The Stranger at Aligarh


Only Kashmir | Mushtaq Ul Haq Ahmad Sikander | 18 Oct

Education is the road to success. It is the only source of empowerment. Since childhood we are indoctrinated with this fact that if we need to excel in life, then we need to be the best in education. The emphasis on education has resulted in knowledge explosion and spur in educational institutions. Education certainly is responsible for giving birth to a new era of enlightenment and progress, though lot more needs to be done and accomplished. We are still far from the goal of completely eradicating illiteracy. The eradication of illiteracy should be made a priority but due to various reasons defense, security, fighting terrorism and stockpiling weapons are what most nations do focus judiciously. Also education has been retrograded and rendered synonymous with literacy, with the result that we have not been able to make the world a better place as wars and conflicts are a pragmatic reality that we confront in our daily lives. We have failed education that could have rendered us into best human beings with values. The values have been replaced by animal instincts and we have reduced education into a tool of gratifying our instincts.

Islam as a religion lays heavy emphasis on education. There is no distinction when knowledge is in focus regarding its epistemology, evolution or expansion. Knowledge has to be acquired that is beneficial to mankind. But over the centuries due to variegated reasons including colonialism, knowledge has been unjustly and in confrontation with the principles of Islam compartmentalized into religious and worldly. This artificial compartmentalization has resulted in skewed growth and even decline of knowledge milieu among Muslim societies. Two different sets of educational institutions have developed among the Muslim societies. One caters to the religious knowledge and other to the temporal one. It has created two different sets of mindsets that are antagonistic to each other if not always.

Many reformers have led tirades against this artificial divide, initiated reformist movements to bridge the incommensurable knowledge systems that could usher a new era of unification of knowledge and society. One such reformer and educationist was Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898). Sir Syed took up reins of the efforts to reform the society at a time when Muslims were at their lowest ebb. They had been displaced from the ruling clique, a strong minority and reduced to a pauperized community out of power. It was darkness all around and Sir Syed could envision that education would be the only source and route towards Muslim empowerment. His vision can be understood from this statement, “We will be fully educated only when we will have full control of education in our hands….. When Philosophy will be in our right hand, natural sciences in our left hand, and the crown of La-Ilaha Illalah (There is no God but Allah) will be on our heads”.

During his lifetime he was successful in establishing Muhammadan Anglo Oriental (MAO) college that later on evolved to become Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), after his death. Sir Syed was lucky enough to have worthy successors who believed in his dream of educational renaissance. Since its inception AMU has benefitted millions of students and they continue to reap its fruits. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s legacy was not educational only but religious one too. He tried to reinterpret Islam and Quran in a new way thus observing Ijtihad, whose doors still are closed. The decline of Ijtihad in the muslim world resulted in its stagnation and backwardness including educational apathy. Sir Syed’s attempt at reinterpretation of Quran, through his incomplete exegesis was met with a stiff opposition. The opposition for it still continues and his views find no takers even in his own university. The traditional religious clergy, the retrogative mullahs were successful in stalling every project of Sir Syed and particularly his works on religious theology, comparative religion and exegesis of the Quran. The irony of the matter is that Aligarh University Press has yet to publish the writings of its founder and distribute them so that they can be accessible to the common man. Many mullahs who have made it to the chairs of academia have been opposing the publication of Sir Syed’s writings by the university. Sir Syed has been reduced to a stranger even in his own university. The Aligarh University since its inception has failed to develop an academic culture and environment where ideas can be discussed freely without worrying about being accused of blasphemy. If Sir Syed’s interpretation of Islam is different, antagonistic and incommensurable with what mullahs and other Ulama describe as ‘mainstream Islam’ even then they are worth to be discussed if later they have to be discarded. The problem with the construct of ‘mainstream Islam’ is that there has been no such construct but the Muslim civilization was too vibrant that it could entertain and tolerate plurality of views instead of just labeling a single view as the only correct and factual one. The different schools of thought that grew over the centuries among Muslims were a result of the interpretation, reinterpretation and further interpretation of Islamic texts but when a community is under decline then every fresh interpretation is looked down upon with a lens of suspicion.

Islam is not so weak or frail as mullahs have made us believe that any new interpretation can endanger its foundations or Muslim community. We have witnessed in the muslim world how different schools of thought and even sects have been tolerated over the centuries but now when the mullahs are becoming redundant with each passing day they are raising the banner of Islam being in danger. It is not Islam that is in danger but the clergy (read mullahs) who witness their authority being threatened are in the danger of losing their status and respect that makes them pull out the banner of Islam being in danger every time their authority is being challenged through a different interpretation of Islam.

It is very unfortunate that an invisible blanket ban is in place even at Aligarh Muslim university against the writings of its founder. This invisible ban makes the fact clear that the university has failed to evolve a culture where ideas can be entertained without accepting them. If ideas will not be deliberated and debated in the environs of a university then which institution can host and provide a platform to divergent viewpoints? Sir Syed understood the challenges that modernity had brought in its wake and made an attempt to rebut some of them. Instead of just disregarding and discarding his efforts we need to engage with them critically and then arrive at any conclusions. The culture and era of ban is over that needs to be understood particularly by those who are at the helm of power at AMU. This mentality and its upholders who think that by non publishing Sir Syed’s writings his message will be lost are on the wrong page of history as his exegesis and other writings are freely available on the internet. But it is a great misfortune that AMU has not been able to repay to its founder and the only way through which some of the debt can be repaid is through publishing his seminal writings particularly his commentary on Quran, only then can justice be done to the versatile and holistic personality of Sir Syed. Our best tribute to his legacy is that we discuss its all aspects and bring it forth to the masses of all hues. Sir Syed who continues to be a stranger in his own burg needs to be rediscovered and reclaimed and the values that he stood for revived and enliven only then we can realize and accomplish his dreams for which he stood during his whole life.

M.H.A Sikander is Writer-Activist based in Srinagar, Kashmir and a member of Civil Society Justice and Development (CSJD), can be reached at