The prominent daybreak retreat for the residents of Civil Lines in Aligarh is undoubtedly, the Naqvi Park, named after Syed Abu Talib Naqvi, ICS. the bureaucrat who served as the District Magistrate of Aligarh from 1942-1947. Built in 1835, the Christ Church at Naqvi Park, Aligarh is among the oldest churches of North India. Bishop Daniel Wilson, an Englishman, commissioned its construction as one of the 20 churches he established during 1825-1845, one amongst them was St. George’s Church at Agra. Aligarh has been under French influence for long, one could notice the features of French architecture, although the stained glass used in the Church was brought in from England. Christ Church started as a small chapel initially, only to bloom as a full church later, the church then nestled into the woods that were under the control of Church Missionary Society (CMS), a British mission society founded in 1799, working with the Anglican Communion and Protestant Christians around the globe. A part of CMS broke away and took shape of another society known as Church of North India (CNI) in the decade of 1970, at present CNI possesses the rights over all the churches affiliated to it. Initially, it was affiliated to the Agra Diocese of the Church of England (COE) and was served by British clergy until 1960 after which it came under the aegis of Church of North India (CNI). During the pre-independence period a brick and mortar hedge was built around the church to separate the sacred space from the recreational space. The adjoining areas served as a cantonment for the French army stationed at the Aligarh Fort until the siege of Aligarh, which involved departure of General Perron and capture of the town by Lord Lake. There used to be a military dispensary nearby, also the presence of an old Christian graveyard at mere 500 meters explains the concentration of Christianity in this area.  

Christ Church, Naqvi Park, Aligarh Muslim University, Pic Source: Author

Records tell that the first person to have received baptism in the Christ Church was a lady named Mary Agnes Franks on 14th June 1868. During those years the church was under chaplaincy and there was no pastor to ordain the baptization, Chaplain W.H Tribe used to carry out the baptism then. Legend has it that a person living in Aligarh and not associated with Aligarh Muslim University is an improbable odd. Canon Edwin (1875-1965) was amongst the notable Christians of the civil lines area who was also regular visitor at Christ Church. He is believed to have recorded several memoirs of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and him, and is believed to have met the great founder of Mohammedan Anglo Oriental College (MAO), now Aligarh Muslim University. Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817–98) was undoubtedly a leading visionary among the most prominent Muslim of India. He could be well credited for breaking the shackles of stereotype Muslim imagery and attempted at putting an end to cultural isolation of Muslims. He worked tirelessly towards the causes he found worthy of fighting for and bearing the grief of an ailing community surrounded by identity crises intellectually, he began building firm relations with the western world. Sir Syed understood the significance of pluralism, therefore he emerged as a moderate who presented the world with a new Muslim attitude amidst the afterglow of 1857’s sepoy mutiny. His works on biblical studies and his moderate view towards Christian scriptures received much attention and praise from both Christian as well as Muslim scholars as he based his premises and arguments upon the Semitic literature.

Christ Church, Naqvi Park, Aligarh Muslim University, Pic Source: Author

During 1875, while Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was planning to establish the Mohammedan Anglo Oriental College, he often used to meet British officials and civilians at Christ Church, Naqvi Park. After the college came into existence, the Christian faculty members as well as students visited the Church as it had become a prominent place of worship and emerged as a significant center of socializing. Sir Syed wrote extensively about birth of Jesus and his miracles, rendering new insights into theological realms, presenting a unique mutual co-existence idea. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had demonstrated an original way of interpreting the figure of Jesus and Christian scriptures, which is considered his personal deductive impression of Christianity. His works published in 1862 and 1863 are testimony about his personal understanding of the birth of Jesus, his miracles and his crucifixion. Sir Syed has made an impressive commentary about Jesus Christ in his tafsir of Quran, making references to the position of Jesus in Muslim beliefs and scriptures. There have been several scholars who have treated the position of Jesus in Islam and Christianity, but the way Sir Syed has approached this multicultural subject, is certainly a class apart and different from the earlier interpretations. This could be one of the attributes of the ever-blossoming friendships of Sir Syed with the English scholars, many of them even served the MAO. Sir Syed understood the idea of pluralism in its totality and was always of view the mutual coexistence would require rationale and interfaith understanding, which is why there is always a moderate and sympathetic attitude in the interpretations of scriptures done by him.

A picture of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan c 1890
Founder, Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College

As one turns the pages of his seminal works, it becomes evident that the way Sir Syed has interpreted the relevance of Christ has been the most impressive among all the other interpretations of holy scriptures. Majority of Muslim scholars were not in the favour of his opinions but then his interpretations were based on his independent understanding of the subject which is equally interesting and enthralling both. The Church has had very close association with Aligarh Muslim University since the times of its inception. Nawab Ali Yavar Jung, the Vice-Chancellor of AMU during 1965-68 was a regular visitor to Christ Church, as a mark of respect for the old times’ association. Another important personality who is associated with Christ Church was a British missionary lady, Miss Gordon. She used to visit the Christian inmates of Women’s College, AMU. She is believed to have encouraged them to be attend the services and congregations at Christ Church. This is one hallmark trait of the persona of Sir Syed which would always be the most prized inheritance of the graduates of AMU. The idea of pluralism and multiculturalism is the hope on which the world could usher and become a better place for the generations to come. Christ Church at Naqvi Park is a testimony to such sacred conversations which have happened between legends and which await the songbirds of future to lend their audience to the resonating melodies amidst the chaos of everyday life. Apparently reduced to just another part of a horticulture facility at Naqvi Park currently, it is slowly losing its sheen and identity amidst newer places of worship.

References:
Rahman, M. I. A. (2003). The Interpretation of the Birth of Jesus and his Miracles in the Writings of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, 14:1, 23-31, DOI: 10.1080/09596410305259.
Charles, O. (2019). History of Christ Church Naqvi Park. Retrieved from https://advocatecharles.blogspot.com/2019/10/history-of-christ-church-naqvi-park.html
Ramsey, C.M. (2020). Sir Sayyid and the Religious Foundations of a Pluralist Society in Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: The Muslim Renaissance Man of India. A Bicentenary Commemorative Volume, 16, 288-307, Viva Books, ISBN: 9789386243553.

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Dr Faisal Hassan is a psychologist by profession and has a penchant for chronicling the life with his own kaleidoscope. He celebrate Sufism through his reflective accounts. Whenever he is not traveling, he is wandering.

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