“Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah made his debut as an educational reformer, and visited The Mohammadan Anglo Oriental College in Aligarh (high fort), about 79 miles south-east of Delhi, on November 22, 1896 and had a productive meeting with Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898), who was a great educationist and socialist. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had founded the Aligarh College on November 1, 1875, and was the vice-President of the College Fund Committee as well as its Honorary Secretary. Willi Frischauer also writes in The Aga Khans (London, 1970, pp. 56-7) that, “How wonderful if Aligarh could become a full university to bring up a generation of young leaders and advance the cause of Islam. Here was a chance to follow in the footsteps of his ancestor who had founded al-Azhar, the first Muslim university, which greatly appealed to the young Aga Khan. He decided to put up money for the cause and persuaded wealthy friends to contribute. It was a long struggle but he missed no opportunity to plead for this cause and when Aligarh finally became a university two dozen years later, it was more to Muslims than a seat of learning. In retrospect it was recognized as the intellectual cradle of independent Pakistan and the Aga Khan’s enthusiasm and support which made it possible earned him a place among Pakistan’s founding fathers.”
The Imam believed that the root cause of Muslim backwardness in India was illiteracy, and therefore, education was the panacea for their ills. He thought that education should be a medium of service to others and a tool for modernization. He also considered the aim of education to be character building. According to Islamuddin in The Aga Khan III (Islamabad, 1978, p. 22), “It was he, who, translated the dream of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan into reality, by raising the status of Aligarh College into a great Muslim University.” Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah states in The Prince Aga Khan (London, 1933, p. 65) that, “It was Sir Syed Ahmed who founded Aligarh College, but it was the Aga Khan, an ardent enthusiastic promoter of the ideal of education, who has been mainly responsible for the raising of its status to that of a University.”
After the death of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in 1316/1898, the Imam advised Mohsin al-Mulk (1837-1907), the Secretary of Aligarh College, to tour India to procure public opinion for the cause of Muslim University. His interest in the Aligarh College dates from the time when he was called upon to preside at an Educational Conference held at Delhi at the time of Lord Curzon’s proclamation Durbar in 1319/1902. He used the platform of Muslim Educational Conference to bring home to the Muslims, the importance of education, and Muslim University at Aligarh. In his Presidential address to the Muslim Educational Conference, the Imam said: “If, then, we are really in earnest in deploring the fallen condition of our people, we must unite in an effort for their redemption and, first and foremost of all, an effort must now be made for the foundation of a University where Muslim youths can get, in addition to modern sciences, a knowledge of their glorious past and religion and where the whole atmosphere of the place, it being a residential University, nay, like Oxford, give more attention to character than to mere examinations. Muslims of India have legitimate interests in the intellectual development of their co-religionists in Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, and the best way of helping them is by making Aligarh a Muslim Oxford …. We are sure that by founding this University we can arrest the decadence of Islam, and if we are not willing to make sacrifices for such an end, must I not conclude that we do not really care whether the faith of Islam is dead or not? …. We want Aligarh to be such a home of learning as to command the same respect of scholars as Berlin or Oxford, Leipzig or Paris. And we want those branches of Muslim learning, which are too fast passing into decay, to be added by Muslim scholars to the stock of the world’s knowledge.” (vide Khutbat-i Aliyah, Aligarh, 1927, I:206). Addressing the annual session of Muslim Educational Conference in 1904 at Bombay, the Imam said: “The farsighted among the Muslims of India desire a University, where the standard of learning should be the highest and where with the scientific training, there shall be that moral education, that indirect but constant reminder of the eternal difference between right and wrong, which is the soul of education …. I earnestly beg of you that the cause of such a University should not be forgotten in the shouts of the market place that daily rise amongst us.”
The plan for the Muslim University had by 1910 taken on the complexion and force of a national movement. The session of the All India Muslim Educational Conference at Nagpur in December, 1910 gave the signal for a concreted, nation-wide effort to raise the necessary funds for the projected University. In moving the resolution on the University, the Imam made a stirring speech. He said, “This is a unique occasion as His Majesty the King-Emperor is coming out to India. This is a great opportunity for us and such as is never to arise again during the lifetime of the present generation, and the Muslims should on no account miss it…We must make up and make serious, earnest and sincere efforts to carry into effect the one great essential movement which above all has a large claim on our energy and resources…If we show that we are able to help ourselves and that we are earnest in our endeavours and ready to make personal sacrifices, I have no doubt whatever that our sympathetic government, which only requires proper guarantees of our earnestness, will come forward to grant us the charter. `Now or never’ seems to be the inevitable situation.”
To make a concerted drive for the collection of funds, a Central Foundation Committee with the Imam as Chairman with Maulana Shaukat Ali (1873-1938) as his Secretary; and prominent Muslims from all walks of life as members was formed at Aligarh on January 10, 1911. The Imam accompanied by Maulana Shaukat Ali toured throughout the country to raise funds, visiting Calcutta, Allahabad, Lucknow, Cawnpore, Lahore, Bombay and other places. Willi Frischauer writes in The Aga Khans (London, 1970, p. 76) that, “His campaign for the Aligarh University required a final big heave and, as Chairman of the fund raising committee, he went on a collecting tour through India’s main Muslim areas: `As a mendicant’, he announced, `I am now going out to beg from house to house and from street to street for the children of Indian Muslims.’ It was a triumphal tour. Wherever he went, people unharnessed the horses of his carriage and pulled it themselves for miles.”
The response to the touching appeal of the Imam was spontaneous. On his arrival at Lahore, the daily “Peace” of Punjab editorially commented and called upon the Muslims “to wake up, as the greatest personality and benefactor of Islam was in their city.” The paper recalled a remark of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan prophesying the rise of a hand from the unseen world to accomplish his mission. “That personality” the paper said, “was of the Aga Khan III.” On that day, the London Times commenting upon the visit, regarded him as a great recognized leader of Muslims. The significant aspect of the Imam’s fund collection drive was not the enthusiastic welcome accorded to him, but the house to house collection drive. Qayyum A. Malick writes in The Prince Aga Khan (Karachi, 1954, p. 64) that once the Imam on his way to Bombay to collect funds for the university, the Imam stopped his car at the office of a person, who was known to be his bitterest critic. The man stood up bewildered and asked, “Whom do you want Sir?” “I have come for your contribution to the Muslim university fund,” said the Imam. The man drew up a cheque for Rs. 5000/-. After pocketing the cheque, the Imam took off his hat and said, “Now as a beggar, I beg from you something for the children of Islam. Put something in the bowl of this mendicant.” The man wrote another cheque for Rs. 15000/- with moist eyes, and said, “Your Highness, now it is my turn to beg. I beg of you in the name of the most merciful God to forgive me for anything that I may have said against you. I never knew you were so great.” The Imam said, “Don’t worry! It is my nature to forgive and forget in the cause of Islam and the Muslims.” The drive received further great fillip from the announcement of a big donation by Her Highness Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum of Bhopal. The Imam was so moved by her munificence that in thanking her, he spoke the following words: Dil’e banda ra zinda kardi, dil’e Islam ra zinda kardi, dil’e qaum ra zinda kardi, Khuda’i ta’ala ba tufail’e Rasul ajarash be dahad means, “You put life in the heart of this servant; you put life in the heart of Islam; you put life in the heart of the nation. May God reward you for the sake of the Prophet!” In sum, the Imam collected twenty-six lacs of rupees by July, 1912 in the drive and his personal contribution amounted to one lac rupees.
On October 20, 1920, the Aligarh University was granted its official Charter. In spite of several obstacles, the Imam continued his ceaseless efforts for the Muslim University, and further announced his annual grant of Rs. 10,000/- for Aligarh University, which was subsequently raised. The Ismaili individuals also made their generous contributions to Aligarh University. For instance, Mr. Kassim Ali Jairajbhoy gave Rs. 1,25,000 to found chairs of Philosophy and Science in the Aligarh in memory of his father.
It will remain as a historical reminder of the fact that the Imam gave continuity to the traditions of his ancestors as pioneers of education in Egypt and elsewhere – traditions associated with the foundation of Al-Azhar, the oldest existing university in the world, which to this day is crowded with students from all parts of the globe. The Imam instituted the Aga Khan Foreign Scholarship programme for the promising students. It is worth mentioning here that Dr. Ziauddin was one of the students of the Imam in the sense that he paid for his years of study at Cambridge. Among other great Muslim scholars, who benefited from the munificent help were Dr. L.K. Hyder, the well known economist, Mr. Wali Muhammad, a great physicist, Dr. Zafarul Hasan, a learned theologian, and Dr. Zaki etc. “The Movement of establishing a Muslim University” writes Mumtaz Moin in his The Aligarh Movement (Karachi, 1976, p. 184), “is an important chapter of our history. Initiated by Waqar al-Mulk it soon became a live issue under the patronage of the Aga Khan.” Islamuddin writes in Aga Khan III (Islamabad, 1978, p. 27) that, “Thus it would not be an exaggeration to say that without Aga Khan, there would have been no Aligarh University, and without Aligarh, Pakistan would have been a near impossibility.” The Imam himself said in his Memoirs (London, 1954, p. 36) that: “We may claim with pride that Aligarh was the product of our own efforts and of no outside benevolence and surely it may also be claimed that the independent sovereign nation of Pakistan was born in the Muslim University of Aligarh.”