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Sir Syed Ahmad Khan

By Dr. Latif Hussain S. Kazmi


[The man who had a vision to take his nation forward on modern lines. The contributions of the man called Sir Syed Ahamad Khan]

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) emerged a leading theologian and philosopher of modern Islamic world, who magnificently contributed to the intellectual development of 19th century India. His deep vision culminated in the form of ‘the Aligarh Movement’ the aim of which was to prepare Muslims, to imbibe the scientific spirit of the modern times and climes. It also addressed itself to the task of preparing Muslims for the adoption of the modern socio-political institutions of the West in accordance with the need of the day. As a sincere and enlightened leader of his times he firmly realized the inevitability of a religious world-view and value system and unavoidability of philosophical method and scientific temper. For him religion, philosophy and science were the most relevant fields of human endeavour. The Aligarh Movement was mainly based on these essential elements of spiritual enlightenment and material progress.
In the history of Islamic Renaissance Sir Syed Ahmad Khan stands out prominently as a creative thinker, reformer and a dynamic force against conservativism, irrationalism, superstition, inertia and religions obscurantism. A vibrant mind and a man of great moral courage, Sir Syed could understand the value of traditions and modernity both. In the process of modernisation of Islamic art and thought, Sir Syed’s contribution deserves special mention and appreciation. He was instrumental in underlining the significance and relevance of both material progress and spiritual growth with a view to leading a balanced and judicious life. As one of the greatest social reformers of nineteenth century, Sir Syed’s ideas and practices proved to be a turning point in reshaping the destiny of the entire Muslim community across the globe. However, the impact of his vision and mission on south-Asian Muslims is simply immeasurable.
The most crucial and contemporarily relevant contribution of Sir Syed was to work out a reconciliation between Islam and Western Science. For Sir Syed, there was no conflict between advancing scientific research of the West and the tenets of Din (religion) as advanced by the Holy Qur’an. There was nothing in the Qur’an which militates against natural scientific advances. Accordingly, he asked Muslims to liberate themselves from the fetters of medievalism and traditionalism. They must go in for the appropriation of fully-fledged scientific research with a view to achieving sociopolitical progress and economic prosperity. Only scientific research and technological sophistication could deliver Muslims from their current civilisational impasse.
Sir Syed, through his indomitable courage of convictions inspired Muslims for an onward march to modernity. He virtually lifted them from the depths of despondency. He emphasized on Muslims being firmly rooted in their cultural heritage, surely anchored on the Qur’anic beliefs and values and yet being open to scientific research and technological progress.
Like Ibn Rushd, Sir Syed worked out a reconciliation between religion and philosophy also and emphasized that philosophy was essential to understanding religion. Both are complementary to each other. He also addressed himself to the task of working out reconciliation between the intellectualism of the West and the traditionalism of the East.
Sir Syed emerged as a great intellectual mentor for the Muslims to guide them in various walks of life through the Aligarh Movement. As a social reformer, political leader, and religious thinker, he gave an optimistic direction to Indian Muslims. Besides, he was a moralist, a rationalist and a humanist of highest order. As a creative thinker his contributions to the fields of Sociology, Political Science, Theology, Philosophy and Jurisprudence were of exceptional merit and sophistication. Besides his invaluable contributions to these areas of great significance, his primary interest and concern remained focused on building an institution like the M.A.O. College, later Aligarh Muslim University, which aimed at eradicating ignorance, intolerance, apathy and superstition from Muslim community. Visualizing the aims and objectives of the M.A.O. College in 1875, while requesting Lord Lytton to lay the foundation stone of the college, he firmly declared:
“From the seed that we sow today, there may spring up a mighty tree whose branches, like those of the Banyan of the soil, shall in their turn strike firm roots into the earth and themselves send forth new and vigorous sapling; that this College may expand into a University whose sons shall go forth throughout the length and breadth of the land to preach the gospel of free inquiry, of large-hearted tolerance and of pure morality.”
The Aligarh Movement, embedded in Sir Syed’s vision and mission, has equal relevance today because the Muslim community and the nation at large still need to be rebuilt in various fields of human endeavour. However, apart from educational efforts which Muslims of India must accelerate in order to withstand the pressures of a hypercompetitive world, the relevance of Sir Syed is in emulating his example with a view to resolving the questions pertaining to the world-view and value-system of Muslims across the globe. There is virtually a civilizational clash between the technologically advanced Euro-American Christians and ideologically confused Afro-Asian Muslims. What British colonialists did to Indian Muslims during 1857-58 rebellion is being done to Muslims by American neocolonialists on the global plane. The Euro-American lords are there operating on the global plane. The Muslims are also pitted against them across the globe. Under this scenario Sir Syed’s Aligarh Movement may be proved to be instrumental in providing with the new directions of mutual understanding and progress.
The great task undertaken by the founder of the Aligarh Muslim University, needs to be reassessed, reassured and reconstructed under the objectives of the Aligarh Movement so that we may be able to pay homage to our great leader-philosopher for his deep vision, endless efforts and dedication towards the betterment of the community in particular and humanity in general. Thus, the most important and relevant contribution of Sir Syed in today’s world would be to cultivate an atmosphere of mutual inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue, understanding and human dignity so that the peoples of different faiths could work in unison to promote goodwill, harmony, love and service to humanity at large. Sir Syed’s vision and mission in the form of the Aligarh Movement can intrinsically pave the way towards this direction.

(Dr. Latif Hussain S. Kazmi is Associate Professor Department of Philosophy, Aligarh Muslim University)


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