Islamic perspective
Dawoodi Bohras - Islamic perspective

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad: Passion for freedom and communal harmony

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was a unique Islamic personality of great Islamic scholarship, patriotism and passion for communal harmony. However, it is highly regrettable that his services to the country have almost been forgotten. From new generation school or even college going students I doubt even one percent would know him and his achievements. I, therefore, heartily welcomed when in a recent meeting of the general body of the Institute of Advanced Studies, Simla whose chairman is currently Prof. Mungekar, also a Rajya Sabha member, suggested that like Ambedkar a summer school be held for Maulana Azad also for college teachers so that they may be acquainted with Maulana’s personality and achievements.

In fact, such summer schools for leaders like Maulana Azad, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and others are overdue, particularly about Maulana Azad whose sacrifices for the country and its freedom are second to none.

Eleventh November 2011 was the Maulana’s birthday and this year Government of India also remembered him and schools were asked to celebrate Maulana’s birthday as it is also Education Day. However, due to Diwali vacations students had not returned, hence the response was rather poor.

Maulana was son of Maulana Khairuddin of Calcutta (now Kolkatta) who was highly respected alim and had thousands of disciples. He had married an Arab woman from Mecca and Maulana was born in Mecca during Maulana Khairuddins stay there. Thus in a way Arabic was his mother tongue and Maulana had a great command over it. He was brought up in orthodox Islamic tradition and his father wanted him to succeed him. If he had accepted this offer he also would have had large number of disciples and would have been highly influential like his father.

But the Maulana came under the influence of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and read his writings avidly. However, he was highly independent minded and soon distanced himself from Sir Syed’s emphasis on loyalty to the British Empire though he accepted his views on modernity and modern education. Maulana was passionately committed to India’s freedom and tried to join the underground movement in Bengal but unfortunately those underground leaders thought a Muslim is not fit for joining it.

For Maulana patriotism was an Islamic duty as the Prophet (PBUH) is reported to have said that love of ones country is part of ones faith (iman). And this love of country demanded its freedom from foreign slavery and thus he considered it his duty to free his country from British tutelage. Thus he plunged into freedom movement from a very young age. He became Congress President at a a very young age, perhaps he was the youngest president of the Congress party.

He, like Gandhiji, knew Hindu-Muslim unity was very important for the freedom of India. Thus when he became president of the Congress in Ramgarh session of the Congress, he, in his presidential address concluded his speech by saying that “even if an angle descends from heaven with a gift of freedom for India from Allah I would not accept it until there is Hindu-Muslim unity as loss of India’s freedom is loss of India but loss of Hindu-Muslim unity is loss of entire humanity”.

These are very profound words and for Maulana this was not mere rhetoric but was his deep commitment on the basis of his understanding of the Quran. Maulana’s tafsir (commentary) of the Qur’an which he wrote in early twenties during his Ranchi incarceration and is considered as great contribution to tafsir literature from Indian subcontinent.

He has devoted the first volume of his tafsir (he could not complete it due to his highly busy political schedule and he had to write it all over again as the British police destroyed his earlier manuscript) to what he calls wahdat-e-din i.e. unity of religion. Maulana had deep conviction, as we find from his tafsir about unity of all religions and he has shown achievements of his scholarship on expanding this concept in his tafsir and that is why his pronouncement about Hindu-Muslim unity was not mere political rhetoric, much less opportunism, but a deep religious conviction.

Maulana was a great statesman and though he was great supporter of the Khilafat movement he was first to discard it when Kamal Pasha staged a coup in Turkey and removed the khalifa from power and declared the institution of khilafat as an outdated one. He also welcomed modern reforms of Ata Turk and advised Muslims to give up efforts for protecting institution of khilafat which Turkish leaders themselves had disowned.

Maulana also opposed Jinnah’s demand for one-third representation for Muslims in parliament when the Nehru Committee Report came for discussion before the Congress Session of 1928. He argued that in democracy no community can be given over representation and as for minority rights, Constitution can take care of them through special provisions as the Indian Constitution did by providing for Articles 25 to 30. Maulana always took long term view and never fell for cheap popularity.

Azad did not agree with Jawaharlal Nehru on denying two cabinet seats to Muslim League in 1937 in U.P. as Muslim League lost in that election very badly. Maulana Azad advised Nehru to take two ministers nominated by Muslim League as refusal to take them will have long term adverse fall out and the Maulana was proved right. Jinnah became furious and began to denounce the Congress government as the ‘Hindu’ Government which will never give justice to Muslims.

If Nehru had accepted Maulana’s advice perhaps country could have been saved from partition though Nehru had his own reasons to deny two cabinet seats to Muslim League as he wanted to give Congress Muslims more representation. But Maulana thought otherwise on the basis of practical politics. Maulana always thought of future implications and not mere immediate consequences.

Nehru and Azad were not merely good friends but had deep respect for each other. Nehru has paid glorious tributes to Maulana for his scholarship and mastery over several languages. Maulana’s knowledge of other religions was also very deep and profound. His commitment to womens rights was as if he lived today. It is well known that Muslim theologians generally do not support gender equality and want women to be confined to home. Maulana was one of the exceptions.

He translated the book published in Arabic in Egypt Al-Mir’at al-Muslimah i.e. The Muslim Woman which stands for gender equality and summarises the debate which was taking place in Egypt on women’s rights and Azad chose to translate this book as he was in favour of gender equality. It is important to note that he commented on the verse 2:228 that “this is revolutionary declaration of gender equality more than 1300 years ago” (Maulana was writing in 1920s).

The only two other noted theologians who stood for gender equality from Indian sub-continent were Maulavi Mumtaz Ali Khan who was colleague of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Maulana Umar Ahmed Usmani who died recently in Karachi. Both were eminent theologians and were uncompromising in upholding gender equality.  Maulavi Mumtaz Ali Khan wrote a book Huquq al-Niswan (Rights of Women) and Maulana Umar Ahmed Usmani wrote Fiqh al-Qur’an (Qur’anic Jurisprudence) in eight volumes elaborately arguing for gender equality in the Qur’an.

Maulana also had clearly predicted what is happening today in Pakistan. First, it is important to note that like his conviction about Hindu-Muslim unity, it was also Maulana’s strong conviction that it would be wrong to divide India on religious grounds. One who loves one’s country can never divide it. Also, he knew that when democracy begins functional it has to take care of rights of minorities and Muslims were no mean minority. They were more than 25% before partition and today, if the country would not have been divided, they would have been more than 33%.

Maulana had predicted that today if Muslims think Hindus are their enemy, tomorrow, when Pakistan comes into existence, and there will be no Hindus they would fight among themselves along regional, ethnic and sectarian lines. He had clearly told this to some members of Muslim League who came to meet him before leaving for Pakistan. This is what is happening today in Pakistan.

Not only sectarianism has grown, religious extremism is at its apex. Killing has become common and everyday affair. When religion is associated with politics, history of all religions show, power becomes far more important than religion and religious values. Power becomes goal and religion a mere instrument. Maulana knew this very well and that is why he was far more inclined towards a secular democratic polity than religious one.

However, Maulana could not prevail and save the country from partition as powerful vested interests like feudal lords from U.P. and Bihar and Muslim middle classes (afraid that they may not get services or quick promotions) on one hand, and, the British imperial interests, on the other, were bent upon dividing the country.