By K.N. Pandita
Sir Sayyid Seminars should not remain confined to Urdu Departments in our universities, including Jammu University. Given the role of Sir Sayyid and its historical importance, he stands out as one of the leading lights in social history of modern India especially of the Indian Muslims. His futuristic vision of Indian Muslim society became the beacon light for opening the dark alleys in which the Muslims and also the Hindus of India had got trapped. Therefore his contribution transcends communities and institutions and hence his anniversary should be observed befittingly by our educational and social institutions. We in India have the tradition of remembering our eminent educationists and visionaries.
Revisiting the life and works of Sir Sayyid throws up the much-talked about theme of economic, social and educational backwardness of Indian Muslims. The puzzling question is that though the Muslim dynasties, mostly of foreign origin, ruled over India for nearly eight hundred years since mid-11th century, how come the Muslim community of India remained backward and retarded? During this long period of their ascendancy in India, Muslims established their social and religious institutions vigorously and kept interacting with centres of Islamic learning, culture and tradition in Arabia, Iran and Central Asia. For eight centuries and prior to their dispossession by the British, they needed not a passport to travel to any Muslim country in the Semitic or Indo-Aryan lands. The rich fund of manuscripts preserved in public or private repositories all over India, the style of mosques, gardens, forts, bridges and other structures of medieval times, well preserved by the Indians, all show that in no way was promotion of Islamic civilizational manifestations hindered or discouraged for these long centuries. Even, apart from overland trade between India and the West Asian countries either through normal routes or through the fabulous Silk Road arteries, brisk maritime trade also continued uninterruptedly. Existence of Islamic institutions in Southern India, Kerala in particular, stand a living proof to flow of trade and commerce between the Arab countries and India as well as South East Asian countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Evidently this incredibly free movement of men and material for long centuries should have led to all round prosperity of the Indian Muslim community, and carried them ahead of their Hindu compatriots who, until recent times, remained bogged with debilitating social evils like casteism and abhorrence of lands and peoples outside India. Why then did backwardness hold the Indian Muslims in its grip so much so that Sir Sayyid and other Muslim social reformers of his times, or of later days, had to launch a life-long mission of bringing emancipation to their community?
Sir Sayyid was rightly seized of this question. His interaction with the British rulers and his understanding of British institutions, especially their educational institutions that had universalized access to new branches of learning, meaning science and technology, opened his eyes and he came to the root cause of Muslim backwardness. He broadened his vision after understanding how Turkey, a Muslim country in essence, but keeping pace with modernity owing to proximity to western ways of life, had synchronized tradition and innovation. He found that under the pressure of conservative Muslim ecclesiasts the ummah had been forced to remain confined to traditional learning of the Quran and Hadith. Study of modern sciences especially physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics and even history and economics was, unfortunately, suppressed. He found that the West had become economically strong and militarily powerful because it had opened the windows of science and technology on its budding generations. Sir Sayyid took the cue from them and thus embarked on a pioneering mission. It has to be remembered that even in those days of overwhelming influence of the church, there were intellectuals among Indian Muslims who strongly favoured reformation and reconstruction of Muslim social fabric. Some of them even considered Sir Sayyid rather a traditional thinker and not a powerful modernist. When Sir Sayyid sent an edited copy of Abul Fazl’s history Ain-e Akbri with his introduction to Mirza Ghalib for his comments, Ghalib lambasted him saying that the British had made tremendous inventions like running ships across oceans with power steam, while he (Sir Sayyid) was wasting his time in repeating so-called glories of Mughal rulers.
The question is that is the spirit of Sir Sayyid’s mission of emancipation of India Muslims finding flourishing under the secular-democratic dispensation of sovereign State of India? Have the Muslims access to all branches of modern sciences and technologies and are they responding to the opportunities offered? All physical evidence shows that the advantage exists in full. Why then return to seminaries, extremism, fundamentalism, Salafism, Wahhabism, IM etc? Is not this contradiction in terms? We hope this question was fairly dealt with in the recent seminar on Sir Sayyid held in Jammu University.