Delhi

‘Sir Syed unfailingly stood for all Indians’

A Raj loyalist or a social reformist, the conundrum has shrouded the legacy of Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) for more than a century. In Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: Reason, Religion And Nation (Routledge India), Professor Shafey Kidwai has penned an objective analysis of the man who was undoubtedly more than the founder of the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College that grew into Aligarh Muslim University more than two decades after his death.

With a foreword by Professor Irfan Habib, the book deals with Sir Syed’s attitude towards Congress leaders, his shifting concepts of watan (nation) and qaum (community) and his views on girl education.

A seasoned professor of journalism at AMU, Prof. Kidwai has written extensively on Sir Syed. In 2019, Sawaneh-e-Sir Syed: Ek Bazadeed, a biography of Sir Syed in Urdu, fetched him the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award.

Ahead of Sir Syed’s birth anniversary this Sunday, Prof. Kidwai says despite his Anglophile streak, he refused to accept the prevalent culture of genuflecting. “His scientific outlook requires a thoughtful exploration that a simplistic, historiographical work could not produce.”

Edited excerpts:

Isn’t it difficult to write about a personality who espoused conflicting ideas and took a long time to evolve?

He was not a mere reconciler, and he made no effort to wrap the conflicting ideas into a single narrative. I have tried to put a premium on showcasing how he employed reason even in dealing with emotive issues related to faith and how rationalism never deserted him. On the thorny issue of blasphemy that frequently surfaced during Sir Syed’s time, he made it clear that the Koran does not prescribe corporal punishment for the offender. The deplorable act of desecration amounts to sedition and Muslim caliphs impose corporal punishment, but it cannot be implemented in a non-Islamic state. Sir Syed said that in India, the issue is to be settled according to the country’s laws. It requires to be opposed with a logical rebuttal, and noisy protest will serve no purpose.

How does the book add to the existing work on Sir Syed?

Not much has been written about how he strove for mitigating the sufferings of the beleaguered while being a member of several apex bodies under the British rule. Notwithstanding his occasional emotional outbursts bordering on communalism, he unfailingly stood for all Indians as he was the first citizen who demanded that the entry age of ICS aspirants be raised to 23 instead of 21 as Indians started education quite late.

He also demanded that the coveted examination be held in India. Later, the Congress made these two demands its central plank. Similarly, he was the first Indian member who introduced the compulsory smallpox eradication vaccination Bill and vehemently supported Ilbert Bill that empowered Indian judges to hear the criminal cases filed against the British. Curiously, other Indian members sided with the Anglo-Indian community, which fiercely opposed the Bill.

Do you find a dichotomy in Sir Syed’s usage of qaum and watan, which, decades later, led a section of Pakistani thinkers to consider him the Father of the Nation?

Sir Syed attempted to locate the concept of nation in terms of faith, language and geographical framework simultaneously and separately at regular intervals. It is a topic that still provides ammunition to his admirers and opponents in almost equal terms. It is pertinent to point out that Sir Syed was not swayed by the pan Islamism propagated by Jamaluddin Afghani (1838-1897) and Sheikh Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), and he vehemently opposed it by writing several editorials in his multilingual newspaper — Aligarh Institute Gazette.

Significantly, he never used the term ummah (Muslims all over the world are one) in his writings. For him the concept of Khilafat had very little relevance in the Indian context hence sowing the seeds of separatism among Muslims cannot be attributed to him.

Sir Syed asserted that all the religious communities living in India form one unified nation. He did make a difference between patriotism, nationalism and citizenship. He did repudiate the territorial or race-based concept of nationalism and candidly talked about a Muslim identity that is both Indian and Islamic.

How do you make sense of Sir Syed’s shifting views on girl education?

Sir Syed’s concept of girl education seemed skewed and unpalatable as he suggested tutor-based home education for girls. Taking a cue from Edward H. Clarke’s book, Sex In Education, or, A Fair Chance For Girls (1873) that favoured single (male) education, Sir Syed did plead for setting up government schools exclusively for boys and home-based tutor education for girls. He was not an opponent of women education, however, he tried to offer them a faulty model. Though later on he relented, his call for women’s education seems too irresolute and too late.

From the existing material, can we infer how would Sir Syed have negotiated a Hindutva-led India?

It is a tricky question to answer how Sir Syed would have responded to the tremendous emotive appeal of ethnicity or religion-based nationalism that get at us but a closer look into his writings prompts me to say that Sir Syed would have pushed for an alternative model of nationalism, resembling his indigenous model of modernism that he produced as an antidote to colonial modernism. He would have emphasised constitutional nationalism or in the terms of Hannah Arendt, “civic nationalism” that drew sustenance from tolerance, pluralism and respect for diversity.


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