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ALIGARH MOVEMENT - Could it fulfil the dream of Sir Sayed Ahmed Khan?

Paper No. 611                                        20/02/2003

by R. Upadhyay 

Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), known more as a movement than an academic institution is one of the most important chapters of Indian history as far as the sociology of Hindu-Muslim relation is concerned.  This most respected and important educational centre for Indian Muslims was initially founded as Mohammedan Anglo Oriental College (MAOC) at Aligarh in 1875 by Sir Sayed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898) and subsequently raised to the status of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in 1920.  This university, being the representative body of the upwardly mobile middle class Indian Muslims created a significant impact on Muslim politics in India. 

If we look into the historical background of this movement, Sir Sayed Ahmed launched it with unique political and educational ideology and objective to restore the lost pride of his community after the fall of Mogul Empire. Scion of a Mogul family he was "acutely sensitive to the ending of Mogul dominance" and was therefore deeply aggrieved with the plight of Muslims. 

From the post of record keeper in East India Company, which Sayed had joined in 1837, he rose to the position of Chief Assessment Official in Bijnor at the time of the outbreak of Sepoy mutiny in 1857 (Metcalf).  His status in imperial power gradually transformed him to a loyal soldier of British throne.  Realising ground political reality with conviction that British rule was to continue for long, he developed his political ideology against the freedom of India from colonial rule and preferred to convince his community to align with the imperial power than to confront with them.  Accordingly, he made a tactical move to manage rapport between Muslims and British power by preparing his community as allies to British than their 'subjugation' under Hindu dominated power structures in the country.  

It is a known fact of Indian history that Sepoy mutiny of 1857 had made a significant impact on the contemporary social history of this sub-continent. For Muslim elite it caused great mental turmoil as "they were reduced to the position of hewers of woods and drawers of water by the British" (The Aligarh Movement by Dr. Shan Muhammad, 1978, page IX). They took the fall of Mogul Empire as a defeat of the Muslim community.   

As a part of his strategy Sayed made a sincere attempt to establish a rapport between Muslims and the Government.  He issued a series of pamphlets entitled "The loyal Mohammadons of India" in 1860 and tried to dispel the unfavourable impression about Muslims among the British rulers.  He also started publishing a journal entitled "Aligarh Institute Gazette" in 1866 and organised a branch of British Indian Association to prove his point.  With his write-up on a comparative study of Quran and Bible he tried to convince the Christian rulers that both the Christians and Muslims were friends as both had a common Semitic religious bond.  

Sayed visited England in 1869 and studied the British system of education and administration.  With his sole ambition to transform the Muslim society by harmonizing Islam with western scientific spirit and improving the material prosperity of his community, he renounced the Islamic orthodoxy of Waliullah.  His rational interpretation of Islam was however, rejected by his contemporary Muslim clergies as it was contrary to the fundamentalist views on controversial issues like Jihad, polygamy and animal slaughtering.  Ultimately, he succumbed to the pressure of fundamentalists and “agreed not to express his views on Islam through his writings” (Rational Approach to Islam by Asghar Ali Engineer – 2001 –page 191).  

Contrary to the fundamentalist ideology of Dar-ul-Uloom (abode of Islamic learning) founded in 1866 at Deoband, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was of the view that backwardness of Muslims could be eradicated only through western education.  Accordingly he set up MAO College on his return from England with the help of British to impart western education along with Islamic knowledge.  With his new educational vision he wanted to prepare the Muslim mind to change the failed medieval system of education, which had not met the material and intellectual needs of the community.  

The Education Commission of 1882, while lauding the efforts of Sayed Ahmed remarked:

"The founders of the institution have realised that the only education which could bring their race into harmony with civilisation around them and restore it to a position of influence was an education frankly acknowledging advance of science, catholic in its sympathies with all that was admirable in the literature, history and philosophy of other countries, broad in its outlines and exact in its studies". (History of Aligarh Muslim University, by Khaliq Nizami, page XII).  

In spite of his design to resolve the plight of Muslims through western model of education, Sayed had to face the challenges of radical Islamists for whom India under British rule was Dar-ul-Harb (Land of war) and Muslims were duty bound to launch jihad (Holy war) against it.  In fact the influence of Wahhabi movement and the Islamic thought were so deep in the minds of Muslims that Syed Ahmad Khan failed to generate encouraging urge for modern and scientific education among the members of the community.  However, with his missionary zeal he managed the support of a larger section of Muslim elite, who link their personal interest with the larger interest of Indian Muslims.

By rejecting the Indian National Congress Sayed further convinced the Muslim elite that in the event of a transfer of power to Indians, it would be handed over to Hindu majority.  His preference to Muslim nationalism in comparison to Indian nationalism gradually placed him in a dominant position in the Muslim political scene of North West Provinces and Punjab.  Favouring a non-Muslim and non-Hindu rule over India he said, “I have said repeatedly that for India it is impossible that either Hindus or Muslims are rulers and are able to keep the peace.  It is inevitable that a third nation rules over us" Muslim Nationhood in India by Safia Amir – 2000 – page 25).  He suggested, "Since the Hindus were joining hands against Muslims (he meant Indian National Congress dominated by Hindus), the latter should unite with the British and strive to make their rule permanent, rather than becoming subjects of the Hindus by joining the Congress" (Ibid page 244).  

Muslim elite had no inhibition in adopting western life style despite they spoke of separate Islamic identity. Their pan-Islamic ideology did not allow the concept of a common nationality to emerge against the British. Aligarh movement therefore, made a significant contribution to the unfortunate part of Muslim- Hindu divide.  It worked as a catalyst against the unity between Hindus and Muslims to fight against the British. Sayed  "was largely responsible for keeping away the modern educated Muslims from northern India aloof from Indian National Congress".  

A Muslim intellectual of western mindset and a “sincere friend and fervent admirer of the British” (Muslim Rule in India by S. M.Ikram, page466), Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was known as a liberal Muslim for his support to the modern education to Muslim.  But ironically, he always viewed Muslims as natural rulers and any transition from feudalism to democracy could have been welcomed by him only if authority to power were handed over back to his community.  “ Being a descendant of high Mogul officials, he emotionally could not accept that Muslims should be ruled by their former subjects.  He also feared that Hindu rule will result in the imposition of Aryo-Dravidian culture on the Muslim Perso-Arabic civilisation”( The Muslim Dilemma in India by M. R. A. Baig – page 51-52).  

"Aligarh Movement was committed to collaboration of more privileged classes of Indian Muslim society with the imperial regime.  Sir Sayed Ahmed Khan wanted well-born Muslims to cherish Islam and a Muslim social identity while mastering modern European arts and sciences and social graces (Islamic Revival in British India by Metcalf, page11).  The movement gradually encouraged the Indian Muslims "to accept an emotional espousal of the 'colonial sociology' of India in which Indian Muslims - of all classes and all regions - were a corporate group, marked by their past as rulers and their present as a minority in need of protection" (ibid. page334).  

The tactical alliance between Muslims and the Christian rulers as formulated by Sayed suggests that his objective was for keeping this vast country under the shared subjugation of British and Muslim elite.  But the alliance, which was based on communally divisive political ideology with conviction of shared values of Muslim and Christian civilisation cracked the harmonious Hindu-Muslim relation at least seen during the mutiny period of 1857.  Aligarh movement was therefore, in a way responsible for keeping the Muslim society segregated from the integrated Indian society. 

Sir Sayed remained as one of the brightest faces of Muslim intellectuals in British India for his visionary drive even after his death in 1898.  Though, he failed to modernise and provide the Indian Muslims an honourable status in British India the successive leadership of Aligarh Movement made "concerted efforts to create an all-India Muslim constituency and carve out for it a decisive political power" (Aligarh Muslim University Perfect Past and Precarious Present by Anil Maheshwari, 2001, page 3). They ignored the urge of Sir Sayed Ahmed and reversed the movement launched by him back to the track of Islamic orthodoxy. 

In stead of illuminating the facet of the historical institution founded by Sayed, most of its prominent alumnae in the name of Muslim nationalism turned it into a battleground for Islamic politics in the country with ideological backing from the Islamic thought of Waliullah.  Even Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958) was initially opposed to Aligarh school of Islam, which according to him was against the “international Islamic unity and sovereignty of Turkish Caliph over Indian Muslims” (Muslim Nationhood in India by Safia Amir – 2000– page 134).   

Aligarh movement subsequently came under the strong influence of Muslim League, which harped on the two-nation theory.  Its wholehearted support to the demand for the division of the country left permanent injury on Hindu-Muslim relation.  The loyalist behaviour of MAO College with British Government however, underwent a change in 1907, when its students launched agitation against the decision of the then Lieutenant Governor of United Province to change the language of state administration from Urdu to Hindi in Devanagari script.  This development helped the anti-Aligarh forces within Muslim community to inculcate the Islamic orthodoxy of Waliullah in the college.  

Gradually, the contemporary Muslim leaders turned the MAO College into the lifeline of Muslim politics in India for the political bargains for their community.  Even the clergies, who were initially opposed to Aligarh movement, supported it.  Issues like separate electorates for Muslims, Italy attack on Turkey possession of Tripoli (Now Libiya) in 1911, Lucknow Pact and Khilafat movement widely attracted the students of this college.  Some of the quotes (History of Aligarh Muslim University, 1920-1945 by Khaliq Ahmad Nizami, 1995, page47-50) from the resolutions of students union of the college may validate this view.

* "Pan-Islamism is the life blood of Islam" (February 5, 1910)

* "Self help ought to be the first article of our political creed" (February 9, 1910)

* "The social regeneration of Islam is the mission of young Turks" (June 18, 1910)

* "The western education has done more harm than good to India" (July 16, 1910).

* "The downfall of Turkish Empire would be a calamity for the entire Muslim world" (February 15, 1913) 

Involvement of Muslim students in political agitation gave birth to the demand for raising the MAO College to the status of a university.  This college was initially affiliated to Calcutta University and later to Allahabad University.  Conceding the demand British Government passed AMU Act 1920 and converted MAO College to a residential Aligarh Muslim University.  It also constituted AMU court as a supreme governing body of the university with members exclusively from Muslim community.  

H. H .Sultan Jahan Beghum of Bhopal was the first Chancellor of AMU.  In the first convocation address of the university on December 1922 she remarked that this institution was "a common and united centre of Muslim culture".  She further said, "with noble system of education at the back, the university will rear the genius like Averroes and Avvicenna, Sa'di and Al-Ghazzali, Ibne Musa and Abu Ma'ashar-I-Falaki, Shah Waliullah, Shah Abdul Azeez, Hali and Shibli Who will re-kindle the spark of Islamic civilisation and usher in a brighter and more glorious era in the annals of Islam" ( History of AMU by Nizami, page 87).  Contrary to the ideology of Sir Sayed, who had denounced the Islamic orthodoxy of Shah Waliullah, the deliberation of the first Chancellor suggested, that Muslim leaders had no interest in modernisation of Muslims.  

The aim of the university as officially stated (Pro-V.C. Report for the year 1925-26) was …"by a happy union of Muslim, Hindu and western cultures to evolve a new outlook that may be foundation of Indian nationalism" (History of AMU by Nizami, page 233).  But When the Hindus of the area demanded the affiliation of colleges around Aligarh since affiliated to Agra University to AMU, the University court rejected it on the plea that if demand is accepted, the minority character of the university would be diluted.  For non-Muslim students however, theology was not compulsory. 

Sir Frank Noyce in his convocation address on December 22, 1932 had predicted, "The Muslim heart in India is here in Aligarh and this university will never fail so long as that heart beats" (History of AMU by Nizami , page 227). 

"Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, eulogised it in the pre-partition days as the arsenal of Muslim India" (Aligarh Muslim University Perfect Past and Precarious Present by Anil Maheshwari, 2001 page1).  The Lahore resolution of Muslim League demanding Pakistan was accepted by students union of the AMU as 'official creed' 

After Independence Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Dr. Zakir Hussain and other like minded "nationalist Muslims" tried to convince the students of the AMU to accept the ground reality of the secular polity of India and come out of old mindset.  Maulana Azad, in his convocation address on February 20, 1949 said that it was "the first institution in India, which sought to create the atmosphere of a British public school" (History of the Aligarh Muslim University by Khaliq Ahmad Nizami, 1995, page XI.). But the chain of developments in the campus since Independence shows that they could not be realistic.  The political leadership of the country on the other hand made time to time amendments to AMU Act, which suited their political interest and made this institution, a centre of Muslim politics.  

The first amendment to AMU Act 1920 was made by Nehru Government in 1951, which made the following important changes:  

* Membership of AMU Court (Senate) was made open to non-Muslims also.

* Theological instruction was made optional even for Muslim students.

* All colleges within the radius of 15 miles in Aligarh were affiliated to AMU.

* The composition of the university court, the executive council and the academic council   was to undergo changes in accordance with the new statutes. 

Though, the amendment was not liked by Muslims in general and students of the university in particular, there was no immediate agitation in view of the tensed communal environment of the country after partition. 

After the murderous attack on Ali Yavar Jang, the vice-chancellor of the university the second amendment was made in 1965.  With this amendment AMU Court, which was the supreme governing body was reduced to the status of only advisory body.  Muslim leaders took this amendment as depriving the AMU with its unique minority character and challenged it in Supreme Court.  However, the Supreme Court maintained that AMU was established by the Act of 1920 passed by the then British Government and as such Muslim minority administering the same did not arise. 

At the instance of Nurul Hasan the then Union Education Minister another amendment was made in 1972, when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister.  This amendment was made to appease the Muslims by de-affiliating the colleges from the university, which were affiliated to it after 1951 amendment. In 1978 Janata Party Government made the amendment and restored the status of the university to the position of 1951.  In 1981 Indira Gandhi Government restored the minority character of the university, which was taken away by another 1985 amendment and also revived the status of University Court as Supreme governing body. 


AMU in its long history produced number of Muslim personalities of eminence in public life. They include Mohammad Ali, Mawlana Saukat Ali, Dr. Zakir Hussain, Liyaqat Ali , Field Marshal Ayub Khan, Sk. Mohammed Abdullah, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed and others.  With four high schools, faculties of various disciplines, medical, engineering and dental colleges and number of professional courses it is imparting education to about 25,000 students through about 1300 teachers and 6000 non-teaching employees. 

Scholars project Sir Sayed , the founder of AMU as a principal founder of 'modernist Islamic thought'.  It is said that he had a vision to bring his community into harmony with civilisation around him.  But how far the products of this university fulfilled the cherished dream of its founder is still a debatable issue.  

Social responsibility of education is to create a just social order for a harmonised and civilised society with willing participation of its members irrespective of their religious, ethnic, linguistic, sectorial and caste diversities. But the historical background of Aligarh Movement suggests that it was a turning point in Indian history, which gave birth to divisive communal politics in this sub-continent.  The communal contours in the campus as we see today show that it has failed as an institution to become the academic nucleus of Indian Muslims.  Its academic community turned political in pursuit of the extreme ideology of religious exclusivism.  Overlooking the need of the secular integration of Indian Muslims with rest of the population, they misguided the Muslim mass and neglected their economic welfare. 

"The university (AMU) Tarana (song) does not contain a single word in praise of India but it glorifies such things as the evenings of Egypt and the mornings of Shiraj. The university flag has greater resemblance with the flags of Muslim countries, with moon and palm tree stamped on it, than with that of India".(Aligarh Muslim University and Muslim Politics by Dr. S.S.Gupta, 1992, page79).  In stead of pursuing the academic goal of the university its authorities are mostly engaged in arousing the religious sentiments of Muslims with a view to keep alive the bogey of its minority character. 

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