Raja Ram Mohan Roy, known as the "Maker of Modern India" and "Father of the Bengal Renaissance", advocated the study of English, Science, Western Medicine and Technology. For this objective he established the Hindu College in Kolkata in 1817.
His progressive views were bitterly opposed by the orthodox Hindus. However, after some years his unorthodox views of advocating Westernized education prevailed and helped India and Bengal become modernized.
Syed Ahmad Khan, born on 17th October, 1817 (the year of the establishment of Hindu College), founded the Muslim School in 1875 with the same ideas and objectives as that of Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Sir Syed was also bitterly opposed by orthodox Muslims. Both Syed and Roy, the great reformers of their times, were abused by religious bigots but undeterred, they did not surrender to them. Fortunately, Hindu opposition died down after sometime but Muslim opposition continued for a long time. The result was obvious. Muslims lagged behind to their Hindu brothers in modern education.
According to Hunter Survey Report released in 1878, the total number of Graduates (Arts, Science, Law, Engineering and Medicine) produced in North India during ten years (between 1855 to 1875) were counted as 3155 out of which only 57 were Muslims. With a population of about 30%, Muslim representation in modern education was hardly 1.6%. (The Aligarh Movement, Tariq Khan, 2006).
Sir Syed Ahmed championed the cause of modern education at a time when all the Indians in general and Indian Muslims in particular, considered it a sin to get modern education through English language. It was in this context that Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru described Sir Syed as "an ardent reformer who wanted to reconcile modern scientific thought with religion by rationalistic interpretations and not by attacking the basic belief. He was anxious to push new education. He was in no way communally separatist. Repeatedly he emphasized that religious differences should have no political and national significance."(Discovery of India).
Similar views were expressed by Mr. I.K. Gujral, former Prime Minister of India, when he stated "Sir Syed's vision and his laborious efforts to meet the demands of challenging times are highly commendable. The dark post-1857 era was indeed hopeless and only men like Raja Mohan Roy and Sir Syed could penetrate through its thick veil to visualize the Nation's destinies. They rightly believed that the past had its merits and its legacies were valuable but it was the future that a society was called upon to cope with. I offer my homage to Sir Syed for his vision and courage that withstood all obstructions both from the friends and the foes". (Message to Sir Syed Scientific Society, Lucknow).
The great visionary Iqbal expressed his opinion that "the real greatness of the man (Sir Syed) consists in the fact that he was the first Indian Muslim who felt the need of a fresh orientation of Islam and worked for it".
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad expressed similar views 'Sir Syed had established at Aligarh not only a college but an intellectual and cultural centre in tune with the progressive spirit of the times'.
Mr. Somnath Chatterjee also made the observation that "He wanted the College (now transformed into this University), to act as a bridge between the old and the new and the East and the West. He actively advocated the necessity of modern and scientific education. He wanted that the students of the college should preach the gospel of free enquiry, of large-hearted toleration and of pure morality. (Address to Aligarh students, 2001).
India was passing through a very difficult period after the failure of so-called 1857 Mutiny. British Rulers became more confident of their Raj over the country as they had planned meticulously to divide the Indians on the basis of their religion. But Sir Syed cautioned people, particularly Muslims, against the designs of their Masters. He declared ''Remember the words Hindu and Muslim are only meant for religious distinction: otherwise all persons who reside in this country belong to one and the same nation.'' He considered Hindus and Muslims as the two eyes of a bride who would look miserable if one is lost or weakened. Thus highly secular in his approach, he pleaded to Muslims to be more practical, rational and aware of the changing society. Old values of education had become outdated in his opinion. He wanted Muslims to have scientific temper and modern attitude in life and for this he asked them to learn Science and Engineering, the subjects which unfortunately became alien to them.
He founded the School Aligarh for this purpose in May 1875 with barely fifty students on role. He left his government job and settled in Aligarh to fight for the battle against those who were deadly against the English 'Talim' (education). In the process, Sir Syed had to swallow insults and decrees of some misguided Muslims who denounced and called him atheist, an enemy of Islam, slave of English masters and what not. In one such decree (Fatwa) he was declared the agent of Devil.
Undaunted and unconcerned with titles like atheist, Naturi, etc., Sir Syed dedicated himself still more towards the cause of education. His voice ultimately made a dent in the Indian social structure and Hindus and Muslims of the country helped him in large numbers to further his cause.
It is very important to note that amongst the first 120 people who gave valuable donations for the construction of the school building were several Hindus like Choudhary Sher Singh, Kunwar Lekhraj Singh, Raja Shiv Narain Singh, Raja Ghanshyam Singh, Raja Uday Pratap Singh, Lala Phul Chand, Lala Vasudeo Sahai and others. Their names still decorate the old buildings of the Aligarh Muslim University.
Sir Syed firmly believed that ''acquisition of knowledge of science and technology is the only solution for the problems of Muslims.'' Through Aligarh Institute Gazette, Sir Syed succeeded in agitating the minds in the traditional Muslim Society. Dream of Sir Syed, i.e., the Aligarh Muslim University, produced intellectuals in large numbers who served the country in various capacities. It is a tribute to Sir Syed that the first graduate of Aligarh University was the great revolutionary Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh. No one can forget persons like Dr. Zakir Husain and Dr. Syed Mahmood, the products of Aligarh, who adorned the high offices of the country.
Sir Syed felt the necessity to harmonize Islam with modern science and rationalism. He wanted Muslims to develop a spirit of enquiry and research because in his opinion Islam was no barrier to scientific inquiry and social progress. In the opinion of Sir Syed, superstitious beliefs and the aversion to Western education were the main causes for the backwardness of the Indian Muslims. In all his actions and beliefs, Sir Syed was a true follower of Raja Ram Mohan Rai.