Revival of Muslim identity by Sir Syed

ByMalik Nasir Mahmood Aslam

Seasoned social activist


December 17, 2022

Revival of Muslim identity by Sir Syed

Malik Nasir Mahmood Aslam talks about a crucial realisation

The Revival of Muslim identity by Sir Syed morale hit rock bottom after they witnessed power slip away from their grip despite making best efforts to hold on to it. They also were full of realisation that their primacy in the subcontinent was broken by other Muslim powers such as Iranian Nadir Shah and Afghan Ahmad Shah Abdali and not by the majority community they held sway over for more than half a millennium. Both the invading powers withdrew after decisively wrecking the base of the Muslim power in the subcontinent that resulted in creating pockets of self-governing principalities that paid lip-service to the nominal sovereignty of the Mughal emperor based in Delhi. In the meanwhile, another foreign power rose that was substantially different in nature and content to the governance model hitherto in vogue in the subcontinent that caused widespread confusion and anxiety in all the communities living in the subcontinent.

The rise of the British rule confounded Muslims more than the Hindus as the subcontinent was managed according to rules and regulations formulated by them that were practiced since centuries. Muslims strongly believed in the veracity and efficacy of their system of governance and found it very uncomfortable to adjust to the changing matrix of rule initiated by the British. On the other hand, Hindus adapted to the English rule very comfortably as for them it was a matter of just taking off one garment and putting a new one, a simple adjustment process they were accustomed to since centuries. Their numerical majority could not be overlooked by the new rulers and it was obvious that they leaned towards the majority that was more than willing to lend helping hand. The result was that for almost a century after the formation of British rule, the Muslims were unable to work out a formula whereby it could be possible for them to impress upon the rulers the imperative of their separate status as a community.

It was at this juncture that Sir Syed Ahmad Khan emerged on the scene; who was an employee of the East India Company and had witnessed the turbulence generated by the violent outbreak of rebellion in 1857. He was actually instrumental in protecting lives of many Britons during the uprising and gained gratitude of the British. He was one of the first Muslim social activists to realise the need for creating a mutual understanding between the colonial rulers and the Muslims. Muslims were badly persecuted after the rebellion collapsed and Sir Syed was compelled to begin his struggle aimed at fostering intellectual and political reconciliation between the Muslim and the colonial power.

He was mindful about the broader changes that the British suzerainty was bringing in the subcontinent. He appreciated that the British stood for the rule of law and he also implicitly agreed with the principles of Utilitarianism that were predominantly instrumental in influencing the governing principles of the British. He accordingly began his reform efforts from the vital field of education and in 1875, he established the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh that later became Aligarh Muslim University, an English-style institution that cultivated gentlemanly skills in Muslims who could play a role in the kind of polity he imagined, one that welcomed native consultation and demonstrated respect for its subjects. Within two decades, Muslim elites had, in fact, come to be seen as a pillar of loyalty, a role not uncommon for minorities in authoritarian settings.

Sir Syed and the circle that grew around him at Aligarh were, however, also intellectual pioneers of Islamic modernism. Central to Sir Syed’s modernism was a rejection of the commentarial tradition of the traditional law schools and the specialised knowledge of the Ulema. His insistence that Islam and western science were in perfect harmony gained little support in his times but later even the religious segment also accepted it. In part his work, and the work of the modernists generally, he sought to refute Western critiques of Islam on such issues as jihad, the status of women and negative depictions of the moral character of the Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh).

Sir Syed had no qualms in accepting that his countrymen were backward in light of the emergence of modern era and he particularly resented the attitude of the Muslim clergy who he blamed for keeping the Muslims much behind the tines. He was of the firm opinion that modern education was crucial to their future across religious back¬ grounds. It was to modern education for Indian Muslims that he primarily dedicated his career. He could clearly see that the new trend of education was the need of the hour and he was extremely keen to see that the new generations of Muslims acquired this form of education.
Sir Syed was aware that there were now two strands of education for Muslims: that of the British-style school and college and that of the Islamic madrasa, which in the post-Mutiny period began to be organised on the contemporaneous European model of a school with a formal staff and a common curriculum organised by classes. The British-style schools, which used English as their medium of instruction, produced not only government servants and professionals but also new lay claimants to Islamic authority, who had neither a saintly reputation nor the classical scholarly training that continued to flourish.

There was certainly a reason for questioning the manipulative position of the clergy because the newly available printing presses for disseminating religious texts contributed to the work not only of the challengers but of the Ulema as well. Printed texts made possible access to sacred knowledge without the personal relationships to lineages of teachers that the traditionalists valued. But the traditionalists also benefited, using the presses both within the madrassas and for disseminating their own works to colleagues and to a general public. Many of the printed material of the age bear witness to the fact that this was a period of considerable intellectual dynamism, not only among the better-known modernists but among traditionalist thinkers as well.

The reform movement gave rise to the sense that personal identity was linked to public identity as a Muslim or a Hindu. With the gradual introduction of Indian participation in the country’s administration, the population numbers within each community became an issue of contention; Muslims and Hindus competed for a larger share in the seats the colonial authorities granted to each group in governing councils and for positions in schools and in public employment. The protection of mosques, the right to conduct religious processions and the status of Urdu all were made public symbols of Muslim rights.

Sir Syed soon confronted the growing schism between the majority and minority communities and the cause was Urdu, written in Arabic-Persian script that had become an official provincial language across the north in the mid-nineteenth century. Its displacement as the sole vernacular official language in the United Provinces was taken as a blow to Muslim interests. It finally ended Sir Syed’s hope for a relationship between both the communities and he became the harbinger of the Two-Nation theory. It was very soon that the impact of the Two-Nation theory was strongly felt in the subcontinent and it resulted in the inception of Pakistan a separate state for Muslims of the subcontinent. TW

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