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Social and Educational reforms of Sir Syed: An Overview

Wednesday October 18, 2017 9:41 AM, Prof. Shakeel Ahmed Samdani,

Sir Syed

[Color portrait work of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, a remake of Aftab Zafar's painting - a famous painter of Pakistan (Deviant Art).]

When Sir Syed Ahmad Khan emerged on the united Indian horizon after failure of First War of Independence popularity called Indian mutiny in 1857 the condition of Muslims had become very pathetic. The consequences were disastrous for whole country but Muslims were targeted particularly by the Bruisers. The British government started persecuting Muslims and grabbed power from them and considered threat to their power from them .They blamed Muslims the sole force behind the rebellion. On the condition of Muslims in those days Garratt records that, "The Mohammedans were packed up by the British in pigskins and pork`s fat applied on them. Their bodies were charred and the Hindus were compelled to defile them." [Edward Thompson & GT Garrett , Rise and Fulfillment of British Rule in India , Reprint, 1971,p.462]

Mid nineteenth century was a chaotic period in Indian history. In this respect, Zobairi observes, "The first phase of Syed`s Ahmad` life ended with the coming of the mutiny in 1857. They mutiny showed him, as by a flash of lightening the frightful danger in which his community stood." [Riazuddin H Zobairi, The Educational and Local Ideas of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, 1971, pp. 107-108] It was due to these facts that rest of his life Sir Syed lived with only one mission, to bring back lost honour and glory of his community back and forth that he embarked upon massive transformation of Muslim society through his Aligarh Movement wrapped up in enhancing education among Muslims and under taking social reforms.

After returning from England (UK) Sir Syed realised the crucial need of reforming the Muslims back in India. In this context Zobairi stated, ' He was impressed by the practical energy of the west. The resourcefulness, industry and thoroughness of the white men had made Syed Ahmed their great admirer. Gradually he became convinced that it must be the western system of education which produced such promising results in Europe. Looking at the conditions of his own people he concluded that the spread of modern education was the only cure." [Ibid, p.141]

Sir Syed had faced a time when Muslims were not given any honourable positions and they were deprived of the benefits they enjoyed earlier. Sir Syed also saw the end of the glorious Mughal Empire and it seemed that there was no chance for any revival. In this respect first Prime Minister of India Jawahar Lal Nehru observes, "After 1857, the heavy hand of the British fell more heavily on the Moslems than on the Hindus. They considered the Moslems more aggressive and militant and possessing memories of recent rule in India and, therefore, more dangerous. The Muslims had also kept away from the new education and had few jobs under the British government. [Jawahar Lal Nehru, Towards Freedom-An Autobiography,New York,1942,p.289] Graham said, "Motto of Syed Ahmed was to educate and educate. All the socio-political ills of India, he once said to me may be cured by this treatment. Cure the root and tree will flourish." [GFI Graham, The Life and Works of Syed Ahmad Khan , p.70 ]

No doubt, Sir Syed had achieved an impossible goal in a short span of time. But beside education, Sir Syed’s ideas and ideals in some other fields also hold significant position. Often people overlook other aspects of his giant personality. He undertook rational social reforms also. He was die-hard secularist not only in letters but also in spirit. He was a nationalist who refused to surrender before British superiority.

He appears to have been inspired by Tipu Sultan. But at the same time he had imbibed intellect of Raja Ram Mohan Roy who dedicated his life for enhancing education among Hindus and also for eradication of evil customs prevailing in the society. Whole personality of Sir Syed reminds us combination of Tipu, Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Syed Ahmad Shaheed.

Launching a series of reforms within Muslim society, Sir Syed started a periodical entitled “Tahzib-ul-Akhlaq" to popularize his reformist views. In fact the Tahzib-ul-Akhlaq was launched on the pattern of "Tatler and the Spectator "containing thought provoking essays, discussions on general issues concerning morality. Sir Syed thoroughly condemned the social evils like slavery, polygamy, pretentious behavior and other such outdated and corrupt practices. But on some issues called outdated by others, Sir Syed favoured them believing that they were right. When the Christians criticized the practice of Hijab (veil ) among the Muslim women and even frowned at it, Sir Syed was in favour. Even some renowned Muslim intellectuals like Nazir Ahmad and Mohammad Abdul Halim Sharar strive hard to redeem Muslims from this practice bur Sir Syed deemed it a good traditional practice and good for them because it was part of Islamic civilization. [Begum Naz, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan,National Book Foundation, 1922, p.24]

He was a champion of Women’s rights. He pointed out evils of widowhood. He said, “The women is in need of gentle treatment at the hands of man because of her delicate nature and especially the widow deserves all human sympathies. [The Aligarh Institute Gazette, 17 October, 1873] At that time widow -remarriage was a taboo in Indian Society. He appealed to the Muslims “to encourage Widow-remarriage and earn the blessings both in this world and the next for their virtuous deeds”. [Ibid.] He pleaded for organized charity to fight the cause of widows. Often it is claimed that he was against female education but the reality is otherwise. He was fully in favor of educating girls. But he was of the opinion that first the task of educating boys should be taken on priority basis.

Sir Syed was joined by some other eminent people in his crusade to reform Muslim society in India like Maulavi Chiragh Ali,Maulana Shibli Naumani,Nawab Mohsin-ul-Mulk, Nawab Viqar-ul-Mulk, Maulavi Zafrullah and Khwaja Maulavi Zain-ul-Abdin. Among them Shibli Naumani was a multifarious personality combining in him a historic,patriotic and cortical skills and temperament. Nawab Mohisn-ul-Mulk was also a highly renowned writer and had intimate relations with Sir Syed. Though Nawab Mohsin-ul-Mulk was not convinced by religious views of Sir Syed but later on he began subscribing them. Sir Syed was of the opinion that a progression in the social and political status for the Muslims was not possible without winning the goodwill of the British rulers. The whole group stated above with Sir Syed worked together in unison towards reforming and uplifting Muslim society in India.

Sir Syed firmly believed in scientific approaches and his all theories ranging from educational system to religious and political views are drawn from them. He had wanted that slumbering Muslims rise with a resurgent spirit and face fearlessly the situations confronting them. His views were in advance of his times, farsighted and logical. His aim was to combine Islamic education with western education system apart of infusing glorious pride. It was due to that Sir Syed established a chain of educational institutions on his journey to transform Muslim society. Graham states, "Syed Ahmad`s first venture in the field of education can be traced to a Persian madarsa he established in Moradabad in 1859. Though the madarsa was founded on old classical lines but it had some important features which distinguished it from other Persian schools. Study of modern history was part of curriculum in madarsa. The emphasis on history was so much high that people believed that it was opened especially for the study of modern history. [Supra Note 5, p.70]

Here we must keep in mind that the first and foremost mission of Sir Syed was to recover lost glory of Muslims and his educational movement was the vehicle to achieve it. Under the circumstances prevailing at that time of history he made many compromises and had given much importance to communal harmony. When he founded school at Ghazipur, he switched over from modern history to English language as far as emphasis is concerned. He gave importance to English language much though in the school other languages like Urdu,Persian,Arabic and even Sanskirit were being taught . The first Patron pf Ghazipur School was Raja Herdev Narain Singh. [Supra Note 6, p.26] Under his policy of communal harmony, Sir Syed had included Hindus also in his initiatives of educational revolution because he was aware that without coopration of the majority community he will not be able to walk few miles. According to Begum Naz, Sir Syed raised funds for the Ghazipur School from Hindus also. In fact the first Patron was Raja Herdev Narain Singh. It is not commonly known that Sir Syed had wanted to open a university at Benaras for which he had sent a manifesto to British government. His attitude changed only when Benaras Hindus started an agitation against Persian and Urdu script in favour of Devnagri and Hindi. [Ibid, p.28.]

It should be kept in mind that the educational movement of Sir Syed was not to produce only employees for the British government but to bring back glory of Muslims and to provide them respectable social status apart of opening their intellectual eyes and ears. In fact central feature of Aligarh Movement was to reform Muslim society and exterminating those views that were not in conformity with changed times. It may be said that baseline of Sir Syed was," to reconcile Islam with the emerging scientific temperament. Sir Syed was quite brave and highly positive. He firmly believed that he will succeed in his mission. He fought a tireless battle against those practices which he deemed were outdated and wrong and took extreme pains to reinstate what he deemed as right and futuristic. In every possible way his efforts were directed towards defending Muslims and Islam and he strove hard to see that Muslims do not remain object of mockery and cynicism. He was a hardcore rationalist. His religious, social, political and educational views were interwined. It can be said that Sir Syed was forerunner in modernising Muslims and even Islam. W.C.Smith observes, "He ( Sir Syed ) was genuinely tolerant, deeming a man`s religion as his private affair which should not be obtruded and hardly even discussed between those of different faiths lest friendship be weakened. The slightest religious bigotry distressed him." [W .C. Smith, Modern Islam in India, 1943, pp.8-9]

When he established M.A.O. College, he kept its doors open for each and every community. He never discriminated on the grounds of religion while appointing the faculties and staff. Thus, he appointed Theodore Beck as Principal of the College despite the fact that he was a Christian. His secularism was perfect, practical and in motion. In fact today’s politicians should learn a lesson from him in this regard.

When Colvin, Governor of his province visited MAO College he was delighted to know that Hindu scholars were equally received by the Mussalmans. Same feeling was expressed by Hindus and Sikhs when Sir Syed visited Punjab.

He was the first to use the term “Scientific temper” which later on became a pillar of our Constitution. He started Scientific Society in Ghazipur to popularize Western knowledge and to inculcate Scientific and rational temper among the people of the east. Subsequently the Society was transferred from Ghazipur to Aligarh as Sir Syed came to Aligarh. In addition to Oriental Studies, Sir Syed gave more importance to science-oriented education.

For taking a glimpse of Sir Syed’s educational philosophy, let me to quote him on College boarders. He wrote a short pamphlet entitled, “College life or New Life” for the resident students. Therein he says, “First and foremost of all, mutual love and amicable conduct towards one and another is the fountainhead of all bliss and blessings here. All the students, lying as they are on the lap of this Alma Mater, no matter whether they hail from Hindustan or the Punjab, East or West or South, are your brothers first and last. If you did not treat and love them like brothers it would mean that you infringed the first principle of being the sons of one and the same “wise mother”. [Maqaalat-e-Sir Syed, pp. 75-78.] This was the concept of Sir Syed in respect of brotherhood on the campus and certainly it was the base of what today we call “Aligarianship”.

His dream of the residential life may be understood from what he himself said about it. He said, “Just as the students of Oxford and Cambridge have to visit the church and attend the prayers regularly, so also the residents of this institution would be duty bound to visit the mosques and offer prayers. The students would be provided with black half-sleeved gowns and red Turkish cap. They would not be allowed to enter the institution without these gowns and caps. Students would be strictly forbidden against uttering bad or abusive words”. [Tahzib-ul-Akhlaq, Rajab, 1289 H.]

The thoughts, philosophy and views of Sir Syed were so much advanced to his times that he he did not have contemporaries who may subscribe his views. He was targeted by established Islamic schools and his critics called him "neicher" (believer in nature or not believing in God). Dr. Arshad Islam quoted a story of Mulla Dost Mohammad, an Afghan gradation student at Devbnad about his personal experience regarding Sir Syed. Dr. Arshad Islam writes,"The Afghan Devbnad student Mulla Dost Mohammad narrates that large number of people among the faculty of Darul Uloom Devband believed that Sir Syed is an agent of British and an anti Devbnad. While I was about to graduate there I once carried Sir Syed`s Tafsir- i -Quran to Maulana Qasim Nanotavi and asked him which chapter of the Tafsir is offensive and he showed me some passages. After reading them I was moved to fury and decided that I would strike and break head of Sir Syed with a rod. With this idea , I came to Aligarh . When I entered in the office of Sir Syed I found a distinguished old man . I told him that I was from Devband. With a smile Sir Syed asked his attendant to get me cold water. The hospitaity I received there changed my impression about him" [Arshad Islam,Sir Syed Ahmad Khan,1992, pp.3-4]

The religious views of Sir Syed should be seen in the context of his urge to reform Muslim society and achieve high status in overall social circuit .Those who criticize him must understand that when William Muir expressed hostile views in his book, "The Life of Muhammad", it was Sir Syed who gave a brave and stringent reply to him. He was a practicing Muslim but was against bigotry. He had realized that the old models and ways of life were no more effective and a new paradigm and standards must be evolved for life during the times ahead.

Some critics also criticize Sir Syed for his views against political activities. But that is just ignorance about Sir Syed. He had seen English civilization closely and was impressed by that. He saw a future for his community in English ways without shedding Islamic values. In the words of Smith, “He (Sir Syed) suddenly saw European civilization in full swing and was overwhelmed with it, dazed like a young child. [Supra Note 2, pp.163-164] In fact what Sir Syed said about politics has deeper meanings which must be understood in its true shade.

Begum Naz records, 'At the Mohammadan Educational Conference he (Sir Syed) said there are people who think that our national cause will be the best promoted by discussing political affairs. I do not agree with that but regard spread of education to be only means for the promotion of the national cause. In these days, our nation should not strive for anything but the spread of education. When in our country education will be sufficiently propagated then we shall have sufficient means to emerge from our backward conditions. It is rather a tough job to give an adequate coverage to the venerable qualities, capabilities and achievements of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. What is presented here is just a glimpse of what he was and how he transformed Indian Muslims.

The advent of Sir Syed occurred during a crucial time when the Muslims in Indian sub-continent were facing a disastrous situation with bleak prospects and hope of any promising future. He strives hard to put courage and confidence in them and redeemed them from their old and outdated views and ways. While stressing on the importance of the higher education tuned to the modern and scientific temperaments, Sir Syed tried to side line the religious views of Islam that were corrupted by the superstitious and idolatrous creeds of Hindus. He infused a new resurgent spirit in the Muslims of Indian sub-continent and laid down a way towards a bright future.

Therefore, one can say that before and after lifetime of Sir Syed, none else than Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had championed the cause of reforming, transforming and uplifting the Muslim society.

[The writer Prof. Shakeel Ahmed Samdani is a senior faculty of Dept. of Law, AMU, Aligarh. He can be reached at email:]

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