Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was a multi-faceted personality. He was a modernist thinker, a daring theologian, an educationist, a journalist, and a prolific writer. In addition, he also earned fame for establishing the Mohammadian Anglo Oriental College that later became Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).
There has been debate whether Sir Syed established the university for elite Ashraf Muslims. Whether it was established for elite Ashraf Muslims or not, it was and still remains the home of education and space for poor Muslims — and Muslim students in general. AMU has shaped the intellectual outlook of generations of progressive educated Muslims. It also shaped pre- and post-Independence Muslim politics in India. Before establishing the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College, Sir Syed had founded a school in Ghazipur and then in Moradabad.
Though born in Delhi in an aristocratic Muslim family during the Mughal period, Sir Syed left behind a legacy characterised by Islamic modernism and social reform. However, contrastingly, he was against Muslim women’s education and had a conservative view on the subject.
Sir Syed opposed women’s education
Despite being ahead of time, social reformer, modernist, and progressive Sir Syed was against Muslim women’s education and had a conservative view on it. Fazlur Rahman in his book Islam and Modernity writes: “Sir Syed didn’t seem to have supported women’s education”. Similarly, Nasreen Ahmad in her book Muslim Leadership and Women’s Education, 1886-1947, writes: “He (Sir Syed) believed that women’s education would lead them to immorality”.
In a statement before the Indian education commission, Sir Syed said that “priority should be given to men’s education before women. No satisfactory education can be given to women before men. To have women more educated would damage their mental well-being”. Once when a women’s delegation visited Syed Ahmad in 1885 for their education, he replied that “new system of education would be harmful to you”. He had a conservative stand and was for the traditional education of women.
However, there is another aspect of Sir Syed's character: the influence of his mother. In his book Seerat E Fardiya, Sir Syed lauds his mother,Aziz un Nisa Begum for her education and proficiency in Persian literature as well as Islamic scriptures. He credits her with playing a crucial role in his intellectual development. Sir Syed only argued for home tutor-based education for women.
Prof. Shamas Ur Rehman in his Hayat E Abdullah writes: “When there was a plague outbreak in the 1850s in Kanpur and people were put in quarantine by the government, people protested against quarantine on the reason women can’t be secluded from homes even if it is plague. Sir Syed supported protesters on women's issues.”
Gail Minault in her book Secluded Scholars- Women’s education and social reform in Colonial India, writes that when in 1890s Sayyid Mumtaz Ali visited Aligarh, he showed him a manuscript of his treatise, Haquq I Niswan (Women’s Rights). Syed after reading a few parts tore it and threw it in the dustbin. This incident has been repeated by David Lellywood, author of the famous book Aligarh’s First Generation.
Sheikh Abdullah, who was a pioneer of women's education in Aligarh, writes in his autobiography Mushahidath and Taasuraat that “when Khwaja Ghulam Us Saqlain talked about women education in Mohammadian Educational Conference, Sir Syed made fun of him”.
Shafey Kidwai in his apologetic biography, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: Reason, Religion and Nation, dismisses these events but not with convincing arguments. He argues that Sir Syed’s idea of women's education was the result of his cultural formation prevailing in his family and society, that women were the core of family life at that time and women themselves were ignorant of the basic tenets of their faith and were tied to customs and rituals that had nothing to do with the scriptures, and that they were isolated from social and cultural change.
Early activists of women education
Ironically, the early activists, scholars, thinkers, and writers who worked for Muslim women's reforms were those who were directly or indirectly influenced by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan.
Among the earliest writings, we have novels of Nazir Ahmad Dehalvi (Mir At Ul Anas, The Bride’s Mirror) and Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali (Majlis I Nisa, Conversations Among Women). Dehalvi’s novel made rounds, 2,000 copies were sold in less than a year and the government recommended it for vernacular textbooks. These two novels stood for women’s education for becoming good husbands, wives, housemakers, and moral guides to children. After which Mohammadi Begum —second wife of Sayyid Mumtaz Ali— wrote the novel Shareef Beti (The Noble Daughter) that championed women's education.
In 1901, Abdul Halim Shahrar wrote the novel called Badrunnisa Ki Museebat (Badrunissa’s Misfortune), advocating social reform and anti-purdah. Around the same time, periodicals, newspapers, and magazines related to women were brought out. The first periodical Akhbar Un Nisa (Women’s News) was formed in 1887 by Sayyid Ahmad Dehalvi. It was published twice a month and was closed down soon after it faced opposition followed by Mu’allim-I-Niswan (The Women’s Teacher). It was edited by Maulana Muhibbi Hassan. After this, Deoband-educated Bashir Ud Din Ahmad, son of Nazir Ahmad Dehalvi, started and edited a paper called Tehzeeb Un Nissa (The Women’s Reformer). It stood for the rights of women and the equality of men and women and arguments were peddled like men are superior because of social customs not because of religion. In 1898, Mumtaz Ali started Tehzeeb Un Niswaan.
Sheikh Abdullah with his wife Waheed Jehan started Khatun. Rashid Ul Khairi started Ismat. After this, Al Hijab was started and edited by Maulana Qaisar Bhopali and Zul Us Sultan by Mohammad Amin Zubeiri.
After this era, Muslim women themselves owned and edited periodicals like Purdah Nashin by Mrs Khamosh and another one by Fatima Begum. These periodicals, novels, papers, and magazines gave content and ideology to reformers, especially for starting women’s schools.
In 1896, Sayyid Karamat Hussain, the champion of women’s education, was instrumental in establishing the women’s section at Mohammadian Educational Conference in an era when women studying and going out was considered a violation of Islamic law. He was a member of Anjuman-I-Islam, London, and also taught law in Aligarh. He established a women’s college in Lucknow. This era also saw different Islamic organisations and individuals establishing schools for women.
In 1903, Sultan Jehan Begum of Bhopal started a school for girls and worked immensely for the emancipation of women. In 1903, Hali opened a school for girls in Panipat. Abdul Haq Abbas was the student of prominent Ahl-e-Hadeeth scholar Sanaullah Amritsari who was known for debates with Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, founder of the Ahmadi religion. Under his influence, he wrote polemics against Christians which led to his expulsion from school. He founded Anjuman-I-Ishaiti Islam (Association for the Propagation of Islam) and a monthly journal, Payam I Islam (Message of Islam).
In 1908, he formed a Muslim boys school known as Islamia High School and then a college in Jalandhar. He also founded a girls school where his wife and two daughters taught. Two ladies, Zeenat and Humaira, founded an association called Anjuman I Madrasat Ul Banat and established a school for poor girls. Rukeya Shekhawat Hussain started a girls’ school in 1909 in Bhagalpur which was short-lived and in 1911 started a school in Calcutta known as Shekhawat Memorial School with eight students. She also actively organised Anjuman I Khawateen I Islam in 1916 in Calcutta. Khijista Akhatar Suharwardy, mother of famous politician Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, started two primary girls schools. In 1912, Raja of Mahmudabad also started school in Lucknow.
Despite all these efforts, a very small number of girls attended schools because of the patriarchal social norms prevalent in Muslim society. According to Seema Kazi’s MRG report, only 0.86 per cent of girls attended recognised schools in the period.
Remembering Sheikh Abdullah, founder of Women’s College at AMU
One of the most prominent persons to work for Muslim women’s education was Sheikh Abdullah. He is also known as Papa Miyan for being a fatherly figure for girls who studied in Aligarh during his era.
Born as Thakur Das in Poonch, Jammu and Kashmir, to Gur Mukh Mast, his grandfather was Mehta Mast Ram who had helped Maharaja Gulab Singh —founder of the Dogra dynasty in J&K— with money and reinforcements in a battle between with Samas Ud Din Maldal, for which Gulab Singh gifted him four villages. Thakur Das first studied Persian under Quttubuddin Kashmiri and later in a maktab of Maulvi Yaseen Shah. He completed his primary school education in Poonch. During this time, Hakim Noor ud Din, a royal physician, visited Poonch. He also visited his school where he answered all questions Hakim had posed to students at the school.
Hakim requested his family that he would like him to take to Jammu and train him in Unani medicine. Hakim Noor Ud Din was one of the first disciples of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. It was under his influence he became Qadyani and was named Sheikh Abdullah.
In 1888, 15-year-old Sheikh visited Lahore during the Christmas holidays to attend the MEC convention with Hakim Noor Ud Din which highly influenced and impressed him. It was with his support and recommendation to Sir Syed that Sheikh travelled to Aligarh in 1891 to study law where he became Sunni Muslim.
In 1896, Sheikh won a Cambridge speaking prize in the debate on the topic of “Muslims of Hindustan are more progressive than Muslims of other countries”. In Aligarh, he was an active member of a club founded by Maulana Shibli Noumani and Sir Thomas Arnold, called Akhwan Us Safa, to teach and write ancient history and literature. He also became an active member of the Old Aligarh Boys Association with Aftab Ahmad to raise funds for poor students.
After education, Sheikh worked as a librarian and secretary to Mr T Beck, the principal of the college. When Sir Syed Ahmad Khan died in 1898, Nawab Mohsin Ul Mulk was elected to take his place. He made the Sir Syed Memorial Fund to build a university for which Sheikh was made his chief assistant. In 1902, he was appointed Secretary of the All India Mohammadian Educational Conference, a position previously held by Mumtaz Ali.
In 1902, Sheikh married Waheed Jehan, daughter of Mirza Ibrahim Beg, who belonged to the cultural elites of Delhi. Sheikh with his wife started school in 1904 for daughters, friends, and neighbours. In 1906, he started Aligarh Zanana Madrassa (Aligarh Girls School) with seventeen students. In 1925, it was converted into an intermediate college and in 1937 degree college with 250 students. Khatun Jehan who had a masters from London was made principal and after her, Mumtaz Jehan, who had a masters from Lukhnow, was made the principal.
Atiya Fyzee, Zohra Fyzee, and the Tyabjees helped immensely in raising funds. It must be reminded that Badruddin Tyabjee, one of the first Muslim Congressmen —whom Sir Syed opposed on calling Muslims to join Congress— supported Muslim women’s education in Hunter Commission. He was ahead of Sir Syed on the issue of women’s education among Muslims.
In 1906, Sheikh led a delegation to meet Sir James La Touche, Lt. Governor of the United Provinces. With him were Raja Naushad Ali Khan, taluqdar of Awadh, lawyer Mohammad Nasim, and Ghulam Us Saqlain, for allocation of grants. No grants were given. The LG, however, promised to give grants if the inspector of schools would give a good report and, after the report, LG gave an annual grant of Rs 17,000 and monthly Rs 250. The Begum of Bhopal also gave grants. In 1911, Lady Porter, wife of acting LG, inaugurated the school. The Begum of Bhopal inaugurated a new building and Zohra and Atiya Fyzee inaugurated hostel buildings.
Sheikh during his life faced a lot of hurdles to the extent that he got public threats. Sheikh’s daughter and famous film actress Begum Khurshid Mirza in her memoir A woman of substance, the memoirs of Begum Khurshid Mirza (1918-1989) writes that the family faced threats on change of religion, and, then, on women’s education, Sheikh’s mentor Sir Syed got alienated. Then he was abused and cursed on starting girls hostel. Some people wrote against him under a pseudonym to the extent that he filed a defamation case against one person and won it too. In all this, Sheikh got full support for women’s education from his family.
Abdullah Hall in Aligarh Muslim University is named after him. It consists of nine girls’ hostels, two canteens, a gymnasium, a basketball court, a computer, and a reading hall. It is named after him for his struggle. In 1949, the then-Education Minister of India Maulana Azad visited Aligarh for an annual convention. Impressed by women’s education, he announced an annual grant of Rs 900,000.
Abdullah Hall gives annual awards in his name for excellence in academics. India’s first Muslim foreign secretary and Sheikh’s grandson Salman Haider beautifully writes about his memories of Abdullah Hall in one of his writings. He is remembered, buried in the place he contributed, and loved in Aligarh, but forgotten, unknown in his native Kashmir where he needs to be remembered for his contribution towards humanity.
There is a huge number of AMU alumni in Kashmir. They spend lakhs of rupees on the annual Kashmiri Aligarh alumni meet. With this money, they can dole out scholarships for poor students or establish libraries for them in Sheikh Abdullah’s name.
(Faizaan Bhat is a writer based in Kashmir. Views expressed are personal to the author.)