Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-98), Sir Syed for many, is a man of multiple legacies. Although, mostly remembered for his role as the founder of the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College in 1875, which eventually became the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in 1920, Sir Syed’s contribution to Indians, in general, and Muslims, in particular, is, in our opinion, without parallel. How to remember him today, as we commemorate the 200th year of his birth? His tireless effort to impart modern secular education and champion it for the progress and development of the Muslim community is well-known. But, there is much more than this; his life was a continuous struggle to break from the old and moribund ways for creating a pathway for the transformation of Indians as a collective community.
It is important for us to say upfront that while he never compromised on the question of Muslim identity and its historical and cultural heritage, for Sir Syed empowerment of the Indian youth was a holistic project. It was not compartmentalised within ethnic, religious, or class divisions.
Sir Syed’s backbone of the endeavour of holistic human development was firmly anchored on his adoption of a “scientific” approach. This defined his outlook towards education that forged Western knowledge and Islamic sciences into a single curriculum. His travel to England in 1869, which he penned in a fascinating travelogue Safarnama-e-Landan is a testimony to his receptivity to newer ideas and people. He showed an amazing tolerance and appreciation of the common British people, and was particularly impressed with the institutions of higher learning — the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. He based MAO College on the Oxbridge model.
As a moderniser, Sir Syed’s notion of modernity (jadidiyat) was rooted in Islamic philosophy and science, while building bridges with Enlightenment ideas. This is also reflected in his elaborate pamphlet, ‘The Causes of the Indian Revolt’ (1858) in which he emphasised on a better and sympathetic understanding between Muslims and the British. This work is mostly referred to for understanding the political reasons for the Revolt of 1857, but its scope was more than a historical treatise. It was a manifesto of friendship between the ruler and the ruled and a claim to recognition and equality. Even in the state of colonisation, Indians would be potential members in local governance alongside the British. Many consider this pamphlet as the harbinger leading the British to accept Indian views for improving their administration of India, paving the way for the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885, which even the British supported.
It is nothing but unfortunate that the life and works of Sir Syed has been cast in a particular imagery of an out-and-out Muslim who only thought of and for Muslims. Sir Syed was certainly not limited to this narrow confine. Without a doubt, he was a pioneer in the field of education, particularly education for men and he thought of the interest of the members of his Muslim community. So did Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Behramji Malabari, Henry Vivian Derozio, Swami Dayanand Saraswati and several other reformers of the 19th century. All of them promoted education for their community, and particularly for men. It is to Sir Syed’s credit one must remember that in 1863, he published an appeal “to all the people of India” to reform the educational system of the country. He had a nuanced approach to women education, and was much ahead of his times, although many, particularly feminists, today, complain that he did not do much on behalf of women’s education.
A textbook version presents Sir Syed as someone who in his earlier phase as a reformer was an advocate for both Hindus and Muslims. In the later stage of his life, many assume, he became solely occupied with Muslim politics and Muslim interests. They overlook the fact that throughout his life, Sir Syed worked closely with Hindus, who were his main supporters and donors for the MAO college. On his part, he held firm to the belief that Muslims and Hindus must study together and he ensured the recruitment of Hindu students and staff members in MAO. To accommodate Hindu students at MAO, he forbade serving beef in the common dining hall and in respect of the caste concerns of the Hindu students, arranged for water distribution to maintain social boundaries. Likewise, to maintain amity between Shia and Sunni Muslim students, he encouraged common prayers in the college mosque.
Anecdotes point against the narrow understanding of Sir Syed whose liberality and cosmopolitanism warrant a deeper look to rethink and appreciate his contribution and relevance in our times, as India embarks on the path of joining the community of developed nations.
Sir Syed is one the 19th century leaders who paved the way for this transformation of India into an enlightened member of the global human community.