Sir Syed: Reformer Par Excellence
By Prof. B. Sheikh Ali
Sir Syed washed off the dust of centuries and melted the ice of rigidities that had made the Muslims moribund
Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, one of the greatest reformers of our times, was destined to shape the destiny of Indian Muslims and change the course of history. It was he who brought about a rapprochement between the British and the Muslims who had been characterised for over a century as the inveterate foes of the colonials. It was he who lifted the Muslims from the depths of despondency to hope and faith and made them march in the direction of modernity. He laid more emphasis on the people than on the governments, more on mind than on matter, more on realism than on idealism, and more on liberalism than on conservatism. He reconciled the intellectualism of the west with the traditionalism of the east, and planted a “Cambridge” in India at Aligarh which brought about a renaissance in the thought process of the Muslims. As a social reformer, a political leader, a religious thinker and as a moralist, a rationalist, a humanist and a jurist, he contributed much to the realm of theology, philosophy, religion, history, literature, education and politics, besides building institutions which aimed at eradicating ignorance, apathy, and superstition.
To appreciate Sir Syed’s work, a little historical background is necessary. Islamic glory had become a thing of the past with the renaissance in Europe, with the age of reason, the invention of gun-powder, the discovery of the new world, the printing press, the industrial revolution and colonial expansion. There was an all-engulfing decay in the Islamic intellectualism which led to the decline of a civilization which had consistently flourished for over a thousand years in three continents, Asia, Europe and Africa. Their political and military superiority was challenged by the British in India, the Dutch in Indonesia, the French in Africa, and the Russians in central Asia. A new crusade seemed to bestow uniform success to the Cross and consistent defeat to the Crescent but the word ‘crusade’ was changed to ‘colonialism’ which did not use religious teeth to bite, but used gun-boat diplomacy to destroy.
It was not a clash between Islam and Christianity but a clash between two civilisations. It was not merely in the realm of political authority but also in values and ideas. The west regarded Islam as a conservative, rigid and primitive order, which they wanted to transform into humanism, liberalism, secularism and rationalism of the Greece-Roman variety. This was an attack on Islamic system of ideas and beliefs, which had an effect on western educated Muslims. Some of them became more modern than Europeans in dress, habits, manners, morals, way of life and even in ideas. They did not send their children to Muslim schools but to convents, and they were enamoured of European colleges, hospitals, industrial centres, democratic system and national spirit.
In India by 1857 the Muslims were the worst victims of British Raj. They were openly discriminated against for jobs in the services. The Afghan wars of the English were justified as Vengeance for the invasions of Mahmud of Ghazni. The Muslims lost their zamindari in a series of land reforms. The new educational policy of Mecaulay made English as the medium of instruction and the official language throwing away Arabic, Persian and Urdu. A secretary to the govt of India passed orders that no Muslim should rise above the level of a Chaprasi or ink-filler. The codification of law pushed Islamic Diwani and Faujdari adalats to back burners and removed many Qazis from their judicial duties. On top of all the events of 1857 branded Muslims as traitors, hunted from door to door, and publicly executed in the bazaars. The Muslims had lost everything except their religion and even that was shrouded in superstition, dogmas and rituals.
It was the leadership of such a society that fell to the lot of Sir Syed. He had to fight on two fronts, to convince his own people to change for the better, and to induce the British to view Muslims in a different light. To the Muslims be said that they should take to western education, and to the British he said that the Muslims were not opposed to them. To the Muslims he advocated loyalty to the government and the British he asked to review their policy, which would win the support of the largest minority in the country. This two-way policy resulted in the reconciliation of the Muslims who since the time of Siraj-ud-daula and Tipu Sultan had been consistently resisting the English. He urged the Muslims to believe that there was only one-way to survive, namely loyalty in politics and modernism in institutions. To the British he sold the idea that a rapprochement with the Muslims was in their best interests to face the challenges from the rising Indian National Congress. It was under his leadership that on 28 July 1859 about 15,000 Muslims assembled in the famous Delhi mosque to thank Queen Victoria for the general amnesty. From that day there was no looking back for Sir Syed from his determined policy to bring Muslims closer to the British.
He adopted a westernised way of life, cultivated the friendship of the English, and dedicated his whole life after 1857 to solve the problems of the Muslims. He visited England in 1869-70, appreciated many of their achievements and injected a ray of the western spirit into his own coreligionists. More important than the political problem was the task of bringing about an intellectual change in the Muslim society. He achieved this through the establishment of schools and colleges, through the medium of his powerful press, Aligarh Gazette and Tahzib-ul-Akhlaq, through the setting up of the scientific society, and through the organisation of annual educational conferences in different parts of the country, besides collecting a band of selfless seekers of truth who were luminaries of the day such as Altaf Hussain Hali, Maulana Shibli, Mohsin-ul-Mulk, Deputy Nazeer Ahmed, Chiragh Ali, Zakaullah and others. His greatest contribution was the establishment of Aligarh College which was to uphold the cultural banner of Islam, to solve the problems of the Muslim society, to produce good Muslims, good Indians and good Humans; to be a symbol of Muslim resurgence in India, and to be a new bridge between the Muslims and the English. It was to bring about a renaissance of wonder on the youth so as to excite new hope, faith and pride in the fallen society which could still rise from its embers.
Sir Syed’s tasks of evaluating western civilization in terms of the extent of its absorption by the Muslims, the theological response to the increasing missionary zeal, a re-orientation of Islam in terms of the rationalistic tradition of earlier days, and appreciation of the intellectual advance of the west, were all Herculean ventures, which he was able successfully to accomplish. He was a versatile genius. He started his job systematically. First, he analysed the causes of the Mutiny to convince the English of the true factors responsible for the tragedy. His three works, History of the Mutiny in Bijnore, Causes of the Indian Mutiny, and the Loyal Mohammadans of India, gave a grip to comprehend both the Muslims and the British mind. His mature mind proceeded to analyse more complicated issues. He tried to resolve the conflict between religion and science. His services to Islam in the theological field began in 1870 when he applied the western technique of research in refuting the polemics of Sir William Muir on Prophet of Islam. His Essyas on the life of Muhammad (Pbuh) in English and his Khutbat-i-Ahmediya in Urdu are indeed classics, unexcelled at any time.
In short Sir Syed Ahmed Khan stands out prominently among the makers of Modern India. If for Muslims eighteenth century was of Shah Waliyullah, nineteenth century was of Sir Syed. His hard work washed off the accumulated dust of centuries and melted the ice of rigidities that had made his people moribund, as he stirred the stagnant pools that activated no mills. His concept of moral values was different from others. It was not the kindness which Jesus preached, not the harmony which Plato advocated, and not the strength which Nietzsche propounded, but it was the reflex of the Divine as seen in man’s intellect. It was aristocracy of intellect tempered with sublimity of soul that Sir Syed stood for. Man’s conscience when kindled with the torch of learning would make him realise the responsibility he owed to the society. The king-pin of Sir Syed’s reforms rotated round the acquisition of knowledge, higher knowledge, which would gift man new attitudes and values, new humanism and peace. The instrument he used for the social reformation was on institution of higher learning, the Aligarh College, which was to perpetuate an impulse through time.
(To be Continued)