January 1, 1999
The Wisdom Fund

Sir Syed's Vision For Education, Lessons From History

by Enver Masud

[Speech given by Mr. Masud at Aligarh Muslim University in India, December 12, 1998, during the innaugural session of the AFMI conference commemorating Sir Syed's death. At this occasion, a doshala given to Sir Syed by the British government, was donated to AMU by Mr. Masud on behalf of his mother, Atiya Masud.]

ALIGARH, INDIA -- Thank you Vice Chancellor Mahmood-ur-Rehman, honored guests, faculty, and students. While I am descended from Sir Syed, I cannot claim to be an expert on his life and vision. I can only surmise what his vision must have been for the Muslims of India.

I believe his vision would have been based upon the condition of Muslims of that time, his perceptions of where the world was headed, and his knowledge of history. Using these same considerations, one may surmise what priority Sir Syed would have given to education today.

Therefore, the issue I would like to present is, "What is the priority that education deserves? In other words, what priority should we as individuals, as a family, as a society give to education?"

History may shed light on this issue. Being an engineer by profession, my knowledge of history is limited. It was the Gulf War of 1991, that evoked my interest in history. My focus, because of the principal parties to the Gulf War, became Islam, the United States, and eventually the European colonization since 1492. I would like to share, very briefly, what I learned during the past seven years.

Let us begin with the spread of Islam.

When Prophet Muhammad died in 632 (PBUH), he was the effective leader of all of southern Arabia. By 711, the Arabs had swept completely across North Africa to the Atlantic Ocean. In less than 100 years, the Bedouin tribesmen, inspired by the word of the Prophet (PBUH), had carved out an empire stretching from the borders of India to the Atlantic Ocean -- the largest empire that the world had yet seen.

Some have said this empire was carved out by the sword. Swords, while used by Muslim armies, cannot account for the spread of Islam. One example is sufficient to challenge the thesis that Islam was spread by the sword: Indonesia.

Indonesia is the largest Muslim country, with its people living on about 3000 islands spread over a distance of about 3000 miles. No Muslim armies landed in Indonesia. Islam spread across Indonesia with the example of Muslim traders.

What was the message these traders offered that led to Islam's rapid spread?

Simply put, the message was there is One God, that mankind is one, that goodness is the only measure of a person's worth. Man was urged to care for the poor, the infirm, the orphan, to respect all faiths, and to search for knowledge. The Quran is very clear about Unity and respect for all faiths.

"For each we have appointed a divine law and traced out the way. Had Allah willed He could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which He hath given you He made you as ye are. So vie one with another in good works. Unto Allah ye will all return, and will then inform you of that wherein ye differ." -- 5:48

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, a leader of India's independence movement, twice president of the Indian National Congress, renowned scholar, and India's first Education Minister, said: "The unity of man is the primary aim of religion. The message which every prophet delivered was that mankind were in reality one people and one community, and that there was but one god for all of them, and on that account they should serve Him together and live as members of one family. Such was the message which every religion delivered. But curiously the followers of each religion discarded the message, so much so,that every country, every community and every race resolved itself into a separate entity and raised groupism to the position of religion."

The Quran is replete with verses inviting man to use his intellect, to ponder, to think and to know, for the goal of human life is to discover the Truth. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) tells us: "The first thing created by god was the Intellect." And that: "One learned man is harder on the devil than a thousand ignorant worshippers." His words exhort us to: "Go in quest of knowledge even unto China."And to: "Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave." And where did the search for knowledge lead Muslims?

Islam gave the world its first true democracy.

M. N. Masud, Private Secretary to Maulana Azad, UNESCO mission chief to Indonesia, ambassador to Saudi Arabia writes in Understanding Islam: "If true democracy is not confined to the form or model of government but is the way of life of a people wherein man is treated with respect and given dignity, irrespective of what he is or what he is not, then Islamic society, from the very birth of Islam, has been nearest to the ideal, much nearer to it than has been, perhaps, any other society in the recorded history of man."

I'm sure that Western audiences would immediately challenge this assertion. They may say that Greece was the first democracy. Not true. Greece was an oligarchy (where a few ruled the many). Slaves had no voice in their society, and neither did women.

Other Western audiences may point to the United States and its Declaration of Independence of 1776. But the U.S. too was an oligarchy. Native Americans, slaves, women, white men without property, had no voting rights. There are respected American writers who say that the U.S. is an oligarchy even today.

Islam was responsible for numerous advances in science, mathematics, medicine, liberal arts, and for Europe's renaissance.

The Muslims founded many centers of learning. Europeans flocked to Spain to study under Muslim scholars. Arabic was the language of Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars in Europe until the fall of Muslim Spain in 1492.

HRH, The Prince of Wales, in a major speech a few years ago titled, Islam And The West, said: "Not only did Muslim Spain gather and preserve the intellectual content of ancient Greek and Roman civilization, it also interpreted and expanded upon that civilization, and made a vital contribution of its own in so many fields of human endeavour -- in science, astronomy, mathematics, algebra (itself an Arabic word), law, history, medicine, pharmacology, optics, agriculture, architecture, theology, music."

"Cordoba in the 10th century was by far the most civilized city of Europe. . . . Many of the traits on which Europe prides itself came to it from Muslim Spain. Diplomacy, free trade, open borders, the techniques of academic research, of anthropology, etiquette, fashion, alternative medicine, hospitals, all came from this great city of cities. Medieval Islam was a religion of remarkable tolerance for its time, allowing Jews and Christians to practice their inherited beliefs, and setting an example which was not, unfortunately, copied for many centuries in the West."

"[Islam] has contributed so much towards the civilization which we all too often think of, wrongly, as entirely Western. Islam is part of our past and present, in all fields of human endeavour. It has helped to create modern Europe. It is part of our own inheritance, not a thing apart."

How did the Muslims accomplish this, and what does this say about the priority these Muslims gave to education?

Perhaps the answer lies in Will Durant's Story of Civilization (vol. IV, p. 237). Mr. Durant writes, "When Baghdad was destroyed by the Mongols it had thirty-six public libraries. Private libraries were numberless. It was a fashion among the rich to have an ample collection of books. A physician refused the invitation of the Sultan of Bokhara to come and live at his court, on the ground that he would need 400 camels to transport his library. Al-Waqidi, dying, left 600 boxes of books, each box so heavy that two men were needed to carry it. Princes like Sahab ibn Abbas in the 10th century might own as many books as could be found in all the libraries of Europe combined."

These words of Will Durant, say a lot about Muslims' thirst for knowledge at the time that Islam was at its zenith. I believe, also, these words say a lot about the priority Sir Syed must have given to education. We as individuals, as a family, as a society, should do no less.

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