Sir Syed Ahmed Khan – The greatest Muslim reformer and statesman of the 19th Century

by Dr. Amineh Hoti

For too long the media and some orientalist narratives in academia have portrayed Muslims as having the potential to be a threat to modern Western civilisation.  But the real picture is that modern civilisation was born from the cradle of Muslim civilisations.  It cannot be disputed that Muslims refined Greek and South Asian knowledge and took it to higher levels, as they were active contributors to Western knowledge and to reasoning.  Take Al Andalus, for example, which is remembered as a golden age when scholars were all-rounders – holding both faith and knowledge as key guiding wisdoms and taking knowledge to a height that has benefitted us all in modern civilisation, to name but a few examples: the watch, mathematics, particularly algebra, and modern-day methods of writing numbers.  (Compare the ease of calculating using modern-day methods with trying to calculate using the Roman method of writing numbers.)

 So what is the story of this circulation of knowledge that has undoubtedly benefitted us all? Both young Muslims and the West in general need to know this story.

Educational institutions, families and communities should encourage young people to appreciate, celebrate and value diversity and to lead meaningful lives.  In a global world of many billions of people, all with different perspectives, it is imperative to value difference and see dignity in it while focusing on commonalities that bring us together in our shared humanity.  We can only attain deeper understanding through the study of history and knowledge that leads to mutual respect.  Our journey, then, must take us back in history from Aligarh to Cambridge, then to Oxford, and eventually to Toledo where this quest for knowledge started from its origin in a culture that deeply valued both knowledge and coexistence.

 Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Aligarh: Background

In order to encourage young people to take an example from ordinary human beings who worked extraordinarily hard, let us look at one specific example: Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817 – 1898) was based in the subcontinent in the nineteenth century and worked hard to become a distinguished scholar of that time and a jurist for the British East India Company.  His sense of higher moral character, which ensured that he worked for causes beyond his own community and self-interest, is reflected in the following story related to me by one of his direct descendants, an uncle of mine,  who was also named after him, Syed Ahmed Masood.  During the Muslim uprising of 1857 Sir Syed defended European women and children trapped in a church from angry mobs, by standing in front of the building to protect them, and managed to save about 60 of them.  This was a time when riots had broken out and mobs were thoroughly blood-thirsty. When the mutiny had abated and things had calmed down  the British monarchy wanted to reward Sir Syed for his courage by awarding him the annual payment of Rs.100,000.  He refused to accept this, saying, “anyone with a moral sense would have done what I did. But, of course…” 

Syed Ahmed Masood added to the story he was telling me, “At the time there was no-one else who stood by him.” Sir Syed had been completely alone when he  bravely stood before the church in the face of great danger.  He always felt that Muslims needed to educate themselves and communicate with the British if they were to survive.

Sir Syed was not just a follower of the British as some stringent Imams would have us believe – Sir Syed, being a person of his time and its cultural and religious context, did challenge the British colonial system and even stood up to it. He wrote the “Causes of the Indian Mutiny” in which he criticised British policies of the time that, he argued, had caused the uprising.  At the same time he was concerned for his fellow-Muslims  who were becoming more and more stringent in their outlook. Sir Syed then began encouraging them to learn English and to move with the times by adopting a more modern and progressive scientific approach in educating themselves and their children.  He was, thus, moved to found a journal and, most importantly, an institution, whose students would help to bring about change in the course of time in the subcontinent.  From this institution came leaders, prime ministers, policy makers, historians, scientists and many more outstanding figures.

He founded a journal called, Tahzib-al-Akhlaq, ( “Social Reform” or “Moral Reform”). In this, he published articles calling for the people of the subcontinent to leave behind blind imitations of culture and to use reason and logic to lead more meaningful and thoughtful lives.  He argued that if the people of the subcontinent (both Muslims and Hindus) continued to progress asymmetrically, with some following old traditions and superstitions, while others were progressing, they would resemble a half-blind person with only one eye.  But if both religious communities advanced side by side and developed together with the vision and thought to move forward through knowledge and education then they would be, in his own words, “like a beautiful bride.”  Religion, he argued, should not prompt us to hate the Other, but to look at perceived others as our fellow human beings (after all we are all the children of Adam and Eve/Bibi Hawa and, therefore, kin to each other). (See “Selected Essays” by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Translated from Urdu by John W. Wilder, 2006).  In Sir Syed’s words from  the first edition of “Tahzib al Akhlaq:”   

“We need to be unfaltering in our faith, but refrain from prejudice. All mankind are our brothers, thus it is obligatory for us to love them, care for them and develop friendship with them as it is our primary duty.” He also adds something relevant to our present time: “Of humanity’s meanest traits, prejudice is the worst. Prejudice spoils good deeds. In Those who have religious prejudice, the characteristics of human excellence, are utterly lacking in justice and fairness.” Page 2, of Tahzib, Vol 1, 1870.  By mentoring a generation of politicians and entrepreneurs, Sir Syed promoted knowledge, understanding and tolerance in young people during his time and still continues to inspire people even today.

The University of Cambridge inspired Sir Syed to build Aligarh: On a visit to his son’s college in Cambridge, UK, Sir Syed was inspired by the beautiful colleges, their gardens, and intellectual rigour, which had given birth to numerous scholars who have made their mark on this world.  Here are some world-changing discoveries that were made at Cambridge: the splitting of the atom, the discovery of hydrogen and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.  Cambridge, along with Oxford, is one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world.  Sir Syed quickly understood that institutions like this can build the solid foundations of societies and may play a key role in opening minds and in educating generations of people.   (Both Muslims and Hindus, post colonialism, were set in conservative and, according to Sir Syed, “superstitious” static contexts.) Young students therefore needed to be pulled up in standard or they would fall far behind in a world where English was spoken and scientific research was valued.  After all, that was the “Age of Reason”. Sir Syed aspired to create an institution in his homeland, based on the idea of intellectually vibrant Cambridge. 

Sir Syed realised that it was imperative for him to invest all of his energy and resources into the creation of a university.  So he went around collecting money from anyone he could persuade to pay, even a paisa or rupee.  The hard struggle of his effort is reflected in this story narrated to me by his direct male descendant, “Sir Syed even donated his own property in India to the University”- bear in mind that he came from a well-off family, which had worked in the service of the emperors of wealthy Mughal India.  But the project of building a major university needed, not just small contributions, but major investments – it would require literally all of his resources to make this building of his dreams and the future of some of the students of the subcontinent – he had to approach everyone to see this building on its feet, reaching out, metaphorically, to the skies.  At one point it is related that Sir Syed went from door to door to collect funds for the university.  He even received money from courtesans (who in those days were trained and sophisticated ladies of culture.)  The very fact that they donated money to a major university for the subcontinent reflects their own sense of awareness of the need and importance of education and the maintenance of their own identity as South Asians.) Naturally, the local mullahs objected to this.  In a witty reply, Sir Syed said, “if the source of money was not moral enough for them then he would build the university’s toilets with this money!  The struggle to build educational institutions is, of course, not a light matter – it takes passion and the focus of a life-time, as it did for Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. 

As mentioned above, history records that Sir Syed was inspired by his son’s university, on a visit to Cambridge. At this point I would like to step back and ask where Cambridge came from? Cambridge followed the principle of Oxford University which predates Cambridge – in fact, according to its own history, Cambridge was founded by Oxford scholars who were taking refuge from the hostile townsmen of Oxford in 1209 (early Records of the University of Cambridge)

At first they [the students] lived in lodgings in the town [of Cambridge], but in time houses were hired as hostels with a Master in charge of the students.  By 1226 the scholars were numerous enough to have set up an organisation, represented by an official called a Chancellor, and seem to have arranged regular courses of study, taught by their own members.  From the start there was friction between the town and the students. Students, usually aged about fourteen or fifteen, often caused disturbances.  Citizens of the town, on the other hand, were known to overcharge for rooms and food.  King Henry III took the scholars under his protection as early as 1231 and arranged for them to be sheltered from exploitation by their landlords.  At the same time he tried to ensure that they had a monopoly of teaching, by an order that only those enrolled under the tuition of a recognised master were to be allowed to remain in the town.”

Reflecting the tensions between the “gownies” (those from the university) and the “townies” (those from the town of Cambridge), the above quotation shows that it was not easy to be students and that the university emerged from tensions that marked the nature of society at that time.  Of course, amidst the layers of this tension was also great friction and asymmetry between the genders.  Women were not allowed entrance into the university at this period, they were admitted into Cambridge colleges seven hundred years later, ie only a few decades ago.  1869 was the date of the intake of the first female students at Cambridge but their university certificates were mailed to them – they were not allowed to receive their certificates as students do today in the Senate House. The first female Cambridge students lived and studied in a college in Hitchin, which is 30 miles away from Cambridge,  the distance was meant to provide a form of segregation so that the five female students studying there would not distract the male students. 28 years behind Oxford, Cambridge finally admitted women into full membership of the university system in 1947, in the face of many years of forceful anti-women sentiment and opposition.  Girton College and Newnham were the first to admit women and only later gave them degrees in 1948. Yet there were at this time and even some time after, after five men to every woman.  Women were, at first, only allowed to be admitted to female colleges, of which there were a limited number,  though this changed in 1972 when the male colleges began to allow females to join them. It was only much later that male to female ratios would cease to be such an issue.  My own college, Lucy Cavendish College, was always popular as an all- women’s university with South Asian Muslim girls.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was very much in favour of education and progress but Aligarh did not at first admit women either.  In fact, Sir Syed was taught the Q’uran by a female tutor and his mother played a key role in the early foundations of his life, nurturing him with discipline and emphasising modern education in a passionate and strong way.  It was not that Sir Syed was against women’s education but he was aware that admitting women in a patriarchal society would take both time and struggle, just as it did at Cambridge and at Oxford.

Full Circle: Aligarh is inspired by the University of Cambridge, built by Oxford Students; and Oxford in turn is inspired by Toledo (Andalusian Muslim Spain)

I was privileged to be part of an ethnographic research project and was in a small team that travelled with Professor Akbar S. Ahmed on a project called “Journey into Europe”. In the light of all the tensions of migration and growing violent extremism, our team was studying European society to find answers to questions that would lead to peaceful coexistence and social harmony. Why European society? Because in some way this was the “Mother Continent” of the Americas and as former colonies it was also the home of many people from the subcontinent. Recently, the media have not played a positive role in portraying Muslims, and many questions have arisen, such as: are Islam/Muslim and European/Western identities compatible? Is Islam a religion of peace? 

Our journey took us around Europe – talking and interviewing hundreds of scholars, faith and policy leaders and ordinary men and women. We were conducting research and travelling across Europe (not as tourists but) as anthropologists and thus going under the skin of society to find out the deeper tensions and solutions. In our journey to nine European countries, we were led to Andalusian Spain. Here was gold for research, in which I was to find a connection to peace studies from Al Andalus to Aligarh that would give me goose bumps.

Muslims entered Spain in the year 711 – not as conquerors – but on the insistent invitation of a Spanish Jewish community who were being persecuted and their daughters held captive by the Spanish monarchy of the time. A Syrian prince called Abdur Rehman escaped persecution in Damascus and arrived on horseback in Spain to become the king of the region. But, more significantly, he brought with him a positive injection into the local culture, of a passion for learning and knowledge (the House of Wisdom was thriving in Baghdad and this flowering of knowledge sprang from that enthusiasm for knowledge which was rooted in the Quranic idea of searching for knowledge. After all, the very word “Qur’an” is derived from Iqra, which means to “read” and amongst the very first words of the Angel Gibrail to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) brought from God were: “Read! Read! Read in the name of your Lord who created humankind and taught them by the pen that which s/he knew not”

Thus, in a culture that valued knowledge, knowledge-based books from far and wide including Greek knowledge were translated and even re-interpreted into Arabic (the lingua franca of the time). Indeed the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) – a role model for millions of people, is said to have emphasised the seeking of knowledge: “Go as far as China to seek knowledge”, “the ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr” and “education is a duty that is compulsory for every male and female”. The Prophet (PBUH) sent to tribes, teachers of the Quran, who were called “Ahl al ilm” (People of Knowledge). Indeed, the Quran addresses people who use their logic and think as “Ahl al Aql” (People of Thought). 

With an emphasis on knowledge, in the years to come, for another 700 years, Muslims would rule Spain in relative harmony living with their fellow Christian and Jewish communities in relative peace. This synthesis of living together and focusing on the quest for discovery in the field of knowledge (not on who is from where and from what faith or ethnicity) allowed a culture of learning and coexistence to develop. Women too were included. The value for knowledge inextricably linked with respect for humanity leads to successful societies, as was Al Andalus. 

In her book, The Ornament of the World (2002), Maria Rosa Menocal, Professor at Yale University, suggests that this Al Andalusian civilisation reached a pinnacle of success and brilliance in human history that never before or after has human society witnessed, “In principle, all Islamic polities were (and are) required by Quranic injunction not to harm the dhimmi, and to tolerate the Christians and Jews living in their midst. But beyond that fundamental prescribed posture, al-Andalus was, from these beginnings, the site of memorable and distinctive interfaith relations. Here the Jewish community rose from the ashes of an abysmal existence under the Visigoths to the point that the emir who proclaimed himself caliph in the tenth century had a Jew as his foreign minister” (ibid: 30). 

This sense of tolerance was derived from a knowledge-based society. Rosa Maria Menocal describes Al Andalus to us, the capital of which was Cordoba: “Cordoba, by the beginning of the tenth century, was an astonishing place…first the astonishing wealth of the caliph himself and his capital, then the nine hundred baths…thousands of mosques,  the running water from aqueducts, and the paved and well-lit streets” (ibid: 32) She goes on to note: “running water and libraries were part of the familiar landscape”. Al Andalus was “the highest of the high, the farthest of the far, the place of the standard…In the end, it would be al-Andalus’s vast intellectual wealth, inseparable from its prosperity in the material realm, that made it “the [brilliant] ornament of the world.” (ibid: 33) that shone in the west”(ibid: 32).

Menocal describes a culture based on the principle of seeking and respecting knowledge: “The rich web of attitudes about culture, and the intellectual opulence that it symbolised, is perhaps only suggested by the caliphal library of (by one count) some four hundred thousand volumes, and this at a time when the largest library in Christian Europe held no more than four hundred manuscripts. Cordoba’s caliphal library was itself one of seventy libraries in a city that apparently so adored books that a report of the time indicated that there were seventy copyists in the book market who worked exclusively on copying Qur’ans.” Indeed, there is an old Arabic proverb: ‘there can be no education without books.’ 

The following lines of the Yale Professor are revealing of the difference in attitudes to education and how this has reversed today – it is something to reflect upon, keeping in mind the Islamic context, the Qur’an being a book of reverence: “the historian Edward Gibbon describes the book worship of the Islamic polity he so admired (and found incomparably superior to what he saw as the anti-book culture of medieval Christianity)…the catalogues alone of the Cordoba library ran to forty-four volumes, and these contained the libraries’ information on some six hundred thousand volumes…these libraries were the monuments of a culture that treasured the Word…there were books that would have astonished any Christian visitor, with his necessarily vague knowledge of the classical world” (ibid: 34).

One only has to glance into history to discover that some of the key ideas in our world today are based on Al Andalus’s knowledge and discovery: from the camera (from the Arabic root word qamra or room) to Maths, (Al Jazari’s numbers and Al Jabra) knowledge which was widely available has influenced us today. The mosque, school and university were integrated (in Arabic the word for University is Jami’ah, which is the feminine form of the Arabic word for mosque or Jami. There was no distinction between religion and advanced learning – both being completely tied together, By the 9th century in Cordoba nearly every mosque also had a school for the education of boys and girls (1001 Inventions: 51). 

Unlike other parts of the world, religion and science were seen as necessary and complementary parts of human understanding of the self and the universe. “It was this great liberality which they (Muslims) displayed in educating their people in the schools which was one of the most potent factors in the brilliant and rapid growth of their civilisation.  Education was so universally diffused that it was said to be difficult to find a Muslim who could not read or write” (1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World. 2006: page 53). 

In the following lines, R S Meckensen (a contemporary European historian) writes: “Books were presented and many a scholar bequeathed his library to the mosque of his city to ensure its preservation and to render the books accessible to the learned who frequented it. And so grew up the great universities of Cordoba and Toledo to which flocked Christians as well as Moslems from all over the world”. (1001 Inventions: 57). The book goes on to say: “Muslims institutionalised higher level education. There were entrance exams, study circles, international students and grants. In fact, there is a remarkable correspondence between the teaching procedures in medieval ‘universities’ and the method of the present day.” (ibid).

When Isabella and Ferdinand took over Cordoba and Al-Andalus in 1492 some historians argue that there was still a degree of respect for the conquered, and the conquerors were conquered by the beauty of the architecture. During the inquisition, however, in later days, all who were not Catholic were “sinners” and, therefore, hunted down – their children and property were confiscated. We were told again and again on our research project in Cordoba, that thousands of manuscripts and the contents of libraries were burnt, and black smoke filled the air for months over the main river that runs through Cordoba called Guadalquivir, ironically also an Arabic name from al-Wadi al Kabir (الوادي الكبيرThe Big River). Many precious books and hand-written Qur’ans were destroyed at the time. Within 20 years of Isabella’s taking over, all the Muslims and Jews of Al Andalus had been forced to convert and eat pork in public or leave the country without their children and property. More than 300,000 Muslims and Jews were expelled.  Books were burnt and all evidence of Islam and its culture was erased and even demonised. Even in schools today our Spanish informants told us that there is very little history on the Muslims or Moors and, that too, just one line – reducing a history of 700 years to one brief sentence. Local Spanish people believe that they are very different from the Moors and that they have nothing in common. Some said they had no feelings for the Arab/Islamic culture. Yet ironically, these Muslims and Jews were as Iberian ethnically as had been their cousins in the north who happened to be Christian. Despite the fact of how terrible this genocide and destruction of culture and books had been, the legendary legacy of Al Andalus was to affect not just architecture in Europe, but also knowledge world-wide.

In Europe, it is widely taught that the origins of the renaissance lie in European Italy. It is not widely known that Sicily, in Italy, was also ruled by Muslims for 300 years and many Arabic words, foods, clothing, and ways of Muslim and Arabculture remain in Palermo, the capital of Sicily, until today which are known as part of the culture and identity of Palermo, not necessarily or always acknowledged as Arab/Muslim. For our research, Journey into Europe, we interviewed hundreds of local people in Palermo, including the Mayor, many scholars, ordinary men and women who reflected these ideas.

But, it was Cordoba, the capital, and its sister-cities such as Toledo that reflected the essence of Al Andalus –Al Andalus was now in the hands of Isabella, but Muslims and Christians still lived side by side at this early stage. It is documented that an English scholar-philosopher, Daniel of Morley (c. 1140-1210), was disappointed at the neglect of science in the Middle Ages of England and set off enthusiastically in search of knowledge. He stopped in Parisian universities where he said he saw people with little knowledge and described them as “asses”. It is said, he rushed on in his journey towards Toledo. Here he noted meeting “the wisest philosophers in the world” discussing Aristotle in Arabic (which was later translated into Latin and entered Europe in the 12th and 13th Centuries). It is said that Europeans flocked here in hundreds. This was literally intellectual dynamite.  Chemistry, (alchemy (from the Arabic Al Chemi) and Algebra, Sipher (zero) and Algorithm from Arabic were completely new to Europe. Previously Roman numerals were used but were highly complicated and its Arabised version – the modern numbers we know and use today in English –0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 – were devised and derived from the work of Muslim scholars from the 10thcentury (1001 Inventions: page 67).

Thus, this wealth of knowledge impressed Daniel of Morley who filled his suitcases with notes and books from Toledo’s universities and went back a satisfied scholar to England.[i] There, inspired by Toledo, he wrote his material in which he emphasised the superiority of Arab scholars. His work was dedicated to John of Oxford, Bishop of Norwich, who took on these new ideas and would go on to become one of the patrons who founded a centre of great learning. This centre would be called the University of Oxford.  

This new university called Oxford now based its curriculum on radical ideas and concepts that had poured out of Toledo. Basic questions grounded in logic were beginning to be asked by Professors and their students such as: why is the sea salty? How does the globe hang in the air? Do animals have souls? This training encouraged a new way of thinking based on logic rather than blind belief or superstition. The Englishman Adelard of Barth (d. post 1142) who posed the question,  how does the globe hang in the air? authored (Natural Questions)full citation to move at back) and taught in France and in other Mediterranean centres of learning. He introduced Euclid and astronomy to the West and noted: “On my return the other day to England, in the reign of Henry” [Henry I, r. 1100-35, son of William], it was he who had long maintained me abroad for the purpose of study…my particular desire was to learn all I could about the manners and customs of my own country…I learnt that its chief men were violent, its magistrates wine-lovers, its judges mercenary, that patrons were fickle, private men sycophants, those who made promises deceitful, friends full of jealousy, and almost all men self-seekers, this realised, the only resource, I said to myself, is to withdraw my thoughts from all misery…”.Thus, to his nephew, he says: “I should devote myself to the best of my ability to the study of Arabic”. Adelard noted that from his Arab teachers he learnt one thing – to learn by reason. A method taught by the likes of Ibn Sina (Avecenna). To which his nephew replied: “To me it seems that you go too far in your praise of the Arabs, and show prejudice in your disparagement of the learning of our philosophers.” From “Adelard of Bath”, Dodi Ve-Nechdi, ed. and trans. H. Gollancz, (London: Oxford University Press, 1920).

 Aligarh: A “Muslim” College in a Hindu Dominated Nation?

Why Sir Syed Ahmed Khan is a role model is because he had all the ingredients within his character of a person of vision and a man of action–he was able to pick up the idea of institutionalised knowledge (inspired by Toledo and Oxbridge) and unify people, he encouraged progress, and above all he cared about his community and that of others. Additionally, he worked hard to encourage literacy and knowledge. Many people care, many scholars write, but fewer set up institutions that will last to influence others for generations to come. Sir Syed’s Aligarh is a model of success – a structure of education for young people, for Hindus but also particularly for Muslims, in a largely Hindu-dominated India.

Recently, there have been several reports about the controversy created over the identity of Aligarh as a “Muslim University”. In the Pakistani “Dawn” newspaper, A. G. Noorani writes in his article: “Aligarh’s Status”, published on the 30th of January 2016, that the historic institution called Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) “is now under attack”. Noorani writes: “It is the stand of the Union of India that AMU is not a minority university.  As the executive government at the centre we cannot be seen as setting up a minority institution in a secular state.” AG Noorani adds, “this formal statement to the Supreme Court of India, on Jan 11, by the Attorney-General of India, Mukul Rohatgi, was made with full deliberation by the Government of India. The statement is preposterous on the face of it. India is a secular state by the explicit terms of its Constitution. It is this secular Constitution which confers on the minorities a fundamental right in Article 30(1): “All minorities whether based on religion or language shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice.” Yet, the Mumbai lawyer argues that there is a move to challenge AMU’s Muslim character. He adds, “On Oct 20, 1967, the Supreme Court held, shockingly, that the AMU was not a minority institution established by the Muslims; but by the Indian government, through a central law; namely, the Aligarh Muslim University Act, 1920. The court accepted that a university is an educational institution.”

According to Noorani, it said also: “‘it may be that the 1920 Act was passed as a result of the efforts of the Muslim minority. But that does not mean that the Aligarh University, when it came into being under the 1920 Act, was established by the Muslim minority’. Why? Because, “It would not be possible for the Muslim minority to establish a university of the kind whose degrees were bound to be recognised by government”. A minority cannot establish a university, even though Article 30(1) gives it the right to do so. A university has a legal personality which only a statute can confer. H.M. Seervai showed the court’s interpretation to be erroneous by its omission of a more important feature. “The essential feature of a university seems to be that it was incorporated as such by the sovereign power”. Thus, “the whole basis of the Supreme Court’s judgment disappears”. The author adds, “The Muslims brought the university into existence “in the only manner in which a university could be brought into existence; namely, by invoking the exercise by the sovereign authority of its legislative power.” The Muslim community provided lands, buildings, colleges and endowments for the university, and without these the university as a corporate body would be an unreal abstraction”. Besides, “the Supreme Court overlooked the fact that the very object of establishing a university for a community would be defeated if its degrees were not recognised by government”. The Aligarh Muslim University Act was passed in 1920. Its object was “to establish and incorporate a teaching and residential Muslim university at Aligarh and to dissolve the societies registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1860, which are respectively known as the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College, Aligarh, and the Muslim University Association, and to transfer and vest in the said university all properties and rights of the said societies and other Muslim university foundation committees.”

He goes on to write, “The speech in August 1920 by Sir Mohammed Shafi, who, as education minister of the government, piloted the bill through the Central Legislative Council, is revealing. Sir Shafi traced the entire history of the Aligarh movement and stated: “The honourable members will also be glad to hear that the government of India hopes to give substantial financial assistance to the proposed university in order to mark their own goodwill towards an institution which they earnestly hope will be a source of immense benefit to the Indian Muslims.” The movement for a Muslim university had begun well before the act of 1920. On Dec 30th, 1912, Mohammad Ali Jinnah was appointed member of the AMU Foundation Committee. The Aga Khan and Raja Sahib Mehmudabad were in the forefront.  The act was negotiated by Muslim leaders with the government. In 1965, M.C. Chagla, the then education minister, amended the act to reduce the AMU to a government department. The Supreme Court upheld this amendment. His successor, Nurul Hasan, toed the line.”

Noorani adds: “The damage done by them was undone in 1981 when the Act was amended to define the AMU as “the educational institution of their choice, established by the Muslims of India, which originated as the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College, Aligarh, and which was subsequently incorporated as the Aligarh Muslim University”. But, over a decade later, the Allahabad High Court held this formulation illegal. In the Supreme Court the Modi government is set to pursue the old BJP policy — the AMU is not a Muslim university in the appeals filed by Muslims.”

The challenge for young Muslims and Hindus of present-day India and Pakistan will be to overcome prejudices against other communities and to learn to accept difference. The growing trend of extremism among Hindus and Muslims, encouraged by political and religious leaders, (and even among Christians in the US – *Donald Trump being one bad example) must be checked. Even though the Pope suggested that this new order was World War III, attitudes that lead towards hatred and institutionalised targeting of other religious communities and their institutions is not the right way forward. 

We need to cultivate more leaders who will be bridge-builders in the metaphoric sense of the word.  And, therefore, I was very pleased to find out recently about the “Bridge Course” at Aligarh University, which takes in both madrassa boys and girls and cultivates and re-trains them to reach out with ideas of inclusiveness, acceptance and tolerance.  The majority of these students – from conservative backgrounds and training – go on to adopt a change in the mindset. After which, they are admitted into the mainstream education system of the university. This transformation of students is commendable. 

Both Muslim and Hindu leaders must reach out and talk of friendship, not war. After all, both societies have shared the same region for centuries and must learn to get along at last and put to rest their anger and contention over differences. Similarly, Pakistan and India can potentially be great allies– neighbours should never see each other as “enemies” as this leads to great perpetual tensions and unease within both countries.  All the great religious traditions encourage good neighbourly relations, and as mature and sensible people with great world traditions, both nations need to turn the other cheek and let go of their troubled past and see each other in a new light – working on trade exchanges, education, enhancing cultural events together and so forth. 

Last year I was teaching a class to several schools in the UK, Pakistan and India at the same time via the internet – the programme was called “Face to Faith”. I was the only guest teacher invited to teach on this day – one particular young student,  a boy of about 14 years,  asked me a question associating terrorism with all of Pakistan. He was just repeating the dominant narrative.  But, knowing the diversity of people in Pakistan, I knew this was not a fair accusation, as there are so many millions of innocent good people just simply trying to make a living. If you are innocent and you are constantly told that you are bad that would lead, not to solving the problem, but to exacerbating it.  This is what has been happening with India-Pakistan relations, each accusing the other of all its evils. It was important to be positive and friendly and make an attempt to build bridges, not destroy them as it would reflect back on us. After I explained, the young Hindu boy had the courtesy to apologise for his statement.  It is the right time to train our young people to love and not to hate, to befriend and not to make enemies, to see others as essentially good and not as essentially bad. Young people of all faiths need to join hands in this joint aim and learn to become peace-builders and peace-keepers focused on promoting knowledge of each other, as Sir Syed and others like him did.

Researching and residing in the same building where Sir Syed stayed in London

Walking, literally, in the footprints of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, one of the greatest educationist reformers in South Asia, was a huge intellectual gift for me. I was on the Journey into Europe project and, therefore, I stayed in London’s Goodenough Club. I was in the same building in which Sir Syed Ahmed Khan had once lived (my stay was doubly meaningful to me as Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was a bridge-builder and my paternal ancestor). Visitors to Mecklenburgh Square can see the plaque on the building honouring his stay, and those who have access to the building can see his portrait in the corridor on entry.

Single-handedly, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan led the people of the subcontinent towards a progressive knowledge-based identity. In the colonial time, when there was deep suspicion of “the Other” especially after the bloodbath of 1857, when Muslims were being persecuted and some Muslims were distancing themselves from all that was foreign, especially British education, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan encouraged Muslims to move forward and not to hold back but to educate themselves, learn English, and develop better relations with the Other in order to create deeper understanding and better communication. The majority of the people in the Muslim League party that moved the motion for the creation of Pakistan were from Aligarh.  Of course, the intention was not to divide but to include and create spaces for mutual co-existence. However, partition turned out to be an affair of much bloodshed and destruction with as many Muslims left behind in India as there are in Pakistan. While India struggles with its minorities claiming full citizenship and respect, Pakistan is caught up with its own struggles to liberate its youth from single-minded ideologies while its leaders must overcome corruption.  Both countries have great potential,  with  populations that are armies for positive change, valuing knowledge and promoting peace. 

Teaching about Sir Syed in innovative Peace Education Courses in Pakistan.

The Centre for Dialogue and Action (CD&A), of which I am Executive Director, designed an innovative course on Ilm, Adab aur Insaaniyat (Knowledge, Mutual Respect and Humanity) in 2013 and taught this at the Centre for International Peace and Stability at NUST University and at Forman Christian College University (FCCU) in Pakistan. Students who joined the course (even those in their final year of university) with radical ideas, left the university with, in their own words, “changed” perspectives and were, by then, more inclusive and accepting of others (including of women, and people of other ethnicities and faiths).  CD&A successfully taught its “Building Bridges Course”,  one of the classes focused on the inclusive vision of leaders such as Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. These leaders had a vision of a modern society with rights for every citizen regardless of race or religion and above all a respect for law and order. In a world of growing violence, leaders and teachers need to remind students and the public of the alternative model – of tolerance, of strength and progress through peace-education, which every citizen deserves in order to progress as good citizens of the global world. 

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was a man of vision and above all he was a great bridge-builder between different peoples and nations. The Journey into Europe project allowed us at CD&A to teach South Asian students about Al Andalus in Spain and Sir Syed Ahmed Khan in the subcontinent.  The interdisciplinary nature of this peace-building course allowed us to draw upon various subjects and different geographical examples of how, through research and teaching, we can explore and encourage people in the modern world to live side by side more peacefully. This is a valuable alternative for a world in which the cacophonous voices of hate and anger are unacceptably far too loud. We need to struggle harder to encourage our next generations to work towards peace-building. To further the line of knowledge, CD&A has also started constructing its own Centre for Knowledge (Markaz-e-Ilm). This is in an effort to continue the work of building the characters of our young generations, as our Bridge-Building courses and those at Aligarh show students across the world are a rich resource for peace-building and peace-keeping.

The author has a PhD from the University of Cambridge and is the founding director of The Centre for Dialogue and Action “Markaz-e-Ilm”.