Dr. Amineh Hoti on the Life of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan

In the footsteps of my relative, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan

Dr. Amineh Hoti

Walking in the footprints of one of the greatest educationist reformers in South Asia was a huge intellectual gift for me. I am on the project, led by Professor Akbar Ahmed, called “Journey into Europe” in London’s Goodenough Club—staying in the same building in which Sir Syed Ahmed Khan had once lived. Visitors to Mecklenburgh Square can see the plaque on the building honoring his stay and those who have access to the building can see his portrait in the corridor as one enters.

Single-handedly, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898) led the Muslims of the Subcontinent towards a modern Muslim identity. Inspired by his visit to the University of Cambridge in England, he set up a University for Muslims in Aligarh, India. From this institution came leaders, prime ministers, policy makers, historians, scientists, and many other prominent figures in society. In the colonial time when there was deep suspicion of “the Other” especially after the bloodbath of 1857 when Muslims were being persecuted, some Muslims were distancing themselves from all that was foreign, especially British education, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan encouraged Muslims to progress and not to hold back but to educate themselves, learn English, and develop better relations with the other in order to create deeper understanding and better communication. The idea of Pakistan came from Aligarh—the majority of the people in the Muslim League party that moved the motion for the creation of Pakistan were from Aligarh.

In Tehzeeb-e-Ikhlaq, a journal he founded and led, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan wrote articles calling for the people of the Subcontinent, especially the Muslims, to leave behind blind imitations of culture and use reason and logic to lead more meaningful and thoughtful lives. He argued that if the people of the Subcontinent (Muslims and Hindus) continued to follow old traditions and superstitions then they would be like a disabled person with one eye but if they progressed and developed the vision and thought to move forward through knowledge and education then their example would be, in his own words, like that of a beautiful bride.

The Centre for Dialogue and Action at FCC in Pakistan, which I have the privilege of being the founding Executive Director, has just successfully taught its first pilot Diversity course—one of the classes focused the students’ attention on the inclusive tolerant vision of Pakistan’s founding fathers, including Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and the Quaid-e-Azam, Mr. Muhammad Ali Jinnah. These leaders had a vision of a modern Muslim society with rights for every citizen regardless of race or religion and above all the respect for law and order. Considering the chaos of so much of the Muslim world, it is a vision worth reminding the world of. When men and women with extreme views hold up plaques of their heroes like Osama bin Laden (which they are openly doing in the capital city of Pakistan), leaders and teachers need to remind students and the public of the alternative model, in order to keep the symmetry—Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and the Quaid-e-Azam were clearly educated men of vision and above all they were great bridge-builders between different people and nations. This Journey into Europe is one such adventurous exploration in which Professor Ahmed and his team of field researchers and scholars (myself included) will look at how people in the modern world can live side by side more peacefully. It is rich fieldwork material for teachers and students of peace building courses and it is a valuable alternative for a world in which the cacophonous voices of hate and anger are unacceptably far too loud.

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