Sir Syed in the waiting lounge of history
Syed Ahmad Khan was a visionary, but is yet to receive similar recognition
The night-sky of history is studded with stars that have lit up the human horizon, since times immemorial. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898), arguably, is the brightest that ever walked amongst the Muslims of the sub-continent—he is our very own Prometheus, passing down the ‘fire’ of modern education to us, and paving the path to knowledge and deliverance. Syed Ahmad Khan lived at a time of great transformation. The nineteenth century world was awash with the energy of Enlightenment, Europe was marching ahead, breaking fresh ground in the realms of science and technology. The hope kindled by the French Revolution towards the end of the eighteenth century was still warm, new institutions were being fashioned, and there was an inevitability about the eventual triumph of democracy, liberty and equality. Progress had also come to the shores of India. Many communities, most notably the brahmins, were embracing modern education and there was a slew of reform movements—both social and religious—across the length and breadth of the sub-continent. A renaissance was in the making, liberals like Raja Ram Mohun Roy were already becoming the voice of a new age.
In this sea of hope, Muslims were an island of despair—they had stubbornly refused to accept change and were firmly under the sway of religious orthodoxy. There was widespread suspicion about modern education spread by the clergy which had a vested interest in keeping the community aloof from the fruits of modernity. The unsuccessful mutiny of 1857 had compounded the problems for the community as the British were now openly hostile to muslims. Having lost political power and sources of patronage that come with it, the muslims of India found themselves in a state of terminal decline and decadence. This was the gloomy context that Syed Ahmad Khan was placed in and it was under these circumstances that he burst on to the social scene as a beacon of light for the Muslims of the subcontinent.
Syed Ahmad Khan was a visionary. He acutely realized that the reform of Muslims would not be possible unless they accepted modern English education. In his written testimony to the Hunter Commission appointed by Lord Ripon in 1882, Syed Ahmad Khan emphasized on two basic themes: firstly, that knowledge in the vernaculars was not sufficient to ensure the educational advancement of muslims, particularly since the English language had become the vehicle of science in the nineteenth century; and, secondly, that the muslims—more than any other community in India—were opposed to modern English education because they were misguided by their religious leadership. The educational backwardness of muslims was his prime concern and most of his speeches resonated with it. In a speech he made in 1893, Syed Ahmad Khan lamented that the gap between Hindus and Muslims in the field of education was appalling. He cited the example of Bengal—a province where Muslims comprised nearly half the population—where only one graduate out of thirty was a muslim.
Syed Ahmad Khan assessed correctly that to recover the Islamic community of India from the den of orthodoxy and ignorance the only effective tool was education. Sir Syed dedicated his whole life for the educational, cultural and religious uplift of Muslims. It will not be an exaggeration to say that he was the messiah who awakened Muslims from their deep slumber, putting them back on to the right track. The Aligarh Muslim University was the fruit of his labours, but it was not just the establishment of the university that Sir Syed wanted. He endeavoured to bring about a comprehensive change in the outlook that Muslims had towards life, religion and education. The Aligarh movement was the whiff of fresh air Muslims needed to recharge themselves and shrug off the rust accumulated over centuries of stagnation. The movement represented modernity and progress and laid great emphasis on western education. It called for a liberal and rational interpretation of the Quran and Islamic laws. The task was incredibly difficult as the resistance to change was strong, and orthodox Muslims were bitterly opposed to the agenda of reform, but Sir Syed had the courage of his convictions and he persisted with every possible means. He had to face the ire of some religious leaders and there were fatwas against him deploring him as a “Kafir”. He was also accused of having embraced Christianity. However, Syed Ahmad Khan was able to win over significant support of the community and the resistance to his plan petered out, eventually.
To support the fledgling institution that he founded at Aligarh—which later grew into the Aligarh Muslim University—Sir Syed had to collaborate with the British government. He understood that the need of the hour was to educate Muslims in modern sciences and liberate them from the clutches of orthodoxy. Syed Ahmad Khan felt, like many other reformers during his time, that political reform would be useless unless Muslims were ready to take their rightful place in the nation. In January 1883, in his most famous speech, perhaps, that was delivered in Patna, Syed Ahmad Khan said, “I have repeatedly said and say it again that India is like a bride which has got two lustrous eyes—Hindus and Mussalmans.
However, this idealism was short lived. The founding of the Indian National Congress in 1885 was the tipping point for Syed Ahmad Khan, who was against any political movement before adequate social reform had been carried out. The Congress was perceived by him as a body of high caste Hindus, particularly Bengali Brahmins, and he was not alone in this assessment. Syed Ahmad Khan was worried if Muslims, his community, would be given its just due by the Indian National Congress, and he also thought that participating in a political movement against the colonial masters might rekindle the animosity between the British and Muslims that he had worked so hard to overcome after the events of 1857. Syed Ahmad Khan, therefore, advised the Muslims to remain loyal British subjects and gain the benefits of western education and science received under the patronage of the English government.
An interesting anecdote from his life gives us more insight into the shaping of his mind and his belief that the key to progress was embracing rationalism and science—then represented by the modern West—and not harking back upon the dead glories of the past. In 1855, just two years before the mutiny, Syed Ahmad Khan published an edition of Ain-i-Akbari in Urdu extolling the greatness of the Mughal empire under Akbar. He requested the great poet Mirza Ghalib to write an adulatory foreword to this volume. Ghalib accepted his request but instead wrote a persian poem critical of the Mughals and advised Syed Ahmad Khan to not waste his talents in projects of revivalism but instead acknowledge the winds of change and the superior knowledge of the British. That was when Syed Ahmad Khan understood the futility of the temptations to look back towards an era which had perished. He realized that he needed the British to banish the warmth of that lost history—which was still comforting his community, now bereft of political power. Syed Ahmad Khan felt that the muslims needed no succor from the glow of a radiant past but what they needed was to begin anew in a world which was surging ahead on the tide of reason. His alliance with the British was in many ways, therefore, a rebellion against his own history, his own traditions—glorious as they were, in his context, Sir Syed understood that, they had become fetters on the future.
This brings me to the point of this essay. The judgement of history on Syed Ahmad Khan has been unduly harsh. He is conveniently reduced, somewhat unfairly, as one of the main proponents of the two-nation theory. Such a view is not appropriate, in my opinion. It is made possible by projecting our own anxieties about nationalism to an earlier era where nationalism meant many things to many people. It could be argued that nationalism then—during the life and times of Syed Ahmad Khan—was something of an amorphous entity, always tied to communities and regions. In the literature of the times, as well as in the correspondences of prominent leaders and reformers, India was frequently understood as a conglomerate of many nations—all competing for power and privilege with each other under the British colonial framework. Nationalism was a site of dialogues, of negotiations, that went on continuously amongst and between different communities. It was not yet set in stone, and indisputably it had not yet acquired the character of a territorial-political imagination that it was to later in the twentieth century.
To appreciate Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and his thought, it is essential to place him in his context and not in ours which is what has been done unfortunately, especially since the partition. His only concern was the emancipation of the muslim community from ignorance. Sir Syed was never keen on political freedom—that was in all probability an academic question during his life. He was a pragmatist and his main goals were social, educational and economic resurgence of the muslims. He believed that mere political independence without social reforms would be futile and would lead to muslims being dominated by the Hindu majority in free India. This was a view that Dr. Ambedkar too shared with him in the context of the Dalits of India.
The similarities between Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Dr. Ambedkar’s views are not a coincidence, to put things in perspective. The politics of the marginalized is determined by considerations that are not all too obvious to the dominant. But, if we give some thought to the matter, we begin to understand, recognize even, the inevitability of the social taking precedence over the political. Justice and not freedom—political freedom, at any rate—seems to be the defining element in the voices from the margins. Both Ambedkar and Sir Syed were steadfast in the pursuit of what they believed to be a just society. The collaboration with the British was a necessary strategy required to shield their communities from dominance by a Hindu majority which could demand independence from a position of privilege. True freedom would require a just society where all communities had access to resources. Sir Syed Ahmad believed that the educational backwardness would impede muslims from the fruits of independence just as Ambedkar believed that social inequalities would render political freedom meaningless to Dalits. Didn’t Ambedkar say that political independence—in the absence of substantial reform of the Hindu society— would merely mean a transfer of power from the British to caste Hindus?
How is Sir Syed any different from Ambedkar? He is however viewed with suspicion although he was merely trying to do for muslims what Ambedkar later did for Dalits. The travesty is that while Dr. Ambedkar is now being increasingly recognized as an important architect of India, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan is yet to receive similar recognition. He languishes interminably in the waiting lounge of history.
(The author is a teacher of Political Philosophy at Ramjas College, University of Delhi)