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Islamic Personalities ( 23 Oct 2017, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Syed Ahmed Khan: When Will We Stop Idolizing Him and Start Engaging With His Ideas?

By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

24 October 2017


Sir Syed Ahmed Khan

It has become a yearly ritual to read something about Syed Ahmed Khan whose two hundredth birth anniversary was observed the world over on the 17th of October. However, it would not be incorrect to say that most of these writings are mere hagiographical eulogies.

 There is hardly any attempt to critically engage with the ideas of Syed Ahmed Khan. There is also no reflection in the community as why after two hundred years; we seem to be grappling with the same set of issues which Syed Ahmed was beset with during his own time. The relationship with Islam and modernity, educational deficit and the impact of conservatism within Muslim society are all issues which we are confronted with even today. Syed Ahmed tried to wrestle with such issues during his time, but there is no denying the fact that his reformism has had very little impact on the Muslim society. In such a scenario, how should we evaluate his legacy?

It is often argued that Syed Ahmed Khan heralded the acceptance of modern English education amongst Indian Muslims. It is understood that before this great personality pleaded the Muslims to educate themselves in English language, they had kept away from modern and English education. Thus Syed Ahmed in this narrative becomes the saviour of Muslims and is projected as someone who brought the Muslims out of the morass of backwardness and steered them towards some kind of an enlightenment.

 It was only because of his efforts that Muslims took to English education and came out of their stupor. While due credit must be given to the Syed for establishing the MAO college which eventually blossomed into the Aligarh Muslim University, it will be perhaps be too much to eulogize him as the saviour of Muslim community.

It is incorrect to believe that before Syed Ahmed came on the scene, Muslims were reluctant to take to English education. Higher education at that time was usually the preserve of the elite as the concept of mass education did not exist. Elite from all communities were embracing higher education and Muslims were not behind. In fact the data for higher education in the then United Provinces would show that Muslims were much more represented in higher education as compared to their share in population. This is natural because in the United Provinces, Muslims were landed and at least wanted to educate their sons in the ways of the British.

 The question therefore is whether Syed Ahmed was the harbinger of modern education or whether he, like others before him understood the importance of English education and wanted Muslims to take to it. It is of course to the credit of the Syed Ahmed that he fought against the Islamic current propounded by the Mullahs that English education was forbidden for Muslims. He must be saluted for his courage that despite all odds, he persevered and in the end lived to see his dream fulfilled. But what one forgets often is that there were enough Muslims who were willing to make his dream come true. Without the students of Aligarh and the families who sent their sons to Aligarh, this dream would have been stillborn.

All this suggests that there was already an undercurrent within the elite Muslim society regarding the need for English education. Syed Ahmed became the medium to realise that goal and he did so with full conviction.

It is often argued that Syed Ahmed was trying to bring some kind of an enlightenment within Muslim society through modern English education. A closer scrutiny might reveal that this might not be so clear cut. His ideas on education were limited and he viewed the MAO college only as producing a class of educated Muslims who would be well versed with the manners of the British and consequently worthy of taking up positions in government bureaucracy. If the cornerstone of enlightenment is critique, then the Syed did not expect modern education to lead to any kind of critique of either the society in which Muslims were living at that time or even the religious worldview of Muslims.

There is nothing to suggest that Syed Ahmed critiqued the decadent and feudal life-style of Ashraf Muslims. Rather what we get is a positive estimation of the Ashraf worldview. Similarly, although Syed Ahmed did question some of the common-sense perception about Islam, he did not initiate the kind of critique which it required.

 It is also common knowledge that he would drop his criticism of religion altogether when the Mullahs started to hit out on his source of funding. Thus modernity and its relationship with Islam was not his fundamental concern. Modern education existed to refine the religious knowledge and whenever there was a contradiction, it was religion which would have the final say. What was central to his worldview was the caring of small section of Muslim interests which were landed and wanted some respectability by sending their sons to Aligarh. Modern education for him had a utilitarian value: for access to jobs and services. This is no doubt a noble intention and Muslims should be thankful to Syed Ahmed for this very endeavour. But to suggest that he had wanted to inculcate modern outlook among Muslims is perhaps reading too much.

Syed Ahmed Khan was also indifferent to the education of Muslim women. He made no effort whatsoever from which one can deduce that he viewed the education of Muslim women as a desirable project. It remains a fact that women’s education was a late starter on the campus of Aligarh. Such indifference became active hostility when it came to modern education for lower caste Muslims. Syed Ahmed was positively opposed to educating the Muslim lower castes which formed the majority of Indian Muslim population. He did not think that the lower caste Muslims possessed the required mental faculty to go for higher learning through English language.

 He actually advised them that a rudimentary learning of religious rituals and some mathematics would be all that should suffice for them. This also becomes clear when we see his opposition to the reforms of the provincial governments. He was opposed to such political reforms because he felt that even low caste Muslims and Hindus will get into such councils and stand at par with the upper castes. It is almost as if he thought that low castes were racially inferior to upper castes. It is not surprising therefore that he would blame the low caste Muslim Ansari for taking part in the revolt of 1857.

This is certainly not to suggest that there is nothing to learn from Syed Ahmed. His take on Islamic conservatism and his commentary of the Quran really need to be engaged with today. But we should also not put him on a pedestal and argue that in a sense he is beyond critique. His position on caste was in many ways similar to that of BalGangadharTilak, who was also similarly opposed to the political and social empowerment of lower caste Hindus. Syed Ahmed therefore must be understood as a product of his times. By placing him beyond the pale of history and writing nothing but eulogies on him, we are actually doing a great deal of disservice to him and the Muslim community at large.

Arshad Alam is a columnist.


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