Education and women
By Dr Riffat Hassan
RECOGNITION of women’s rights in Islam was included in Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s reformist programme.
He considered it a sign of decline and degeneration of the Muslim community of his time that it had not always had the political will to implement women’s God-given rights, including their right to equal opportunity alongside Muslim men in the field of education. As pointed out by W.C. Smith, Syed Ahmad Khan “sought to overthrow the notions that Islam could not permit women out of seclusion (purdah) nor recognise the duty of women’s education.”
However, with regard to the issue of the education of Muslim girls of his time, Syed Ahmad Khan’s attitude was similar to that of his community, notes Smith. “He would first have the men educated and leave the problem of women’s education to solve itself.”
This is more or less how it actually happened in subsequent years. Educated fathers who went through the modern, western education system swung open the doors of the same education for their daughters, though the trend took a couple of generations to take root. Today it is not a moot point anymore amongst better educated Muslims. The Prophet of Islam (PBUH), in his own time, had recommended education for both men and women, even if that required travelling to far-off lands.Syed Ahmad Khan’s greatest interest was in promoting education amongst Muslims, and such was his lifelong dedication to this cause that Gandhi called him ‘the prophet of education’. A careful review of the situation of Indian Muslims had convinced Syed Ahmad Khan that educational reform had to be made his community’s highest priority.
To him, an integral part of this reform was the use of the English language as the medium of instruction even though he had great love for Urdu and made great contribution to its development and enrichment. The first practical step taken by him was to implement his “educational programme which was to change the intellectual, political and economic destiny of Muslim India.”
For this he set up two old-style madressahs at Muradabad (1858) and Ghazipur (1863). In 1869-1870, Syed Ahmad Khan visited England and studied the British system of education and administration. He aimed to establish an autonomous Indian Muslim educational system which would prepare a new intellectual leadership grounded in modern, western knowledge but also having an enlightened understanding of Islam.
On his return he set up a school on modern lines at Aligarh (1875). This developed into the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College (1877), which was modelled after Oxford and Cambridge universities in England. The Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College then became the Aligarh Muslim University (1920), which was never just an academic institution. It was always regarded as the seedbed of a modernist reform movement that produced many notable leaders who carried forward the message of their alma mater’s visionary founder.
In 1886, Syed Ahmad Khan started the All-India Muslim Educational Conference to focus on issues of educational and social reform. Amongst its main objectives were: promotion of western education amongst Indian Muslims, enrichment of the Urdu language through translations of important scientific works, lobbying for the acceptance of Urdu as the secondary language in all government and private schools and advocating education for women “as essential for the balanced intellectual development of future generations.”
In view of his passionate advocacy of education for Muslim boys, it is rather surprising that he “did not advocate public training for Muslim girls”, and said, “People may be astonished that though I have in many affairs progressive ideas, I hold about the education of girls views resembling those of our elders…. In India the time is not yet ripe to found schools for the education of girls and to imitate the girl-schools of Europe.”
Syed Ahmad Khan approved of the idea of private tutoring for girls and did not think that women in India were mostly lacking in education or were unenlightened. According to him, “a sort of indigenous education of a moderate degree prevails among them, and they study religious and moral books in Urdu and Persian, and in some instances, in Arabic.”
Syed Ahmad Khan evidently did not think that higher education for Muslim girls was a priority and observed that “The present state of education among Mohammedan females is, in my opinion, enough for domestic happiness, considering the present social and economic condition of the life of the Mohammedans in India.”
Lest his words be interpreted as fundamentally biased against imparting modern education to women, Syed Ahmad Khan tried at times to provide a social-cultural context for his views. For instance, he said: “The fact is that no satisfactory education can be provided for Muslim girls as long as most of the Muslim boys do not receive proper education. When the present generation of Mohammedan men is well educated and enlightened, the circumstances will necessarily have a powerful though indirect effect on the enlightenment of Mohammedan women, for enlightened fathers, brothers and husbands will naturally be most anxious to educate their female relations.”
Syed Ahmad Khan realised that modern education for girls was a pre-condition for the development of Muslim society as a whole and urged the student body of Aligarh University to recognise the necessity of educating girls “if you really seek to elevate the social position of the people.”