Sir Syed – the man, his reforms and his legacy.

I was recently reading an article which described Sir Syed as a great social and religious reformer. He surely was a great religious reformer, but was he also a social reformer? I have my doubts for other than from his advocacy of widow remarriage, his voice on all the other social ills plaguing the then Muslim society is pretty muted. On religious matters of course his views are nothing short of revolutionary. He surely qualifies as the ‘reformation’ man for Islam. A thorough rationalist, his entire religious theology was premised on the basic postulate that there couldn’t be any contradiction between the Word of God (Quran) and the Work of God (Nature).  He argued that in case there was any contradiction between a scientific fact and a religious ruling/precept, the latter must be reinterpreted in accordance with the former. He challenged the Hadith as a rational basis of Islamic jurisprudence, criticized the practice of Taqlid (to follow), stressed on Tafsir (rational interpretation) and supported free exercise of ijtihad (independent reasoning). For him, no Jinns, Satan or Hoors existed, neither did heaven or hell. He argued that the miracles mentioned in the Quran were not to be understood literally but as idioms. For example, he argued that Isra and Miraj (Prophet’s accession to heaven and vision of God on the night of beatitude) were not a physical or spiritual experience but only a dream. The traditional Ulemas of course were not impressed and dismissed him and his theology as Nechari. He also earned a lot of fatwas in the bargain.

So how do we assess this great man? What was the impact of Sir Syed on the social and political lives of the Muslims of the subcontinent? I would argue that his philosophy of political quietude asking Muslims to stay away from the national movement and depend on the British for promoting Muslim (elite) interest rather than on the larger Muslim society (which included the Pasmanda Muslims) not only created fertile soil for the rise of religious separatism but also laid the foundation of a Muslim society which abhors reforms (till date). His belief that the foundations of an enlightened society could be laid only through modern education and religious reform ignored the reality that religion and education do not constitute the ‘whole’ of society and no society can progress without addressing issues like political participation, removal of social ills, inequality and discrimination. Further, the practical problem that any scholar who seeks to reform societies by reinterpreting religious texts faces is that others who do not agree with him, are bound to challenge him with their own interpretations. More often than not they sound convincing (too), for it is the nature of religious texts that more often than not, they contain mutually contradictory verses.  Religious reform movements that base themselves purely on reinterpretation of religious beliefs and practices while ignoring mass participation/support have limited shelf life with limited overall impact/following (for example the Brahmo Samaj).

While followers of Sir Syed may challenge my assertion, I believe that the fundamental audience of his religious reforms were not Muslim masses (may be the Ashrafs were) but the British colonialists. His writings like the Tehkik-e-Lafz-e-Nasara, The Mohamedan Commentary on the Holy Bible, Asbab Baghawat-e-Hind and Risalah Khair Khawahan Musalman were all directed at the British. The first two books were written with a view to promote the idea of similarity between the Semitic religions of Islam and Christianity, whereas the latter two books sought to project the loyalty of the Muslims to the British. The Khutbat-i-Ahmaddiya, which he wrote in response to William Muir’s (bakwas – interpretation mine) book on the life of the Prophet, as well as his reinterpretation of the Quran was done keeping the British audience in mind. Islam was sought to be projected as a religion that was compatible with modern sciences and thus did not qualify as a backward religion.

The primary focus of Sir Syed was not to address the concerns of Muslim society as a whole but only those of the Muslim elites. His focus thus remained on providing modern education to the Muslim upper castes, their representation in the Viceroy’s executive council and jobs in the government. While he was a votary of excellent inter-community relations with the Hindus at the social level (he was delighted that Muslims were not slaughtering cows during Bakr-Id), when it came to politics he was paranoid about any cooperation with the Hindus, lest Muslim interests (which he considered to be antagonistic to the Hindus) be compromised. He also feared that any political cooperation with the Hindus would jeopardize his argument of unflinching Muslim loyalty to the British.  This made him advocate with some ferocity that Muslims follow a policy of political indifference and not join the Congress – even though the Congress was hardly demanding anything radical those days.  

This political apathy proved detrimental to both India and Muslims in the long run. Political apathy as a policy became untenable when the British introduced limited representative institutions in India. The legitimacy that scholars like Sir Syed provided to the concept of Muslim and Hindu interests being antithetical to each other (Govt. jobs, members of viceroy’s council etc.) not only foreclosed any chance/experience of a common Hindu Muslim struggle, but also led to the rise of Muslim separatism. By constantly evoking unflinching loyalty to the British, he not only provided legitimacy to their rule (if only in the eyes of the Muslims) but also provided the British with the theoretical/ideological rationale for their policy of divide and rule. They could now argue that since a section of India (Muslims) considered them to be legitimate/just rulers of India, it was their responsibility to ensure that the interest of that community was protected.    

This policy of not joining the mainstream and political quietude also had an adverse impact on the Muslim society.  The Indian National Movement was as much a movement for political reforms as it was for social reforms. All communities and social groups who participated in the national movement also worked to eradicate the social ills plaguing their community (like abolition of untouchability amongst Hindus, the reforms in SGPC and formation of Singh Sabha for Sikhs). The national movement which sought to challenge the might of the British empire could not do without mass participation. To enthuse the masses, their pressing concerns like exploitation and social discrimination needed to be addressed and made a part of the nationalist discourse. The policy of political quietude ensured that Muslim politics, dependent on the British and the elites could do without addressing the concerns of the Muslim masses. Since then, (till date) Muslim politics has remained hostage to elite politics and revolves not around substantive but emotive issues.

This political indifference also changed the character of the Indian National Movement to fundamentally Hindu, when seen in the context of social reforms. Unsure about Muslim commitment to composite nationalism, Muslims were left to tackle their social reforms themselves – a hands offish approach that continued even after independence, much to the detriment of Muslim society.

In conclusion it can be said that while his religious ideas were revolutionary, his neglect of social reforms (some might argue very deliberate) and dependence on the British and the Muslim elites, who were more interested in preserving their privileges, rather than securing socio-economic rights for ordinary Muslims led to the condition of the Muslim society remaining hostage to its elites. His ferocious opposition to securing political rights for India within a composite national movement laid the foundation of Muslim separatism, represented by the Aligarh movement.

PS: One important influence over Sir Syed was Adam Smith’s theory of demand and supply, whose works he discovered during his trip to London. In his writings at many places, we find reference to this theory. For example, when he pleads for the adoption of modern education, he argues that during the Mughal period there was demand for traditional religious education but with the advent of the British, who was going to demand such an education? I was intrigued that the genius that Sir Syed was, did he not understand what facilitated the ‘demand’ for religion? Isn’t it the solace that religion with its belief in the supernatural provides, more so when the times are tough? If religion was all about science will it be a source of such a solace, will it be demanded by the masses then?

(The views expressed as personal)

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