An Appraisal of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad

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Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray

November is celebrated as the ‘National Education Day’ across India in the honor, memory, and recognition of Abul Kalam Azad (11th Nov. 1888—22nd Feb. 1958). Maulana Azad—a theologian, Urdu journalist, politician, educationist, an Islamic intellectual par excellence—was an influential political leader of the first half of the 20th century, who later on served as the first Education Minister of independent India.
Born in Makkah, and raised in Calcutta, his original name was Feroz Bakht/ Muhiyuddin Ahmed; but he is commonly known as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958), with ‘Azad’ as his pen-name. Some of his famous works of Azad are: Tarjuman al-Qur’an; Ghubar-i-Khatir (‘Sallies of the Mind’); Tazkirah (‘Memoirs’); India Wins Freedom; al-Hilal; Al-Balagh, etc.
It is a well-known fact that Azad was one of the significant Indian political leaders associated with ‘Khilafat movement’ and Indian National Congress. It is also well-known, and an accepted fact, that he penned, and stressed much, on concepts/ topics such as universalism, nationalism, secularism, national integration, and communal harmony. Azad is generally accepted as a journalist, exegete of the Qur’an, an Islamic scholar, and an Educationist (first Education Minister of Independent India), of highest caliber.
In 2007, almost-a-decade-before, on his birth anniversary, The Hindu (in its Sunday Magazine: “The man who sated behind”) paid tribute to Azad in these words: Azad was “President of the Indian National Congress from 1940-45, leader of the Quit India movement and head of Congress delegations in crucial meetings during this period. As a Muslim divine, steeped in the erudition of his faith, and as a committed nationalist unalterably opposed to the proposed partition of his country, Azad symbolized the all-inclusive aspirations of the nationalist movement”.
This year, Syeda Saiyidain Hameed, the Padma Shri awardee writer-activist-educationist (in her write-up, “Abul Kalam Azad, the lodestar”, The Indian Express, 28th Mar 2018) highlighted the forgotten legacy of Azad as: “No one remembers Azad. Not even the Congress, the party to which he committed his life. He has been relegated to a corner of political hoardings, a man with a topi [cap] and beard, a Muslim caricature. This is unlike what he remained throughout his life, the elegant, erudite statesman who towered next to [M. K.] Gandhi and [Jawaharlal] Nehru during the tumultuous days of the freedom struggle”.
In scholarly works, Azad has been described, and has been remembered, in deferent capacities. For instance, Azad has been described as “Liberal theologian” (Aziz Ahmad); “Indian theologian-philosopher” (Irfan Ahmad); “Indian Muslim intellectual and nationalist leader” (Juan E. Campo); “chief theoretician of the Khilafat movement for Islamic solidarity and a supporter of Indian independence” (Charles Kurzman); “an Urdu-speaking theologian and journalist” who belonged to “Islamic integrationists” or “Islamic Nationalists” (Richard C. Martin); one of the “leading figures of the Khilafat movement” and “important [thinker] in giving voice to political frustrations facing Muslims” (Vali Raza Nasr); “the writer, thinker and educationist”, who for most of his life “remained at the centre of Indian nationalist politics” (Burjor Avari); “an identist religious pluralist” (Yousuf Dadoo); “a religious scholar who was among the most prominent Muslims associated with the Indian National Congress and later among those opposing the demand for a separate Muslim homeland” (Muhammad Qasim Zaman); a “Pan-Islamist” and “a prominent leader of the India National Congress” (Mazheruddin Siddiqi); one of the major South Asian representatives behind the “project of Islamic modernism” (Ibrahim H. Abu Rabi’); a personality who is “particularly valuable” example on “religious plurality”, as he had “firm belief in Islam as well as his passionate commitment to communal harmony and a secular state” (Yoginder Sikand); “an Indian Muslim leader and Islamic scholar” (Muqtedar Khan); “a deeply humane and reflective Islamic thinker” (The Hindu, 2007); “Islamic thinker, and religious universalist” (Christian W. Troll); an “Islamic theologian who was one of the leaders of the Indian independence movement against British rule in the first half of the 20th century” (The Encyclopaedia Britannica); and above all “a man of religion, a religious reformer, and a scholar of Islam” (Ian H. Douglas).
Ian Henderson Douglas, in his Abul Kalam Azad—An Intellectual and Religious Biography (1988)—which has been termed as the “most penetrating study of Azad’s life and works”—described Azad as: Azad is, by any reckoning, a major figure in 20th century Indian history. A scholar thoroughly trained in the traditional Islamic sciences, Azad was a man of religion, a religious reformer, and a scholar of Islam, who made a lasting contribution to Urdu prose literature through his various writings, including Tarjuman al-Qur’an, introspective autobiography, and through Al-Hilal and Al-Balagh magazines. Azad was, indeed, the man of religion, as a Muslim reformer and scholar of Islam (pp. 1-2, 98, 282, 284). Henderson died before the publication of this book, and thus it was edited by Gail Minault and Christian W. Troll (both are well-versed scholars specialising in South Asian history) and was published by Oxford University Press (New Delhi).
In 2002, Charles Kurzman (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, USA) published an anthology, “ Modernist Islam: A Sourcebook” . Among the South Asian modernists, this book includes a Chapter on Azad—originally an extract from his Speech (Qaul-i-Faisal: “The Last Word”) delivered in Calcutta, India on January 11, 1922). Kurzman, in his introduction, presents the portrait of Azad in these words: Azad was the chief theoretician of the Khilafat movement for Islamic solidarity and a supporter of Indian independence. He was also an exegete of the Qur’an and a prominent literary figure. He was dismayed by the disagreements among Muslims; he adopted the pen name “Azad” (free). Between 1912 and 1930, Azad edited the journals al-Hilal (The Crescent) and al-Balagh (The Message), the most important Muslim periodicals of the region. He joined the Indian independence movement, served as president of the All-India National Congress in 1940-1947, and remained an advocate for Hindu-Muslim amity for the rest of his life. When Pakistan was created, Azad remained in India, was appointed minister of education, and served as deputy leader of Congress (p. 325).
Juan E. Campo (University of California, USA), editor, Encyclopedia of Islam (New York, 2009, p. 79) has described Azad as the “Indian Muslim intellectual and nationalist leader”, who “was a leader in India’s struggle to gain independence from Britain in the early 20th century, and he served as the country’s first minister of education from 1947 until his death in 1958”. For Campo, Azad’s most important religious work was Tarjuman al-Quran (1931); his thinking was further affected by his travels in the Middle East in 1908–09, when he met with nationalists and religious reformers in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Egypt. He established a weekly Urdu journal in 1912 called Al-Hilal, in which he called upon India’s Muslims to unite and join with other Indians in a nonviolent campaign for independence from Britain.
Vali Raza Nasr (Tufts University, USA), in his chapter on South Asia (in The New Cambridge History of Islam, 2010, p. 561) describes Azad’s multi-faceted personality in these words: Azad was one of “the leading figures of the Khilafat movement”; he was the person who “captured the imagination of young activists, and became their role models”; he was one of the “most important” figures who through his “passionate essays in his journal al-Hilal” had gained wide popularity among the “Muslim activists of all hues”; he was the person who became “a model for Islamist intellectual activism”. Nasr further states that “Azad was particularly important in giving voice to political frustrations facing Muslims, and as such helped [to] create the notion of a singular Muslim political community”.
In 2013, Yousuf Dadoo (a Religious Studies Professor from South Africa) published a paper in ‘Religion and Theology’ (vol. 20, 2013, pp. 129-152; a reputed journal by Brill, Netherlands) in which he studied Azad as one of the three (other two being Muhammad Ali and Abdullah Yusuf Ali: both are famous for the translating the Qur’an in English language) “Qur’anic Scholars of the Indian Subcontinent” on the issue of “Religious Pluralism”. He reaches the conclusion that on this issue Azad “combines philosophy with mysticism” and thus is classified as “an identist religious pluralist” (p. 149).
For Christian W. Troll (in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics, 2-vols., 2014, pp. 118-120) Azad was “an Urdu journalist, Islamic thinker, and religious universalist, who symbolized the Muslim option of composite Indian nationalism”. Troll also describes Azad as the person who, through his Al-Hilal, “set out first to revive among the Muslims of India the spirit of Qur’anic Islam as the only solution to the nation’s problems; and second to move them to political revolt through participation in the struggle of the Indian Congress Party for self-government”. On Azad’s religio-political thought, Troll writes: “Azad’s overall religious perspective is marked by his unique temperament; he combined aesthetic experience and religious consciousness. All of Azad’s writings had a deeply religious tenor and were marked by his artistic, highly personalized diction, appealing to intuition rather than discursive reason”.
Azad’s Ghubar-i-Khatir (‘Sallies of the Mind’), a collection of his “charming letters to his friend from British prison at Ahmedabad”, for Troll, “provide insight into his multifaceted Islamic sensitivity”, while as Azad’s Tazkirah (‘Memoirs’) “offered a passionate discussion of such moral and religious issues as the eternal validity of the word of God, the affinity between earthly and sacred love, and the appreciation of beauty in its varied forms”. About these two works of Azad, Prof. Abdul Qadir Jafrai (University of Allahabad) is of the opinion that “If one wants to know his [Azad’s] wisdom, nature outlook and intellectualism, then one should study ‘Ghubar-i-Khatir’ and ‘Tazkirah’”.
On Azad’s religious scholarship, Troll concluded with these words: “although he did not initiate a school of thought, his vision of Islam as Qur’an-based universal humanism continues to inspire Muslim sensitivity, especially in the Urdu-speaking world”. And it is apt here to conclude with Prof. Jafari’s words: “Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s thoughts about Muslims and Indians have deep relevance. Getting benefitted by these thoughts we can become even today the deserving titles on the pages of the history”.
Professor Ayoob has aptly sums up his stature (as a scholar-politician) and his forgotten legacy: Azad was “an Islamic scholar and an ardent Indian nationalist” but it is “unfortunate that Maulana Azad’s legacy … is all but forgotten today”. Syeda Hameed also laments on the forgotten legacy of Azad, saying that Azad is not even remembered by “the Congress, the party to which he committed his life” and it is unfortunate that Azad has been “relegated to a corner of political hoardings … [and just] a Muslim caricature”. Professor Muqtedar Khan (Indian-born political scientist at University of Delaware, USA) has rightly described him a “remarkable man by any standards”: “a freedom fighter, a journalist, a scholar, a politician and a statesman”.

The author is an Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at the Government Degree College Pulwama, Kashmir. He can be reached at: tauseef.parray21@gmail.com