Remembering Sir Syed in America
By Dr Akbar Ahmed
Muslims, like other minorities in America today, are feeling a sense of unease and anxiety. Islamophobic attacks on mosques and women wearing the hijab have skyrocketed. It does not help that a number of President Trump’s chief advisors have themselves been prominent proponents of Islamophobia.
It is in this context that I found a recent gathering of the Muslim community in Edison, New Jersey, of great sociological interest. It was the annual Aligarh Muslim University Alumni Association awards dinner on September 16, hosted by Dr Masood Haider, his wife, Sanobar, and their colleagues and friends. There were between 150 and 200, mostly Pakistani, guests and they came from across America - some from Texas, others from Massachusetts and New York. I had come from Washington, DC with a small group which included my wife, Zeenat, my granddaughter, Mina Hoti, and Farhan Shah, the accomplished son of prominent Pakistani statesman Ghous Ali Shah.
The venue was the Shezan Restaurant, arguably one of the finest of its kind on the continent. Its biryani, palakpaneer, and begun were unrivalled. The evening ended with traditional South Asian music.
I was most honoured to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from this distinguished South Asian community of professors, doctors, bankers, and the like.
Dr Haider, the presiding genius of the event, presented me the beautifully crafted award inscribed with these words: “The Sir Syed Day Lifetime Achievement Award For Excellence in Literature, Poetry, Arts or The Sciences and/or for Outstanding Public Service Presented to Professor Akbar Ahmed, PhD, Scholar, Author, Diplomat, Playwright, Film and Documentary Maker For His Outstanding Public Service And For Being The Most Effective Leader In Fostering Inter-faith Understanding.”
In my talk, as part of the ceremony, I asked the audience to step back and visualize the extent of the crisis the Muslim world faced in Sir Syed’s time. The upheavals in 1857 had resulted in Muslims being removed from power in India and the British taking over the subcontinent. At one stroke Muslims had lost an emperor, an empire, their language, and political power and their reactions varied from despondence to violence. A clash between the West and Islam was developing when Sir Syed took the bold step of arguing vocally, publicly, and consistently that Islam was entirely compatible with Western modernity. Following a goodwill visit to the UK, he proposed the idea of creating a university in Aligarh, India, to be patterned on Cambridge University. His students would read the Qur’an and say their prayers, but also play cricket and debate in English. Sir Syed aimed to balance faith and modernity. In time, Aligarh, founded in 1875, would produce presidents, prime ministers, scientists, thinkers, and artists who would enrich the entire subcontinent.
Sir Syed had effectively created a “modernist Islam.” He demonstrated that being Muslim was compatible with thecore aspects of modernity – democracy, human rights, civil liberties, and economic prosperity. It was this vision that defined the great leaders of contemporary South Asian history, such as Allama Iqbal and the Quaid-i-Azam, and indeed the Pakistan Movement.
Despite this deep connection between Sir Syed and the Pakistan vision,one of the questions that came up following my lecture was: how would Sir Syed be perceived if he were alive in today’s Pakistan with its intolerant atmosphere and frequent violence?
I find it curious that most Pakistanis are unable to see the clear intellectual connection between Sir Syed and modernist Islam. This is precisely why while there are colleges and roads named after Sir Syed throughout Pakistan, few actually understand the significance of his thinking for modern Pakistani and Muslim societies today.
The evening’s program confirmed for me that there is a general sense of crisis in the community. I heard complaints about lack of leadership and evenmaterial regarding Pakistan and Muslim history. I was asked why Muslim civilization has fallen behind on the world stage when it once was so prominent.
The crisis in the community for me was reflected by the very small numbers of the young generation at the event. Perhaps they found the talk of Aligarh University and Sir Syedirrelevant to their lives in America, or their parents had failed to convey the importance of the ideas of Sir Syed.
While I heard criticism of the clergy, their absence at the event indicated that the essential dialogue that needs to take place between mainstream Muslim society and members of religious groups was not happening. This allows the clergy to virtually go unchecked in the kinds of things they say and therefore in some cases can influence the young to go in harmful directions.
Despite that,what gave me hopewas the soul-searching of the guests, which was reflected in their probing questions. “I felt pleased at the organisation of the event by the community and their enthusiasm to find answers to our current challenges,” reflected Farhan. “I noticedthey listened in pin-drop silence and gave a standing ovation afterwards,” Mina said. “I felt energized for the future.”
I wasalso impressed by the fact that women were prominent in the audience and asked as many questions as the men. It is this sort of concern, inquisitiveness and introspection that will be necessary for championing modernist Islam in America, in South Asia, and around the world.
Sir Syed was remembered with honour that evening in New Jersey.
(The writer is an author, poet, filmmaker, playwright, and Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington, DC. He formerly served as the Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland. He tweets @AskAkbar)