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12 November 2012

Aligarh and Aligarians

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By Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi

The Indian city of Aligarh is located about 120 km southeast of New Delhi, the capital of the country. The city is also the administrative headquarters of the Aligarh Division in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state of India. It is among the very few metropolitan cities in India which are known worldwide because of Aligarh Muslim University, one of the oldest and most renowned seats of learning in India. Aligarh is also famous for its lock manufacturing industry, which has a huge market in India and abroad.

In the past, Aligarh was known as Kol or Koil. The origin of this name is obscure, and it has been referred to in the sense of a tribe or caste in some ancient texts. Before the advent of Islam, it was a center of Buddhism and then of Hinduism. In the 12th century, Qutbuddin Aibak, the first ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, conquered Kol and appointed Hisamuddin Ulbak as its first Muslim governor.

Kol was also mentioned in Ibn Battuta’s “Rihla” in which he described it as “a fine town surrounded by mango groves.” It was one of the places the Mughal Emperor Akbar frequented for hunting. The city’s name was changed several times – from Kol or Koil to Sabitgarh, then renamed Ramgarh and finally, Najaf Khan, a Muslim commander, named it Aligarh when he captured it.

The real fame of Aligarh was brought to it by the great Muslim reformer Sir Syed Ahmed Khan when he made it the headquarters of the college, established by him, under the name of the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was born in Delhi in 1817. He came from a family which had close association with the Mughal dynasty and was highly respected by its emperors who ruled India for several centuries. Khan’s mother, who was a strict and God-fearing lady, showed extraordinary interest in the education, character building and upbringing of her son. He learnt the Qur’an, as well as the Persian and Arabic languages from his private tutor.

He also studied mathematics. Khan had a fondness for medicine and even started studying it but did not complete his studies. Then, he turned to a study of literature and culture.

When Khan was 21, his father died and that left the family in financial difficulties, and therefore, after a limited education he had no option but to work for his livelihood. He was forced to join the British East India Company and served in its judicial department in different places and held various posts until he was promoted to the rank of judge. He then retired from the company and devoted himself fully to work for the uplift of the Muslim community. He worked hard to make them aware of their rights as well as to encourage them to learn modern sciences and the English language without which he felt they could not secure their rights and compete with Hindus in India who were better educated.

After he visited England, Ahmed Khan had a thorough understanding of the British education system and he established a number of schools such as Ghulshan School in Moradabad and Victoria School in Ghazipur, following the British pattern. Later, he moved to Aligarh where he established the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental School, which was transformed into a college in 1875. The college was established with the financial support of Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah and Aga Khan III.

Ahmed Khan’s son Syed Mahmoud, who studied at Britain’s Cambridge University, also supported him in the endeavor. Khan encountered stiff resistance from Muslim clerics mainly because of his demand that Muslims learn the English language and modern sciences. He authored several books, some of them were reactions to the viewpoints of the Orientalists while the ideas put forward by him in some other books triggered controversy and disagreement. In these books, he asked Muslims to embrace the English language and receive a modern education.

Ahmed Khan stayed away from the Indian Rebellion against the British in 1857 and that enabled him later to play the role of mediator so as to give some relief to those who participated in the failed insurrection. He wrote a book in which he differed with the British Administration about the causes of the rebellion. He was keen to avoid any involvement in instigating people against the oppressive British colonial regime. However, he wanted to prevent the further deterioration of the situation of Muslims and hence he devoted his efforts to their educational progress and enlightenment.

In the beginning, his endeavors encompassed the general public but gradually he became convinced that working for Hindus would not serve the interests of Muslims and eventually his educational and reformist policies became Muslim specific. He refused to join the Indian National Congress party and instead launched the Aligarh Movement that led to the emergence of the Two-Nation theory that was the basis for the partition of the Subcontinent between India and Pakistan. Thus, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan became one of the three founders of the State of Pakistan. Others are Allama Muhammad Iqbal and Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

The Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) is regarded as one of the oldest universities in the world and one of the leading Indian universities.

Modeled on the University of Cambridge, it holds the distinction of being one of the first institutions of higher learning set up during the British rule. Tens of thousands of young men and women from within India as well as from all around the world, especially from Africa, West Asia and South East Asia study at this highly reputable institution. They belong to all religions, sects and ethnic groups. The university houses all faculties and departments in various disciplines from engineering to medicine.

Large numbers of leaders who have contributed to the creation of Pakistan were graduates of this university. Several foreign students who graduated from this prestigious institution have held key positions in their countries. There are large numbers of AMU graduates working in various professions in Saudi Arabia as well. They call themselves as Aligarians.

They hold annual functions to mark the birthday celebration of the university’s founder Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. Being a graduate of the university, I have been invited more than once to attend the anniversary celebrations.

Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi
On one occasion, I presented a proposal to the audience to set up an endowment or to form an association to gather together graduates from the university. However, unfortunately, my suggestion did not evoke any positive response from the organizers of the event. But what gave me more regret and anguish was that they were divided into two groups and I don’t know whether they are still holding the annual event or have stopped it outright. I am also not aware whether they ended their differences and have united once again or whether they continue to disagree.

Here, I repeat my call to them: Unite and form an association or set up a charity endowment in the name of Aligarians to lend a helping hand to the university’s graduates or the university itself in some of its activities or help the poor people in the city or region of Aligarh. I would also like to remind them that there is no justification for them to linger on their differences as long as they carry the name of the university that enjoys a leading position among the universities in India, the largest democracy in the world, the prime minister of which, who belongs to a minority group, migrated to India after partition. He was nominated to head the government by the country’s ruling party, which is controlled by a woman who came from Italy and became an Indian citizen. In light of this, I ask: Why, dear colleagues, do you have differences?

[Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi is a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs. He can be reached at algham@hotmail.com]

(Courtesy: Saudi Gazette)

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