Sir Syed Ahmed: Man with a Great Vision

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Sir Syed Ahmed, born on 17th October, 1817, became a legend in his lifetime. He was a versatile genius in true sense of the word. He championed the cause of modern education at a time when all the Indians in general and Indian Muslims in particular considered it a sin to get modern education through English language.

It was in this context that Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru described Sir Syed as "an ardent reformer who wanted to reconcile modern scientific thought with religion by rationalistic interpretations and not by attacking basic belief."

He was anxious to push new education. He was in no way communally separatist. Repeatedly he emphasized that religious differences should have no political and national significance.”(Discovery of India).

The Great Visionary Iqbal expressed his opinion that "the real greatness of the man (Sir Syed) consists in the fact that he was the first Indian Muslim who felt the need of a fresh orientation of Islam and worked for it’ India was passing through a very difficult period after the failure of 1857 Mutiny. Britishers became more confident of their Raj over the country as they had planned meticulously to divide the Indians on the basis of their religion. But Sir Syed cautioned people particularly Muslims against the designs of their Masters. He declared: "Remember that the words Hindu and Muslim are only meant for religious distinction: otherwise all persons who reside in this country belong to one and the same nation."

He considered Hindus and Muslims as the two eyes of a bride who would look miserable if one is lost or weakened. Thus highly secular in his approach, he pleaded to Muslims to be more practical, rational and aware of the changing society. Old values of education had become outdated in his opinion. He wanted Muslims to have scientific temper and modern attitude in life and for this he asked them to learn Science and Engineering, the subjects which unfortunately became alien to them.

He founded a school in Aligarh for this purpose, in May, 1875 with barely fifty students on role. He left his government job and settled in Aligarh to fight for the battle against those who were deadly against the English 'Talim”. In the process, Sir Syed had to swallow insults and decrees of some misguided Muslims who denounced and called him an atheist, an enemy of Islam, slave of English Masters and what not. In one such decree (Fatwa) he was declared the agent of Devil.

Undaunted and unconcerned with titles of atheist, Naturi, Mulhid (atheist) etc., Sir Syed dedicated himself still more towards the cause of education. His voice ultimately made a dent in the Indian social structure and Hindus and Muslims of the country helped him in large numbers to further his cause.

It is very important to note that amongst the first 120 people who gave valuable donations for the construction of school building were several Hindus like Choudhry Sher Singh, Kunwar Lekhraj Singh, Raja Shiv Narain Singh, Raja Ghanshyam Singh, Raja Uday Pratap Singh, Lala Phul Chand, Lala Vasudeo Sahai and others. Their names still decorate the old buildings of Aligarh Muslim University.

The supreme interest of Syed’s life was education – in its widest sense. Sir Syed wanted to create scientific temperament among the Muslims of India and to make the Western knowledge of science available to them. He firmly believed that "Acquisition of knowledge of science and technology is the only solution for the problems of Muslims." He championed the cause of modern education and that too through English language. This was vehemently opposed by a large section of Indian Muslims. As a matter of fact a Memorandum was submitted to the British Raj, signed by more than three thousand scholars, mostly Muslim clerics, that Indian Muslims should not be taught English language and Firangi Knowledge (Science).

A similar situation was faced by Raja Ram Mohan Rai, fifty years before Sir Syed, laid the foundation of Hindu College for Modern Education in English. Through Aligarh Institute Gazette, Sir Syed succeeded in agitating the minds in the traditional Muslim society. Anyone with a weak level of commitment would have backed off in the face of strong opposition but Sir Syed responded by bringing out another journal 'Tehzibul Akhlaq’ which greatly succeeded in infusing a new desire amongst Muslims for acquiring modern knowledge. It also gave a new direction to Muslim social and political thought.

Along with his search for a solution to the community’s backwardness, he continued writing for various causes of Islam without prejudices against any religion. With all the odds, Sir Syed became successful in his mission and gave a firm foundation of Aligarh College which afterwards became Aligarh University. This Aligarh Muslim University produced intellectuals in large numbers who served the country in various capacities. It is a tribute to Sir Syed that the first graduate of Aligarh University was the great revolutionary Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh. No one can forget persons like Dr. Zakir Husain and Dr. Syed Mahmood, the products of Aligarh, who adorned the high offices of the country.

It is a real irony that after almost a century of the beginning of the Aligarh movement, Muslims of the country are now again unfortunately far behind, in the educational field, with their fellow countrymen. For this situation in which the Muslims are placed, who is to be blamed? Muslim themselves. Poet Hali has rightly said: "Khuda ne aajtak us qaum ka halat nahin badli Na ho jisko khayal aap apni halat ke badalne ka." (God has not changed the condition of those who are not keen to change themselves). If we expect the birth and emergence of another Sir Syed to change the destiny of Muslim education, it is not going to happen. Personalities like Sir Syed appear only once on the horizon of a nation. Yes, their messages are lasting and immortal. Can’t we walk on the path shown by them? Can’t we realize the message of Sir Syed and the spirit behind the Aligarh movement? It is still not too late. Sir Syed is no more but his message and mission of love and dedication for knowledge is with us.


Dr. M. Iqtedar Husain Farooqi is the retired scientist (Deputy Director) of National Botanical Research Institute, Lucknow.

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