What Ambedkar is for the depressed classes of India so is the prowess and clout of Sir Sayyed Ahmed Khan for the Indian Muslims! Sir Syed Ahmed Khan Bahadur, popularly known as Sir Syed, was a formidable champion of Muslim cause who left no stone unturned for their social, educational, political, economic and cultural development.
A restless social reformer , a moral and religious thinker, an educationist par excellence, a diamond- hard rationalist , a visionary political leader, a modern humanist writer , a curious historian , an analytical researcher all these adjectives are understatements to describe Sir Syed Ahmed Khan.
Eminent historian I.H.Qureshi while lauding & shedding light on the greatness of Sir Sayyed exclaimed that “Sir Syed’s greatest contribution to Muslim Renaissance was that he inculcated self-confidence in his people.”
Sir Syed was born on 17th October, 1817 at Delhi in an affluent family of Mir Muhammad Muttaqui and Aziz-un-Nisa. Most of his family members were into imperial service of Mughals. He had an indelible impact of his mother Aziz-un-Nisa and his maternal grandfather Khwaja Fariduddin Ahmed during his formative years.
Though his mother was ardently religious, yet she always imbibed rationalistic religious beliefs and morals on Sir Syed. He also took avid interest in Mathematics, Medicine, Persian, Arabic, Urdu and learnt these subjects through tutors. He had a profound impact of the writings of Urdu scholars such as Ghalib and Rumi on his personality.
After the demise of his father in 1838,he took up employment with his brother’s journal ‘Sayyed-ul-Akbar’ as an editor.He subsequently qualified the examination of ‘Munsif’ and was appointed at Mainpuri. He was later posted to FatehpurSikri, Agra and Delhi where he served for about nine years. He served in revenue and judicial offices extensively.
Sir Syed had a deep penchant for writing. In 1847, he penned an important book in Urdu entitled ‘Asar-al-Sanadid’ (The Remnant Signs of Ancient Heroes). It was not his maiden work as he had already published six other books by 1847.Sir Syed had written a book about rulers of Delhi from Timurlane to Bahadur Shah II entitled ‘Jam-i-Jam’ which was published in 1840.
His second publication was a procedural manual for revenue office at Agra. His third book ‘a summary of civil laws’ proved very handy for aspirants of Munsif examination. He also wrote on the life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and several volumes of modernist commentary on the Holy Quran. In this work, he advocated that Islamic faith and advanced modern scientific and political ideas are not antithetical to each other.
Asar-al-Sanadid(1847) and Asar-al-Sanadid(1854) popularly known as ‘Asar -2’are the two monumental works of Sir Syed. These books unequivocally highlight the historical grandeur of Dilli as a city that encompasses within its fold all small entities of Shahjahanabad, Tughlaqabad, Indraprastha, and Kilokhari.
In 1855, Sir Syed was promoted as Sadar Amin of Bijnor. It was during this phase that the revolt of 1857 broke out. The magnanimity of Sir Syed helped him to save many families of British officers during this revolt. He didn’t subscribe to any violent means of revolters. The revolt had however sparked mutual suspicion and hostility between British and Muslims. The British suspected Muslims as a violent group who were largely responsible for the revolt. They were accorded harsh treatment and were excluded from participation in the political and social life of the country.
Sir Syedtried to settle the clouds of mistrust between the two by writing ‘Asbab-i-Baghawat-i-Hind’ in 1859 wherein he explained the various underlying causes of the revolt. He contended that there were umpteen factors which led to the rebellion and Muslims were not alone responsible for it.
His fundamental argument was that revolt had broken out as Britishers were oblivious of the Indian responses and opinions since they were largely excluded from participating in the governance of the country. Sir Syed also wrote ‘The Loyal Mohammedans of India’ in 1860 through which he defended his community against the accusations of unfaithfulness towards the nation.
Sir Syed aimed at revival of Muslim glory in nineteenth century and hence he devised a plethora of initiatives for his community. He founded Scientific Society at Gazipur in 1863. It was named prior to this as ‘Translation Society’. The primary objective of the society was to translate scientific literature into Urdu and to develop scientific temperament amongst Muslims.
In 1866, Sir Syed started publishing a journal named ‘Indian Institute Gazette’ in furtherance of the cause of this society. The society regularly organized scientific conferences and ensured the printing of journal in both English and Urdu.
Sir Syed toured to London from April 1869 to December 1870. This had eureka effect in his life. He was particularly impressed by Cambridge University and made up his mind to build a Muslim Cambridge. He defied that western ideas are converse to Muslim upliftment. He also vouched the idea of advancement of the country through advancement of Muslims.
He thus established ‘Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College (MAOC) in 1875 with the support of wealthy Muslims. The college was originally affiliated to Calcutta University but was later transferred to the Allahabad University in 1885.In 1920, the college was converted into a university.
The seed which he sown in nineteenth century stands tall as a tree even today in the form of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) spread across 1155 acres. The university has a unique mixture of both modern scientific education and traditional religious education in its curriculum. MAOC was not just an educational institute but a movement to mould the political, social, educational, economic and cultural progress of Muslims.
It was also widely acclaimed as Aligarh movement in second half of nineteenth century. It aimed at reformation of Muslims in the field of religion, social, moral, culture and education through institutions, journals, etc. Along with Sir Syed, Mohsin-ul-Mulk, Viqar-ul-Mulk, Maulana Altaf HussainHali, ShibliNomani, Chiraguddin Nazir Ahmed strived relentlessly for the cause of this movement.
Though, Sir Syed’s political career had begun after 1857 only, yet he was nominated to the viceroy’s legislative council only in 1878. In the same year, Sir Syed founded the Muhammadan Association to promote political cooperation among Indian Muslims from different parts of the country. In 1886, he organized All Indian Muhammadan Educational Conference in Aligarh. This conference greatly contributed to the promotion of a vision of modern education and political unity among the Muslims.
He supported Dadabhai Nowrojee and S.N.Banerjee in obtaining representation for Indians in the civil services. He was also appointed to the education commission under the chairmanship of Sir William Hunter but he resigned in 1882. Lord Dufferin nominated him as member of Civil Service Commission in 1887.
He was liberal and rationalist in his interpretations of Islamic scriptures and advocated to jettison its dogmatic portrayal. He remonstrated against practices of polygamy, purdah, cow slaughter, easy divorce and women subjugation.
He published a magazine named ‘Tahzib-ul-Akhlaq’ in which he launched a tirade against outdated practices in the community.He stood for the cause of Hindu-Muslim unity ceaselessly. He described Hindus and Muslims as two beautiful eyes of a beautiful bride.
He was wary of Muslims aligning with the Indian National Congress as he thought that Congress was not committed to the cause of Muslims. He accused Congress of being a predominantly Hindu organization lacking a national character.
Sir Syed opposed to democratic self-government as he believed that it will virtually give control of Government to Hindu majority population. He propounded the principle of nomination instead of elections as India lacks homogeneous political community.
In the view of the varied social activism, he earned the distinction of being the most prominent Muslim politician of nineteenth century. His views greatly influenced the attitude of Muslims on various national issues. He succumbed to prolong illness in old age and died on 27th March, 1898 aged 80. He was buried inside the campus of Aligarh Muslim University.
Aligarh Muslim University produced a galaxy of public figures from all walks of life like Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, MaulanaShaukat Ali, Maulana Mohammad Ali Johar, Ayub Khan, Abdul RabNishtar, Maulvi Abdul Haq, Liaquat Ali Khan, DrZakirHusssain, Dr Hamid Ansari, Ali SardarJafri, DalipTahil, AnubhavSinha, JavedAkhter, Naseerudin Shah, Muzzafar Ali, Frank Islam, IrfanHabib, Raja Rao, Dhyan Chand, LalaAmarnath and many more. Both India and Pakistan issued Commemorative postage stamps in his honor.
Sir Syed was one of the most indefatigable social reformers who worked relentlessly for the empowerment of Muslims. He envisioned progress of nation through progress of minorities.
Author is a budding lawyer from Delhi