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It’s high time to adorn our classrooms with Sir Syed’s portrait again: By Dr. Zia Ul-Qayyum

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Dr. Ziaul Qayyum

With the dogmatists and purblind extremist forces losing much of their clout, the hope of a resurgence of all that they remained dead set against – social, moral and intellectual progress and enlightenment of our nation has already started gaining ground. We must do something to reverse the damage caused by the fundamentalists during the last three decades or so. Before we go about it, we need to get our heroes back they sent into ‘exile’ – banished from our thoughts, minds and even classrooms.

One such towering personality among them is the saintly figure of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the savior of the nation when it was perched on the brink of oblivion and pitch darkness after the failed Uprising of 1857. We must, for the sake of our younger generation and those who have faint memories of seeing his portrait hung in school classrooms and offices, retell the story of his struggle for the uplift of the Muslims of the sub-continent while they were in a state of quandary. Having lost all hope of regaining their glorious past, they felt deprived, depressed and a disadvantaged community.

Leaderless and directionless, they found themselves in a blind alley with no raison dʹètre. Their undefined political and economic future and the lack of will to come out of this morass put all odds heavily against them. It was none other than Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the founder of Aligarh Movement, who emerged with a message of hope, confidence and self-belief for his nation. Apparently an educational movement, it had far-reaching consequences on the history of the sub-continent.

A pragmatist thinker and great reformer, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan girded up his loin to steer his nation clear of post-uprising mayhem. His reformation movement had an all-encompassing effect on the life of the Muslims in the sub-continent, bringing about a re-orientation in their cultural, religious, social, economic and educational outlook and behavior. All his contemporaries, including Maulana Altaf Hussain, adjudged his reforms movement in the light of the great Uprising of 1857 and the subsequent establishment of the British rule in the Indian sub-continent. Sadly enough, even 118 years after his death, it is still customary to evaluate his great reformation work in relation to the 1857 war of freedom. In fact, Sir Syed was the first Modern Muslim scholar who had foreseen the glimpse of the dynamic nature of the coming age.

Sir Syed dedicated all his efforts towards the progress and development of his country, reinterpretation of various theological concepts and the uplift of the Muslims in India. Sir Hamilton Gibbs described the M.A.O. College founded by Sir Syed as the first “modernist institution of India.” He was a message of hope, confidence, courage and a new beginning of life for the downtrodden, bound by the chains of slavery and traditionalism. Sir Syed believed that a blind adherence to faith was detrimental to any reforms taking the desired effect. It ultimately gave rise to his rational and pragmatic methodology he so fervently supported all his life.

He was severely criticized by the religious elite for his new logical approach towards interpreting various religious beliefs and social problems of practical importance. A new kind of discourse appeared in the Muslim world all thanks to Sir Syed, the pragmatist leader and social thinker. A new society started taking shape with the amalgamation of the east and the west and Sir Syed acted as a bridge between the old and the new. We do feel the need to launch a similar movement as that of Sir Syed’s, to address the intellectual and social problems our country is facing today.

Allama Muhammad Iqbal said of Sir Syed, “The Muslims of Asia did not give due recognition to the great intellect and intelligence that Sir Syed possessed. The Muslims in Asia were unaware of his true greatness.” Maulana Abul Kalam Azad said, “If both the Hindus and the Muslims had fully comprehended the spirit of Sir Syed’s teachings and followed them, the country’s history would have been different.” Sir Syed’s achievements should be held in equal esteem along with those of Turkey’s Midhat Pasha, Iran’s Hijjatul Islam Sheikh Hadi Najam Abadi, Egypt’s Mustafa Kamil, Tunisia’s Khairuddin Pasha, Algeria’s Amir Abdul Qadir, Tripoli’s Imam Muhammad Musa, Afghanistan’s Syed Jamaluddin Afghani and Russian Mufti Alam Jaan.

We need to identify key areas for Sir Syed’s reforms to take effect. We need to provide a broader scope and horizon for Sir Syed’s teachings and philosophy to flourish. The pragmatism and rationalism of a reformer of Sir Syed’s caliber could turn out to be the panacea for all the social evils of today’s Pakistan, including intolerance, pessimism and historical narcissism. It is the need of the hour that we should rediscover and revive Sir Syed’s teachings for our better, brighter tomorrow.

A few decades ago, Sir Syed was considered among the top three leaders of our national history. In every classroom, the portrait of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah was flanked by those of Sir Syed and Allama Iqbal. However, the winds of change which started blowing in the late 70’s deprived Sir Syed of his rightful place. People were held hostage by a strong wave of nationalism and religious extremism brought on by the belligerent rulers and militarist regimes.

The Quaid and Allama managed to retain their respective places, the former being the founder of Pakistan and the latter being the son of Punjab.The 9/11 and the events that followed saw a rapid paradigm shift in the world polity. The rulers’ belligerency was replaced with moderation and pragmatism. A lot of intellectual and cultural activities along with a renewed search for moderate leaders have been launched. Throughout the history of the Muslims in India, which spans over several hundred years, it is Sir Syed Ahmed Khan who is still unanimously considered the most powerful source of inspiration for our nation. It is high time to accord him a welcome back and adorn our classrooms with his pictures again.

(The writer is the vice chancellor of University of Gujrat. He can be contacted at: [email protected])

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