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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 49, November 26, 2011

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan: An Indian Free Thinker

Sunday 27 November 2011


Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, known as the father of the Aligarh Movement, was born in a highly respectable family in 1817, the very year in which the Hindu College was established in Calcutta. Sir Syed, in his childhood, did not display any excellent character-trait. Rather, he exemplified the maxim that one could become the man he wanted to be by sheer effort and perseverance. In his youth he was a luxury-loving young man. But after the death of his elder brother he changed himself and devoted his energies to the upliftment of his co-religionists. He started expressing his views on various matters and campaigning for those.

Regarding education, he said it was important to decide as to which language should be the medium of education. It was to be seen first whether there were adequate educational books written in that language, whether that language was suitable far writing educational books and, most important of all, it was to be seen whether anybody educated through that language could use his mental faculties to improve his creative power, steadiness of thought, fluency in verbal expression, power to use logical arguments etc. On the above considerations he concluded that only the English language could be the ideal medium of education.

In every sphere of his life and activities be gave emphasis on justice and free thought. Regarding politics also he maintained the view which exemplified his liberal thoughts. He said: “People who were against my thoughts due to orthodoxy and ignorance about the actual state of our country or about the principles of politics should question my love for my country after duly examining my thoughts and ideals.”

He gave a very liberal and humanistic expla-nation of Islam in keeping with the teachings of Western science. He said that Quran should be explained in a manner such that there was no conflict between the Holy Book and physical reality. He reasoned that since the Quran consisted of the words of Allah and the truths of modern science were manifestly true, there could not be absolute contradiction between the two. He even provided the methodology for explaining the Quran:
a) In order to understand the meaning of the Quran, one should learn its language and its usages.

b) One had to examine whether it was necessary to explain the metaphorical statements as found in the Quran. One had to accept the explanations in consonance with the truths of science and also the explanations supported by logical thought.

His above stand on the matter was definitely revolutionary and for that reason he was declared a heretic, an enemy of Islam fit for execution. He has been hailed as the precursor of Muslim nationalism but his thoughts on Islam and its relation to science have not been accepted. On the other hand, his allegiance to the British rulers did not popularise him amongst his countrymen. In spite of that his efforts to make his Muslim countrymen understand the human life and world in the light of reason as well as Islamic thought marked him out as a forerunner in the world of free thought.

The historic Wahabi Movement was anti-British and the Indian Muslims organised this movement. The British rulers, for this reason, thought that the people behind the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 were also Muslims and they took repressive measures against them in North India. At that period Sir Syed appeared in a role of rescuer of the Muslims of India. He explained to the British that the Muslims were not anti-British. The Wahabi Movement took place against the Sikhs and that the Muslims had not taken part in the 1857 movement. Even if they had, he said, then they had done so in small numbers. Hence repressive measures against the Indian Muslims should be stopped. This reveals his love for the countrymen belonging to his community who, in reality, had no sympathy for him.

He established the ‘Scientific Society of Aligarh’ to enthuse the Muslims towards learning Western science and related ideologies. His realistic attitude saved him from fanaticism but it was strange that he had blind faith in Western culture and civilisation. Nevertheless he maintained a modern, liberal, non-communal outlook. He firmly believed that, although diverse in many respects, all Indians belong to one nation and fought, throughout his life, for the development of this nation.

He founded the ‘Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College’ in 1877 where students of all communities could be admitted.

SIR SYED’S life changed from 1877 to 1886 as also the history of India. In place of Hindu nationalism there arose political nationalism and between the two was geographic nationalism, as advocated by Sir Syed, based on Western values and ideals. The transformed Sir Syed thought that it would be disastrous for the Muslims if the British left India. He believed that if the backward Muslims of India, who refused to accept modern education, could be given proper education they would become at par with other educated Indians and even the British rulers. He made all efforts to achieve this end. He felt that if all the people of India considered themselves as one nation then that would be conducive to the welfare of the nation. With this end in view, be emphasised the following:
(a) The depressed condition of Muslims and other Indians should be improved.
(b) It was essential to establish fraternal relations between Hindus and Muslims of India. He boldly declared: “Communal harmony between Hindus and Muslims was to be perferred than cow-sacrifice. The rigid attitude of Muslims in this regard was nothing but sheer stupidity.”

In short it can be said that two rare traits were present in Sir Syed Ahmed Khan: (i) great patriotism and (ii) steadfastness. He urged his Muslim fellow countrymen to give up laziness, ignorance, sluggishness and decadence. He had to face many obstacles and opposition in his effort to do this but he remained steadfast in his aims.

Unlike other great Indian personalities, the one important aim that he strove to achieve was to establish cordial relations between the British rulers and the ruled Indians. He endeavoured to strengthen the bonds between the two. But his efforts towards this end could not bear fruit.

The characteristic trait of Sir Syed that still inspires us was that he left no stone unturned and spared no pain to attain the goals that he thought to be true and just in spite of resistance from the whole world. His self-confidence was unshakable. A brave fighter in spirit, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan belonged to those human beings who are becoming extinct in today’s India.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan left this mortal world in 1898 but like all great souls he will remain immortal for his free thought and activities.

Dr Miratun Nahar is a noted educationist and public figure associated with progressive causes in West Bengal.

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