Sir Syed Ahmed Khan: His Life And Contribution

By Azhar Mohammed K,

Introduction

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898) was a great visionary, statesman and Muslim reformer of the 19th century, the like of whom is rare. He wanted to make the community and country progressive and take them forward on modern lines. His supreme interest was intellectual development of the people through modern education. He was the first Indian Muslim to contribute to the intellectual and institutional foundation of Muslim modernization in Southern Asia. Interest of community and country was dearer to him rather than anything else. He was successful in making the Muslims understand the importance of modern education and endeavour their best to achieve it in order to stand on their own legs and live a dignified life in accordance with Islamic thoughts.

Dr. Allama Mohammed Iqbal says :

“Mubtalaayay dard koi azu ho roti hai aankh
Kis qadar hamdard saray jism ki hoti hai aankh”
(The eye weeps for the suffering of any and every part of the body, How sympathetic it is to the entire organism)

To the Muslim community Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was and is like the eye which weeps for the suffering of any and every part of the body. The sufferings of the community worried him. He took an oath to reform, educate and empower the Muslim community and was successful to a great extent in implementing it despite strong opposition from a section of the Muslim community which hated the British and their language. Today we can see the products of the Aligarh Muslim University adoring in every field of activity in India and neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh. They have earned a name for the community and country, thanks to the Aligarh movement.
Sir Syed’s educational caravan reached everywhere including Tamil Nadu from where I hail. It inspired and encouraged people to take to modern education by establishing educational institutions.

His birth and childhood

Sir Syed was born on 17 October 1817 in Delhi. His family was highly regarded by the Mughal dynasty. His maternal grandfather Khwajah Farid was a ‘wazir’ (minister) in the court of Akbar Shah II. His paternal grandfather Syed Hadi held a ‘mansab’ of the title of Jawwad Ali Khan in the court of Alamgir II. Syed Ahmed’s father, Mir Muttaqi was also close to Akbar Shah but rejected the position and titles offered to him due to his interest in mysticism. Perhaps he abhorred the way the materialistic world functioned. He died when Syed Ahmed was about 21 years of age. Mother, Azizunnissa Begum was, however, a strong willed woman of clearly defined principles. She showed extraordinary interest in the education, character building and upbringing of her son. She was a strict and God fearing lady.

His education

Sir Syed received his education under the old system prevailing at that time. He learnt to read the holy Quran under a female teacher at his home. After this, Maulvi Hamidud Din, became his private tutor. He completed a course in Persian and Arabic, and later took to the study of mathematics, which was a favourite subject of the maternal side of his family. He later took interest in medicine and studied some well-known books on the subject. At the age of 19 his formal education came to an end but he continued his studies privately. He started taking a keen interest in the literary gatherings and cultural activities of the city.

The passing away of his father left the family in financial difficulties, and after a limited education he had no option but to work for his livelihood. Starting as a clerk with the East India Company in 1938, he qualified three years later as a sub-judge and served in the judicial department at various places.

His vision

The supreme interest of Sir Syed’s life was education in its widest sense. He wanted to create a scientific temperament among the Muslims of India and to make the modern knowledge of Science available to them. He championed the cause of modern education at a time when all the Indians in general and Indian Muslims in particular considered it a sin to get modern education and that too through English language. He began establishing schools, at Muradabad in 1858 and Ghazipur in 1863. A more ambitious undertaking was the foundation of the Scientific Society, which published translations of many educational texts and issued a bilingual journal in Urdu and English. It was for the use of all citizens and were jointly operated by the Hindus and Muslims. In the late 1860s there occurred some developments that were challenges to his activities. In 1867 he was transferred to Benares, a city on the Ganges with great religious significance for Hindus. At about the same time a movement started at Benares to replace Urdu, the language spoken by the Muslims, with Hindi. This movement and the attempts to substitute Hindi for Urdu publications of the Scientific Society convinced Syed that he should do something. Thus during a visit to England (1869-70) he prepared plans for a great educational institution. They were “a Muslim Cambridge.” On his return he set up a committee for the purpose and also started an influential journal, Tahzib al-Akhlaq “Social Reform” for the uplift and reforms of the Muslims. A Muslim school was established at Aligarh in May 1875, and after his retirement in 1876, Sir Syed dedicated himself to make it a college. In January 1877 the Viceroy laid the foundation stone of the college. In spite of opposition to Syed’s projects, the college made rapid progress. In 1886 Syed organised the All-India Mohammadan Educational Conference, which met annually at different places to promote education and to provide the Muslims with a common platform. Syed advised the Muslims against joining active politics and to concentrate instead on education. Muslims generally followed his advice and abstained from politics. This advice is applicable even today. We have to concentrate our attention more on education for the uplift of the backward Muslim community. Many reports have clearly noted that the Muslims are educationally and economically more backward.

Throughout his life Syed Ahmed Khan showed concern with how Indian Muslims could adapt to intellectual and political change accompanying Western rule. His first mission became reinterpretation of Muslim ideology so as to reconcile tradition with Western education and science. He argued in several books on Islam that the holy Quran rested on a deep appreciation of reason and natural law and therefore did not preclude Muslim involvement in scientific methodology. These themes, mixed with a call for Muslim education, regularly appeared in his journals, the Mohammedan Social Reformer and the Aligarh Institute Gazette.

Syed Ahmed’s ideas became institutionalized despite criticism from theologians. In 1862 he formed a scientific society, and 13 years later he assisted in establishing the Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College, which prospered and became the key intellectual center for Indian Muslims – The Aligarh Muslim University. The success of the college was largely due to his leadership and a curriculum embodying both Western and Oriental studies.

His contribution

Sir Syed’s contributions for the betterment and empowerment of the Muslims are great. His position in the judicial department left him time to be active in many fields. His career as an author in Urdu started at the age of 23. In 1847 he brought out an important book “Monuments of the Great” on the antiquities of Delhi. Even more important was his pamphlet “The Causes of the Indian Revolt”. His interest in religion was also active and lifelong. He wrote on the Life of Prophet Muhammad (Sal-am) and devoted himself to write several volumes of a modernist commentary on the holy Quran. In these works he explained how the Islamic faith could go with progressive scientific and political ideas of his time.

His literary works

Sir Syed was a government civil servant and s scholar. The 1857 revolt was a turning point in his life. The following are his important works:

1) “ASARUS SANADEED” – It is an archaeological masterpiece providing a wealth of information on countless historical monuments in Delhi from the eight hundred long Muslim rule. This book was published in 1847.

2) “ASBAB-E-BAGHAWAT-E-HIND” – (The causes of Indian Revolt) This book was published in 1859 after the 1857 revolt after witnessing the atrocities committed by the British on the inhabitants of Delhi. He saw an uncle, a cousin and an aunt dying before his eyes. He saved his mother but she died due to privations she had experienced. Muslims were the main targets of the government’s wrath.

3) “THE ALIGARH INSTITUTE GAZETTE” – It was an organ of the Scientific Society started in 1866. It made the people think and use their wisdom.

4) ‘”TEHZIB-UL-AKHLAQ” – It succeeded in making people realise the value of modern knowledge. It also gave new directions to Muslim social and political thoughts.

His golden sayings

1) Sons (of MAO college later AMU)) shall go forth throughout the length and breath of the land to preach the message of free inquiry, of large-hearted toleration and of pure morality.

1. Acquisition of knowledge of science and technology is the only solution for the problems of Muslims.

2. Call me by whatever names you like. I will not ask you for my salvation. But please take pity of your children. Do something for them (send them to the school), lest you should have to repent (by not sending them)

3. We will remain humiliated and rejected if we do not make progress’’ (in scientific field)

4. Get rid of old and useless rituals. These rituals hinder human progress.

5. Superstition cannot be the part of Iman (faith).

6. The first requisite for the progress of a nation is the brotherhood and unity amongst sections of the society.

7. Yes the main purpose of this college (MAO) is to impart modern education to Muslims who are suffering because of lack of it but this institution is for all, Hindus and Muslims alike. Both of them need education.

8. We (Hindus and Muslims) eat the same crop, drink water from the same rivers and breathe the same air. As a matter of fact Hindus and Muslims are the two eyes of the beautiful bride that is Hindustan. Weakness of any one of them will spoil the beauty of the bride (dulhan)

9. We (Hindus and Muslim) have evolved a new language Urdu

10. I wish that youth of India should follow the example of young men and women of England who are religiously engaged in the hard work of industrial development of their country” (During the stay of Sir Syed in England).

11. Look forward, learn modern knowledge, and do not waste time in studies of old subjects of no value.

12. Ijtihad (innovation, re-interpretation with the changing times) is the need of the hour. Give up taqlid (copying and following old values).

13. 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.

14. We should not (by remaining ignorant and illiterate) tarnish the image of our able elders.

15. All human beings are our brother and sisters. Working for their welfare is obligatory for Muslims.

16. Remember that the words Hindu and Muslim are only meant for religious distinction: otherwise all persons who reside in this country belong to one and the same nation.

His achievements

Sir Syed’s greatest achievement was his Aligarh Movement, which was nothing but an educational venture. He established schools at Muradabad in 1859 and Ghazipur in 1863. He also founded a scientific society in 1864. When Sir Syed was posted at Aligarh in 1867, he started the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental School in the city. During his visit to England in 1869, he studied the British educational system and appreciated it.

Sir Syed wanted MAO College to act as a bridge between the old and the new systems. His famous quote is that ‘’a true Muslims is one who must have the holy Quran in one hand and the science in the other’’. Today we can see the Aligarh Muslim University offering different courses like Medical, Engineering, Science, Arts, Management, Languages etc.

Sir Syed’s aim was not just to establish a college at Aligarh but he was interested in spreading education and empowerment among the people by establishing educational institutions in every nook and corner of the country. He, therefore, started an organisation called ‘’All India Muslim Educational Conference’’to achieve this goal. It motivated the Muslims to open a number of educational institutions in India.
Although the Indian Muslim community has made some good progress in the educational arena, still they have to go a long way to achieve the goal that Sir Syed visualised. Only the vision and enthusiasm of Sir Syed can help us – Muslims to improve our educational and economic conditions further. It is,therefore, incumbent for us to revive the Aligarh movement once again to make the people understand the value of modern education fully.

I take this opportunity to request the Vice-Chancellor, Aligarh Muslim University to start a movement and come to the rescue of the suffering Muslim community in India. There is no point in blaming others. One feels that the main cause for our backwardness is lack of education. Education alone in the present context can empower us and nothing else. We can create a modern Islamic society only by taking Muslims to modern professional education like medical, engineering, teaching, management etc. No options or short cuts at all. God has given the eyes to see and mind to analyse. We must see what is happening around us and use our intellect to arrive at a conclusion. This is what Allah wants us to do. There is no point in toeing an outdated concept and blaming fate for every misery. Dr. Allama Mohammed Iqbal’s call should be taken seriously and march forward. He has said beautifully in the couplet which we read and hear quite often sometimes it echoes even in the Parliament but we do not give serious thought to it.

Khudi ko kar buland itna ki har taqdeer say pahlay,
Khuda banday say khud poochay bata teri raza kya hai

(Raise your position so much that God himself may ask you ‘’tell me what is it that you want?’’). It echoes the holy Quranic strong dictate that we should endeavour to achieve his rewards. In short we must develop a scientific temper among the people as the holy Quran says in different verses. We are mainly responsible for backwardness.

Sir Syed also brought out a journal ‘Tehzibul Akhlaq’ and succeeded in infusing a new desire amongst Muslims for acquiring modern knowledge.

Sir Syed finally reached to the conclusion that lack of education was the main cause of the backwardness of the community.

Sir Syed became successful in his mission and gave a firm foundation of Aligarh College (Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College) which afterwards became Aligarh Muslim University by an act of the government. It is meant for all- Muslims as well as non-Muslim students. All live and study here in a friendly and peaceful atmosphere. It has got a rich cultural heritage, which is its special and inimitable one.

The intellectuals produced in large numbers by Aligarh Muslim University served and continue to serve the country in various capacities. The first graduate of this University was the great revolutionary Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh. The late Dr. Zakir Hussain, former President of India and Dr. Syed Mahmood were also Aligarh educated dignitaries. The university has produced innumerable doctors, engineers, teachers, scientists, poets, writers, journalists, etc.

His educational revolution

The Aligarh movement launched by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan influenced the Muslims in the country, particularly in South India. The Souvenir brought out on the occasion of the Centenary Celebration of Ambur Muslim Educational Society on 4th September 2006 mentions as follows inter-alia:

Sir Syed organised the Mohammedan (later Muslim) Educational Conference. Its branches were established in cities and towns to report on the educational needs of the community. This conference used to meet annually at several important cities in the country and carried the message of modern education far and wide.

The 5th session of the Conference was held at Madras in 1901 and set in a brainwave all over the South. Like their brethren in other parts of the country the Muslims of the Madras presidency were also antagonistic towards the English education and therefore they were far behind their other fellow countrymen in public service. Nawab Mohsinul Mulk Mohsinud Dowla from Aligarh inspired the Conference with the saga of adventure which Sir Syed has brought into being in the North.

On 16th December 1905 the Management of the Chowk Masjid madrasa which was in existence then was taken over and later re-named as Madrasa-e-Mazharul Uloom. Janab T.Abdullah sahib visited Aligarh, observed the educational developments there and inspired by it prepared a plan for a Muslim school in Ambur meant for all religions and communities without any discrimination whatsoever. It was primarily his aim to create for young Muslims a good institution for their educational, cultural and social developments.

Many educational institutions came up in Tamil Nadu as a result of the Aligarh movement. Today by the grace of Allah there are 11 (eleven) full fledged engineering colleges and hundreds of Science and Arts Colleges, Higher Secondary and Elementary Schools in difference parts of Tamil Nadu. Many Muslim organisations like All India Islamic Foundation, Sadaq Trust, The South India Education Trust, The Muslim Educational Association of Southern India, Ambur Muslim Educational Society, Vaniyambadi Muslim Educational Society etc. have been playing a very important role in establishing institutions and imparting modern education to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

His rational approach

Muslims were in the forefront in the struggle for freedom. They suffered a lot. Many Ulema (religious scholars) were hanged in Delhi and other places. Sir Syed was worried. He was of the view that Muslims should not be so vigorous in opposing the British at their own cost and ignore everything including education and government placements.

Sir Syed wanted Muslims to have friendship with the British if they want to take their due rights. He quoted the examples of other religious communities benefiting from the government. While he tried his best to convince the British that Muslims were not against them, he persuaded the Muslims repeatedly to befriend the British to achieve their goals. He also wrote many books and published journals to remove the misunderstanding between Muslims and the British by writing booklets like “Loyal Muhammadans of India” and “Cause of Indian Revolt”. Sir Syed asked the Muslims of his time not to participate in politics unless and until they got modern education. He was of the view that Muslims could not succeed in the field of Western politics without knowing the system. He was invited to attend the first session of the Indian National Congress and to join the organization but he refused to accept the offer. He gave importance to the education of the Muslim community and succeeded in it. His institutions such as the College and the Muslim Educational Conference continued to influence intellectuals till this day and will continue to do so in the years to come unhindered.

Conclusion

1) Dr. Allama Iqbal:
‘’The real greatness of the man (Sir Syed) consists in the fact that he was the first Indian Muslim who felt the need of a fresh orientation of Islam and worked for it’’

2) Pandit Jawaharlal Nehruji:

‘’Sir Syed was an ardent reformer and he wanted to reconcile modern scientific thought with religion by rationalistic interpretations and not by attacking 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 and national significance.’’

3) Mr. Inder Kumar Gujralji:

‘’Sir Syed’s vision and his laborious efforts to meet the demands of challenging times are highly commendable. The dark post 1857 era was indeed hopeless and only men like Raja Mohan Roy and Sir Syed could penetrate through its thick veil to visualize the Nation’s destinies. They rightly believed that the past had its merits and its legacies were valuable but it was the future that a society was called upon to cope with.
I offer my homage to Sir Syed for his vision and courage that withstood all obstructions both from the friends and the foes.’’

This great visionary and reformer, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, whose relevance is felt even today and who will always remain green in our memory inspiring wise thoughts and absolute principles in the right Islamic thinking passed away after a brief illness on 27th March 1898 and was buried the next day in the compound of the mosque in the College. May his soul continue to live in peace.

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