Charge him with separatism or uphold him as a visionary, Syed Ahmad Khan has left us plenty to puzzle out
NO ANTHROPOMORPHIC IDEALISATION of India has quite the backing in this country as ‘Bharat Mata’ these days, but the one that ought to intrigue us for a variety of reasons is bridal rather than maternal in its appeal: “India is a beautiful bride and Hindus and Muslims are her two eyes.” This is the oft-cited saying of a man born two months short of 200 years ago, the often-doubled-guessed educationist of Aligarh, Syed Ahmad Khan (1817–1898). “If one of them is lost,” he would sometimes add, “this beautiful bride will become ugly.” Optically speaking, what she’d lose would be depth of vision, but never mind, the burden of his exertions is clear, and what draws it under scrutiny today is a twin-blade question: what is it that lets some scholars of Pakistan claim Sir Syed, as he is widely referred to, as the intellectual grandfather—Jinnah being Qaid-e-Azam and Iqbal the father—of Partition?
An eminently readable essay on Sir Syed by Rajmohan Gandhi in his 1986 book, Understanding the Muslim Mind, describes him not just as a man ‘blamed, and praised, as a modernizer of Islam’ but also ‘hailed, and assailed, as the father of Muslim separatism on the subscontinent.’ Other sketchy outlines of his life available to multitudes would appear to endorse the latter portrayal. After all, here was someone born to the last of the Mughal aristocracy who spent his youth in the service of the British Raj, dismissed the Uprising of 1857 as utterly futile, cosied up with the Empire as its grip tightened, set up a Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College in Aligarh, attacked Hindi as an official script, opposed efforts of the Congress to get Indians a say in their governance, and was even knighted by the Crown for his loyalty. Viewed thus, Sir Syed comes across as an accessory to that most sinister of Raj ploys: divide and rule. And if a ‘view’ is always partial, there are his actual words to pick upon. “Now suppose that all the English were to leave India. Then who would be the rulers of India? Is it possible that the two qaums, the Muslim and Hindu, could sit on the same throne? Most certainly not. It is necessary that one of them will conquer the other and thrust it down,” he reportedly once said, as translated from Urdu. As nerve-scrapers go, there is also this from an 1883 speech he made as a member of the Viceroy’s Legislative Council in opposition to a local self- government bill: “The larger community would totally override the interests of the smaller community…”
These statements, though, lie in the obscurity of musty pages on dusty bookshelves. What confronts me in large typeface at the entrance of Moinuddin Ahmad Art Gallery, an eloquent edifice that stands in silence by a lane lined by Gulmohar trees on the campus of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU)—as the college founded by Sir Syed in 1875 was renamed in 1920—is a pitch with passion enough to reverse his dual-nation swing. It’s a poster of the bearded old man in his ‘laal topi Hindustani’, his signature fez, and its message serves me a swift reminder of his maiden metaphor:
‘Sir Syed was a great champion of Hindu Muslim unity. Addressing a big gathering at Gurdaspur on January 27, 1884 [,] he said: “O Hindus and Muslims! Do you belong to a country other than India? Don’t you live on the soil and are you not buried under it or cremated on its ghats? If you live and die on this land, then bear in mind that ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ is but a religious word: all the Hindus, Muslims and Christians who live in this country are one nation.”’
Wait a minute. What was going on? Were his principles at odds with practical considerations? Were those eyes of beauty just rhetoric? Or those two qaums at war? Was he, perchance, given to flitting from fantasy to reality and back? Did his faith— or, more accurately, his 1880s anxiety to reconcile Islamic revelation with Western science—have any role in his swings away from and towards secular optimism? Can such questions ever be satisfactorily answered?
Early records suggest that Syed Ahmad Khan, born to nobility in a dirgeful Delhi coming to terms with Mughal decline and European ascendancy, grew up under the eclectic influence of the city’s cultural ferment. If Mirza Ghalib was a contemporary, Altaf Hali— of his musaddas fame—was a buddy, and he made many a visit as a child to the multi-faith Basant fair of Mehrauli and qawaali-resonant tombs of Sufi saints. Syed Ahmad took up a job with the British as a court munsif, a judicial career that earned him a lot more than his writing sadly could. His first book was on Delhi’s monuments, the second on Akbar, but what launched him on the grand trajectory of his life—as a reconciler of apparent irreconcilables—was his response to an event that shook the daylights out of him.
As a 40-year-old official posted in Bijnore at the time of the 1857 rebellion against British rule, he was both appalled by its violence—he went about saving local Europeans— and alarmed by its futility, an alarm that turned to ironic horror upon his return home to Delhi a short while after. His cousin and uncle had been killed by vengeful Brits, the locality reduced to rubble, and he found his mother in the refuge of a filthy stable with only horsefeed for survival. She died a few days later. ‘Greyed with grief’, he wrote Asbaab-e-Baghaawat-e-Hind (1858), an open memo to the British on the ‘Causes of the Revolt of India’, a plea for ‘the government and the people’ to be ‘of one accord’, a call for a modus vivendi which some historians say inspired Allan Octavian Hume to set up the Congress in 1885 as a ‘safety valve’ for popular fury.
What kept Syed Ahmad Khan up for nights on end was an all-too-evident gap between India and the West. Intellectual intercourse, as he made clear in an 1863 speech, was the only way out. It had been everyone’s key to success down the ages. He was particularly keen to have Indians wrap their heads around modern science, for which he got the patronage of his friend Raja Jaikishan Das to set up a Scientific Society in 1867, soon to serve as the launch pad for his academic mission. Visits to Oxford and Cambridge on a trip to England in 1869-70 left him so struck that he wanted an institution set up back home on the same model. It took half a decade to arrange funds from various royal treasuries and get the college going. ‘Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was a true visionary who had a vision of a modern university, value-based education and high-quality research and teaching,’ says AMU’s recently-appointed Vice Chancellor Tariq Mansoor.
“Sir Syed’s basic purpose was to develop a scientific temperament among students,” says Professor Rahat Abrar, director, Urdu Academy, AMU, and author of several biographies on the man. “He wanted the college to act as a bridge between the old and the new, the East and the West,” he elaborates, calling it a ‘window of secularism’: “It was established to provide education for Muslims, but its doors were open to all. Eeshwari Prasad was its first graduate. The first principal [Henry Siddons] was a Christian. He went to Punjab and got the support of Maharaja Mahendra Singh of Patiala.”
On Sir Syed’s relations with adherents of the country’s majority faith, Professor Abrar reels out a list of Hindu stalwarts he associated with, from Swami Vivekanand to Debendranath Tagore. “Sir Syed collected all Hindu scriptures. He had a commitment to the country’s composite culture,” he says, citing a session he once held in Benares for Swami Dayanand Saraswati to expound his vision of the Arya Samaj. “He was very sensitive to sentiments of the majority community, an advocate of comparative religion and of Hindu-Muslim cooperation, understanding and trust,” he adds, highlighting an aspect of particular relevance today: “In the 19th century, he opposed cow slaughter. When AMU was established, he banned it on campus. Once during Eid ul-Zuha, an employee had with him a cow for qurbaani, and he rushed there rightaway to stop it. He asked all Muslims to stop.”
An enduring covenant of amity, though, could hardly have been assured by a dietary pledge. Other flashpoints saw flare-ups elsewhere and peace began to look more and more fragile.
My mention of a separatist impulse traced to Sir Syed sends Professor Abrar into a flurry of books thumbed open to counter the charge. First up is a letter from Lala Lajpat Rai to Sir Syed: ‘From childhood, I was taught to respect the opinion and the teachings of the white-bearded Syed of Aligarh. Your Social Reformer (Tehzib- ul-Akhlaq) was constantly read out to me by my fond father, who looked upon you as no less than a prophet of the nineteenth century—it was thus that I came to know… of John Stuart Mill’s book on liberty.’ Summoned next as testimony is Nehru’s Discovery of India: ‘[Sir Syed] was in no way anti-Hindu or communally separatist. Repeatedly, he emphasised that religious differences should have no political or national significance.’
Was he not a British collaborator, though, in Congress perception? “No, it is totally baseless,” exclaims Abrar. Naoroji called him a ‘true nationalist’, Banerjee only had words of praise for him, and other leaders of the party looked up to him. “He did oppose the Congress, but he was not alone,” says the professor, citing Raja Sivaprasada and Munshi Naval Kishore among his allies; and he did take on the British from time to time, flaying Viceroy Mayo in published pieces and asking for equality and self-rule as first espoused in Asbaab.
“Like all great scholars, Sir Syed lived in contradiction,” observes Professor Shafey Kidwai of AMU’s Department of Mass Communication. “If there are quotations about unity, there are also quotations that put a question mark on it.” But tactical support for the Raj was the order of the day, adds the author of Sir Syed: A Life Beyond Reconciliation. So, if judge him one must, he argues, one should go by what he did rather than said. On this, his record tilts towards advocacy of the empowerment of all Indians. “He stood for India,” says Professor Kidwai, “There’s no question of ‘Hindu or Muslim’ in his actions.”
Yet, Sir Syed was not above the sort of rancour that could rupture an optical nerve or two, so to speak. It was his angry reaction to calls for Hindi to replace Urdu as the country’s court language—a movement of the late 1860s that he decried as divisive—that rankled many on the other side of the linguistic aisle. The Hindi publication of Scientific Society work, he rejected outright as ‘a proposal which will make Hindu-Muslim unity impossible’. To him, Urdu was a confluence. To vast numbers of the majority, it was too alien, and some of his other statements suggested his aim was turning suspiciously one-eyed.
Aberrative utterances those probably were, as Professors Abrar and Kidwai characterise them, but seized upon they would surely be—and so they’ve been.
“Was Sir Syed a separatist? Main yeh nahin maanta (I don’t accept this),” says Professor Abrar. On all the available research, he says, his shelves packed and table strewn with material on the AMU founder’s life and times, that is a completely false portrayal, one that cropped up only after 1940. “Pakistan ke paas Gandhi jaisa koi figure thha nahin,” he sighs, “So they adopted Sir Syed as the father of Pakistan and painted him [likewise].”
SIR SYED’S BIG quest for consonance in later life, arguably, was that of rationality and religion. After all, he devoted eight years of it to an exegetical exercise that resulted in four volumes of commentary on the Qur’an. Faith, he held, must ‘satisfy the mind of the doubter’, and the text, interpreted in accord with empirical knowledge.
Islam had always been integral to him, but he rejected much of the practice he saw it put to around him. His stance was one of confidence. In response to an 1861 book by William Muir that ran down Prophet Muhammad, he offered a snappy “Kitaab ka jawaab kitaab hai, kitaab kaa jalaana nahin (The reply to a book is a book, not burning a book)”, followed by a full-length rejoinder, Khutba-e-Ahmadiya. In his youth, he had been a disciple of Maulana Mamluk Ali, whose other famous student was the founder of Darul Uloom in Deoband, the late 19th century ulema of which would come to resist Sir Syed with a frothy series of fatwas. Charges of apostasy trailed him all his life, and he’d shrug them off as the grumbles of has-beens, only too glad to stir an age of reason from slumber. “He saw no conflict between belief and science,” says Professor Abrar, “He thought the ulema had not understood the Holy Book properly.”
Yet, oddly, more than a century later, Sir Syed’s epistemology vis-à-vis faith seems to get almost no airing at Aligarh, let alone elsewhere. “He was very radical,” says Professor Kidwai. But the libraries do have all his works. “Sir Syed speaks of the ‘word of God’ and the ‘work of God’. The Holy Book is the ‘word of God’ and creation is a ‘work of God’,” says Professor Abrar. “He said, ‘There should be no dichotomy between the [two]’ and ‘We have to accept the work of God… that is, nature,” adds Professor Kidwai, “The popular perception is that if you pray, it alters your destiny. ‘Dua keejiye, sab kuchh badal jaayega.’ He said, ‘Nothing doing, you have to work hard. Dua se kuchh nahin hoga. No, God cannot change His will, prayers are only satisfying you [momentarily]’.”
Little wonder Sir Syed has been called a ‘deist without knowing it’. As a reformer, was he also perhaps a Mutazilite, then, a would-be revivalist of the rationalist school of dissent that shone bright in Baghdad a millennium ago before it flamed out?
“No, he was not a Mutazili,” replies Professor Abrar, visibly startled by my use of the term. But traditionalists still resist him, do they not? “In his time, his views— especially on religion—were not accepted, but in our time, they are,” he contends.
By Professor Kidwai’s research, however, not only was Sir Syed well versed with those old arguments of reason, he also lamented their fall. “He was a supporter of the Mutazili movement,” he affirms, “In his commentary on the Holy Qur’an, he refutes the Ashari school propagated by Imam Ghazali, whom he held responsible for all Muslim decline.”
This part of Sir Syed’s story has somehow got lost along the way, has it not? “Muslims accepted his educational vision. He won the battle against the ulema on Western education and Muslim empowerment, but not on his religious views,” replies Professor Abrar. “Sir Syed was a democratic person,” adds Professor Kidwai, “To buy the peace, he let traditional theology—Shia and Sunni—be taught at AMU. Had Sir Syed imposed his religious views, things would have been different.”
Perhaps. Meanwhile, in Aligarh, the ‘dream of its founder’ that Vice Chancellor Mansoor claims ‘the entire AMU community, which includes its alumni network around the globe, is trying to realise’ makes no reference to anything religious. This is in keeping with its mandate as an institution, of course. It is also ironic, though. For India needs its diversity as a manifest asset, and rational unifiers that would help India envision a future beyond artificial limits cannot afford to fail.