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Sir Syed Ahmad Khan – A Larger than Life Personality Cult

“Jo abr yahaan se uthega woh saare jahaan par barsegaa; …

Har shahr-e-tarab par garjegaa, har qasr-e-tarab par kaRkegaa …”

— Asrarul Haque Majaz (Lakhnawi)

Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) is celebrating the bicentenary of its founder, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, this year. Possessed of an astute and impeccable personality, Sir Syed has become an icon in the realm of modern education for the Muslim Indian Community today; so much so that he has often been hailed as the prophet of education. The bicentenary celebration at AMU this year is not an indifferent affair. Every year, thousands of Aligs (AMU Alumni) celebrate Sir Syed Day to commemorate his birth anniversary in almost every nook and corner of the world; exalting a personality cult that has now grown larger than life. The celebrations are marked by buoyant parties and lavish dinners, and the Aligs resolve to nurture and foster the Aligarh Movement year after year. Yet, no remarkable fostering of the Aligarh Movement is noticeable even after 160 years of the establishment of Muhammadan Anglo Oriental College (the parent institution of AMU).

That the vision of Sir Syed was unreservedly conscripted in favor of modern education for the elite Muslims only is something that has been volubly debated. Much has been written about “his ‘contempt’ regarding educating the deprived sections of the society”. On the other hand, his views on female education are believed to be equally conservative and have come under sharp criticism by many. Safdar Imam Quadri, former head of the Department of Urdu, College of Commerce at Magadh University, Bodh Gaya, even compares his“…blatant refusal of access to education for the Muslim female folk and other deprived sections” with the“restrictions imposed upon the ‘Shudras’ and ‘Women’ in respect of acquisition of knowledge in the Manusmriti.”

Despite this, Sir Syed and AMU have undeniably succeeded in making an exemplary mark in the realm of education for the Muslim Indian Community. And that this success must be reverberated year after year is not something untoward. What is untoward is the larger than life personality cult of Sir Syed that has become an obtuse identity of the Aligs, which they never fail to flaunt. I stand not to debate on Sir Syed’s views about his detest regarding educating the deprived sections or his conservative views on female education; these have already been debated by other benign stalwarts and are not a part of my discussion. However, his larger than life personality cult that has emanated from the Aligarh Movement is something that demands retrospection.

The vicinage of the Aligarh Movement that Sir Syed had envisioned has already been brought about, and the larger populace of the Muslim Indian Community is benefiting from it. However, the fellowships that ought to have emanated from his vision of the Aligarh Movement are yet to be fulfilled and are wanting in many dimensions. The Aligarh Movement was fathomed as a movement to establish and sustain a comprehensive and pedantic system of modern education for the Muslim Indian Community. As a corollary, it becomes imperative upon Aligs to inherit and continue the legacy of the Aligarh Movement from Sir Syed and his companions. Unfortunately, the legacy of the Aligarh Movement seems to have been restricted to cult worship of Sir Syed alone.

Aligarh Movement was christened, endorsed, and reinforced by many other proponents of modern secular education for the Muslim Indian Community, including Allama Shibli Nomani and Maulana Khawaja Altaf Hussain Hali; however, they often do not find any mention in the Sir Syed Day celebrations. Why is it that we Aligs dedicate a day to Sir Syed’s cult with so much of fervor and enchantment but don’t celebrate Aligarh Movement Day/Week/Year? Epitomizing a personality cult was never the aim of either Sir Syed or the Aligarh Movement. However, in doing so, we have restricted the fellowship of this movement to an infatuated cult worship; where we resolve to foster the movement year after year, without making any pathbreaking headway. Consequently, we have retained the legacy of Sir Syed but have eventually lost sight of the far-reaching fellowships of the Aligarh Movement.

“Jo abr yahaan se uthega woh saare jahaan par barsegaa” – when Majaz wrote these lines, the “abr” or the rainy clouds in his inscription may have referred to the far-reaching fellowships of the Aligarh Movement. It now seems the spirit of the Aligarh Movement is dying a slow death; and we need to enliven it with a tinge of volcanic renaissance.

Presenting a couplet dedicated to this situation, which I had written last year:

وہ ابر جو کہیں سے اٹھتا کبھی، جذب ہو گیا شاید
ارمان اب کی بار ابر فشاں پیدا کریں کوئی نیا سا

woh abr jo kahin se uth-ta thaa kabhi, jazb ho gya shayad;

“Armaan” ab ki baar abr-e-fashaan paida karein koi naya sa.

The rainy clouds that used to emanate from yonder have parched away;

Arman, this time let’s devolve a volcanic cloud of a novel vanity.


Sharjeel Ahmadis MBA and an Economics graduate. He is an instructional designer by profession and is presently based in Saudi Arabia. He has keen interest in social, economic, and political issues facing Indian populace, with special emphasis on minority issues.

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