, by DR. SHAKEEL SAMDANI
On October 17, 2010 the Aligarh Muslim University is going to celebrate the 193rd birthday of its founder Sir Syed Ahmad Khan not in Aligarh but throughout India, and outside India the AMU old boys will celebrate Sir Syed Birthday with zeal and fervour. The Sir Syed Day Celebration will go on throughout the month of October and November. Let us, through this article, peep into the qualities of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, to understand why AMU alumni celebrate his birthday like a festival.
The late 18th century witnessed an unprecedented degeneration of the Muslim society in India. The failed Mutiny of 1857 shattered the souls and minds of the common and elite Muslims alike. Muslims at that time were educationally most backward, economically shattered and politically defeated. In this gloomy scenario, Sir Syed decided to take upon himself the challenge of educating Muslims.
Sir Syed was a distinguished son of India, who transformed social and intellectual India. He had a multifaceted personality. He was a social reformer, an educationist, a political ideologue, a journalist, writer, historian archaeologist and above all a humanist. He crusaded against orthodoxy and religious dogma. He took upon himself the task to cement the relations between Hindus and Muslims. By writing Asbaab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind at a time when it was unimaginable to utter a single word against the British, he proved his determination to address problems faced by the country at that time. He was a product of political and social changes that resulted from the collapse of 1857 Mutiny. At a time when Muslims were demoralised, suppressed every respect, he decided to and made constructive contribution in regenerating and rejuvenating the suppressed Muslims.
Sir Syed believed that only Western education could empower them with the ability survive with dignity. Hence, he took up the task of setting an institution for the purpose.
M.A.O. College was established at Aligarh in 1877, which later became the renowned Aligarh Muslim University. Sir Syed categorically stated the purpose behind the establishment of the MAO College, when in a speech, he said, “I shall feel sorry if anybody thinks that this college has been established so as to sow 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.”
According to Sir Syed, “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” (Speech at Lahore, February 3, 1884 (Lectures, p.198).
Sir Syed contributed in fields other than educational remarkably. He undertook rational social reforms also. He was a diehard secularist not only in letter but also in spirit. He was a nationalist who refused to surrender before the British superiority.
While deriving inspiration from Tipu Sultan, he imbibed the intellect of Raja Ram Mohan Roy who dedicated his entire life for promoting education among Hindus as well as eradication of evil customs prevailing in society.
Sir Syed’s contribution towards 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.” (Speech at Amritsar, January 26, 1884 (Lectures, p.167).
When he established MAO College, he kept its doors open for all communities. He never discriminated on the grounds of religion while appointing the faculty and staff. Thus, he appointed Theodore Beck, a Christian, Principal of the College. He was an icon of his secularism.
Sir Syed 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 among the people of the east. Subsequently the Society was transferred from Ghazipur to Aligarh as Sir Syed moved to Aligarh. In addition to Oriental Studies, Sir Syed gave more importance to science-oriented education.
Sir Syed was a large-hearted person and his religious views were down-to-earth and rational. He wrote a lengthy commentary on the Holy Qur’ān, which is considered a rational approach to understand and interpret the Qur’ān. Although orthodox people objected to certain portions of his commentary, 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 MAO College did not reflect Sir Syed’s views. He never forced anyone to accept what he believed.
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 the foreign rule. A number of them occupied important offices, which include these of President, Governor, Chief Minister, and minister of the Indian Union and the States. They did a lot to build the country in the post-Independence period. Some of them opted to go to 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.
Sir Syed was also a champion of women’s rights. According to him, “The woman is in need of gentle treatment at the hands of man because of her delicate nature and especially the widows deserve all human sympathies (The Aligarh Institute Gazette, 17 October, 1873). At that time widow-remarriage was a taboo in 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” (Ibid). He pleaded for organised charity to fight the cause of widows. Often it is wrongly 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 the task of educating boys should be taken on priority basis.
Sir Syed was in government service but it did not deter him in pointing out flaws in government policies. He wrote Asbaab-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 straight-forwardness is an example for our present bureaucracy, which often toe the line of the government on most occasions.
As has been earlier pointed out, 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 aspect in detail.
For taking a glimpse of Sir Syed’s educational philosophy, le 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 blessing here. All the students, lying, as they are on the lap of this Alma Mater, no matter whether they hail from 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” (Maqalat-i-Sir Syed, pp.75-78). 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 his own speeches. 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” (Tahzib-ul-Akhlaq, Rajab, 1289 H.).
Sir Syed also paid attention to such minor details, which are often ignored even today. He was against flattery on which he said, “Of all the ailments of heart, the most injurious is fondness for flattery” (Maqalat, p.176). He was against sitting or wandering without any purpose. He said, “Idleness is a word whose meaning is not rightly comprehended by people. The real idleness is the idleness of heart and mind” (Maqalat, p. 191). He gave importance to right attitudes. He advised students that, “a man should be upright, truthful and righteous even in dealing with his enemy” (Tahzib-ul-Akhlaq, Vol. III, p.194). He pointed out that for the development, one should earmark his own weaknesses. In this connection, he said, “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” (Lectures, p.248). Sir Syed opined that 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” (Speech at Amritsar, January 29, 1884).
Sir Syed’s educational philosophy was to develop a person in all respects for the good of society, as well as nation. 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” (Hayat-i-Jawid, I, p.85).
With all the above-mentioned intentions and opinions, he embarked upon the change society through education and established MAO College which later on became renowned Aligarh Muslim University.
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 AMU alumni 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.
Day by day government allocations for education are declining. Education is being privatised. It is becoming costly and out of reach of a large segment of the Muslim society. If this trend continues, educational deprivation will engulf us. Hence, on one hand, we should try to establish a network of institutions offering affordable education. This work can be done only with missionary zeal in the very way that Sir Syed had achieved during his lifetime. On the other hand, our old boys, businessmen and all those who have a living heart should earmark a portion of their income and wealth for this purpose. Such an effort on our part will change the educational canvas of the Muslims of India.
Prof. P.K. Abdul Azis, the present Vice-Chancellor of the University is trying his best to implement the dreams of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan into reality. Sir Syed wanted to spread the light of education in every nook and corner of India. Keeping in view his mission, Prof. Azis, with the help of Aligarh fraternity, is trying to establish five centres of Aligarh Muslim University in five states of India.
He has so far succeeded in clearing all the hurdles in the way of establishing centres. On 13th October, 2010 Mrs. Pratibha Patil, President of India has given permission to establish centres at Murshidabad (West Bengal) and Mallapuram (Kerala). Within a few weeks the AMU will be starting classes in these centres. This is perhaps the most important event in the history of AMU after 1920.
Today after all these contributions of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, we are still lacking representation, and we have no say in the country’s 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 pen their branches in India and for Indian institutions to get 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 still relevant today. It is now upon us either to follow them or see our doom.
[The writer is Associate Professor, Department of Law, and Coordinator, General Education Centre, AMU, Aligarh.]