By Majid Alam:
It has been just days since Sir Syed Day (October 20) was celebrated in one of the oldest universities of India, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). Being criticised for being anti-national among the nation, and westernized and unorthodox among the Muslim Conservative Society, he was a mentor to a vast section of people deprived of literacy and basic education. With a vision of creating an institution like Oxford in the East, he initiated in bringing about the Aligarh Movement, which led to the formation of the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College in 1875 which later came to be known as the Aligarh Muslim University in 1920.
The Urdu word Qaum (country) has been cited in many of his works. It means a community of people who share a common language, culture, ethnicity, descent, and/or history. But the reference is often made in the context of Muslims and Hindus together forming a ‘Hindustan’ or undivided India in pre-colonial days. He attempted to showcase the causes that led to the 1857 Revolt through his book Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind, lamenting the poor hold of the British officials on Indian opinion, culture and religion also discussing the socio-economic reasons behind the uprising. His concern was for both communities who lacked development and education at the hands of British.
At that time, Non-Western societies, especially the Muslim world had led their efforts in bringing substantial changes unlike the drastic changes of the Industrial Revolution. Personalities like Muhammad Abduh, Jamal Al-Din Afghani, Mohammad Allama Iqbal and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan were some intellectuals who did the same to amend the situation. What we find today in Aligarh Muslim University is a replica of the efforts put in by the same man single-handedly. He was not against the preaching of religious text or the study of religion; but he stood for a view in which religion, science and philosophy could run parallel with each other. He suggested that the limitations of the Philosophy could be met with each other.
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan once said, “A present day analysis clearly shows that no one is worth the title of Imam and also no one, not even a head of state, is worth being entitled to be called a Khalifa (caliph) of the prophet.” He faced severe criticism from religious institutions for westernizing the youth in a time when it was considered essential for everyone to restrain knowledge to religion and epics. Science and Philosophy were considered alien and satanic. Analysing the concern for the future of the youth, he fought against cultural norms.
Sir Syed saw the Hindu-Urdu controversy as a gap between the two communities i.e. Hindus and Muslims which could not be bridged. Urdu, the language of India at that time, was the Indian version of Persian, which had been brought to the country by the Mughals. Urdu then came to be seen as the language of Muslims while Hindi was seen to be of Hindus. The formation of the Indian National Congress was a major event coinciding with the controversy. Syed Ahmad Khan sought the aim of the Congress as to the development of a particular community. So, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan remained aloof from the movement and concentrated his efforts toward educating and fulfilling his aims. Therefore, he is often criticized for being the leader of the Separate country or the division of India into Pakistan.
Sir Syed is seen today in textbooks as a writer, journalist, educational reformer, thinker and above all a humanist. What we see in practical life today is the citadel of learning, Aligarh Muslim University which is enshrined with all those ideals depicted in the work of the devoted and veteran reformer. Looking back, we find the man who lived two centuries ago still modern as his ideals and perceptions are still relevant and acceptable in this era of challenges. He is rightly called by Mohammed Asim Siddiqui as “the man who knew tomorrow”.