Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was born on 17 October 1817 in Delhi when the Moghul Empire’s has begun to decline. Sir Syed’s father, Mir Muhammad Muttaqi, was the personal adviser of Akbar Shah II (reign: 1806–1837), one of the last Mughal emperors of India. At the time of Sir Syed’s birth, the grand Mughal empire had shrunk within the territory of Delhi that included little outside areas also. A known proverb of the time was – “Saltanat-e-Shah Alam, Az Delhi ta Palam.” The rein of Shah Alam, the emperor is from Delhi to Palam. Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor was a nominal king and India had literally become a British subject.
There are warriors, scholars and politicians to boast on record but the Muslim community in India has no one to match the vision and selfless devotion of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. He was a social reformer, an educationist, a statesman and the most important voice among Indian Muslims of the latter half of the 19th century.
Today, we are suffering from a drought of statesmen and there is a flood of politicians. A politician follows the crowd; a politician debates the cost of a plan but a statesman questions the wisdom of the plan. A politician tells his constituents what he did for them. A statesman doesn’t worry about what he can do for his constituents, because he’s too busy trying to guarantee a future for his constituent’s grandchildren.
With the pathetic collapse of Mutiny 1857, the Muslim Power in the Indian subcontinent had almost eclipsed. The year marked the formal end of the remnants of central Muslim rule in India. Sir Syed was intellectual and historian also who studied the reason of Muslim’s fall and produced an objective analysis in form of a book Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind (The Causes of the Indian Revolt) in 1859. In his work he blamed point blank the British for their policies of aggressive territorial ambitions. He boldly stated that the Colonial rulers had little knowledge about the sensitivities of Indian culture and traditions. Initially the rulers didn’t take the book kindly but were compelled to look it in the positive spirit once the deep contents were appreciated in England also.
Sir Syed’s father had died in 1938 and he had to join the British Civil Service as means of livelihood. No jobs were available at the Moghul court. He became a munshi, and in 1858 he was promoted as a senior official at the Moradabad court. His first step in the service of his community was the founding of a modern madrassa in 1859 in Moradabad. It was a unique religious school that had scientific education as part of its curriculum.
In 1864, he was transferred to Aligarh and there he founded the Scientific Society of Aligarh. It was modelled after the Royal Society and Royal Asiatic Society to introduce the Western science and technology to orthodox Muslim society of India. In 1869 Sir Syed visited England and was deeply impressed by the traditions of learning in great institutions of Oxford and Cambridge. On his return to India he set up a modern school in Aligarh and laid the foundation of the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College in May 1875. The college later became the Aligarh Muslim University.
Sir Syed had realized that the feelings of hate against British were harming the general interests of Muslim Community. Muslims were unwilling to learn English and they were lagging behind their countrymen in every sphere. He took it upon himself to fill the gap between the British and the Muslim community. There was a need for reforms if Muslim community had to progress. Particular emphasis on education was sine qua non. Sir Syed’s greatest gift to his community was his emphasis on education.
It is the fact of history that Sir Syed was critical of Indian National Congress. He was afraid that Muslims would be marginalized in country life if they joined Congress. In one his lectures he strongly exhorted his community in these words:
“When you (Muslims) shall have fully acquired education, and true education shall have made its home in your hearts, then you will know what rights you can legitimately demand of the British Government. And the result of this will be that you will also obtain honorable positions in the Government, and will acquire wealth in the higher ranks of trade.”