Theodore Beck : A British Educationist & Second Principal of Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College

Muslims, of the Indian subcontinent are celebrating centennial of the formation of Aligarh Muslim University (1920) from Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental college (est. 1875). Few, can deny the contribution of it’s founder; the visionary Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. However, amongst many of his admirers and early supporters; an English admirers stands high among any of his contemporaries. Due, to his dedication, skill, honesty and perhaps even through arguably the sacrifice of his life.

Sir Syed had a vision for the college and he was looking for a suitable person who could teach Language and Philosophy. He wrote to Mahmood Hassan, who was on a personal trip to England to look for a suitable teacher. Theodore Beck, a 24 year old recently qualified from Cambridge University was the suitable choice. Mahmood Hasan convinced him to join Sir Syed in his mission. Mr. Beck, a softly spoken and dedicated man armed with modern education from Cambridge’s prestigious institution agreed to join Sir Syed in his mission to bring education to Indian Muslims. After the resignation of the first Principal of the college Mr. Seddon; Mr. Beck at the age of only twenty five, took the responsibility of becoming the principal of the College in 1883. He was loved and admired by his students. He would visit the sick students in the hostel and support some poor students financially from his own pocket.

The famous poet Hali’s tribute to him;

نہ دیکھی ہوں جنہوں نے شفقت و طاعت کی تصویریں
وہ بک اور اس کے شا گردوں کو با ہم ہمسخن دیکھیں

Sir Syed respected his dedication to the cause and to the college. Once he said, ‘ …and in this connection to none are we more indebted than to Mr. Theodore Beck, the Principal of our College, who, during five years of earnest labour and self sacrifice, has made our cause his own, and materially furthered it by acquiring that deep insight and intimate knowledge of the social, political and financial needs and requirements of the Mohammedan community which could be achieved only by cosmopolitan sympathies, and by living with and among the community for whose advancement he left the comfort and attraction of a University life at Cambridge to take up abode among an alien population, such as the Mohammaden of India.’ Reciprocally, He will refer Sir Syed ‘my respected chief’. There was mutual trust between Sir Syed and Mr. Beck. ‘He suggested Sir Syed the appointment of a teacher in the hostel for the religious and moral instruction of the students’. Hence he became the longest serving Principal of Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh. Among many of his reforms, the best he did was to propose a ‘debating club’ in the college. Which was named after the first Principal ’Siddon’s Club’. He agreed with Sir Syed to keep Muslims away from politics and concentrate on education. However his proposal of debating club would later produce great orators like Ali brothers who will fight in the future for the independence of country.

Destiny took an unfortunate turn for him and thus for the MAO College. At the age of only forty he became ill. He often expressed difficulty about the hot weather of Aligarh in the past. To try to get better he was advised to go to Simla so his health can improve in the cooler climate. Unfortunately, it was very shortly he died there, most likely due to tropical infection to his liver and post operative complications.

MAO college suddenly lost a talented teacher, a Principal, an educationist, an administrator, a sympathiser and a genuine pioneer who cared about Indian Muslims and dedicated most of his life in India educating and remodelling them. It was doubly unfortunate since Sir Syed had died a year earlier in 1889. After his death ‘Beck memorial fund’ was established in order to commemorate his memory. Beck Manzil and a Road was given his name at the campus. One of his earliest Student Khushi Muhammad Nazir wrote following couplets in his memory:

اس کی خُنداں سے تھی اس باغِ قومی کی بہار
بک کو بیٹھا دیکھ کر کا لج سے دل اُٹھتا نہ تھا
اپنے شا گردوں کا وہ دلدادہ و دلدار تھا
تھا کبھی وہ شمع محفل اور کبھی پروانہ تھا
آس کے دستر خوان پر رہتا تھا ہنگامہ گرم
بورڈر سب مہمان تھے اور وہ صاحبِ خانہ تھا
یہ مجالس جانفزا تھیں بک کی بزم آرائیاں
ورنہ یاں ؔٗٗ مُرغانِ صحرا کا مُسافر خا نہ تھا
ایک شانِ دلرُبائی اس کی تھی ہر بات میں
معدن اخلاق کا وہ گوہر یک دانہ تھا

I personally feel that AMU shouldn’t forget this wonderful gentleman when they are celebrating University centennial. May his soul rest in peace.

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M S Siddiqui

Dr. Mohammad Siddiqui is a UK based Medical doctor. Apart from Medicine he is interested in history, culture, art and architecture. He is an avid collector of rare photographs, postcards, maps, artefacts, rare books and magazines on different themes like ‘Hajj pilgrimage’, ‘Delhi’, ‘Islam in Britain’ and ‘The role of Indian soldiers in WWI.’

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