Sir Syed and Maulana Qasim Nanotvi

Darul Uloom Deoband & AMU


By Maulana Nadeem-ul-Wajidi

In the last century India saw the emergence of two great personalities, Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanotvi and Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. Both had witnessed the setting of the sun of a thousand-years-long-Muslim empire in India. Both were pained at the degradation and misery of the nation, but both differed in their reading the situation.

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan

Maulana Nanotvi started his practical life with the jihad against the British because the institution from where he had learnt the teachings of the Prophet (PBUH) had issued a decree of jihad against the British occupation. The luminaries of this institution had therefore waged an all-out jihad for the revival of Islamic rule. The battle led by Muhammad Qasim Nanotvi and his friends in Thana Bhawan and Shamli in1857 against the British occupation was a precursor of this full-fledged jihad.

Sir Syed, on the other hand was also a product of the same surroundings and was graduated from this very institution. He was however overwhelmed by the belief in compromise and nonviolence instead of jihad. He was not in favour of jihad. Therefore at the time when Deobandi ulema were busy in jihad, he was in the service of the British Government employed as a Munsif [a judge in the lower court].

‘There is no doubt that I am an admirer of what I have heard about Syed Saheb’s high-thinking and his heart-felt concern and anguish for the Muslims. It will therefore be justified to express my love for him on this accout.’ Maulana Qasim Nanaotvi

‘In this time and age he had no match — he might not have been as tall in knowledge as compared to Shah Abdul Aziz, but in other aspects he was superior to him.’ Sir Syed on Maulana Qasim

Around 1857 the ‘Mutiny’ that had started against the British also moved Sir Syed like all the other conscientious citizens of the country. This was though, not a mutiny against the British but actually a jihad and the ulema participated in this war with the spirit of jihad only but somehow it got dubbed as a ‘mutiny’ and ‘rebellion’. The book penned by Sir Syed after the end of the war is titled as Risala Asbab-e-Baghavat-e-Hind [A Treatise of the Causes of Indian Revolt].

Sir Syed is known for his pro-British stance, a fact that cannot be denied. However, it is also a fact that he was a man of abundant courage. This book itself is a proof of his audacity in which, displaying full boldness, he made a detailed assessment of the causes that had led the Indians to revolt. He made the British establishment look into the mirror and told them that it was their wrong policies that had led the Indians to opt to rebellion. For example he said that the lands and properties that had been granted to our ancestors by the previous rulers had been usurped, under various pretexts, by the British establishment and as a result the effected Indians were financially ruined and were forced to face economic hardships. This ignited anti-government anger in their hearts (Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind page 26). This was the situation with the rich and jagirdars. On the other hand many artisans and craftsmen of the country were as well forced to a life of starvation. Sir Syed described its causes in these words, ‘..because of the introduction of foreign products, employment opportunities for artisans had disappeared so much so that no one wanted even to look at the matchbox makers or needle makers in India. Weavers had become redundant. To be precise the country had become poor in every respect. Old well-off families that used to earn in thousands were squeezed into financial hardships for their livelihood.’ (Ibid, Page 28, 36).

Sir Syed also took account of the worsening law-and-order situation and the way Europeans and the ruling elite looked at the Indian elite. He writes, ‘No doubt, Indian masses are angry because our Government has made them extremely unimportant.’ (Ibid Page 42)

Sir Syed was conscious of the fact that the British did not only want to rule the country they also wanted to enslave its people politically and economically. More than that, they also wanted the Indians to turn their backs to their religions. Sir Syed criticised them for their religious policies too. He writes, ‘There is no doubt that all of the people, educated and uneducated, elite and the intellectuals, firmly believed that our Government has the deep desire to interfere in their religions and traditions and force them, be they Hindus or Muslims, to accept Christianity and the customs of their country.’ (Ibid Pages 33,7)

Although Sir Syed’s magazine represents popular feelings of the people, it also reflects his good wishes for the British establishment. Time and again he refers to it as, ‘our government’ and offers guiding suggestions and advice to the elite and government officials in different ways. It shows that he was not opposed to British rule and in fact he was its sympathiser and a well-wisher. This was the reason why the establishment did not take any serious note of the book that was penned by one of their employees. They viewed it as merely the collection of friendly comments and suggestions of a well-wisher and valued it in that sense. As evidenced by the events, this book increased his respect and dignity in their eyes. He was knighted and granted honorary fellowship of Royal Asiatic Society, London. This was a great title an Indian could get. During his service in Benaras his son Syed Mehmood was given a scholarship to study in England. Sir Syed personally travelled to London along with his son to organise high education and came back after a stay of about 20 months there.

On the other hand the Ulema of Deoband had no soft corner for the British. They were not willing to tolerate them on the soil of this country even for a moment. Some of them did not want even to look at the face of a white man. Firstly they waged an armed struggle against them and when they got defeated, they did not sit idle discouraged but in order to protect the Muslims from religious and cultural decline, they opened another front initiating a new phase of struggle. Maulana Qasim Nanatovi was the flag bearer of this caravan of freedom fighters. The role he played as a selfless leader, devoted to his righteous cause and aware of his avowed mission of defending Islam and protecting Muslims, cannot be forgotten. [In this connection] Maulana Muhammad Mian Deobandi writes, ‘Hundreds of thousands have been slain for their alleged participation in or for being suspected to be involved in the mutiny. All the possible ways and techniques of cruelty and torture have been adopted and implemented to terrorise the Indians. However, the (Almighty) Power that brought up Moses in the house of Pharaohs is now applying its mysterious ways to protect him [the freedom fighter] who is about to appear as a Moses to confront the British pharaoh. Maulana Muhammad Qasim is also one of those chosen ones who are destined to confront the British pharaohs like Moses; he is not like a Moses himself but also is someone who is a Moses-maker as well. (Ulema-e-Hind ka shandar Mazi 296/4)

Although Ulema-e-Deoband were defeated in their armed struggle against the Britishe, yet they fully succeeded in the ideological and religious war the British had initiated. Events that ensued proved that the establishment of Darul-Uloom in 1866 by Maulana Qasim Nanotvi and his resolute companions proved far more useful than an armed struggle. This placid movement produced so much powerful stormy waves that forced the British to ultimately leave India. There is no doubt that this was a God-guided movement. All of the elders of the time had this desire active in their hearts. When the spiritual guide of Deobandi ulema (leader of the team) Haji Imdadullah Muhajir Makki got the news of the establishment of the madrasa, he abruptly exclaimed, ‘SubhanAllah’. He said, ‘We have established the Madrasa but are unaware of the innumerable believers who had in the early hours of the morning been with their foreheads on the ground supplicating to their Almighty crying ‘O Allah! Create the means for the protection and defence of Islam in India. This Madrasa is the answer to those morning supplications. (Swaneh Qasmi 223/1)

On the other hand Sir Syed was equally disturbed by the situation. This should be noted that Sir Syed had always been interested in the promotion of education. In 1863 he founded the Scientific Society in Ghazipur through which he wanted to promote western sciences in India. Many British ministers and governors were its patrons. This society initially worked in Ghazipur and was later shifted to Aligarh. At that time Sir Syed was interested in the education of Hindus and Muslims both. The mouthpiece of the Society carried articles on the economic and educational plight of both communities. This was the period in which Sir Syed visualised India as a beautiful bride whose one eye was Hindu and the other Muslim and due to this stance Sir Syed was regarded as a reformer and nationalist leader.

However, there was a sudden change in his approach. Commenting on this change, Sheikh Muhammad Ikram in Mauje-e-Kausar writes that until this phase, Sir Syed’s educational efforts were not Muslim specific; Hindus were part of his entire mission and both communities were benefiting from it. But during his stay in Benaras some incidents took place that reshaped and changed Sir Syed’s approach drastically. Not only did these incidents change Sir Syed’s views but, perhaps impacted upon the future destiny of India itself greatly. These incidents therefore are worth revisiting in detail. In his Hayat-e-Javed Maulana Hali writes, ‘In 1867 it occurred to some influential Hindus of Benaras that all possible efforts should be made to eradicate Urdu and Persian script from law courts and replace it with Bhasha language written in Devnagri script. For Sir Syed this was the first break when he realised that it was impossible for Hindus and Muslims to live together as one nation and work jointly for the benefit of all. One day as he was discussing educational affairs of Muslims with Mr Shakespeare, the then Commissioner of Banaras. Mr Shakespeare looked surprised and asked him, ‘This is the first time when I have heard you talking specifically about Muslims. Before this you used to talk about the welfare of the common Indians.’ He then told him, “Now I am convinced the two communities will not put their hearts in any venture together. This is nothing [it is just the beginning], in the coming times an ever increasing hatred and animosity appears on the horizon simply because of those who are regarded as educated. Those who will be around will witness it.’” (Mauj-e-Kausar 86, 85)

This change of heart led Sir Syed to establish the institution initially known as Madrasatul-Uloom which is now famous as Aligarh Muslim University. This happened in 1876 i.e. exactly ten years after the founding of Dar-ul-Uloom Deoband.

The spirit behind the establishment of both of these institutions was the implicit desire of welfare of Muslims. Both institutions became movements in themselves and played vital roles in the social, religious, political and cultural lives of Muslims.

Deoband and Aligarh are two important names in the renaissance of Muslims. Both of these movements were started in the same era and progressed and matured in the same period. Both played full and vital role in the welfare and betterment of Muslims. The view that these two movements were opposed or harmed each other is not true. Although both faced opposition, the opponents belonged to somewhere else and the nature of this opposition was different too. Because Deoband movement was intrinsically a religious movement and attracted common Muslims, Britishers saw it as a threat to their existence. Therefore, they contrived intrigues against it and engaged some Muslims to defame the ulema associated with this movement. As a result a sect among Muslims came into being. On the other hand Sir Syed’ movement could not escape such hostilities too. The common belief that the ulema were opposed to Sir Syed, is not true. As far as the ulema of Deoband are concerned this belief is particularly and totally wrong.

The ulema of Deoband had never opposed Sir Syed. Sheikh Mohammad Ikram in his book Mauj-e-Kausar has unmasked the elements that had opposed Sir Syed. He writes, ‘In the establishment of the College, Sir Syed had the support of all the enlightened and influential Muslims. However, because of some reasons strong opposition came against Sir Syed from a particular section. In this regard the biggest misunderstanding that is common is that the ulema opposed Sir Syed because he wanted to promote English education among Muslims. Those who have not studied Sir Syed’s life rightly are of the opinion that it were the conservative and orthodox ulema who were in opposition to Sir Syed because they viewed India as Darul Harab (land occupied by the infidels) and were therefore against the British government and western education. Facts are just contrary to this.

The two staunchest opponents of Madrasat-ul-Uloom were two revered persons who held high offices in the government service viz. Deputy Collector Maulvi Imdadul Ali, and the Sub Judge Maulvi Ali Baksh. Maulana Hali (in Mauj-e-Kausar writes) that the main source of all the opposition that happened against the Madrasatul Uloom from whatever corner in India was the writings of these two figures.’ (Mauj-e-Kausar 93, 90)

There is no doubt that in some of his books Sir Syed did not practice caution and in following the west he sometimes crossed his limits. Some circles also opposed him because with relation to religion he had expressed views that were in direct conflict with Qur’an and Sunnah, for example denying the physical ascendance of Prophet (PBUH) to Me’raj; contradicting commonly held beliefs regarding the skies and denial of the existence of djinns. Such of his views created a general impression that Sir Syed had atheistic faith. Such an impression was further strengthened by the campaign waged by some of his opponents. Some careless elements issued fatwas declaring him a kafir [infidel]. However, ulema of Deoband did not participate in this onslaught. Once Peerji Muhammad Arif of Ambehta [a small town near Deoband] discussed these fatwas with Maulana Qasim Nanotvi and in the light of this discussion wrote a letter to Sir Syed seeking his clarification regarding his beliefs. In response Sir Syed clarified his beliefs. Maulana Qasim Nanotvi read the original letter to Sir Syed and his clarifications and penned a detailed response that was published as Tasfiatul Aqaid. In his rejoinder, Maulana Nanotvi, addressing Peerji Muhammad Arif, wrote, ‘Peerji Saheb, this sinner never indulges in arguments with anyone. And why should he? What is there so important to warrant him to involve himself in challenging someone and indulge in a fight? What is the need to disrupt my own good pursuits and get involved in this selfish controversy? There is no doubt that I am an admirer of what I have heard about Syed Saheb’s high-thinking and his heart-felt concern and anguish for the Muslims. It will therefore be justified to express my love for him on this accout. However, I am equally, or may be a bit more, grieved and doubtful by what I have heard about his flawed beliefs.’ (Tasfia-tul-Aqaid page 5)

This excerpt gives an idea that Maulana Qasim Nanotvi was fully aware of Sir Syed’s educational activities. On one hand he interprets his work as high-thinking and holds his activism as his heart-burning-concern and anguish for Muslims. On the other hand due of his love and regard for Sir Syed, he is disturbed at his writings reflecting Sir Syed’s flawed beliefs. Nowhere in the book he appears to oppose his Movement. This is the reason when, after the establishment of Aligarh College, the need for a Theology Department was felt, and Sir Syed requested the ulema to help him in establishing it. The ulema showed an interest in the proposal on the condition that he or the members of his committee will not interfere in religious affairs of the department. Syed Tufail Ahmad Manglori in his Musalmanon ka Roshan Mustaqbil, writes, ‘When Maulana Qasim Nanotvi was asked to organise a theology department in the College as he wished, he asked him [Sir Syed] first to relieve himself from the responsibilities in the College only then arrangements regarding religious education would be made. Upon this what Sir Syed did was that he kept himself away from being part of the committee formed to shape a Theology Department. After this practical assurance the ulema responded positively and Maulana Abdullah Ansari, son-in-law of Maulana Qasim Nanotvi, was dispatched from Deoband to become the first Nazim (head) of Theology Department. Sir Syed recommended his appointment and wrote, ‘Maulvi Abdullah Saheb is the son of Maulvi Ansar Ali saheb, grandson of Maulvi Mamlook Ali saheb, son-in-law of Maulvi Qasim saheb, and I had personal acquaintance with their ancestors. Therefore, I consider his coming in the Madrasa and his staying there a good omen.’ (Mauj-e-Kausar page 194, 193)

This shows Sir Syed’s love and high regard for Deobandi ulema. Had the Deobandi ulema opposed him Sir Syed would not have written such a letter of recommendation for Maulana Abdullah Ansari. In one of his letters to Peerji Muhammad Arif he wrote, ‘If Maulvi Qasim saheb visits me that would be an honour for me. By becoming his host I would be greatly honoured.(Maulana Qasim Hayat Aur Karname page 371)

Maulana Qasim Nanotvi was born 15 years after the birth of Sir Syed and died 19 years before the death of Sir Syed. Sir Syed’s year of death is 1898 and Maulana Qasim Nanotvi’s year of death is 1879. Maulana Qasim lived only 49 years. In his short span of life the achievements he made and the deep mark of vision and knowledge he left impressed not only his young ones but elders too. Sir Syed is among those who had great admiration and respect for Maulana Qasim Nanotvi. The condolence penned by Sir Syed at the death of Maulana Qasim Nanotvi has become a part of history. This writing was first published in the Institute Gazette, 24 April 1880, on pages 467- 468. Later this obituary was also reproduced in Mauje-e-Kausar, Tareekh Dar-ul-uloom Deoband, Maulana Qasim Nanotvi: Hayat Aur Karname. This is a tribute by someone who was not only senior in age but was far more superior in status, enjoyed extraordinary fame and there happened no relation of devotion and faithfulness between the two. In spite all of this Sir Syed’s goes on to write, ‘Time has mourned deaths of many and will lament on the deaths of many more in future, but to mourn the death of someone who seemingly leaves no successor to replace him is a matter of great sadness and pain. There was a time when among the ulema of Delhi there were some who were known and respected for their piety, and knowledge. Equally they had no match in their simplicity and humility. People thought that there would (perhaps) be no one like Maulvi Ishaq in quality after him. However, Maulvi Qasim Nanotvi, through his exemplary piety, virtuous values and simplicity has proved that Qudrat [Divine Power] did produce another one with these qualities, perhaps, more superior than him as far as these qualities are concerned. Even those who disagreed with him on issues would admit that in this time and age he had no match — he might not have been as tall in knowledge as compared to Shah Abdul Aziz, but in other aspects he was superior to him. If in matters of humility, piety, and virtuousness he was not superior to Maulvi Ishaq, then he was not inferior either. He had angelic nature and angelic qualities. The departure of such a personality is very painful and tormenting for all those who survive him.’ This is a long essay and because of the limitations of the title of this article only few lines have been produced here that prove that even if both of these of our ancestors opted for different routes for the betterment of the ummah, they did not create hurdles for each there. On the contrary both of them regarded each other as concerned and sincere, cooperated and praised each other very highly.

The quotes provided by the writer are retranslations and not excerpts from the English versions of the books. Similarly the numbers in it represent the pages of Urdu editions of the books referred by the author.

Translated from Urdu daily Jadid Khabar, 17-10-2011  by Urdu Media Monitor.Com. 

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