Reading Hayat Alvi’s Nonviolent Activism in Islam: Message of Abul Kalam Azad (2021)
The 20th century has seen a number of thinkers/ leaders who influenced not only their native people but made an imprint globally as well. In India, too, a number of personalities belonging to various religions/ religious beliefs appeared on the scene and left an enduring mark on the life and thought of masses and leaders alike. Among the Muslims, one such prominent and renowned figure was Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958): scholar, journalist, political leader and educationist. He served as the first Education Minister of India and his birth anniversary (November 11) is celebrated as National Education Day.
Though in most of the writings on him, his role as a freedom fighter/ political leader, journalist, religious scholar or Quranic exegete (author of Tarjuman al-Qur’an) is discussed and highlighted, but a significant aspect of his life and thought is his role as a propagator, preacher, and practitioner of non-violent activism—an aspect of his multidimensional personality in which he was highly influenced by the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi and his practice of Ahimsa (non-violence) and Satyagraha (civil disobedience).
In this context, below is presented an assessment of a recently published book, Nonviolent Activism in Islam: Message of Abul Kalam Azad. Written by Hayat Alvi (Associate Professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the US Naval War College), who claims to be a “Gandhian’ by heart, in this book she “tells the story and explains the Islamic legal precedent of the nonviolent civil disobedience that Maulana Azad undertook in the face of British repression” (p. ix).
This book consists of five (5) main chapters, excluding Introduction and Conclusion, and its main purpose is to “illustrate the legal basis for nonviolent activism in Islam”, as propounded, practiced, promoted, and exemplified by Maulana Azad with the hope that contemporary leaders and activists can learn lessons from his example, which “can be an argument against blind dogma and extremism in the modern era”.
In other words, Alvi highlights and discusses the Non-Violent Activism (hereinafter abbreviated as NVA) of Azad as an anecdote or a remedial measure for the extremist interpretations of Islam (in particular) and other religions/ religious traditions in general in the current times.
Alvi is a staunch “Gandhian”, and by that way a staunch supporter and follower of Azad’s NVA, and is fed up with the “spread of intolerant, militant ideologies (both secular and religious) that inspire acts of violence” (p. viii) or with the “radical interpretations of Islam”. She has thus focused on, and given attention to, the “nonviolent interpretations of Islam, especially in the context of political activism in the pursuit of social justice” (p. viii; italics in original). That is, the book intends to provide “a counterargument to violent Islamist extremism by means of educating the reader about Islam’s nonviolent principles and how they can be used to fight against extremism and radicalism” (p. 16).
In this context, Alvi’s work makes a substantial contribution and she rightly argues that focusing on building awareness about “nonviolent aspects of Islam in today’s environment is equally invaluable” (p. 16). Below is presented a brief description of each chapter followed by summary of the major arguments presented in the conclusion of this vis-à-vis their relevance with today’s scenario:
In the “Introduction” (pp. 1-19), the author provides a brief outline of the current trends in Islamic thought; background of the NVA within Islamic purview, as outlined, understood and interpreted by Azad; brief profile of Azad; and purpose, focus and outline of the book.
Chapter 1, “Abul Kalam Azad: Who Was He?” (pp. 21-47), delves deep into Azad’s life, thought and ideas, his principles of NVA in the context of his “rational” interpretation of Islam, and his role as a leader of Indian Muslims in the freedom movement. Describing Azad as a “man of principle” Alvi puts forth that Azad’s “pragmatism aligned with the Congress Party’s demands for an independent, united, secular India”; and most importantly, “Azad embraced and practiced Mahatma Gandhi’s strategy of ahimsa (nonviolence) and satyagraha (civil disobedience), which, in turn, solidifies Islam’s compatibility with nonviolent activism” (p. 43).
Chapter 2, “The Concept of ‘Adl [Justice], Zulm [Oppression], and Mazlum [One who is Oppressed] in Islam” (pp. 49-68), presents a detailed description of the concepts of ‘Adl, Zulm, Mazlum and violent persecution of the early converts to Islam and then establishes linkages between those historical concepts and events and the pro-independence movement against British in India, with a focus on Azad’s thoughts and practices.
Chapter 3, “The Islamic Principles of Social Justice: From Maulana Azad to the Arab Awakening” (pp. 69-88), discusses in detail the Islamic principles of social justice by examining its historical context, beginning with early Islamic history, followed by the period of British colonial rule and the Indian struggle against it, and “analyses the principles of Maulana Azad in the struggle against injustice, and how that compares to the principles and practices of violent extremism” (p. 69).
Alvi makes a comparative analysis of “Islamist Extremism” and Azad’s principles of nonviolence, pluralism, peaceful co-existence, and secular democracy, in Chapter 4 (pp. 89-120). It discusses, among other things, the “Rise of ISIS” (pp. 90-93) and the impact of “Political Islam on the Subcontinent” (pp. 110-116). In these discussions, Alvi attempts to compare and contrast Azad’s “principles of nonviolence to those of the most violent and puritanical extremists” (p. 89) and reaches the conclusion that Azad was “a dedicated pro-independence Indian nationalist, Mahatma Gandhi’s right-hand Muslim leader, and a loyal, selfless and diligent nonviolent activist” (p. 117).
In the context of discussions made in previous chapters, Chapter 5 is devoted to the “Implications of Nonviolent Islam for Peace and Security” (pp. 121-135) as “there is insufficient literature about nonviolent Islamic activism” (p. 121). In this context, Alvi highlights the nonviolent philosophy and activism of Azad, arguing that his “precedent of rendering nonviolent civil disobedience compatible with Islam” needs to be highlighted as it has the potential to “pull the rug from underneath the violent Islamist extremism” (pp. 121-22). Referring to the calls of Azad, Abdul Ghafar Khan (aka Frontier Gandhi), and Gandhi on achieving “political unity” between Hinduism and Islam, “unity within Islam” (by refuting “sectarianism”), and for “unity between as well as within religions” (p. 130, 131), Alvi concludes that the “disciplines of nonviolent activism in fighting against tyranny, injustices, and oppressions has succeeded in achieving justice without violence and insatiable revenge” (pp. 132-33).
The book ends with a seven-page ‘Conclusion’ (pp. 137-143), and the main arguments put forth by Alvi are summarised below:
1. Through his preaching and practice of fighting nonviolently against oppression and injustice, Azad provided the design/model for employing “ammunition to disarm violent extremism worldwide” (p. 137)
2. Azad’s personal example in the “struggle against injustice under the British Raj is a prime model for nonviolent activists to follow for exacting justice and eliminating oppression” (Ibid.).
3. Azad set the religio-legal precedent in modern history of Islam for “nonviolent civil disobedience” by strongly counterarguing against “violent extremism”, and thus his principles and message can be “used in any struggle against violent extremism” (pp. 137-38).
4. “Azad’s moderate orientation in Islamic teachings and nonviolent practices” are much helpful in reversing the current “negative stereotypes of Islam and Muslims” (p. 139).
5. Azad and his like-minded figures, like Gandhi and Dr Martin Luther King Jr., have found “inspiration for nonviolent activism from their respective faiths”, and their “faith-based messages to the massed proved effective in mobilising them to participate in their respective morally credible causes” (p. 139).
6. The “Nonviolent activism usually results in conflict resolution and changes in laws and policies toward more just social and legal codes”, whereas “violent conflicts” cause terrible violence having negative consequences on all aspects of human life, thus it is rightly said that everyone “benefits from nonviolent activism” and every aspect of life is affected by violent conflicts (p. 141).
7. Azad’s idea and practice of nonviolence refutes the argument of the “extremists” that “oppression has to be countered with violence” (p. 141).
8. Narrating and relating the story of Azad is one of the most effective of ways to release Islam from the “trappings of the extremists” who have “hijacked” Islam in the current times (p. 142).
9. “Maulana Azad is a proof that nonviolent activism in Islam exists with full legitimacy and offers the formula for successful conflict resolution, as well as the greater likelihood for peace, tolerance, and security for all” (p. 143).
Thus, Alvi’s Nonviolent Activism in Islam presents a “convincing religious (Islamic) argument supporting nonviolent activism with ample evidence and historical examples, serving as ideological and intellectual ammunition against violent extremism” (p. 142). Azad not only adopted and practised nonviolence and civil disobedience (i.e., Gandhi’s principles of Ahimsa and Satyagraha), but his “embrace and implementation of these concepts and strategies indicate that they are wholly compatible with Islam” (pp. 142, 143).
Overall, the theme and subject-matter of Alvi’s book—which is appended by pictures/images and Azad’s speeches (both in original Urdu and translations in English)—touches upon a crucial and significant issue which needs to be given more space amid the ‘extremist’ atmosphere so that a real picture of Islam is presented. Alvi needs to be given credit and appreciation for highlighting nonviolent activism, both in theory and practice through historical events (especially with reference to Azad), and for highlighting the relevance of nonviolent activism in the 21st century—a century of extremism, violence, protests, and uprisings.
Summarily, Alvi’s Nonviolent Activism in Islam can be described as a significant work which presents a positive, tolerant, and peace-loving picture of Islam in a scenerio which is inundated with negative stereotypes of Islam and Muslims. It is a helpful work in learning and adopting nonviolence as a solution to their problems, for everyone benefits from tools of nonviolence and nonviolent activism and every aspect of life is affected by violence and violent conflicts.
The writer is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at Government Degree College Sogam, (Kupwara). Feedback at [email protected]