The Founder of Modern Education and the Two-Nation Theory, who paved the way for the reawakening of Muslim youth in the subcontinent
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was a great reformer, a visionary, an educationist, a writer, and a trailblazer in the socio-educational landscape of the subcontinent during the 19th century. His profound impact on society especially in reference to his struggle for the reawakening of Muslims earned him the title of “Sir Syed”. His pioneering efforts laid the foundation for modern education. In an era marked by British colonial dominance, Sir Syed emerged as a bridge-builder, dedicated to the uplift of Muslim community.
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan is also regarded as the Founder of Two-Nation Theory. He was the first who realized that, after the fall of Mughal Empire, Hindus had cleverly switched their loyalties to the British rulers and started sowing seeds of hatred against Muslims who had already been bearing the brunt of East India Company because of the failed 1857 War of Independence. His realization was that the Muslims should accept the reality on ground and acquire modern education, so that they might get government jobs and avail business opportunities. Otherwise, they would lose their already damaged standing. His efforts led to convey to the British that Muslims were different from Hindus, thus introducing the concept of Two-Nation theory.
The revered Sir Syed Ahmad Khan left a humongous legacy behind him. While we observe the International Education Day on January 24, it would be amiss if we do not pay our rich tributes to this great man whose modern education movement turned, in later years, into Pakistan Independence Movement.
Early Life and Education
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was born on October 17, 1817 in Delhi. He belonged to a noble family that had witnessed the decline of Mughal Empire. He grew up in an environment that was a blend of traditional Islamic values and the changing sociopolitical landscape. It was the time when the last Mughal Emperor reigned Hindustan. His father Syed Muhammad Muttaqi was a personal advisor to the king, and his grandfather Syed Hadi Jawad was a General in the court of Emperor Alamgir-II. Sir Syed got his early education from his maternal grandfather Khawaja Farid and his mother Aziz-un-Nisa who was a respectable lady. His early education was deeply rooted in Islamic studies and Persian literature. But his outlook soon underwent a transformative shift when he realized the significance of western education for bringing a social and economic change amongst the Muslims. This led to starting a lifelong mission aimed at modernizing the Muslim education. He was awarded an honorary degree of doctrate in law from the University of Edinburgh in 1889.
As shining young man, Syed Ahmad Khan had learnt Arabic and Quran, Hadith and Fiqh, Persian and Mathematics, Science and Medicine, and what not! He had been regularly participating in literary gatherings and cultural activities. This all helped him in widening his knowledge and global understanding. After the demise of his father in 1838, he at the age of 21, had to start his career in a court of law where he was made Munshi in 1840, and then Sadr-us-Sadur in 1858. He was promoted as Sessions Judge at a Small Causes Court in 1867. He retired in 1876.
True Assessment of Reality on Ground
The failure of War of Independence was the turning point in Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s life. The war was started by Hindus as well, but only the Muslims were made to bear its brunt. Hindus instead, joined hands with the British. Sir Syed realized this fact, and thought that Muslims too needed a pragmatic approach. First, he advocated for a cooperation with the British Raj, and then even during his service career, practically started his endeavours for the uplift of Muslims.
He established schools at Muradabad and Ghazipur in 1859 and 1863 respectively, and founded a scientific society in Aligarh in 1864. The society held annual conferences, disbursed funds for educational causes and regularly published a journal on scientific subjects in English and Urdu. His marvelous achievement was the establishment of Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) High School in Aligarh, in 1875, which was elevated to the level of college on January 8, 1877. It emerged as a groundbreaking institute that later evolved into Aligarh Muslim University, in 1920, and then transformed into Aligarh Movement. The establishment of the college was a revolutionary step towards providing modern education, combining western and Islamic knowledge. The curriculum included English language, science, and humanities alongside traditional Islamic studies.
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was not merely an educationist but also a social reformer who sought to address the socioeconomic backwardness of Muslims. He recognized the importance of English education for securing government jobs, and through his writings and speeches, he encouraged Muslims to embrace modern education. He said the call of time was that the Muslims should befriend the British if they wanted their due rights. He also tried to convince the British in Muslims’ favour. He wrote books like “Loyal Muhammadans of India” and “Cause of Revolt” to remove misunderstandings. He also wrote a commentary on the Bible and tried to prove that Islam was closer to Christianity.
Sir Syed’s literary contributions included the renowned work “Asar-us-Sanadid” (The Remnants of Ancient Heroes). This showed his deep interest in historical preservation and cultural heritage. His emphasis on rational thinking, scientific inquiry, and acquisition of knowledge helped in dispelling superstitious beliefs. His role as a journalist and founder of the journal “Tehzeeb-ul-Akhlaq” (Social Reforms) exemplified his commitment to intellectual discourse and social uplift. The journal became a platform for promoting rational thinking, scientific temper, and social harmony. The magazine extensively talked about Muslim civilization, their culture and traditions, education and rights. It played a vital role in giving back the Muslim identity. Though the magazine lasted for just six years, the enlightenment it stirred served the purpose well.
Politics and the Two-Nation Concept
The Indian National Congress invited him to join politics under its banner, but he refused. His prediction proved true that the Congress would be a Hindu-centered party. He formed own-led Muhammadan Educational Conference and provided Muslims a platform to discuss political problems. Sir Syed believed that India was a continent, not country and it was inhabited by a vast population of different races and creeds; among these Hindus and Muslims were the two major nations on the basis of nationality, religion, customs, cultures and historical traditions. He believed that the Indian National Congress was not in favour of the Muslims because after the British quit, the Congress would not give due share in the political power to the Muslims. There would be a disastrous civil war if the Congress persisted in its policy of yoking together the two nations. Before he died on March 27, 1898, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had succeeded in his Muslim awareness campaign, which actually became the basis of Pakistan Movement. He is regarded as the first Pakistani who laid the foundation stone of Pakistan.
“People say Sir Syed founded a college. No, I would say, he founded a Nation.”
-- Maulvi Abdul Haq, the Father of Urdu
Sir Syed’s Resilience
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan faced a lot of opposition from conservative elements from within the Muslims. Many of them issued fatwas (decrees) against him, calling his reforms a departure from traditional Islamic values. The establishment of MAO College was resisted by some quarters. But he showed perseverance and dispelled the impressions that embracing modern education did not negate Islamic values but rather facilitated a harmonious coexistence of tradition and progress. He also faced opposition from the pro-British Hindu majority. Their biases tried to hinder the progress of Muslim education. They also opposed his efforts to promote Urdu as a medium of instruction.
Sir Syed’s Legacy
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s life and contributions stand as a testament to his unwavering commitment to the uplift of Muslims. His model of reconciling tradition with modernity, and peaceful coexistence remains relevant in today’s era of globalization and modern, digital world. He emerged as a beacon of enlightenment, leaving an indelible mark on the history of education and social reform. His struggle was well lauded by Maulvi Abdul Haq, a scholar famously known as ‘Baba-e-Urdu’ (the Father of Urdu). He said: “Log kehte hain Sir Syed ne College qaim kiya. Mein kehta hoon nahi, unhon ne aik qaum banae hai.” (People say Sir Syed founded a college. No, I would say ‘No’; he founded a nation.)
Supporting Sir Syed’s ideology of incorporating European Sciences and English language into the education system, Shibli Nomani got associated with ‘All India Muhammadan Educational Conference’, in 1886. Altaf Hussain Hali, the prominent Urdu poet carried out yearly conferences throughout India and gave awareness for education. It was because of these conferences that in 1906, the first ever political platform, ‘Muslim League’, emerged. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan died on March 27, 1898, but by then Muslims had regained their status and identity. He had succeeded in his Muslim awareness campaign, which actually became the basis of Pakistan Movement. In fact, he is regarded the first Pakistani who laid the foundation stone of Pakistan. Befittingly so, Aligarh Muslim University celebrated Sir Syed’s 200th birth centenary with much enthusiasm on October 17, 2017.