Sir Syed Day Lecture and Dinner Celebration by the Aligarh Alumni Association of Washington DC
By Drs Syed Amir and Zafar Iqbal
Pictures by Dr Rafat Husain
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the 19 th century social reformer, educationalist and scholar who revolutionized the thinking and mindset of Indian Muslims mired in the glories of a bygone era and unwilling to acquire Western education and knowledge, has been an admired figure for over a century. As the founder of the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College in 1875 that, in 1920, evolved into Aligarh Muslim University, his contributions to the cause of education and the improvement of the status of Muslims of India are universally recognized. The Aligarh Alumni Association of Washington DC (AAA) has instituted an annual lecture in his honor to which distinguished scholars have been invited previously to deliver the keynote address.
This year, AAA celebrated the Sir Syed Day function on Sunday, September 28, the day following the annual Mushaira. Both events had assumed special significance as they marked the 40 th anniversary of the birth of the AAA in the Washington area. Professor Gopi Chand Narang, the former Chairman of the elite Sahitya Akademi of India, and well-known literary figure and recipient of many prestigious awards, including Padma Bhushan, was invited to be the special guest. The theme of his talk was “How Sir Syed and Ghalib Promoted Traditions of Enlightenment.”
The dinner and lecture, held in the elegant setting of the Argyle Country Club in Silver Spring, attracted more than a hundred guests drawn from a cross section of the Washington area South Asians with a taste for and an interest in studies of poetry, literature and the Urdu language. In addition to poets, who had participated in mushaira the night before (Imdad Hussaini, Iqbal Ashhar, Naseer Torabi, Noreen Talat Arroba, Popular Meeruthi, Rashmi Sanan, Razi Raziuddin, Shahzad Rizvi, and Sabiha Saba), the audience included office holders of the University of Karachi Alumni Association, the Hyderabad Association of Greater Washington, Global Organization of People of Indian Origin, the Pakistan Association, Ambassador Islam Siddiqui, Mr Ashfaq Hussain from Toronto, Mr Bharat Bhargava, Professor Hamida Chopra, and Professor Narang’s extended family members. Poet Manzar Bhopali could not attend the dinner due to some unavoidable conflict.
The meeting was opened with the Aligarh Tarana recited by a team of young volunteers led by Mr Masood Farshori, secretary of the AAA, who also welcomed the guests. The president of the Association, Dr Fazal Khan, in his brief remarks traced the history of the Association over four decades and its ongoing charitable work. Dr A. Abdullah, a prominent member of the AAA, then introduced Professor Narang, enumerating his contributions to the classical Urdu literature, scholarship, and advancement of the genre of literary criticism in Urdu.
The AAA honored Professor Narang with a plaque citing his extensive “contributions to Urdu literature, poetry and literary criticism.” In his hour-long speech, sprinkled with insightful anecdotes about poets and Sufis of yore, Professor Narang traced the career trajectory of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, starting from his anguish at the demoralized state of Muslims in the post-1857 period to his progression into a social reformer and exponent of enlightenment and religious reformation. Professor Narang emphasized the power of love that is a universal theme in Urdu poetry and permeates the message of Sufi poets, such as Sultan Bahu (1630-1691) and Bulleh Shah (1680-1757).
Although Sir Syed was younger than Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) by some twenty years, they interacted but not always on cordial terms. Professor Narang related the story of Sir Syed requesting Mirza Ghalib to write a foreword for his translation of Abul Fazal’s scholarly work, A’in Akbari, expecting him to produce a laudatory piece. Instead of praise, Ghalib in his foreword chastised him for wasting time on an archaic work and ignoring the needs of modern times. Sir Syed, unhappy, did not use the write up, but it did influence his thinking and made him aware that Indians, especially Muslims, had to change their attitudes and practices in keeping with the time if they were to progress. Professor Narang emphasized that the dominant themes in the lives of both Sir Syed and Mirza Ghalib were the promotion and dissemination of intellectual and religious enlightenment.
The evening ended with a standing ovation for the keynote speaker.