Sir Syed Ahmed Khan – an architect of modern India


By Dr. M. Ashaq Raza

Exactly 200 years ago on 17 October 1817, there had born a child to Mir Muttaqi and Azis-un-Nisa, a progressive and highly regarded family by the Mughal dynasty, in Delhi. The child was named Syed Ahmad Taqvi, whom we now know by the name of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, one of Asia’s leading social reformers, educationist, jurist, author and founder of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), who is undoubtly regarded as one of architects of modern India.
Raised up in the Mughal traditions, Sir Syed was trained in Persian, Arabic and Urdu, and taught mathematics and astronomy. He began his study of medicine but could not complete the formal education due to death of his father and consequent financial difficulties. In 1836, he married Parsa Begum, and the couple went on a small family of three children: Syed Hamid, Syed Mahmood and Amina.
Sir Syed started his career as a judicial clerk at the Court of Law in Agra in 1838 and promoted to the title of ‘Munshi’ in 1840. He later graduated with a degree in law and judicial services from East India Company College. He had a versatile personality active in many fields. At the age of 23 he started his career as an author and in 1847 brought out his famous book, on the antiquities of Delhi, Athar a??anadid (“Monuments of the Great”) and more importantly his noteworthy booklet, Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind (“The Causes of the Indian Revolt”), in 1859 which was widely read by British officials and had considerable influence on British policy.
Syed Ahmed had great respect for all religions. He worked on a commentary on the Bible in which he stated that Islam and Christianity both share a common lineage from Abrahamic religions. The revolt of 1857 was one of the turning points in Syed’s life. He realized that the poverty and backwardness especially among Muslims of north India is mainly due lack of modern education and developed a strong passion for Western-style education focusing on proficiency in the English language and modern sciences. He established modern schools for the children at Muradabad in 1858 and Ghazipur in 1863 and began to prepare the road map for the establishment of a Muslim University by starting various schools.
In 1864, he was transferred to Aligarh where he founded a Scientific Society of Aligarh to instill scientific temperament among Muslims and to make the Western knowledge available to Indians in their own languages. The scientific association was first of its kind in India which held conferences, published scientific journals in English and Urdu provided funds for educational purposes. In March 1866, Sir Syed brought out The Aligarh Institute Gazette, an organ of the Scientific Society despite a lot of agitation among traditional Muslim society and responded even more strongly to opposition by launching another journal, Tehzibul Akhlaq the ‘Mohammedan Social Reformer’
As a pioneer of modern education in India, Sir Syed felt that orthodoxy was main hurdle in the development of the Muslims and published many writings promoting liberal and rational interpretations of Islamic scriptures which met with strong criticism by the Muslim clergy and thus he decided to stop discussing religion and focused on promoting education.
In May 1875, he founded Madarsatul Uloom, a school which after his retirement in 1876 enlarged into the historic Muhammadan Anglo Oriental College (MAO), on the patterns of Oxford and Cambridge in a quest to promote social, scientific, and economic development of Indian Muslims but without compromising Islamic values. His vision to establish this college was to act as a bridge between the old and the new, the East and the West, and he was the first Indian Muslim, according to Dr. Sir Mohammad Iqbal, who felt the need of a fresh orientation of Islam and worked for it.
The M.A.O College was first affiliated with the University of Calcutta and subsequently got affiliated with the University of Allahabad in 1885. It was one of the first purely residential educational institutions set up either by the government or the public in India. On January 1, 1881 B. A. classes started and Ishwari Prasad was the first student of M. A. O. College to pass the examination.
Sir Syed initiated the annual All India Muslim Educational Conference in 1886 aiming at spreading a network of Muslim Managed educational institutions throughout the across India. This Aligarh Movement was a wakeup call to the Muslims to establish more such educational institutions.
Throughout life Sir Syed remained a dedicated worker who devoted his entire life for the cause education for the masses. He lived the last two decades of his life in Aligarh and breathed his last on 27 March 1898, at the age of 80, and lies buried in the premises of the university mosque in the Sir Syed Hall. A highly knowledgeable man and a prolific writer, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan wrote on a number of subjects including history, politics, journalism, archaeology, literature, religion and science.
Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was great champion of Hindu and Muslim unity, he once said ?We (Hindus and Muslims) eat the same crop, drink water from the same rivers and breathe the same air. As a matter of fact Hindus and Muslims are the two eyes of the beautiful bride that is Hindustan. Weakness of any one of them will spoil the beauty of the bride (dulhan).? The renowned British magazine of the 19th century, ‘The Englishman’, illustrated ‘Sir Syed’s life’ as one of the best phases of modern history” in its November 17, 1885 issue.
The educational mission of Sir Syed continued even after death. Near the turn of the century, the college began publishing its own magazine, The Aligarian, and established a Law School. It was this time when a movement began to have it develop into a university. To achieve this goal, expansions were made and more academic programs added to the curriculum of the college. A school for girls was established in 1907. Finally, in 1920 the college was transformed into the Aligarh Muslim University. Over the years it gave rise to a new educated class of Indian Muslims whose life are considerable transformed. Today Aligarh Muslims University is one of the leading universities in South Asia which has distinguished herself in almost all fields.
It has a number of distinguished alumni to its credit including Amin Hilmi Didi, President of Maldives, Liaqat Ali Khan, Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mansoor Ali, Prime Minister, the People’s Republic of Bangla Desh, Dr. Zakir Husain, President of Indian Republic, like Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (Badshah Khan Frontier Gandhi), Mohammad Ali Johar, Shoukat Ali, Jb. Mohd Hamid Ansari, former Vice President of India, Syed Mir Qasim, Shiekh Mohammad Abdulla, Saheb Singh Verma (former CM Delhi), Mohsina Kidwai, Prof. Irfan Habib(historian), Zafar Iqbal(Hockey), Lala Amarnath (Cricket), Javed Akhter (Writer/Lyrist), Naseeruddin Shah (films), Prof. Shahryar (poet), K.M. Panikkar( Founder Editor Hindustan Times and Historian), Jawed Habib (Editor-Hajjam) and numerous others.
Sir Syed Ahmed Khan through his educational mission especially Aligarh Muslim University not only dragged out the major chunk of society from the horrendous darkness of illiteracy, poverty and hunger to modern scientific life but also showed path of progress, peace and prosperity to masses. The shines of this educational lamp (AMU) kindled by Sir Syed can now be seen in every corner of world especially Indo-Pak subcontinent, and he, no doubt, can be called a true architect of modern India.
However, despite the establishment of this university about a century ago, and having several other universities, the Muslim community remains one of most illiterate and backward sections of society across India which indicates the mission of Sir Syed is yet unaccomplished. Perhaps a real tribute to Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, on this Sir Syed Day and always, would be to take ahead his mission of educating those who are still illiterate, reaching those who are still unreached irrespective of caste, creed and colour, and contribute effectively in nation building.
(The author is an alumnus of AMU Aligarh and currently teaching at Govt P.G College for Women, Gandhi Nagar Jammu. He can be reached