Allama Iqbal believed that, “The real greatness of the man (Sir Syed) consists in the fact that he was the first Indian Muslim who felt the need of a fresh orientation of Islam and worked for it.” While in the words of Jawaharlal Nehru, “Sir Saiyad was an ardent reformer and he wanted to reconcile modern scientific thought with religion by rationalistic interpretations and not by attacking basic belief. He was anxious to push new education. He was in no way communally separatist. Repeatedly he emphasized that religious differences should have no political and national significance”.
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was born on Oct 17, 1817, in Delhi, belonged to a family which held prominent positions in the reign of Mughal emperors, and he, himself, was bestowed with the title of Jawa’d-ul-Daula and Arif-e-Jang by Bahadur Shah Zafar II. But he soon realized the crumbling position of the Mughals and their deviancy from religion, and hence kept at a distance from them.
He initiated his practical career by joining East India Company in 1837 as serestadar, managing court affairs, and record-keeping. His educational reforms started when he laid the foundation of a madrassa (Muradabad Panchayaity Madrassah) in Muradabad in 1859, which was one of the first religious academies to incorporate scientific knowledge along with the religious one. Here Hindu and Muslim students were taught Urdu, Persian, and Arabic along with English. The school was run from Hindu and Muslim funding.
After a brief interval of four years, he established another English High school based on the rules of religion in Ghazipur in 1863. His marvelous achievement, while he was posted at Aligarh was the establishment of MAO (Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental) High School in 1875, which was inaugurated by William Muir. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan wanted to upgrade its level to a college, and to attain this end, he speeded up fund-raising. Ultimately, his vision proved fruitful, and the viceroy of India Lord Litton elevated it to the level of a college on Jan 8, 1877.
Religious education along with modern learning was uncompromisingly essential. Students of it were encouraged to take part in healthy discussions avoiding sectarian issues. But this college was unable to impart knowledge to millions of Muslims scattered around the sub-continent; many of whom were those who were unaware of its existence even. The aim of Sir Syed was not merely restricted to establishing a college at Aligarh but at spreading a network of Muslim managed educational institutions throughout the length and breadth of the country. He established the Muhammadan Educational Conference in 1886. Its importance surpassed all other institutions previously established. Great figures such as Maulana Shibli Naumani, Maulana Hali, Maulana Nazeer Ahmad, Nawab Muhsin-ul-Mulk, and others beautified the intellectual atmosphere of this institution and stirred up a flare of enthusiasm among many Muslims.
Sir Syed himself remained active in politics, yet he advised Muslims to keep away from it. He knew the educational backwardness of Muslims and their unawareness of political current. He also urged upon Muslims to remain at distance from Congress, because in his justified opinion, it was a party that was solely devoted to the cause of Hindus and detrimental to Muslims and their ideologies. This paved way for the establishment of the Muslim League later in 1906.
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was a man of versatile personality. He rendered memorable contributions in the field of writings. Beginning at the age of 23, he started his career as an author writing religious texts. He was the first Muslim to produce a commentary on the Bible in which he tried to show that Islam was very close to Christianity in certain aspects. His other valuable tracts such as Loyal Muhammadans of India, Tabyin-ul-Kalam, and A Series of Essays on the Life of Muhammad (SAW) and Subjects Subsidiary Therein proved to be a milestone in bridging the difference between the British and the Muslims. Some religious works of him that deserve mention are Ahkam Tu’am Ahl-Kitab, Al-Du’a Wa’l Istajaba, Al-Nazar Fi Ba’z Masa’il Imam Al-Ghazzali, Tafsir-a-Samawat, Tahrir fi Usul al-Tafsir, Tarjama fawa’id al-afkar fi Amal al-farjar, along with such miscellaneous works as On the Use of the Sector (Urdu), Syed-ul-Akbar, Qaul-i-Matin dar Ibtal-i-Harkat i Zamin, Tashil fi Jar-a-Saqil, Ik Nadan Khuda Parast aur Dana dunyadar Ki Kahani, Kalamat-ul-Haqq.
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan breathed his last on March 27, 1898. He is buried right along with the Sir Syed Masjid inside Aligarh University. His funeral was attended not only by thousands of Muslims but British officials as well. He revived the dormant consciousness of Muslims and through his educational and social reforms, he went down in Muslim history as arguably the most influential Indian politician of the 19th century.
After his death, his Muslims and English friends started raising money to fulfill Sir Syed’s dream of making the MAO college in a Muslim university. People loved him because in his life he was like a shady tree to them and after his death, they remembered him and showed their love for him by making efforts for raising the status of the college to the university, which came finally in 1920.