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Sir Syed: A Great Man Ignored?

by Khaled Ahmed

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Despite being instrumental in the creation of Pakistan, the founder of Aligarh University is seldom remembered in our nationalist pantheon

Prof Sikandar Hayat has produced a remarkably erudite book in A Leadership Odyssey: Muslim Separatism and the Achievement of the Separate State of Pakistan (OUP 2021).

With very readable text, it tells us about the lives of Pakistan’s foundational “six great men,” some of whom have perhaps been ignored in recent years due to our changing worldview: 1) Sir Syed Ahmad Khan; 2) Aga Khan; 3) Syed Ameer Ali; 4) Maulana Muhammad Ali; 5) Allama Muhammad Iqbal; 6) Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. All six lives are brilliantly detailed in the book, but this review focuses on just Sir Syed and his contributions to the idea of Pakistan.

Today, Sir Syed “the reformer” is forgotten and replaced in the nationalist pantheon by champions of religious orthodoxy and extremism. His “modernism” as rationalist exegesis of Islam is ignored, and his works rarely referred to. He is set aside, together with his followers from within the clerical world, for wanting to overhaul the religion itself in light of modern requirements. One is grateful that Sir Syed has been placed by the author among the founders of the idea of Pakistan.

In his writing, Hayat sets forth Sir Syed’s approach to Muslim politics in India: “Syed Ahmad Khan clearly saw the danger to Muslims if they did not adjust and realign themselves to the realities of new life in India. He wanted to help. He was the man of the moment too: His aristocratic background, combined with his employment in responsible office of the British government and his recently demonstrated loyalty, fitted him admirably for this role. He wanted the Muslims to find a modus vivendi with the British and in time he did not look to the arena of political activity as crucial for his community’s future.

“In fact, as John Wilder aptly put it: ‘He saw the decline of Indian Muslims as due to their own internal weaknesses, their backward-looking stagnation, and not to any political reasons. He was convinced that the solution to Indian Islam’s ailments lay in the areas of education and Westernization. Instead of seeking to preserve the glorious past, and apply its remedies and philosophies to the radically changing present, Muslims should adjust to the present and adopt new remedies. Muslim youths should enter the new educational institutions rising on every side’.”

In another source, Sir Syed explains why he wanted to establish the MAO College: “I shall feel sorry if anybody thinks that this college has been established so as to show discrimination between Hindus and Muslims. The main reason behind the establishment of this institution … was the wretched dependence of the Muslims … Their religious fanaticism did not let them avail the educational facilities provided by the government schools and colleges. It was, therefore, deemed necessary to make some special arrangement for their education.”

It should be a matter of great satisfaction for him that Aligarh Muslim University remains committed to his vision to this day, and does not discriminate between Hindus and Muslims. Most of the gold medals at AMU convocations are today bagged by the Hindu students; and prestigious professional courses have more than 40 percent non-Muslim students.

Sir Syed’s views provoked several fatwas against him, with even the Imam of Mecca declaring: “This man [Sir Syed] is erring and causes people to err. He is rather an agent of the devil and wants to mislead Muslims. It is a sin to support the college. May God damn the founder! And if this college [MAO College which in 1920 was converted into Aligarh Muslim University] has been founded, it must be demolished and its founder and his supporters thrown out of the fold of Islam.”

Author Hayat reiterates what historian S.M. Ikram wrote earlier about Sir Syed: “Sir Syed advised the Muslims against joining active politics and to concentrate instead on education. Later, when some Muslims joined the Indian National Congress, he came out strongly against that organization and its objectives, which included the establishment of parliamentary democracy in India. He argued that, in a country where communal divisions were all-important and education and political organization were confined to a few classes, parliamentary democracy would work only inequitably. Muslims, generally, followed his advice and abstained from politics until several years later when they had established their own political organization.”

Faizan Mustafa, vice-chancellor of NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, recalled Sir Syed in a 2017 article: “Sir Syed believed in a multiculturalism under which all cultural communities must be entitled to equal status under state. The view that people must be incorporated not merely as citizens but also members of distinct communities possessing multiple identities is one of the most cherished norms of liberal democratic traditions. This means rejection of the melting pot theory and acceptance of the ‘salad bowl’ one where integration rather than assimilation is the preferred choice. Thus, under Article 29 of the Indian Constitution, distinct cultural communities are entitled to preservation of their distinct language, script and culture.”

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