South Asian countries recently observed the birth anniversary of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, legendary Muslim social reformer in British India. Unfortunately, the present generation of Muslim men and women in South Asian region including Kashmir valley know little about the difficult conditions under which Sir Syed Ahmed Khan initiated his pathbreaking social and educational reforms, which laid the foundation of western, English language-influenced modernity among Muslims who were deeply buried in conservative, outdated notions of so-called Muslim cultural superiority. These notions were due to the misconceived idea of the glory of centuries of Mughal rule in the Indian subcontinent.
Sir Syed’s simple advocacy of the studying of English language by Muslim children earned him the ire of the Muslim orthodoxy, which considered English as a language of infidels. It declared that any Muslim who dares to study English would automatically be excommunicated from the fold of Islam. The Muslim society of the Indian subcontinent at that time was steeped deeply in social, economic, cultural and educational backwardness, and conservatism, which was made worse by clinging on to the archaic religion-based teachings of Islamic madrasas that were totally out of step with the advances of science and industry in Europe.
Sir Syed, who was born into a family that served in the Mughal courts, interacted with the officials of British East India Company and soon recognised and appreciated the advancement made by Europe in the field of science and industrial development during the time when both Mughal and Ottoman power was declining.
In Turkey, the similar predicament of Muslims was noticed by Mustafa Kemal Pasha, a revolutionary Turkish field marshal who was to become the first President of independent Turkey after the fall of the Ottoman Empire post World War I. Fondly called “Ätaturk”, Pasha was the founding father of the modern Republic of Turkey. At that time in the Middle-East region, Arab, Turkish and Persian Muslim communities, just like their British Indian Muslim counterparts, were sinking into cultural, economic and educational backwardness but clinging on to the misconceived glory of the fast-decaying Caliphate.
While Sir Syed Ahmed Khan took the path of advocating social, cultural and educational reforms among Muslims, with the support of the British Indian government, Mustafa Kamal implemented his revolutionary reformist agenda upon becoming the first president of the independent republic of Turkey. In Turkey as well as in the Arab world and British India, the Muslim community was totally detached from the advancement of modern times and industrial revolution and had turned socially orthodox and religiously dogmatic and unwelcome of modern scientific developments that were changing the face of modern Europe.
Sir Syed Ahmed Khan had to face great resistance from the Muslim orthodoxy of that time for his advocacy of studying science and English language. He was accused of being a collaborator with the British Empire who wanted to convert Muslims into Christianity. He was declared “infidel” and “wajib-ul-qatal” (worthy of murder) by Muslim orthodoxy for his ideas and efforts in establishing English medium schools and colleges for Muslim children and Muslim youth. Yet, he remained undeterred and his efforts eventually fructified in the form of the establishment of Aligarh Muslim University, which continues to remain one of the leading institutions of higher secular education in India.
Similarly, Ataturk also changed the face of Turkish society and the wider Arab and Persian world by his modern, liberal, progressive and women-friendly social reforms that introduced western-style European secular way of life in Turkish society. This had a deep impact also on neighbouring Arabs and Persian Muslims. He even changed the script of Turkish language to Latin in order to cultivate a modern European outlook among Turkish Muslims. His revolutionary reforms in giving Turkish Muslim women equal political rights and his advocacy of adopting modern and secular way of life changed the face of an entire generation of Turkish Muslims, who became one of the most modern and secular Muslim communities in the world.
But like many other good things, this short-lived modernity and progressiveness among Muslims of Turkey and South Asia (including Kashmir valley) was all destroyed with the catastrophic political and social changes that occurred in the late 1970s, which began with the success of Islamic revolution in Iran and the spread of puritan Islam promoted by the Saudi royal family. The Saudi-Iranian political rivalry soon engulfed the social spheres and suddenly the outdated, orthodox, conservative and intolerant version and interpretation of various Islamic doctrines and way of life was once again back as part of “Muslim mainstream” all over the Muslim world, which manifested itself in the form of return of mass-scale wearing of burqas, hijabs, abayahs, pardahs and chadors by Muslim women and sporting of long beard by Muslim men of younger generation.
It was as if the darkness and backwardness of Muslim society of the decaying Mughal and Ottoman Empire was back in modern times of internet. Such has been the devastating cultural impact of puritanism among the younger generation of Muslims both in Kashmir valley and rest of the world that Muslims have today actually turned more inward, regressive, and antiquated in their thinking and outlook. Islam and Muslim community today are associated with terms like jihad, suppression of women, terrorism, violence, crime, drugs, radicalism, etc., something that both Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Ataturk fought all their lives to pull the Muslim community out of, from the well of ignorance into the enlightened world of modernism.
Today, more than ever, is the need for yet another Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Ataturk, who can once again make the Muslim community realise the futility of their conservatism that they are steeped in and lead them once again into the emancipated world of secular modernism, which will restore the image of Muslim community as the leaders of inventions and education, the image that the Muslim community held high during the golden age of Islam, when rest of the world including Europe was mired in mediocrity. Will that happen – only time will tell.
—The writer is an aspiring politician, columnist, and youth activist from Kashmir who served as PRO to former CM of J&K. He promotes a modern, secular, progressive, liberal and inclusive Kashmir. [email protected] Views are personal.