Aligarh Muslim University—In search of Sir Syed’s dream

Muhammad Tariq Ghazi

Was Sir Syed really convinced that the Muslim of India were “illiterate” and had the good fortune to be educated thanks to the Company Bahadur’s usurpation of power in the country? If yes, then we put Syed Ahmad himself among the ranks of the unlettered. If no, then we have to rediscover and revisit the vision of that great man. What was that vision and is that relevant today? That is the lakh-rupya question that at least Aligarians have to ask themselves.

Allow me to go back a little into the past to illustrate the situations Sir Syed found himself in and the one we find ourselves in today.

Suppose Ibn Tufail’s theory was naturally correct and acceptable as it were. Ibn Tufail (1105-85) was an Andalusian Muslim philosopher, a disciple of Ibn Baja and mentor of Ibn Rushd. He wrote a sophi-sci fiction story Hayy ibn Yaqzaan, literally translated as “Alive son of Awake”. In that allegorical tale, Ibn Tufail argues that Hayy left alone as a child on an island outside civilization and beyond human contact, finally discovered the truth by reasonable thinking. Josh Malihabadi interprets this theory with poetic brevity:

MS Education Academy

ہم ایسے اہل نظر کو ثبوت حق کے لیے
اگر رسول نہ  ہوتے تو صبح کافی تھی
Hum aisay ahl-e nazar ko subuut-e Haq ke liye
Agar Rasool na hotay tau subH kafi thi

By accepting Ibn Tufail’s theory at its face value, the maximum it suggests is that a person of Hayy’s faculties can arrive at philosophical conclusions about truth and attain ability to intellectual interpretation of his theoretical discovery.

But can he also build the pyramids or Taj Mahal? I doubt it.

Sir Syed appeared to be certain he couldn’t. And that was the point of Sir Syed’s initiative. He would agree that the Taj Mahal’s planner-architect Ustaz Isa was not a science graduate of a British university, but then he knew for sure that Ustaz Isa had studied the science of architecture at certain institution. That was a madrasa!

However, Sir Syed was living in different circumstances. He was no longer the citizen of a free country and free society. His ilk were generally thrown out of jobs, as the new foreign-based administration did not need local teachers, thinkers, philosophers, intellectuals, scientists and prime ministers: it was in need of men who would securely fit into the new governing apparatus and the madrasa was not providing that kind of stuff required by the new rulers. Moreover, the madrasa was not ready to make compromises with the new rulers thus widening the gulf between the two.

So the task before Sir Syed was three-fold: to engage the new rulers by supplying men that suited the Raj by quietly producing philosophers, thinkers, intellectuals so as to provide theoretical base for a future generation of scientists and technologists in order to meet the “adversary” at his own turf. This, in my own view, is a radical interpretation of Sir Syed’s philosophy, which some may argue has apparently lost relevance since South Asia is no longer ruled by the aliens. But one cannot describe Sir Syed as a visionary if the man did not have a long-term scheme in mind. Did he have it?

I don’t know if Sir Syed had in mind any time-frame to achieve his trio of targets. Nonetheless, it was a stupendous task and a few years, even a few decades, were insufficient to produce the dreamed up results.

In the early phase, Sir Syed’s dream was materialized mostly in terms of churning out government servants out of jagirdars. This was the misty peak that people would think of scaling even in the early 1960s. I remember a faqir visiting SM East and praying for an alms-giver: “Allah aap ko dittykulluttar banaye” – yes, get a deputy collector’s job and you are the king. Nawabs and jagirdars would love to have scions of their family that close to the Laat Sahibs, or not-so-laat sahibs. For Sir Syed, the process was aimed at engaging the alien administration in order to minimize the direct threat, perhaps in disguised disregard to the fancies and phantasies of the feudals. In other words, one-third of the dream was already realized in Sir Syed’s life-time. In the second phase during the early post-Sir Syed years, we see the armies of intellectuals and philosophers and thinkers emerging from what had evolved into a university. Refer again to the hall of fame list given randomly in the beginning of this article. And then assess their caliber and their social contribution. They stood out on a high level field than their predecessor ditty kulluttars. And now when the third phase of Sir Syed’s dream has started to materialize, we are yet to see a long list of Hall of Famers, though we can still count on a Zahoor Qasim here, an Obaidur Rahman Siddiqi there, a Hamid Ansari nearer home, and an Abidullah Ghazi farther away.

This discussion brings us to two conclusions:

One: The almond tree planted by Sir Syed’s has started giving fruits 100 years after his death. The crop is not plentiful yet, but that is not a problem. In due course, we can expect big crops of scientists and technologists. Will Aligarh produce Nobel laureates? That is doubtful on two counts. First, it reminds me of a humorous story. A zamindar once visited a village in his fiefdom and thought of constructing a mosque there. He ordered his ryot to do the job. Since it was a mosque, everyone worked with zeal. The mosque, ready within days, was painted spiritual white. The feudal master locked it up and went back to his abode in the city. A few months later he revisited the village and was surprised to find the villagers having broken the padlock and freely frequenting the mosque for five-time prayers. The feudal master got angry and ordered everyone out of the mosque. A perplexed crowd gathered outside the mosque. Then the unamused zamindar declared: “We had built this masjid for our pleasure, not for you to pray here”. Nobel prizes are essentially for “their” pleasure, not so much for the Aligarians to covet. They may start their own Nobler Prize, if they wish a little funding for their dream projects.

Secondly, the thought also reminds me of a Chicago gathering of highly educated Muslims a few years ago when incidentally Nobel prizes were being announced one after another. Some of those present, among them Aligarians as well, whined about the Nobel committee being prejudiced against Muslims. Just then someone in the group suggested a game. He said here we are, all PhDs in various fields, and we also know many more like us living in the United States. We are also aware of our academic work and stature. Now let this group pretend to be the Nobel committee tasked to give a prize to an American Muslim. Let’s now assess the research works of all the known Muslim American scholars and choose a Nobel laureate-to-be. Name after name came for assessment and got rejected after some discussion of the value of their academic work. Finally not a single Muslim American social or applied scientist was found qualified for the honor. This story exposes the bitter reality. It is not enough for a university to produce graduates in applied sciences; they must also show their mettle.

Now for a moment forget about India. Those who migrated to the West, particularly to the United States, have not come here to achieve some lofty goals, but mainly because the greenback makes pasture here greener. Moreover, most of these Muslim American applied scientists are primarily engaged in providing at least social “leadership” to a rudderless community. In the olden days when second phase of Sir Syed’s dream was bearing results, men like Hasrat Mohani or Hafiz Ibrahim or Abdur Rabb Nishtar were not meddling with applied scientific issues. They knew that square pegs and round holes are not made for each other. Today’s Muslim scientists, particularly in western countries, do not appreciate this difference. But then their problem is that Aligarh’s contribution in social sciences has almost dried out. For example, the AMU Urdu Department that was once manned almost simultaneously by such literary giants as Rasheed Ahmad Siddiqi, Majnoo Gorakhpuri, Aale Ahmad Suroor, Moeen Ahsan Jazbi, Khaleelur Rahman Azmi, Masood Husain Khan, Khursheedul Islam. Now it has a nameless faculty except for a person or two known outside Aligarh. The moot point is that while the situation in applied sciences has at long last turned around, there is a simultaneous decline in the output in social sciences and humanities where a nation’s sociopolitical ideas and leadership germinate. It could be yet another era of transition – a transition that is slowly but surely depriving Aligarh of its distinction as a (manageable) residential university.

While Aligarh Muslim University and Aligarians around the world contemplate a new plan dictated by academic economy, let me make a final point that distinguishes Aligarh and gave it a long, purposeful life.

Sir Syed was a visionary, not a reactionary. And his counterpart on the other academic stream, Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi, was also a visionary, not a reactionary. The institutions they established are also visionary forces.

Thus, remember: action, however negative in its ideology, is always a positive force; while reaction even if based on a positive philosophy, is always a negative force: hence their respective outcomes are determined by their ultimate force, not just by their basic philosophy.

Aligarh which has completed the realization of Sir Syed’s dream is now faced with the dilemma of defining its future course – the type of scholars it should be offering the Indian society, or even the world society. For this to begin, Aligarians have to shun reactive approach to life. That’s not Sir Syed’s legacy.

Indian-Canadian Tariq Ghazi is a veteran journalist and writer based in Toronto. He is also the Director of  Umam Studies House. Mr Ghazi can be contacted at

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