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The right-wing assessment of AMU founder SA Khan is way off the mark

Today is Syed Ahmad Khan’s 200th birth anniversary. Colonial and communal historians say he sowed the seeds of separatism and that his speeches and writings had a streak of communal insularity. To say the least, this narrative is skewed: Khan never fell prey to religious bigotry and linguistic chauvinism

opinion Updated: Oct 17, 2017 13:39 IST
Syed Ahmad Khan,AMU founder Syed Ahmed Khan,Aligarh Muslim University
Former President Pranab Mukherjee at Syed Ahmad Khan’s 200th birth anniversary celebrations, Aligarh Muslim University, October 17, 2017(AMU)

Today is Syed Ahmad Khan’s 200th birth anniversary. Even though he is much-admired for spreading modern education among the Muslim community (he was the founder of Aligarh Muslim University) and relentlessly working for the emancipation of Indians, Khan has been often accused of driving a wedge between Hindus and Muslims. Colonial and communal historians say he sowed the seeds of separatism and that his speeches and writings had a streak of communal insularity.

To say the least, this narrative is skewed: Khan never fell prey to religious bigotry and linguistic chauvinism. In fact, he spelt out the contours of living in a plural society to Muslims, who were unaware of this since they had always lived in the country ruled by a Muslim king.

Pluralism was dear to him and he instilled a strong sense of inclusiveness in Muslims. Time and again, Khan exhorted them not to insist on traditional practices and religious rituals that do not have Koranic sanction.

Take for example the issue of cow sacrifice on Eid-ul-Adha. While cow sacrifice is legally permissible, there has been disquiet among the Hindus since a cow is more than a domestic animal to them.

Since he was alive to the religious sensibilities of majority of Indians, Khan asked Muslims to stop the practice of cow slaughter willingly. He felt that such a gesture would lead to respect and harmony. In 1887, Eid-ul-Adha went off peacefully in Meerut, which used to be a riot-prone area as Muslims voluntarily gave up cow sacrifice. The sagacity of the citizens of Meerut evoked a positive response from Khan.

“Punjabi Akhbar Lahore dated September 24, carried a new story mentioning that Eid-ul-Adha passed off peacefully and no one pitched for cow sacrifice. If it is true, I am extremely glad. We do not want to debate whether Muslims’ insistence on the sacrifice of the cow is right or not and Hindus ‘determination not to let it happen is unerring or not, but we want to say it clearly that if Muslims climb down a little bit, their action can produce a lasting bond of harmony between the Hindus and the Muslims. The Muslims must part with their trivial right in that treasure of unity is far more significant than the right. The ritual of sacrifice does not rest on cow and goat and sheep can serve the purpose without any deficiency,” he wrote in an editorial.

This reveals that a communal or parochial approach had no place in Khan’s scheme of things and for him the Hindu-Muslim axis was a prerequisite for India’s progress. He understood that discord between the two communities would put India in jeopardy and Khan asserted consistently that nothing pleases him more when he sees Muslims and Hindus working in tandem. And that nothing saddens him more than an act that creates bad blood between the two communities.

On the issue of cow sacrifice, Khan urged Muslims not to stick to a ritual that has negligible religious significance. In 1897, he wrote: “The steady strengthening of social bond, affinity and love pleases us greatly…We came to know that the Hindus and the Muslims in Bareilly showed their mutual love suitably as the Muslims gave up the sacrifice of cows, goats and sheep were offered instead. The Hindus changed their perception that Muslims immolate cows. They reciprocated it by promising to join them in Moharram mourning and they would also put up drinking water stalls when the religious procession took to the street. It has been our considered opinion for years that casting aside cow sacrifice could pave the way for Hindu-Muslim unity and affinity, and it is hundred time better not to press with the practice of cow sacrifice. We also believe that religious difference cannot move the social relations and similarly differences of opinion on political issues cannot adversely affect the social interaction and cultural bonds”.

Khan’s considered opinion on the issue assumes greater significance in an era where the bogey of cow sacrifice is being raised to launch murderous attack on minorities.

For peace to prevail, Muslims must listen to what Khan had to say on cow slaughter.

Shafey Kidwai is professor of mass communication, Aligarh Muslim University. His book Sir Syed: A life beyond reconciliation will be out soon

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Oct 17, 2017 11:43 IST