Aligarh Movement : Prof. Ishtiyaq Ahmad Zilli


Aligarh Movement-A Historical Glimpse
Prof. Ishtiyaq Ahmad Zilli


The decline and consequent loss of Muslim political power and consolidation of the British political authority in most parts of the country had created a totally new situation that had no precedent in the long and chequered history of the Muslim community in India. It was now face to face with a number of very serious problems on whose solution depended its future. Several movements arose to meet the challenge and offer solution to some of the vexed problems according to their own perception and insight. Some of these, like the movement launched by Saiyid Ahmad of Rai Bareli, wanted to rectify the situation through armed struggle but did not succeed in achieving its objective. Moreover, after the collapse of the rebellion of 1857 the entire situation had undergone a complete change. Resort to arms was not possible in the changed circumstances. The British had very ruthlessly suppressed the revolt. Loss of political power, dispossession from positions of authority and wanton destruction of life and property on a massive scale had dealt a deadly blow to the morale of the community. This posed a great challenge for those who were concerned about the future of the community. The first response came from the Ulama who established the Darul Ulum at Deoband to meet this challenge. They believed that the most important thing in this situation was to ensure the dissemination of correct and authentic religious practices and beliefs and creation of a class of Ulama who embodied the true religious teachings and hence could provide religious leadership to the community and play a key role in the preservation of the religious identity and heritage. This necessarily included a programme for the reform of the society according to the ideals they taught and preached and which they had inherited from the successors of Shah Waliullah and Saiyid Ahmad of Rai Bareli. They believed that this objective could be best achieved with the establishment of a Madrasah where such Ulama could be educated and trained to fulfil this role. The foundation of the Darul Ulum at Deoband in 1867 was aimed at accomplishing this purpose.

The other response took the shape of Aligarh Movement. It was diametrically different from the movement that was launched by the founders of Deoband though both emanated from the same concerns. Those who spearheaded these movements came from vastly different backgrounds but some striking similarities could also be discerned. Syed Ahmad, popularly known as Sir Syed, was born on 17 October 1817 in an aristocratic family, which had close relations with the Mughal Court. His ancestors had been associated with government service for long and he had opportunity to see and observe the Mughal Court, which was nothing more than a faint shadow of its glorious past. It was here that Sir Syed had the opportunity to see great Indian reformer, Raja Ram Mohan Roy. His father was a regular visitor to the Court and held the titles earlier conferred on his father. In due course Sir Syed also received the titles of Jawadud Daulah Arif Jung from the Mughal court. His maternal grandfather, Khwaja Fariduddin Ahmad (1747-1828), was a scholar and an administrator. He was particularly noted for his expertise in mathematics. He had served as the Superintendent of Calcutta Madrasah and later was appointed as Wazir by Mughal Emperor Akbar Shah II. He also acted as ambassador of the British government in India to Iran and Burma.

From the religious point of view he was brought in an atmosphere that combined the best traditions associated with mysticism and reformation. His father, Syed Muttaqi, was a disciple of the most eminent Sufi of Delhi at that time, Shah Ghulam Ali. Shah Ghulam Ali was the disciple and successor of the renowned Naqshbandi Sufi, Mirza Mazhar Jan-i Janan who was known for his liberal views. Shah Ghulam Ali held Syed Muttaqi and his family in great affection. In fact it was he who named the child as Ahmad and later performed the ceremony of his ‘Bismillah Khwani.” Sir Syed must have imbibed the catholicity of the views at the Khanqahs. At the same time the family of his maternal grandfather was deeply influenced by the successors of Shah Waliullah. At various points of his life, Sir Syed had studied at the feet of Shah Muhammad Ishaq, the successor of Shah Abdul Aziz, Shah Makhsusullah, a grandson of Shah Waliullah, Maulana Rashiduddin Dehlavi and Maulana Mamluk Ali. He had also heard the speeches of Shah Ismail and held him in greatest respect. He was greatly influenced by the scholarship of Shah Waliullah and he is the one author whom he quotes most profusely in his writings. It was apparently from his contact with the family of Shah Waliullah that he received his impetus for reformation of the Muslim society. Clearly the source of his inspiration was the same as that of the founders of Deoband. He, however, charted for himself a path, which was entirely different from them, but the zeal and commitment to reformation remained with him throughout his life. The difference basically emanated from the fact that he was not only aware of the glorious heritage of Muslims and the need to preserve it but he was also fully conscious of the great changes that were going to take place in the Indian situation as a result of the collapse of the struggle of 1857 and the urgent need to make some sort of adjustment with the emerging situation. This naturally set him on a path, which was qualitatively different from the one that was adopted by the Ulama of Deoband.

In 1838 Sir Syed decided to join the service of the East India Company. After serving for some time in some small positions, he qualified as Munsif and after a brief period in Manpuri, he was posted at Fatehpur Sikari. It was perhaps during his stay at Sikari among the imperial monuments of Akbar that he developed a keen interest in history. Later, he was transferred to Delhi where he worked from 1846 to 1854. He utilised this period for furthering his studies and writing some of his more important books. Even earlier he has evinced interest in writing books and had already published a number of them. His most important contribution to the scholarship during this period was his compilation of ‘Asarus Sanadid.’ This book deals with the archaeology of Delhi and was the first book on the subject by any Indian. This book earned for him honorary membership of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1864. His interest in history proved to be abiding and during the days to come he edited and published Tarikh-i Firoz Shahi, Ain-i Akbari and Tuzuk-i Jahangiri besides a number of other works on the subject, which he himself had authored.

In 1855 he was promoted as Sadr Amin and was posted at Bijnore. During the Revolt of 1857 he was at Bijnore. As a responsible officer he tried to discharge his duties with great courage and conviction repeatedly putting his own life in peril. He saved the life of many Englishmen during that period. When the British re-established their authority and wanted to reward him for his services, he refused to accept it and become a landlord on the cost of his unfortunate countrymen. The destruction and carnage that followed the Revolt shook him to the very roots of his existence. He was so deeply distraught at the large-scale killing of innocent people and wide spread ruin and devastation of property that for some time he entertained the idea of migrating from the country but the innate goodness of his nature did not allow him to opt for his personal safety and leave his people in distress. Ultimately he decided to work for the amelioration of their conditions and their uplift. The rest of his life he devoted to this noble cause.

During the years following the collapse of the great struggle of 1857, he was mainly preoccupied in what could be described as a two-pronged strategy; to provide immediate relief to the unfortunate victims and save them from the clutches of the British revenge using all the influence prestige that he commanded, and to devise ways and means to pull them out of the stupor and hopelessness in which they found themselves in the aftermath of this disaster. There were certain basic flaws in the British policy in India, which were mainly responsible for bringing about this kind of situation. But it required immense courage of conviction to draw their attention to these shortcomings at a time when they were flushed with victory and seething with feelings of deep animosity and vengeance towards the vanquished. But Sir Syed did not flinch from what he perceived to be his duty towards his countrymen as well as to the rulers. The writing of “Asbab-i Baghawat-i Hind” (Causes of the Indian Revolt) was an act of extraordinary courage, which almost brought upon him the charge of having committed treason. In this book he demonstrates great analytical power and fearlessly puts his fingers on those policies and measures of the British, which caused dissatisfaction and unrest leading to the catastrophe of 1857. He also delineated the steps that needed to be taken to restore confidence and normalcy. He stressed the need to associate the Indians with the process of decision making and running of the government. In spite of the grave misgivings about the book in certain circles of the British establishment, he succeeded in convincing the British government of the urgent need to introduce necessary reforms. But he also realised that without sound education Indians would not be able to derive much benefit from these reforms.

The task of pulling his countrymen and more particularly the Muslim community, which had borne most of the brunt of the revenge of the rulers, was a far more difficult task. After much thinking over the problem, he came to the conclusion that lack of education was the biggest cause of the backwardness of the country and without acquisition of modern knowledge there could be no hope of any improvement in the situation. This realisation determined his goal for the rest of his life and all his energies were now directed to achieve this end. It, however, took some time to finally evolve his strategy in this regard and work out a detailed plan. Before reaching that point, a gradual evolution in his thinking could be easily discerned.

He took the first tentative step in this direction in 1859 when he was posted at Muradabad as Sadrus Sudur. Here he established a Persian Madrasah in which Persian, modern history, English and Urdu were to be taught. Later, he raised donations to establish a Madrasah at Ghazipur in 1864 in which arrangements were made for teaching English, Urdu, Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit. Raja Hardeo Narain Singh was appointed as its patron. This was first academic institution to have been established by raising donations from public, both Hindus and Muslims, even before Ulama at Deoband adopted this method for running the Darul Ulum. Later, this Madrasah was raised as Victoria High School. It was also at Ghazipur that he took by far the most important step to make the western knowledge accessible to the people. In 1863 he founded Translation Society, which was later named as Scientific Society, with a view to arrange translation of standard works on modern arts, sciences, history, agriculture, mathematics and political economy etc. Some important contributions of the western scholarship were thus made available to the people who could not have access to them in their original form. In 1864 he was transferred to Aligarh, which was destined to emerge as the centre of his movement for the awakening of the Muslim community and where Anglo-Mohammadan Oriental College and later the Aligarh Muslim University were to be located. The office of the Scientific Society was also shifted to Aligarh and it continued to function from here even when he was transferred to Banaras. It was from here that he launched Aligarh Institute Gazette in 1866 to popularise his ideas.

What may be termed as the turning point in his life came in April 1869. In that month he undertook a journey to England along with his sons, Syed Mahmud and Syed Hamid. Syed Mahmud was awarded a scholarship to study in England and Sir Syed decided to avail this opportunity. He wanted to acquaint himself with the English educational system particularly that of Oxford and Cambridge. This was necessary for the formulation of his own educational policy. Secondly, he wanted to utilise his stay in England to collect material for the refutation of the fallacies that Sir William Muir had incorporated in his book “Life of Mahomet.” He had even to mortgage his house and sell his library to raise necessary funds for the purpose. He started for England on 1 April 1869 and returned to India on 2 October 1870. During the period of about seventeen months that he spent in England he saw for himself the conditions obtaining in England and closely observed the spectacular attainments of European civilization, and he was deeply impressed by what he saw. He came to the conclusion that all this progress was due to education. He, therefore, took particular care to visit important educational institutions such as Eton, Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge. He discussed problems associated with education with the masters and professors of these institutions. He took special note of the fact that it was not only the classroom teaching that moulded the character of the students; it was rather the entire ambience that was responsible for it. This included boarding life, playing fields, social gatherings and debating societies etc., each one of these combined to contribute its bit to build that particular kind of personality for which the Englishmen were known. This convinced him that his own countrymen could not hope to achieve progress, honour and dignity without sound education. He started drawing outlines of an institution modelled on Oxford and Cambridge. Close observation of these universities also revealed to him the fact that in spite of their tremendous role in influencing and moulding the English society, these universities were remarkably free from dependence on the government. This showed him the possibility of private initiative for educating his people.

But there was a greater hurdle in the way and this was the average Muslims’ aversion of the western education. To persuade them to abandon their distaste for western education was a big challenge before Sir Syed. The outlook of the community had to be changed for any hope of progress. They had to be pulled out from the meshes of the archaic medieval thinking and social evils. Social reform was very much the need of the time. Unless the religious prejudices that were at the root of Muslim aversion of new standards of social life leading to a change in their social attitude were removed, the community could not reap the benefits of the western education. It was also necessary to make efforts to bring the Muslims and the Englishmen closer. He, therefore, wanted to work for the reconstruction of the Muslim society on what he believed to be the real teachings of Islam rooted in its basic sources. Many of the customs and traditions prevalent in the society, which have been added over the centuries and were not derived from the authentic teachings of the religion, needed to be eradicated. For achieving this he decided to launch a magazine through which he could propagate his ideas and reach out to the people. He got this idea from Tatler and Spectator, which were edited by eminent English litterateurs, Addison and Steele respectively and which had deeply influenced the English society. Before his departure from England he had prepared the blue print for the publication of Tahzib Akhlaq (Mohammadan Social Reformer), which was destined to exercise great influence over the society and set new standards for literary discourse.

Before returning to India he also accomplished the other task that he had set for himself before his departure for England. Taking advantage of the availability of books needed by him for the purpose in the British libraries, he wrote a very forceful and effective rebuttal of Sir William Muir’s book. It was entitled “Khutbat-i Ahmadiyyah.” He also made arrangement for the simultaneous publication of its English version. In this book he very effectively refuted the charges against Islam and the Prophet. His defence of Islam was not confined to this book. He continued to defend Islam against the charges, which were so often levelled by the European scholars till the very end of his life.

After his return from England in October 1870, he set forth with great determination to pursue the goal he had set for himself and to put into action the plan he had envisaged for the betterment of the community during his stay in England. By the end of the year the magazine was already in the hands of the readers. Tahzibul Akhlaq actually hit the stands on 24 December 1870. The role that this magazine performed constitutes a bright chapter in the history of Aligarh Movement. It stirred the stagnant water and aroused the community from its deep stupor. Most of the articles were written by Sir Syed himself. Among other prominent contributors were included Muhsinul Mulk and Chiragh Ali. As the motto “Muslim Social Reformer” printed at the cover page clearly suggested, it basically sought to convince the Muslims of the urgent need for social reform and getting rid from those habits and customs, which were not derived from authentic religious teachings and which were acting as powerful impediments in the path of progress. The introductory remarks stated “The aim of publishing this magazine is to persuade the Muslims of India to adopt a perfect kind of civilisation so as to remove the contempt with which they are looked upon by the civilized nations, and so that they also may be regarded as one of the respected and civilized peoples of the world.” As the contents of the magazine touched religious susceptibilities of the people and criticised time honoured customs, it aroused very strong opposition but gradually the circle of its admirers also began to grow. Ultimately, it proved to be the most powerful vehicle for the propagation of the ideas of Sir Syed and worked as a very effective medium of changing the outlook of the people at large. It also helped to develop the Urdu language a powerful and effective vehicle for refined and highly academic discourse.

Foundation of an institution for imparting modern education, which was very dear to Sir Syed’s heart, was a much more difficult task. As noticed earlier, the basic outlines were already drawn by Sir Syed while he was still in England. But there were many hurdles in the way and lot of planning was yet to be done. As it was envisaged to be a private initiative independent of government control, the problem of raising necessary funds posed a big challenge. But Sir Syed was not a man to be deterred by such challenges. He took immense pain and adopted novel ways and methods for collecting funds. This included as varied methods as door-to-door fund collection, drawing of lottery and singing of Ghazals in the exhibition. Without losing any time, he set the process for the establishment of the institution in motion. Committees were formed to work out details, take care of different aspects of the proposal and take steps for raising the funds. The place where the college was to be established was also to be determined. Sir Syed sought public opinion to suggest the location of the institution. Majority opinion was in favour of Aligarh where offices of Scientific Society and Tahzib Akhlaq were already located. Within a period of less than four years since his return from England, on May 24, 1875 the foundation of Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College (M.A.O. College) was laid and regular teaching commenced from 1 June same year. The Viceroy, Lord Lytton, formally laid the foundation stone on 8 January 1877. Sir Syed was still serving at Banaras. But he realised that his personal presence was necessary for the proper supervision and implementation of the project. He applied for premature retirement and returned to Aligarh in July 1876 to work full time for the realisation of the dream that he had dreamt for the uplift of his community. It may, however, be remembered that though the college was basically meant to cater for the educational needs of the Muslims as they were much more behind than their Hindu brothers in the field of modern education, its doors were always open to the students of all communities. From the very beginning, the Hindus have constituted a sizeable number of both the staff and the students. Siddons, an Englishman, was the first Headmaster and Baijnath Prashad was the Second Mater. Among the donors also a sizeable number belonged to Hindus. There were many Non-Muslims who made liberal donations for the purpose. They included Maharaja of Patiala, Maharaja of Vijyanagar, Maharaja of Banaras, Chaudhry Sher Singh, Raja Deo Narain Singh, Lala Phool Chand, Thakur Guru Parsad Sinha, Kunwar Jagat Singh, Rai Shankar Das and Sita Ram etc. Raja Jai Kishan was always at the side of Sir Syed. Name plaques of these and many others could be seen in Strechy Hall and on the facades of the rooms in Sir Syed Hall. When Sir Syed died, out of 349 students, 64 were Non-Muslims and out of the 22 members of the Committee, 6 were Hindus. The first student to pass B.A. Examination in 1881-82 was Ishwari Prasad.

The academic and moral ideal of the movement was stated by Sir Syed to be “Free enquiry, large-hearted toleration, and pure morality” and no effort was spared to achieve this objective. Special stress was laid on boarding life of the college and every effort was made to ensure highest standards in the classrooms, hostels, play fields and literary and debating societies. From the earliest times the College had a Riding Club. Services of the best teachers were procured for imparting instruction to the students. Siddons was succeeded as the Principal by Theodore Beck, a distinguished graduate of Cambridge. Among the teachers were included such distinguished scholars as Shibli, T.W. Arnold, Bhawani Chandra Chakarvarti, Ausotosh Bhattacharya, Harold Cox, Tipping, G. S. Grey, H. Douglas, Morrison and Dr. Ziauddin. It is, therefore, not surprising that very soon it emerged as a role model to be emulated by those who wanted to make their mark in the field of education.

It was good fortune of Sir Syed that he could attract a band of sincere and committed friends and supporters around himself. They included stalwarts like Muhsinul Mulk, Viqarul Mulk, Samiullah Khan and many others. They were men of conviction, courage and vision. They were charged with the zeal to serve for the uplift of the community and were prepared like Sir Syed to undergo any sacrifice. They stood with Sir Syed in the thick and thin and supported him to the hilt as long as he was alive and after his death carried forth his mission with great determination and single-mindedness to successful culmination.

Sir Syed attracted much hostile attention for his religious views. In this regard it would be useful to remember that Aligarh Movement was not a religious movement. It was basically an educational and social reform movement. There was no unanimity among the leading lights of the Movement in this regard. Sir Syed never tried to impose his religious ideas on others or include them in the curriculum of the College. The religious aspect of the College was entirely left to the care of a graduate of Darul Ulum at Deoband, Maulana Abdullah Ansari. In his religious writings he basically wanted to defend Islam against the malicious propaganda of the European scholars that Islam was not compatible with the developments of the modern sciences and no progress could be made under it aegis. Sir Syed firmly believed that the universe was the Work of God while the Quran was the Word of God and therefore there could not be any incompatibility between the two and every physical phenomenon should conform to the laws of nature. He did not believe in miracles. The seemingly supernatural happenings mentioned in the Quran were sought to be explained in terms of a chain of causation. These and many of his other postulates scandalised the Ulama and the common Muslims alike. Many of his writings on the subject of religious reform also impinged on the religious susceptibilities of the people. While a number of his religious ideas such as dining with the Christian, are now generally accepted, others still continue to attract hostile comments from the scholars. The fact, however, remains that while there was genuine ground for criticism on some of his religious ideas; his effort to defend Islam and Muslims against the European onslaught was nothing less than monumental.

Setting up one institution could not be expected to cater to the educational needs of the entire community and remove its academic backwardness. At the best it could show the way and set a model to be followed. There was pressing need for an organisation that could carry on the spirit and the message of Aligarh Movement to the nook and the corner of the country and create awareness about the need to acquire modern education and work for social reform. With this objective Sir Syed established in December 1886 Mohammedan Educational Conference. Its motto was that education alone was the means of the progress of the community. For many years this organisation was the most important forum of the Muslim intelligentsia. Its annual conferences used to be very important occasions and provided an intellectual feast to the participants and the audience. It was at this forum that Shibli presented the results of some of his finest researches and some of his most stirring poetic compositions. Hali, the harbinger of the new Urdu poetry, stirred the thoughts of even uneducated by his Musaddas and made them keenly aware of their glorious past and the present depths of decline to which they had fallen and the need to get out of it. During the life of Sir Syed the meetings of the Conference were mostly held at Aligarh because of practical considerations, but under his successors its sessions were held almost in every part of the country and at such far off places as Bombay, Lahore, Dacca, Calcutta, Madras, Karachi and even Rangoon in Burma. It took the message of Aligarh Movement to the farthest corners of the country and eminently succeeded in its mission.

Sir Syed had aimed at the establishment of a university but this dream did not materialise during his lifetime but he had set the movement firmly on course to achieve this goal. His eminent successors, Muhsinul Mulk and Wiqarul Mulk, untiringly worked for the realization of this objective. Sir Syed breathed his last in 1898 and M.A.O. College attained the status of university in 1920. A century after his death Aligarh Muslim University is a vibrant modern university. Sir Syed was a visionary and had correctly diagnosed the basic malaise that was sapping the vitality of the Muslim community and untiringly worked to set it on course to honour, dignity and prosperity. The difficulties that he had to surmount were enormous and many. But no amount of personal discomfort, hostile opposition and unfavourable conditions could deter him from his goal. With the help of a committed band of friends and supporters he achieved what might have seemed in the circumstances to many as unachievable. It is difficult to visualise the condition of the Muslims of the Subcontinent had there not been Sir Syed and his Aligarh Movement.

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