“Hindus, Muslims, and Christians who live in this country are one nation.”
Since time immemorial, India has fostered the existence and sustenance of multiple cultures. It still continues to be one of the most diverse countries in the world. To preserve this identity, innumerable people have contributed throughout history. A prominent name among those is that of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817–1898), who is widely accredited as a revolutionary for advocating modern scientific education, uplifting the Muslim community, and battling the shackles of orthodoxy along the way. His dedication to education as a means of progress is unparalleled; the formation of scientific societies, the building of schools, the establishment of MAO College, and other numerous endeavours are all remnants of his extraordinary efforts to build an educated society. Alongside these blistering accomplishments, Sir Syed has been subjected to almost an equal measure of vociferous criticism. His devotion to cultural pluralism is often overlooked, or rather, challenged. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan has been painted as the father of the two-nation theory, an appeaser of the British government, and what not. But upon closer inspection of his life—his literary works, the Aligarh Movement, his role as an officer of the British and as a member of the Imperial Legislative Council, one will find that he fought for the betterment of all the communities of the country, not just Muslims. His notion of a community was that of pluralism, asserting that India is a multi-lingual, multi-religious, and multi-cultural society, vouching for brotherhood, mutual understanding, and reconciliation. The aforementioned quote by Sir Syed in Gurdaspur indicates the same. He insisted that collective prosperity could only be accomplished if these facets went hand in hand instead of against each other. His vision of education was not confined to just a particular community, he envisioned the incorporation of all sections of society. And it can’t be denied that his philosophy of combining traditional values with modernism played a decisive role in the formation of contemporary India.
1. Religion, nation, and cultural pluralism:
Understanding Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s life revolves around his philosophy of religion and community. All of the developmental ventures he undertook stemmed from his ideas of religion and concern for community. Therefore, it is essential to ascertain Sir Syed’s notion of cultural pluralism in the light of religion and nation:
1.1 Cultural Pluralism via Religion:
Sir Syed was a rational individual. His rationality prompted him to discard the existence of angels and other miracles in the Quran. When it came to blasphemy, he was vehemently opposed to violent protests and exhorted that it be dealt with through a dispassionate rebuttal. He was also against forceful conversion and propagated the idea that religion was a matter of personal choice. Sir Syed’s perception of religion was culturally plural. In his book, Khutbat-i-Ahmadiyya, he asserts, “Our conviction is that righteous people, to whatever religion they might belong, deserve our respect and regard in the same way as the righteous people of our own religion.” At another instance, he espoused, “My brethren! By unity and integration, I don’t mean that we should lose our faiths and beliefs and embrace the same religion.”
In one of his essays, Sir Syed opines that a man is split into two parts: one part belongs to God, and the other is common to fellow human beings, enunciating that people should establish cordial relations with all irrespective of their faith and culture. On one occasion, he said, “People who think sincere friendship and cordial affection with people of other religions is forbidden are mistaken.” Based on his liberal thoughts, it can be deduced that Sir Syed was an ardent supporter of mutual understanding and nourishment of all faith traditions.
1.2 Cultural Pluralism and Nationalism:
Upon careful scrutiny of Sir Syed’s literary works and lectures, it will be found that most of them were in favor of national unity. In a speech at Lahore in 1884, he announced that “all rights appertaining to those who call themselves Muslims are equally related to those who call themselves Hindus without any reservation.” “There is no distinction between Hindus and Muslims.” In another oft cited saying, Sir Syed stressed, “Hindus and Muslims are the two eyes of the beautiful bride that is India.” He also criticised Jamaluddin Afghanis’s idea of pan-Islamism.
On the other hand, there have been utterances that put a question mark on the earlier statements. His usage of the word ‘quom’ has led many scholars to validate him as a separatist. He also mentions “nation” in both religious and geographical terms. Perhaps his pragmatism, combined with the fact that nationalism had not yet taken root in the Indian subcontinent, explains this disparity.
Notwithstanding the vagueness in his concept of nation, he was never an advocate of cultural singularity, and always promoted the contrary. Scholars even argue that had Sir Syed been present in the era of Indian nationalism, he would’ve supported it.
2. Roots of Cultural Pluralism in Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s Life
Sir Syed’s rationalist approach led him to believe in the idea of cultural pluralism, which entailed the inclusion and progress of all the communities of the country, be it the Hindus, the Muslims, the Christians, or any other sect thereof. But how did he come to believe in cultural pluralism?
Sir Syed was born into a family of educated court men in the Mughal Empire. From a young age, he was exposed to the country’s many different cultures.He was instilled with the values of righteousness and tolerance by his mother. In 1847, he wrote Asar-Us-Sanadid, wherein he listed the 142 Hindu and 59 Muslim rulers of Delhi from the year 1400 BC to 1853 AD. So from the onset, he wasn’t reclusive to the notion of pluralism. But what solidified Sir Syed as a proponent of cultural pluralism was the aftermath of the revolt.
Prior to 1857, none of his literary works specifically exhorted concern for the nation. Sir Syed emerged as a pioneer of inter-faith dialogue in the country following the revolt. He began writing extensively on issues of national importance.He insisted on establishing areas of common ground between Islam and Christianity. He called for unity and brotherhood among Hindus and Muslims. He vehemently worked for the improvement of all sections of society while serving as an officer for the government. More of his work is explored in the following segments.
3. Cultural Pluralism and the Post-Rebellion Period (1857–1875):
3.1 Cultural Pluralism via “The Causes of Indian Revolt” (1859):
The violent uprising had a devastating impact on Sir Syed. Witnessing the dismal condition of his fellow countrymen and of Muslims in particular, he resolved to upturn the tide of misfortune. Subsequently, he wrote Asbab-i-baghawat-i-Hind.
This book was instrumental in analysing the causes of the revolt. It pointed out the aggressive policy of expansion of the East India Company, the sheer disregard of the government toward the culture and customs of the country, the introduction of laws, regulations, and a political system ill-suited to the tradition and customs of Indians, and the blatant ignorance of the needs of the subjects of the country, as the major causes for the revolt. But the most prominent reason, Sir Syed asserted, was the omission of Indians from the Imperial Legislative Council.
In response to the book, the government nominated three Indians to the Council: Raja Narrendra Singh (Patiala), Raja Dev Narain Singh (Benaras), and Raja Dinkan Rao (Dewan of the Gwalior State).
3.2 Cultural Pluralism via Administrative Services:
After the revolt, the government injudiciously confiscated the properties of the people. To resolve the matter, a three-member commission was formed, of which Sir Syed was the only Indian member. Altaf Hussain Hali, Sir Syed’s biographer, stated that “in no other district of the North-West Provinces were so many estates cleared and restored as in the district of Moradabad”—the place where Sir Syed was posted. Raja Jai Kishan Das, who at the time considered Sir Syed a religious bigot, was deeply inspired by his commitment to the people and vouched, “When I saw him working with the poor and the helpless, regardless of the religion and race, treating everyone with great sympathy, I was amazed at the sincerity of this man.” That happened a long time ago, but from that date on, my love and admiration for him have never ceased. Later, when Sir Syed went to England, Jai Kishan Das assumed responsibility for the Aligarh Institute Gazette.
When Sir Syed was stationed in Moradabad to oversee relief operations, many children and orphans were being sent to Christian missionaries. He vehemently opposed it and opined that the children should be handed over to the people of their respective faiths. It was immediately heeded by John Strachey, the then Commissioner of Moradabad.
Despite Sir Syed’s allegiance to the British, he did not shy away from criticizing them. He reprimanded the government whenever he felt that the dignity and self-respect of Indians were being compromised. In 1867, Lt. Governor of North-Western Provinces organized an exhibition in Agra. The seating arrangements in the exhibition were different for the English and Indian aristocrats. Viewing this as a sign of disrespect, Sir Syed forwent the meeting and went back to Aligarh.
3.3 Closeness of Islam and Christianity:
The inertia between the two faith traditions concerned Sir Syed. He believed that common ground was essential for rapprochement. In the second edition of The Loyal Mohamedans of India (1860), Sir Syed advocated that, on the basis of the principles of Islam, Muslims had no reason to resent the Christian faith. Furthermore, he also undertook the monumental task of writing a commentary on the Bible, titled “Tabyin-Ul-Kalam-Fi-Tafsiral-Taurat-Wala-Injeel-al-Millat-al-Islam (The Mohammedan commentary on the Holy Bible), which was published in three parts between 1862 and 1865. Through the book, he urged Christians and Muslims to stand together, reinforcing their Abrahamic roots. Contrary to common belief, he believed that the value of earlier revelation was no less or greater than the latter, and that the different methods of worshipping God established by the prior prophets were still valid. Charles M. Ramsey, a professor of Islamic history, remarked that Sir Syed was of the opinion that ‘other faith traditions also have the potential for leading their faithful into eternal salvation,’ including Hindus and Buddhists, given that they subscribe to monotheism.”
Sometime later, he published Risala-i-Ahkam-i-taam-i-Ahle-Kitab (On Eating Meals with the ‘People of the Book’) in 1866 in the Aligarh Institute Gazette, wherein he outright stated that Muslims are allowed to share meals with Christians in the light of the Quran and Hadees.
3.4 Cultural Pluralism via Educational Endeavors:
Education, according to Sir Syed, was the panacea that would edify the people of the country in general and Muslims in particular.He vehemently dedicated himself to it. In 1864, he established a madrassa in Ghazipur, the foundation of which was laid by Raja Dev Narain Singh and Maulana Muhammad Fasih. Apart from imparting scientific education, the madrasah also laid emphasis on teaching English, Urdu, Persian, and Sanskrit, thus, preserving the linguistic diversity of the nation.
Another instance of his secular outlook is that the Scientific Society that was formed in Ghazipur in 1864 didn’t publish any religious texts because Sir Syed intended to keep religion separate from scientific education. Also, during the Urdu-Hindi controversy (1868), even though Sir Syed espoused Urdu, he gave considerable space to the proponents of Hindi in the Aligarh Institute Gazette. He followed the same policy of wholehearted tolerance when he established his college.
4. Cultural Pluralism in the Post-MAO College Era (1875-1900):
4.1 Cultural Pluralism via Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College:
Furthering his vision of education, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan established MAO College on the Oxbridge model. It received blessings and donations from people of all faiths. It was a secular institution aimed at providing education to all, irrespective of their background. The first three college principals were Christians; the first graduate of the university was Ishwari Prasad, first postgraduate student was Amba Prasad—both of them Hindus. Out of the seven Indian teaching staff, two were Hindus: J.C. Chakravart and Pandit Shiva Shankar. Sir Syed also introduced specific scholarships for Hindu students. Cow slaughter was banned on the premises. He opined, “If giving up cow slaughter will establish amity and friendship among Hindus and Muslims, then please do not sacrifice cows, which is a thousand times better.” At one instance, he even stopped the sacrifice of a cow by an employee on the occasion of Eid ul-Adha. At the time of his death, there were 285 Muslims and 64 Hindus in the college.
4.2 Cultural Pluralism via Administrative Services-II:
As a member of the Imperial Legislative Council (1878–1883), Sir Syed advocated for bills and policies that benefited the people and opposed those that harmed the culture of the country. He was in favor of the Ilbert bill, as it allowed Indian judges to preside over criminal cases against British officials. In August 1879, Sir Syed presented a bill for making smallpox vaccination compulsory. He opposed the Deccan Agriculturalists Relief Bill (1879), stating, “I’m also unable to agree with the principle upon which Section 16 of the bill is based.” “The provisions appear to me as contrary to the Hindu law as administered on this side of India.” In 1886, he pleaded to reduce the age of Indians for entry into the Public Service Commission.
He was praised by the Arya and Brahmo Samaj for his efforts: “On behalf of all the Hindus, we express our gratitude for your efforts in the council in a spirit of patriotism when Hindu rajas proved disloyal to India.”
4.3 Cultural Pluralism and Politics:
It is well established by now that all of Sir Syed’s endeavors were directed toward the collective prosperity of Indians, so why was he not in favor of politics? He even formed the Mohammedan Educational Conference in order to discourage politics among the students and urge them to focus on education. People ascribe his reluctance to politics on the grounds that he was an appeaser of the government. But the aforementioned instances prove that he didn’t hesitate to criticize the government. Then why did he renounce the Indian National Congress and the Central National Mohammedan Association (formed by Syed Ameer Ali)?
It was because he believed that politics would disrupt the cultural ethos of the country. The majority would trample the minorities because he thought that Indians lacked the means to distinguish between right and wrong, and it was only through acquiring education that this situation could be changed. He knew that obtaining education would result in political consciousness among the people. Therefore, he placed more stress on education. Sir Syed’s prophecies came true after his death in his own college.
The decade following his demise saw a rise in anti-British sentiments within the college. A large number of students and alumni eventually joined the freedom struggle, imbued with the principle of unity instilled in them by the college. Prominent names include Hasrat Mohani, Muhammad Ali, Shaukat Ali, Mahendra Pratap Singh, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Akshay Kumar Jain, and countless more.
4.4 Cultural Pluralism via Aligarh Movement:
The effects of the Aligarh Movement spread far and wide. It influenced educationists and conservatives alike. Syed Akhbar Allahabadi, a renowned poet, who criticized Sir Syed for his secularist ideals, later amended his views and even appreciated Sir Syed’s efforts. Another example is of Syed Imdad Ali. Inspired by Sir Syed, he founded the Bihar Scientific Society in 1868, launched an Urdu newspaper disseminating ideas of socio-cultural uplift, and also formed the Central College in 1877 in Bihar. Consequently, many schools were set up to provide scientific education in vernacular languages.
The formation of the Mohammedan Educational Conference by Sir Syed also carried his vision of education to new heights. The Ajmer session of the conference in 1928 was instrumental in uplifting the educational backwardness of Muslims in Rajasthan. The Madras conference in 1901 produced positive results in the south as well.
The role of the institution established by Sir Syed is immense as well. Aligarh Muslim University, since its inception, has contributed innumerable scientists, reformers, educationists, theologians, bureaucrats, civil servants, etc. to the country and to the world. It continues to be a centre of excellence in providing education to all sects of the country, with Sir Syed’s message deeply engrained at its heart: “All the students lying as they are on the lap of this alma matter, no matter where they hail from; Hindostan or Punjab, East or West, North or South—are your brothers first and last.”
In a recent example of cultural pluralism, the Department of Islamic Studies at AMU is now going to include lessons from Hindu scriptures and the teachings of Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism as well.
All in all, the Aligarh Movement has made a tremendous contribution toward the collective development of the country, via the university, Tehzibul-Akhlaq, the Aligarh Institute Gazette, and the successors who heeded Sir Syed’s message of unity and cultural plurality.
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan considered education, religion, and philosophy as the sine qua non of prosperity. His approach to religion was based on the premise that all faith traditions were beneficial. He was an ambassador of education, and his vision didn’t bar any community from obtaining it. All of his exploits displayed deep antagonism toward insularity. Combating conformism, he viewed culture and customs through the lens of rationality. His concern for the community compelled him to counter dogmatism and obscurantism. He held the dignity and self-respect of Indians in the highest regard. He valued instances of mutual love and understanding and rigorously worked for them.
In the contemporary world, where society is facing the evils of hate, division, chauvinism, and intolerance, Sir Syed’s philosophy is of prime significance even today. Nearing his end, he remarked that differences on the basis of religion and politics should not hamper mutual affection and sympathy. One can only draw inspiration from Sir Syed Ahmad Khan to strive for cultural pluralism as he did.