Man who knew tomorrow

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan   | Photo Credit: 09dfr Sir Syed Ahmed Khan

Edward Said’s awareness of the tragic Palestinian history and the painful realisation of the currency of vulgar clash of civilization theory convinced him that a humanist scholar must develop the virtues of both belonging and detachment, reception and resistance. A humanist should be both an insider and outsider to the ideas he confronts.

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (17 October 1817—27 March 1898), the founder of Anglo-Mohammedan Oriental College which became Aligarh Muslim University in 1920, lived this dialectic of belonging and detachment in his role of a humanist. His lifelong efforts to strike a balance between tradition and modernity, traditional Oriental and Western scholarship and religion and science made him know the inside and outside of the two worlds. All his writings and speeches testify this.

He tried to convince his co-religionists to study English language because knowledge of modern arts and sciences was available only in English. Not surprisingly he encountered stiff opposition from the religious scholars of his time for his adoption of modern science. Sir Syed convincingly argued that if in the past Muslims could study Greek language and in his time Persian language there was no reason why they should not take to Western education in English. “Persian, at its early stage, was the language of…fire-worshippers. But the Muslims have adopted it in such a manner that it has now become their language. How can religious prejudice come in the way of learning English language, in the light of these facts?’ His advocacy of English education was not at the cost of Arabic language. He rather believed that skepticism and anti-religious ideas could be effectively countered if Muslim youths were taught modern sciences and English language along with Arabic and Islamic studies.

In his now infamous “Minute on Indian Education” (1835), Macaulay had belittled both Sanskrit and Arabic learning. For him ‘a single shelf of good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.’ As the colonial power gained greater strength after the Revolt of 1857 and English education became popular, Sir Syed understood not only the practical need of English education for his community but also the intellectual challenges that faced the Islamic learning.

More than before there was a need to study the two forms of knowledge in comparative terms. “It is, therefore, necessary that the evils, defects and weaknesses of modern philosophy are pointed out with arguments and evidences or Islamic beliefs and religious views are identified with European philosophical ideas to find similarities between them,” he reasoned. Always one to argue his case competently and in a civilized manner, Sir Syed believed ‘that nothing in Islam and its belief is against reason and science.’ He exhorted the Islamic scholars to face the challenges of modern philosophy. There are definitely parallels between deism and his interpretation of religion.

He himself took up the challenge of refuting the arguments of Sir William Muir’s book “Life of Mahomet.” Far away from the world of book bans and book burning, he made a journey to England in 1869 for this purpose.

Like many other great reformers of his time, Sir Syed impressed upon his countrymen not to be slaves to meaningless customs and traditions. In one public lecture at Mirzapur in 1873 he exhorted the people to base their actions on reason. “A brave and true well wisher of his nation should himself enter the field, breaking the strong chains, so that others may also gather courage to come out of this captivity.” Giving examples from religion and history of people who broke customs – Abraham, Christ, The Prophet, Martin Luther and Socrates – he praised the efforts of his contemporaries who stood for reform like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Babu Keshav Chandra Sen and Iswar Chandra Viddya Sagar.

How do we judge Sir Syed? His detractors call him an Anglophile, a man too much in awe of everything English. He is also called an apologist for rationalism. Conservatives find faults with his views on Islam. Unfair remarks are also made about his views on women. However, in passing a judgement on a past icon it must be remembered that thinking very often is trapped in the episteme of its time. That Sir Syed could go beyond the accepted discursive norms of his time in many respects (especially in religious matters) speaks volumes about his vision. More importantly, it baffles us how one single person could combine so successfully the roles of an administrator, reformer, thinker, educationalist, journalist, writer, religious scholar, devoted family man and above all a humanist. He was truly, to use Pierre Bourdieu’s coinage, a collective intellectual.

The phenomenal results of his actions continue to multiply.

(The author teaches English at Aligarh Muslim University.)

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Printable version | Jul 21, 2021 4:56:07 PM |

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