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The 'shaper of India’s collective consciousness

Interview with Shafey Kidwai, the author of 'Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: Reason, Religion and Nation'.

by Ziya Us Salam

Courtesy: Front Line, India 

Soft-spoken, almost self-effacing, Shafey Kidwai is a rare Indian intellectual who writes with finesse in both English and Urdu. He is a regular at literary festivals that bring together the finest talent in English and also a frequent participant at Urdu literary meets. This seasoned academic from Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), a Sahitya Akademi award winner, has penned over a dozen books in English and Urdu, including the widely acclaimed Urdu Literature and Journalism: Critical Perspectives.

His latest book, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: Reason, Religion and Nation, published by Routledge, has been talked about for giving a fresh perspective on AMU’s founder. Irfan Habib, the illustrious historian, calls it “a mine of well-arranged information, objectively and competently interpreted”. The book reveals the many facets of Sir Syed’s life, from being a proponent of scientific education to a man whose views on female education have raised questions. Sir Syed, who questioned many of the British government’s legislative Acts, has also been criticised for believing in the goodness of the colonial masters.

While never being overtly critical of Sir Syed, Kidwai manages to reveal the man behind the icon in a gentle, persuasive and almost imperceptible manner. He tries valiantly to remind us that there is much more to Sir Syed than merely founding a university which still strives to live up to his ideals.

Using the tools of a scholar and shunning academic jargon, Kidwai, in an interview, shared his thoughts on Syed Ahmed Khan, one of the founders of modern India, his book on Sir Syed, and a lot more. Excerpts:

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was a builder of modern India. How do you look at sustained attempts by many academics to reduce him to a Muslim social reformer? Even school textbooks refer to him so.

It is regretted that Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898), a gifted initiator of sociocultural transformation, has largely been recognised as a protagonist of socio-religious reform in Islam and merely as the founder of the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College that got the status of a university in 1920. The widespread adulation for his educational endeavours and sustained campaign for religious and social reforms and cultural practices makes his significant contribution to the collective life of India—his vision of empowering and mitigating the suffering of his fellow citizens by creating a vibrant civil society, his frequent adumbrations against blind adherence to ancestral beliefs, his non-conformism wrapped in the secular idiom, and his stand against suppression and subjugation without rhetorical flourish—inaccessible to people.

Throughout his life, Sir Syed kept himself engaged with pertinent and equally daunting questions that rattled India in the 19th century. To understand how he nurtured the collective consciousness of the country, one has to look at his contribution as a member of several apex bodies such as the Viceregal Legislative Council (1878-1883, two terms), the North-Western Province Legislative Council (1887-1891, two terms), The Imperial Commission on Education (1882), and the Royal Public Service Commission (1887). His frequent interventions at the meetings unfailingly underscore his abiding concern for empowering subjugated Indians, regardless of their religious, ethnic or linguistic affiliations. Notwithstanding his marked Anglophile streak, he frequently challenged colonial cultural, spiritual and intellectual superiority. He made it a point to lodge loud protests when the self-respect of Indians was battered by overbearing British officers.

Colonial and right-wing historians across the border take Sir Syed’ s insistence on a distinct cultural identity in conformity with liberal and plural values as a communal predisposition. Going against the frenzied mass politics of the time, Sir Syed extended support to the moderate constitutional policies of the British. Certainly more than a Muslim social reformer and proponent of modern education, Sir Syed, with a well-laid strategy, tried to empower his fellow citizens by engaging with people in a discourse on self-discovery. He strove to create a new political space co-owned by Muslims and Hindus without relinquishing their cultural and spiritual aspirations. Unfortunately, textbooks hardly refer to his multilayered personality, and his discerning political, educational and religious thoughts remain hidden. Seldom does one realise that Sir Syed was one of the seminal figures of the 19th century who tried to shape the destiny of India in his way.

Altaf Hussain Hali's biography of Sir Syed

In the foreword to your book, Prof. Irfan Habib talks about some inaccuracies in ‘Hayat-e-Jawed’, Altaf Hussain Hali's biography of Sir Syed. How have you avoided repeating them here? Can Hali's work still be considered as a primary source to understand Sir Syed?

Considered to be Sir Syed’s Boswell, Khawaja Altaf Hussain Hali (1837-1914) produced an exhaustive narrative of Sir Syed’s contribution in extremely laudatory idiom, and it remains the single most important source of understanding Sir Syed, though it is riddled with inaccuracies, which Professor Irfan Habib rightly mentioned. No serious attempt has been made to cross-examine the authenticity of the details provided by the widely respected biographer. The biographical details provided by Hali seem to contradict what Sir Syed mentioned in his writings and letters. It is surprising to find that Hali hardly accurately mentions even the names of Sir Syed's father, sister and the period his forefathers immigrated to India. Hali mentions that Sir Syed’s ancestors came to India during the reign of Shahjahan. Hali’s book was published in 1901, but in 1860 Sir Syed, in his periodical Loyal Mohamedans of India, mentioned that his family had migrated from Herat during the time of Jalaluddin Akbar. His employment details, his role as a lawmaker, as member of the Public Service Commission, a chronology of his books and the journals he launched are casually mentioned. It leaves one bewildered to find that Hali changed the name of Sir Syed’s most popular book, Asbab-e-Sarkashi Hind ka Jawabi Mazmoon (The Reply to the Causes of Indian Uprising), to Risala Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind (Causes of Indian Revolt). The book ran into more than 70 editions. Hali included it as a supplement to Hayat-e-Jawed in 1901. Without mention, he changed the name of the monograph. Despite its numerous shortcomings, Hayat-e-Jawed remains central to understanding Sir Syed.

Understanding Sir Syed

Syed Ahmad Khan remains a mystery to non-AMU students. Some see him as a rational educationist, others as a pro-British voice. How does one assess him?

Sir Syed ‘s deliberations pertaining to faith, spirituality, morality, social customs, cultural practices, nationalism, blasphemy, universal voting rights, female education, alien rule and language still evoke admiration and retribution with almost equal intensity. His espousal of modern education and reconciliation with the British occasionally bordering on servility are seen as deliberate attempts to cut deals with the Raj. His liberal thinking and radical interpretation of the sacred texts and conciliatory political strategy infuriates clerics and politicians, and it sums up his appraisal even today.

For me, whatever Sir Syed did in the public sphere and wrote reveal a scant regard for consistency as he simultaneously discusses contradictory views without trying to resolve them. He was not one who opposed everything that the alien rule represented, but he admonished colonial power when it attempted to impinge upon the self-respect of Indians. He opposed several Bills and pressed for several amendments while serving on the Viceregal Legislative Council. There are several specific instances when he argued strongly against the actions of arrogant officers. To understand the emergence of modern India, the Muslim mind and the proverbial encounter between tradition and modernity, one has to study Sir Syed.

In the 19th century, William Muir wrote extremely critical books such as ‘The Life of Mahomet and History of Islam’. While the masses were outraged in much the same way they were about ‘The Satanic Verses’ a century later, Syed Ahmad Khan took a rational, if unpopular, view of countering the books with facts. Can you elaborate on his strategy and findings?

Sir William Muir, who served as the lieutenant governor of the North-Western Province and as Finance Minister of the Legislative Council, wrote a four-volume contemptible book in which the pre-Islamic history of Arabia, Islamic precepts and the life of the Prophet were subjected to detailed scrutiny. William Muir concluded that Muslim society could not ingest reforms as it believed in the infallibility of its religious injunctions. Polygamy, divorce and slavery sanctioned by religion, and the strict adherence to theological commandments throttled freedom of thought. Much before Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, William Muir talked about satanic influence on the Prophet. The book led to vociferous protests, but Sir Syed said that a book can be countered by another book and that burning the book was not a solution. Muslims must not seek vengeance on behalf of the Almighty or His messenger. Blasphemy is to be dealt with according to the provisions of the country’s laws. Sir Syed accompanied his son, who got a scholarship to study at Lincoln’s Inn in London, and prepared a dispassionate rejoinder. Employing deductive logic and with his grounding in Islamic history, he questioned the conjectural methodology used by the author. He cited examples to highlight the Prophet’s moral and social commitment to a humane society. His book, translated into English as well, went a long way in debunking the misconceptions surrounding the Prophet. For Sir Syed, blasphemy did not call for violent and loud protests. It only required a dispassionate rebuttal.

He founded the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College from which grew AMU. At a time when a section of the media seeks to reduce a debate on AMU to a Jinnah portrait in a students’ union hall, how does the university keep space for divergent views, pluralism, and so on? More so in the face of rampant conformism?

The name of AMU frequently figures in the media for the wrong reasons. If a crime has some remote connection with AMU, the media highlights it, but crimes committed by those who studied at Lucknow, Delhi or Banaras University and so on, are never mentioned with the university affiliation. Regarding the Jinnah portrait, I must say that AMU stands against his divisive policies and one cannot find his photograph at a library or any other public place. The question of his glorification does not arise, but the university’s job is to protect the truth of history, and Jinnah visited the students’ union hall in 1938. His photo was there as the hall carried the names and photographs of all who visited it. The list includes stalwarts such as Mahatma Gandhi, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, Maulana Azad and Sarojini Naidu. The university still strives to accommodate divergent views. It has set up an exclusive centre for fostering interfaith dialogue.

Syed Ahmad Khan, as you write, worked as a public intellectual. What were his views on cow slaughter? It is important as around the time the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College was founded, gau rakshini sabhas (cow protection centres) began to emerge.

Notwithstanding the frequent accusation that Sir Syed sowed the seed for the two-nation theory, his writings and actions hardly indicate any sort of communal insularity. He was the first Muslim to set out the details of living in a plural society. Sir Syed asked Muslims to adopt an all-encompassing point of view not shaped by adherence to traditional practice without any explicit religious sanction. At that time, gau rakshini sabhas were being set up and cow sacrifice, though legally permissible, caused widespread disquiet among Hindus. He asked Muslims to abandon it for the sake of friendly relations and he wrote several editorials in his weekly Aligarh Institute Gazette. When Madrasratul Uloom (1875) and the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College (1877) were set up, Sir Syed ensured that beef was not served, and at AMU hostels beef remained banned.

You write, ‘Despite being a devout Muslim, Sir Syed expresses a great deal of scepticism about the role of religion.’ Is it not ironical?

Sir Syed was vocal in defending Islam, but he took a stand against its political exertion. For him Islam is not a means for grabbing power and he strongly criticised his contemporary Islamic ideologue Jamal Uddin Afghani, who forcefully advocated Pan-Islamism. Sir Syed was not in favour of Khilafat (a single Muslim political authority across the globe) and asserted, “The Turkish khilafat does not extend over us. We are the residents of India.”

Hafez Malik rightly observes that Sir Syed had established a new orientation that religion existed as an aid to man’s progress and that man did not exist just for faith.

Syed Ahmad Khan faced a lot of flak for his views on female education. How much is the criticism valid? Have the critics based their views on the socio-religious mores then prevalent? Also, was his own view on purdah derived from the Quran or social practices?

Sir Syed never criticised female education per se but offered them tutor-based home education with gender segregation. His highest priority to purdah seems to be inspired by the social practice and it has no explicit Quranic sanction. One tends to agree with David Lelyveld [author and historian], who says that Sir Syed articulated the dominant ideology of his time.

On nationalism and patriotism

Today, there is widespread debate on the idea of India, nation, nationalism and citizenship. Where exactly did Syed Ahmad Khan stand with the respect to the idea of India and the nation?

For Sir Syed, nation was certainly more than a political slogan or marker of geographical identity; it was human instinct and not something that one acquired from one’s land. He made a distinction between patriotism and nationalism, and for him patriotism is to be strengthened, and nationalism is a political ideology. His idea of India was based on inclusiveness and pluralism. For him Muslim identity was both Islamic and Indian.

All succeeding generations since the early 20th century have reduced Syed Ahmad Khan’s memory to AMU. Do you think, despite its laudable intentions, AMU has virtually monopolised one of the icons of modern India?

Sir Syed, who played a seminal role in the 19th century, is supposed to surface in all major debates on nationalism, and the fate of the minorities and democratic values, etc., but hardly any attention is paid to his perceptive adumbrations. Hence AMU remains the place where his teachings, alas only selective ones, are discussed.

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