IOS second on-line lecture on parallels between Aligarh Movement and other Muslim reform movements

New Delhi: An on-line lecture on “Drawing parallels between the 19th century Aligarh movement of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Muslim reform movements across Muslim societies: An analysis” under Ibn Khaldun lecture series was organised by the Institute of Objective Studies on December 30, 2020. The lecture marked the centenary celebrations of the founding of Aligarh Muslim University.  The lecture started with the recitation of a Quranic verse by Hafiz Athar Husain Nadwi. 

Introducing the topic, Prof. Syed Jamaluddin, director, history projects, IOS, observed that Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was a gigantic figure in education. He was a forward-looking educationist, versatile writer and journalist. Sir Syed occupied a place of prominence in global Muslim perspective, he said.

In his lecture, associate professor of medieval history in AMU, Dr. Waseem Raja, held that Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was a global intellectual and thinker of the 19th century. He personally saw the revolt of 1857 and the events that unfolded thereafter. Those were tough times for the British Raj in India. The period of Muslim rule that began with the conquest of Mohammad bin Qasim ended after about 888 years. As a person with Muslim background, Sir Syed peeped into the Western world with a keen eye on the changes that were taking place globally. 

That was the time when Western powers were emerging on the political firmament of Europe. Italy and other powers had blocked the way of Turkey after its defeat in Constantinople. This drastically changed the scenario. Muslim scholarship was being replaced by Western thought. By the 19th century, the Islamic world faced many challenges from the West. The Ottoman Empire that covered vast swathes of Central Asia and Europe could not withstand Western onslaughts. 

The clash of civilisations that started in the 19th century could be explained in the Indian context as well. All privileges, power and pelf enjoyed by the Muslims were lost due to Eurpoean Christian conquests. In India, rulers were defeated by the British. By the 18th century, the Ottoman Empire had shrunk and Muslims faced defeat everywhere. The global change also impacted the Muslim world significantly. He said that gloom had set in Turkey as well as in India with the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Dr. Raja observed that a puritanical movement was started in India by a set of Muslim scholars to end the corruption that pervaded Muslim community. The Wahabi movement as also other movements began to mobilise the community against the Christian European suzerainty. This was a group of Islamic scholars who wanted to introduce reforms strictly in accordance with religious texts.

Simultaneously, a liberal reform movement began with the same vision but a little different politically, sometimes militarily or in other ways. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan belonged to this spectrum of thinkers. They veered round to devising a new approach to cooperate with the British, without submitting to them. They believed that resort to extreme orthodoxy would be regressive. There were several theatres of action in terms of pan-Islamism to restore the old glory of Islam and Muslims.

This necessitated reinterpreting the Quran in the new international context. Emphasis was laid on the presentation of a rationalistic interpretation of the Quranic text. The logic was that while the Quranic text should remain the same, the meaning and interpretation had to be more exhaustive and explanatory. This resulted in many interpretations of the Quran and today their number had gone up to about 1700. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan also belonged to the same class of Muslim scholars. Sir Syed often referred to Syed Jamaluddin Afghani, another reformer of the age who wanted to restore the glory of Islam and dignity of Muslims worldwide.

Dr. Raja said that the Arabian peninsula witnessed a renaissance. They wanted reform in moribund Muslim societies. There were several Muslim scholars who championed the cause of Arab Islamic world. The emergence of Russia as a great power in Central Asia in the 18th century added a new dimension to the scenario. Much of Central Asia, that had been populated and ruled by Muslims, fell into Russian hands.

Central Asian scholars wanted a jadid (modernising) movement to awaken Muslim society from slumber that had set in following defeat by Russian forces. In that larger Indian and international context, the Aligarh movement was a huge effort to adjust to the new situation and positively engage with it. The movement was focused on the education of Muslims who had stuck to old pattern of education. The protagonists of this movement attacked the closed system of madarsa education whose curricula did not take cognizance of the scientific and technological advances. He observed that at the close of the 19th century, the Indian sub-continent became a theatre of action. Eighteenth century Muslim scholars like Shah Waliullah and Shah Abdul Aziz were rationalists who had a committed following of up to 50,000 each, besides their influence on virtually the entire Muslim population of India. This century was full of writings of Islamic scholars who produced a rich literature.

Sir Syed firmly believed that if Muslims did not become progressive, they would be doomed to failure. He was also of the view that whatever was written in the Quran must concern everyday life of Muslims. He wanted Muslim men of action. He used to say that change could be brought only with modern education. Dr. Raja said that Sir Syed served as a symbol of Indian Muslims. He quoted a Christian scholar who described Sir Syed as “a man of global inter-faith” (leadership). Sir Syed advocated inter-faith harmony by dining with Christians. He added that the first generation of Aligarians, which included scholars like Allama Shibli Nomani and Saifuddin Kichlu, championed the cause of Sir Syed with great enthusiasm. It was due to their efforts that the British rulers’ attitude towards Muslims softened in many ways. He concluded by observing that the confrontationists did not succeed in their bid to antagonise the British against the Muslims.

Prof. Syed Jamlauddin noted that the lecture fitted well into the centenary celebrations of the founding of AMU. He said that Sir Syed encouraged inter-faith dialogue and set an agenda of Islamic modernity. Unfortunately, his dream could not be fulfilled during his lifetime.

Secretary general, IOS, Prof. Z M Khan, in his observations praised Dr. Raja for covering a vast area and for explaining the ideas of Sir Syed. He said that those ideas were more relevant today. His abiding relevance lay in dealing thoughtfully with the past and present of the Muslim community. That was the corner stone for future development. Inter-faith dialogue was an important area to face the challenges posed by communalism in India. Sir Syed wanted to create awakening among Muslims and hinted at ways to deal with the new situation. He said that Sir Syed was “highly modern” in that sense.

Presiding over the event, the vice-president of IOS, Prof. M. Afzal Wani, quoted Ibn Khaldun who said that the past was the future.  He said that Sir Syed was acquainted with global happenings. Though there were several hindrances before him, he guided not only India, but also the world. His message of sustenance and better use of technology had come true in the present context. He started with a scratch but built up an institution that attracted talent from different parts of the world. He stressed that Sir Syed’s ideas must be researched in leading world universities like Oxford and Cambridge, because they were not only for the Muslims but also for the world community.

At the end, Prof. Syed Jamaluddin extended a vote of thanks to the participants.



Go Back