Javaid Beigh

Shattered Dreams of Sir Syed and Ataturk

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South Asian countries recently observed birth anniversary of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, legendary 19th century Muslim social reformer of British India. But unfortunately, the present generation of Muslim men and women in South Asian region including Kashmir valley know little about the difficult conditions under which Sir Syed Ahmed Khan initiated his path breaking social and educational reforms that laid foundations of western English language influenced modernity among Muslims of British India, who were deeply buried in the conservative, outdated and antique notions of so called Muslim cultural superiority born out of misconceived glory of centuries of Mughal rule over the Indian subcontinent.

His simple advocacy of studying English language by Muslim children of that time earned him an ire of Muslim orthodoxy, which considered English language as language of infidels and declared that any Muslim who would dare to study English would automatically be dismissed from the fold of Islam. The Muslim society of the Indian subcontinent at that time was seeped deeply into social, economic, cultural and educational backwardness and conservatism, which was made worst by clinging on to the archaic religion-based teachings of Islamic Madrasas that were totally out of times with the modernity of the advancement of science and industrial revolution in Europe.

Sir Syed, who was born into a family that served in the Mughal courts interacted with the officials of British East India Company and soon recognized and appreciated the advancement made by Europe in the field of science and industrial development during the time when both Mughals and Ottoman Empire in Turkey were declining.

In Turkey, the similar predicament of Muslims was noticed by Mustafa Kemal Pasha, a revolutionary Turkish field marshal, who was to become the first President of independent Turkey after the fall of Ottoman Empire post first world war and who is fondly called “Ätaturk”, the founding father of the modern Republic of Turkey. There in the middle eastern region, Arab, Turkish and Persian Muslim communities just like their British Indian Muslim counterparts were seeped into cultural, economic and educational backwardness and the misconceived glory of the fast decaying Caliphate.

While Sir Syed Ahmed Khan took the path of advocating social, cultural and educational reforms among Muslims with the support of British Indian government, Mustafa Kamal implemented his revolutionary reformist agenda upon becoming the first President of the independent republic of Turkey. In both Turkey, Arab world and British India, the Muslim community was totally detached from the advancement of modern times and industrial revolution and had turned socially orthodox and religiously dogmatic and unwelcome of modern scientific developments that were changing the face of modern Europe.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan had to face a greater resistance from the Muslim orthodoxy of that time for his advocacy of studying science and English language. He was accused of being a collaborator of British Empire, who wanted to convert Muslims toeards Christianity. He was declared “infidel” and “wajib-ul-qatal” (worthy of murder) by Muslim orthodoxy for his ideas and efforts in establishing English medium schools and colleges for Muslim children and Muslim youth. Yet, he remained undeterred and his efforts eventually fructified in the form of the establishment of Aligarh Muslim University, which continues to remain one of the leading institutions of higher secular education in India, even today.

Similarly, Ataturk also changed the face of Turkish society and wider Arab and Persian world by his modern, liberal, progressive and women friendly social reforms that introduced western style European secular way of life for Turkish society, which has had deep impact also on neighboring Arabs and Persian Muslims. He even changed the script of Turkish language to Latin in order to cultivate a modern European outlook among Turkish Muslims. His revolutionary reforms in giving Turkish Muslim women equal political rights and his advocacy of adopting modern and secular way of life among Turkish people changed the face of an entire generation of Turkish Muslims, who became one of the most modern and secular Muslim communities in the world.

But like many other good things, this short-lived modernity and progressiveness among Muslims of Turkey and South Asia (including Kashmir valley) was all destroyed with the catastrophic political and social changes that occurred in late 1970s, which began with the success of Islamic revolution in Iran and the spread of puritan Islam promoted by Saudi royal family. The Saudi-Iranian political rivalry soon engulfed the social spheres and suddenly the outdated, orthodox, conservative and intolerant version and interpretation of various Islamic doctrines and way of life was once again back as part of “Muslim mainstream” all over the Muslim world, which manifested itself in the form of return of mass scale wearing of burqas, hijabs, abayahs, pardahs and chadors by Muslim women and sporting of long beard by Muslim men of younger generation.

It was as if the darkness and backwardness of Muslim society of the decaying Mughal and Ottoman Empire was back in modern times of internet. Such has been the devastating cultural impact of puritanism among younger generation of Muslims both in Kashmir valley and rest of the world that Muslims have today actually turned more inward, regressive and antiquated in their thinking and outlook. Islam and Muslim community today are associated with terms like, suppression of women, terrorism, violence, crime, drugs, radicalism etc., something that both Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Ataturk fought all their lives to pull the Muslim community out of the well of ignorance into the enlightened world of modernism.

Today, more than ever is the need for yet another Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Ataturk, who can once again make Muslim community realize the futility of their conservatism that they are seeped into and lead them once again into the emancipated world of secular modernism, which will restore the image of Muslim community as the leaders of inventions and education, the image that the Muslim community held high during the golden age of Islam, when rest of the world including Europe was seeped into mediocracy. Will that happen – only time will tell.

  • The author can be reached at javadbeigh123@gmail.com.

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