By Rakhshanda Jalil
07 Sep, 2012
Shaikh Abdullah has an unlikely place in the education of India's Muslims, says Rakhshanda Jalil
It was during the Christmas holidays in the year 1888 that a young lad, 15 years of age and a student of Standard VII, happened to attend an event organized by the Mohammadan Educational Conference in Lahore. His name was Thakur Das; he was the son of Mehta Gurmukh Singh, grandson of Mehta Mast Ram, Lambardar of a village in Poonch District, Kashmir. In later years, this boy would be known as Shaikh Abdullah (1874-1965) or, more fondly, by generations of women as 'Papa Miyan'.
Thakur Das embraced Islam in 1891 while still at Lahore and took the name Shaikh Muhammad Abdullah
Thakur Das attended the Conference in the company of his beloved teacher and mentor Maulana Nooruddin. This was the first time the Kashmiri Pandit boy had set eyes on the venerable Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898), founder of the M. A. O. College whose fame had reached distant Lahore. There he sat on the dais, a short distance from Thakur Das, flanked by Maulvi Nazir Ahmad (1831-1912), the orator, educationist and author of Urdu's first best-selling novel. The impressionable boy narrates the chit-chat he witnessed on the stage, the bonhomie and good cheer among the two principal speakers and the effect of these two powerful orators from Delhi on their enraptured Lahori audience. For young Thakur Das, it had been a long journey in search of education. After receiving his primary education at the village school, the boy had gone first to Jammu and then to Lahore to complete his schooling.
Free of the ties and trappings of caste, culture, class, Shaikh Abdullah was like virgin clay, ready to be moulded
Thakur Das embraced Islam in 1891 while still at Lahore and took the name Shaikh Muhammad Abdullah. Initially, he became a Qadiyani as his mentor, Maulvi Nooruddin, was an Ahmadiya; it would be many years later, in Aligarh, that he would begin to profess the Sunni Muslim faith. And in the same year as his conversion, on 14 May 1891, he reached Aligarh to begin his education at the M.A.O. College. It was in Aligarh that he found his true flowering and a real family in place of the one he had left far behind in Poonch.
Aligarh accepted him with open arms. It gave him the freedom to be exactly who or what he wished to be. Free of the ties and trappings of caste, culture, class, Shaikh Abdullah was like virgin clay, ready to be moulded. Yet, like clay, he retained certain distinctive qualities of his own. His peers and teachers were quick to spot these traits: earnestness, optimism, determination and an infectious never-say-die spirit. He joined the Anjuman al-Farz or Duty Society, a society set up by Sahibzada Aftab Ahmad, an Old Boy, to foster a sense of voluntary service among students and further Sir Syed's vision of a class of people devoted to selfless service for the Qaum. Set up in 1889, during Sir Syed's lifetime, the Duty Society was a small, select group of elected members and consisted primarily of earnest young men who wished to propagate the 'idea' of the college at Aligarh and collect funds for the education of those who could not afford it. Acutely aware that only the sons of the rich and landed classes could study within the hallowed portals of the M. A. O. College, self-consciously designed by its founder to be the 'Cambridge of the East', members of the Duty Society took upon themselves the onerous task of sacrificing their holidays and much of their leisure time by going from home to home and town to town, like mendicants begging for alms. Not just that, members of the 'Duty' as it soon came to be called, set up tea stalls, served tea, even washed soiled cups and saucers with philanthropic zeal.
For young Shaikh Abdullah, his stint at the Duty Society provided a valuable early lesson in resourcefulness and public-spiritedness. It was important to have an idea, he knew; what was equally important, he learnt in the company of men like Aftab Ahmad Khan, was how to go about putting it into practice with single-minded determination. Strategising, organizing, mobilizing people and funds - all these would come handy when it came to putting his own goals into practice with the establishment of the Women's College. At the same time, he was influenced by Sir Syed's model of nai taleem or a new sort of education which, though not necessarily through the medium of English, but in any vernacular would teach modern subjects such as Mathematics, Geography, Economics and, yes, even Urdu. The Scientific Society set up by Sir Syed in 1863 and the journal Tahzeeb-ul Akhlaq in 1871 provided the young man with ample fodder to chew the cud of his own ideas. In fact, while still a student, Shaikh Abdullah became quite close to Sir Syed and had the opportunity to do all sorts of small errands for him, such as take notes, reply to letters, clean up copy for publication. Also, at the encouragement of Sir Syed, Shaikh Abdullah began to write short journalistic pieces; in the years to come this experience would come handy when he set up his own journal for women, Khatun.
Shaikh Abdullah became quite close to Sir Syed Ahmed Khan
The All-India Mohammadan Educational Conference, set up by Sir Syed in 1886, met for its eighth annual meeting in December 1893 in Strachey Hall in Aligarh. This time, too, Shaikh Abdullah attended, but not as a star-struck provincial lad looking from afar at the galaxy of stars of the Muslim firmament, as in the Lahore Conference of 1888. This time, as an active member of the Duty Society and the Mohammadan Educational Conference as well as a recognized name in Aligarh's student circles, he had a more engaged role. He heard Sir Syed, by now a lion in winter, make one last impassioned plea to the assembled Muslim intelligentsia, drawn from all over the country and from different backgrounds: to make Aligarh the centre or Markaz of all Muslim educational enterprises. Not all agreed. Some differed on locating it in Aligarh; why not the Punjab, for instance, argued the adherents of the Anjuman Himayat-i Islam? Others objected to Western-style boarding-school education such as the one being promoted at Aligarh. Still others found the Aligarh School not sufficiently kosher in terms of its religious foundations. In this cacophony of voices, the concerns centered round the education of Muslim men. No one, in this Tower of Babel, was speaking up for women.
In much the same way that the traditionalists and Muslim clerics were bitterly opposed to the Western-style education for boys being propagated by Sir Syed, Sir Syed himself was vehemently opposed to the education of women on purely moral grounds. Shaikh Abdullah was convinced that Sir Syed was paying mere lip service when it came to making public responses; in his heart he was adamant: education would bring waywardness and cause Muslim women to abandon the purdah and compete with men. He was also confident that Sir Syed's opposition to the education of women did not stem from religious convictions; its roots lay in tradition: qadamat parasti and purdah parasti, as he put it, liking antiquity and liking the segregation of the sexes that purdah ensured. Both were anathema to a young man like Shaikh Abdullah who had freed himself so thoroughly of the bonds of family, caste and creed and embraced Islam with such vigour because of its essentially egalitarian underpinnings.
Eventually, he succeeded in becoming the Secretary of the Women's Education Section in 1902 of the Mohammadan Educational Conference; by 1906 he had started the Aligarh Zenana Madrasa in a hired Kothi in the Upper Kot area of the old city and with the active help and support of his wife begum Waheed Jahan (known as Ala Bi) shifted the school to its present location on Marris Road in 1909. The rest, as they say, is history. The Women's College in Aligarh has, over the years, opened up a world of immense possibilities for Muslim women.
Rakhshanda Jalil is presently working on a biography of Dr Rashid Jahan, the daughter of Shaikh Abdullah and Waheed Jahan.