On November 11 we celebrated the birth anniversary of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and on November 14 of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Two friends, two compatriots, fellow travellers.

Azad began his political work in 1912. Mahatma Gandhi was still in South Africa and the political demands of the Congress had not gone beyond dominion status for India.

Azad was born in Mecca; his mother was the niece of the sheikh of the Harmain Shareef (Mecca and Medina). Arabic was his mother tongue. No Indian language including Urdu was spoken in his house. He never attended any formal school. Yet he rose the rank of an alim, a maulana at a young age. At the same time he became involved in the Bengal guerrilla movements such as Anushilan and Yugantar with revolutionaries like Shyam Sunder Chakravorty and Rash Behari Ghosh.

He was also influenced by the freedom ideologues of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, Jamaluddin Afghani, Sheikh Mohd. Abduh and Sheikh Rashid Raza. The deep influence of Syed Jamaluddin Afghani and Sheikh Mohammad Abduh of Egypt engendered his dream of bringing Islamic nations together.

At the same time he was profoundly conscious of his primary goal of national unity. The Khilafat movement made common cause with the Hindus. Instead of divisiveness it created new bonds of friendship. Gandhi and Azad’s dream of Hindus espousing a Muslim cause (Khilafat) and Muslims espousing Non-Cooperation was temporarily fulfilled.

When Azad’s journal Al Hilal appeared in Kolkata in 1912, it created a literary storm. The combination of style and subject matter was electrifying. Erudition combined with clarity of thought and mastery of language made a formidable combination. Frequent quotations from the Quran to establish the Islamic basis of the subject matter created a religious fervour in the reader.

The first article of the journal, entitled, ‘Al Hilal’s objectives and political message’, contained a passage about the path which has delivered man to his destination. This is God’s appointed path which He has opened before all his Prophets, from Adam to Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses and finally to the Prophet of Islam. The important concern here is that it is the ordained path for all mankind, regardless of religion, and remains the preferred path for humanity through ages.

Azad tutored himself to become an exegetical writer on the Quran so that the guidance he offered the Muslims would be based on the word of Allah. Although Azad claimed that the original word of the Quran should be read unencumbered by cluttering commentary, he still proceeded to write a detailed interpretation.

Interpreting the Quran provided Azad the best means of fostering communal harmony. Muslims were told in unequivocal words that it was their religious duty to join hands with the Hindus and launch the struggle for Mukammal Azadi.

As a scholar of Islam his commentary on the Quran can be viewed as a modernist project. He rejected the received wisdom and adopted a rational interpretive approach. In the preface to Tarjumanul Quran he wrote:

“There is no conviction in my heart which has not been stung by all the barbs of doubt. There is no belief in my soul which has not passed through all the stages of negativism. I have gulped poison from all the cups and sipped its antidote from all the healers. When I was thirsty my lip-dryness was not like others, when I was satiated the fountain of my satisfaction was not located on the public highway.”

His ingenuity lay in his attempt to use the Islamic tradition and the authority of the Holy Quran to formulate a political theory for Indian Muslims with a view to constructing a modernist theory of resistance against the oppressive colonial regime. The struggle for freedom was anchored on concepts that lay at the hearts of Islam: the establishment of justice, equality, fraternity, and humanity.

Back in 1923, Azad said as president of the INC that “I will relinquish Swaraj rather than give up Hindu-Muslim unity. Delay in the attainment of the Swaraj will be a loss to India, but if our unity is lost it will be a loss for the entire mankind.”

The above is the essence of Azad’s approach to the Hindu-Muslim question. He saw himself as the leader of the Islamic caravan and the apostle of Hindu Muslim unity. He was proud to be a Muslim, but equally proud to be Indian, enriched by the different cultures which dotted the Indo Gangetic plains. He had all the qualities of the leader of the caravan, but history has not assigned him that place.

In his speeches delivered at various political forums he continued his crusade for unity and communal harmony. He was the only Indian leader, besides Mahatma Gandhi and to a great degree Nehru, who got to the root of the communal problem. He traced the history of communalism, warned of its pitfalls, suggested remedies and exhorted the nation to heed his word. His arguments were flawless, his rationale compelling, but most Indians did not hear Azad.

From the beginning he was opposed to the two-nation theory, and stuck his ground until the bitter end. He was the rock around which the tide of public opinion swirled in contrary directions. The tide kept rising against him.

Partition was a crushing personal defeat. The Maulana, a product of Islamic education, preached secularism to his people, while a product of Western education, Mohammad Ali Jinnah took up the banner of Islam, and a separate homeland was created for the Muslims.

He foretold the destiny of Muslim Indians. Their condition in 2021, over a century after Al Hilal appeared, verifies the prediction. Having carved out an Islamic state, how can Muslims expect to flourish in what essentially is a Hindu India? Azad’s foreboding found expression first in his passionate appeals to desist, then post independence in his sober advice to accept the given conditions.

Why did Azad fail? Possessed with a rare combination of intellect, literary expression and oratory, why has he been relegated to the second row of leadership? Was it because he was a Muslim leader in what was fast becoming a Hindu India? The Hindus did not accept him as a popular leader because he was Muslim, and the Muslims rejected him because he was a “revolutionary Maulana”, who spoke of Hindu-Muslim unity at a time when his thesis should have been, “Islam is in danger.”

During the last decade of his life Azad’s vision encompassed all humanity as one entity, regardless of race, religion or nationality. As Minister of Education, he stated that world maps should be painted in a single colour, and children be taught the philosophy of one-world, one-people. This humanistic vision of Azad has significance for the present national predicament.

Maulana died 15 years later, on February 22, 1958. The day after his death, Nehru spoke about him in Parliament:

“So we mourn today passing of a great man, a man of luminous intelligence and mighty intellect with an amazing capacity to pierce through a problem to the core. I have used the word luminous; I think perhaps that is the best word I can use about his mind.”

Describing Maulana as Amir e Karvaan he continues, “He represented a glorious synthesis of cultures, civilisations, thoughts and philosophies which have powerful influence on India’s history. Intensity of grief will gradually diminish but what about the loss and the shock the country has suffered? To whom shall we go now for consultation and advice?”

Dr Syeda Hameed is president and Reyaz Ahmad is fellow, Muslim Women’s Forum

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