Sir Syed, we will remember your contribution at every turn of time

When I heard that Shoyeb Aftab from Orissa had topped the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (MEET) 2020 (the 18-year-old boy secured 720/720 in the medical entrance exam and created history) I immediately remembered a prophecy of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898). While establishing Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College at Aligarh in 1877 which morphed into Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in 1920, Sir Syed had prophesied about a day when, “Science shall be in our right hand and philosophy in our left; and our head shall be the crown of ‘There is no God but Allah and Mohammad is His messenger'”.

As we celebrate Sir Syed’s 203rd birth anniversary today (October 17), the words of ‘the grand old man of Aligarh’ seem to have come true. Even if Aftab didn’t study or prepare for NEET at any of Aligarh’s schools, his spectacular success seems in response to Sir Syed’s clarion call for reawakening and rejuvenation given over a century ago. His mission was not age-centric nor was his message confined for a particular geographical area.

To acquire scientific knowledge, rational thinking and modern outlook was at the heart of Sir Syed’s movement also called the Aligarh Movement. Much before he established Madrasatul Uloom in 1875 with 17 students (it graduated to MAO College in 1877) Sir Syed had founded the Scientific Society in 1864 at Ghazipur where he was posted in the judicial service of the British Raj. Later he shifted the Scientific Society to Aligarh on his transfer there. The Society’s basic aim was to translate classical works of English into Urdu. Hindus, Muslims, Christian British officials were on its management committee. Sir Syed’s first biographer G F I Graham observed:”For the first time in the annals of Hindostan has a Mahomedan gentleman alone and unaided thought over and commenced a Society in order to bring the knowledge and literature of the Western world within reach of the immense masses of the people of the establishment.”

The crushing of the Muslim elites during 1857 revolt and the inertia and fatal defeatism that engulfed the community in its aftermath led Sir Syed to ponder over ways the rescue the sinking community. He saw the panacea in modern education and scientific approach.

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He journeyed to England in 1869 and, apart from writing a rebuttal to William Muir’s prejudiced and biased remarks in the book “The Life of Mahomet”, Sir Syed visited Oxford and Cambridge universities. In England, he attended the last reading by Charles Dickens, met many Lords and Dukes, was made member of prestigious clubs and societies. He visited factories and saw great engineering works. Everything new he saw or experienced in England, he lamented how Indians lacked in it. After closely studying the education system in England, he wrote to a friend:”If you had come here, you would have seen how training is given to children and how knowledge is acquired and imparted and how a nation attains a position of honour.” He modelled MAO College on Oxford and Cambridge, making it a residential institution, something unheard of in the sub-continent then.

How he valued imparting knowledge more than doing a government’s job can be explained from an example. Ziauddin Ahmad was a brilliant student at MAO and, after passing provincial service exams, he was selected for the deputy collector’s job. Clutching the joining letter in his hand, Ahmad rushed to Sir Syed hoping he would give him a pat on the back. Seeing the letter and the radiant glow on his face, Sir Syed pointed to a lock in the room, saying:”Go, lock the college. If brilliant students like you leave the campus who will run it?” He changed his mind, stayed back to study more and serve the college, went on become a famous Mathematician and was called Sir Dr Ziauddin Ahmad. He later became AMU’s VC (1941-1947) and helped to the varsity’s growth.

After MAO became AMU in 1920, the movement to attain excellence picked up momentum. Senior journalist Tariq Hasan, in his excellent essay ‘AMU: An Unfinished Journey (Oxford of the East:Centenary Commemorative Volume edited by Juhi Gupta and Abdur Raheem Kidwai), quotes an incident from the time of Sir Syed’ grandson Ross Masood’s period as VC (1929-1934):”… Sir Ross Masood was known to the legendary physicist, Albert Einstein. By some chance, Einstein came to know that the AMU was searching for a promising young physicist. He immediately wrote to Sir Ross Masood and suggested that the AMU should appoint Dr Rudelph Samuel for this post. Samuel happened to be one of the most promising protégés of Einstein and he was immediately appointed.” Another prominent European scientist, Dr R F Hunter, says Hasan, was appointed in the Department of Chemistry.

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There is a long list of Aligarians who have distinguished themselves in different branches of science. Dr Syed Zahoor Qasim, an Alig, immediately comes to mind. He, in 1981 led India’s first expedition to Antarctica. In our time AMU alumnus Khushboo Mirza became a space scientist and earned the nickname “Moon Girl” for being part of India’s Chandrayan, the moon mission. Noted writer and AMU Urdu Academy’s director Dr Rahat Abrar celebrated this journey of a Muslim girl from a small town in UP with a book called Chilman Se Chand Tak (From Veil to Moon). Dr Abrar had told me earlier: “In the initial days when Sheikh Abdullah established women’s college at Aligarh in early 20th century, a purdah or curtain separated women students from their male teachers. Khushboo has come a long way since those days of gender segregation.”

As we celebrate Sir Syed Day and centenary of AMU, it is time for the AMU community, its alumni and individuals like Shoyeb Aftab and his parents to reiterate their commitment to excel in science and scholarship.

I end my essay in eternal gratitude to Sir Syed.

Tere ehsan rah rah kar sada yaad ayenge unko/Karenge zikr har majlis meiN aur doharayenge unko

(Your favours will keep reminding them/They will talk about these favours in every meeting and will keep repeating it–Altaf Husain Hali) .

Mohammed Wajihuddin, a senior journalist, is associated with The Times of India, Mumbai. This piece has been picked up from his blog.

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