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Sir Syed and the Concept of Modernity (Razi Raziuddin)

Modernity in attitude, thought process, approach and action— these were the very basic ideas which differentiates Syed Ahmad Khan from almost all of his contemporaries. But in his scheme of his thinking these ‘ethos of modernity’ were not at the expense of his religious and cultural heritage. His ideas and his heritage, both, were mutually inclusive.

Sir Syed was a keen observer and a student of History. He was first-hand witness to the events before, during and after 1857. Destruction of Muslims’ political, social, intellectual and cultural heritage was compounding and shocking. Like him, many other intellectual and nobility were devastated. A few others such as poet Ghalib also had the foresight to envision the reasons of this devastation. Both came to the one and the same conclusion— it is Muslims’ prevailing style of living and the political-cultural mindset which were outdated, static and rusty and which were no match with a highly dynamic, technically more advanced and comparatively more sophisticated British invaders.

Muslims’ debacle and loss of empire was an eye-opener, and it certainly dawned upon Sir Syed to critically analyze the reasons for community’s inferior performance. For this crusade, he befriended many British officials, socialized in their circles, tried to get a closer and deeper understanding of what precisely differentiates them from the natives. Soon he found out that the native Indians, in particular the Muslim Indians, lacked the tools of modern disciplines more than anything else. While the European have been firmly and fully engaged themselves in learning newer sciences, inventing newer tools, reforming their religious and social conditions, prescribing newer methodology and infrastructure to eastablish their civic societies, the Indian Muslims were immersed in their age-old traditional and orthodox living, which was immune to any kind of newness. The nobility, the aristocracy, the landed peasantry rarely embarked upon any kind of political, educational, religious or social reform. Their world was indulged in and embedded with all things old-fashioned and primitive.

He realized that unless Muslims are exposed with these same tools of modernity, they would remain mired in their usual conditions. He did more than exhort; he supplied the tools. In 1864, he established the Scientific Society to bring the knowledge and literature of Western world within reach of the immense masses of the Eastern world. He has of the opinion that —’occidental’ and ‘oriental’ learning and knowledge—are necessary to construct a new and a modern India loaded with tools of faith in one hand and scientific rationality and reason in the other hand. His was, perhaps, the sole attempt to re-energize a static community and bring it into realm of the age of enlightenment. Sir Syed’s ideas of modernity were on the same line as of many other reformers of the Western renaissance. Perhaps he sincerely attempted to bring that lost renaissance at the doorstep of his community and country.

*Dr. Razi Raziuddin is a Scientist at National Cancer Institute, NIH, USA. He is an alumnus of Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.
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