The Man who became a Movement

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898), the founder of the Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College, which later became Aligarh Muslim University in 1920, was a great visionary and intellectual. After visiting England in 1869, Syed was impressed with the institutions of higher learning such as the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Once returned home he emphasized a new education of the word (Ilm-Ul-Kalaam) by establishing MAO College on the Oxbridge model.

As we are celebrating the 203th birth anniversary of Syed on 17 October 2020 when the whole debate around the nationalism and hyper-nationalism is round the corner. In fact we are living in strange times where false narratives are constructed to push a particular political project. There is great work going on to erase the past and set the new versions of past on falsehood. Ironically the past lies are now accepted as gospel truths. There is every attempt to divide the already fragile society to fulfill the political wishes. The divisive politics of right-wing parties is the only accepted norm in the present day. It is here when Sir Syed, the pioneer of Aligarh Movement is needed to be re-read. Sir Syed realized the importance of modern education and he believed that it was education alone that would help to achieve the much cherished goals of development, peace, harmony and political stability of people. As Syed said, “Look forward, learn modern knowledge; do not waste time in studies of old subjects of no value.” What Sir Syed wrote about society and human culture 150 years ago continues to hold even now. In fact the thinking of the Syed on many critical issues can still provide us some significant insights to overcome the challenges we are faced with, because he was the firm believer in dialogue even on the matters of religion.

Syed worked closely with the non-Muslims, who were his main supporters and big donors for the MAO College too. He held firm to the belief that Muslims and Hindus must study together and he ensured the recruitment of Hindu students and staff members in MAO. Likewise, to maintain amity between Shia and Sunni Muslim students, he encouraged common prayers in the college mosque. Syed’s message was flawless to the Muslims of the Indian Sub-continent to get educationally fortified for a better intellectual outlook and wider vision to defend their socio-religious and political identity. Allama Iqbal described Syed’s personality in these words: “The real greatness of the man (Sir Sayyid) consists in the fact that he was the first Indian Muslim who felt the need of a fresh orientation of Islam and worked for it.”

Perhaps taking this idea from Syed, Allama Iqbal and Jinnah (under the Muslim League) changed the socio-political discourse of the sub-continent and a separate political entity came into existence in the form of Pakistan Movement. It is in this context that many historians attribute Syed as a founder of the two nation theory in 19th century as he was probably the first intellectual who used the word ‘Muslim Quom’ (Muslim Nation) for the Muslims of the sub-continent. And there is no denying the fact that the Pakistan movement was headed by those who mostly studied in AMU and Aligarh provided a fertile ground for Jinnah’s ideology.

The book ‘The Causes of the Indian Revolt’ (1858) which Syed wrote after the 1957 revolt is one of the master pieces.  This work is mostly referred to for understanding the political reasons for the Revolt of 1857.  Syed is one the 19th century leaders who paved the way for the transformation of British India into an enlightened member of the global human community by his struggle for the emancipation of people. One can argue that it is because of Syed’s cerebral that the second dominant narrative of Muslim Nationalism emerged in India around him and later other Muslim leaders and Intellectuals followed. Even today we refer them as Sir Syed School.

Due to COVID-19 Aligs (Alumini of AMU) all over the world and Kashmir would not be in a position assemble for a day and pay homage to the founder of their Alma Matter. Today, on his 203 birthday we all Aligs pay tributes to this great visionary intellectual. The man proved to be much more than an individual; he was a movement unto himself because his role in our intellectual history has been unquestionably unique and praiseworthy.

And it is AMU alone that has the power to serve the society than ever before. This great son of the South Asia had indeed renaissance potential for generations to come. He has a permanent place in the history of the Sub-Continent.

Happy 203th Birthday, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan! May your soul rest in peace. Amen!

Post Script: The first generation of Muslim Kashmiri leaders were trained and educated at this great center of learning called AMU. It was in 1930s and 1940s that many leaders of our national struggle fought against the oppressive rule of Maharaja Hari Singh. Since 1920s, AMU acted as a sanatorium for many Kashmiris at a time when it was very difficult for a common Kashmiri to study in and outside the J&K. What Kashmiris couldn’t express in their native land over the decades, they would often express that in four walls of hostels and lawns of this Sir Syed’s Chaman.

As a researcher I am currently working on an academic research theme entitled ‘Kashmir’s Political Discourse at Aligarh Muslim University Since 1930 to Present’, (the title of the manuscript will be modified later, if needed). As AMU has been related to Kashmir since decades, in this regard, I am collecting data to explain in detail the political discourse surrounding Kashmir at AMU. Since, many Kashmiri Aligs have been deeply engaged with happenings in J&K and have contributed also, I believe that they may be able to share some inputs on how Kashmir discourse has been in AMU in the past. It may be in the form of writing, demonstrations, protests, track II diplomacy or whatever that associates AMU with Kashmir polity and society. I hope that readers would be in a position to share some relevant information with me viz email ahanger.javid786@gmail.com which may be reflecting upon the theme. I shall be grateful to all.

Note: The information/data will be purely used for only this research project and the privacy will be respected. And once the paper is be published I will be happy to share a copy!

Author is a Kashmiri Alig with PhD in Political Science from AMU