The nation is celebrating the 203rd birth anniversary of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the founder of Mohammadan Oriental College that grew into Aligarh Muslim University, one of India’s biggest and best educational institutions. Sir Syed was not just a top educationist that India has produced, he was a top reformer, a historian of repute and a jurist and civil servant.
While Sir Syed’s accomplishments are manifold, often bewildering lesser mortals like us, due to his sheer ingenuity, his true calling was education where he made an impact unparalleled in the history of South Asia.
Sir Syed's greatest achievement was that he reined in obscurantist mullas and changed the mindset of many in the community to adopt to modern education, an anathema till then. Muslims were unable to grasp the enormity of what was happening to them as they were losing one domain after the other and one territory after the other. After having lost the Mughal throne and other major principalities across North and Southern India, including huge principalities of Bengal, Awadh, Nawabs of the Carnatic and other principalities, Muslims had lapsed into a sort of depression.
Syed Ahmad Khan was born on 17 October 1817 into a family with strong relations to the Mughal court and therefore the loss of Mughal throne to the British East India Company had a huge impact on him and his family.
This will be surprising to many that the founders of Aligarh Muslim University and the Darul Uloom Deoband, the preeminent madrasa in India, Sir Syed Ahmd Khan and Maulana Qasim Nanotwi, both studied under the same teachers at Delhi’s iconic Delhi College. It will be a bigger surprise that Sir Syed was a huge fan of Nanotwi. But Nanotwi was unlike any cleric of our times. He too was a reformer and a visionary and thus it was a mutual admiration.
Syed Ahmad was also known as a great administrator. There are innumerable tales as to how he took care of famine people in the wake of unprecedented famine in the year 1860. J. Stratchey, who was the Collector of Moradabad at that time, asked Sir Syed Ahmad Khan to organize relief work in the region. It is said that within an hour as many as 14,000 starving people were supplied with food. Besides the severely sick people were provided healthcare at a health center which functioned without taking a break. A large number of women, both Hindus and Muslims who observed pardah and could not come to the relief centre he sent cotton for spinning and gave an allowance of eight annas per diem. This helped hundreds of middle class families survive through the most difficult days of their lives.
Raja Jai Kishan Das, a CSI and career bureaucrat after seeing the enormous work of Syed Ahmad Khan said, "When Sir Sayyid started his journal The Loyal Muhammadans of India, some of its sentences gave the impression that Sayyid Ahmad Khan was a fanatic who had no sympathy for Hindus. At that time I had also thought of bringing out a similar journal containing accounts of Hindus who had supported the British Government. In the meantime I happened to visit Moradabad. I went to the relief centre and met Sir Sayyid Ahmad whom I had not seen before. I referred to sentences which had given me the impression of his being a fanatic. He apologized and confessed that it was due to slip of pen. This was, however, a polite reply. But the affection and sympathy with which he was behaving with men of all religions and all castes made my heart absolutely clean towards him. I was in fact struck with wonder when I found what a noble soul he was. It was on that day that I established friendship with him, which went on increasing every day."
There is no denying that the renowned civil servant cum educationist and philosopher had far more admirers among Hindus and Christians than among Muslims.
Ali Nadeem Rezavi, a professor of history at Aligarh Muslim University says while MAO College was launched for the Muslims, it was not exclusively for the Muslims as such. It was envisioned on the lines of Cambridge and Oxford! He went door to door from Punjab to Bengal with a begging bowl for funds and students for his College.
Rezavi says that the first student of AMU was a Hindu and that donors were Hindus, Shias and Sunnis. He envisaged a mosque where all would pray together with no difference of Sunnis or Shias. “He rebuffed a respected theologian who suggested that other sects should be left away! He encouraged Shaikh Abdullah to work for a school for girls” says Rezavi.
Sir Syed was condemned by entrenched theologians, denounced for being heretic and volumes were written on him for being a muafiq or hypocrite. What did he get in return? Rezawi says that “theologians declared him a Kafir, an apostate and was derisively called a "Natury", a follower of Darwin, his cartoons were made (some preserved in Maulana Azad Library) and he was condemned and derided!”
He says that it is surprising that a reformer who rose against orthodoxy has been appropriated in a manner by the conservative elements of the community that now he is taken to be the chief of the orthodox Muslims of the subcontinent! “Sir Syed was an unorthodox modern thinker who opposed religious extremism and stood for a re-interpretation of Islam and change it from what it was understood then! He was an innovator of his time and a real scholar to boot. He was the most practical Muslim of the 19th Century North India. Had he been reborn again and walked the beautifully decorated streets of the campus and visited the various programmes being held in his name, he would have been a sad man! In the drama playing off in his name, he is but a caricature of what he actually was. He has been morphed into the image of a typical ibnul waqt (time server) of 21st Century!” says Rezavi.
Sir Syed’s opinions were beyond his age. This could be easily inferred by the fact that almost whatever he said or preached and every idea of social reform which he put forward were ridiculed and attacked by Islamic scholars and ulama of his time. He had used his journal, Tahzib-ul-Akhlaq, also called Mohammedan Social Reformer, to put forth his views effectively. But each and every article of the journal was hammered by his critic. Even scholars like Maulana Jamaluddin Afghani indulged in bitter, often sarcastic, criticism of his views. It may seem very ridiculous to present generation, but many ulama went on Haj in order to get fatwas against him from the scholars of Hijaz. Dozens of books were written in which his approach towards mazhab (religion) and akhlaq (morality) was condemned. However, every condemnation propelled him to work harder and every criticism motivated him to work harder.
Sir Syed, while talking about the incessant criticism against him said, "The more I am condemned, censured and reviled by people, the more I feel convinced of the need and urgency of the reform work I have undertaken”. Had he been alive today, he would have certainly done two things. He would have tried to mollify the BJP/RSS government t give up its anti-Muslim stance, and would have also motivated the Muslims to give up the religious intolerance that has been the hallmark of Muslim orthodoxy for at least two centuries.
More Columns by Syed Ubaidur Rahman:
Despite muted denials, NRC will target Muslims
Bhagwat, Madani meet: End of the maddening divide
Ahmadullah Shah: Hero whose head and body are buried
Muslim women's entry in mosques: What is the truth?
Syed is a New Delhi based author and commentator. His forthcoming book 'Ulema's Role in India's Freedom Movements with Focus on Reshmi Rumal Tehrik will be out in October