On October 17, 1817, famous Muslim reformer, philosopher, modernist and the founder of the Aligarh Muslim University, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was born in Delhi during the reign of Mughal emperor Akbar II. Sir Syed is considered one of the most important figures of Islamic modernism in the Indian subcontinent.
Sir Syed was born into a family that had previously served the Mughal court for nearly two and a half centuries. His family traced its genealogy to the family of Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatimah and Ali. As a child, he was brought up in a traditional Islamic and Sufi household by his maternal grandfather Khwaja Fariduddin who was among the descendants of the 12th Sufi scholar of Naqshbandi Tariqa, Khwaja Mohammad Yusuf Hamdani.
KA Nizami notes, “It [Delhi] was a city of light and shade, and Sayyid Ahmad had had an opportunity to see its rosy as well as its seamy side. He used to visit the court with his father and thus he had first-hand knowledge of the court life of the Mughals. He had heard the inspiring sermons of Shah Ismail Shahid, and had breathed in the spiritual atmosphere of Shah Ghulam Ali’s Khanqah which attracted ardent devotees from distant parts of the Muslim world. He had come into contact with the leaders of the Rasul Shahis as well as the Wahhabis.”
The Indian Uprising of 1857 was one of the major turning points in Syed Ahmed’s life. He foresaw the imperative need for the Muslims to acquire proficiency in the English language and modern sciences, if the community were to maintain its social and political clout, particularly in Northern India.
He began to prepare the road map for the formation of a Muslim University by starting various schools. He instituted the Scientific Society in 1863, launched The Aligarh Institute Gazette in 1866, and founded the Madrasatul Uloom in Aligarh in 1875. The Madrasatul Uloom later became the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College in 1877.
He patterned MAO College after Oxford and Cambridge universities when he went on a trip to London in 1869. Later, the same MAO College turned into the Aligarh Muslim University in 1920. The year 2020 marked 100 years of the prestigious Aligarh Muslim University.
Besides education and social reforms, Sir Syed contributed a lot to the religious, legal, historical, and political disciplines of learning. However, his works on religion have been subject to heavy criticism. He wrote several books, journals, and articles on different subjects.
Today, Sir Syed is celebrated not only by Indians or Pakistanis but by people from around the world. He died on March 27, 1898, and lies buried next to the main mosque at Aligarh Muslim University, India.
Sayyid Ahmad Khan, by KA Nizami
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