SIR Syed Ahmad Khan, a prominent 19th-century Muslim scholar, thinker and reformer of the Indian subcontinent, is vastly admired for his sharp observation of the challenges that faced his society. He is also appreciated for his daring intellectual and pragmatic response to the challenges of the time.
He has written diversely; however, his advocacy for modern/science education and his bold steps to reinterpret Islamic thought are considered his most prominent legacy. Yet it appears that these legacies have not received due attention as today, the Muslim societies of South Asia are facing the same challenges that Sir Syed highlighted over a century ago.
Despite having a traditional educational background, Sir Syed realised that the landscape of knowledge was being reshaped due to rapid developments in science and technology. He was convinced that without a scientific approach, no society would be able to contribute to knowledge in the contemporary world. He urged Muslims of the subcontinent to learn science and new languages in order to keep pace with the world. He not only tried to convince Muslims to get a modern education, he also took practical steps by establishing schools, colleges and a university.
Sir Syed’s original work is ignored even at the university level.
Sir Syed was aware that scientific thinking/development required a rational approach. He was of the view that the traditional way of thinking would not help Muslims enter the arena of modern knowledge. He therefore urged them to develop a rational approach to scientific knowledge. He took bold steps to realign Islamic thought with science by highlighting rational aspects of Islamic teaching and history.
To revive this aspect of Islamic thought, he attempted to link and build on the rational traditions of the Mutazila and other Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd. To highlight the importance of rational thinking, Syed Ahmad Khan wrote extensively in Urdu and his exegesis of the Holy Quran is viewed as one of the prominent examples of rational interpretation of scripture in the modern age.
To align Muslim religious thought and scientific knowledge, Sir Syed asserted that scientific knowledge did not contradict religion. He stressed that there were two realms of knowledge: the ‘word of God’ (scripture) and the ‘work of God’ (the universe). The holy scriptures are the word of God and are understood through theology and religious practice. The universe is the work of God that is explored and understood through scientific knowledge. Hence, he emphasised that scientific knowledge is as important as religious knowledge to understand the mysteries of God’s creation.
Today, it is observed that the Muslim societies of South Asia are facing the same challenges as they were in the 19th century. Lack of education and a narrow religious worldview are still amongst our daunting problems. In Pakistan, Sir Syed is viewed as one of the important leaders of independence. However, education has never been the priority of successive governments and today, we face huge challenges in educating the younger generation in Pakistan; for example, the country is said to have the second highest number of out-of-school children.
In our educational institutions, Sir Syed is discussed as an independence hero through superficial discussions on his life. His original work and thoughts are hardly taught even at the university level, therefore, very few are aware of his original works.
Sir Syed’s rational approach to faith faced huge opposition from the ulema of his time. Today, strong sentiments are still found that undermine a rational approach to religion. Hence, lack of rational thinking and the narrow interpretation of faith leads to religious intolerance.
Looking at the challenges of Muslim societies like Pakistan, Sir Syed’s thoughts and prescriptions still seem relevant to deal with the gigantic educational and social challenges. In this regard, conscious steps are needed to be taken at multiple levels.
First, at the government level Sir Syed’s thoughts need to be reflected in polices of education and social contract. Serious steps need to be taken to educate people about his thoughts through different sources such as reprinting his books and conducting serious research on the scholar’s works and thoughts. Second, Sir Syed’s thoughts need to be introduced at educational institutions by teaching his original works. Furthermore, the media should play a role in promoting the rational thoughts/works of Sir Syed in order to highlight the intellectual tradition of Muslims.
In sum, Sir Syed — being a thinker and reformist — had unique views about the issues facing his society. Today, Muslim societies as in Pakistan are facing huge challenges in educating the new generation and dealing with religious intolerance and polarisation. The powerful intellectual and practical legacies of Sir Syed can be instrumental in dealing with these issues by making them part of the state’s policies and society’s practices.
The writer is a freelance contributor with an interest in cultures and religion.
Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2015