Islamic Tradition and Reform Sir Sayed Ahmed Khan’s Vision in Post-Colonial Education by Noorudheen Musthafa

CIP December 30, 2015

Sir Sayed Ahmed Khan.

Sir Sayed Ahmed Khan.

Call me whatever names you like, I will not ask you for my salvation, but please take pity on your children. Do something for them (send them to schools), lest you have to repent (for not sending them).” – Sir Sayed Ahmed Khan [1817-1898]

It is often obscured whether modern intellectual discourse follows a path to the center of Humanity or produces lasting phenomena counter to indigenous, traditional morally- and ethically-dictated principles.

Sir Sayed Ahmed Khan, a visionary educator and statesman, was an exemplary reformer who found new ways and means for the effective integration of modernity with traditional, classical intellectual discourse. Multifarious living patterns, intellectual traditions, and philosophies of consciousness are adaptable to today’s forward-looking society. Particularly in the Muslim world, many have exercised their minds with such types of fusion, involving modernity from the inception of the Enlightenment, through contributions at base and in outcomes. Perhaps all showed a proportion between the irrefutable evidence of social experiments, but sometimes the imposition of inappropriate schemes upon the process of synthesis has caused failure.

Nevertheless, the philosophy of integration in Muslim majority/minority spaces from East to West – which was the educational vision of Sir Sayed Ahmed Khan – overcame prejudices, whether rising from conventional dissonances with the rest of South Asia, to attain a totality of energy that united him with the time and space in which he lived. The thought of Sir Sayed about integration of Muslims with the West was the inner logical driver of his vision of modern, scientific education.

In this article I will seek new ways to fathom Sir Sayed Khan’s vision of modern, scientific education and how his views have been maintained in the daily commitments of the senior secondary schools affiliated with the institution he founded, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). To reach an integral comparative analysis of its strengths, I had to answer three questions:

1) Whence did Sir Sayed derive his thoughts about the revival of the Muslim spirit in the 19th century and what were the perspectives he used in anticipating the fate of the secular communities?

2) What knowledge heritage encouraged Sir Sayed to produce a successful synthesis of Modernity with Tradition, with full recognition to both, in an appropriate application to the South Asian region and such areas in general?

3) In what ways do ongoing dialogues at the AMU secondary schools maintain a respect for Sir Sayed’s vision of modern, scientific education, and how long may we expect their philosophical and ethical strengths to last when compared with those of other primary/secondary schools in India, and with other intellectual competitors?

Sir Sayed lived in the peak epoch of Western intellectual development, which attained a pinnacle of excellence in colonial countries, through its alleged civilizing and other missions of revival. The Enlightenment sought to implant the focal points of Hellenistic and Roman learning about life and practice creatively, in ambiguous spaces. It moved toward a constructed, conventional consciousness of multiple narratives around the globe. It used the tools of political power, the state, education, and even population. Modernity walked or ran toward different minds. Instead of traditional beliefs and the revelations of the hidden imagination, it shifted the rationale for identifying the source of ultimate truth and optimum utility. Nevertheless, reality continued through the specific interpretations of differing ideologies, religions, and other worldly-perceived sensations. The relevant cleavages between revelation and reason, state and religion, etc., were inspired toward introspection by the critical acceptance of modernity and its milieux. The aftermath of these discourses dealt with the balance of change through tolerance, reciprocity, and the temporality of evolving limitations.

Recently, numerous academic and non-academic debates have addressed the challenges and consequences of divergent Western methodologies and epistemological principles on which dialogue is constructed. It is imperative to note that none of the ethics, morals, and values which have survived subsequent criticism have balanced off tensions with the ‘other’. According to Edward Said, an essential binary division exists between ‘Oriental’ and ‘Occidental’ views, regardless of the distinct intellectual systems and patterns of life. Much of humanity is indoctrinated with the presumption that integration of these two paradigms is impossible. But effective structural integration is possible: not only as a mere declaration in its favor, but as a contemporary imperative for interrelations of various groups.

Here we need to thank Sir Sayed Ahmed Khan for raising seminal questions in argument, about the subtleties and nuances of a mere blind acceptance of modern, scientific education. Instead of a direct course toward entry into the modern educational system, his approach was vital in preparing and directing social knowledge – in pursuit of tradition, the study of geography and culture, which he applied with the 19th century foundation of the Aligarh Movement. And the location in space and time he sought to affect was not only that of South Asia during successive decades, but the structural influences that could erase boundaries and move toward a specific, permanent model that could be acceptable for everyone at any time. Knowledge compels a need to penetrate the soul of society and describe its growth and flowering through its normative expansion, according to the 11th century philosopher and mystic Imam Ghazali. Sir Sayed was a pioneer who took the initiative in blending education with social empowerment – before such a term was conceived – through attendance at the secondary schools he founded. We may call him the ‘modern Ghazali’, thanks to his leadership and his distinctive concept of education.

It is necessary to clarify the position of India in the contemporary world, and how it provides for elementary schooling. As shown in various sources, India is an emerging power in the global South in economics, politics, health, and traditional expression. All these capacities emerge from the energy of its youth in contrast with the rest of the world. Today, even in structurally powerful and intellectually accelerated ‘First World’ countries there is much examination of the classrooms of India, to understand how a new generation of talent may transform existing structures and revive the glory of something lost in prior history.

Still, there is always a gloomy obstruction in that contemporary Indian academia has been generally much influenced by the influence of the Western model of knowledge in its relations, syllabi, and its broader conceptual framework. The Enlightenment prevailed throughout the colonized as well as the non-colonized countries, yet some troublesome beliefs and religious creeds persisted. Within the context of a new, indigenous power, all these trends attempt to accommodate Western paradigms, whether they accept that these are all superior to the vestiges of the past. These influences had lasting effects on different social sectors, beginning from the middle and elite classes. Sir Sayed criticized brilliantly the primitive discursive tradition of modernity and advocated successfully for a critical review of contemporary civilization and scientific determinism. He not only pointed out their errors but also brought forward answers with the substantial subjective role of reworking their premises. He founded a wide rhetoric on the basis of a respected, alternative academic program with special, intensive focus on fostering an educational vision and broadening its powerful mission. That is why the educational legacy of Sir Sayed applies divergent determinations and a ubiquitous unanimity to carry it through the different levels of intellectual and academic work from the primary school to scholarship dealing with contradictory themes.

In recent decades, senior secondary schools have been developed to conform with changes in the AMU. Unlike other educational movements, the Aligarh Movement is not a mere academic apparatus aiming to impose a totalitarian consciousness in education, to advance individual profit, or to sow discord among scattered mobs, but, rather, instils the particles that stimulate the intellectual for education and empowerment. A fruitful partnership of knowledge and common life is the unique aspect of the Aligarh Movement that is still found in Sir Sayed’s famous schools, superior to its own and others’ academic ventures.

Sir Sayed spoke always about educating generations, and his humble and unique ultimate space was the secondary school. Before its establishment during the bright dawn of 1875, the Anglo-Muhammadan Oriental College, which would later become the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), was preceded by Sir Sayed’s launch of excellent schools in Moradabad in 1859 and Ghazipur in 1863. The AMU administration of senior secondary schools pushed forward Sir Sayed’s vision of the aims and goals of education in social development.

In the aftermath of colonialism in South Asia, especially in India, there is a lag in drawing a balance sheet of the unknown intellectual diversions and survivals of the colonial era. Recently, most Indian academics remain under the protection of that heritage because of the persistence of a scientific education lacking a proper systemic outlook that respects traditions, honors culture, seeks to heal society of its dangerous ailments, and commits itself to act jointly and early to ensure national integration.

All emerging nation-states are undergoing a fast, severe, and direct encounter with the concepts of ‘development’ and ‘growth’, which are joined structurally. And views of ‘Peace’, ‘Harmony’, and ‘Pluralism’ are necessary for an efficient behavioral synthesis. It is necessary, however, to analyze how long any of these principles may be achieved using present educational systems and social discourse. Assessing the disciplines on which curricula and modes of operation that lead forward and their resulting means of representation has faced tremendous obstacles in the absence of norms and lack of ethnic affiliations.

Studying the knowledge economy of Sir Sayed, with a specific survey of secondary schools, it is imperative to take the entire academic pattern into account. It is too easy to simply relate the thoughts of Sir Sayed to senior secondary education. In the dimly-lit market of contemporary consumption of knowledge, there is too much proof that the present is vulnerable in its attempt to reject tradition and social values. Some wish to drive Sir Sayed’s vision of education out of the country’s primary schools. Subtle and nuanced affectations derange individuals by removing the duties that always lead to the productivity of social empowerment, and return to a vanished, primitive intensity.

The AMU concept of education must reach every aspect of the disguised but powerful ideology of education, which lacks a vision of social, normative cooperation and collective creativity for the empowerment of all. The All-India Muslim Education Conference is a leading institution designed by Sir Sayed to spread the AMU model throughout the nation.

Let us enumerate what must be changed in contemporary pedagogy, and how new, alternative methods may be based on Sir Sayed’s vision of modern, scientific education. Sir Sayed brought the Western model of scientific education to the Indian context, during the heated crossfire between colonial and anticolonial sectors. At the same time, various indigenous educational trans-disciplinary attitudes appeared within the Muslim community. At so critical a stage, Sir Sayed showed eminent courage by supporting modern, scientific education, through schools rooted in the social environment. The major outcome of this effort was the seminal association of a new approach derived from the Indian context. It does not entail a simple acceptance of the Western doctrine of education, or a totalitarian subjugation, but accommodates its structure and forms, rather than its norms.

AMU senior secondary schools pursue a fully-rounded critical style of modern, scientific education while preserving traditional, indigenous norms. The AMU model was not limited to a retrogressive individual empowerment, which did not fit with South Asia after colonialism. The Western model seems to propel each individual separately to the height of social status. Nevertheless, Sir Sayed had paid great attention to the limitations of such attitudes. He fortified the revision of colonial thought. The AMU knowledge economy was involved with the marriage of education to social empowerment. That originated in Sir Sayed’s trans-national conception, with multiple disciplinary strategies covering the globe during his life, and through his activities to ascertain his own roots, which stood as a fertile space for creation of innovations uniting numerous civilizational products in a beautiful chronicle, a spectrum uniting the Islamic intellectual tradition and the new education.

In sum, the transformation of the contemporary educational system is undeniably inevitable, but a evinces a pattern implying a one-way expansion of technology and management theory that would not bring about the spread of knowledge and service from the upper to the lower strata of society. It is high time to instill Sir Sayed’s lessons of moral responsibility, social consciousness, harmonious behavior, and pluralism to contemporary schools in the living Indian environment that have been lost to the interference of many ‘others’ today. If it is possible to act in accord with the inner logic of AMU and its branches, then it will be easy to revive the spirit of the nation with universal growth, equity, and stability, intellectually vibrant and morally complete.

Post-colonial states engage with the Enlightenment in different ways. The role of the academic is one of them, as an actor who can move throughout systems without challenge to one’s own context, while politically free states also have an interest in producing an academic environment lacking criticism from within. Schools, however different their numbers of participants, are obsessed with normative affiliations and ethnic posturing, even considering these as necessary for the growth of democracy. Sir Sayed’s vision of modern, scientific education had a unique power to burst through the collapse of established schools through moral enquiry. The AMU senior secondary schools have ended up increasing the dysfunction of conventional imbalances in modern, scientific education, and should respect Sir Sayed’s vision of an education in close touch with the living world, in a dynamic of transformation defined by access to life and education. It is essential to learn from the dreadful dilemma surrounding us that Sir Sayed always maintained a call for conventional schools to make a paradigm shift from their age-old roots to a well-rounded synthesis of knowledge reviving the spirit of social advancement.


The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam, by Talal Asad, Georgetown University, USA, 1986.

The Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Islamic Thought, edited by Dr. Ibrahim Abu Rabi, Blackwell, USA, 2008.

Ihya uloom udheen (The Revival of Religious Sciences), by Imam Ghazali, Darul-Khutub, Lebanon, 2000.

Orientalism, by Edward W. Said, Vintage Books, USA, 1979.

Modernity and the smell of gunpowder“, article by Dr. Abed el-Wahab el-Missiri, Al-Ahram weekly, Egypt, February 1, 2003.

Muslim Networks from Hajj to Hip Hop, edited by miriam cooke and Bruce B Laurence, University of North Carolina Press, USA, 2005.

The Role of Saiyid Ahmad Khan in the Shift to Modern Education of Muslims of South Asia, paper by Dr. Arshad Islam, International Islamic University, Malaysia, 2009.

The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change, by Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Princeton University Press, USA, 2007.

Noorudheen Musthafa is a student in Islamic Studies at the Madeenathunoor College of Islamic Science, Poonoor, Kozhikode, Kerala, India