Aligarh Movement

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? He did not have answers so I have tried to find them through this article.

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”.

This piece was written in 2001 and edited in 2017. It is based on inputs from volumes 10 & 11 of the History and Culture of Indian People published by the Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan and has six chapters namely -
1. Background and Muslim Politics before the Aligarh Movement.
2. The Aligarh Movement
3. Words of Syed Ahmad / Analysis.
4. Role of British principals.
5. Summary.
6. Hindu Muslim relations.


The first half of the period 1818 to 1905 was a period of concern and anxiety for 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. (note Hindusthan means Urdu speaking regions of the Indian Sub-continent. It does not mean India).

Faced with a difficult situation they asked, what led to our decline? According to them the key reason 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 Indian Muslims of religious beliefs and social customs 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 to get Punjab rid of Punjabi Sardar domination in 1831.

Next came the Great Mutiny of 1857 in which the Muslims took an active part. They hoped to revive the Mughul Empire but dream was shattered. Thereafter, the victorious Brits targeted them 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. 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.

Read History of Urdu

Muslim Politics before the Aligarh Movement

The Brit conquest was bound to have a different impact on the Hindu & Muslim. The Hindu regarded it as freedom from the miseries of Muslim rule while Muslims regarded the Brits as their bitterest foe who had usurped the political authority and special privileges that they had enjoyed so far.

There were however, other factors at play that widened the already existing gulf between these two communities.

The hostile attitude of Muslims towards the English and their aversion to secular education kept them aloof from English education imparted in schools and colleges. Conversely, the establishment of the Hindu College in 1817 gave a great impetus to english education amongst the Hindus. For the next fifty years the Muslims made little progress.

Relations between Hindus and Muslims were very honestly outlined by a liberal, R M Sayani in his Presidential address at the 12th session of the Congress held in 1896.

Excerpts “Before the advent of the British in India, the Muslims were the rulers of the country. The rulers and their chiefs were Muslims so were the great landlords and officials. The court language was their own. Every place of trust and responsibility, or carrying influence and high emoluments, was theirs by birthright. The Hindus did occupy the same position but were tenants-at-will of the Muslims. The Muslims had complete access to the rulers and chief. The Hindus were in awe of them. By a stroke of misfortune, the Muslims had to abdicate their position and descend to the level of their Hindu fellow-countrymen. The Muslims resented the treatment."

"Meanwhile the Brits introduced English education into the country. This required hard application and industry. The Hindus were used to this, as under Muslim rule, they had practically to master a foreign tongue, and so easily took to new education. But the Muslim had not yet become accustomed to this sort of thing. Moreover, they resented competing with the Hindus, whom they had till recently regarded as their inferiors. The Muslims were gradually ousted from their lands, offices; in fact everything was lost save their honor. To the Hindus it was the opposite. They were soon reduced to a state of utter poverty. Ignorance and apathy seized hold of them while the fall of their former greatness rankled in their hearts”.

Thus the political outlook of the 2 communities was different. English education was the mainspring of all political evolutions of the Hindus while the Muslims lagged behind. This difference of approach to politics was manifest for the first time in the Wahabi Movement. Although the later phase was a violent hatred against the English and organized attempt to drive them out, it evoked no sympathy from the Hindus.

The reason it failed is simple. It was a purely Muslim movement to establish Dar-ul-Islam in India “Muslim sovereignty pure and simple.” Actually the Wahabis first declared war against the Sikhs, and later transferred that hostility to the Brits when they conquered Punjab. Although the movement had no anti Hindu sentiment unlike the Moplah Rebellion that followed the Khilafat Agitation of 1921, all the proclamations were issued in the name of Islam and appealed only to Muslims.

Read Wahabi Movement

The differences in political outlook were further reinforced by the fact that the Muslims did not take an active part in different political organizations like the Committees of Landholder’s Society, Bengal British India Society. On the other hand as soon as the Muslims became politically conscious they started separate organizations of their own. A Muhammadan Association was started in Calcutta before 31/01/1856.

The Hindus regarded this separatist tendency as quite natural since they were a separate unit. Gradually the Muslim leaders realized the value of English education. Although Muslims took to modern education in larger numbers the gap between the two communities continued to exist, rather large actually.

The differences got accentuated in connection with the legislation for local self-government on elective basis. It is on this occasion that for the first time a demand was made for separate representation of the Muslims. The ball, now or later was set rolling by the Brits. Said Muhhammad Yusuf on 3/05/1883 “But it would be an advantage and more fit recognition of the claims of the Muslim population if provision could be made in the Bill for the election of Muslims by reserving a certain number of membership for that community”.

The keynote of this speech is a firm conviction that even in political matters there is no common bond between the two communities and each must be ready to safeguard its own interest. These thoughts were shared by most Muslims all over India. I admire Yusuf for being realistic unlike Hindus leaders who strive for the mirage of Hindu Muslim unity.

Reference must be made to the visit of Jamal-ud-din Al-afghani (1893-97), a notable figure of the Muslim world in the 19th century. He agitated for the liberation of Muslims from European influence and exploitation, for the union of all Islamic states under a single Caliphate and the creation of a powerful Muslim empire capable of resisting European influence.

Hindu leaders, notably B.C. Pal, believe that his visit hastened the split between Hindus and Muslims, made Muslim leaders distance themselves from the political activities of the Hindus.

While some might not agree indications were not wanting that the pan-Islamic sentiment had already been exerting influence upon Muslim minds. Some Muslim leaders told Blunt, “During the Egyptian War 1881-82 we all looked to Arabi (Pasha) to restore our fortunes, for we are in a desperate state and need a deliverer”. (Amrita Bazaar Patrika 12/08/1869). The Indian Muslims had already begun to feel that Muslims outside India were more closely allied to them then the Hindus.

The Khilafat Movement (1921) is ample proof of the Pan-Islamic sentiment. Otherwise why would events in Turkey concern Indian Muslims. Pan-Islamism is very much alive even 80 years later. Even today Indian Muslims protest over the killings of Muslims in Palestine and Rohingyas in Myanmar.

Further proof of the pan-Islamic sentiment may be traced to the evidence given before the Hunter Commission by Muslim leaders where they demanded entirely separate seating arrangements for the primary education of Hindus and Muslims. And insist that Urdu be a medium of instruction in a province like Bengal where the Muslims spoke Bengali. Unfortunately successive Congress leaders, pre and post Partition refuse to accept or understand the concept of Pan Islamism.

To summarize Muslim politics of the 19th century followed a course that was different from the Hindus. While the Hindus, influenced by English education, were developing their ideas on modern lines, the Muslims launched the Wahabi Movement that was violent and communal in character. Then came the Aligarh movement, also conceived in a communal spirit. It brought about a political and social regeneration of the Muslims but widened the divide between the Hindus and Muslims. It created a distinct Muslim unit in Indian politics. By starting the Khilafat Movement Gandhi cemented the divide, organized the Muslims into a political unit on a national level that was to culminate in Partition nearly fifty years later.

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