Review: Maulana Azad; A Life
S Irfan Habib’s biography of Maulana Azad presents his untiring efforts to unite Hindus and Muslims through speeches and writings, and also enlightens the reader about other forgotten Muslim champions of a unified India
Historian S Irfan Habib had always admired Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888–1958), both as a scholar of Islam and as a committed nationalist. But his understanding of Azad’s greatness deepened after he joined as the Maulana Azad Chair at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA) in New Delhi in 2008. Habib’s reverence for one of the foremost proponents of an inclusive India has resulted in Maulana Azad: A Life.
Early on, the author acquaints us with Azad’s protected childhood and adolescence, his lineage and the family’s migration to Arabia before the 1857 revolt, the tussle between the Wahhabis and other Muslims under the Ottoman Empire, and his father Maulana Khairuddin’s antipathy to Wahhabism. Azad was deeply influenced by his father’s intellect and moral fibre and inherited from him the habit of waking up early in the morning, an obsession for books, and a remarkable memory. Educated at home by his father and a few other handpicked teachers, the precocious Azad ventured into serious journalism in his early teens. But his father’s authoritarian nature couldn’t contain Azad for long and his exposure to the rational and critical writings of Islamic scholars like Abdur Rahim and Sir Syed Ahmad led him to grow disenchanted with Khairuddin’s traditional world view. Later, his thinking came to be significantly shaped by Syed Jamaluddin Afghani’s ideas of composite nationalism and anti-imperialism. Maulana Shibli Nomani was another great influence on the youthful Azad.
Diverse influences and schools of thought made an impression on Azad, who, like most young people, went through bouts of doubt and escaped into wayward indulgences. All this led to a critical evaluation of beliefs and the emergence of a freethinker who was guided by logic. Azad’s yearning for a faith open to rational and critical thinking began in his teens. Syed Ahmad’s scientific and philosophical interpretation of Islam and the pan-Islamic anti-imperialism of Afghani are discussed at length. Azad’s journalistic ventures, Al-Hilal and Al-Balagh, are saturated with Afghani’s revolutionary ideas of opposing Western colonialism. This led to the British banning them, and during this phase in 1915, Azad decided to publish his Urdu translation of the Quran, called Tarjuman al-Quran, which would also serve as a comparative religious treatise. He took several years to write his magnum opus, the manuscripts of which were repeatedly destroyed during his confinement by the British police. Although he could never complete it, he was steadfast in his resolve to redraft every lost passage. Azad endeavoured to provide an authentic interpretation of the Quran, which he believed had been misinterpreted by narrow-minded, semi-literate mullahs. Azad questioned regressive mind sets and opposed conformity at all levels. The faith he espoused was based on the rejection of dogma and rituals, and he remained committed to his version of Islam, which was not narrow or sectarian.
For Azad, nationalism held greater value than faith, and he constantly fought against the divisive venom spread by the colonial government, Hindu communalists, and the Muslim League, which frequently derided and even abused him. As the youngest President of the Congress, he tried his best to unite Hindus and Muslims through his speeches and writings in Al-Hilal. The , chapter Azad, Islam, and Nationalism presents his untiring efforts in this direction and enlightens the reader about forgotten Muslim champions of a unified India like Allah Baksh Sumroo and Saifuddin Kitchlew, whose arrest triggered the protests that led to the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy in 1919. Habib also unravels Azad’s varied interests and philosophical moorings, penned in Ghubar-e-Khatir, a collection of epistolary essays addressed to his friend Maulana Habibur Rahman during his imprisonment at Ahmednagar Fort in the 1940s. This literary work, interspersed with Urdu couplets by Meer, Ghalib, Daagh Dehlvi, Zauq, and others showcases Azad’s multifaceted personality. He writes about reconstructing his life in prison with the two contradictory philosophies of stoicism and Epicureanism, about the importance of music and having a cheerful disposition in life, his love for nature, the birds that kept him company in prison, and his passion for tea.
The last chapter, Building a New India, highlights Azad’s role as the minister of education, science, and culture in newly independent India. His efforts to strengthen the country’s weak education system through initiatives aimed at primary and adult education included the setting up of the Education Commission in 1948 and the University Grants Commission. His efforts with Nehru towards industrial and technological advancement led to the establishment of the IITs and many scientific institutions. Azad’s commitment to matters of arts and aesthetics moved him to conceive the idea of institutionalizing music, art, and literature and it was during his tenure as minister that important cultural institutions like the Sahitya Akademi, Lalit Kala Akademi, and Sangeet Natak Akademi, were formed.
Essential reading, Habib’s biography turns the spotlight on an unrelenting nationalist who endeavoured throughout his life to strengthen Hindu-Muslim unity. In a time of polarisation, it is energising to recall Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s great contributions to the nation.
Arun AK is an independent journalist. He is @arunusual on Twitter.