Who Was Sir Syed? | Mujahid Mughal

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (October 17, 1817) a Muslim educator, a philosopher, a jurist, a political analyst and a prolific writer is the first and the foremost Indian Muslim educational reformer, who founded the Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh. His seminal works include Essays on the Life of Mohammed (1870), Monuments of the Great (Aasaar e Sanadid), The Causes of Indian Mutiny (Asbab e Baghawat e Hind), and commentaries on the Bible (Tabyeen al Kalam) and the Qur’an (Tafseer ul Qur’an).

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan

Although Sir Syed is one of the most efficient multi dimensional and versatile figures of our recent history but the ultimate aim of his life was education for all (teach the man what he knows not). He was indeed the prophet of education. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that Aligarh movement is all about making modern education accessible to the downtrodden, marginalised and the backwards. It indeed aimed at educating those who were suspicious and scared of modern education. 

The role of Sir Syed in educating his nation is somewhat like a father who is adamant to teach his unwilling kids at any cost. Sir Syed was trying to bring a nation into the light that was afraid of illumination. He therefore had to fight for the education of those who opposed him and hurled abuses on him for the very same reason. He was indeed a radical romantic revolutionary, an unparalleled fighter and a visionary far ahead of his times. 

Sir Syed started his mission by establishing schools at Moradabad (1858) and Ghazipur (1863) districts of present day Uttar Pradesh (United Provinces). Still a more radical undertaking was the formation of the Scientific Society, which published translations of many educational texts and also published a bilingual journal in Urdu and English. These establishments were jointly run by the Muslims and non Muslims of India.

Sir Syed was one of the most important secular figures of all times. The secular character of Aligarh Movement (Muslim Reform Movement) and its subsequent success may be compared to some extent to the Brahmo Sabha movement (Hindu Reform Movement) and its success, which created Brahmo Samaj as the latter was carried out in a Muslim majority region whereas the former was carried out in a Hindu majority region. 

According to Sir Syed “the first requisite for the progress of a nation is the brotherhood and unity amongst sections of the society”. He further said, “we (Hindus and Muslims) eat the same crop, drink water from the same rivers and breathe the same air. As a matter of fact Hindus and Muslims are the two eyes of the beautiful bride that is Hindustan. Weakness of any one of them will spoil the beauty of the bride”. 

During a visit to England (1869-70) he geared up his plans for a great educational institution for Muslims of India, modelled on the lines of Cambridge University. On his return, he set up a committee for this purpose and also started a persuasive journal, Tahzeeb ul Akhlaq for the upliftment and reformation of the Muslim community.

Subsequently, a Muslim school was established at Aligarh in May 1875. After his retirement from government services in 1876, Sir Syed devoted himself to turn it into a college. Subsequently in January 1877, the foundation stone of the Mohammaden Anglo Oriental (MAO) College was laid by the then viceroy. The first graduate from this college, Ishwari Prasad (1888-1986) became a prominent Indian historian afterwards. 

MAO College was in fact one of the first residential educational institutions set up in India. When viceroy to India Lord Curzon visited the college in 1901, he praised the work done and called it of "sovereign importance". The college was originally affiliated with the University of Calcutta and subsequently got affiliated with the University of Allahabad in 1885. Near the turn of the century, the college began publishing its own magazine, The Aligarian, and established a Law School. It was also around this time that a movement began to have it develop into a university. To achieve this goal, expansions were made and more academic programs added to the curriculum of the college. A school for girls was established in 1907. By 1920 the college was transformed into the Aligarh Muslim University.

It is important to note that in spite of conservative opposition to Sir Syed and his projects, the MAO College which later became Aligarh Muslim University, made a rapid progress. In 1886, he organised the All India Mohammadan Educational Conference, which would meet annually at different places to promote education. Sir Syed was knighted by the British Government in 1888 and in the following year he received an LL.D. honoris causa from the Edinburgh University.

The university he founded remains one of India’s most prominent educational institutions imparting education to thousands of students from across the globe in different fields of enquiry.  It has already produced thousands of legendary figures in science, art and literature. It is beyond the scope of this precise article to name even a fraction of them. Some of them include political leaders like Maulana Mohammad Ali, Maulana Shaukat Ali, Abdur Rab Nishtar, and the first two prime ministers of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan and Khawaja Nazimuddin, as well as the Indian President Dr. Zakir Hussain.

Sir Syed was a great dreamer. Indeed, only an obsessed dreamer like him could make an institution like AMU out of nothing.  He advised the students of AMU to “go forth throughout the length and breadth of the land to preach the message of free enquiry, of large hearted toleration and of pure morality”.

In a similar message for the students of AMU he says “oh my dear children, you have reached a particular stage and remember one thing that when I undertook the task, there was criticism all around against me, abuses were hurled upon me, life had become so difficult for me that I aged before my age, I lost my hair, my eyesight, but not my vision. My vision never dimmed, my determination never failed, I built this institution for you and I am sure, you will carry the light of this institution far and wide, darkness will disappear from all around.” This message sums up the life and mission of one of the greatest visionaries of human history.

Sir Syed breathed his last on March 27, 1898 and was buried in the premises of the university mosque in the Sir Syed Hall, AMU.

About the Author: Mujahid Mughal is an Assistant Professor at GDC Poonch.

Pir Panjal Post is a blogging outlet which aims at educating people and creating awareness on the issues concerning human society like Education, Politics, Economics, Science, art and literature. The main focus of this blog is on encouraging the budding writers, poets, painters, calligraphers, photographers etc. Besides, it intends to serve the vernacular languages.