The first person to own a car in my hometown, Azamgarh, was Raja Harish Chand. I am talking about 70 years ago! The next family to buy a car was ours. It was an old Ford. The arrival of the car represented major scientific development, but its arrival in our lives did not engender in me any sort of scientific thinking.
What was this car? It was a reflection of the scientific life of Henry Ford (d. 1947). The entire car was a reminder of a scientifically-oriented person. It was also a reminder of the many people before Henry Ford who had sacrificed their lives for the development of science, which had enabled Henry Ford to discover nature’s secret of how to convert inert matter into a moving machine. The car that my family bought was, as it were, a silent symbol of all of this. But I never thought about this at all. I never felt the urge to inquire about such matters.
Today, I wonder, why was there this tremendous difference between myself and Henry Ford? Henry Ford spent his entire life studying science and developing new technology. He spent every moment of his in scientific experiments and became the founder of a vast motor-car company. I was a contemporary of Henry Ford, but I had no such scientific awareness. The reason for the vast difference between the two of us was our respective environments.
Henry Ford was born in America in 1863. At that time in America, people in general were excited about the rapid expansion of science and technology. Every child reared in that environment automatically, and without any conscious effort, was familiarized with scientific matters at a very young age itself. Every child in that society automatically developed an interest in scientific affairs. It was this environment that gave birth to thousands of scientists in America at that time. But in Azamgarh, my hometown, our environment was utterly different. And the cause for why we were denied a scientific environment which people of my age enjoyed in America was our leaders, who, because of their lack of awareness, did not work to create such an environment.
What sort of environment did our leaders create? It was all about politics of a very superficial kind, about hollow slogans of freedom, and about fanciful tales and fairy stories, with which they filled our minds. Almost all Muslims lived in that sort of milieu created by their leaders. There were hardly any exceptions to this.
When I left the environment of my home and entered the madrasa to learn Arabic and acquire religious knowledge, the environment was no different. Even in the institutions that Muslim leaders had established in the name of modern education there was no scientific environment in the true sense of the term.
I think this is the greatest tragedy of the Indian subcontinent in the modern period. At this time, Europeans and Americans were busy in ushering in the Scientific Revolution. But, as I mentioned earlier, at the very same time, people in the Indian subcontinent were obsessed with totally different issues. Hollow slogans of independence; empty rhetoric; superficial debates in the name of religion; boasting about the past while being blind to the present; hating, instead of loving, fellow humans; living in a totally imaginary world instead of in the real world; and crass superstition—these were some of the things that, at that time, had completely overwhelmed India.
I believe that the root of all the problems of Muslims (and Hindus, too) today is this collective intellectual backwardness. Towards the end of his life, Jawaharlal Nehru acknowledged this when he said that what India lacked most was the scientific temper. If in the past we had visionary leaders who could have nurtured the right thinking in our people, our situation today would have been very different. Today, if we have any glimmer of hope left, it is that one day we might be blessed with far-sighted leaders who can guide society on positive lines.
(This is a translation of excerpts from Maulana Wahiduddin Khan’s Urdu book Hind-Pak Diary)