Interview: Shafey Kidwai, author of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: Reason, Religion and Nation – books author interview

The author, critic and columnist, and chairman of the Department of Mass Communications at the Muslim University of Aligarh (AMU), on his upcoming book on the legacy of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the founder of the institution, whose birth anniversary is celebrated in October. 17

Your new book Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: Reason, Religion and Nation (Routledge) looks at the life and times of the founder of AMU, who was a pioneer of modern education among Muslims in India in the 19th century. What are some of your ideas that are still relevant?

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) is known as the founder of AMU. However, his true legacy is based on his radical views and sketches on a wide range of topics, such as the concept of blasphemy, jihad, slaughter of cows, gender equality, conversion, Hindu-Muslim unity and reserve for Muslims. . In my book, I look at his contributions beyond the sphere of education and look at his role as a public intellectual, as a multi-faceted Renaissance Muslim in 19th century British India, picking up his concepts from his actions and his writings. I contextualize his ideas and writings in the broader framework of political, social and religious reforms, nationalism, and the debate on identity and submission. Sir Syed focused heavily on liberal values, tolerance, and abhorrence of obscurantism.

One of Sir Syed’s true legacies that makes him relevant even today is his tolerance and propagation of liberal values: he wrote extensively on the various ways of living in a plural society. He was a great advocate of religious tolerance and constantly appealed to Muslims not to get carried away by the rhetorical-prone society of those days. He was the first Muslim scholar to attempt an Urdu commentary on the Bible, Tabin al-al-kalam Fi tafsir altawrat Wa ‘I-injil’ala millat al Islam (Elucidation of the world in the commentary of the Torah and the gospel according to the religion of Islam), which was published in three parts between 1860 and 1865. As a critic of the slaughter of cows, he wrote extensively against it and made sure that the meat, which was freely available at the time, was not served in Aligarh.

Sir Syed’s position on blasphemy is also highly relevant today. In the Islamic state, writing against Islam or the Prophet meant writing against the state that attracted capital punishment. Today’s sedition law could be seen as the new secular vocabulary for blasphemy. In 1858, Sir William Muir, an official and orientalist, published two volumes of a despicable book on the Prophet Muhammad: The life of Muhammad and the history of Islam up to the time of Hegira – outraged the Muslim community. But Sir Syed believed that instead of burning books, it was important to present a counterargument in the form of another book. In 1870, he came up with his replica, Khutbaat-e-Ahmadiyya, debunking the misconceptions and misunderstandings surrounding the Prophet after the release of Muir’s book. This offers a lesson in the effectiveness of replying.

Routledge, December 2020

Many of Sir Syed’s ideas were iconoclastic. You write that despite having studied theology, he was a rationalist who considered reason as the “purest form of human intelligence that could also be exercised over faith.”

Sir Syed denounced the miracles in Islam that theologians always took as gospel truths. For example, in Islam Gabriel is considered to be the archangel who was the messenger of God who brought his revelations verbatim to Prophet Muhammad. Also, the crossing of the Red Sea by Moses and the drowning of Pharaoh o Pharaoh (various verses in the Qur’an describe how the Red Sea parted in two and a dry path emerged when Moses struck the water with his staff in divine inspiration), and a failed attack on the Kaaba by Abraha, a Christian ruler from Yemen, in 570 AD, they are generally considered miracles. Sir Syed questioned these assumptions and offered a rational interpretation for them. He argued that Gabriel had come in human form to carry God’s message to Mary and that divine revelation was a kind of young (light) that shone in the heart of Prophet Muhammad. Similarly, Sir Syed argued that when Moses was crossing the 30 km patch known as the Bay of Eden, which comprises 30 islands and is surrounded by mountains, the rise and fall in the water level is due to high and low tides. . The Qur’an describes that Abraha’s army was trampled on by a fleet of Ababeel (pebble-carrying birds) who, at God’s command, rained small but deadly stones on them. Contradicting this, Sir Syed claims that Abraha’s army was infected with chickenpox.

According to Sir Syed, the world we live in is governed by two sets of promises from God: the word of God or the Holy Quran, and the work of God, which is the law of nature. The whole universe revolves around him. He held that one divine promise cannot contradict the other and that there should be no dichotomy between God’s word and God’s work. He considered miracles or events that challenged cause and effect to go against the elemental mechanism of creation. These interpretations were unprecedented. No Muslim scholar had ever tried something of this kind before Sir Syed. His religious thinking helped promote rationalism among Muslims, which remains an area of ​​great concern even today. I wanted reason to be the arbiter of life. He was the only Muslim scholar who had a speech on reason. Other scholars and reformers like Al-Ghazali and Shah Waliullah were against reason.

Was there a common meeting place for your radical ideas and religious beliefs?

While defending rational thought, scientific temperament, and free inquiry, Sir Syed argued that religious beliefs, scientific knowledge, and morality were mutually consistent. He argued that moral values ​​should be instilled. Speak for real and ikhlaaq (good behavior). Today, living in a post-truth world, we create truth through language to satisfy our cultural needs. Sir Syed emphasized truthfulness two centuries ago. He wrote a lot about human traits, such as servility (khushamad), which he called disease. Before him, no one had addressed these topics in Urdu. Many of his articles deal with tehzeeb (culture), the past and inertia. in a maulvi– oppressed society, Sir Syed was the voice of reason that believed in the convergence of science and faith.

However, her regressive ideas about women and their education come under strong criticism from various quarters. What shaped your views on women’s education?

When it comes to the education of women, Sir Syed showed his feudal mind; somehow, it became the voice of the patriarchy. I wanted tutoring-based homeschooling for women. He was also a proponent of purdah; it was his blind spot. He was not a supporter of coeducation, as he felt that girls reaching puberty would make it difficult for them to attend school during their menstrual period. He wanted separate schools for both sexes. He also feared that since girls generally excelled in studies, they would eventually outshine the boys and thus end up jeopardizing the institution of marriage; he considered marriage to be the ultimate goal of girls. This was very poorly conceived. After all, the reform had to take place simultaneously. The Prophet not only asked men to follow Islam, excluding women and children, but everyone together.

However, just to absolve the social reformer, one could argue that, unlike many Urdu travel journal writers, such as Yusuf Husain Kambalposh, who referred to European women as “promiscuous”, the male gaze is lacking in tales of Sir Syed, who saw them. as empowered. In his writings, Sir Syed contradicts himself in several places. The life of all great men is mired in contradictions. And he is no different.

Interviewer Nawaid Anjum

Interviewer Nawaid Anjum

What are your contributions as an administrator?

As a member of the Viceroy Council and the Public Service Commission, he defended the codification of the law and the reservation for Muslims at the political level. As an administrator, he did not discriminate between class, religion or gender. His administrative actions were intended for all Indians. When he became a member of the public service commission, he made two demands: the age limit for the Indian civil service was raised to 23 from 21, and the ICS exam will also be held in Delhi or Kolkata.

In 1882, the local self-government bill spoke of direct suffrage that could lead to Hindus electing Hindus and Muslims electing Muslims. He suggested that the government reserve a third of the seats for minorities so they could be protected. He wanted to reserve for Muslims on a political level, but not on a job level, where one could empower oneself through education. He offered a flexible fee structure to poor students, which showed how serious he was about education.

Nawaid Anjum is a Delhi-based freelance writer, translator and poet.


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