The News, April 21, 2006
Liberating the Muslim mind
By Dr Muzaffar Iqbal
"Without flattering the English, I can truly say that the natives of India, high and low, merchants and petty shopkeepers, educated and illiterate, when contrasted with the English in education, manners, and uprightness, are like a dirty animal is to an able and handsome man." If one were to ask an educated Muslim today about the man who wrote these words, she or he would mostly think of an outlandish English bigot. Those with a little more interest in history would probably think of men like Mustafa Kamal of Turkey (incorrectly called Ata Turk, the father of Turks) or one of his latter-day fans.
The guesswork can be cut short, however, by a further clue. The author of these words also wrote a tafsir, because in all previous tafsirs of the Noble Quran he "could find nothing but grammatical and lexicographical niceties, statements concerning the place and time of revelation and commentaries on previous tafsirs…literary matters, in short, nothing but rubbish and worthless (fazul) discussions, mostly based on baseless and unauthentic traditions and fables which were often taken from the Jewish sources". The same person claims that "then I studied books of the principles of tafsir according to my ability with the hope that they would definitely provide clues to the principles of the Quranic interpretation based on the Quran itself or which would be otherwise so sound that no one could object to them, but in them I found nothing but statements that the Quran contains knowledge of such and such nature".
Of course, by now the reader would have guessed: the person was none other than our very respected Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898), duly knighted in 1888 as the Knight Commander of the Star of India by the Queen herself. The first quoted passage can be found on page 184 of his Musafran-e London, published by Majlis-e-Taraqi-e-Adab, Lahore, in 1961; the second appears on page 199 of the second volume of his sixteen volumes Maqalat, published in 1963.
Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan was among the forerunners of a new breed of Muslims who saw nothing worthwhile in their own tradition. He was, however, much better than those who followed him, for he had at least one foot in his tradition (though he had no appreciation for it). Those who followed him were the true children of the colonial rule which extended from one end of the Muslim world to the other at the time Sir Sayyid wrote the above-quoted words.
Of course, the colonisers of the Muslim world are not present anymore in those lands, except for the neo-colonisers who now sit trembling in the Green Zone of Baghdad, thinking: when will I be blown up? The colonial legacy, however, did not end in the post-World War II era; only its form changed. But before we can begin to understand this change, we must understand the make up of men like Sayyid Ahmad Khan. Why were they mentally enslaved by the West? When did this enslavement begin?
The fact is that Sayyid Ahmad was not even born when the true debacle took place, he only witnessed the aftermath. True, he participated in the events of May 1857 when a few thousand British soldiers were able to establish the Queen's writ over an entire subcontinent, but he was too busy saving the lives of the masters to really understand what was happening.
One wonders: how was it possible that a few thousand Englishmen could control such a vast subcontinent at a time when B-52 bombers and cruise missiles were unheard of? Without those weapons of mass destruction in the hands of the colonisers, if the natives of the subcontinent were to attempt to physically throw the overweening English into the Indian Ocean, they could have easily done so because of their huge numbers. But they did not. Why not?
The answers must be sought in the mental enslavement which precedes physical occupation. The fact is that the Indian mind had already been enslaved before 1857. An Englishman could produce terror in the hearts of Indians, Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh alike, merely by his presence. This was so because these Indians were not standing on any firm soil. In the preceding centuries, they had been uprooted from the intellectual and spiritual soil of their ancestors. It was not the swords versus guns, as is sometimes erroneously assumed, but superior minds versus feeble minds, which decided the fate of millions of men, women, and children, during the gruesome period of colonisation by Imperial European powers.
When those same minds were stirred a bit around the middle of the twentieth century by a few men and women who led the so-called movements and wars of independence throughout the third world, they forced the colonisers to depart in one fantastic spell of awakening, even though, by then the Europeans had much better arms. This awakening did not last, however, primarily because those who led them were only partially free; as soon as they found entrance to the presidential and vice-regal palaces of the departing colonisers, they quickly went back to their enslaved mode.
This is a tragedy of Himalayan proportions. Of course, the entire South suffered, but people in South America are now beginning to understand the true dimensions of this mental enslavement; the rest of the world is still in the depths of the enslavement. And the Muslim mind is utterly devoid of any idea of how it was dispossessed. When the Muslim mind attempts to understand this process, it indulges in blame games: this or that person is found as a scapegoat and the case is settled. All that the Muslim mind can do now is to find men like Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Mustafa Kamal, or one of his current followers, and proclaim with relief: he is the reason for our misfortune. But is this really so?
The writer is a freelance columnist. Email: email@example.com
Note: For a different perspective about the contribution of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, click the title at the top of this section.