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Sir Sayyid and his educational mission

By Amir Ali

The traditional way of marking Sir Sayyid’s birth anniversary on 17th October every year at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) is to talk glowingly about the immense contribution he made in his attempts to educationally uplift the Muslim community. There is an element of the ritualistic in such a manner of marking an important day in a university’s calendar. The urgency to focus on Sir Sayyid as an important figure of Indian Muslims is made especially poignant by this year’s Uttar Pradesh state assembly elections that, in the process of catapulting Yogi Adityanath to the Chief Ministership, sent out a clear, unequivocal signal to Muslims that they have been rendered electorally insignificant and hence politically dispensable. More than a dire warning to Muslims, this verges chillingly on a perverse form of electoral disenfranchisement. It might be worthwhile recalling some of Sir Sayyid’s apprehensions towards democracy and the Indian National Congress. The advice he offered to Muslims was not to engage in the nationalistic game that the Congress was initiating as it would be akin to playing with a loaded dice, given the numerical state of Muslims across India. Before indulging in such political activities, Muslims would need measures of social and educational advancement and this is one of those instances in which Sir Sayyid seemed to display an element of political prescience.

Beyond this, there are occasions when Sir Sayyid seems wide off the mark in assessing the direction of the political winds. Thus there was the perception that the British were here to stay for a considerable period, giving rise to his enthusiastically trying to hitch the Muslim wagon to the ascendance of the British star. The result was a rather abject acceptance of the colonial British presence, ruling out the possibility of even the slightest hint of anti-colonial resistance that could be found in figures contemporaneous with him and from other parts of the world such as Jamaluddin Afghani and Muhammad Abduh. The political bus that Sir Sayyid completely missed was that of anti-colonial nationalism. Instead of this capacious political tendency that was becoming increasingly significant, Sir Sayyid and his educational programme rode on a vehicle that expressed rather narrower concerns of English educated Muslims from the Muhammadan Anglo Oriental (MAO) College that he had set up in 1877 and the landed aristocracy fighting to protect and hold on to their status and power under British rule.

While marking Sir Sayyid’s significance as a committed social and educational reformer genuinely pained by the reluctance among Muslims to accept secular education, it is important for the sake of his very own concerns to understand the limitations of his educational project. One of these was his uncritical naturalism and the role of science. This was a typical 19th century understanding that valorized the scientific attitude with a zeal that is today equalled and opposed by horrendously unscientific ideas that increasingly dominate the public discourse. Further, Sir Sayyid’s educational programme was hobbled by an excessive reliance on the employability of the Aligarh graduate, especially in government civil service. The MAO College, so heavily modelled on the English public school and Oxbridge, became a bastion of genteel Ashraf Muslims battling to retain some semblance of political and social relevance in a world that had slowly, surely and, for many of them, tragically transformed itself. Such an educational programme was bound to limit the possibility of its own overall success, arising ironically from its own stated ambitions of employment for its graduates. There can be noted in Sir Sayyid a zeal to counter Western perceptions of Islam as regressive, but this was done by uncritically accepting the terms that had been set by his Western interlocutors. There is an almost embarrassing level of Anglophilia, most evident in Sir Sayyid’s 1869 visit to England when he expressed an imbalanced wonder and marvel at the advancement achieved by England as the world’s forermost industrialized and powerful nation of the time.

Undoubtedly Muslims of today’s India face a crisis as acute, perhaps even greater than the one that Sir Sayyid faced. The educational backwardness of Muslims is accentuated by the presence of a right wing regime bent upon denying any ameliorative measures on the specious ground that it would constitute an unwarranted consideration of religious origins, hence the BJP’s antipathy to the widely discussed Sachar Committee Report. India’s Muslims require then an approach to education that matches the zeal that Sir Sayyid exhibited. It is an educational project that would require not merely an emphasis on the relatively more mundane concerns of employment. (Recall the stirring lines of Allama Iqbal: Ae Tair-e-Lahooti, Uss Rizq se maut achchi/Jis rizq se aati ho parwaaz mein kautahi. O thou heavenly bird, ’tis better you die/Than tie thyself to the degrading employment that inhibits thy divine flight). More significantly, it would need to arrive at a greater understanding of the problems that beset humanity at large, of whom Muslims across the world seem to form a particularly ‘problematic’ component.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Amir Ali, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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