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HomePageTurnerBook Excerpts‘Modern institution or madrassa’ – Sir Syed’s fight for Aligarh Muslim University

‘Modern institution or madrassa’ – Sir Syed’s fight for Aligarh Muslim University

In 'Aligarh Muslim University', Mohammed Wajihuddin writes about the role of the institution in the ‘making of the modern Indian Muslim’.

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If you walk down the tree-lined road from Bab-e-Syed at AMU’s southern periphery to Centenary Gate on the university’s northern boundary, you may bump into many young sherwani-clad bearded men. It is not that the sherwani or beard is a new fashion fad on the campus. They have always been there. In fact, sherwani and the Aligarh-cut white churidar for men have been a sort of uniform for formal occasions for ages here. But in some quarters, the opinion is that they are more visible because of an increasing number of madrassa students joining courses at AMU. Many first-time visitors may mistake the campus for an advanced madrassa. Maulvis who have already acquired some learning in the Islamic religious texts enter the mainstream secular courses courtesy a provision in the Aligarh Muslim University (Amendment) Act, 1981. Section 5(2)C of the Act mandates the university to ‘promote educational and cultural advancement of Muslims in India’. A committee headed by a former pro-VC, Prof. Mohammed Shafi, was set up in 1986 to recommend steps for implementation of this section. Among other things, the Shafi Committee suggested that a centre be established to carry out the mandate in the Act. The Centre for Promotion of Educational and Cultural Advancement of the Muslims of India (CPECAMI) was thus established in 1988. It was under the same Section 5(2)C that the Centre for Promotion of Science was established in 1985.

Its primary objective was to create awareness among Muslims about the need to acquire scientific knowledge and promote science education in Muslim-managed educational institutions, including madrassas. So, how did AMU, a modern institution over which founder Sir Syed had faced strong opposition from the maulvis in the last quarter of nineteenth century, become a magnet for madrassa-educated students? Many on the campus hold two former vice chancellors— Saiyid Hamid and Lt. General (Retired) Zameer Uddin Shah— responsible for opening AMU’s gates wide for the maulvis.

Saiyid Hamid was an AMU alumnus and a retired civil servant. His term as VC (1980–1985) saw huge protests by students, one of whom was even killed in police firing at a demonstration. But Hamid introduced many changes too. Farrukh Waris, an AMU alumnus and family friend of Saiyid Hamid, remembers an interesting anecdote about him. She says that when the campaign against Saiyid Hamid became virulent and he too grew impatient and wanted to resign, he contacted then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Farrukh Waris says:

‘Indira Gandhi told Saiyid Hamid that ek Syed ne AMU qayam kiya aur doosre Syed ko AMU ko bachana hai (One Syed, that is Sir Syed, founded AMU and another Syed, or Saiyid Hamid, had to save it). And Saiyid Hamid left no stone unturned to not only rescue the university from going to the dogs, he also enhanced its stature.’

Also read: In Modi’s AMU pitch to Muslims, retreat from party politics hurting foreign policy interests

As an educationist, Saiyid Hamid was genuinely pained by the educational backwardness of Muslims. He wanted reforms in madrassa education. Since some of the leading madrassas in north India, like the Darul Uloom of Deoband in Uttar Pradesh, didn’t seek government support, they also resisted introduction of modern subjects in their curricula. Educationists like Saiyid Hamid favoured the idea that the degrees granted by some of the leading madrassas should be recognized by AMU for allowing them admission. Students from Deoband, Nadwatul Ulema, Lucknow, and a few other madrassas found entry into the ‘bastion of modernity’.

In the same way that all pass-outs from AMU are called Aligs, the products of these madrassas carry the name of their institution as a badge of honour. So, a product from Deoband is called a Qasmi, as Qasim Nanautvi (1833–1880) was one of the main founders of the Darul Uloom Deoband. A graduate from Nadwatul Ulema in Lucknow is called Nadwi. Ariful Islam, a retired professor of statistics from AMU, has been noticing the ‘infiltration’ of madrassa students into AMU for quite some time. ‘I too am for reforms in madrassa education. But instead of modernizing the madrassas, they are turning a modern institution like AMU into a madrassa,’ he says. He holds Saiyid Hamid responsible for giving an opening to madrassa students, which led to the floodgates being opened for the maulvis to occupy this premier institution of modern education.

If Saiyid Hamid gave a small opening to madrassa students at AMU, Zameer Uddin Shah, vice chancellor from 2012–2017, opened the floodgates to let the maulvis in. Under CPECAMI, he introduced a one-year bridge course for madrassa students. The bridge course has an intake of 100 students, seventy-five boys and twenty-five girls. During the course they are taught English, the humanities, law and information technology. After successful completion of this course, the students are awarded certificates which are equivalent to the certificate of completing the twelfth standard in a standard school.

Also read: Modi is reaching out. AMU has a chance to take Muslims away from path of confrontation

After a fifteen-year struggle, the Aligarh Muslim University (Amendment) Act, 1981, was passed. By and large it meets the aspirations of the Indian Muslims, defining the university as the ‘educational institution of their choice established by the Muslims of India, which originated as the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College, Aligarh and which was subsequently incorporated as the Aligarh Muslim University’. No other Act in the past has bestowed the kind of powers to AMU that this act has. It considers the Muslims of India as a unified body, and the university court, having become the supreme governing body, represents the entire Muslim population of India. Those who were fighting for the all-India status of AMU in the 1920s must have smiled down from above when the AMU (Amendment) Act, 1981, declared, in Section 5(2)C, that it ‘empowers the University to promote especially the educational and cultural advancement of the Muslims of India’.

AMU might have opened its off-campus centres, but the main campus has to pull up its socks. It has to retain its reputation as a modern, progressive institution committed to train youths who can uphold rational and scientific thinking. Sir Syed, argues Asghar Abbas, could have easily established a big madrassa if he wanted. He struggled to infuse a new thinking, a rational and scientific temperament, among Muslims. He was opposed by the traditional clerics because he had challenged many set ideas and values. ‘I am saddened that they are turning a modern institution into a kind of madrassa with great infrastructure. We will not be doing justice to Sir Syed’s legacy and his memories if AMU ends up becoming a madrassa in character even if officially it is a university,’ says Abbas. Some people on the campus are also worried about a new phenomenon, the increasing fault lines due to sectarianism. Though both Shias and Sunnis pray here, and though their prayer times are different, some students and teachers are increasingly avoiding the congregations at the massive Jama Masjid at AMU.

On another occasion, former PRO and the director of Urdu Academy at AMU, Rahat Abrar, was asked to investigate an agitation by a section of the students at the school for the visually-challenged students. Abrar found that a group of boys wanted to go out of the hostel campus and pray at a Sunni mosque in the market because the imam at the mosque in the school premises was a Deobandi. The campus had been clean of such narrow sectarian feelings earlier. Incidents such as these undermine the ideals and values Sir Syed stood for. He had dreamed of founding an institution where Hindus were not forced to observe Muslim religious practices while Muslims were expected to keep their sectarianism aside and put their hearts and minds to grow into a healthy, empowered community.

This excerpt from ‘Aligarh Muslim University: The Making of the Modern Indian Muslim’ by Mohammed Wajihuddin has been published with permission from HarperCollins India.

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