Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was born in Mecca in 1888 and lived there till he was about seven. His father Khairuddin, a scholar-sufi and pir originally from Calcutta, was persuaded by his disciples to return to that city. Under the strict tutelage of his father, Azad continued his Islamic studies though he resented the restrictive and authoritarian manner in which this syllabus was taught. Therefore, on his own, Azad furtively cultivated a taste for Urdu and Persian literature and even learnt to play the sitar.
Imbued with an astonishing memory and encyclopedic information, he was, indeed, a precocious child and young prodigy who was eager to write biography of Ghazali when he was only twelve. Two years later, he began to contribute learned articles to Makhzan, the best-known literary magazine of the day. When Shams-ul-Ulama Shibli Nomani met him, he was so much impressed by his intellectual skills that he took Azad to Lucknow and made him prominent in national circles by offering him editorship of Al-Nadva. In 1906, he became the editor of a very popular biweekly, Vakil of Amritsar.
By the time he was thirteen, Azad was disillusioned with his Islamic training due to modernist writings of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. He fell into a phase of atheism which, according to him, lasted from the age of 14 to 22. During his later teenage years he came into close contact with the Hindu revolutionaries of Bengal. A combination of brief travel to the Middle East and his Arabic reading also exposed him more deeply to the reformist ideas of Sheikh Abduh of Egypt and the uncompromising nationalism and anti-imperialism of Mustafa Kamil Pasha. His spiritual homelessness, however, came to an end in 1910 when an emotional/mystical experience renewed his faith in religion and galvanized his personality in a dramatic fashion. Following his queer ‘conversion,’ Azad’s career really began to take-off in 1912 with the appearance of his Urdu journal Al-Hilal. Equipped with literary pursuit, breathtaking language and auxiliary attractions, the journal simultaneously meant to preach ‘pure’ Islam and Indian independence. Through his unique style, Azad sought to bring Indian Muslims onto the platform of the freedom movement and to work in cooperation with Hindus. Despite his earlier admiration for Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Azad was then a harsh critic of the loyalist politics of Aligarh University.
Though the journal was ambiguous about specific methods of cooperation and post-Independence political arrangements, the author had been partial to sentiments of Hindu-Muslim unity from the very beginning of his life. However, a revivalist tone of Al-Hilal and the rhetoric applied therein played fantastic role in arousing the Muslim community out of political lethargy. However, his journal was viewed as seditious when suddenly World War I broke out in Europe with the result he was expelled from Bengal and interned in Ranchi for three and a half years. It was during this period that he wrote his well-known and remarkable commentary on the opening Surah of Al-Quran. A few weeks after his release, for the first time he met Mr. Gandhi in Delhi and became the first prominent Muslim in India to associate himself with Mr. Gandhi and his plan of non-cooperation.
In 1920 the Indian Muslims were extremely perturbed by the British government’s handling of the Turkish empire and the Khilafat during the War. In consultation with Azad, Gandhi persuaded the Congress to make the demand for the protection of the Khilafat a part of the national demand for freedom. The overlapping relationship between the Congress and the Khilafat Conference ended up bringing Muslims in large numbers to the freedom movement.
In 1921 Azad was again arrested. When he was released in 1923, the country was passing through a strong wave of communal rioting. Muslims were shocked out of their reverie because of the Turkish government’s move to abolish their own establishment of Khilafat. The ambiguous results of the Khilafat Movement provoked a great deal of criticism over attempts of both Azad and Gandhi at ‘fusing’ religion with politics. By and by he became an active member on the Congress stage. Though he continued his efforts to bring various Muslim organizations in line with Congress, in 1928 serious differences arose between the Congress and organizations like the Muslim League and the Khilafat Conference over the Nehru report. Azad was forced to break ties with the latter two organizations.
In 1930, the Congress declared complete independence as the goal of the national movement, and civil disobedience continued in vigor following Gandhi’s famous Salt March. Azad was imprisoned twice in a row during this period, and then released in 1936 along with the other Congress leaders. It was during these periods of imprisonment that the Maulana was able to complete the first edition of his famous Tarjuman al-Quran, his Urdu translation and commentary on the Quran.
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad articulated an Islam that was hospitable towards other forms of monotheism, especially Hinduism, and which placed emphasis on commonly held rules of righteous conduct. Though it was a landmark effort to inject a liberal ethos into Islam, the Tarjuman al-Quran was unable to receive the overwhelming impact he hoped it would. The controversies that sprung up around this work, particularly from members of the ulema that were supporting him politically, dried up any inspiration in him to carry out the larger task of comprehensive religious reform and reinterpretation.
Following the passing away of M.A. Ansari in 1936, Azad became the most prominent Muslim member of the Congress and in 1939 he was elected President of the Congress. His presidential address at the Ramgarh session of the Congress in 1940 occurred just a few days before the Muslim League’s historic Pakistan Resolution. It was negation of the two-nation theory and articulated his oft-repeated ideology of secular nationalism. Azad was severely criticized by influential Muslim political leaders as well as so many religious and modern educated classes who earlier in his career had adored him and his revivalist ideas. Azad was imprisoned for a fifth time in 1940, following a limited campaign of civil disobedience, and released a year later. By 1942, and following the more comprehensive Quit India Movement, he, along with the other Congress leaders, was once again imprisoned. He was released in 1946 and continued to be the president of the All India National Congress throughout the War years. During his presidency, he tried to persuade the Congress to make some concessions and come to terms with the Muslim League to avoid division of India but both Jinnah’s single-mindedness and certain Congress mistakes prevented any settlement thereof. On occasions, his own party colleagues thwarted his initiatives and turned him into just a titular Congress head during, for example, his vital negotiations with both the Cripps and the Cabinet missions. The Maulana reluctantly relinquished the Congress presidency in 1946, hoping that this would open an avenue between the Congress and the League. He kept out of the coalition government formed that year, but in 1947, at Gandhi’s urging he became Minister of Education. Though, like Gandhi, he was forced to accept Partition, he could never reconcile himself to it and was rather heartbroken by the event and its bloody aftermath.
After partition, he held the post of Minister of Education of India for ten years. Though he was not a particularly effective administrator, he did perform some important services such as cultivating technical, adult, and women’s education, and an academy of literature, as well as opposing the ejection of English as a national language. Meanwhile, his belief in religious pluralism and the need for a humanistic outlook broadened even further, and he openly identified parallels between Vedantic and Sufi thought in some of his addresses. He was a great literary figure and essentially a thinker and the chief exponent of Wahdat-i-deen or the essential oneness of all religions, Azad played around with a variety of ideas on religion, state and civil society. Among his works Ghubar-i-Khatir is considered not only his masterpiece but also an illustration of great Urdu literature. Soon after his death, an English book, India Wins Freedom appeared, based on his Urdu account as translated and edited by Humayun Kabir. It gives valuable information regarding the political history of the subcontinent at a crucial period. Towards Pakistan and her leaders, the attitude of Maulana Azad remained dignified and statesmanlike. In the words of Abdul Majid Daryabadi, “towards his opponents, particularly the Muslim League, there was not a trace of complaint or criticism in what Maulana (Azad) said. With regard to Pakistan, instead of complaints or sneers, there was goodwill, and some good words like, ‘Now that it has come into existence, everybody’s interest lies in its being strong and stable’.”
Abul Kalam Azad died in 1958 of a stroke and was buried in a dignified corner near Jamia Masjid in Old Delhi.
This article was last updated on Monday, Jan 01, 2007