by Dr. Faiza Abbasi
It is that time of the year again. The roads and buildings of the Aligarh Muslim University are lit up once again. The proudly referred to Alig community all round the globe from Ottawa to Dubai, dines together, wherever there are a few AMU Alumni/ae. The present day forerunners of the ‘Aligarh Movement’ deliver moving speeches in tongue twisted English and chaste Urdu peppered with couplets from Iqbal as the audience wait in baited breath to tap foot and combust in roaring applause on the AMU Tarana penned by its old boy Asrarul Haque Majaz, sung by a choir of girls in white suit with red cover head dupatta and boys in black sherwani with the AMU logo embroidered on the collar. All this is done to commemorate the S. S. Day in memory of the Founder of AMU, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan born on October 17, 1817.
Sir Sayyid, pained by the decimation of his community in the aftermath of the 1857 revolt envisioned modern scientific education to be the only ray of hope for restoring the lost glory of a people until recently ruled by its Nawabs, Mansabdars, Taluqdars and Jagirdars pledging allegiance to an ailing, geriatric, Poet – Emperor in the Red Fort. Breaking away from the Fort which had conferred upon him the title of Jawaduddaula, Sayyid Ahmad Khan served the British East India Company as a Judicial Clerk and built a rapport with the Raj officials. He was born and brought up in Delhi under the strong influence of his mother’s values of piety, honesty and compassion. On his many postings under the Raj he closely observed his country and its people in many cities of India like Benaras, Ghazipur, Bulandshahar and Aligarh.
During his ensuing travel to the Great Britain in 1869-70, which lengthened over 17 months he used all opportunities to learn from the post- renaissance British Society. In his letters from England he hails Indians to learn from the cleaner of his apartment at Mecklenburg Square, Camden, London. The woman earned a pittance but made it a point to spend half a penny on a Newspaper and read it every day. However, he understood the basic differences between the west and the east and knew the areas where the twain shall never meet. He narrates an interesting incident of his sea voyage, ‘during a formal dining event on the deck the bearers misjudged me on account of my heavy weight, flowing beard and serious looks to be the head of the table and offered to serve me a drink. As I could not converse in English and my interpreter was not around I made a hand gesture refusing the prohibited alcohol. This he mistook as that not being my favourite tipple. He brought me another and I repeated the same. This happened several times before he could finally get me. Then he brought for me water – the life giving drink of Allah for all Mankind’. In spite of his resistance to some of the un-Islamic courtesies of the British nobility he became the first Indian member of the Athenaeum – the most high-class English Club which is still considered above many in UK.
Back from his trip to England he dreamt of and pursued diligently for an educational institution in the dusty plains of north-India on the lines of Oxford and Cambridge. He said ‘I dream of a College where boys will wear the customary chugha, they will never hurl abuses at each other, the Halls of residence will be attached to a mosque, and no one will be allowed to discuss the origins of the sects in Islam as to how the Shia was alienated from the Sunni’. When he embarked upon materialising his plans for the MAO College it was a hard toil he diligently pursued in collecting funds, making people contribute financially and receiving endowments of land and Wakf property for the College.
In his attempt to bring modern education to Muslims he faced maximum opposition from his own co-religionists. Some groups of clergy even passed on him the fatwa of kufr which is the ultimate disgrace for a man who held his Islamic beliefs and Muslim identity dear to his heart. Yet, the tenacious Sayyid Ahmad pleaded the British Govt. for help, urged the Muslim intelligentsia and never looked back. Once when he was on the streets asking for donation someone threw a stone at him to dissuade him. He picked it up saying it will be used in the foundation of the College. He could make this arduous journey and his dream saw the light of the day in his life time because of the support of few of his close accomplices. Amongst them are Maulvi Samiullah, Altaf Hussain Hali, Shibli Nomani and his close friend and aid Raja Jaikishan Das. The latter was one of the most trustworthy keepers of the Society that made the MAO (Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental) College in 1877. In his laps Sir Sayyid put his only grandson Syed Ross Masood during his Baptism ceremony.
Today what the Aligarians in particular and the Indian people at large have to understand is that Sir Sayyid never meant the AMU to be a University of the Muslims, by the Muslims and for the Muslims. He had the foundation stone of the College laid by Lord Lytton and the Lytton Library, in AMU is still remembered after him. He was pro-west but never anti-east. All he wanted was the goodness of the west to be embraced by the east for the emancipation of its own people who had lost in the battle of education. This however, doesn’t imply that he wanted Muslims to shun their Islamic ideals and meld into the western ethos of culture, society and civilization. His broad vision comprehended the follies of being anti-government during those days and prevented his Aligarh Movement from influences of the other nationalist movements springing up. In other words Sir Sayyid wanted for his community what a parent naturally wants for his offspring.
Today many a historians wrongly attribute the ‘Two Nation Theory’ to Sir Sayyid as its progenitor. While it is true that he loved his qaum more than Majnoo would have loved Laila and Farhad would have loved Shireen, the fact is that a reformer like Sir Sayyid should be placed above these petty divisive lines. This was a man who believed and strived for freedom of thought and expression. Who founded the ‘Scientific Society’ in Aligarh and its journal Tehzib ul Akhlaq based on the revolutionary ‘Spectator’ and ‘Tatler’ of England. Who exhorted his people to protect India like a beautiful bride whose two eyes were the Hindoos and Mussalmans. Would anyone like a one-eyed bride? He asked. Who lived and died for an educational institution that would reform a long relegated community.
Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan is to be remembered by the people of India as a person who wanted education to be away from political dogma and by the world wide Alig community as someone who never cared about religious, nationalist or cast based differences when it came to improving the quality of education. Why the first graduate produced by the MAO College was Ishwari Prasad and Theodore Beck – immortalised by the Beck Manzil in AMU is its most celebrated Principal? Sir Walter Raleigh who established the English Department was among the many European teachers invited from England to impart the best practices of teaching and learning in various disciplines. The first departments of studies at the AMU were the Departments of Arabic, Urdu, Law and Sanskrit amongst others.
The most relevant lesson from his philosophy for the students of Aligarh Muslim University and its Alumni/ae is never to indulge in anti-nationalist or militant activities and in order to ensure quality of education at the University never regress to regionalism, sexism or sectarianism. They are well advised to evolve from the once rampant fierceness and fanaticism that characterised the Islamic rule in the medieval ages and reinvent the original goodness of Islam for peace, progress and brotherhood. The Founder of the Aligarh Muslim University knew in advance the relevance of modern, scientific and English education while adhering to the primary goodness of being a Muslim with personal beliefs of purity, integrity and justice. He exhorted the students to uphold the Quran in one hand and the knowledge of natural sciences in another to be complete human beings. Our students should be equipped with just that and no cob webs of dreary divisions should be viewed on them by the country.
Dr. (Mrs.) Faiza Abbasi is Assistant Professor, UGC Academic Staff College, Aligarh Muslim University E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org