Maulana Azad Library.


There are several differing views on his life but Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was an educator above everything else. The man who made AMU possible had his Bicentennial celebrated all over the world this year. And one such event will be held in the San Francisco Bay area at the India Community Center, in Milpitas, Dec. 16, writes Ras H. Siddiqui.


Born in Delhi, British India, on October 17, 1817, he died in Aligarh in the year 1898 and is buried in the Mosque compound located within his crowning achievement known today as Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). This university may not be a main attraction for tourists worldwide but in this writer’s humble opinion (reflecting back on my visit there in 2004) it is as important to the history of South Asia as the Taj Mahal or the City Palace in Jaipur.

Granted that it is certainly not as beautiful as the two or various other historical landmarks in India today (it is more like the Red Fort in Delhi) but in some ways, it is more significant. The man who made AMU possible had his Bicentennial celebrated all over the world this year. And one such event will be held in the San Francisco Bay area at the India Community Center (ICC), Milpitas, Dec. 16.

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan Sketch.

His was a controversial life by any standards. Even his name “Ahmad or Ahmed” is spelled in two different ways. Labeled by some as a British stooge and others as a liberator of sorts of India’s Muslims, Sir Syed was and is no stranger to labeling. Some in India associate his name to the founding of Pakistan (even though he died 8 years before the All India Muslim League was founded in Dhaka, Bangladesh). There was a reason that the seminal organization he did found, the Muhammadan Educational Conference (1886) was purposely kept apolitical by him. The Muslim League (1906) was founded by others as a political organization and not an educational one from the very beginning.  And as it is, Sir Syed himself was too busy juggling internal Muslim issues and resistance from his own co-religionists during his lifetime, and had little time for opposition to other religious or political organizations in British India. His advocacy for the promotion of the Urdu language on the other hand did create some friction.

Who was Sir Syed? And how does one explain his personality and work to our youngest generation of South Asians? Do we just show them his picture which resembles a somewhat tanned Santa Claus? To do justice to his legacy one has to visit the period in history during which he was born and remained active. But before one goes there one thing needs to be cleared. The idea of a separate Muslim country or Pakistan did not gain traction till the 1930’s so let us not directly associate Sir Syed with partition. Some, but not all of his followers or those that had benefitted from an AMU education later became active supporters of Pakistan. That resulted in tens of thousands of divided families (like that of this writer) because many moved across the border in 1947 leaving their brothers, sisters and parents behind. Many Aligs were not convinced and stayed in India, preferring to follow Maulana Abul Kalam Azad instead of Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Others who went to Pakistan helped the country to thrive during its infancy. But sadly that generation is no more. It is interesting to note that once at the same overlapping time both the President of India, Zakir Hussain and Pakistan, Ayub Khan were Aligarh Alumni.

The writer and his mother visit Sir Syed’s grave at AMU.

What Sir Syed, the founder of the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College did do is start a reawakening amongst the Muslims of British India (via his MAO College which was founded in 1875 and became AMU on 1920) by suggesting that they pursue a secular western scientific education to keep up with the world. Let us just say that the religious clergy or Maulvis of the time were not very happy with him. Here was a man who wanted to educate the Muslim community including the girls!

The relevance of Sir Syed in history, as a man of his time and as one born and brought up in the early to mid-1800’s cannot be understated. The Mughal empire in India was already fragmented and in absolute decline after the rule of Aurangzeb and his death in 1707. Frankly not all of the Mughal Kings were good rulers and as history has revealed again and again, all great empires have an ascent and an eventual decline. The military superiority of the Muslim rulers of India was already successfully challenged by the Marathas from the south, and later by the Sikhs from Punjab and eventually the East India Company from the East. The 1857-58 uprising and final defeat of Mughal rule in India became a formality. Both Hindus and Muslims participated in this 1857 rebellion while Sikhs from Punjab and some Pathans from the Northwest sided with the East India Company. Direct rule by the British Crown replaced the East India Company but not without it punishing the scions of landed families who were found to be related to the failed rebellion (thousands were executed publicly). Sir Syed witnessed this defeat and the subsequent implosion of his community around him. This reversal and the subsequent British rule in India had a reason – The East was no longer the world leader in innovation and technology. Europe had overcome its dark ages and had survived reformation. Western scientific education was the key to success and Sir Syed recognized that quickly. For the sake of his community this turned out to be a blessing.

The last message of Sir Syed, etched in stone at the Aligarh Muslim University.

A rationalist to the core, Sir Syed steered his community towards western scientific education and cooperation with India’s new British rulers. In the scheme of things, he was not a poetic Marxist rebel but a revolutionary of another kind altogether. When he started his movement, the stiffest opposition he faced was from India’s Muslims and not the Hindu community which was already speeding far ahead. So, the “Two Nation Theory” that is somehow attributed to him might not have had a religious basis but an economic one. Once the rulers of India, Muslims were far behind all other Indian communities, and their hatred and distrust of the British was keeping them from making any progress at all. It is here that Sir Syed was able to play a positive role so that this now rudderless segment of the Indian population could access the tools of the modern age and make some progress.

Sir Syed the reformer practiced and preached the politics of non-confrontation and if there is anything that Muslims around the world need to do today to make things better for themselves, it is to follow his example. There is no benefit in war and militant Jihad. The current situation is not unlike 1857 except that the weapons used are deadlier. It is recommended that we all take a serious look at Sir Syed’s teachings now for additional guidance. His Bicentennial celebrations provide us with a great excuse to look back and dip into his wisdom. The combination of a modern education, tolerance and the acceptance of pluralism might do wonders for all our children.

A group picture of 2014 Sir Syed Day celebrations in San Francisco Bay Area.

The author at Faiz Gate of the AMU Campus.