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Tribute to a Man of Optimistic Vision: Sir Syed Ahmad Khan

by Azhar U Din and Mohd Suhail

Time impacts on everyone but there are very few who influence time and change the course of history. In the galaxy of 19th century Muslim Reformers, Sir Syed Ahmad khan holds a distinguished place. He was the man of great faculty and vision. Sir Syed was the owner of a multi-sided personality. He was a dignified intellectual, an eminent philosopher, a great thinker, an erudite theologian, a versatile educationist, a phenomenal literary genius, the champion of secularism, an epitome of Hindu-Muslim unity, and a very remarkable builder of modern India. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was the man of sacrifice. He dedicated his whole life to the upliftment, empowerment, and endorsement of the entire Indian society especially the Muslim community. During the Munity of 1857, the socio-economic and political conditions of the Muslims in India were very deplorable and awful.  Sir Syed keenly contemplated their overall condition and reached the conclusion that only education is the panacea of all problems and unless the Muslim youth laid the main emphasis on education, their socio-economic and political backwardness could not die down and the overall progress and development in the country had also not been feasible. Thus, he decided to start the persistent battle against this prevailing educational backwardness and wanted to set up an institution that failte modernist western outlook and could ratchet down the Muslim downfall and relent the intellectual breach between the Muslim and the Intellectual elites of that time. To achieve this holy grail, he started a great movement i.e. Aligarh Movement for bringing the overall change in the life of a community that was hell-bent upon living in the self-created world of orthodoxy, blind-faith, and obscurantism. Sir Syed not only spotlighted the importance of western education but he also highlighted the deception and futility of the prevailing system of Madasra education among the Muslim community. He argued that the Madasra education of that time as outdated and appealed Muslims to accept western science and philosophy along with the Quran and Sunnah. He said that “every Muslim should have in his right hand the education of the Holy Quran and his left-hand education of modern science”. Due to this outlook of Sir Syed, the conservative ulama of the time vehemently opposed him and he was labeled as “kafir.”

Despite their opposition and antagonism, Sir Syed launched the Aligarh Movement with full enthusiasm and in 1864 laid the milestone of the Scientific Society at Gazipur Uttar Pradesh which intended at imbuing scientific scrutiny, critical inspection, and objectivity so that the people of India could engross the modern knowledge. To spread the knowledge of modern science and technology, philosophical thoughts of the great thinkers, and the true interpretation of the Quran and Sunnah to every nook and corner of the country he established the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh in 1877, which blossomed into the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) under the Government of India act 1920. Gibb calls this university, ‘The first modernist Islamic Institution in the world’. Today, the entire world witnessed the legacy of the great work done by Sir Syed Ahmad khan which one can clearly observe among the thousands of revolutionaries which this institution grants to the world in the form of great leaders, thinkers, scientists, doctors, engineers, poets and so on and so forth. Indeed, the verse of the university tarana give testimony of this fact:

Jo abr yaha se utthega, wo sarey jaha par barsega

Har jooy-e-rawaa par barsega, har koh-e-garaa par barsega

Har sarw-o-saman par barsega, har dasht-o-daman par barsega

Khud apne chaman par barsega, gairo ke chaman par barsega.

 

India is the single roof under which 125.03 (2011) people having different religion, language, caste and ethnicity live together. In the past, it (India) was considered as an example of communal harmony and brotherhood and was cited all over the world in this respect. But it is very unfortunate to say that the current image of communal peace and tranquility of India is very atrocious. Religious minorities especially Muslims and to a lesser extent Sikhs and Christians are being attacked. According to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, “India is the home of both of us. We both breathe the air of India and take the water of the holy Ganges and Jamuna. We both consume the products of the Indian soil. We are living and dying together. By living so long in India, the blood of both has changed. The colour of both has become similar. The faces of both, having changed, have become similar. The Muslims have acquired hundreds of customs from the Hindus and the Hindus have also learned hundreds of things from the Muslims. We mixed with each other so much that we produced a new language, Urdu, which was neither our language nor theirs … the progress of this country and that of both of us is possible through mutual cooperation, sympathy and love”. At another place he said, “India is like a bride which has got two beautiful and lustrous eyes – Hindus and Musalmans. If they quarrel against each other that beautiful bride will become ugly and if one destroys the other, she will lose one eye. Therefore, people of Hindustani You have now the right to make this bride either squint eyes or one-eyed”. From these quotations, one can easily infer that Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was one of the first thinkers who laid the milestone of the secular nature of India. The communal tension which is one the important barrier in the country’s development can be wiped out if Indian people follow the teachings of these great thinkers and can maintain the communal harmony and brotherhood which in turn accelerates the pace of progress and development.

The education of women plays a pivotal role in the nation’s development. According to the famous African proverb, “If you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a family (nation)”. During the 19th century, women in India especially the women of the Muslim community were confined to the four walls of the house and little or no focus was given on their education. But when Sir Syed took the flag of education to renovate Indian society, he equally laid the main emphasis on the education of women though he faced severe opposition from the narrow-minded ulemas of that time. Aligarh Movement served in the best way to carry forward the thought of Sir Syed and his associates who later took up the issue of women’s education and women’s rights in their socio, cultural, and educational program of reforming the Muslim society.

Though modern society is far advanced in terms of science and technology but the moral values are degrading day by day. The prosperity of the nation, national honor, and national reform can come through good behavior, good character, good habitats, and not by titles and high posts. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan believed that to make a nation a well-civilized nation, every person should show respect and regard for the sentiments and beliefs towards his other fellow beings otherwise a disarray condition would occur in the society. He believed that one should follow truthfulness, virtue, and benevolence in facing opponents. Sir Syed quotes John Stuart Mill that “even a despotic government cannot bring disaster to a country if its people are endowed individually with the ideas of reform and progress.”

In the present world envy and jealousness is one of important cause for hatred and aversion which in turn give birth to many social evils like crime and violation. Sir Syed believed that jealousness cause revolt against what God ordains. It destroys the social equilibrium and vision of the man. According to him, a man should be humble and emphatic for others without being egocentric and self-indulgent. The sympathetic approach makes the belief of man frim strengthens divine feelings. It also tightens brotherhood, national strength, and unity and ultimately paves the way for social development.

In the contemporary world, bigotry is an important social problem. Sir Syed believed that bigotry is one of the pivotal factors for the downfall and destruction of civilizations. He acknowledged it among the worst qualities of man. It is such cheap quality that it eradicates all human virtues and goodness. The bigot is unprivileged from the blessing of culture and society, things of utility, comfort, intelligence, and respect. Man, who is free from bigotry explores perfection in every sphere of life. Sir Syed admonished his countrymen to throw away all the traits of bigotry as it is the source of all evils. He gave a clamorous call to all countrymen to ingurgitate open-mindedness, straight-forwardness, and frankness.

Sir Syed Ahmad khan was an institution and movement in himself. Every year on 17 October we celebrate the birthday of this great personality but it should not only be confined to the celebration. Nevertheless, his principles and philosophical thoughts should be applied in every sphere of life. He had burned his midnight oil for the upliftment of Indian society in general and the Muslim community in particular and now it is our responsibility to spread his mission to every nook and corner of the world.

About the Authors:

Azhar U Din hails from Kashmir and is a student of Geography at AMU. Mohd. Suhail is a Masters student at AMU. 

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