Asghar Ali Engineer


Seventeen October happens to be Sir Syed’s birth day and every year all those who have studied at Aligarh Muslim University celebrate it with great enthusiasm and arrange dinner on that occasion.


This year too the Aligarh Muslim University Alumni Association of Maharashtra celebrated Sir Syed day on last 17th October and invited Senior Journalist Mr. Kuldip Nayar as Chief Guest and this writer as Guest of Honour along with Teesta Setalvad and Amin Patel, an MLA from Maharashtra Legislative Assembly.


I am not going here into who said what but take account of what Sir Syed did and what is its impact on Muslims of Indian sub-continent. I can understand the emotions of those who studied at Aligarh and are leading successful life today as a result of educational qualification they acquired there. It is not important that they celebrate Sir Syed Day once in a year and meet each other, have dinner and disperse.


Much more important is to assess what is the condition of Muslims today in the sub-continent and what impact Sir Syed’s contribution has on Muslim society today. It is so unfortunate that just a few days before Sir Syed Day a 14 year old girl Malala from North West Frontier Province from Pakistan was murdered by Tehrik-e-Taliban-Pakistan led by Maulana Fazlullah just because she was campaigning for education for girls.


It shows that even after 150 years there are Muslims who find modern secular education an anathema as they found it in 19th century. And this resentment against modern education is not found only among Talibans but also among many other Muslims who are illiterate, backward and poor. Even today our Ulama bring tons of money from Arab countries for madrasas and build grand buildings but do nothing to promote modern education.


These Ulama had greatly opposed Sir Syed when he started modern college at Aligarh. They even obtained fatwas from Mecca for his being kafir, Christian or Jew. But Sir Syed did not give up and continued, deeply convinced as he was, his efforts to spread modern education. He even went to Oxford along with his son to study the plans for his institution. Simply celebrating Sir Syed day will not do. We have to emulate his spirit, his courage and his sense of mission.


Our Ulama do not oppose Sir Syed today or modern education for that matter. However, they do nothing to promote modern secular education among Muslims and instead go on multiplying madrasas with Arab money. If all these funds had been used for starting modern institutions it would have done great service to Muslim community in the sub-continent. One has to learn a lot from Christian missionaries in this regard. Their institutions are considered best even in Pakistan and people want to send their children to their schools. Our Ulama, it is a matter of great concern, are opposing even modernizing madrasas which could immensely benefit the students. They fear they would loose control over them if they accept government money for that purpose.


As Aligarh played great role for spreading education among Muslims in Indian sub-continent today that role could be played by those who have obtained education in that university. But celebrating Sir Syed day has become a mere ritual. There is great need for these past students with successful career to male it a mission like Sir Syed and work with great enthusiasm, like Sir Syed did, to spread modern education among Muslims. It is the only way to success as these students have themselves succeeded because of modern education.


Sir Syed Day should not be reduced as a mere ritual as we are wont to do. It should become a day for inspiration, for renewal of vows and for re-energizing these students to work for welfare of the community and for promoting communal harmony as Sir Syed did. It is very important to note that Sir Syed did a great deal to promote unity between Hindus and Muslims. It was part of his mission. Besides saying that Hindus and Muslims are like two eyes of a beautiful bride he also said that Muslims are also Hindus in geographical sense. In one of his speeches he, addressing a gathering of Hindus and Muslims he said are you all not borne in this land? Are you not cremated or buried in this land? We all belong to this land.


It is great irony that some scholars try to prove that Sir Syed was a separatist and some even have tried to project as founder of the idea of Pakistan. These ignoramuses do not know that even Jinnah had not thought of Pakistan before late thirties and had forced the supporters of Rahmat Ali to withdraw the resolution on creating of Pakistan in one the sessions of Muslims League as late as mid-thirties. Jinnah was using idea of Pakistan as bargaining counter right up to 1946 and Pakistan became reality not only because Jinnah demanded it but also because of some mistakes made by some Congress leaders as pointed out by Maulana Azad in his book India Wins Freedom.


However, this is beside the point. I would also like to point out here that Sir Syed had some limitations of his own and I said this in my speech in the function. Sir Syed belonged to Ashrafiyah i.e. the noble classes and his vision were limited by his social origin. He had seen total destruction of Muslim ruling classes and he wanted them to catch up with the times instead of weeping and breast beating. He, therefore, thought they must go for modern education so that they could occupy an important government position which was not possible without modern secular education. He, therefore, founded Anglo Mohamedan Oriental College which became Aligarh Muslim University in 1920 by an Act of Parliament.


But Sir Syed who gave so much importance to modern education for Ashrafiyah was not much enthusiastic about similar education for children of weavers. When weavers of Moradabad (Ansaris) invited him to inaugurate a school for their children Sir Syed advised them not to waste their time in sending them to school but train them in weaving so that they can earn and supplement family income and can become better weavers.


Sir Syed was right in his own way in that context. Many Muslim children do not go to schools even today for similar reason and start earning and supplementing family income and to become better artisans. But times have changed now and modern education has become universal in character. Muslims have produced Sir Syed but now they need an Ambedkar to work for upliftment and education of poor, low caste Muslims. It is these Muslims who are in overwhelming numbers in India. The Sachar Committee estimates that the OBCs among Muslims are about 45 per cent. But that estimate also seems to be wrong. It is not less than 80 to 85 per cent. Most of the Asharafiyas from North India migrated to Pakistan in 1947 leaving behind OBC Muslims and one has to work, as Ambedkar did for Dalits, for modern education. The clerics will never do that and therefore, the Aligarh students should come forward to do this task and fulfill Sir Syed’s mission.


There is another part of Sir Syed’s mission which remains unfulfilled until today. Sir Syed was great supporter of modernization and change. He also formed Scientific Society of India along with other colleagues and undertook translation of several scientific books in Urdu. He also began to write tafsir (modern commentary on Qur’an) but had to abandon that work as the theologians vehemently opposed it and forced him to put it aside. It has gone into oblivion as no one was interested in publishing it until Khuda Bakhsh Library, Patna under took that important task and published it in two volumes.


This commentary is of great importance though Sir Syed could not complete it due to opposition from conservative Ulama. No one even talks about it that Muslims need revisiting Qur’an in the light of modern developments in the field of knowledge and impact it has been having on the outlook of people. Old commentaries were written in the light of knowledge then available. Someone has to show courage and complete this task and also revise what Sir Syed wrote as many more developments have taken place.


Sir Syed, in his commentary also had defended women’s rights but again he had certain severe constraints and could not do what he would have liked to do in this field also. Instead he had to advise Maulavi Mumtaz Ali Khan, a great supporter of women’s rights not to publish his book Huququn Niswan as it would add to his troubles. Not that Sir Syed would not like to give women their due but mainly because orthodox Ulama would add to his troubles. Sir Syed thought as education improves among Muslims they would re-think on all these positions and would revise their opinion.


But unfortunately for various reasons not to be discussed here it did not happen and there is need for launch a fresh movement for women’s rights. We need a Maulavi Mumtaz Ali Khan besides a Sir Syed to get equality for women. Today modern education and gender equality both are most important issues, as important as during Sir Syed’s time and Aligarh Muslim University’s past students would be better advised to undertake these issues with renewed spirit. They would do real service to the community and also this would be the best tribute to the memory of this great man. Sir Syed as indeed a modern architect of Muslim society. We must stop paying mere lip service and gird up our lions to start working for completion of his mission. (Centre for Study of Society and Secularism,


(Secular Perspective November 1-15, 2012)

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