By Dr Haider Shah
September 15, 2012
Sir Syed’s prominence rests on his role as a social reformer and promoter of a new discourse that centred on rationalism and free thinking
We are in the habit of associating rationalism with western thinkers, even though our own history is also full of shining examples of rationalist thinking. With the mushrooming of religious programmes on TV channels, we are fed with regurgitated sermons on matters of faith round the clock. It, therefore, has become even more important to introduce the thoughtful world of great Muslim thinkers such as Sir Syed Ahmed Khan to our vulnerable youth of today.
I am not suggesting that Sir Syed does not get any coverage in our syllabus. As a proponent of the two-nation theory and as the founder of Aligarh University, a paragraph or two are always there in a Pakistan Studies textbook. But Sir Syed’s thinking in matters of religious faith is kept at a safe distance from our students. Sir Syed was a multi-dimensional personality. One, he was a prolific author with a wide variety of interests that ranged from architecture to theology. Second, he was a community leader who used his position to provide guidance to the Indian Muslim community. Third, he was an employee in the judicial service of the East India Company. Fourth, he was a social reformer and an activist, and fifth, he was a rationalist who tried to introduce the Indian Muslim community to a new way of thinking about the world around us.
The last two dimensions of Sir Syed’s personality should be of greater interest to us. Sir Syed’s prominence rests on his role as a social reformer and promoter of a new discourse that centred on rationalism and free thinking. Like all human beings, he also had his share of imperfections. One can charge Sir Syed with racism and communalism if his speeches made at Lucknow in 1887 and Meerut in 1888 are keenly examined. In that role, he is clearly influenced by his aristocratic family background. He exhorts the Muslim notables not to join the political activities of Congress as the party was against their aristocratic privileges. This kind of discourse was certainly not helpful in promoting political consciousness in an inert Muslim community. Sir Syed can, therefore, not be seen as an ideal hero to follow in the field of intra-communal relations. Unfortunately, in our syllabus, it is this side of his personality that has been greatly glamourised and presented to unwary students while other more important shades of his personality have been totally concealed.
Sir Syed adopted a new logical approach to interpreting the Quran. He rejected the generally prevalent argument of blind faith as he argued that in that case we would reduce our faith to the same status as of a pagan African tribe. He contended that if we believed in the divinity of our religion, we must not be afraid of going through the filter of rationality. Setting out a set of principles of interpretation of the Quran, he developed his basic paradigm of Tafseer (Quranic interpretation) on the notion of congruence between the ‘Work of God’ and ‘Word of God’. He stated that the laws of nature are the Work of God and since the Quran was a book from God, it is the Word of God. As the Word and Work are from the same source, therefore, if we find any conflict between the two, either the word is not from God or we are unable to interpret the word correctly. Sir Syed argued that unlike Socrates or Plato, the prophets’ audience comprised of illiterate people, which necessitated that in the Holy Scriptures local folklore and metaphors were used to help them understand moral issues in their own language. Sir Syed stressed that instead of having a blind belief in the literal meaning of various stories in the Quran, we should see them as fables. It is the responsibility of the educated to draw real meanings, which would ensure that no discrepancy arises between the Word of God and Work of God.
Sir Syed did not restrict his efforts to mere theological issues. He used his pen for social reform purposes as well by starting the journal Tehzibul Akhlaq in 1870 soon after returning from England. The journal was used as a vehicle of social change as Sir Syed aimed at reforming the social habits of Indian Muslims. Of the 459 articles published in the journal, 208 were personally written by Sir Syed. Some examples of the topics in the first issue were Pabandi-e-rasm-o-riwaj (adherence to social customs), Azadi-e-rai (freedom of opinion), Taleem-e-niswan (women’s education), which clearly showed Sir Syed’s zeal towards reforming the Muslim community.
It is believed that Sir Syed gradually developed his interest in rationalist thinking, as he was also a devout believer who like all others reproduced what he was told by his elders or the books he had read in his early age. Ghalib seems to have been instrumental in inculcating rationalist thinking in Sir Syed. According to Altaf Hussain Hali, Ghalib was requested by Sir Syed to write introductory words for his book on Aieen-e-Akbari. Ghalib responded with a Persian poem in which he criticised Sir Syed’s reverence for Mughal administration and advised him to learn the British system of governance. The conformist Sir Syed gradually turned into a pragmatic thinker who not only used his scholarship for creating a new kind of discourse in the Muslim world but also established the first ever educational institution, i.e. the MAO College that later became the Aligarh University.
Sir Syed has been popularised as the founder of the two-nation theory alone in our national syllabus. It is high time his real message of rationalism was also shared with the young of Pakistan. This can prove an effective antidote to extremism that has gripped our society these days.
Dr Haider Shah teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan