By Raza Naeem
20 Oct 2017
One of Sir Syed’s ardent disciples, Maulana
Altaf Hussain Hali, has written in his biography of the former, Hayat-e-Javaid,
about the attitude of Muslim notables in the 19th century. He writes that when
Raja Ram Mohan Roy was demanding the English language and modern education, at
the same time Muslim Ulema, by means of 8,000 signatures, informed the
Governor-General that they did not need the new infidel education – and that
the old Farsi and Arabic teaching was quite enough. These Muslims organised a
front against modern education, in which the religious scholars played an
especially prominent role. Sir Syed expressed his embarrassment over such a
state of affairs.
With regards to influence and pervasiveness
of views, in that period Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was at the very forefront. He
viewed the new intellectual and educational changes at a level even further
than Ghalib. He understood that without adopting these changes and embracing
the new scientific education, the Indian Muslims would not only be left far
behind in the race of progress, but possibly they might not even be able to
maintain their identity. Therefore he began to emphasise the foundation of
Muslim cultural thought on scientific lines; and for this purpose he set up the
Mohammedan Scientific Society. The basis of this movement was rationalism, an
emphatic insistence on the use of reason.
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan
He argued that nature cannot be against the
Word of God and if it appears to us as such, we are definitely making a mistake
There were lots of objections against Sir
Syed. It was said of him that he was an Anglophile and that his attitude in
response to Western thought was merely apologetic. These objections still
persist even today.
The objections were of two types. Firstly
from the fundamentalists there were Fatwas of him being infidel and so on.
Secondly, the nationalists called him a
lackey of the British: that in his passion for the adoption of new thoughts and
visions, he had become a great ally and propagandist of the British government;
and had come to appear as an Anglophile to an extreme degree in order to pave
the way for British strategy and decision-making. Arguably, this second
objection was based on truth, to a great extent. Sir Syed was a political
conservative and believe that the security of India lay in the continuation of
British rule. Instead of reconciling himself with the national aspirations of
India, he saw Muslims as a separate nation.
Victorian Engraving Of A Muslim School
In 19th Century India
But from a social perspective, his attitude
was progressive. He ran a proper campaign to organise views in favour of modern
ideas and against the worship of superstition. Viewed from such a perspective,
even within him there was continuous change. In the beginning, he had written
an essay Qaul-e-Mateendar Abtaal Harkat-e-Zameen (1848), in which he had
tried to refute the idea of the movement of the Earth. But gradually his
thought adopted a scientific turn.
In the matter of religion, his basic
inference was that there cannot be a contradiction in the Word and Work of God.
He meant that nature cannot be against the Word of God and if it appears to us
as such, we are definitely making a mistake somewhere in understanding the Word
of God. That is why we need to have commentary and exegeses of the Word of God
along new lines – given the advances in our understanding of the natural world.
So Sir Syed emphasized a new education of
the Word (Ilm-ul-Kalaam) and started a campaign against superstition and blind
traditionalism. He opened new educational institutions and schools.
Sir Syed argued that Muslims would have to
embrace the system of education brought by the British – not always a popular
thought in the aftermath of the 1857 rebellion
The process was not without its flaws. He
had kept the examples of the educational institutions of Cambridge and Oxford
before him and gave the leadership of his educational institutions to the
British. Due to this, his policy for educational institutions was limited to
being openly patronising of the British. It was undoubtedly a significant
defect in his scheme. But all this was a part of his political thought.
Another major flaw in Sir Syed’s
educational scheme was that he did not pay any attention to the education and
teaching of industry, handicrafts and technology – it is difficult to imagine a
nation progressing economically at all without technical education. There was
little space for industry and handicrafts in his educational model. So until
the 1930s and 1940s, at Aligarh, there was no arrangement for education in
technology, engineering and medicine.
With all of that said, Sir Syed’s role in
our cultural and intellectual history has been undoubtedly unique, and one
which cannot be denied. As for the fact that he was a British loyalist and a
supporter of British strategy in India, that objection is not really
significant any longer. After all, in the larger picture, he turned the
intellectual current of South Asia’s Muslims towards scientific thought.
Some of Sir Syed’s religious works aimed to
reconcile religious belief and the process of scientific observations
He liberated a huge community from the
worship of superstition, religious preconceptions and an obsolete way of life.
It was due to his strong personality and intellectual steadfastness that strong
groups of educated people, enlightened and modern thinkers, gathered around
him. Even today we refer to them as the Sir Syed School.
The position and importance of Sir Syed was
much more than that of a mere individual; he was himself a movement in person.
He was a movement which we now remember as the Aligarh Movement. He paved the
way for the likes of Maulana Hali, Maulvi Muhammad Hussain Azad, Deputy Nazeer
Ahmad, Shibli Nomani, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and most importantly, Allama Dr.
It has been observed above that Sir Syed
was politically conservative and socially progressive. The movement that he
started also had both political and social effects – which led to reactions
both against and in favour of it. In the literary domain as well, there was a
notable reaction against the Sir Syed movement, for example, from the Lucknow
School which supported old values; it included Pandit Ratan Nath Sarshar and
Munshi Sajjad Hussain. The whole Oudh Punch group was opposed to Sir Syed Ahmad
Khan and his comrades. Some of Sir Syed’s detractors composed poems to call him
a new preacher of naturism:
Other notable opponents of Sir Syed’s
project were the distinguished pan-Islamist thinker and activist Jamaluddin
Afghani and the eminent humorous Urdu poet Akbar Allahabadi.
According to Allahabadi:
respected Syed says is good
that it is sound and fair
But most of
those who heed this modern school
in God, nor yet in prayer
They say they
do, but it is plain to see
believe in is the powers that be
One of Sir Syed’s disciples, Deputy Nazeer
Ahmad, bitterly satirised his mentor in the novel Ibn-ul-Waqt (The
Another disciple Shibli Nomani abandoned
his mentor and founded another institution, the Dar-ul-Uloom Nadwa. A lot was
written against Hali’s Muqadimah Sher-o-Shairi – that ‘it is trampled like the
field of Panipat’, etc. Amaluddin Afghani as a pan-Islamist and
anti-colonialist, found himself at odds with Sir Syed’s pro-British approach
and his emphasis on Indian Muslims
Then on the other hand, there was the
entrenchment of Deoband. Many Deobandis had a certain quality: politically they
were nationalist, but socially extreme conservatives. At that time Aligarh was
politically the citadel of conservatism and socially that of a progressive
environment. The highest point for most people was to obtain jobs in government
and civil service. There were also two distinct groups amongst writers and
poets: one consisted of supporters of enlightened and progressive thought,
whilst the other group had writers and poets who favoured more obscurantist
As the noted Urdu worker poet Ehsan Danish
observed in an enduring tribute to Sir Syed, in his poem “To Sir Syed’s Spirit”
(Sir Syed ki Ruh Se):
revolution has done a lot until now
permanent colour remains in your construction until now
Had it not been
for your awakening, bewaring the gardener’s mood
The traces of
the garden would long have faded until now!
storms, a million tornados passed but
are aglow in the darkness until now
What was lit by
the sparks within your chest
burning fire could not grow cold until now
has granted lamps to the future
the air is polluted by the smoke of the past until now
Is it any wonder
that those who disrupted your intentions
where would they have been in history until now?
The pulse of
civilisation has remained in your hands such that
The cure of the
hidden pain lies in your diagnosis until now
Let the age
wander away from its centre, if it wants
fellow-travellers (are induced to) follow the caravan until now
agreeable wind is blowing with great force
protection of God the branch of your nest is evergreen until now
of the destination has come to such a pass
of the caravan are like Khizr until now
The promoters of
the new order are bent on subversion otherwise!
awake within your particles until now
The prejudice of
leadership is the denier of justice otherwise
stands as a supplicant until now
Until when will
the history of Mankind be mutilated
By the grace of
God some of your confidantes remain until now!
Read the Part One Here.
All the translations from the Urdu are by the author unless otherwise
stated. Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and an
award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore. He is currently
the president of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. His most recent
publication is an introduction to the reissued edition (HarperCollins India,
2016) of Abdullah Hussein’s classic Partition novel ‘The Weary Generations.’