Kashmir is in desperate need of a renaissance man like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan to overcome the dogma we are going through and to bring an end to violence that has taken a toll on our society since the last three decades, Aabid Rehman Pala writes.


Aligarh Muslim University recently celebrated the 200th birth anniversary of its founder Sir Syed Ahmad Khan who is widely known as a renaissance man responsible for the emancipation of the Muslims of subcontinent from the hornet’s nest to an ambience where they held their heads high with pride. The people of subcontinent, especially Muslims, owe Sir Syed a lot. According to a Kashmiri proverb, if they would wash his feet and then drink that water, even that won’t be enough to pay off for the struggle that Sir Syed waged for the Muslims of subcontinent.

After the Revolt of 1857, Muslim community was worst-hit; they were killed in large numbers; their house was looted and burnt down and their property was ransacked. Sir Syed’s house in New Delhi was one of them. The Muslims of Indian subcontinent got economically weak, politically shattered, socially segregated and educationally backward. Sir Syed was very much disappointed about the condition of the Muslims. They were limping waywardly towards darkness and it was he who grabbed the hand of this downtrodden community and brought them towards the light. He felt a need of revival so as to rescue them and to bring them back on track. He took this great onus on his own shoulders and started a movement in the name of ‘Aligarh Movement’ which was the first step towards the social, political, economic and educational empowerment of the Muslims of the subcontinent.

Through Aligarh Movement, he was more concerned and focused on implementing modern and scientific education on Muslims. In 1864, he laid the foundation of Scientific Society in Aligarh (An organization which used to translate the scientific works of English and other European languages into Urdu and Hindi). Since science was not a prevalent course of study among Muslims, so his idea was very tough to implement. Initially, he was branded as a British agent and declared as non-Muslim by his own community. He was of the opinion that if you have to implement the modern education in India, you have to work in collaboration with the British. When asked about the rivalry with British, he asserted that while living in a river, you can’t fight with the crocodile. No doubt you have to tackle her as she is your biggest huddle, but you need to follow a strategy. And when you have your own interests, you need to develop a close acquaintanceship with her.

In 1861, Sir William Muir wrote ‘Life of Mahomet’ and criticised Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h) in it. The Muslims of India got enraged when they heard about the book as Muir had insulted the Holy Prophet. This marked the watershed moment in the history of Aligarh Movement. Religious sentiments are one of the delicate sentiments in human beings which promptly get hurt. At that time, Muslim sentiments were hurt. Amid this cold unrest, a delegation met Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and sought permission to fight the British with swords and canes. At that crucial juncture, what Sir Syed told them, is still written in golden words and is considered as an intellectual and mature answer. He told them: “You can’t succeed in defeating a book with a sword. You have to fight the book with a book. Even if you succeed in defeating it, that would definitely be a temporary success. You have to reply with a book to seek the permanent success.”

Now the question was who would write a book in response to Muir’s ‘Life of Mahomet’? Muslim community was educationally backward at that time. They didn’t possess the capacity and capability to write a book, and that too in English, to counter the book of an orientalist. The job was very difficult. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan again came forward and decided to write about it. The decision was never easy to make, but his love for the Holy Prophet (p.b.u.h), his dedication, hard work, enthusiasm and curiosity made it look easy. Apart from the trust and expectations of the nation, there were many dangers and difficulties hovering over his head. Firstly, there was a threat of arrest by the British government. Secondly, he had to study those various books and references quoted by the author. Thirdly, those books were not available in India and he had to undertake the journey to England to study them as most of them were only available in the British Museum. He decided to bother all these hardships and went to England. Once there, going through those references, he wrote more than a dozen rejoinders and got them published in The Pioneer and other periodicals in 1870. Later, he got them published in a book titled, “Khutbat-e-Ahmadiya.” For his work, he was appreciated worldwide by the Muslim community. Even William Muir was impressed and sought forgiveness.

Sir Syed’s stay in England was another watershed in the history of Aligarh Movement. He had an opportunity to visit the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge where he saw students studying in smart classrooms, sophisticated libraries, well built and advanced laboratories green and well maintained parks in the University campuses while holding discussions and deliberations. Back home, his people were devoid of these facilities. It was there that he discovered the problem behind the educational backwardness of his people and decided to set up ‘Oxford of the East’ in India.

After returning, he started campaigning to set up a college in Aligarh. He collaborated with the British government and sought experts from England to implement the modern education in his college. While campaigning, he faced a lot of hardships and criticism, and that too from his own community for whom he was doing all this. But despite all the odds, he remained adamant and didn’t budge from his cause. He finally laid the foundation of Muhammadan Anglo Oriental College at Aligarh in 1875.

Sir Syed was not disappointed by the treatment he received from his community. He was well acquainted of the fact that the people are shortsighted. They were not exposed to the world outside. He told the people that they can’t send their wards to the great universities of Oxford and Cambridge but they can make one in India and sought their contribution and help for setting up the college. Gradually, by his hard work, people started getting more and more interested and the college gained fame not only among Muslims but in other communities as well, because the college was based on secular grounds. There was no discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, religion, etc. The students and the staff was the conglomeration of all the communities i.e., Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, etc. That was the key element of the success of this college.

Shortly after his death, the college was made into a full fledged university known as the great Aligarh Muslim University and today the fruit of this university is being reaped not only by Indian society but by the whole world especially the sub continental countries. This was all possible because of the hard work, dedication and the commitment of this renaissance man, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan.

Aligarh Muslim University is not only an educational institute but a movement for the empowerment of Muslims of the subcontinent. It also played a major role in the freedom movement of India. It was the vision of Sir Syed who sought the solution of every problem through education and succeeded. His vision had an association with the vision of Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h) who says, “Knowledge is the biggest tool”. Sir Syed was of the view that this tool has the power to tackle any huddle in your way. Knowledge makes you well-off and when you are economically sound, you can raise your voice against the atrocities around you. Otherwise, your belly is never in a position to support your cause. He never braced violence and termed non-violence the key to success. He gave pen in the hands of his youth to fight the problems when they were enraged enough to consume themselves for a mere cause. Had he given the sword in their hands, the condition of the Muslims of the subcontinent would have been something else. They would have been dwindling somewhere.

We in Kashmir are in desperate need of this renaissance man and the movement he started to overcome the dogma we are going through. We are in one or the other way facing the same problems. Be it the burning of schools, daily upheavals or the chaos all around, we verily need to follow Sir Syed and his ideology of education non-violently. We have to give pen in the hands of our youth who of course are angry at this time. But it would be better for them in the long run. We have to encourage them for higher education outside the state or abroad, if possible. Only then can they realise their true potential. Unless you see the light, you can’t imagine the darkness you are in. You are like a frog in the pond who has no idea about the rivers and oceans.

Education is the only way out through which we can at least anticipate the things to change automatically in a well cognizant and non-violent way. Violence is leading us nowhere. We are only consuming without a fruitful result. Moreover, we don’t have to strive that much as Sir Syed did. Our job is much easier. Our society is far more literate and intelligent than his. Only a direction is needed to this intellectual but downtrodden society. Our land is fertile enough to germinate the seed of Sir Syed’s ideology but only a little bit of moisture is needed. As Dr. Iqbal (r.a) says:

Of his barren acres, Iqbal is not despair

Need of a little rain and the fertility emanates.


The author is working on his debut novel under working title ‘The Ensnared Childhood’. He is presently pursuing bachelors in English literature at Aligarh Muslim University. He can be reached at pala.abid@gmail.com 




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