Sir Syed’s prismatic persona refracts the story of a single life into multiple hues of a rainbow arching above a horizon that was blood-red at one end and seemed pitch-dark at the other. More multifaceted than most other Muslim inhabitants of India, ever before or ever since, Syed Ahmad’s life was deeply imbued with thought, passion and action. Deciphering and interpreting such a life is a challenge of gargantuan dimensions, which this essay can only feebly attempt. As we traverse the memorable milestones in his journey, we begin to see that one common theme runs through his entire life. All that he stood and strived for, with such amazing endurance, patience and steadfastness, was to restore the dignity of his qaum, his nation, his religion, and his own. In this endeavor he never compromised and never yielded. It is impossible for me to capture his deeds in my words, but I will try to keep his quest for dignity at the center of my narrative.
His motivation was rooted in his values, and these he imbibed early in his life, nurtured and defended until his dying day. From these values he crafted his moral compass, which unfailingly and unswervingly directed him in his quest for dignity. Growing up in a family of notables that had served with distinction in the Mughal administration, he absorbed his spirituality from his father, and pragmatism from his maternal grandfather, who had distinguished himself in the service of both the British East India Company and the Mughal Emperor. Curiosity was ingrained in his nature, as was a sense of history and awareness of the contemporary environment. It was this curiosity and the desire to link Delhi’s historical past with the present realities that led him to undertake the monumental task of thoroughly studying the monuments and ruins of Delhi and the important personages and cultural narratives that provided its historical context.
For eighteen months Syed Ahmad devoted what time he could spare from his official engagement as a junior judicial functionary in the service of the British East India Company to map the architectural heritage of Delhi, publishing his painstaking work ‘Asar-us-Sanadid’ (Traces of Noblemen) in 1847. The fading glory of a proud past was sought to be reclaimed in a six- hundred- page book, written when he was barely thirty years old. Divided into four sections describing the buildings outside the walled city of Shahjahanabad, structures within the Qila Mu’alla (Red Fort) Complex, as well as those within the walled city, concluding in the last section with the tazkirah (biographical account) of Delhi’s important personages. The second edition of this work, published in 1854, omitted the tazkirah altogether. It received little attention in England until a French scholar of Urdu, Garcin de Tassy, translated this worthy work. This earned Syed Ahmad an Honorary Membership of the prestigious Royal Asiatic Society in 1864, winning him recognition in Europe.
It was the great climacteric of 1857 that thrust Syed Ahmad into a crucible, from which he would emerge with honor. This inflection point in his life occurred when he was posted in Bijnor as Sadr Amin (sub-judge). On 10th May 1857, sepoys of the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry in Meerut, just 40 miles from Bijnor, rose up in revolt and released from jail 85 comrades who had been imprisoned for refusing to use new cartridges alleged to have been greased with lard and cow tallow. This mutiny spread like wildfire and within three weeks every regiment in the Rohilkhand Division had rebelled. Delhi and Oudh were also up in arms and the great rebellion was raging across a wide sweep of territory. During this turmoil, Syed Ahmad recorded in remarkable detail the traumatic events that he lived through or of which he had accurate knowledge. These he chronicled in his ‘Tarikh Sarkashy-i-Zilla Bijnor’ (History of the Bijnor Rebellion).
Syed Ahmad’s conduct during that traumatic period provides proof of his courage and steadfastness. When it became clear that their writ could no longer run, the British officials of the district departed for safer sanctuaries, while the subordinate Indian officials stayed behind. The chaos that reigned between the departure of the British in June 1857 and their retaking of Bijnor in April 1858 has been described by Syed Ahmad in vivid detail. The devastating battles that ensued between the Muslim Nawabs and the Hindu Chaudhris convinced him that, with the irreversible decay of Mughal power, it was only British rule that could hold the country together.
With the failure of the great rebellion, the freedom dream of the rebels had soured into a sordid nightmare. Pulverized by merciless reprisals, the Muslims of India were in a state of pitiable turmoil. It was against this backdrop that this pragmatic visionary picked up the fragments of the destroyed morale of his community to piece together a cogent and reasoned response, a blueprint for revival that could create a dignified space for his qaum.
The catastrophe of the rebellion convinced the British Government that radical change was necessary and urgent. India was brought directly under Crown rule. Queen Victoria’s Proclamation of 1858 was unambiguous. The British Sovereign, now also Monarch of India, was reaching out to her Indian subjects assuring them of non-interference in their religious beliefs, equal opportunity of employment in Government service and pardon to all except those convicted of killing British subjects during the rebellion. Syed Ahmad found this declaration reassuring and a major step towards the restoration of the dignity of his countrymen. Yet he felt compelled to dispel the notion widely prevalent among the British ruling elite that the rebellion was a Muslim conspiracy to overthrow British rule and restore Mughal sovereignty. At the grave risk of offending the rulers and facing the consequences of their displeasure, he articulated his views in a document titled ‘Asbab-e-Bhagawat-e-Hind’ (The Causes of the Indian Revolt). He posited that the primary cause of the rebellion was the disconnect between the rulers and the ruled resulting from the absence of native representation in the highest decision- making body of the country- the Legislative Council. There was not a voice that could echo the ground realities, concerns and perceptions of the people in the Imperial chambers. This absence of an essential feedback loop created a vacuum that was filled with misapprehensions, misgivings and misunderstandings, causing suspicions to multiply and resentments to take root. He then elaborates upon five other major causes. The first among these was misapprehension on the part of the people of the Government’s intentions, primarily the widespread belief that the Government wished to force the Christian faith upon the people. This fear was fueled by Missionary activities and the setting up of Missionary schools patronized by high ranking British officials. He listed the second significant cause as being the enactment of laws and regulations that were contrary to native customs and practices and hence deemed objectionable. These included matters relating to women’s rights and land taxation and reform. The third major cause he believed was the Government’s ignorance of the condition of the country and its citizens, including overwhelming poverty and rampant unemployment leading the populace to desire a change in dispensation. The fourth major cause was neglect by the Government in matters that deserved attention, in particular the lack of courtesy and the contemptuous behavior of British officials towards the natives, as well as their exclusion from higher official positions. The fifth major cause was seen to be the insufficient number of British troops, the practice of mixed regiments, the inflated self-perception and pride of the sepoys and the introduction of new cartridges allegedly greased with pig and cow fat. This detailed document provides incontrovertible evidence of Syed Ahmad’s desire to be an honest interlocutor between the British Government and the Indian people and his courage in speaking truth to power.
As a sequel to ‘Asbab’, he published a pamphlet titled ‘The Loyal Mohammedans of India.’ Targeting a British audience, Syed Ahmad recounted the services rendered by Muslims to the British Government during the rebellion, dismissed the notion that the revolt was seen as a holy war and enumerated multiple real instances where they protected British honor, lives and property at grave risk to their own. Syed Ahmad was straining every nerve to recover his qaum’s dignity from the debris of the failed rebellion.
Fully cognizant that education was the route to regeneration, Syed Ahmad took his first tentative steps towards addressing this vital issue by establishing a madrasa in Moradabad and then a school in Ghazipur during his postings in the two locations. Both were later merged with local government schools. Conscious that Western advances in knowledge were inaccessible to Indians because of the language barrier, he initiated a Translation Society in Ghazipur to translate English works in history, natural science, political economy and agriculture into Urdu. Soon he realized the impracticality of this enormous task and renamed it Scientific Society, the center of which was shifted to Aligarh upon his transfer there in 1864. Commencing in March 1866, the Scientific Society published a weekly newsletter, The Aligarh Institute Gazette, printed in parallel columns of Urdu and English. In addition to reporting the proceedings of the Society, the Gazette was embellished with news items, editorial comments and essays. Emblazoned on its masthead “Liberty of the press is a prominent duty of the government and the natural right of the citizen”, it became a medium for communicating Syed Ahmad’s views on different topics. Even though he was transferred to Benares in 1867, it was in Aligarh that Syed Ahmad was now anchored, having bought a bungalow there. Aligarh was to be the center of his aspirations, dreams, exertions and pursuits.
He took leave of absence from his judicial duties in Benares to go to England with his sons Syed Hamid and Syed Mahmud. A Government Resolution in 1868 had founded nine scholarships to enable Indian youths to study in England. Syed Mahmud was the first recipient of this scholarship. Accompanied by his two sons, a servant and one other, he sailed from Bombay on 10th April, 1869. The purpose of his visit was twofold; besides obtaining insights into the English system of education, he also wanted to use the available time and access to intellectual resources to write a rejoinder to William Muir’s book ‘The Life of Mahomet’. The prolific writer that he was, he has recorded details of his journey in a travelogue, Musafiran-e-Landan. Whilst in England, he wrote a series of letters, which appeared in the Aligarh Institute Gazette, describing his journey.
In England he was very warmly received. The then Secretary of State for India, the Duke of Argyll, presented him with the insignia of the Companion of the Most Exalted Order of the Star of India on 6th August 1869. A native of India was being accorded great respect in the homeland of the rulers, not because he held high office, but because of his personal worth. Undoubtedly this was the dignity he aspired to for his countrymen.
On 15th October 1869 he addressed a very candid letter to the Secretary of the Scientific Society, which appeared in the Aligarh Institute Gazette. He informed his readers that he had been in the company of lords and dukes at dinners and evening parties, but had also mixed a great deal in middle class society. He wrote: “Although I do not absolve the English in India of discourtesy, and of looking upon the natives of that country as animals and beneath contempt, I think they do so from not understanding us; and I am afraid, I must confess, that they are not far wrong in their opinion of us. …What I have seen and see daily is utterly beyond the imagination of a native of India. …I only remark on politeness, knowledge, good faith, cleanliness, skilled workmanship, accomplishments, and thoroughness, which are the results of education and civilization. He also wrote: “The fatal shroud of complacent self-esteem is wrapped around the Mohammedan community; they remember the old tales of their ancestors, and think that there are none like themselves. … Until education of the masses is pushed on as it is here, it is impossible for a native to become civilized and honored”
The project that preoccupied Syed Ahmad’s mind during the entire length of his stay in England was to write a refutation of William Muir’s work, ‘The Life of Mahomet’, published in four volumes in England in 1861. He seriously objected to Muir’s assertion that “Toleration is unknown in Islamism” and that “the sword is the inevitable penalty for denial in Islam.” Syed Ahmad rebutted the allegation as being one of the gravest charges falsely imputed to his faith by the followers of other religions and one that arises from the utter ignorance of those who make the allegation, which is entirely contrary to the fundamental principles of Islam. He quoted from the Holy Quran and supported his assertions by quoting from British writers such as Godfrey Higgins, John Davenport and Gibbon. With meticulous research, he wrote twelve essays on the Prophet of Islam, had them competently translated into English, and published them in 1870 in England as ‘A Series of Essays on the Life of Mohammad’. He also sent copies of his work, with accompanying letters, to the Sultan of Turkey and the Khedive of Egypt. That he had very cordial relations with Sir William Muir, who at the time of writing held the powerful position of Lieutenant Governor of the North-West Province, did not deter Syed Ahmad from crossing swords with him in defense of his faith. The main objectives of his visit to England fulfilled, he returned to India later that year.
Back in India, Syed Ahmad lost no time in setting in motion initiatives to further his two primary objectives- education and social reform. He initiated Tahzib-ul-Akhlaq (Mohammedan Social Reformer). He used this publication to disseminate his views on social reform and build support for his efforts to found a college. His purpose was to influence the thinking of Muslims to enable them to avail fully the opportunities that were opening up to them as British subjects. Through this publication, he sought to create a temperament that could simultaneously embrace religion and scientific thinking, since he saw no possibility of conflict between the word of God and the work of God. Over time, he hoped to eradicate suspicions of Western learning in the minds of his compatriots, and help his community to reform old customs and practices and inculcate a modern outlook.
He also assembled a ‘Committee for the better diffusion and advancement of learning among the Mohammedans of India’. In order to investigate the causes that prevented the Muslim community from availing adequately the opportunities offered by Government educational institutions, the Committee solicited essays, the three best of which would be awarded prizes. Thirty-two essays were received and their findings summarized. These included the absence of religious education in Government schools, the perceived effect of English education in promoting disbelief, corruption of morals, politeness and courtesy and various other reasons such as the schools not allowing time to attend to prayers, including on Fridays, the absence of Muslim teachers, the harsh treatment of Muslim students by teachers of other faiths etc. Also mentioned were the habits and manners of the Mussulman population. The richer classes among them did not want their children to mix with children of all classes and, having ample means of livelihood, considered modern education unnecessary. The last meeting of this Committee was held on 15th April 1872 when this Committee was replaced with The Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College Fund Committee.
Syed Ahmad’s focus was distracted by the publication in 1871 of a book by W. W. Hunter titled Our Indian Mussulmans: Are they bound in conscience to rebel against the Queen? Syed Ahmad felt compelled to challenge these aspersions cast upon his community. He wrote a detailed rejoinder in 1872 describing the allegations as mischievous distortion and exaggeration of facts. Quoting Hunter: “The Mussulmans of India are, and have been for many years, a source of chronic danger to the British power in India”, Syed Ahmad responded by saying: “As a cosmopolitan Mohammedan of India, I must raise my voice in opposition to Dr. Hunter in defense of my fellow countrymen.” Powerfully and eloquently he goes on to state “Now I frankly confess that I am at a loss what to think of Dr. Hunter. I can scarcely believe that he intended to deceive or mislead his readers; but at the same time, I can hardly credit him with such gross ignorance as is here evinced. Dr. Hunter stands convicted either of intentionally misleading the public or of ignorance profound.” He goes on to rebut Dr. Hunter’s assertion that he has no hope of enthusiastic loyalty and friendship from the Mohammedans of India; the utmost he can expect from them is a cold acquiescence in British rule. At this point Syed Ahmad delivers a knock-out blow: “Like begets like; and if cold acquiescence is all that the Mohammedans receive at the hands of the ruling race, Dr. Hunter must not be surprised at the cold acquiescence of the Mohammedan community”. Syed Ahmad concludes by saying that “I could not, however, in justice to myself and my coreligionists, have kept silence when such erroneous statements were broadcast over the land.” Yet again Syed Ahmad had demonstrated his courage by speaking truth to power.
The adumbration and contours of a solution to the problem of educating Indian Muslims were forming in Syed Ahmad’s imagination while he was still in England. He had written a pamphlet early during his stay there titled Strictures on the Present State of English Education in India. In his opinion the system of government schools had failed to achieve popular mass education or the stimulation of intellectual curiosity. “The sum total of all that has been effected by the English colleges has been to qualify an insignificant number as letter writers, copyists, signal-men, and railway ticket-collectors.” And, of course, the antiquated system of madrasahs was no solution at all. The MA-O College Fund Committee was in unanimous agreement to the establishment of a Mohammedan School System that would impart modern education in English and yet allow sufficient space for religious instructions and practice. The underlying rationale was to set in motion a movement to cultivate intellectual change and to inaugurate an educational system for future generations. The Fund Committee set itself a task of raising a corpus of ten lakh rupees to make possible the establishment of a residential school conceived on the lines of English Public Schools and the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The proposed College would be a self-sufficient institution where young men would be removed from the ambience of their homes and raised in a carefully controlled and monitored environment that would combine education with the cultivation of character.
Raising funds was a huge challenge, but a bigger challenge was the resistance within the community to such an initiative. Many considered Syed Ahmad’s religious views as unorthodox, even heretical. The opponents of his educational mission put up stiff resistance to derail his plans. Ali Baksh Khan, a fellow sub-judge, travelled to Mecca to obtain a Fatwa. “In this case, no assistance is allowable to the institution. May God destroy it and its founder. No Mussulman is allowed to give assistance to or countenance the establishment of such an institution. It is moreover the duty of the faithful to destroy it if it be established and chastise to the utmost those who are friendly to it.” There was no need for external enemies; there were enough within the community he was laboring to benefit and whose reputation he was seeking to salvage. Undeterred Syed Ahmad soldiered on, in spite of receiving multiple death threats, not even seeking police protection.
In July 1872, a scheme for the proposed College was presented to the Viceregal establishment. Sir John Strachey, later to be Lt. Governor of North-West Province, facilitated Syed Ahmad’s efforts, stating that “it deserves every encouragement the Government can give.” Strachey cut through bureaucratic obstructions and obtained for the proposed College seventy-four acres of the old Aligarh Cantonment parade ground as the site of the campus. The Fund Committee also purchased about twenty acres of adjoining land. The Fund Committee received permanent endowments from Hyderabad State and the estate of Sir Salar Jung, and smaller endowments from Rampur, Patiala, Vizianagram, Mahmudabad, and a wealthy Bombay Merchant Muhammad Ali Rogay. The Viceroy Lord Northbrook contributed ten thousand rupees from his personal funds. Sir John Strachey helped with a special grant from the allocations made by the Government through the Department of Public Instruction, making a personal contribution too. The opening ceremony of the College was held on 24th May 1875 and some school classes began on 1st June with an English Headmaster, H.G.I. Siddons, and eleven students on the rolls. The foundation stone of the College was laid on 8th January, 1877 by Viceroy Lord Lytton. Syed Mahmud read out an address on behalf of the Fund Committee: “There have before been schools and colleges founded and endowed by private individuals. There have been others built by Sovereigns and supported by revenues of the State. But this is the first time in the history of the Mohammedans of India that a college owes its establishment, not to the charity or love of learning of an individual, not to the splendid patronage of a monarch, but to the combined wishes and the united efforts of a whole community.” Actual college-level classes commenced in January 1878. Theodore Beck, an outstanding Cambridge graduate, who had also been President of the Cambridge Union was selected to be the Principal of the College in 1883.
In 1878, Lord Lytton appointed Syed Ahmad a member of the Viceroy’s Council for a period of two years. In 1880, Lord Ripon appointed him again for another two years. In 1888, Syed Ahmad Khan was honored to be made Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of India (KCSI). In 1889, he was awarded LLD Honoris Causa by Edinburgh University. His search for dignity was not in vain! Sir Syed Ahmad Khan breathed his last in Aligarh on 27th March, 1898. The University he dreamt of became a reality twenty-two years later, after much sweat, tears and toil by those who carried the baton of the Aligarh Movement. The legacy he bequeathed has few parallels in the annals of the history of the Muslims of India.
While the Aligarh Muslim University has pride of place as the crown jewel of the Muslims of India, the community still remains educationally backward. The Aligarh Movement succeeded in creating a University of great distinction, but failed in creating systemic change across the Muslim educational landscape. Many bright stars adorn the constellation of AMU alumni, yet the pall of mediocrity is difficult to dispel. Complacency is again a malaise, and dignity is again under assault. AMU, arguably, has the highest concentration of Muslim intellectuals anywhere in India, if doctoral degrees can be assumed to be correlated with intellect. A natural expectation from such a cerebrally-abundant environment would be thought-leadership, particularly in matters that have contemporary relevance to the Muslim community in India and beyond. If AMU is to articulate the aspirations and hopes of the Muslims of India, it must be able to epitomize and embody those yearnings. Its role in the service of the community has to be seen in the widest possible context. Unless people can be brought out of their cocoons and comfort zones, the full potential of this institution as a harbinger of positive change will not be realized. Traditional ways of thought and behavior need to be challenged so that significantly improved outcomes can be realized from new approaches to finding solutions to problems, many of which are not new but persistent. Sir Syed’s spirit beckons us to rise above ourselves and punch above our weight, much as he did. This requires that we imbibe his courage, his determination, his sincerity and his perseverance in the pursuit of purpose. Once again, our dignity has been battered and bruised and we too must embark on a quest to restore our honor in the eyes of our countrymen and the world. Can we pick up the gauntlet and answer his call? Yes, we can!
Hasan Ghias is a US-based Business & Organization Development Consultant who writes regularly, among other subjects, on the country of his origin, India.