Contributions of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan

Contributions of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan

Context: The passing of the Women’s Reservation Bill coincided with the 125th birth (October 17) anniversary of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, known for propagating social reforms among the Muslim community. 

The evolution of Muslim political thought unfolded in a multifaceted historical context marked by interactions with colonial rule and the complexities of social, cultural, and political life among the Muslim communities in India. The relative backwardness of the Muslim population gave rise to competitive tendencies, intensifying the debate about accommodating diverse social groups within existing and future power structures and institutions.

Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898)

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1. Educational and Political engagement

  • Syed Ahmad Khan, a prominent figure of the 19th century, received education in both religious Scripture, the Quran, and Western sciences. 
  • His booklet, “Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind” (Reasons for the Indian Revolt of 1857), highlighted British ignorance, their aggressive expansionary policies, and the exclusion of Indians from the Legislative Council of India as major causes for growing antagonism. 
  • Interestingly, non-official Indian members were included in the Viceroy’s Council from 1861, and Syed Ahmad Khan was nominated to the Viceroy’s Legislative Council in 1878.
  • He supported the efforts of Dadabhai Naoroji and Surendra Nath Banerjee in securing Indian representation in the government and civil services.

2. Educational and Socio-religious reforms

  • Syed Ahmad Khan emphasized interfaith understanding, exemplified by his work, “Commentary on the Holy Bible.”
  • He advocated modern scientific education for Muslims, criticizing the prevailing superstitions and regressive customs of society.
  • He founded the Scientific Society of Aligarh in 1863, modelling it after the Royal Society of England. This society organized annual conferences and disseminated scientific material in English and Urdu. 
  • He established various educational institutes to promote education, most notably the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College (MAOC) in 1875, later evolving into Aligarh Muslim University.
  • The MAOC played a pivotal role in the Aligarh Movement of the 19th century, fostering a renaissance among Indian Muslims. While founded primarily for Muslims, MAOC’s doors were open to all, emphasizing inclusivity.
  • Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College, aimed  to provide modern education while preserving cultural heritage. 
  • The Aligarh Institute Gazette, initiated by him, campaigned against practices such as female infanticide, polygamy, child marriage, sati, segregation of widows, and poverty-induced marriages of young girls to older men.
  • His progressive social ideas were disseminated through his magazine, “Tahdhib-ul-Akhlaq” (Improvement of Manners and Morals).

Views of Syed Ahmad Khan on Women Education

  • Despite showing inclination for liberal values and rationality, his views on education to be imparted to women had been controversial. 
  • Syed Ahmad Khan, believed the ultimate goal for women is marriage and therefore, training for them should focus on familial duties. For women’s education he believed in a “Disorganised home-based tutor education”.
  • However, later he was convinced that the “rejection of women’s education by Muslims played a big role in the decline of the community” in comparison to others. 

Muhammadan Educational Conference: 

  • To propagate the ideas of Anglo-oriental College across India, Syed Khan established the All-India Muhammadan Educational Congress in Aligarh, U.P.
  • The first session of the congress was held in 1886 in Aligarh and was presided by Maulvi Samiullah Khan.
  • The organisation aimed to promote educational development among Muslims through conferences and also to gain University status for the Anglo-Oriental College.  

3. Aligarh movement

  • The Aligarh Movement, the first national awakening among Muslims, began at Aligarh under the leadership of Syed Ahmad Khan.
  • It was furthered by individuals like Khwaja Altaf Hussain Ali, Maulvi Wazir Ahmed, and Maulvi Shibli Numani.
  • It sought to introduce social reforms within the Indian Muslim community, challenging practices such as polygamy and the ban on widow remarriage.
  • The Aligarh Movement was rooted in a liberal interpretation of the Quran and aimed to harmonize Islam with modern, liberal culture.

4. Evolution of Syed Ahmad Khan’s political thought

(a) First Phase (Up to 1887)

  • Syed Ahmad Khan advocated for Hindu-Muslim unity, emphasizing their shared history and common interests.
  • He advocated for the separation of religious and political matters, believing that religious and spiritual issues should not impede nationalist objectives.
  • In his role on the Viceroy’s Legislative Council, he actively worked for the welfare of both Hindus and Muslims.
  • Cooperation between the two communities was evident in the scientific society and the Aligarh British India Association.
  • Syed Ahmad Khan even supported the ban on cow slaughter within the MAOC. 

(b) Second Phase (After 1887)

  • His perspective on the applicability of Western democracy and nationalism in India underwent a significant shift.
  • He argued that the complex, diverse nature of Indian society, with its diverse castes, religions, and races, made representative government impractical and could lead to Hindu dominance over Muslims.
  • This argument laid the foundation for the two-nation theory, which claimed that Hindus and Muslims were separate nations with distinct interests.
  • He aimed to establish an Anglo-Muslim alliance to counter the influence of the Congress, influenced by British officials and the need for their support for his college.

Syed Ahmad Khan’s influence initiated social and educational reforms among certain sections of Muslims, reflecting the dynamism of India’s diverse religious communities and their multifaceted options. It is essential to note that his major concerns were to advance the interests of the Muslim community, especially the established groups, rather than promoting hatred or division among communities.

Practice Question for Prelims:

Q. Consider the following statements:

Statement-I: Sir Syed Ahmad Khan advocated for active political participation of the Muslim community.

Statement-II: Sir Syed Ahmad Khan wanted to promote the educational and employment interests of Muslim community by remaining loyal to the colonial Government.

Which one of the following is correct in respect of the above statements?

(a) Both Statement-I and Statement-II are correct and Statement-II is the correct explanation for Statement-I.

(b) Both Statement-I and Statement-II are correct and Statement-II is not the correct explanation for Statement-I.

(c) Statement-I is correct but Statement-II is incorrect.

(d) Statement-I is incorrect but Statement-II is correct.

Answer: (d)

Statement I is incorrect: Syed Ahmad Khan argued that Muslims should first concentrate on education and jobs and try to catch up with their Hindu counterparts who had gained the advantage of an early start. Active participation in politics at that point, he felt, would invite hostility of the government towards the Muslim masses. Therefore, he opposed political activity by the Muslims.

Statement II is correct:

    • The British view on the revolt of 1857 held the Muslims to be the main conspirators. This view was further strengthened by the activities of the Wahabis.

    • But later, an opinion got currency among the rulers that the Muslims could be used as allies against a rising tide of nationalist political activity represented, among others, by the foundation of the Indian National Congress.

    • This was to be achieved through offers of thoughtful concessions to the Muslims. A section of Muslims led by Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898) was ready to allow the official patronage to stimulate a process of growth among Indian Muslims through better education and employment opportunities.

    • Unfortunately, in his enthusiasm to promote the educational and employment interests of the Muslims, he allowed himself to be used by the colonial government in its obnoxious policy of divide and rule and, in later years, started propagating divergence of interests of Hindus and Muslims.

Mains Practice Question:

Q. Critically analyse the role of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan during the 19th century socio-religious reform movement in India. (15 marks; 250 words).

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