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Aligarh

By:
David Lelyveld
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Aligarh

Aligarh, a large town in western Uttar Pradesh, India, in the district of the same name, has been associated with major Muslim educational, political, and ideological movements since the late nineteenth century. Situated seventy-nine miles south of Delhi, the town, also known as Koil, became in 1865 the headquarters of the Aligarh Scientific Society and ten years later of the Mahomedan Anglo-Oriental College. Both were established under the leadership of Sayyid Aḥmad Khān (1817–1898), with the goal of making contemporary European learning available to a relatively privileged public that included Hindus but was primarily Muslim. In 1920 the college was reconstituted as the autonomous, degree-granting Aligarh Muslim University. After the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan as a separate nation-state for South Asian Muslims, Aligarh Muslim University remained in India as one of a small group of national universities.

Sir Sayyid Aḥmad Khān (“Sir Syed”), the major figure in what became known as the Aligarh movement, founded the Scientific Society in Ghazipur in 1863. It moved to Aligarh when Sayyid Aḥmad himself was transferred there as a subordinate judge. Although the society included Hindus as well as Muslims, a trip that Sayyid Aḥmad made to England in 1869 persuaded him to devote the rest of his life to the establishment of an educational institution particularly for Indian Muslims. His unorthodox religious ideas created some opposition from the outset, but Sayyid Aḥmad was able to gather support from a diversity of Muslims, combining prominent Sunnī and Shīʿī leaders in an effort to create a new generation of Muslims who would be well educated in European learning but safely committed to Islam. With support from the British government, reinforced by Sayyid Aḥmadʾs opposition in 1887 to the newly founded Indian National Congress, the Aligarh College succeeded in its goal of creating a new generation of leaders for what Sayyid Aḥmad conceived as the aggregate Muslim qawm, or in Indian English, “community.” As government officials, lawyers, and journalists, Aligarh graduates became prominent figures in early-twentieth-century Indian public life.

After the death of Sayyid Aḥmad Khān, Aligarh became an arena for social and political controversy. In 1906 the Aligarh Zenana Madrasah was established to provide separate education for girls, becoming a college in 1925. Although most prominently associated with Muslim separatism, Aligarh always had important figures associated with Indian nationalism and Marxism. The movement to transform the college into an autonomous, all-India educational system for Muslims foundered on British opposition and internal factionalism; the university was established in 1920 only after Mohandas K. Gandhi and two Aligarh graduates, the brothers Shaukat ʿAlī and Muḥammad ʿAlī, had led a noncooperation campaign that established an alternative nationalist institution, the Jāmiʿah Millīyah Islāmīyah, outside the campus gates. In the final years before independence and partition, many Aligarh students devoted themselves to the cause of Pakistan, but many others remained staunch advocates of a united and secular India.

Under the leadership of its first post-independence vice chancellor, Zakir Husain, later president of India, Aligarh Muslim University sought to retain its special role as a center of Muslim culture, including Urdu, and in preparing Muslims for full participation in national life. Particularly prominent for its Urdu writers and historians of Mughal India, many of them Marxist, the university has been a battleground with regard to its special character as an institution for Muslims. See also AḥMAD KHāN, SAYYID, and INDIA.

Bibliography

  • Fakhry, Majid. A History of Islamic Philosophy. 3d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.
  • Lelyveld, David. Aligarhʾs First Generation: Muslim Solidarity in British India. New Delhi and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. History of Aligarh College in its first twenty-five years in its wider social and cultural context.
  • Minault, Gail. “Shaikh Abdullah, Begam Abdullah, and Sharif Education for Girls at Aligarh.” In Modernization and Social Change among Muslims in India, edited by Imtiaz Ahmad, pp. 207–236. New Delhi: Manohar, 1983. Study of the foundations of womenʾs education at Aligarh.
  • Sikand, Yoginder. Bastions of the Believers: Madrasas and Islamic Education in India. New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2005.
  • Troll, Christian W.Sayyid Ahmad Khan: A Reinterpretation of Muslim Theology. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1978. The most thorough study of the religious ideas of the major figure in the Aligarh movement.
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