Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, while establishing the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College in Aligarh in 1875, had confronted several malevolent attacks. One of the major invasions was the existence of prejudice amongst the Indian Muslims against western education. The majority of the Muslims were against adopting a rationalistic approach towards life and Islam. After the cataclysmic Revolt of 1857, Sir Syed wanted to emancipate Indian Muslims. He wanted to make them understand the breeze of renaissance and Science education. However, for Indian Muslims, adopting the new pulse was seemingly difficult. As a result, the debate on Islam versus modernity arose which lead to innumerable opposition from all parts of the country. The social condition of Indian Muslims was inevitably deteriorating. The coming of the British Empire had lead to severe repercussions on Muslims. These included transformations that disrupted the political and economic orders established by the Mughals. Consequently, Indians, particularly Muslims, suffered the most.


The unbridgeable gap was widening between the two communities, the Hindus and Muslims. The Indian Muslims were reluctant to adopt the liberal culture and education facilitated by British rule. However, Hindus favorably responded to the British regime.  They expressed a willingness to learn from Britishers which substantially contributed to their advancement. In 1793, the East India Company passed the Permanent Land Settlement Act which aimed to collect revenue from peasants. This Act turned thousands of landlords into landowners whereas peasants were forced to witness poverty.  Many cases were reported where revenue collectors using oppressive conduct collected huge money and land. This Act benefited many people while overcharged peasants including Muslims. Not only in the agricultural field, but also in the administrative positions, Muslims were deprived of opportunities. The East India Company dismissed the use of Persian and Urdu language and began using English as their official language of the bureaucracy. In law courts, Britishers discarded the older system established by the Muslims and superseded their procedures. Furthermore, they undermined the capabilities of working Muslims and dismissed their presence from the judiciary system.

Indian Muslims refused to learn English as a medium of communication. They were not ready to submit their past glory to the conquerors. As a result, they discarded to fold themselves into the imposed educational framework. This made the Muslim network avoid everything related to the British, including their culture, language, and education. Furthermore, this situation drove the Muslims to insularity. Muslims were intrigued by their way of life and thoughts. Besides, English Schools did not include Islamic culture, history, or its teachings. As a result, a common notion pervaded among the Muslims that the conquerors want to Christianize the entire occupants of the Indian Subcontinent. From all spheres, Muslims were rejected, humiliated, and exploited. As a consequence, they developed an Anti- British attitude which later fumed into the major revolt of 1857. However, both the Hindus and Muslims joined hands to fight against the Britishers. One of the best examples can be traced from the story of Rani Laxmi Bai and her troops, who kept on battling like noble warriors.

Not surprisingly, the major Revolt of 1857 was failed. Historians believe that the major reason for this failure was the lack of unity among the Hindus and Muslims. Their religious differences and interests inhibited them from cultivating the common aim.  The Indian Muslims had to bear the scars of the 1857 Revolt because they had been the target of the British Government. Therefore, their possessions, rights, and prestige were taken away. The Anti- Muslim attitude could be well understood from the harsh attitude of the British Government. Taking the advantage of religious differences, Britishers employed the ‘Divide and Rule’ policy. It was also observed that Hindus, who participated actively in the revolt, joined hands with the Britishers and accused Muslims for the event. In 1965, Thomas R. Metcalf mentioned:

“As the former rulers of Hindustan, the Muslims had, in British eyes, necessarily to place themselves at the head of a movement for the overthrow of the British Government”.

The British Government introduced discriminatory policies and evicted the majority of the Muslims from all major positions. Havoc was deliberately created by the British regime which eventually degraded Muslims from all walks of life. Their welfare was ignored to the extent that they were called as decay, backward, and deprived. During the outburst of the 1857 revolt, a Muslim named Syed Ahmad Khan saved the lives of many Britishers. Later, he authored a book titled “The Causes of the Indian Mutiny” where he fearlessly criticized the British Government for its weaknesses that lead to the outburst of the 1857 revolt. This book witnessed success. It was widely read by the British officials. Moreover, it embarked a considerable influence on British administration.

Syed joined East India Company as Clerk. Due to his outstanding contributions and loyalty to the English Government, he was promoted to the position of Sub-Judge. He first contributed to Islamic Literature when he was just 23 years old. He authored Athar Aṣṣanadid, Essays on the Life of Mohammad, Interpretations of Bible and Quran, to name a few. Through these noteworthy pieces, Syed tried to resonate harmony and peace among Muslims and Britishers. He also promoted scientific and political thoughts which were the need of the hour. His major interest was education. He began promoting Science by founding schools. In 1859, Syed established Gulshan School and Victoria School in Moradabad and Ghazipur respectively. In 1864, he founded the Scientific Society. Through this society, he wanted to translate major works of English into Urdu. Its management committee included Hindus, Muslims, and British officials. Ten years after the 1857 revolt, Syed was transferred to Banaras- a place with Hindu religious sentiments. At that time, a movement started in Banaras to replace Urdu and employ the Hindi language. Syed propagated Urdu Movement and defended Urdu’s use and its official status. In 1888, Syed and Raja Shiv Prasad Singh of Benaras collaborated and formed United Indian Patriotic Association. In 1900, the Government granted equal status to both Hindi and Urdu language.

Syed kept on articulating the need for resolving Muslim and British relationships. To encourage friendship, he expressed his desire to visit Cambridge. He also wanted to understand the success and progressive civilization of Europe to bring back the lessons for his friends and the country.  Syed’s dream came true when his younger son Syed Mahmud was granted the scholarship to study in England. Mahmud was accompanied by his father Syed and elder brother Syed Hamid and Chajju- their loyal servant. Mirza Khudadad, a distant relative who also received the same scholarship, accompanied them. Syed amortized his house in Delhi and borrowed ten thousand rupees from a few close friends. The journey started on April 1, 1869. They changed several trains, sat on various bullock carts, and reached Bombay in six days. While traveling from Bombay to London, they stopped at various cities like Alexandria, SS Poona, and Marseilles. Syed stayed in England for seventeen months. In England, he engaged himself in meetings with British officials, visited universities, and discussed important issues of the time. He was introduced to the two British journals, the Tatler and Spectator– which made him think of introducing Tehzibul Ikhlaque in India. Through the Tehzibul Ikhlaque, he helped Indian Muslims to understand the value of education, highlighted their role in various fields, and promoted social qualities.

After returning from England, Sir Syed started raising funds for establishing an institution. He wanted to establish an institution for Muslims on the lines of Cambridge University. Not surprisingly, he faced strong opposition from all over the country. People accused him of misguiding the Muslim community. Indian Muslim leaders issued Fatwa (a religious edict) against him. He was abused and insulted whenever he requested funds. A landlord spitted on him, few put a garland of shoes on his neck. However, he was rigid in his vision. He sold those torn issues in the market and collected money for the purpose. He also staged plays and collected money for the cause. Syed worked tirelessly to make Muslims understand the value of modern and Science education. Mohsin ul Mulk, Jai Kishan Das, Viqarul Mulk, Molvi Ismail, Molana Altaf Husain Hali, Molvi Zakaullah, and Shibli Nomani were his friends who believed in him during a difficult time. With time and effort, Sir Syed brought educational reform all over the country and influenced people across the globe.

In 1875, established a primary school which later studded into the Mohammadein Anglo-Oriental College. Initially, the college was affiliated with the University of Calcutta. In 1885, its affiliation was tied with Allahabad University. Sir Syed took his last breath on March 27, 1898. To fulfill Sir Syed’s dream of making the college into a Muslim University, his Muslim, Hindu, and British friends raised money. In 1920, the college blossomed into state of the art- Aligarh Muslim University. Sir Syed Ahmad khan was a vigorous reformer who felt the need of spreading scientific education. He accommodated and shared Islamic understandings. He did not assault any fundamental conviction of Islam rather paved the way for education and peace.

Sir Syed’s last message:

“Oh, my dear Children, You have reached a particular stage and remember one thing that when I undertook the task, there was criticism all-around against me, abuses were hurled upon me, life had become so difficult for me that I aged before my age. I lost my hairs, my eyesight, but not my vision. My vision never dimmed.  My determination never failed. I built this institution for you and I am sure, you will carry the light of this institution far and wide till darkness will disappear from all around.”

© The Eastern Herald
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Areeba Shabbir
Pursuing a PhD in English Language Teaching from the prestigious Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh. Coordinates with REsolv Corporation, Massachusetts, USA. Has designed a course for visually challenged students at Vision Aid, Inc. The USA. A contributor to The Eastern Herald.