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The Aligarh connection

Rana Safvi  

For every Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) alumnus, October 17 is special as it marks the birth anniversary of its founder, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan.

When I was studying at the AMU, the only time I saw its Jama Masjid was during a celebratory dinner somewhere near the Sir Syed Hall. But as it was dark and there was a huge crowd there, it didn’t register. It was only while reading Sir Syed’s book Aasar-us-Sanadeed (Remnant Signs of Ancient Monuments) that I realised its significance.

Destruction in 1857

The year 1857 was a watershed for India, especially for its capital Delhi. After a four-month-long siege of Delhi, the Indian ‘rebels’ — as the British termed them — were defeated and the British East India Company with its army seized control of the Lal Qila (Red Fort) and the city of Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi) and imprisoned the ageing Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. He was exiled to Rangoon after a travesty of a trial where he was accused of sedition against his own empire.

Having gained control of the city, the British systematically went about destroying all the places they thought had housed the ‘rebels’ or had played an important part during that time.

One of these was the beautiful Akbarabadi Mosque built by Aizaz-un-Nisa Begum, wife of Shah Jahan, in 1650 A.D. She had been given the title of ‘Akbarabadi Mahal’ after the place of her birth and thus the masjid also became famous by that name.

It was lovingly described by Sir Syed in the first edition of Aasar-us-Sanadeed as being a “beautiful and heart-pleasing masjid”, one that “refreshes the eyes and rejuvenates the spirit”.

He went on to write, “In front of it, even the Masjid of the Green Dome (in Medina) looks small.”

The mosque followed the prevailing style of the era and was built with three domes, seven arches in the façade and two lofty minarets. Sir Syed wrote, “In front of that there is a square 12 x 12 yards hauz, which can make the springs of the sun and moon blush.” It stood in an area which was earlier known as Faiz Bazaar.

After its destruction in 1857, when Sir Syed visited the place, he was in tears to see the rubble. He allegedly said, “Sahib, angrezo ney Akbarabadi Masjid ko shaheed kardiya hey (Sir, the Englishmen have martyred the Akbarabadi Masjid).” The foundation and platform of the mosque were completely demolished when Edward Park was built in 1911. It is now known as Subhash Park.

In the aftermath of the Uprising of 1857 and the systematic persecution of the Muslim community, especially the elite who the British felt were mainly responsible for the ‘revolt’, Sir Syed set about thinking of ways to rehabilitate the community. One of them was to integrate them into Indian society via Western education and thus was born the idea of the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College, which went on to become the Aligarh Muslim University.

Though the foundation of a Jama Masjid (congregational mosque) for the college’s students was laid in 1877, its construction got delayed due to various reasons, getting completed much after Sir Syed’s death. It was declared open in February 1915.

Ali Nadeem Rezavi, a professor at the AMU’s history department, tells me that the inscriptions on the Akbarabadi Mosque, which included the Surah Fajr, were unique as they were done by Abdul Haq Amanat Khan, the same genius behind inscriptions on Taj Mahal and Sikandra.

To cite the AMU’s gazette, these inscriptions were presented to Sir Syed for use in the Jama Masjid by Shahzada Sulaiman Jah Bahadur. The latter had bought them from a scrap dealer in Aligarh, who had the rubble of 1857 monuments brought for sale.

As Mr. Rezavi says: “These Shahjahani calligraphic panels in black stone on white marble connect the AMU Jama Masjid with the Taj Mahal and Akbar’s tomb in Sikandra. At all three places one can see the workmanship of the same master-calligrapher.”

He says many features distinguish the AMU’s Jama Masjid. It was the last mosque in India to be built with an arcuate-style true dome. (An arcuate dome is built on the system of true arch, with the help of voussoirs and keystones.)

Emperor Jahangir claims in his memoirs that in the reign of both him and Akbar, his father, Shias and Sunnis offered congregational prayers in the same mosque. The AMU’s Jama Masjid is the only place where it still happens, says Mr. Rezavi.

To the west of this grand mosque are the cricket grounds where, as a student, I remember cheering for my favourite team.

Sir Syed himself lies buried in a simple yet very elegant grave and it is to him that many owe their education and career.

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 9:58:02 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/the-aligarh-connection/article19241453.ece

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