Maulana Abul Kalām Āzād (1888-1958), the eminent Indian Muslim man of letters, religious thinker and scholar of the Qur’an and also the first minister of Culture of the culturally and religiously pluralistic nation of India would seem to provide a case study of how an eminent Muslim related ‘the life of interiority with the involvement in community which our times take pains to stress.’1 It so happens that in 2008 shall be commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of his death.
Islam lived and perceived from within a Pluralistic Nation and World: The Case of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad
Islam lived and perceived from within a Pluralistic Nation and World: The Case of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad
After roughly sketching Azad’s life and career, we shall outline his basic theological position, as indicated mainly in his Tarjumān al-Qur’ān, i.e., his explanatory, annotated rendering of a part of the Qur’an. Finally we shall critically remark upon the value and significance of Azad’s Islamic option for a composite nationalism and a universal religious humanism in the context of alternative Islamic options.
Azad: journalist, politician, religious thinker
Azad was born in Mecca where his father, Muhammad Khayruddīn Dihlawī (1831-1908), had emigrated after the failure of the uprising of 1857, and married the daughter of the Arab scholar, Shaykh Muhammad Khayruddīn was a widely-followed pīr (teacher in the spiritual life) and renowned preacher and theological author in a traditionalist vein. His family prided itself on the distinguished service rendered by its divines and administrators from early Mughal times onwards. The language of Azad’s early childhood was Arabic.
When Azad was ten years old, the family returned to Calcutta. The father did not send his son to a madrasah but he himself and some of his learned friends imparted to the precocious child instruction in traditional Islamic learning. The boy’s unusual and early progress soon became widely known. Even in his early youth Azad attained proficiency as a writer and speaker. Altaf Husain Hali (1837-1914), the famous poet and man of letters, once described him as ‘an old head on young shoulders’. Through the writings of Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) and of other luminaries of the Aligarh movement, Azad came to realize the need to broaden his intellectual horizons so as to include literature and scholarship available in the English language as well. However, he instinctively rejected Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s ‘eulogy of all things British and Oxonian.’2 In these early years Azad did not, in fact, gain any familiarity with western thought and culture. It was only later that he acquired a measure of knowledge available in English. But his mind was and remained very much shaped by Urdu-Persian culture with its predilection for elegant expression and a style steeped in poetic intuition and allusion.
In his political autobiography India Wins Freedom, referring to the period between 1906 and 1909, Azad speaks of an early ‘mental crisis’ in the following words:
‘I could not reconcile myself with the prevailing customs and beliefs and my heart was full of a new sense of revolt. The ideas I had acquired from my family and early training could no longer satisfy me. I felt that I must find the truth for myself…
The first thing that troubled me was the exhibition of differences among the different sects of Muslims…. If religion expresses a universal truth, why should there be such differences and conflicts among men professing different religions? Why should each religion claim to be the sole repository of truth and condemn all others as false?
For two or three years this unrest continued and I longed to find a solution of my doubts. I passed from one phase to another and a stage came when all the old bonds imposed on my mind by family and upbringing were completely shattered. I felt free of all conventional ties and decided that I would chalk out my own path. It was about this time that I decided to adopt the pen name ‘Azad’ or ‘Free’ to indicate that I was no longer tied to my inherited beliefs.’3
From 1906 to 1907, more or less during the period just described, Azad travelled through Egypt, Hijaz and Syria and imbibed there the ferment of the religious-political ideas inherited by the two outstanding figures of Muslim and Arab national revival, al-Afghani (d. 1897) and Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905).
Sometime in 1909 Azad seems to have gone back to a personal faith and allegiance to Islam, but in a new way. An essay on ‘Sarmad, the Martyr’, written in 1910 in conjunction with autobiographical remarks made about a decade later, would indicate that ‘attraction’ to the hidden Mystery, called God, and the quest for transforming sacrificial love (‘ishq) as lived and proclaimed by the Sufi poets, and their universalistic and religious humanism was the basis of his renewed Muslim religious outlook, rather than concern for conformity to the injunctions of the Law (sharīi`ah), as it prescribes a detailed ordering of individual and corporate Muslim life.4
From 1912 to 1916 Azad edited the Urdu weeklies al-Hilāl (1912-1914) and al-Balāgh (1915-1916). These two journals made an unparalleled impact on transforming the mind of a section of the Muslim intelligentsia against the Aligharh movements’s loyalty to the British and in favour of pan-Islamism. Worried by Azad’s widely publicized views supporting the Ottoman Caliphate, the British expelled Azad from Calcutta in 1916, at the height of World War I. He lived interned in Ranchi till the end of 1919. From then on until 1924 Azad took a leading part in the Khilafat movement. He was its chief theoretician and popularized the ideas of al-Afghani.
On 18 January 1920 Azad had his first meeting with Gandhi. I do not think that it was Gandhi’s impact on Azad that, as it were, converted him to a composite Hindu-Muslim nationalism, as some scholars hold. For, long before the 1920’s we find in Azad’s writings attitudes and views supporting such a policy. What the meeting with Gandhi and the involvement in the Khilafat and non-cooperation movement did, was to focus Azad’s mind as a Muslim to concentrate on, and to strive for, the ideals of freedom and nationalism together with Indians of all cultural and religious backgrounds. From the time of his religious crisis onwards, through the unfolding political events and the first and second decade of last century, Azad developed steadily towards a religious Muslim humanism of national and universal dimensions.
Within the Congress Azad was one of the founders of the Muslim Nationalist Party: In the politically crucial decade from 1937 to 1947, when the Muslim League, directed by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was eventually able to sway the vast majority of the Muslims vote towards the Pakistan option, Azad remained loyal to the Congress and its policies, advocating a, culturally and religiously, pluralistic, undivided but federally structured, Indian nation. He had given expression to this political view in his Presidential Address to the Congress in Lahore in 1923. In a statement issued on 15 April 1946, Azad made known the reasons for his opposition to the Lahore Resolution of the Muslim League. He considered the ‘scheme’
‘harmful not only for India as a whole but for Muslims in particular….I must confess that the very term Pakistan goes against my grain. It suggests that some portions of the world are pure while others are impure. Such a division of territories into pure and impure is un-Islamic and a repudiation of the very sprit of Islam.’5
In the independent Republic of India Azad served with distinction in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet as India’s first Minister of Education.
Two aspects, one pertaining to Azad’s biography, the other to his character, merit special mention here. Azad spent altogether ten and a half years in jail or internment. In August 1942, in Ahmadnagar Fort, when, aged fifty-three, he already been imprisoned for the sixth time. He remarked:
‘I have spent as it were one day a week in prison. Among the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament one concerned Sabbath, namely every seventh day of the week should be considered a sacred day of rest. In Christianity and Islam likewise such a sacred holiday was instituted. In the same way I was allotted in my life a weekly day of rest.’6
Kenneth Cragg highlights this aspect of Azad’s career, discerning in it ‘a rich occasion for prolonged reflection on the Scripture from which he drew the guidance directing and motivating his long career in letters and politics.’7
Azad’s personality was marked by a sense of independence and heightened self-esteem not surprising when viewed in the light of his extraordinary intellectual gifts in evidence right from early childhood. Azad, furthermore, could stand on his own ground. Regarding this point, the historian Muhammad Mujeeb has remarked:
‘But just as he smoked freely and continuously in Mahatma Gandhi’s presence in spite of its being known that Mahatma Gandhi was strongly opposed to such indulgence, he also declared openly that for him non-violence was a matter of policy, not of creed….From 1930 onwards , when the differences between the Muslim League and the Congress became more and more definite and acute, many nationalist Muslim leaders began to waver and make compromises because of the fear, that, if the Muslims disowned them, they would be isolated and lose their importance. But Maulana Azad could stand alone. The faith and courage which enabled him to do so entitle him to a high position among the great men of the world.’8
Azad retained his critical independence. His ministerial career in the first decade of independent India was marked by impartiality of judgement and unimpeachable integrity.
Azad’s reading of the Qur’an
To inquire about Azad’s peculiar understanding of Islam amounts practically to asking how he read and interpreted the Qur’an. The Qur’an held an absolutely central place in Azad’s thought. It was his life-long endeavour to let the Qur’an itself speak and be listened to and, in order to make this possible, he wanted to remove from it the veils of inadequate and distorting interpretations which subsequent centuries had laid over it.
Azad addressed himself two questions: (1) How should Islam, or the Muslim(s) as such relate to politics? (2) What guidance does the Qur’an provide in the inter-religious situation of India and the world at large?
Azad’s recovery of religious faith (around 1909) which we mentioned earlier, gave him the conviction that religious truth is based on mystical assurance. Abdurrazzaq Malihabadi in his account in Urdu of Azad’s religious crisis names it jazbah (attraction). Religious truth, in other words, is not primarily based on, or judged by rational argument. Hence, Azad tended to find in the Qur’an (and in other sacred scriptures) a strictly religious and ethical summoning rather than scientific or historical information. Also, he played down the intellectual theological issues assuming these to be transcended by the essentially uncomplicated, single spiritual message of the true revelation, reiterated throughout the ages and continents, and expressed insuperably and finally in the Qur’an.
Even before starting al-Hilāl, Azad conceived of both political-journalistic and reformist-theological activity as part of one commitment. He considered himself called upon to play a leading role in summoning the Muslims to active service, together with their co-citizens, in the struggle for freedom from British rule and the building up of a modern, culturally pluralistic nation. This call and the ideals it stood for was the message the Qur’an had proclaimed for centuries, however much it had been obscured time and again by being made the instrument of political and sectarian self-interest.
It is not surprising therefore to find Azad, early in the pages of al-Hilāl, announcing his intention to publish his diverse studies of the Qur’an in the form of a translation of, and commentary upon, the Qur’an, including a detailed prolegomenon. The first fruits of these studies appeared from 1915 onwards in his periodical al-Balāgh, the successor of al-Hilāl. But it was to take fifteen years more before the first volume of Tarjumān al-Qur’ān appeared. This commentary on the sura al-Fātiha (the first chapter of the Qur’an) with a succinct but scholarly introduction, discusses some of Azad’s fundamental convictions and principles in interpretation. Six years later, in 1936, the second volume appeared. Both volumes were revised during Azad’s imprisonment in Ahmednagar in 1945. The second chapter includes a translation of chapters 7-23, fuller marginal notes, and a series of appendices on various theological and historical subjects. Because of their graceful and vivid style, Azad’s Urdu translation of the Holy Book and his commentary found the widest acclaim as masterpieces and ‘the product of a mind, which has come to maturity through many stages of development.’9
In the introduction to the Tarjumān Azad writes:
‘For the past twenty-seven years I have been constantly concerned with the study of the Qur’an....I can say that I have read most of the commentaries and books, published and unpublished. To the best of my ability I have covered all aspects of the Quranic sciences. In our present day, men distinguish between traditional and modern knowledge. Traditional knowledge I have received as inheritance, modern knowledge I have discovered through my own efforts….
‘From the beginning I have refused to be content with the legacy bequeathed to me through family, society and education. The bonds of taqlīd [blind following of classical legal and theological readings] have never fettered me and the thirst for knowledge has never forsaken me. …Never have I been possessed with an assurance of heart which the thorns of doubt would not have pricked nor with a confidence of spirit which all denials temptations wound not have penetrated. I have drunk the drop of poison also from every cup. When thirsty, my thirst was not the thirst of others. When thirst was satisfied, it derived its satisfaction from no common source.’10
What, then, are the main features of Azad’s approach to stating the Islamic message anew for his day? Azad wants, first of all, the Qur’an to speak for itself and to explain itself. He would like the qur’anic message to emerge freed from the thick veils of interpretations, alien to its genuine message. Such veils are, for instance, the arts, sciences and philosophies of Greece, as well as modern pseudo-scientific attributions, which have been mixed up with the true and original meanings of the Qur’an and which have hidden the truth and simplicity of the qur’anic texts. Azad wants the real theme, purpose and logic of the Qur’an to merge, with its non-technical and non-scientific vocabulary, its own language, style and rhetoric. He claims to have opened up in his commentary ‘a new path of contemplative study of the Qur’an…different from other paths hitherto trod.’11 Basic to this ‘way of arguing’ (istidlāl) of the Qur’an is its direct appeal to human nature, to man’s instinct, senses, conscience, summoning him to reason, to reflect, to meditate upon creation, so that the may understand and analyse himself and his surroundings aright.
But Azad does not only want to lead us back to the pure and simple text and language and to the reasoning peculiar to the Qur’an. Ultimately he wants to lay bare its message. This message is the truth contained essentially in all religions, the dīn or dīn-i hanīf or al-sirāt al-mustaqīm. This dīn is also called al-Islām because ‘Islam mans to acknowledge and to for obey.’ 12
Dīn is the word is the word used for religion and law because the basic belief of religions is belief in the recompense of works. This basis of din is tauhīd, the direct worship of the one Lord of the universe. Yet, when this aspect of the human response is highlighted in explaining dīn, its meaning, virtually is identical with righteousness or piety as described in sure 2:177:
It is not piety that you turn your faces
to the East and to the West
True piety is this:
to believe in God, and the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the Prophets,
to give of one’s substance, however cherished,
to kinsmen and orphans,
the needy, the traveller, beggars,
And to ransom the slave,
to perform the prayer, to pay the alms.
And they who fulfil their covenant,
and endure with fortitude
misfortune, hardship and peril,
these are they who are true in their faith, these are the truly god-fearing.
Dīn or, as Azad also terms it, dīn-i ilāhī, in this sense, is identical with what all religions basically consider to be good (ma`rūf) and evil (munkar). Azad also states: ‘The whole body of beliefs and practices can be summarized in these words: Faith and good works.’13
The obvious differences within and between the religions (ikhtilāf-i dīn) belong to two categories, those which are in fact not characteristic of the religions themselves, but which erring devotees have fabricated by deviating from the true teaching of their religions; and those variations which actually are present in the religions as ordinances and rites, of which the actual form of worship is an example. Such variations have to be distinguished clearly from dīn, i.e., from the essence and the spirit of religion. They accord with the variations of environment in which men of various climes and ages have lived and with the variation of man’s development in history. The Qur’an denotes these variations by the terms shar` or minhāj. Commenting on sura 5:48 Azad writes:
‘For every age and country God has ordained a special form (or worship) which suitably conformed to man’s situation and need…. Had God willed, he would have made a unified nation and community of all mankind, and no variation of thought and practice would have appeared; but we know that God did not so wish. His wisdom demanded that various states of thought and practice be created.’14
Since all religions, in origin, contain the truth and are pervaded with the same spirit, and since the existing variation do not affect the essentials of religion, the Qur’an enjoins tolerance towards the followers of other faiths and forbids forceful and coercive techniques in summoning others to its religion. This is Azad’s understanding of sura 10:99:
‘And had your Lord wished, all men would have believed (but you see that it was the decision of his wisdom, that every man walk according to his own understanding and on his own way). Then do you wish to compel people that they would become believers?’
E.N. Hahn summarizes Azad’s views in this respect thus:
‘On several occasions the Qur’an even praises adherents of other religions who, because of their firm faith and righteous deeds, have preserved the true spirit of their religion. For as God is one, so God in the Qur’an invites scattered mankind into the unity of religion to become as a united brotherhood, as one family of the Lord of the universe, and as the people who hate sin, yet not the sinner. In this unity of religion and holy relationship with God man can discover the corrective of all human divisiveness and the true source of their salvation, contentment and happiness.’15
The two other main themes of Azad’s Qur’an commentary are the evolution of religions and the place of religions other than Islam. In Azad’s view, all religions prior to the Qur’an proclaimed the unity of God’s essence. However, they neglected the proclamation of its converse, that there is none like Him, and thus failed to grasp the true belief in the unity of attributes. So they made gods in their own image, glorified their spiritual leaders and tacitly divided themselves into exclusive groups. The Qur’an in contrast, according to Azad, presents with inimitable clarity and power of expression God’s unity and exposes idolatry; summons to worship, supplication and truth in God alone. It thus proclaims liberation from slavery to anything finite and contingent.
The tolerance of the Qur’an cannot mean compromise. Though all religions are true in a sense, and though the Qur’an praises that minority of people who cling to their true religion, yet the majority of the followers of these earlier religions have deviated from the path of their religions. The Qur’an has come to summon them back to the truth. In confirming previous revelations, the Qur’an clearly does not claim to be the sole repository of truth, not even to introduce a new religion, not to condemn the old religions. It merely, Azad claims, calls humans who are divided, back to their respective religions. No one should therefore quarrel with the Qur’an. If they accept their respective religions as they originally were, they automatically embrace the Qur’an also.
We may be forgiven for asking: Can they really be expected in this case, automatically to embrace the Qur’an? Azad’s dīn, yes, perhaps. But they certainly will find it less easy to embrace the full qur’anic vision and provision for the believers’ life. Does the Qur’an not contain a whole number of distinct dogmatic beliefs and concrete injunctions, in fact, the nucleus of the sharī’ah? Furthermore, Azad seems to leave it entirely to the individual conscience of the Muslim whether he or she should obey any of the specific mandates of the Qur’an.
The second main theme discussed by Azad, the nature and place of the other, non-Muslim religions, leads him to attempt answering the daunting question as to how the variations in these religions other than those of religious law and way of life, have arisen. In Azad’s long-drawn-out discussion of this problem, empirical evidence and dogmatic apriori presuppositions constantly intermingle. Azad speaks for instance in flowery terms about outstanding religious personalities belonging to the non-.Muslim traditions, but he mentions, in fact, only one person specifically who is not already designated as a prophet in the Qur’an. His argument for the original oneness of all religions is historically unconvincing. When discussing Judaism and Christianity, Azad makes use only of those statements of Qur’an and Bible which are conform to the teaching of the Qur’an, the other passages of the Bible he reinterprets, overlooks or dismisses. For Azad, the Qur’an not only interprets the Qur’an. The Qur’an as Ernest Hahn rightly points out, also interprets the Bible, or for that matter, any other source material which is vital for an understanding of the various religions.
In Azad’s religious thought, as sketched here very briefly, the questions he addresses to the Qur’an and his single-minded concentration on the texts of the Qur’an impress more than the actual scholarly execution of his great project. Azad’s outstanding contribution as a Muslim religious thinker was, I submit, following K. Cragg, his courageous decision to attempt justifying rationally, in terms of the Qur’an and Islamic thought, Muslim participation with others in forming a common statehood.
The fate of Azad’s historical project
By the end of the 1930’s the hopes of the Khilafat movement had definitely collapsed. Communal tensions awoke in new and sharper forms. Increasingly, the Indian Muslims were swayed by the Muslim League under M.A. Jinnah to reject the policies Azad and the Congress advocated. The Lahore Resolution of 1940 committed the Muslim League to a separate Muslim homeland. Te Resolution in fact ‘represented a verdict about the very nature of Islam and how the Qur’an should be read.’16 It also sealed the personal tragedy of Azad’s life endeavour. Those advocating Pakistan and Islamic statehood claimed to be in line with the power equation within Muhammad’s own mission and declared the territorially separate, ‘pure’ Islamic state to be inscribed in the foundational scripture of Islam.
In contrast Azad and those Muslims who were striving with him for national unity in freedom, by way of composite Indian nationalism, invoked aspects and dimensions of the Qur’an which they read as demanding a sincere sharing in the common human condition. They advocated what they saw as a going back to the essential trans-historical outlook of the Qur’an. To do so would be a dynamic Islamic response to a changing political situation. They foresaw, furthermore, the horrendous cost of the partition of India in human lives and accused the League of lacking that confidence and trust the Qur’an inculcates, for instance in sura 39:38: ‘Say, God is sufficient for me, in Him do the trusting trust.’
Kenneth Cragg observes:
‘That God knows all that men hide in their bosoms ─ of motives, interests and purposes ─ might arguably imply that the integrity of these was beyond mere political attainment and that the drive for their political attainment might itself prove the more corrupting. A sense of the feel of the Qur’an in changed times might indicate that the Hijra could be a spiritual vocation….The often latent, always crucial, question during the years of debate and conflict prior to partition was [as Muhammd Mujeeb has put it] ‘whether moral values could be asserted in the form of political principles’. The historian may conclude that through those years and in those that followed within India, Azad exemplified what a reading of the Qur’an for spiritual priorities should mean, in no way abandoning things political but conceiving them within a wider human and religious field of reference.’17
Earlier we have seen Azad, in his reply to the Lahore Resolution, drawing the Zionist parallel to Pakistan. The Zionist and the Pakistan movements share the conviction that a sustained universal impact of the respective religion presupposes a territorially separate, sovereign, ideological state. Azad was basically opposed to the idea of a religious state. But whereas in the Zionist case he saw certain geographical and historical factors lending strong support to the idea of the Jewish state, he could not find any justification for an Islamic territorial separatism on South Asian soil. He rejected the idea of Pakistan on the grounds of ideology and political expediency. For Azad, making a territorial ‘country of the pure (pāk) was a symbol of defeatism, a sign of cowardice’, a question mark against the Islamic capacity to survive without territorial frontiers in a world (and in nations) marked by a cultural and religious pluralism.
In the earlier phase of his political career Azad had tried hard to arouse the ulema to political commitment and active participation in the struggle for freedom together with non-Muslim Indians. He succeeded in activating them but failed to win them over to his own vision of Muslim political participation in a national life shared with non-Muslim Indians. The Muslim League as we saw, eventually succeeded in winning the majority of the Muslims over ‘to the antithesis to common nationality, i.e. of separate independence.’18 It benefited from Azad’s success in arousing Muslim political engagement and, at the same time, distorted his ultimate political concern. It is thus no exaggeration to se Azad’s life as a Muslim politician marked by elements of tragedy, and even martyrdom.
As can be seen clearly in Azad’s masterly autobiographical work, the Tadhkirah,19 the liberal Mughal tradition was alive in him, as well as the cosmopolitanism found in his immediate link through his mother with the city of Mecca and thus with the whole Arab and Muslim World. He was also a true Indian national Muslim, conceiving of Islam in India throughout in terms of self-confident partnership within a national framework of cultural and religious diversity, as opposed to the narrow and debilitating territorialism of an ideological state.
1 Margaret Chatterjee, Opening Remarks in: T.S. Rukmani (ed-.), Religious Consciousness and Life-worlds. Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, in association with Indus Publishing Company, New Delhi 1988. The present essay is the slightly modified text of the author’s essay published as chapter 7 of the same volume, pp.113-128.
2 Kenneth Cragg, The Pen and the Faith, London, Allen and Unwin, 1985, p. 16.
3 Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, India Wins Freedom, Bombay, Orient Longmans, 1959, pp. 3-4.
4 Cf. The thorough discussion of Azad’s crisis of faith and his recovery from it in the first chapter of the intellectual biography of Azad by the late Ian H. Douglas, New Delhi, Oxford University press, 1988, ed. by G. Minault and C.W. Troll. Cf. also Christian W. Troll, 'Abul Kalam Azad's Sarmad the Martyr', in Christopher Shackle (ed.), Urdu and Muslim South Asia. Studies in honour of Ralph Russell.( London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1989), ch. X., pp. 113 128.
5 India Wins Freedom, p. 142.
6 Azad, Ghubār-i khātir, Urdu original ed. Malik Ram, New Delhi, Sahitya Akademi, 1976, pp. 33-34.
7 K. Cragg, The Pen and the Faith, p. 14.
8 M. Mujeeb, The Indian Muslims, Montreal-London 1969, p. 441.
9 Maulana Azad, New Delhi, Publications Division, 1958, p. 16.
10 Tarjumān al-Qur’ān, vol. 1, New Delhi, Sahitya Akademi, 1964, pp. 51-53
11 Ibid., p.47.
12 Quoted in Ernest Hahn, ‚Maulana Abul-Kalam Azad’s Concept of Religion and Religions according to his Tarjumān-al-Qur’ān: A Critique’, Unpublished thesis for M.Th., McGill Univ., Montreal, 1965, p.19.
13 Ibid., p. 21.
14 Ibid., p. 22.
15 Ibid., p. 23.
16 K. Cragg, The Pen and the Faith, p. 27.
17 Ibid., p. 28.
18 Ibid., p. 29.
19 Cr. Muhammad Mujeeb’s fine analysis of the Tadhkirah, in Humayun Kabir (ed.), Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Memorial Volume, Bombay, Asia Publ. House, 1959, pp.134-152