“A great man is a torch in the darkness, a beacon in superstition’s night, an inspiration and a prophecy. (Robert G. Ingersoll)
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) is the founder of an educational institution, but this does not end here. He was, in real sense a catalyst for reconstruction of his community, an advocate of rationalism, and a pioneer of modern education.
Post 1857, his concern was not restricted only to subvert misconceptions related to the role of Muslims or build an educational institution. He genuinely attempted to prepare a road map which could help his coreligionists in coping with the challenges they were facing, and also serve as a vade-mecum in future. His notion of modernity held clear view of progressivism and not anti-religious idea.
Also, some historians note that Indian society at that time rigorously held traditionalism and the revolt was a sudden shift; for instance, British historian Percival Spear writes,
‘It is in fact an anachronism to describe the mutiny as the first essay towards modern independence. It was rather in its political aspect, the last effort of the old conservative Indians.’
Sir Syed believed such approach would disturb onrushing of people to development and urged them to embrace modern scientific education. He was a social reformer, thinker, educationist and journalist. Eminent literary critic Shafey Kidwai calls him,
‘first renaissance Indian Muslim of the 19th century and one of the prime movers of modern, secular and democratic India.’
Born in a prominent family, Sir Syed’s forefathers would earn much respect from the rulers and also common people. He had much more than the basic amenities of life, but he chose to spend his life in reforming the suppressed section of the society irrespective of their caste, class and religion.
There are occasions where Syed Ahmad strongly criticized discrimination on grounds of caste. For instances, while evaluating Sir Syed’s standpoint on Muslims belonging to lower classes, noted historian Mohammad Sajjad observes that he may not have opposed caste-ism directly but he did not prohibit anyone from entering the then MAO college and it should be noted that a number of those enrolled were ‘low born.’ Sajjad says,
‘When he (Sir Syed) started a school at Moradabad, he made a breakthrough by asking a relevant class of Hindus and Muslims to discontinue the practice of domiciliary education and take recourse to public schools. This was a big step for the age asking all to sit together in a school classroom.’
Moreover, adds Sajjad,
‘When he debated a report on Muslim education (1872), he strongly disagreed with those who talked of excluding the “low born” from the proposed college. He made an elaborate argument that the rule of law and notion of justice disapproved such social exclusion,’.
So, viewing his efforts through skeptical lenses is nonetheless an honest attempt to misunderstand him.
It was the period when Raja Ram Mohan Roy worked to incorporate human reason and modern western thought and Swami Dayanand used rational approach to interpret Vedas, Sir Syed strived to redeem the shares of his community in one hand, and strengthen multiculturalism and unity among the people of different religion.
Faizan Mustaf, renowned jurist and Vice Chancellor of NALSAR, Hyderabad, highlights the rationale of establishing MAO College where Sir Syed said,
‘I shall feel sorry if anybody thinks 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 Muslims……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.’
On another occasion, while focusing the aim of the college, Sir Syed said; and author of Aligarh’s First Generation David Lelyveld notes that,
‘is to form a class of persons, Mohammadan in religion, Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinion and in intellect.’
In the Discovery of India, Jawahar Lal Nehru describes Sir Syed as,
‘an ardent reformer who wanted to reconcile modern scientific thought with religion by rationalistic interpretations and not by attacking the 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 as national significance.’
The purpose behind quoting all such perspectives is to show why AMU’s nationalism should not be questioned, that has undoubtedly become a political trend in last few years. Sometimes a portrait tries to malign its reputation, or its students become targets of extremist and totalitarian agenda; and now some of them are booked under sedition because of the region they belong to- all these attempts need to be observed insightfully and then only one can understand these are nothing but orchestrated attack on a institution that is a testimony to the secular and democratic character of India.
Furthermore, Sir Syed found journalism as the best tool to reawaken his community. Therefore, he started Aligarh Institute Gazette and Tehzeeb-ul-Akhlaq. This prominent journalist of his time introduced ‘progressive journalism’ and used his intellectual skills to educate and enlighten people.
Sir Syed’s journalism appears to have three fundamental objectives. First, to subvert misconceptions related to the participation of Muslims in the revolt (Loyal Mohammadans of India); second, to educate people about the importance of modern education and science; and third, to promote freedom of speech.
Throughout his writings, besides informative and enlightening pieces, one can find numerous examples where he was against colonial rulers and religious extremists. There is barely any doubt in the fact that he praised the officials but also criticized them very strongly when required. Thus, this founder of media ethics holds an in-depth message for those in the field today- dancing to the government’s tune.
When Sir Syed began working, social and educational reforms were the need of the hour, and even today if we look at the crisis Muslims are facing today, we require an approach similar to Sir Syed’s- and zeal as he exhibited. Today, in an era of aggressive nationalism, we need to deliver the true interpretation of his teachings.
Author is research fellow at the Centre of Women Studies, AMU. He has served the University Literary Club as the Secretary.