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Aligarh Movement
By Sanjeev Nayyar, November 2001 [[email protected]]

Chapter :

Aligarh Movement & British role in promoting Muslim separatism

The person who maintains the site is from Aligarh. One day, I asked him about the Aligarh Muslim University, how had it started, who founded it - Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, what was the Christian read British attitude towards the Movement, and did they cooperate with the Brits?

Before I move ahead would like to quote eminent freedom fighter, founder of the Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan Shri K M Munshi “Another problem that we have to consider is the persistent demand for the rewriting of history to foster communal unity. To my mind, nothing can be a greater mistake. Suppressions and distortion of evidence, leading to false conclusions about the past, is hardly the way to improve the present situation or build up a better future”.

The essay has the following chapters –
1.    Background.
2.    Muslim Politics before the Aligarh Movement            
3.    The Aligarh Movement
4.    Words of Syed Ahmad / Analysis.
5.    Role of British principals.
6.    Summary.
7.    Hindu Muslim relations.


The first half of the period 1818 to 1905 was a period of concern and anxiety for the Indian Muslims. The Brits had swept away the last vestiges of Muslim rule by annexing Sindh in 1843 and Avadh in 1856, exiling the Mughal kings to Rangoon. The Deccan kingdom had a Muslim ruler in the Nizam but he was more of an ally. So from being Rulers of Hindusthan they were being ruled over.

Faced with a difficult situation they looked within, what led to their decline? According to them the chief cause of the malaise was that Indian Muslims had drifted away from the teachings of Islam due to the spread of Sufistic ideas. It was therefore necessary to purge the Indian Muslims religious beliefs and social customs of all extraneous growth and go back to the purity of Islam. The most notable attempt was made as early as the 17th century by Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi in the days of Jehangir. There was Saiyid Ahmad of Rai-Bareilly who was not only into social & religious reform but also tried in 1831 to get Punjab rid of Punjabi Sardar domination.

Next came the Great Mutiny of 1857 in which the Muslims took an active part, their hope for reviving the Mughul Empire lay shattered. The victorious Brits made them a special target to take revenge for their role in the Mutiny. The reform movement initiated earlier gained fresh impetus after 1857.

There were a group of religious thinkers who influenced by the Wahabi idealogy started preaching new ideas and gaining support. However, the majority of Indian Muslims were adherents of the Hanafi School with strong leanings towards Sufism and could not be won over by the soul less, dry and rigid Wahabhi discipline. The foundation of Dar-al-Ulum at Deoband in 1886 was the greatest achievement of the Wahabi school of thought in India where as Farangi Mahal established during the reign of Aurangzeb continued to represent the old Hanafi School. A third important institution with a distinct ideology, more progressive outlook was the Nadwat al-Ulama in Lucknow founded in 1898.

While religious and social reformers were busy all over Bharat the economic conditions of the Muslims were fast deteriorating for two reasons. One, with the gradual decline of the Mughal Empire, they had been loosing all the old privileges that they had so far enjoyed. Two, the anti-Muslim policy of the Brits & their bias against modern education closed new opportunities of material progress and opportunity. The crying need of the moment was to help the Muslims overcome their reluctance to adapt to the changed circumstances and gain the trust of the new rulers, the Brits. At this critical juncture came Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (SAK) who went about this Herculean task with a vision and firm resolve.

SAK was born in Delhi in 1817. He was not the type who accepted religious dogmas at face value but wanted to understand, interpret them himself. His articles in the magazine Tahzib al-Akhlaq, started in 1870 after his return from England, give evidence of a marked rationalistic and non-conformist trend of thought that brought upon the wrath of orthodox, pious Muslims. A wise man he gave up the thought of religious reform, taking on the orthodox Muslims but took to social / educational reform instead.

He started off by setting up two old styled madrasas at Moradabad and Ghazipur which was followed by a school on modern lines at Aligarh, later on to develop into the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College with the active help and support of the Brits. He also laid the foundation of the Muhammadan Educational Conference soon after the inception of the Indian National Congress. The M.A.O.  rendered yeoman’s service to the cause of Muslim education and was supported by the Calcutta Madrasa and the Anglo-Arabic School in Delhi.

Another development during this period was the emergence of Urdu as a literary language. It was born in the military camps from the Hindi Khari Boli during the later Mughal period. It was between 1818 to 1905 that Urdu developed into a language of expression for religious, philosophic thoughts. An Urdu translation of the Koran was made as late as 1791. Now Urdu became popular and replaced Persian as the language of the educated masses.

To summarize the period from 1818 to 1905 was for the Indian Muslims, on one hand a period of frustration, of political decline, social demoralization and economic deterioration. But on the other hand, it was a period of religious revival, educational progress and a growing awareness that they were no longer rulers of the country.

Chapter :

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