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As we approach the second birth centenary of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, he is being criticised to the extent of being condemned with renewed vigour from certain academic and religious quarters. I experienced it twice in the last one month. A speaker at an academic conference was snubbed for mentioning Sir Syed’s role in impacting the Muslim mind and material conditions in the aftermath of the 1857 war. Last week, another person speaking about the Aligarh Movement and its role in educating the Muslim youth was vociferously checked by a group of feminist friends.

We find three divergent groups who denounce Sir Syed today. The first comprises orthodox religious scholars who see Sir Syed as someone who misinterpreted Islamic injunctions — either at the behest of the British or to reach a compromise with them — and was responsible with his companions in spreading views that endangered the Islamic legacy and belief system. This group has existed since Sir Syed’s own time and created a hostile environment for him within large parts of the Muslim community in British India.

The other two groups are somewhat recent. A few of our contemporary women’s rights campaigners offer scathing criticism on his views about modern education for women. It’s true that Sir Syed emphasised education for men first and saw little role for women in public and political life. The third group loosely comprises those anti-colonial, postmodernist critics who analyse and evaluate his actions, conversations, correspondence and writings to relegate him to the level of an imperial lackey who paved the way for strengthening colonial rule.

The position of the first group of critics is the easiest to understand. In religious discourse, there is a clear demarcation between rationality and the spirit of inquiry on the one hand and orthodoxy and following tradition on the other. Sir Syed and his movement represent the former; religious scholars who criticise him represent the latter. The writings of Sir Syed and his associates, and the magazines and journals they edited, clearly challenged long-held beliefs and practices among the Muslim community, besides providing relatively liberal solutions to the new issues they faced in the changing times. They were more vehemently refuted by orthodox scholars because many of their arguments were also derived from primary religious sources. It is important to note that in our part of the world, orthodox scholarship becomes nervous and perturbed if someone enters its domain. These critics are comparatively less bothered by non-religious liberal scholarship because of an absence of common ground in the discourse.

Although girls’ schools were established and women did join the Aligarh Muslim University later, the criticism on Sir Syed’s person of not being as supportive of similar education for women as for men, and a similar role for women in public life, is correct. Ideally, he should have been. However, it becomes more of an observation than a critique if we appreciate that any identity or class struggle is located in a certain period of history and restricted by the stage of evolution in a society. One would like to know of any others comparable to Sir Syed during that era — the middle and the late 19th century — and find examples of reformers campaigning for women’s emancipation. Interestingly, Allama Muhammad Iqbal who was born 60 years after Sir Syed, and was educated in England and Germany, comes across as more conservative than Sir Syed in these matters.

The third group that almost demonises Sir Syed as an agent of the British may have evaluated him using certain contemporary tools of analysis, but has failed to contextualise both his work and text within the oppressive colonial period from 1858 to 1885. In fact, from the All-India Muslim Education Conference to the Muhammadan Anglo Oriental College, and from establishing the Scientific Society of Aligarh to editing Tahzeeb-ul-Akhlaq, Sir Syed played a key role in saving his community from complete cultural and intellectual annihilation.

The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 8th, 2017

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