Closer Look: Aligarh Movement

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Closer Look: Aligarh Movement

By Kashif-ul-Huda,

There are three myths about the Aligarh movement: it was simply a movement for education, Aligarh Muslim University IS the movement, and that the movement is long dead. Syed Ahmed Khan’s concerns, visions, and efforts for the Indian Muslims came to be later known as the Aligarh Movement but it was not simply a movement to make Muslims learn Western education or even the establishment of a university. It was a movement to give mission to a community that seemed to have lost its bearing in the fast-changing world, to prepare them for new challenges, and give them new tools to connect back to their religion and history. Incredibly, Muslims of India still face these issues and the need for Aligarh movement is still alive.

Rarely history offers such a sharp divide as in 1857 when medieval India came to a close and a modern India emerged from the ruins. Syed Ahmed understood the new power and new rules that will shape the future of India. British saw Muslims as a threat and a challenge to the British rule in India. They held Muslims responsible for the brutal 1857 war between British and Indian forces. In this situation Muslim centers of learning and culture in North India were uprooted or abandoned. At that time Syed Ahmad was in the employment of the British. He wrote “Asbab-e-baghawat-e-hind” (The Causes of the Indian Revolt) to show that events of 1857 was a result of British high-handedness in India and not a conspiracy by the Muslim feudal elites. It was an attempt to tell the rulers of India that we understand that you are here to stay but we want to be a partner in this new system.

Scientific Society Stone

Foundation stone of the Scientific Society. Society was set up in 1864 in Ghazipur

Modern or Western education was a tool for Syed Ahmed Khan to make sure that Muslims are playing their roles in the new world that was quickly shaping up in front of them. They had to be part of it or be swept off of their religious and cultural bearings in the new tide of modernism. Syed Ahmed Khan did indeed establish a college that eventually became Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) but it is wrong to think that it was his only contribution or his sole vision. He also started a scientific society, a magazine for social reform, wrote commentaries on Quran- all in his attempt to reform the Muslim society.

Muslims rightly believe that AMU is his greatest achievement but focus on this university comes at a cost. Aligarh movement has become synonymous with the AMU which meant that the movement has stagnated for the last few decades. Some individual efforts have been made by AMU alumni in establishing schools and giving scholarships. AMU alumni religiously observe Sir Syed Day dinner and annual mushaira but is this the best way to remember founder of this movement?

New AMU branches being established in Mallapuram and Murshidabad and a few more proposed in other places can be called extending Aligarh movement to new geographical regions. It is a welcome step but as long as Aligarh movement remains attached to the AMU it cannot reach its full potential. This movement starts with education but doesn’t end there.

It is time to delink movement from the university at Aligarh. Delinking it will immediately open up the Aligarh movement to people who never went to AMU and may not have the same passion for the University as others. It will also mean that not all problems or issues of AMU will be something that this movement needs to respond to. Aligarh movement can continue to benefit from the intellectual capital that comes out of AMU and can tap into the amazingly wide-spread and resourceful network of AMU alumni. It will give a purpose and mission to thousands that graduate each year from AMU and a platform for millions of educated Muslims to contribute back to their community in a much more organized and planned way.

Envision an Aligarh movement that inspires our students to go in colonies, small-towns, and villages and make our young and old literate; our graduates to devote their time to find solutions to our problems; and our educated and professionals to give time and money to invest in community projects and articulate community issues and aspirations to people in the larger society and to the world. This will be a community that will have the confidence to face its challenges and come up with resources to help chart a new path that will make hundreds of universities and thousands of colleges in its wake but its greatest contribution is making of a Muslim who is equally aware and proud of his or her Indian and Muslim heritage.


Closer Look is a monthly column by editor Kashif-ul-Huda. For publication permissions please contact

Re:Closer Look: Aligarh Movement

Dear Mohammad Shariq,

At least I am not aware who coined the word "Aligarh Movement", but what I know is education and social reform were the two planks of his program.

We all know about his educational programs and contributions which was started in the form of an Persian School in Moradabad, late a school is Ghazipur and finally establishment of Madarsatul Uloom which first became MAO College and later Aligarh Muslim University. The academic and moral ideal of The Aligarh 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.[1]

Lets analyze what was his social reforms;
Most of our daily affairs and customs are based on religious thoughts whether they are for real or fabricated. He started a an onslaught on all the false practices and customs of Muslim Society and to spread his message, he started monthly journal "Tahzibul Akhlaq". The name of the journal itself suggest the his social reform mission. Articles related to the social customs and issue of the community was regularly published in the journal. He wrote articles and book Jawab Ummehaatul Momeneen to clarify misconceptions about the wives of Prophet Muhammad SAW raised by Orientals or western writers like William Muer. He also wrote commentary of Quran "Tafsirul Quran - Al-huda wal Furqan". His Maqalat which were later published as "Maqalaate-e-Sir Syed" was also aimed for the same purpose. He also wrote Haqeeqatus-Sahar to put forward his vies on the reality of Magic. He also edited "Bible" and "Tauzuk-e-Jahaangeeri".

We all know about his writing of "Asbab Baghawat-e-Hind (Causes of Indian revolt" in which he tried to explained the real causes of Indian revolt and asserted his views about both the parties, the ruler and the nation fighting the rulers. This was a bold step as he was an employ of the rulers. His famous book " Asarus Sanaadeed was another attempt of social reforms about our heritage.

Sir Syed was a member of Legislative and Educational Council of Viceroy of India and he always presented the case of community at appropriate platform. He repeatedly demanded greater opportunity for fellow Indians and Muslims in Civil Services.

His last social reform effort was the establishment of All India Muslim Educational Conference.

The inauguration of first Session of Indian national Congress at Bombay on 28-31 December 1885 by Allan Octavian Hume was a turning point in social and political movements of British India. Indian National Congress chooses a path of confrontational politics with the rulers of British India which was against the philosophy of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, who was a strong supporter of Co operational Politics with British Empire. This lead Sir Syed to establish Mohammadan Educational Congress on 27th December, 1886 at Aligarh. By this time Sir Syed was undisputed well wisher of Muslims of India and had unquestioned secular credentials. Sir Syed’s decision not to participate in Indian National Congress surprised a lot of intellectuals of the time. But Sir Syed was very clear in his mission of Muslim upliftment and at any cost he did not wanted to see the wrath of British Empire on Muslims of India which he had himself witnessed after 1857 revolt and so he choose the path of Co operational Politics with the rulers of India. This Congress became Mohammadan Educational Conference in the annual session of 1890 at Allahabad. This organization was a key element of Aligarh Movement and played an important role in taking the Aligarh Movement across the Indian Sub-continent and the establishment of Aligarh Muslim University. It is an established fact that the foundation of AIMEC was to keep Muslims of India away from a confrontational politics of Indian National Congress against British Empire and to do so it was made very clear that AIMEC is socio-political group to promote education among the Muslims of Indian subcontinent. One of the demands of the INC was to have open competition for Civil Services. Sir Syed was convinced that Muslims of India are educationally not at par with their fellow countrymen and so can not compete in open competition with their fellow countrymen. Sir Syed and leaders of AIMEC made it very clear that AIMEC is neither against INC or other political groups of India nor intended to alienate Indian Muslims from main stream political process but to promote education among the Muslims of Indian subcontinent to bring them at par with their fellow countrymen. In the Inaugural session of Muslim Educational Conference on 27th December, 1886 at Aligarh, Sir Syed emphasized his philosophy of co operational politics with the rulers of India and put forward the need of educational empowerment for the Muslims of India. Indian National Congress leaders were not very happy with the formation of Muslim Educational Conference.

All India Muslim Educational Conference (AIMEC), a Non-political organization which brought Muslim rulers of remaining princely states of undivided British India, social and political leaders, intellectuals and distinguished people from all of walks of life onto one platform for educational empowerment of Muslims of India and transformed the dimensions of Aligarh Movement and fulfilled the dream of its founder, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan by converting Muhammadan Anglo Oriental College (M.A.O. College) to Aligarh Muslim University. The Conference also became championing the cause of Women’s education and gave birth to one of the oldest and biggest women’s educational institution, Women’s College of Aligarh. This non-political, All India Muslim Educational Conference which was started for educational empowerment of Muslims of India also gave birth to largest Muslim political party “Muslim League” which still has roots in all the 3 countries of British India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. [2]

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Afzal Usmani
Austin TX

Re:Closer Look: Aligarh Movement

Dear Mr. Kaashiful Hoda and Mr. Afzal Usmani

This is a very interesting thread of discussion.

During Sir Syed Ahmad's time, it was not known as Aligarh Movement an someone in later part gave it the name of Aligarh Movement. It will be nice to know who coined the word Aligarh Movement.

Its almost very visible that Aligarh Movement lost its Educational momentum after the establishment of Aligarh Muslim University in 1920 and its political momentum after division of India into two states in 1947.

AMU which is the ultimate result of Aligarh Movement has a national character and a prestigious institution not only for education, but for an entire character and personality building. Now even AMU also lost that glory.

Someone from this form should educate us, what is a true Aligarh Movement and how our generation can take it to the next level.

Response from learned members of this form is expected to enlightened us and guide us to understand and be part of true Aligarh Movement.

Mohammad Shariq

Re: Closer Look : Aligarh Movement

Dear Kaashif Bhai,
Good to read your thought provoking article on Aligarh Movement. Glad to see that we are on the same page.

The Aligarh Movement has no formally laid down goals but it would be reasonable to identify the following as its guiding principles. Keeping education and social reform as the two planks of his program, he launched the Aligarh Movement with the following objectives:

To create an atmosphere of mutual understanding between the British government and the Muslims.
To persuade Muslims to learn English education.
To persuade Muslims to abstain from politics of agitation.
To produce an intellectual class from amongst the Muslim community.
To bring a social and cultural reform amongst the Muslim community.
To maintain, and as far as possible promote the political and economical importance of Muslims in the affairs of the country to the extent that was possible in a country under foreign rule.

You are right that some how Aligarh Movement has become synonymous with Education and Aligarh Muslim University. Majority does not look Sir Syed beyond Aligarh Muslim University and Education. It is true that Sir Syed Ahmad Khan choose Education as a platform for Muslim empowerment. After starting the college when he felt the need of a political activism for Muslims, he started Mohammadan Education Congress which later became Muslim Educational Conference. MEC was started in 1886, just after 1 year of foundation of Indian National Congress.

We hope people in our time realize it and make an effort to take Aligarh Movement into a new level and realize the dream of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan.

Afzal Usmani
Austin TX

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