Relevance of Sir Syed in the New Millennium

by Abdul Sabur Kidwai

The new millennium dawned seventeen years ago, and brought with it a plethora of issues, some new, some pre-existing. In order to solve these problems, we tend to look to our forebears for guidance and inspiration, so that we may emulate their values, and imbibe lessons in life from them. For our times, and for the issues which plague us, one such forebear is undoubtedly Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898), who grappled with similar issues: peaceful coexistence, prospering in the face of adversity, coping with a hostile dispensation, relief from poverty and want, and the creation of a more humane world.

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was a Muslim educationist, reformer, and most famously, the founder of the Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh which later blossomed into the Aligarh Muslim University. Above all, Sir Syed was a teacher, in the truest sense of the word. He may not have delivered classroom lectures, or graded assignments, and marked examination papers, yet his entire life is a lesson for those who come after him. In all aspects of life, Sir Syed led from the front, and left behind a shining example. Sir Syed was an embodiment of the Arabic phrase, khuz ma safa, da`a ma kadara— ­Appropriate what is good, reject what is bad.

Born on 17 October 1817 to Mir Muttaqi, a Delhi nobleman who was closely associated with the rapidly declining Mughal court, Sir Syed was educated in the traditional style at home by his mother, learning Persian and Arabic. Growing up, he saw first-hand the Mughal court, and chose to enter the service of the East India Company in 1838. It is noteworthy that Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, whose father was in the employ of the Mughal court, whose maternal grandfather, Khwaja Fariduddin was a vizier to Akbar II, whose entire way of life was influenced, rather governed by traditional Indo-Islamic values, chose not to perpetuate the old and decaying system, but made a conscious effort to adapt himself to the new way of life, despite it being antithetical to his own beliefs and worldview. The Company was Christian, foreign, and unsympathetic to the locals. It was an imposition on the Indians, and Sir Syed must have chafed under their rule, yet he realised that the future was bleak for the Mughals, and hence decided to ensure his own survival, rather than to cling on to obsolescence. Sir Syed was forever forward-looking, and always made efforts to adopt new and more effective practices. Despite his quest for modernity, he did not compromise on his core values. This is reflected best in the Aligarh Movement, perhaps the only movement in Indian history which had such far-reaching effects and results. The Aligarh Movement was embarked upon with a view to uplifting and encouraging the downtrodden Muslims of the post-1857 India. These Muslims were persecuted by the British for their support to the Mutineers in the Revolt of 1857, but more significantly, these Muslimshad led themselves into this morass of decay through inaction and complacency. For all his loyalty to the British during the Revolt, and in which he saved the lives of many Europeans, Sir Syed did not compromise on his moral stand. Shortly after the Revolt had been quashed, he wrote a booklet entitled Asbab i Baghawat i Hind – The Causes of the Indian Revolt. This booklet was unabashedly critical of those British policies which Sir Syed felt were among the causes of the Revolt. In a similar vein was his Sarkashi Zila Bijnour, a first-hand account of the Mutiny at Bijnour, where he was posted at that time. This moral courage, against the very real threat of punishment from the rulers, his own employers no less, characterised Sir Syed: fearless in his pursuit of justice, and uncompromising on matters of truth. This sets for us a lofty ideal to which we ought to aspire.

Sir Syed aimed to bring an end to the exile from the larger world which Muslims had imposed upon themselves. To this end, Sir Syed began encouraging social reforms; his monthly Tehzeebul Akhlaq, or the Mohammadan Social Reformer, which began publication in 1870 and continues to this day, was modelled along the lines of the Tatler and Spectator brought out by Addison and Steele in England. Tehzeebul Akhlaq was the mouthpiece of the Aligarh Movement, and readers across India were shocked by it; some into action, others into pious horror. The Muslim youth of Sir Syed’s time was chiefly occupied in non-productive trivialities, such as pigeon-fancying, archery, riding, or poetry. None of these were constructive works which could ameliorate the condition of society at large. Sir Syed concluded that education was the only solution to the many problems which plagued his community, and he set about building an institution which now ranks among the top Indian universities. He genuinely had the best interests of his people at heart, and he devoted his entire life to serving this cause which he championed so passionately. A positive outlook, an abiding hope for the future, and a clear course of action characterised Sir Syed’s mission.

Sir Syed was a man of action, and of great moral courage. By entering into the service of the East India Company, Sir Syed was betraying the traditions of his family, yet it was for the greater good. He wrote:

It may be that when traditions are codified, they may have been considered salutary, but to perpetuate those traditions on merely this belief is in itself a mistake. It may be that those who codified these traditions may have been wrong, their experience may have differed from ours, or their experience was limited to a select few, or that those traditions may certainly have been useful in their own time, but are incompatible with the modern era. Not just incompatible, but even anachronistic and harmful.[1]

By entering into the service of the East India Company, Sir Syed got the opportunity to safeguard his community. Throughout his career, he worked towards the betterment of Muslims. He set up schools in Moradabad and Ghazipur, founded the Scientific Society in 1864, and created a Vernacular Translation Bureau under the aegis of the Scientific Society for the dissemination of modern, scientific knowledge in local languages, especially Urdu[2]. None of this could have been achieved without the support and assistance of the British rulers, and as distasteful as he may have found it to request the British overlords for help, he did not hesitate in making the most of every opportunity he could for the betterment of Muslims, and to improve their lot.

Sir Syed was an exceptional man in all regards, but his self-abnegation truly has no precedent or equal. He vehemently opposed the suggestion that the main gate of the Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College be named after him, and in all of the portraits taken of the MAO College staff and students, Sir Syed never occupied the central position. None of the buildings in the College were named after him during his life, and he vociferously opposed the celebration of Founder’s Day, as suggested by Theodore Beck, the second principal of the MAO College. Rather, he encouraged the celebration of the Foundation Day of the College ie 8 January[3]. Perhaps the most telling example of his self-abnegation would be his statement which he delivered when he realised that his personal association with the MAO College was unwelcome to the Muslims across India owing to his controversial religious views:

Many of you do not wish to donate money for the College because of my involvement. But consider the mosque: all of us pray there, but the cleaning is done by [someone who you hold to be inferior]. So think of me as a cleaner of the mosque; but please donate to the mosque.

He knew that his religious views drew ire, so he did not impose these on the College. Rather, he invited scholars from Darul Uloom Deoband, an established mainstream Islamic seminary, and asked them to prescribe the theology syllabus. To dissociate oneself so fully from the institution which is the result of one’s own hard work and assiduity, for the good of the institution, speaks volumes about Sir Syed’s character. He did not let his ego get in the way of realising his dream. He would tour the country asking noblemen for funds, grants, and endowments to the College. He would ask his friends and relatives who wished to prepare a dinner for him to instead donate that amount in cash to him for the College coffers. It was in this way that the first buildings of the Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College came up. Such selflessness and self-sacrifice are the need of the hour too, when individuals prioritise themselves over their community, when, in seeking the bubble fame, they tend to strive for recognition and awards, rather than actual, substantial work.

For raising and collecting money for the Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College, Sir Syed even had to dress up as a clown to entertain the fickle and mean-spirited noblemen, and at one juncture, he even danced on stage while wearing anklets. For any self-respecting person, all of the aforementioned acts induce a sense of revulsion. This would have been all the more rankling for Sir Syed, a scion of an aristocratic Mughal family, who was in the employ of the Company Bahadur, and later the British Crown. Yet he did not feel any sense of shame in what he used to do, though he was openly derided for his quest for money for the MAO College. One lady in Banaras mockingly gave him a worn-out slipper, and he, instead of being affronted, sold that off for a measly sum, and presented a receipt of her contribution to that lady. His transparency in keeping accounts and his dealings inspired great trust in him. His transparency was such that, in 1872[4], he invited essays from across India for deciding the character and nature of the proposed college at Aligarh, though he was under no obligation to do so. It was his own endeavour, made possible by his tireless sedulity, and he had every right to lead the College on whatever path he saw fit. Yet Sir Syed was not self-centred, and certainly was not at all egoistic. Therefore, he had no hesitation in asking for suggestions in the form of an essay writing competition about Muslim education at Aligarh, and the winning essay was written by Syed Mehdi Ali, more popularly known as Mohsinul Mulk, who was at that time a vocal opponent of Sir Syed. It was after Mohsinul Mulk met Sir Syed and realized his genuine concern for his community that he became a staunch and lifelong supporter of Sir Syed. He was Sir Syed’s successor in all respects, and the most notable example is that he was nominated Secretary of the MAO College Committee after Sir Syed’s death in 1898. This sea-change in Mohsinul Mulk’s attitude can be attributed only to Sir Syed’s force of character and altruism. One’s conduct and sincerity is enough to transform one’s detractors, and Mohsinul Mulk was hardly the only example. Akbar Allahabadi, a poet and committed critic of the British, and opponent of Sir Syed, gradually warmed to his views, and summed up his thoughts about him in a brief couplet:

We were all merely talk; yet our Syed was all action

Sir Syed’s action did not stop at the creation of the Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College in 1877. His is a bright role model also in inter-faith relations. He wrote the first Muslim commentary on the Bible, which exhorted adherents of both the Islamic and Christian faiths to coexist and live together in harmony and affection. His work, Ahkam i Ta’am Li Ahl Al-Kitab– On Dining with People of the Book – published in 1868, is a milestone work, for it encouraged Muslims to share meals with Christians, who are designated ‘People of the Book’ in the Quran. This was unthinkable in the mid-nineteenth century, when Christians were considered impure and eating with them amounted almost to blasphemy. He did not focus solely on the Christians, but advocated Hindu-Muslim unity as well:

I regard Hindus and Muslims as my two eyes.[5]

At a lecture in Gurdaspur, he proclaimed:

O Hindus and Muslims! Do you belong to a country other than India? Don’t you live on this soil and are you not buried under it or cremated on its ghats? … Hindu and Muslim is but a religious word; all the Hindus, Muslims, and Christians who live in this country are one nation.[6]

In a speech, he plainly stated:

You have just made a mention of Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College in your address. I shall feel sorry if anybody thinks that this college has been established so as to show discrimination between Hindus and Muslims.[7]

It is therefore fitting that the first graduate of his College at Aligarh was Babu Ishwari Prasad, a Hindu. Henry George Impey Siddons was the first Principal of the College, and the first Visitor was the Sikh Maharaja of Patiala. Sir Syed was assisted in the Aligarh Movement by Raja Jai Kishan Das who was Secretary of the Scientific Society of Aligarh from 1867 to 1874, and was later nominated Co-President for life. At the foundation ceremony of the Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College on 8 January 1877, the address read out by Syed Mahmood talked of ‘large-hearted toleration’, and Sir Syed was an embodiment of this trait. His conduct instructs us on how to live in a multi-cultural society, with mutual respect for all religions, and a willingness to live with them in harmony.

Sir Syed was a luminous star around whom was gathered a galaxy of such stalwarts as Mohsinul Mulk, Viqarul Mulk, Shibli Noumani, Professor T W Arnold, Theodore Beck, Theodore Morison, Khwaja Altaf Husain Hali, Maulvi Sami Ullah Khan, Haji Ismail Khan of Detawali, Maulvi Zakiullah, Nawab Ishaq Khan, Hamiduddin Farahi, Syed Muhammad Ali, Maulvi Zainul Abedin, and Raja Jai Kishan Das. All of these were different in temperament, outlook, and field of specialization, yet they were united by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan at Aligarh, and all of them were associated with the Aligarh Movement. It is not surprising that Sir Syed surrounded himself with such a myriad of people, for he was himself a man of varied tastes and interests. Foremost among these of course, was his cause of Muslim education, yet he took a keen interest in history as well. His Asarus Sanadeed is an extremely painstaking and detailed account of the history and historical buildings of Delhi, many of which were razed to the ground during the Revolt of 1857. He undertook the arduous task of editing the Ain e Akbari, the Tarikhi Firoz Shahi, and Tuzuk i Jahangiri. He was an amateur at mathematics, and wrote about his quest for a special type of astronomical compass. He was also keenly interested in matters of religion, and wrote a tafsir (exegesis) of the Quran, along with several treatises and pamphlets on religious matters, which drew flak for their controversial and often misguided content.

To have eclectic tastes is the sign of an intellectually trained mind, one which is free of prejudices and bias. Sir Syed exhorted his community to have modern interests and adopt new practices, yet he also cautioned against blind conformity:

The adopting of the customs of other communities certainly reflects an open mind, yet following these customs blindly and without due critical thinking, it becomes a farce, and is reflective of idiocy and ignorance.[8]

He respected the right of his critics to air their views, but also continued on his own path. His conviction in the power of the written word was such that he undertook an expensive journey to England in 1869-1870 in order to counter William Muir’s inaccurate and insensitive Life of Mahomet. His rebuttal was published under the title Khutbat i Ahmadiyya, and this shows how civilised societies deal with hurtful actions of others: through facts, research, and truth. Sir Syed wrote an exhaustive travelogue entitled Musafirani London which details his visit to England. It is characterized by an earnestness and such an overwhelming desire to acquire as much knowledge as possible that it is revelatory of Sir Syed’s greatness. He did not let his ignorance of English become an impediment to his quest for knowledge; he befriended several of his co-passengers and learnt about Christianity, and after reaching England, he undertook a tour of Oxford and Cambridge in order to get a better idea about how educational institutions work in England, and how those techniques and styles could be adopted, or adapted for use, at Aligarh. His unslakable thirst for knowledge, despite hardships and struggles, is a goal worthy of emulation.

Sir Syed’s catholicity of mind, his commitment to truth, his lofty goals, his ideals, his dedication to his endeavour, his vision of a united and harmonious India founded on Hindu-Muslim brotherhood, his willingness to work with the authorities regardless of their political leanings without compromising on his values, and his relentless energy and conduct render him relevant not only to us, but to future generations also.  Sir Syed’s teachings, his life, and his conduct are shining beacons which can guide us through the challenges we shall face in this millennium.

Notes and References

[1]Rasm o Rawaj ki Pabandi ke Nuqsanat, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Pg 772, Sir Syed Number, ed. Farooq Argali, Farid Book Depot, New Delhi, 2016. [Translation Mine]

[2]Hayat i Jawed, Khwaja Altaf Husain Hali. Tr. R A Alvi. Pg. 68, Sir Syed Academy, AMU Aligarh, 2008.

[3]Hayat i Jawed, Khwaja Altaf Husain Hali. Tr. R A Alvi. Pp. 126-127, Sir Syed Academy, AMU Aligarh, 2008.

[4]Report of the Committee Khwastgar i Taraqqi i Ta’lim i Musalmanan

[5]Why I established this Institution, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Pg. 25. Sir Syed Speaks, ed. Jasim Mohammad, Alisha Publications, Aligarh, 2017

[6]All Indians are One Nation, Ibid, Pg. 55

[7]Why I established this Institution, Ibid, Pg. 22

[8]Rusoom o Adat, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Pg 768, Sir Syed Number, ed. Farooq Argali, Farid Book Depot, New Delhi, 2016. [Translation Mine]

Views expressed by the author are personal.

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Awaam India is online platform founded by researchers and senior students of Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh. Awaam stands for dissemination and promotion of progressive and constructive ideas in the society.

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