Following the suppression of the War of Independence of 1857, the burden of responsibility fell squarely upon the Muslims, though the Hindus had equally spearheaded the ‘revolt’ against the British. Whereas the Muslim found themselves in the bad books of the rulers, they latter took the Hindus for their blue-eyed boy. The nightmare of ruthless persecution by the British haunted the Indian Muslims who, having lost their political power and their past glory, had also to run the gauntlet of a perennially-hostile community, the Hindus. Economically hard-pressed, politically marginalized and intellectually retarded, the Muslims sat on the peripheral edge of the Indian social life. At this critical juncture, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the noted Muslim philosopher, social activist and pragmatist, appeared as the messiah for the Muslim community. With his pragmatism, Sir Syed impressed upon the Indian Muslims to abandon the romantic illusions and ill-advised aversion to the British regime in India.
Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was born on October 17, 1817, to an illustrious family that was particularly known for sophistication and piety. His parents Syed Muhammad Muttaqi and Aziz-un-Nisa were from the lineage of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). He got nurtured in an educational milieu. He was formally educated in Arabic, Persian, Mathematics and Medicine. However, the death of his father in 1883 left the family tottering, and ultimately the onus of its upkeep fell on Sir Syed’s shoulders.
The Man of Laurels
Syed was a man of multidimensional talents; he was a government servant, an Islamic scholar with vast scholarship, a mature politician, an aristocrat, a journalist, a social reformist and, above all, an educationist strongly committed to resurrecting the overshadowed Muslim nation that was in a state of intellectual bankruptcy. He took great pains to impassion the socially-backward and educationally-torpid Muslims to reconcile themselves to the new system and march on to acquire the western education. He brought the fact home to them that the only outlet whereby they could ensure their escape out of the current quagmire was to focus only and only on education. It was through education only that they could make themselves capable enough to compete against the other community on politico-educational fronts. If dwelt on obstinate resistance to the modern learning, he warned them cogently, they will be in a state of perpetual doom. In this way, this old man with a young soul, aroused the deadened spirit of the Indian Muslims.
Further, he was a historian and an archeologist of great excellence. He was a prolific writer who left behind a vast treasure in the form of books and articles. He wrote extensively on social and political issues.
Sir Syed’s Trinity of Ideas
Sir Syed Ahmed Khan seriously contemplated the factors responsible for the decline of the Muslims. Having diagnosed the malady, he put forward the remedy in the form of ‘Trinity of Ideas’ around which revolves his entire philosophy.
1. Rational approach to the government
Though not alone, Muslims were in the forefront of the fight against the Britishers. Since the British had usurped power of the Muslims, they feared the potential threat they could pose to the British Raj. The apprehensions were further substantiated by the events of the 1857 War. The Muslims, on the other hand, were distrustful of the new masters and averse to reconciling themselves to the entirely new system – which the Hindus were sharp to accept. The result was that the new Anglicised and educated colonial service-class of the Hindus emerged with the Muslims being reduced to the status of a blip on the radar. The traditional indifference of the conservative Muslim class to the western education at which Sir Syed was particularly distressed had to be given up. He believed that the Indian Muslims should make friends with the new masters and learn with an open heart the western science as it alone could make possible their salvation. It was a suicidal folly on the part of the Muslims to detach themselves from the western education system. At the same time, he attempted to dispel the suspicions the British had about the Muslims pleading with the former to revisit their policy vis-à-vis the latter, for the Muhammadans were as loyal subjects as the Hindus and others. He also inked many books and articles attempting to remove the misunderstandings between Muslims and the British.
2. No to political participation
The emergence of the Indian National Congress evoked a political fervour among the Indians leading to entry into politics of Indians in spates. With the national façade, the Congress turned out within no time to be an epicentre of anti-Muslim activity. Sir Syed’s exhortation to the Muslims was already that they should eschew politics until and unless they had bettered themselves educationally and economically. Now that the Congress with its nominally national character was tempting the Muslims into its embrace, Sir Syed left no stone unturned to ask the Muslims to stay away from it. He continued with pressing them to focus on education only.
3. Reform through education
Sir Syed strongly believed that any national or religious cause could be promoted only on the strong foundation of education. He was the champion of the modern western education. The first school he established was at Muradabad in 1859, followed by Victoria School at Ghazipur in 1863. The third school was established in 1874-1875 at Aligarh with the name MAO School which was upgraded to the college as Muslim Anglo Oriental College in 1877.
G.F.I. Graham in his “The Life and Works of Syed Ahmad Khan” notes:
“Syed Ahmad’s motto was Educate, Educate, Educate. All the socio-political ills of India may be cured by this treatment. Cure the root and tree will flourish.”
In 1869, Sir Syed accompanied his son Syed Mahmood to England. Travelling across England, he visited various colleges and universities. He was very much inspired by the culture of learning established after the Renaissance. Upon his return to India, he started endeavouring to set up a college on the pattern of Oxford and Cambridge universities.
In “The Educational and Social Ideas of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan”, Riazuddin H. Zobairi writes:
“He (Syed Ahmad) was impressed by the practical energy of the West. The resourcefulness, industry and thoroughness of the white men had made Syed Ahmad their great admirer. Gradually he became convinced that it must be the western system of education which produced such promising results in Europe. Looking at the conditions of his own people, he concluded that the spread of modern education was the only cure.”
It may be noted here that the Aligarh Movement, the supreme achievement of Sir Syed, was essentially an educational venture. Further, it was an amalgam of various endeavours carried out by him in the realm of social and educational reform.
According to Dr Latif Kazmi, an associate professor of Philosophy at Aligarh Muslim University, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan magnificently contributed to the intellectual movement of the 19th-century India. His profound vision reached its zenith in the form of ‘Aligarh Movement’ the sole goal of which was to prepare Muslims to imbibe the scientific spirit of the modern times and climes.
A man of nerves
When Sir William Muir, an Orientalist scholar and a colonial administrator, wrote his “The Life of Mahomet” in which he depicted a negative image of Islam, and the Holy Prophet (PBUH), Sir Syed could no longer sit in the defeatist acquiescence. The way he rebutted the arguments of Muir, and defended Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) defies words of admiration. Instead of running into hysteria of calling for banning or burning the book, he launched into a scholarly debate showing how to defeat the opponent in a civilized manner. He penned his own “Life of Mohammed (PBUH)” in which he responded each of the false and faulty claims of Muir with his counter arguments.
“My mind is a bit agitated these days. I am looking at Mr William’s book about the Prophet and it has disturbed me. My heart is burnt to a cinder to see his prejudices and unfairness. I have made a firm resolve, and it was there since long, that I should write a biography of the Prophet. I don’t care even if all my money is spent, and I am reduced to beggary.”
Sir Syed could write with nerve to bring to the face of the ruler of the day his flaws. Following the 1857 Mutiny or War of Independence, as the case may be, he penned the famous “The Causes of the Indian Revolt,” a booklet which put the blame squarely on the British policies. It is taken as the best document to capture the realistic picture of the episode.
It is necessary to mention here that when the Congress was founded by A.O. Hume who having been inspired by Sir Syed’s ‘Causes of Indian Revolt’, thought of forming a social organization, Sir Syed pleaded against it.
During his lifetime, he was heaped upon unimaginable obscenities by puritans and his adversaries alike. A number of bizarre Fatwas (religious edicts) were hurled at him calling him a pawn at the hands of the British government. He was also termed an infidel. However, he remained firm in his mission. And his mission was reason and compassion. He stressed the rationalistic and progressive aspects of Islam. His rationalism was mostly misunderstood. His aim was to show to the world the lighter and milder side of Islam. Islam, he contested, was never static and rigidly dogmatic.
As he said, “Do not show the face of Islam to others; instead show your face as the follower of true Islam representing character, knowledge, tolerance and piety. Call me by whatever names you like. I will not ask you for my salvation. But please, take pity on your children. Do something for them; send them to schools.”
This shining star disappeared beyond the horizon on 27th of March 1898.