How the clergy wanted Sir Syed beheaded

How the clergy wanted Sir Syed beheaded

Published in Times of India

Arif Mohammed Khan is a former Union minister


Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was the first Muslim voice of reform in India. He emerged on the scene at a time when Indian Muslim society was sunk in obscurantism and inertia and showed no desire to struggle out of its medieval grooves. The unwholesome influence of clergy had made them view modern education as incompatible with and hostile to religion.

The abortive uprising of 1857 and the cleric call to jihad made Muslims target of British wrath and reprisals. Sir Syed as a judicial officer served the government during the crisis but the aftermath of disturbances deeply impacted him.

He wrote: “I reflected about the decadence of the Muslim community, and came to the conclusion that modern education alone is the remedy of the ills they are suffering from. I decided on a strategy to disabuse their minds of strong communal belief that the study of European literature and science is anti-religion and promotes disbelief”.

The objectives of Sir Syed, born in early 19th century (October 17, 1817), were educational and social reforms; he had no desire to dabble in religion. But all his initiatives were opposed in the name of religion.

Describing his dilemma, Sir Syed said: “We were keen to avoid any discussion of religion, but the problem is that our behaviours, social practices and religious beliefs are so mixed up that no discussion of social reform is possible without provoking a religious controversy”. Frustrated with the clergy, he added, “When urged to give up something harmful, they say it has religious merit and when asked to do something positive they assert it is prohibited by religion. So we have no options but discuss the religious context to push our agenda forward”

With this objective, he launched the Mohammedan Social Reformer journal in July 1884. To use his own words, the journal “played crucial role in fighting the fanaticism that has pushed the community into abyss of ignorance”. The journal focused on modern education and social and religious reforms.

The school at Aligarh was launched in 1875. For its success, this project depended wholly on public donations. Sir Syed made notable personal contributions and went overboard in his fund collection drive. He organized lotteries, staged drama and felt no hesitation to visit any place, including red light areas, to collect money. He gratefully acknowledged the help he received and made special mention of Hindus who gave money and material support and did a great favour to the whole (Muslim) community.

The college finally emerged as a University in 1920, 22 years after Sir Syed had breathed his last in 1898. It was a living testimony of the success of Aligarh movement. However, the story shall remain incomplete if no mention is made of the hostility and opposition of the Muslim clergy that Sir Syed faced till he died and still persists in certain quarters.

The intensity of opposition can be understood from the comments of Maulana Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi in his book “Islamiat aur Maghribiat ki Kashmakash”written more than 60 years after Sir Syed’s death. Maulana says: “The education mission of Sir Syed and his advocacy of Western civilization became correlatives and caused apprehensions and doubts in the minds of people. A wave of opposition took hold of the religious circles and his movement met with a simultaneous call for its boycott”

First Sir Syed was targeted when he shared food with the British and defended his action in a signed article. The opposition became fierce during his stay in London. Sir Syed responded through a memorandum saying: “The terrifying call of Kanpur, the lyrical satire of Lucknow, the idle tattle of Agra and Allahabad, the fatwas of Rampur and Bareilly and the snide remarks of holy men of Delhi grieve me not. My heart is overflowing with the idea of welfare of my people and there is no room in it for any anger or rancor”

Conscious of cleric hostility Sir Syed offered not to have any role in matters of religious instruction in the college and invited leading clerics to prepare the syllabus. Maulana Qasim Nanotvi and Maulana Yaqoob of Deoband shot down the proposal saying they cannot associate with an institution which will have Shia students on the campus.

Maulana Hali in his biography of Sir Syed says that 60 maulvis and alims had signed fatwas accusing Sir Syed of disbelief and apostasy. There was total consensus among the Indian clerics, only divine approval was missing. Maulvi Ali Bakhsh did the needful and travelled to Mecca and Medina on the pretext of pilgrimage and secured a fatwa calling for beheading of Sir Syed if he repented not and persisted with his plan to establish the college.

Sir Syed was a visionary who pursued his dream ignoring all opposition and aptly remarked, “I know what they know not and I understand what they understand not”. History has proved that he was right and the clergy, as always, utterly wrong.



Filed under Pakistan

3 responses to “How the clergy wanted Sir Syed beheaded

  1. I have had the chance to go a little deep in the matter of Sir Syed vs. the Mullah issue. 99.9% of the time Sir Syed turned out to be a great benefactor of the entire Muslim nation in India. However, his one major mistake (yes, great people do make mistakes!) was to write his Tafseer of the Quran (only partially completed). In it he challenged the established facts of Quranic philosophical discourse without, it seems, due scholarly research. Sir Syed’s skills were in the field of education, not in Quranic exegesis. Unfortunately, his exegetical work provided a lot of material to the Mullah as ammunition. It seems that we have an easy way of forgetting what good a person has done and focus entirely upon his or her mistakes.

    Just my 2 cents!

  2. Rashid

    “In it he [Sir Syed] challenged the established facts of Quranic philosophical discourse without, it seems, due scholarly research.”

    You are correct, but problem was NOT with Sir Syed, rather with his Mulla opponents.
    Few reasons:
    1) Sir Syed did NOT make any changes in the text of Holy Quran (HQ).
    2) Sir Syed believed in each and every word of HQ.
    3) Sir Syed interpretation, e.g. Jesus is dead, is accepted by modern translators of HQ, whose thoughts are/ were not stifled by Mulla-Mafia. These translators live/lived in Europe and West, including countries such as Bosnia. It is true Sir Syed did not give authorities in his tafseer to support his interpretation. But we see attitude of Mulla-Mafia unchanged even in case of Maulana Muhammad Ali who provided authority for each sentence he wrote in both his English and Urdu HQ translation and Tafseer. Problem with Mulla-Mafia is that they do not want anyone to have different opinion/ understanding of HQ then them. Any rational interpretation of HQ is a challenge for them. Mulla-Mafia finds its inability to answer logic and reason very uncomforting, so they resort to old technique of stifling anyone who does not tow their line of thinking. This Mulla-Mafia practice started long before Sir Syed. Check following comment by Dr. Zahid Aziz, blog master of Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement blog:
    “I read in a book some years ago that after Shah Waliullah (d. 1763) translated the Quran into Persian, which was the first translation of the Quran available in India, the Ulama turned against him and tried to have him killed. He had to go on the run for fear of his life. The Ulama actually stated that because of his translation people will no longer need to turn to us because they will be able to understand the Quran themselves!”

    Editor: Rashid, this is the last warning. No more sectarian prostelyzing here at PTH. Next time, you will lose your privilage of writing here at PTH for a long time. AZW

  3. YLH

    Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was an extraordinary man and we in Pakistan are grateful to him immensely.

    It is a matter of great tragedy that while he is mentioned as a great educationist as well as the father of the two nation theory …. his contribution as a Muslim modernist is all but forgotten.