By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
24 October 2017
Sir Syed Ahmed Khan
It has become a yearly ritual to read
something about Syed Ahmed Khan whose two hundredth birth anniversary was
observed the world over on the 17th of October. However, it would not be
incorrect to say that most of these writings are mere hagiographical eulogies.
There is hardly any attempt to critically
engage with the ideas of Syed Ahmed Khan. There is also no reflection in the
community as why after two hundred years; we seem to be grappling with the same
set of issues which Syed Ahmed was beset with during his own time. The
relationship with Islam and modernity, educational deficit and the impact of
conservatism within Muslim society are all issues which we are confronted with
even today. Syed Ahmed tried to wrestle with such issues during his time, but
there is no denying the fact that his reformism has had very little impact on
the Muslim society. In such a scenario, how should we evaluate his legacy?
It is often argued that Syed Ahmed Khan
heralded the acceptance of modern English education amongst Indian Muslims. It
is understood that before this great personality pleaded the Muslims to educate
themselves in English language, they had kept away from modern and English
education. Thus Syed Ahmed in this narrative becomes the saviour of Muslims and
is projected as someone who brought the Muslims out of the morass of
backwardness and steered them towards some kind of an enlightenment.
was only because of his efforts that Muslims took to English education and came
out of their stupor. While due credit must be given to the Syed for
establishing the MAO college which eventually blossomed into the Aligarh Muslim
University, it will be perhaps be too much to eulogize him as the saviour of
It is incorrect to believe that before Syed
Ahmed came on the scene, Muslims were reluctant to take to English education.
Higher education at that time was usually the preserve of the elite as the
concept of mass education did not exist. Elite from all communities were
embracing higher education and Muslims were not behind. In fact the data for
higher education in the then United Provinces would show that Muslims were much
more represented in higher education as compared to their share in population.
This is natural because in the United Provinces, Muslims were landed and at
least wanted to educate their sons in the ways of the British.
question therefore is whether Syed Ahmed was the harbinger of modern education
or whether he, like others before him understood the importance of English
education and wanted Muslims to take to it. It is of course to the credit of
the Syed Ahmed that he fought against the Islamic current propounded by the
Mullahs that English education was forbidden for Muslims. He must be saluted
for his courage that despite all odds, he persevered and in the end lived to
see his dream fulfilled. But what one forgets often is that there were enough
Muslims who were willing to make his dream come true. Without the students of
Aligarh and the families who sent their sons to Aligarh, this dream would have
All this suggests that there was already an
undercurrent within the elite Muslim society regarding the need for English
education. Syed Ahmed became the medium to realise that goal and he did so with
It is often argued that Syed Ahmed was
trying to bring some kind of an enlightenment within Muslim society through
modern English education. A closer scrutiny might reveal that this might not be
so clear cut. His ideas on education were limited and he viewed the MAO college
only as producing a class of educated Muslims who would be well versed with the
manners of the British and consequently worthy of taking up positions in
government bureaucracy. If the cornerstone of enlightenment is critique, then
the Syed did not expect modern education to lead to any kind of critique of
either the society in which Muslims were living at that time or even the
religious worldview of Muslims.
There is nothing to suggest that Syed Ahmed
critiqued the decadent and feudal life-style of Ashraf Muslims. Rather what we
get is a positive estimation of the Ashraf worldview. Similarly, although Syed
Ahmed did question some of the common-sense perception about Islam, he did not
initiate the kind of critique which it required.
is also common knowledge that he would drop his criticism of religion
altogether when the Mullahs started to hit out on his source of funding. Thus
modernity and its relationship with Islam was not his fundamental concern.
Modern education existed to refine the religious knowledge and whenever there
was a contradiction, it was religion which would have the final say. What was
central to his worldview was the caring of small section of Muslim interests
which were landed and wanted some respectability by sending their sons to
Aligarh. Modern education for him had a utilitarian value: for access to jobs
and services. This is no doubt a noble intention and Muslims should be thankful
to Syed Ahmed for this very endeavour. But to suggest that he had wanted to
inculcate modern outlook among Muslims is perhaps reading too much.
Syed Ahmed Khan was also indifferent to the
education of Muslim women. He made no effort whatsoever from which one can
deduce that he viewed the education of Muslim women as a desirable project. It
remains a fact that women’s education was a late starter on the campus of
Aligarh. Such indifference became active hostility when it came to modern
education for lower caste Muslims. Syed Ahmed was positively opposed to
educating the Muslim lower castes which formed the majority of Indian Muslim
population. He did not think that the lower caste Muslims possessed the
required mental faculty to go for higher learning through English language.
actually advised them that a rudimentary learning of religious rituals and some
mathematics would be all that should suffice for them. This also becomes clear
when we see his opposition to the reforms of the provincial governments. He was
opposed to such political reforms because he felt that even low caste Muslims
and Hindus will get into such councils and stand at par with the upper castes.
It is almost as if he thought that low castes were racially inferior to upper
castes. It is not surprising therefore that he would blame the low caste Muslim
Ansari for taking part in the revolt of 1857.
This is certainly not to suggest that there
is nothing to learn from Syed Ahmed. His take on Islamic conservatism and his
commentary of the Quran really need to be engaged with today. But we should
also not put him on a pedestal and argue that in a sense he is beyond critique.
His position on caste was in many ways similar to that of BalGangadharTilak,
who was also similarly opposed to the political and social empowerment of lower
caste Hindus. Syed Ahmed therefore must be understood as a product of his
times. By placing him beyond the pale of history and writing nothing but
eulogies on him, we are actually doing a great deal of disservice to him and
the Muslim community at large.
Arshad Alam is a www.NewAgeIslam.com columnist.
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