Maulana Abul Kalam Azad

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958) – The Man and his Pen.

By Professor Nazeer Ahmed

He was a giant in the shadows of other giants. Living as he did in an age dominated by Gandhi, Jinnah and Nehru, Maulana Azad nonetheless left his own imprint on the history of South Asia. The twentieth century would not be the same without him. Paying tribute to his versatile genius, Nayaz Fatehpuri wrote:

“If he had focused on Arabic poetry, he would be a Mutanabbi and Badi uz Zaman. If he had taken on the reformation of law and religion, he would be the Ibn Taimiya of his age. If he had dedicated himself to philosophy, he would be no less of a peripatetic philosopher than Ibn Rushd and Ibn Tufail. If he had turned his attention to Farsi poetry and literature, he would find a place along with Urfi and Nazeeri. If we was inclined towards Tasawwuf and renovation, he would be no less than al Gazzali and Rumi. And if he had taken on applied Shariah, he would be a Wasi Bin Atta…..”

Born in 1888 in Mecca in a family of scholars, he was given the name Abul Kalam Ghulam Mohiyuddin Ahmed. In 1890 the family returned to Kolkata where his father, Maulana Khairuddin, had established a reputation as a scholar and a teacher. The young Abul Kalam received his education at home, first from his father, then from private scholar tutors. By the time he was thirteen he had mastered Farsi, Arabic, and Urdu and had a commanding knowledge of Shariah, fiqh, philosophy, history, mathematics and tasawwuf.  Even as a young lad of 12, he showed his aptitude for writing, starting a newsletter “Nairang-e-Alam” in 1899 and a weekly collection of poems “Al Misbah” in 1900.

At the turn of the twentieth century, European colonialism held Asia and Africa firmly in its juggernaut.   Kolkata was the capital of British India. As a counterpoint to colonial rule, there were nationalist stirrings in the subcontinent and Kolkata was the hotbed of nationalist fervor. The young Abul Kalam, after a brief experimentation with a youthful frolic in Bombay, returned to Kolkata and came under the influence of Bengali nationalists Arabindo Ghosh and Shyam Sunder Chakravarty.  Induction into politics brought him face to face with one of the principal drivers in South Asian politics, namely, the Hindu-Muslim dialectic. The British policy of divide and rule had fostered a feeling of distrust of the Muslims among the Bengali nationalists. Abul Kalam soon came to the realization that any hope of deliverance from the British juggernaut required as its pre-requisite Hindu-Muslim cooperation. He found the traditional imitative thinking (taqleed) to be inadequate to tackle the new problems. Therefore, he discarded it and took on the taqqallus, or title of Azad or free thinker. Writing many years later about this transformation, Maulana Azad wrote:

“I have never tried to find the footpath of another but have sought out a path for myself and left my footprint for those who come”

These three elements, namely, his early religious training, his revolutionary fervor and a deep conviction in communal harmony run as a consistent thread in the writings and speeches of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad.  The three fused together in his eclectic personality and produced a unique brand of activist, championing universal human rights of justice, freedom and fairness, transcending the narrow allegiance to creed, caste, color and origin.

Maulana Azad undertook a tour of Middle Eastern countries in 1910 and met with reformists like Mohammed Abduh in Egypt and nationalist young Turks in Iraq. The pan-Islamic ideas of Jamaluddin al Afghani (1838-97) and the reformist ideas of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898) made a lasting impact on the impressionist mind of the young Azad.  Returning to India, he started the journal “Al Hilal” which had the broad objective of awakening the Muslims of India to their political, social and educational potential. He sought to fulfill this objective with a fusion of nationalism, pan-Islamism, social revolution and Hindu-Muslim unity. In the first issue of Al-Hilal published on 13th July 1912, he wrote:

“What was the goal that was proclaimed with prominence in the very first issue of Al Hilal? I say with pride that it was the amity between Hindus and Muslims. I had invited the Muslims that in accordance with the injunctions of the Shariah, if there was an adversary that was challenging the truth not just in Asia or the East but all over the globe, and eradicating it, from which there is a threat to the universal truth of God, it is none other than the British Government. Therefore, it is obligatory on the part of the Indian Muslims, that keeping in mind the injunctions of the Shariah, keeping before them the beautiful conduct of the Prophet …… is the obligation of Muslims of India that they tie the knot of truth and love with the Hindus of India and become one nation….”

And in the December1912 issue of Al Hilal, the Maulana wrote:

“For the Hindus, struggle for the independence of the country is a sign of love for the land. But for the Musalmans it is a religious obligation and equivalent to jihad in the way of God. And the meaning of jihad includes every effort made to establish justice and truth and human rights and the removal of servitude”.

The Maulana was convinced, and remained convinced until partition that the way to throw off the British yoke was through the cooperation of these two principal communities in the subcontinent.  This was anathema to the ruling British who saw in such revolutionary talk the genesis of a nationalist struggle. Within a year, the doors were shut on Al Hilal. Not to be silenced by the British, the Maulana started another journal, Al Balag in 1915 and within four months it too was shut down. The Maulana was arrested and spent much of the next four years in jail.

World War 1 intervened. The Ottoman Empire entered the War ill prepared, goaded into it by a billion gold kroner from Germany’s Kaiser and by the desire of the Young Turks to recover the European territories lost in the Balkan wars of 1911-12. The Great War was a disaster for the Ottomans; the empire was occupied and the last vestiges of independent Muslim power anywhere on earth disappeared. There followed intrigue and scheming, with Britain and France as the principal players, to carve up the Ottoman empire. The large Muslim population of India could only watch helplessly as this unfolded. But what rallied Muslim opinion was the move to abolish the Khilafat, an institution that had endured 1300 years of Islamic history.

Maulana Azad threw the full weight of his oratory and his journalistic skills into the battle to save the Khilafat, sometimes using language that was uncharacteristically strident. He presented  the Movement as one related to Islam:

“O my dear believers! The issue is not one of the lives of nations and countries; it is an issue of the very survival of Islam”.  Addressing a convention in support of the Khilafat Movement in 1920, he said:

“Gentlemen: The hand that holds the white flag of peace is a noble hand. But only he can survive who holds a sharp sword: it alone is the arbitrator of the lives of nations, the means for establishing justice and upholding balance…….and the shield in the hands of the oppressed….”Behold! We sent Messengers with clear Signs and sent down with them the Books and the balance to establish justice among humankind, and We sent down iron in which there is great power and benefit for humankind” (The Quran: 57:25). The Muslims should remember that there is only one sword that can now be raised in defense of the Law of God and that is the sanctified sword of the Usmania Khilafat. It is the last footstep of historical Islam and the last ray of hope for our glorious destiny…”

The Khilafat Movement attracted scholars, politicians, mullahs and the common folk. Maulana Azad worked with Maulana Muhammed Ali, Hakim Ajmal Khan and others to rally the Muslim community and exert pressure on the British government to back off from its attempts to eliminate the Khilafat. It was during this period that the Maulana met Gandhi and was attracted by his non-cooperation methods. Gandhi saw in the Khilafat movement a golden opportunity to weld Hindus and Muslims into a grand coalition for the independence of India and was accordingly chosen by the Khilafat committee as its leader. Maulana Azad wrote:

“As far as its relationship (the relationship of the Khilafat movement) with a national issue is concerned, it can be said that its movers were certain well wishers. I take the name of Mahatma Gandhi who was the first and most honorable well wisher who supported this movement.”

The Maulana remained loyal to Gandhi throughout his life, even when he disagreed with him. The Khilafat movement fizzled out when Gandhi pulled the plug on it after the violence at Chauri Chaura. It died when the Turkish parliament abandoned the Khilafat in 1924.  Azad defended Gandhi’s decision to call off the Khilafat Movement:

“Gentlemen! In every national struggle, where there are many memorable moments, there is also a mention of some error. These errors are as if they are a natural part of the process. I am convinced that the decision about Barawali was one such error in our struggle….”

It must be stated in passing that Jinnah opposed the Khilafat movement on the grounds that the injection of religion into politics would open a Pandora’s box of religious sentiments that would be hard to control and would allow the regressive, conservative elements to hijack the independence struggle. History proved Jinnah was right. The Khilafat movement provided the genesis of partition. It is a paradox of history that Jinnah, a secular nationalist and a champion of communal harmony, finally ended up as the architect of a separate state of Pakistan while those who championed Muslim rights during the Khilafat movement eventually ended up opposing it.

Maulana Azad dedicated his journalistic skills to the welfare of his country and his community; never did he attempt to profit from it. In the first edition of Al Hilal he wrote:

We have entered this arena not to gain profit but to look for hardship and loss. We do not ask for praise and tribute; we are seekers of dislike and criticism. We do not seek flowers of comfort and opulence but the thorns of pangs and disequilibrium…”

His was a clarion call to his countrymen and his community to wake up, throw off the foreign yoke and work together for the common good. He wrote in Al Hilal:

“I wish I could get the breath of the Judgment Day, which I would take to the mountain tops, and with one single clarion call wake up those who are caught up in the shadows of stupor and asleep in ignominy, and would have shouted out aloud: Wake up! You have slept too long! Wake up because your Creator wants to wake you up and bestow upon you life in place of death, progress in place of decay, honor in place of dishonor.”

The Maulana was a man of vision. When disputes about Hindi-Urdu arose in the pre-partition era, he recommended with the sagacity of a wise sage that Hindustani be written in the Roman script, as is modern Turkish, so that a contentious issue would become a source of cohesion, not discord. No one listened. Today, when you see Hindi and Urdu billboards in Lahore, Mumbai and Bangalore written in the Roman script, you appreciate how far sighted the Maulana was.  It was the same far sightedness that shows up when he started the IITs as education minister in the Nehru cabinet, a decision that paved the way for the transformation of India into a technological powerhouse in the 21st century.

The Maulana’s vision was not limited to the borders of his own country or the confines of his own community. It embraced all of humanity. Mohammed Hamid Ali Khan quotes Asif Ali: “Tolerance to him did not mean religious tolerance. He believed in the absolute right of individual to differ and hold whatever opinion he believed to be correct”.

He believed not just in the unity of Hindus and Muslims but in the brotherhood of man. In this he had his firm anchor in his religious beliefs::

“The greatest tragedy for humankind and a confirmation of its rejection of its divine nature is that it forgot the universal relationship of its creation but instead established its relationships on the basis of plots of land and divisions of lineage. The earth that was made for love and mutual support was made a stage for mutual differences and quarrels. But Islam is the first voice in the world which sent an invitation for universal brotherhood and unity not on the basis of divisions erected by humankind but on the basis of the Unity of God who is to be worshiped and served.”

The eloquence of this testimony and the conviction of the soul behind it are unmatched in Urdu literature, or for that matter, in any literature. The greatest tribute to this towering personality is the consistency of his character and his unswerving loyalty to the cause of communal harmony and to Gandhi. He was a giant in the shadows of other giants but whereas others winced at times of trial, the Maulana was unswerving in his vision. History is witness that Gandhi blinked when making his fateful decision about partition and even campaigned for it during the final vote of the Congress Working Committee on the issue in 1946; Nehru flipped under the persuasion of lady Mountbatten; Jinnah changed from a secular nationalist to an ardent champion of Pakistan.

Not Maulana Azad! His unshakeable belief in the brotherhood of man, his conviction in the unity of all of his countrymen-Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis- his loyalty to Gandhi and Nehru even when they made an about-face about partition, his generosity to his erstwhile detractors, his selfless service to his nation –stand out in stark contrast to the opportunism that so often characterized men of his turbulent times. It is this steadfastness borne out of conviction and faith that endows his writings and his person with a universal, timeless character.

References: Khutububat e Azad, Malik Ram, Sahitya Academy, Delhi, 1967.

India Wins Freedom, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Longmans, Green and Company, London, New York, Toronto, 1960