Maulana Abul Kalam Azad - A Giant amongst the Genius
By Dr Basheer Ahmed Khan
Garden Grove, CA
When the British occupied India in 1857, Abul Kalam’s father migrated from India to Arabia in the hope of living in a free country. His father married the niece of Mufti of Madinah and Abul Kalam Azad was born in 1888 in Mecca. Not finding any difference between British Imperialism and Turkish Imperialism, Abul Kalam’s family returned to India in 1898 and settled in Calcutta.
Maulana Azad belonged to a scholarly family which was highly respected. As many of his father’s friends were great scholars Maulana’s education was mostly home schooling. Another reason why he was tutored at home was that his father was not satisfied with the curriculum and environment of the religious schools. Nonetheless, many other boys joined him to establish a small school. His own genius, with the added advantage of individual attention that he got from his teachers of repute, helped Maulana Azad get a good understanding of the subjects. The independent lens that he developed without the tainted perspective of the religious schools made him see things clearly without bias.
The independent lens which Maulana Azad developed was nothing new. Ibn e Thimiya RA had developed the same vision as a consequence of destruction of Baghdad by Mongols around 650 Hijra. What Ibn e Thimiya said to Arabs Maulana had to repeat to Muslims of the subcontinent 500 years later when Delhi surrendered to British rule. Scholars of Islamic renaissance were only a vehicle for the hitchhikers of the established order to escape the mess that they had created. They hijacked the vehicle later and took it on the old route once again. Ibne Thimiya receives lip service from Islamic scholars, but most of them don’t follow his pronouncement about errors in our society to correct them. Talakh e Tahreemi is one of them. We may claim that the spirit of Machiavelli is pervading the Western thought but we can’t deny that it also permeates the ethos of Muslims.
Analyzing the reason of Mughals' decline Maulana repeats what has been said by many other scholars before: “When scholars vie with each other to obtain closeness of the rulers to tailor the religion for their needs then they destroy the fort of religion to obtain bricks for their abodes”. He mentions several such instances from the first century of Hijra to modern times as to how and why religion was abused by different sections of society. Prejudices, ignorance, blind conformity and superstition on the one hand and atheism and lawlessness in the name of Ijtehad on the other have been the lot of Muslims, he says.
Blind conformity that was expected by the religious authorities suffocated the young Firoz Bakht who was imbued with his questioning spirit. The age old books with stale thoughts and arguments were not the right tools for him to present the vibrant message of Islam which he had imbibed with a genuine understanding of Qur’an and sunnah. Not being able to express his doubts or discuss them with the elders he was surrounded with, frustrated him. He was getting a lot of respect as a young scholar and as a member of the age old religious family. But respect was not what he was looking for. He was looking for the new paradigm to advance the consciousness of Allah and present the message of Islam to the world which was moving away from it at its own peril. He was conscious of the dangers of renaissance movement based on dialectical process using deceptive and deficient intellect. (It is difficult to imagine his state if he were alive today when even the dialectical process is stifled by silencing alternate views.) This frustration that he had to endure made him indulge in things which were not in consonance with the purpose of his life. He says: “Normally people start their journey of gaiety and escapades of youth by 24 years of age, but I returned to my abode in this age to pick up the thorns that pricked my feet in my aimless jaunts and focused again on my journey”. He started the monthly magazine Al-Hilal when he was twenty-four years of age. (Ghubar e Khatir).
At 24 years of age he published the monthly Al-Hilal. Impressed by its rich religious and literary content Maulana Hasrat Mohani, a noted Urdu writer and poet, went to meet him. When Azad came of the door, Hasrat Mohani asked him if his dad was at home. Apparently, Hasrat Mohani was not expecting that a young man like him could bring out a magazine of such high religious and literary content. When the young man said that he was Abul Kalam, Hasrat Mohani was wonderstruck and gave him a big hug (Al-Jamiath).
Shaikhul Hind Maulana Mehmudul Hassan RA after his release from prison in Malta wanted all Muslims to declare Abul Kalam as Imam ul Hind (Leader of Muslims in India) and pledge allegiance to him. If this proposal was not opposed by those who did not forgive the false steps of Azad in his personal life, and were themselves aspirants of this position, the world would not be facing the problem of a leaderless Muslim World (Tahreek e Shaikhul Hind and Tanzeem e Islami). One of the objections of these self-seeking scholars was that he was not educated at any of the established religious schools.
In that turbulent period of history when Maulana was on the rollercoaster ride of his political activities he had no opportunity to give expression to his inner feelings that were dear to him. When he was interned at Ahmed Nagar Jail with Pundit Nehru and other leaders of the Independence struggle he got the time and solitude to open his mind and express the conflicts of his heart and his soul which synthesized his personality. This he wrote in the form of letters to his friend Nawab Sadr Yar Jung and was published by Sahitya Academy as Ghubar e Khatir. His book Tazkira became a chronicle of the journey of Islam and Muslims through ages even though he was writing it on the request of his friend as his biography.
Ghubar-e-Khatir which was published by Sahitya Academy and meticulously indexed by Malik Ram gives an insight into the transformation of Maulana Azad from a scholar of Salfi Islam to the torchbearer of its Universal Message. This book is a masterpiece of religion, art, humanities and, most importantly, literature. I remember reading this book in the '70s and enjoying it for its literary content. Recently I read it again and understood that it was not just literature but a very important piece of human history and psychology. He discusses every subject with ease. Malik Ram who has indexed several of Maulana’s literary works, writes: Maulana talks with ease on the most difficult subject like God and Ego as he talks about the story of sparrows in his prison cell, about flowers in the backyard of his cell, and about animals, music and history.
Maulan Azad’s mother tongue was obviously Arabic and therefore his Urdu writing is tinged more with Arabic than with Persian. But he uses couplets from Persian poetry so profusely and so aptly in support of an idea that he is expressing in a passage as if that couplet was written by the poet for him to use. Even though he learned his Urdu in Calcutta which is not a seat of Urdu, his literary style is enchanting. The rhetorical force of Arabic terms with the expressive capabilities of Urdu language enriched by Persian, Devnagiri, English, etc. gave Firoz Bakht (the original name of Maulana given to him by his father), a powerful tool to express the complex thought in a vivid expression and make it a literary gem, and made him popular as Abul Kalam, Father of Diction. When one reads his works he is wonderstruck not only by the depth of the topic under discussion but also by the expressive capabilities of his pen.
Maulana realized that the cocoon of exclusivity which Muslims had built around themselves was not the way to live in a world which Allah had made. The following paragraph which is poorly translated by me from one of his letters in Ghubar e Khatir is a masterpiece of diction:
“There is no denial to the fact that in a world which is so beautifully painted by the painter of nature, a philosopher, an ascetic and a monk with his dry faces is an odd fixture. In a tapestry depicting the brilliance of the Sun, the refulgence of the moon, twinkling of the stars, and beauty of colorful flowers, one can’t find his place in it with a dispirited heart and a drooping face. A heart burning with desire, a face luminous with expectation which shines like a moon in a moon-lit night, glows like stars of the starlit night, and blooms like a flower in the flower bed alone has a right to exist in the lively environment of such a canvass”.
Maulana was not satisfied with the state of Muslims. He wanted to change it. It was his conviction that Muslims can’t change their condition unless they understand the mistakes of the past and correct them. He was dismayed at the spirit of conformity with the past in every section of Muslim society and his inability as an individual to change them. He did not join the Khilafa Movement of Maulana Muhammad Ali or Muslim League of Quaid i Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah for these movements, according to his views, were another attempt to advance the isolation of Muslims. He joined the Congress as a strategy to soften the heart of Hindus towards Islam and Muslims and also to bring the Muslims out of their conformist cocoon into a world of reality and plurality that confronted them. A salfi scholar becomes an “Infidel” and a “Show Boy” in the eyes of those who were afraid of new ideas destabilizing their established positions. Even though he was in political limelight and lived a rich life he considered himself as an unseasoned fruit which is expensive and therefore inaccessible to common man (Ghubar e Khatir).
Pundit Nehru paid tribute to his erudition and lamented his death in 1958 by saying: I have lost my right hand.
I consider him a giant amongst geniuses because he performed the most difficult task of identifying the errors of human understanding of divine religion. He did that at a time when our erroneous understanding of religion was more reverent to us than the real religion because we had developed a reverence for it by centuries of practice. He was not only good in analyzing the past to separate the grain from the chaff, but was also a person of great foresight which was evident from his speech at Jamaa Masjid http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GUkb_HTFW8 ( Preview )
All this he had done on an intellectual level without any claim to orphic insight. He lies in solitude in his grave at the feet of Mughal monuments in Delhi.