The Forgotten Reformer

Umar Riaz underlines the significance of this past October to the world and to the Indian subcontinent in particular

The Forgotten Reformer
This October was special: a reminder of at least three epoch-making events in history. Two of these are well known and the third – one most related to us – not so much. This year was the first centenary of the October revolution or The Great Socialist October Revolution, according to Leftists all over the world. Technically the exact date falls on the 7th of November but this does not diminish the rhetorical value of October.

The second anniversary was of an equally phenomenal event. Five hundred years ago, on the 31st of October 1517, a German monk nailed 95 objections to a Wittenberg church door about the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church and its misuse of religion, unleashing a chain of events called the Reformation. Martin Luther has been credited with not only changing Christianity specifically but also Western civilisation in general.
It was as if only Sir Syed the educationist was alive and Sir Syed the religious reformer passed away long ago

Closer to home, this October passed quietly without much attention being paid to a phenomenal person born 200 years ago, on the 17th of October 1817. Syed Ahmad Khan did not affix 95 Theses on the main gate of Jamia Masjid Delhi, nor did he overthrow the British Raj and unleash a revolution. But what he did was by no means less in value or impact. His reforms were actions followed by words and his reform agenda was not limited to purging religion or overthrowing the political order. In fact, he did both. And that, too, in addition to pulling millions out of illiteracy and imbuing them with a certain nationalism. He singlehandedly reshaped education, politics, literature, journalism, and above all, religion.

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan is widely credited with preventing complete intellectual and political stagnation of the Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent

Maulana Altaf Hussain HaIi, in his biography of Sir Syed titled Hayat-e-Jawed, has no reservations in declaring that if it were not for Sir Syed, Indian Muslims could have met the same fate as Australian aboriginal people or Native Americans. The claim does not appear exaggerated when one looks at the condition of Indian Muslims post-1857. W W Hunter, author of The Indian Musalmans, could not have summed up it more accurately: in the year 1871, the highest job which a Muslim could get in the government offices of Calcutta was either that of a coolie or a bearer. Civil servant and famous Urdu writer Mukhtar Masood adds credence to this with some poignant figures. Before the foundation of Aligarh University, amongst 240 barristers of Indian origin, only one was Muslim while all others were Hindus. In 1869, 104 Indian students qualified to become doctors and only one was Muslim. By 1893, there were only 3 Muslim engineering graduates in the whole of India.

But education, or the lack thereof, was just part of the problem. The real challenge was political and the road of politics passed over the bridge of language. The Hindus’ efforts to replace Urdu with Hindi in Devnagri script cleared Sir Syed’s mind about the future of communal politics in India. Sir Syed in his now famous dialogue with Mr. Shakespeare, Commissioner of the Banaras Division, had predicted almost a century before 1940, that Muslims and Hindus could not get along as one nation and their animosity would only grow with the passage of time. In one of his lectures in Lucknow, he declared himself to be a liberal instead of a conservative and a proponent of representative democracy. He also asserted that India was not a country but a continent where a number of nations with distinct social, political and religious circumstances resided. It took a few decades before other Muslim leaders understood this.

Sir Syed was vocal and open about his reformist perspective on religious matters

Sir Syed exhibited the same clarity in his study of religion, though with far less success. His revolutionary contributions as an educational, political and even literary reformer are widely acknowledged but his religious reforms, which were by no mean less radical or meaningful, have been forgotten. This has a lot to do with Sir Syed’s choice of priorities in his lifetime, his intellectual heirs and finally our present-day intelligentsia. Sir Syed in his lifetime, in the words of Altaf Hussain Hali, never shied away from sharing his viewpoint on religion. Be it through his mouthpiece for reformation Tehzeeb-ul-Akhlaq, academic lectures or finally through his multi-volume commentary on the Quran, he propounded his perspective forcefully and consistently. What he avoided was making Aligarh a madrassah for his school of thought and making Muslim educational reference a forum for his worldview. This had far-reaching consequences.

Mukhtar Masood in his last and posthumously published book Harf Shauq makes this interesting point. Having been raised at Aligarh and studied there from school until university, he found it surprising that he never came across Sir Syed’s religious texts. It was as if only Sir Syed the educationist was alive and Sir Syed the religious reformer passed away long ago. In fact, Sir Syed himself ensured this by delegating the compilation of the religious syllabus to those who didn’t ascribe to his religious worldview. His intellectual heirs at the Muslim Educational Conference took on the mantle of Muslim nationalism and went on to cause the birth of the Muslim League in 1906. It was no surprise that by 1947, Sir Syed the reformer was forgotten and left behind. By that time, the revisionists had taken centre-stage, crowding out the voices of reformation.

We now live with the consequences of this choice, where the need for the revival of the progressive yet forgotten message of Sir Syed has never been greater.