that the education is the vehicle for political rights also. In a speech, he said, “If the government has not conceded some of our rights to us as yet, for which we may have grudge, higher education is such a thing that it will secure those rights for us.”
Sir Syed’s education philosophy was to develop a person in all respects for the good of the society, as well as nation. On the purpose of education he said, “By acquiring knowledge he may become more refined in his manners, may earn his livelihood in a better way and may give his thought to life hereafter.”
With all the above-mentioned intentions and opinions, he embarked upon to change society through education and established MAO College which later on became renowned Aligarh Muslim University.
The students of MAO College, which was established by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, took active part in the freedom struggle and made tremendous sacrifices in order to liberate the nation from foreign rule. A number of them occupied important offices, which included the President-ship, Governorship, Chief minister-ship, and minister-ship of the Indian Union and the States. Thus they did a lot to build the country in the post Independence period. Some of them opted for Pakistan and left the country after partition and occupied many important posts in Pakistan also. A few leading names are: Maulana Mohd. Ali, Maulana Shaukat Ali, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Dr. Zakir Hussain, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai, Hasrat Mohani, Abdul Majeed Khwaja, Zafar Ali Khan, Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew, Hafiz Mohd. Ibrahim, Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh, Sheikh Mohd. Abdullah, Nisar Ahmad Sherwani, Abdul Qayyum Ansari, Qazi Adeel Abbasi, Abdul Aziz Ansari, Thakur Malkhan Singh, Mirza Afzal Beig, etc.
Now an attempt shall be made to look into the present day facts of AMU. As far the University is concerned the strength of the University is 32000 students, about 1600 teachers and about 6000 non-teaching staff. The number of residential halls for which AMU is known stands at 18, out of which 4 are for girls and the rest for the boys. Two new halls are also now functioning, of which one is for boys and the other for the girls. The Aligarh Muslim University is probably the only University in India which also runs schools! One of these schools is exclusively for the blind, i.e. the ‘Ahmedi School for the Blind’, in which both boys and girls live in hostels. Another exclusive feature of the University is that it has the Ajmal Khan Tibbiya College, which is the best in Unani Medicine in India.
Sports and games have been a very distinctive feature of AMU right from the days of MAO College. In this institution sports and games activities are organised under the patronage of the secretary Games Committee, as well as the presidents of various clubs, who are members of the teaching staff. The university games committee consists of 19 main clubs and 7 sub-clubs. AMU has given the country some of the best sportsmen of national and international fame. In the arena of sports, it was here that Ghouse Mohammed learnt his tennis at Aligarh and Wazir Ali, Lala Amarnath, C.S. Naidu Jahangir Khan, Ali Hasan, Mohd. Salauddin and Mushtaq Ali learnt their cricket. Among the names that brought fame to India in Olympic Hockey are Abdul Qayyum, Akhtar Hussain Hayat, Ali Syed, Anwar Ahmad, A.A. Qidwai, Aslam Sher Khan, Dorai Swami, Govinda, Inamur Rehman, Jogender Singh, Masud Minhas, and Zafar Iqbal. Dorai Swami represented Malaysia and Zafar Iqbal was the Captain of the Indian Hockey Team. Syed Afsar Hussain became the Asian Yachting Champion.
As far as football is concerned, Karim Shelly, Mehmood Khabbazi, Jamshed Nasiri, Majid Bahskar, Ahmed Sanjari and Ali Khodai were only among the best. The list does not end there, in athletics Ranvir Singh, Mazhar Khan, Mohd. Ishtiaq and Sarohi are nationally acclaimed.
It would be doing injustice if the facts were not mentioned that Aligarh Muslim University is the only University in the country with a century Old Riding Club, which has a Riding Squad with 19 finest horses. The Riding Club members have won several All India prizes in different competitions. 
Among the prominent visitors of AMU are the father of the Nation Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Shri Rajgopal Acharya, who was the first Governor-General of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Dr. Radha Krishnan, Mr. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, Giani Zail Singh and Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, all Presidents of India, Lal Bahadur Shastri, PM of India, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. As far as foreign visitors are concerned, they are Reza Shah Pahlavi, Shah of Iran, Shah Saud Bin Abdul Aziz, King of Saudi Arabia, Mrs. Eleanor D. Roosevelt, wife of U.S. President, Sheikh Zaid Bin Sultan, Ruler of U.A.E., Zahir Shah, King of Afghanistan, Gamel Abdul Nasir, President of U.A.R, Tinku Abdul Rehman, PM of Malaysia and Dr. Navin Chand Ramgoolam, PM of Mauritius. Sir Alexander Todd, Mother Teresa, Prof. Abdus Salam, and Dalai Lama, all Nobel Laureates. Among other very recent visitors are Azim Premji, the chief of WIPRO and Dr. Manmohan Singh.
It would be pertinent to mention that as far as Law is concerned, the University has produced Justices of the highest order, who have served the Supreme Court of India. Some names are Justice Baharul Islam, Justice Murtaza Fazal Ali, Justice Saghir Ahmed and Justice R.P. Sethi. Also pass-outs of the Faculty of Law have served as Chief Justices of at least 11 High Courts. The total number of judges produced by the Faculty of Law, AMU, stands at not less than 30. Even at the international level the important names are Justice Iqram Ali, Justice in the U.K., Justice M.B. Ahmed, Justice in Nigeria. Not only judges but also more than nine have served as Chief Justices of various courts the world round, of which notable are Justice Augustine Sayedi of Uganda, Justice Bashir Ahmed Khan of Tanzania, and Justice Abdul Halim of Pakistan.
Not only this, the AMU has given more than 65 Vice-Chancellors to the country. AMU has produced a number of scientists, actors, directors, and poets as well. Due to paucity of space names are not being mentioned. The AMU Alumni are spread over almost all parts of the world and at several places branches of the Old Boys’ Associations do exist. The products of Aligarh Muslim University have established many educational institutions in different parts of the world. This indicates the powerful impact of the Aligarh Movement throughout the subcontinent and far beyond.
In Pakistan the AMU Old Boys’ Association has established Sir Syed University of Engineering and Technology at Karachi. The Aligarians in the United Kingdom have recently established Federation of Associations of Muslim University’s Old Students to coordinate between different Alumni Associations throughout the world. The AMU Alumni in the United States has created an AMU homepage on the World Wide Web. In Canada also AMU Alumni Association has been working for the last 10 years. The Old Boys of AMU have established similar Associations throughout the Middle East and their work in vastly distinct fields has been more than commendable.
It was due to the earnest and untiring efforts of the AMU Alumni Association of London that a building in central London where the late great Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had once stayed during his visit to England between 1869-70 was named after the noble soul by the British Heritage Society at 21, McLeans Square, St. Pancras in West London on November 14, 1997 at a ­function attended by diplomats of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
Sir Syed was a staunch Muslim. He did for the Muslims what Raja Ram Mohan Roy did for the Hindus. He wanted Muslims to adopt western education and scientific outlook. But he was never ready to compromise with the high ideals and values of Islam. Thus he elaborated his educational philosophy in the following words, “Philosophy will be in our right hand and natural science in our left. And the crown of, ‘There is no God but Allah’ will adorn our head.” The Aligarh Muslim University is paying homage to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan by retaining his mission of education even today.
What is the relevance of Sir Syed today and why I claim that his legacy is being carried on even today may be understood by the fact that present Vice-Chancellor, Prof. P.K. Abdul Azis has embarked upon a new revolution in education. He has introduced reforms in academia and is continuously striving to achieve Sir Syed’s goals.
One of the major initiatives taken by the Vice-Chancellor is instituting Sir Syed International Award on the lines of Nobel Pulitzer and Gyan Pith Prizes. It carries on a cash prize of Rs. 5 Lakh with a citation. AMU will become the first ever university in the world that will confer an international award for propagating scholarship, creativity, literary dexterity and education. 
For the first time in the history of AMU, the University is organising ‘World Summit of AMU Alumni’ on October 18 and 19. So far about 200 delegates from all parts of the world have confirmed their participation. It is expected that about 1000 delegates from all parts of the globe including India will participate in the world summit. 
Prof. Azis has also proposed to establish, “AMU Alumni Foundation” which will become economic backbone of the University. “The World Summit of AMU Alumni would create a sense of belonging and a sense of participation in the field of education and research by inviting distinguished alumni who have made a mark in their respective professions. Alumni could help the present students in a variety of other ways – from offering career advice to providing scholarship, accommodation and much more.”
The purpose of the Alumni Foundation is ‘To keep lively contacts with the Alumni and organise functions in keeping with their collective interests. The directory of the persons concerned will be compiled with a view to establishing the required linkage. It will also be the assignment of the foundation to apprise the alumni of the academic developments in the University and to bring them in close contact with promising students so that the future prospects of the bright students improves significantly.’
Sir Syed had established MAO College through untiring efforts and missionary zeal. Today when world summit of AMU Alumni is going to be held and the University has decided to establish a corpus of 100 crores through old boys, it is time when all well-wishers and old boys come forward and contribute generously in the corpus. If we once decide, it is not an impossible task which will prove we are reviving Sir Syed’s spirit and Aligarh movement.
Today after all these contributions of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, we are still lacking representation, and we have no say in decision-making. When Sir Syed Ahmed Khan visited Cambridge and Oxford and implemented the model here in MAO College, it was an unconceivable concept. Today Globalisation has made it possible for foreign Universities to open their branches in India and for foreign affiliations. Actually, we can say that it was Sir Syed who first experimented with the globalisation of education. Hence, Sir Syed’s views are more relevant today. It is now up to us whether or not to follow them.


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