“Remember that the terms Hindu and Muslim should only be used for religious distinction; otherwise,allpeople who live in this country belong to the same nation.”
– Sir Syed
Sir Syed is one among the luminaries of modern South Asia. His efforts were channelized to modernize religion and society for national development. He had strong conviction that all communities can prosper together for common nationhood like healthy organs make sound body. He saw the future of nation as an assimilative fruit salad bowl rather than integrative melting pot during the time of globalization. His firm belief in cultural pluralism and mutual co-existence spurred him to rework theological obscurantism, inter/intra cultural dialogues, civil movements for communal harmony and education as a tool for cultural pluralism. His ideals have greater salience in contemporary tumultuous South Asia.
Keywords: Sir Syed, Cultural pluralism, Religion
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was a versatile personality who contributed significantly to SouthAsia’s metamorphosis from medievalism to modernity.He donned various onerous roles – a scholar, liberal democrat, prolific writer, educationist and harbinger of religious and communal fraternity. It is not a shallow hyperbole to argue that his legacy of religious reform, education and pluralism has attained universal potency, as corroborated from burgeoning number of studies across the world. The attempts to portray him as the messiah of Muslim community alone is gross travesty of history, as he propounded a concept of inclusive nation with thriving multiple identities. He is much adulated in the shared, corrugated history of South Asia, as is reviled by some sections. As history is misappropriated either to justify or villainize as per the political exigencies, the reality is shrouded in the haziness of myopic discourses.
This essay is an attempt to map Sir Syed’s conceptualization and afterward implementation of cultural pluralism in the wake of emerging preponderance of new post-colonial studies on secularism and formation of independent states in the subcontinent. It delves deeper into Sir Syed’s understanding of cultural pluralism and the relevance of its praxis during freedom struggle and afterward in South Asia in general and in India in particular.
|Mubashir VP, is doctoral candidate in the Department of Islamic Studies, JamiaMillia Islamia, New Delhi.
Email ID: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sir Syed:A dedicated mission for constructive change
Sir Syed (1817-1898) born at a turbulent juncture of history when centralized rule of the Mughal was fragmented,lived through tumultuous episodesof FirstWarofIndianIndependence in1857 and the Queen’s Proclamation of 1858, left the mortal being when India started moderate phase of freedom struggle. He filled the intellectual and reformist vacuum among Muslims bequeathed by Shah WaliullahDehlawi (1703-1762). He dedicated his life and assets for his cherished goal of national development and Muslim empowerment.
Born into lineage of Prophet as thirty sixth grandson, he was destined to blaze new trails forthe Indians stuck in the abrupt warping of time and spellbound at the change of fortune. Hehad conviction in a nation where people with multiple identities and affiliations lived andprosperedtogether.
Lack of formal education was compensated by sheer hard work and personal initiative. Hehad the baggage of condescending nostalgia as toddler born into nobles migrated fromHeart to India. His maternal grandfather, KhwajahFarid al-din Ahmad Khan (1747-1828)servedbothMughalandBritishEastIndiaCompanyinesteemed posts.
Sir Syed sanguinely chose the new masters and heirs of morbid Mughal and joined theCompany in 1838, was promoted to Munshi in 1940, and was assigned to a high-rankingposition at Muradabad’s court in 1858 CE, where he began to work on his most notableprojects. Save the titular post. Mughal was by then crumbling glory propped up by thejinglingmoney sackofthe Company.
His association with the British alerted him to the urgency of adapting to changing social andtechnical order. 1857 Rebellion was crude jolt to him. He assiduously supported British insuppressing the rebellion because according to him rebellious mob were the proponents ofanachronistic feudal values. Ensuing sanguinary repression of Muslims prodded him to takereinsofthecommunity andleadintonewpoliticalrealityofmodernity.
He started his activism by writing Sarkashie-e-ZillaBijjnoor (History of the Bijnor Rebellion,1858) Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind (Reasons for the India Revolt of 1857) in 1859 and AnAccount of the Loyal Mahomedans of India. He tried to bridge the misunderstanding amongIndians and British through courting pluralism. He wrote ‘Mohomedan Commentary on theHoly Bible’ (1862) for this cause. Next, he organized movements to popularize scientifictemper among the community. Ghazipore Translation Society was the modest beginningandin1862 andtransformed intoScientificSocietyofAligarh in1864.
His trip to England (1869-1872) was a ‘voyage to modernity’. He was impressed by thetertiary educational system and came back India with consummate desire to establish‘Oxford of the East’. In 1875, Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College was founded which laterwas upgraded to Aligarh Muslim University in 1920. He dreamed an enlighten nation andsocietythrougheducationandmutual culturalexchanges.
His life was passionate attempts to knit together various communities. He believed it ispossible to live in multiculturalism without compromising one’s identity or religious avowal.HiseffortstoreformMuslimsandeducationalizeMuslimweretheextensionofthatbelief.
His endeavors with literature cemented the intellectual background for this. Translation ofBible, refutations of William Muir and commentary on Quran were his manifestos of hisactivismaffirmingfaithincultural pluralismasthecoginnationalmobility.
Cultural pluralism and the ideaof coexistence
The debates on pluralism are an emerging academic discipline. But as apolitical practice itstarted along with US experimentation with universal franchise. Pluralism is vehementlycritiqued these days due to its hegemonic noti on of majoritarian culture. Pluralism as a wayof life gives prominence to integration rather than assimilation. It assumed the ‘State’ asmelting pot in the cauldron of globalization. In contrast, cultural pluralism ormulticulturalism assumes ‘State’ as fruit salad in an engulfing bowl. Presence of richdiversity in the South Asia makes cultural pluralism a fait accompli to grasp with. When wetry to decipher Sir Syed’s concepts through cultural pluralism it attains more coherence andclarity.
Cultural pluralism posits upon vibrant exchange among diverse cultures, not the diversity ortolerance per se. it demands conscious social and cultural engagements that facilitatesmeaningful co-existence and democratic polity and healthy economy. Cultural pluralism inextended meaning and practice includes religious pluralism, legal pluralism and politicalpluralism.
Intercultural dialogues and active participation in the pursuit of democratic ideal are thefoundations of cultural pluralism. It means reciprocate engagements and acknowledging the‘Other’ and differences without any attempt to impose hegemony or coercive culturalintegration.Accordingto Islam,culturalpluralismisbasedontwoteachings ofQuran,namely, oneness of creation and multiplicity of creation. The same is altruistic in Hindutraditionalso.
In Indian context it has more relevance due to the recurrent communal and religious flare-ups. It implies that nation can have secular national culture , but at the same time thevarious communities have the freedom to maintain and develop their own cultural andreligious traditions, so long as they are not malignant to the unity and general welfare of thenation and no state patronage is endowed to any culture in discrimination of others. It isimplicitlyincludedinconstitutional provisionsofArticles14, 29and30.
- Mutual understanding: the suspicions and fears of each other is substituted by loveandknowledge
- Inter/intra-cultural dialogues: the ideals of mutual existence are implemented intopracticallife
- Respect of the ‘Other’ as how they are: it demands the sensibilities of all should berespectedaccording to the adherentsofrespective cultures
- Tocultivatecommongroundforreligious,social andculturalsyncretism.
- Separation of polity/State from cultural partisanship
According to Sir Syed it meant that cementing mutual existence of diversity for a strongnation along with complete assimilation of all identities and secular citizenship and specialprotection to the marginalized and minority communities. He through Muslims could co-exist with Hindus and others without losing religious or cultural identity. He opposedvehemently the attempts for homogenization of ‘Indianness’ giving primacy to Hinduidentity. He believed, as Ambedkar averred, nation thrives with the prosperity of each andeverycommunity.
Looked through this prism, the allegations hurled against Sir Syed as the father of Muslimseparatism and eventually ‘Two Nation Theory’ could be blunted out. He was the staunchproponent of cultural pluralism where the nation would benefit immensely from thefraternity of cultural brotherhood.And his thoughts have greater salience in contemporaryperiod.
As he had to stoically withstand the pauperization of Muslim power, he tried to developalternative Muslim theology that suited the changing sands. The expunction of culturalhegemonyisessential forculturalpluralismtotakeroot.
He smirked and shrugged off the Islamic theology of cultural hegemony and eschatologicalexclusivism. In this regard, he was fighting off radical and militant Muslim theologydeveloped by ShaWalillah and Sayed Ahmed Barelvi, exposed during the time 1857IndependenceWar.
He was eager to replace the word ‘Umma’, which expels non-Muslim identity from politicalthought to ‘Qaum’ which is all-encompassing and secular. The word ‘Qaum’ for himrepresented equal opportunity and protection for diverse cultural communities. In thissense, he counted India as an amalgamation of cultural communities rather than amajoritarian autocracy where minorities played second fiddle to majority. He was motivatedby ‘hubb-e qaumi’, loveofhumanity.
He focused on Quranic concept of ‘love of humanity’. He highlighted the common groundsamong Abrahamic religions and Indian religions to enable national integration throughculturalandreligious assimilation.
Sir Syed, an ardent believer in the Providence of British, was shuddered to see Muslimsrevolting against the Empire in 1857. While he wrote Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind, to clearyawning misunderstanding British had against Muslims, his ‘Tabyin-ul-Kalam’ (1862) wasconcertedeffortforsupportingpluralisticwaysofco-existence.Heemployedthetheologyto address the suspicion Muslims had against the British and founded the academicbeginningforintercultural/religiousdialoguesinSouthAsia.
Using the reward money he got for saving few British lives during 1857, he bought apress and hired erudite Jewish and Christian scholars to translate the Old Testaments andNew Testaments into Persian and Urdu. He tried to bring closer two estranged communitiesafter the Agra controversy of 1850s. Muslims were peeved at the efforts of the missionarytodenigrateIslam,whilemissionarieswerebrazenlysupportedby Britishhands-down.
He undertook tenuous task of mutual dialogue to know each other and decimate thelurking fears that inhibited full cooperation of all for country’s growth. By appreciating thesanctity of Apostolic Letters, he drastically changed the interreligious dialogues in Islam. Instead of discrediting ‘Others’ from one’s own theology, he changed the discourse from‘you are as I say’ to ‘you are as you say’. The new scriptural hermeneutics of Sir Syed wasaccommodative like textual corruption was not akin to corruption of meaning and thewritersofBiblewere inspiredbythe Messiah, hence is reasoned toadhere to.
- New religious pluralistic theology where the ‘eternal truth’ is fluid and should be viewed from the perspectives of the practitioners. He proved the internal coherence of Quran and Bible thus justifying multiculturalism.
- Eternal salvation is possible through multiple ways if one spiritually followedhis creed. The pluralistic aspect enabled common ground for mutualunderstanding.
- Political power is secular and the followers of new hierarchy are notessentially subscribers of the leaders’ theology. He was attempting toreconcileMuslimsto newpoliticalrealities.
- The quest of Sir Syed was not primarily due to theological interest. But rathertopromote politicalandculturalpluralism.
- By 1863, he introduced the concept of ‘Nature’ into theological debates, thusenablinghassle-freereligiousaccommodation.
His tryst with education started in 1859 when he founded a school at Muradabad.He wasengaged with literary activities until his voyage to Briten changed the fate of highereducation in India (1869-1872).Aligarh Muslim University took laborious birth in 1875when Anglo Muhammaden Oriental School was established by the Vicroy. The educationalempire has contributed immensely to the nationalistic cause. Was he communal byadvocating the advancement of Muslim community? Was he the votary of chauvinism bydoingso?
The views of Sir Syed on cultural pluralism will rebuff the cynics. According to him nation ismade by strong, independent identities of all. He shouldered nationalistic cause by helpingthe Muslim community empower educationally. To advocate the cause of one community inharmony with nationalistic ethos is not communal. The Constitution of India in the articles29 and 30 endorses this idea. His emphasis on Muslim education was guided by socialurgencies where they lagged behind Hindus who cornered crumbs of colonialism andpoliticallywererepressedbythe government. ToquoteSirSyed:
“I am glad to say that in this institution both the brothers, Hindus and Muslims, get the sameeducation in this college, there is no distinction and restriction between Hindus and Muslims in termsof privileges. Only that man can claim a prize who deserves it by virtue of his own labor. Both Hindusand Muslims are entitled to get scholarships and are accorded the same treatment. I consider Hindusand Muslims as my two eyes. I do not even like to say this, because people will generally differentiatethe two as the right eye and the other as the left. I consider Hindus and Muslims both as one and thesameeye.”
David Lelyveld, in his book ‘Aligarh’s First Generation: Muslim Solidarity in British India’argued that Sir Syed never entertained communal practices in the campus. His approachwas secular, non-sectarian and merit based. He instituted facilities for Sanskrit learning andarranged scholarships for deserving students from all communities. That the first graduatefromtheUniversitywasIswariPrasad isacrowningexampleofhiseducationalpolicies.
As a social reformer he supported Western education, and as a nationalist he supportededucationforallthe while without compromisingthe religious valuesandMuslim nationalidentity and special attention to deprived communities.For him education was a tool toprosperpluralismthroughthetrainingofmindsinthecruciblesoftoleranceanddiversity.
SirSyed’spolitical activism:Anidea ofinclusivenation andcommonprosperity
The first question that springs to mind would be if he was truly plural why did he try to nixthe idea of Indian National Congress? His political activism should be approached as anextension of his views of cultural pluralism. Politics according to him was the naturalgraduation of enlightened citizens and for that purpose to fructify educational and socialreforms occupy more importance rather than political activism. More importantly, in thewake of Hindi-Urdu controversy he was indignantly anxious of Muslim community’s powerfor bargain. He justifiably thought that any political reform would harm underprivilegedsections. He saw British Empire as a bulwark for Muslims and other minorities from theimpositionofmajoritarian conceptsofnationhood.
But he stood in the vanguard to ensure civil liberties and more rights for Indians within theEmpire. As a member of Imperial Legislative Assembly (1878-1882) he advocated manyreforms and brought into government’s concern the plights of the citizens. He activelysupported social justice in his capacity as a member. He demanded implementation ofcompulsorysmallpoxvaccination,increaseofhealthallowanceandprotestedagainstthelowering of age for Civil Service Examination. He supported the Ilbert Bill and demandedendtoracism.
The United Indian Patriotic Association (1888) he established was a common platformagainst the seemingly communal politics of Congress. He expressed his anguish for thegrowth of Hindu nationalism under the patronage of Congress. During the period 1877-1883, he joined hands with many organizations for the welfare of Indian people. IndianAssociation and Muhammaden Educational Conference were notable few. He believednational integration is congruent with internal political and social integration. At the sametime, it could not be denied that his efforts to empower the Muslim community culminatedin the partition because of the communal patronage of colonial government and ossificationof communal divide in Indian body politic.A sour blot in history against the dreams of SirSyedforcommon citizenship.
In 1837, Urdu became official language when Persian was scrapped. According to Sir SyedUrdu stood for common cultural heritage for all Indians. It was and is a secular languagewithgenerousadaptationfromvarious Indianlanguages.ItwastheproductofHindu-Muslim association, concord, amity and social intercourse. It was British whocommunalizedthe Urdulanguage.
According to him Urdu in Persian script was accessible and this natural choice for officiallanguage. For him Urdu represented the shared culture of all Indian communities but theopposition from supporters of Davnagari script was too ravenous and it foiled his efforts fororganic mutual cohesion.Urdu had the complex agility to suit the court and daily chit chats.It had the all features to rival English in its usage and vocabulary, thus he preferred Urdu. His preference for Urdu was solely because of it was the easiest language of instruction andtransaction.Accordingto him,
“By living so long in India the blood of both has changed. Now the color of both has become similar.The Muslims have acquired hundreds of customs from the Hindus and the Hindus have also learnedhundreds of things from the Muslims. We mixed with each other so much that we produced a newlanguage– Urdu–whichwasneither our language norof neitherofus.”
The criticism of him choosing Urdu due to its Islamicate nature is bile. It was purely withintention to promote common indigenous identity. He hoped to institutionalize the culturallinkages among Hindus and Muslims to be cemented through common language. The fiascoeven further exhorted him to work for the mutual communal amity. He was alerted to thedangersofcommunalismandfiercelystoodforsyncreticculture andsymbiosis.
Ambassador of HinduMuslimamity
As part of his advocacy of cultural pluralism, he demanded revering of customs andtraditions of all. He bravely supported ban on cow slaughter to improve communalatmosphere. Respecting others as how they are is seminal feature of cultural pluralism. HearrangedSanskritclassesinthe University.
Through his activism and political initiatives he tried to bring the two communities together.He stood for universal humanity and the religious aspirations of people were indispensableingredients in that. He tried to clear the clog of misunderstanding between thecommunities.Hestrivedtoforgecommonbrotherhoodthroughcommonheritage andprideinthe ancientcivilization.According to MushirulHasan:
Through political activism he tried to eliminate the wedge between communities. Throughhis writings, especially TahzeebulAkhlaq, he opened opportunities for Muslim communityto study Hinduism from a vantage point of neutrality and objectivity. The communal unitywas intrinsic to his educational concepts. Through multiple civil society organizations heforged bonds of cultural brotherhood and nursed visions for secular nation. He conferredpatronage to syncretic culture while it was increasingly under attack from puritanreformers.
As an ardent supporter of non-violence he was always inclined to employ tools of dialogueand debate for mutual understanding. He resorted to pen and intellectual transparency todebunk allegations. How he approached Jewish and Christian literature illustrates this point.His travel to understand British civilization also points to this accommodative attitude. Forhimonlydialogue,notacrimoniousdiscord, wasthewayoutofimbroglio.
How he responded to William Muir is the case in point. In 1861 he published his biographyon prophet titled ‘A Life of Mahomet and History of Islam’. It was contemptuous to prophetandmarredhisreputationbyraising manyOrientalistallegationsagainsttheprophet.
Instead of resorting to violence Sir Syed engaged in intellectual duel. He published Khutbat-e-ahmadiya(1870)refutingthevile argumentsofMuir.
This holds pedagogic value in contemporary South Asia as blasphemy protests turn intoviolent, wanton destructions. He showcased the path of dialogue which cemented hissupporttopluralisticethos.
His legacy is still hold relevance in contemporary South Asia. His avowal of plural existenceof multiple identities in a nation can serve as a solution to present day tensions in theregion. The vilification campaign against Sir Syed for supporting Muslims is totallyerroneous. He stood for common identity without compromising individual identities. Hewas truly a frontrunner in advocating cultural pluralism. His pioneering works on intercultural dialogues should be continued.His ideas of cultural pluralism and mutualassimilation should be taken by the governments and civil society to enable a peaceful,coherentsocietyandharmonious nationhood.
Finally, after a long and illustrious life, in 1898 the St. James Gazette in London publishedthefollowingshortnotice:
“His long and honorable life came to an end in 1898. Throughout his life he worked for the greatestgoodofhis fellow countrymen and co-religionists.”
Barbara Daly Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860–1900 (Princeton, NJ:Princeton UniversityPress, 1982).
Bose, Sugata and Jalal, Ayesha (1998) Modern South Asia. History, Culture, PoliticalEconomy.(Delhi).
Christian W. Troll, Sayyid Ahmad Khan: A Reinterpretation of Muslim Theology (New Delhi:Vikas,1978)
David Lelyveld, Aligarh’s First Generation: Muslim Solidarity in British India (Princeton, NJ:Princeton UniversityPress, 1978
Hali, Altaf Hussein (1901) ḤayātJāwaid [Life of the Immortal]. English translation by, K.H.,David,J.Delhi:IdārahadabiyyātDehlī,1979.
Hunter, William Wilson (1976) The Indian Musalmans. 3rd Ed. (London: Trubner andCompany).
Malik, Hafeez (1989) Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s Educational Philosophy: A DocumentaryRecord.(Islamabad:NationalInstituteofHistoricalandCulturalResearch)
Syed Ahmed Khan Bahador, A Series of Essays on the Life of Muhammad and SubjectsSubsidiary Thereto (London: Trűbner, 1870). The Urdu text is Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Al-Khuṭbāt al-Afimadīyahfī al-ʻArabwa-al-sīrat al-Mufiammadīyah (Lahore: Muslim PrintingPress, 1870).
SayyidAfimad Khan, Tabaʼīn al-kalāmfītafsīr al-Taurātwa al-enjīlʻalámillat-e al-eslām [TheMahomedan commentary on the holy Bible], part 1 (Ghazeepore: Printed and published bytheauthorathisprivatepress,1862)
Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Review on Dr. Hunter’s Indian Musalmans: Are They Bound inConsciencetoRebelagainsttheQueen?(Benares:MedicalHallPress,1872).
Thorpe, C. Lloyd (1965) Education and the development of Nationalism in Pre-Partition India(Pakistan:Pakistan HistoricalSociety).
W. W. Hunter, The Indian Musalmans: Are They Bound in Conscience to Rebel against theQueen(London:Trübner&Co.,1871)
New post-colonial studies give new insights to freedom movement and Muslim identity. For example, see A Subaltern Studies Reader, 1986-1995 by RanajitGuha, Governing Islam: Law, Empire, and Secularism in Modern South Asia by Julia Stephens, The Making of Indian Secularism: Empire, Law and Christianity, 1830-1960 by Nandini Chatterjee.
There is a minor difference between the two. According to scholars cultural pluralism is prevalent in countries with a dominant culture, while the latte risneutral. But researcherhereuses both words interchangeably.
“An ideal society should be mobile, should be full of channels for conveying a change taking place in one part to other parts. In an ideal society there should be many interests consciously communicated and shared. There should be varied and free points of contact with other modes of association. In other words there should be social endosmosis. This is fraternity, which is only another name for democracy. Democracy is not merely a form of Government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellowmen.”, Dr. B. R. Ambedkarin‘Annihilation of Caste’
Ramsey, Dr. Charles M. “God’s Word, Spoken and Otherwise,” in Muslim-Christian Relations: In Historical Perspective. The Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies Research Briefings: No. 4–Summer 2015.ISSN2056-5003(WEB).
For a discussion of Syed Ahmad’s educational approach to the shaping of the Indian Muslim identity, see WaseemFilza,“Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan and the Identity Formation of Indian Muslims through Education,” Review of History and PoliticalScience2 (2014):131-148.
Sayyid Ahmad Khan, The Aligarh Institute Gazette, 12th June 1897, reprinted in M. S. Jain, The Aligarh Movement: Its Origin and Development 1858-1906, 138. For another translation of the quoted passage, see LimayeMadhu, Indian National Movement: Its Ideological and Socio-economic (Sangam Books, 1989), 127.
In the words of G. F. I. Graham, a close friend of Syed Ahmad and his earliest biographer, his motto was “Educate, Educate, Educate.” He quoted Syed Ahmad as saying, “All the socio-political ills of India may be cured by this treatment. Cure the root and tree will flourish.” See Graham, The Life and Works of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, 70.