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Muslim hero who brought together modernity and Islam
Saturday October 19, 2013 9:47 AM, Kaleem Kawaja

A tribute to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan on his 196th birthday

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan established the Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College in 1875. This blossomed into the Aligarh Muslim University in 1921, one of the subcontinent's premier universities. Sir Syed devoted his life improving education among the Muslims of the subcontinent and exhorted them to acquire modern education as a means of entering the nation's mainstream.

His life is a watershed in the history of Asia's struggle from medieval times to modernity. Maulana Azad called Sir Syed the "morning star of an intellectual revolution in Asia" that later came to be known as the Aligarh movement.

In the aftermath of the 1857 war of independence, the old order had collapsed under the impact of western industrialisation. Sir Syed realised that all people of the subcontinent in general and Muslims in particular must change to the new way of life as quickly as possible.

At an early age, he published Tashkil-fi-Jaar-us-Saqil in the pioneering Urdu newspaper, Syed-ul-Akhbar, in 1844. In 1847, his masterpiece, Asarus Sandeed, a book that provided a wealth of information on the historical monuments in Delhi, appeared. A century-and-a-half later, this book still provides the most comprehensive material on the subject. In 1855, he published yet another book that received wide critical acclaim — a detailed revision of the Ain-e-Akbari.

In 1863, while serving in Ghazipur, eastern UP, to bring about a rapprochement between Muslims and Christians, Sir Syed began writing his commentaries on the Bible under the title Tabyinul Kalaam, emphasising the many similarities between Islam and Christianity. This work brought much condemnation on Sir Syed from many quarters within the Muslim community. But in due course, it made a profound impact on the religious and social thinking of the Muslim community.

Upon his return from England, he wrote Tafsir-e-Quran, which was based on the new Ilm-e-Kalaam, with nature and reason as its postulates. In this effort, Sir Syed drew inspiration from Shah Waliullah, the illustrious 18th century Muslim scholar. He was subjected to plenty of ridicule from conservative Muslims. However, many educated Muslims appreciated the new scientific method suggested by him to interpret Islam.

The MAO College that Sir Syed established in Aligarh was an intellectual and cultural centre in tune with the progressive spirit of the times. It was Sir Syed's Aligarh movement that prepared a generation of Muslims who played a prominent role in the struggle for freedom. Maulana Mohammad Ali, Maulana Shaukat Ali, Hasrat Mohani, Liaqat Ali Khan, Khaliq-uz-Zaman, Zafar Ali Khan, Dr Zakir Husain, Khan Ghaffar Khan, Shaikh Abdullah, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai and many others were the products of Aligarh Muslim University.

AMU's unique achievement is that for over a century it has provided quality higher education at low cost in a whole lot of modern fields eg sciences, medicine, engineering, literature to a vast multitude of youth from socially and economically deprived Muslim families across the breadth of India. Thus AMU has truly uplifted the Muslim community of Southasia and has put them on a level playing field with others.

In relentlessly pursuing his vision under very difficult circumstances, Sir Syed had to face many struggles, both from outside the community and from inside the community. But his clear and powerful message is continuing to echo down the corridors of time. Today Sir Syed's example is a beacon of hope for India's troubled Muslim community to rejuvenate themselves.

The writer is Executive Director, Association of Indian Muslims of America, Washington DC.

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