Mawlānā Abū ‘l-Kalām ’Āzād

Abul Kalam Azad  (1888- 1958)

Mohiuddin Ahmad, better known as Abul Kalam Azad, played a leading role in the Indian struggle for independence and then later in the government of the India, remaining a symbol of the Muslim will to coexist in a religiously diverse India. Among his many writings were his acclaimed Urdu translation and interpretation of the Qur’an.

He was born in Makkah in 1888 in an Indian family which had emigrated from the subcontinent, but they returned to settle in Calcutta in the mid 1890’s. Azad studied at home, receiving his lessons from his father, Khairuddin Dihlawi, who was a sufi pir of the Qadiri and Naqshbandi orders, and from several other teachers. He received a thorough knowledge of the classical foundations of Islam, but the family atmosphere was extremely conservative and there was no room for the question “why”, and Azad came to decide that the beliefs he had been brought up with were “nothing but taqlid of ancestors, devotion to ancient customs and inherited dogma.”

The writings of Sayyid Ahmad Khan had a profound influence on Azad’s religious and intellectual development, initially inciting him to be free from the limitations of the religion of his family, and then infused in him a passion for modern knowledge. He read profusely and claimed to have read nearly everything on modern knowledge published in Arabic. He was open to all sorts of trends of thought and belief but maintained that everything should be in moderation. Azad recognized that the Mu`tazilites and Sayyed faced similar challenges, each in their own time.

Azad felt that God called him to arouse the Muslims of India and persuade them to join the movement for political liberation. He began publishing his own newspaper al-Hilal (The Crescent Moon) in 1912 to arouse a new political consciousness, a desire for freedom in the religious class and a reverence for religion in the western-educated class. He called for a revival of the faith, to win the freedom represented by Islam, which was relevant to all aspects of life. He resisted, however, the establishment of Pakistan as a separate Muslim state. He went on to edit or co-edit numerous periodicals: Al-Balagh (Calcutta), 1915-16; Al-Hilal (Calcutta), 1912-14, 1927; Al-Jami`a (Calcutta), 1923-24; Al-Nadwa (Lucknow), 1905-6; Lisan al-Sidq (Calcutta), 1903-5; and Paigham (Calcutta), 1921.

He started a column in his journal al-Hilal on “scientific matters” (muzakira-e-`ilmiya) in February 1913 to make up for what he considered Muslims’ current lack of knowledge in all things scientific. He complained that western-educated Muslims could not believe that learned ulama studied philosophy thoroughly, and he criticized those BAs for their lack of a true love of knowledge, saying that no Aligarh graduates write books, translate great works, or make any contribution to knowledge. “Agnosticism  used to be considered the result of the spread of learning But what shall we say of agnosticism  which is now linked to sheer ignorance!” (Al-Hilal 2;16: p. 266-67). But though he was reluctant to admit the benefits of western education, and disdained the products of Aligarh, his columns on scientific matters focused on marvels of modern science. The article was on radium, followed by Scott’s expedition to the South Pole, wherein he praised European devotion to science and the search for truth. He translated articles from Scientific American, the first was on Montessori educational methods.

Abul Kalam Azad was elected president of the Indian Congress in 1923, and was re-elected in 1940. He served as Gandhi’s adviser in Muslim affairs. He was minister for education in Independent India from 1947 till his death. Imprisoned six times throughout his politically active life, he cherished his time in detention.  At age 53, August 1942 he was imprisoned for the sixth time in Fort Ahmadnagar, having spent a total of ten and a half years in jail.  He commented that “a seventh part of my life I have been detained. Thus the English gave me a fine Sabbath-rest”.

In his early years, he had a derogatory attitude toward science. Later, he developed his idea that science is concerned with things that can be perceived by the senses, religion with the supra-sensual. He wrote “true science and true religion, although they travel on different paths, in the end arrive at the same destination” in Ghubar-e-Khatir, (pp. 146-49). He maintained that religion is the only source of moral values.

Azad avoided trying to find evidence of scientific theories in the Qur’an. In his Tarjuman, he said, “the aim of the Qur’an is to invite the attention of man to His power and wisdom and not to make an exposition of the creation of the universe” (SA 3. p. 572). The Qur’an contains things which the people of that time understood according to their own conceptions of life and custom, and could not contain any discussion of the facts of science and history in it, because the people of the time had no comprehension of them. He maintained that the Qur’an is the ‘ word from God’ (kalam min ‘inda llah), rather than the ‘word of God’ (kalam Allah). In a collection of Azad’s letters, published as Malfuzat-e-Azad, he states that we should understand the ‘divine word’ in the sense that it is divine (khuda’i), while at the same time being in the words of the Prophet.

On the problem of the existence of God, Azad based his solutions on intuition, rather than rational reasoning. Without God, there can be no understanding of the origin of life in the universe. There is only one solution to this problem. There is one way out of the maze. There is one piece to solve the puzzle. The problem of life in the universe is like a book with the first and last page missing; we know neither the beginning nor the end. If there is an omniscient being behind the curtain, everything has meaning; if not, all is dark. Azad also argued from the position that man is so superior to animals that he must have superior inspiration. Everything around him is distraction, but he aspires to higher things. This can only be the case if there is something higher in front of him, which can only be God. The natural answer to the search is inherent in man’s nature; man’s quest for rising higher is a natural search, for which the answer is God. He gives an example that in learning to talk, children need living examples, and this requirement is naturally met by the mother and father.

Without denying the validity of either religion or modern knowledge, he insisted that the realm of religious knowledge must be regarded as forbidden territory for reason. He insisted that modern knowledge must not be allowed to cut away what belongs to religion. He dissociated himself from both the modernist rejection of religious knowledge, and the ulama’s lack of respect for modern knowledge. “I am compelled to separate myself from the religious reformers of today at this point, in spite of agreement on objectives and principles. Their position is that whatever traditions they find the least bit contrary to their self-made standards of reason, they are immediately anxious to reject…Why should tradition be rejected merely on this basis? Religious knowledge has its own standards for testing thought and tradition…You complain that the ulama pay no attention to modern affairs. But what you present to them is a pair of scissors, called by you ‘mutual confirmation of the revealed and the reasoned’, with which you thoughtlessly cut away. When you are ignorant of religious matters, and Arabic, they cannot respect you. Although personally, I think they are wrong in this attitude.”(Al-Hilal 2;6: 85-6.)

Azad pursued questions of spirit and nature throughout his life. He concluded that the true relation between science and religion is not one of controversy but of harmonious coexistence and leads to the discovery of the actual existence of a Universal Religion, despite all the extant divergent rites and creeds. For this primary purpose, Azad wrote his commentary Tardjuman al-Qur’an (1930). This commentary is esteemed by Urdu readers because of the excellent Qur’an translation which it contains.

Azad died in New Delhi in 1958. He is buried in a simple tomb within a garden surrounded by a stone wall, between Jama Masjid and the Red Fort in the old city of Delhi.


Works by Abul Kalam Azad

(1931), Tarjuman al-Qur’an, vol.1, (1936), vol. 2,  Daftar-e-Tarjuman al-Qur’an, Delhi.   (n.d.), Shaikh Mubarak Ali, Lahore. (1945), 2nd edition, Karachi. Translated into English by Syed Abdul Latif, Kazi Publications, Lahore, (n.d.).

(1958), Basic Concepts of the Quran, Syed Abdul Latif, ed. Academy of Islamic Studies, Hyderabad.

(1959), India Wins Freedom – An Autobiographical Narrative, Humayun Kabir, ed., Orient Longman, Bombay.

(1967), Ghubar-e-Khatir, Malik Ram, ed. Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi and (n.d.),  Anarkali Kitab Ghar, Lahore.

Center for Islam and Science. (-). Life of Azad. Available: Last accessed 15th April 2014.

The Lofty Status of Mawlana Abu ‘l-Kalam Azad

By Mawlana Diya al-Rahman Faruqi Shahid
Translated by Mawlana Muhammad Kadwa

Those who verbally abuse Mawlana Abu ‘l-Kalam Azad should also rectify their error.

O you who are critical of Mawlana Abu ‘l-Kalam Azad! You regard a man who had a difference of opinion over the formation of Pakistan as a traitor? Why don’t you regard as treacherous those people who surrendered to the British? Why don’t you criticise those who licked the shoes of the British? Why don’t you vilify those who sold themselves over to the British in exchange of a few acres of land? Abu ‘l-Kalam Azad was never a traitor! On the basis of a few differences he had over the formation of Pakistan, you are hurling false accusations against him? You have overlooked the sterling tafsir he has compiled of the Qur’an! By Allah! His monthly journal, Al-Hilal, had driven a spirit of freedom into the people like no other journal did.

The same Abu ‘l-Kalam Azad who was imprisoned in Ranchi jail by the British colonialists. After three years in prison, his wife passed away. The British court sent a release warrant to the warder authorising his release for a period of three days only. Mawlana Azad responded by scrolling at the back of the warrant: “O you British! I am not prepared to accept your release warrant. Tomorrow on the day of judgement, I will meet my wife. Leave me alone.”

Once somebody had sent him a gift of ten thousand rupees in recognition of his endeavours against the British. He sent it back saying: “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? You wish to purchase my pen with this money? No power in the world can purchase the pen of Abu ‘l-Kalam!”

Friends! Many journalists and unscrupulous editors here in Pakistan are very eager to embellish their own writings by being critical of the writings of Abu ‘l-Kalam Azad. They should realize that he was Abu ‘l-Kalam (literally, father of speech). When Shorish Kashmiri went to Mawlana Azad’s grave after his death, he uttered the following lines of poetry:

Alas! What a strange scene or the hereafter this is; there is ashk (tears) hut no ‘ashiqi (beloved).
The splendour of the earth has disappeared as the horizon lacks the openly affectionate guide.
Ah! Who is unwilling to be sacrificed over your death and separation.
I am still unconvinced of your sudden death.
I think to myself that where is the man with multiple intellects.
The magnanimity of the pen has been plundered and the power of the tongue has been depleted
Our faces have lost their  lustre as our leader or the caravan has departed but,
I am still unconvinced of your sudden death.
Who is it that will not go around your tomb with a broken-heart and a slow pace?
All the people; the ordinary as well as the elite have submitted to their sorrows before your grave.
I am still unconvinced of your sudden death.

He later repeated these verses to ‘Ata Allah Shah Bukhari who took pleasure in these lines and added:

You have awoken my dreamy eyes.
One of the stars of the earth have ascended to the skies
but I am still unconvinced of your sudden death.

(The ‘Ulama of Deoband: Their Majestic Past, p. 67-9)

Remembering Maulana Abul Kalam Azad: A short Biography

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s real name was Abul Kalam Ghulam Muhiyuddin. He was popularly known as Maulana Azad. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was one of the foremost leaders of Indian freedom struggle. He was also a renowned scholar, and poet. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was well versed in many languages viz. Arabic, English, Urdu, Hindi, Persian and Bengali. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was a brilliand debater, as indicated by his name, Abul Kalam, which literally means “Lord of dialogue” He adopted the pen name Azad as a mark of his mental emancipation from a narrow view of religion and life.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was born on November 11, 1888 in Mecca. His forefathers came from Herat (a city Afghanistan) in Babar’s days. Azad was a descendent of a lineage of learned Muslim scholars, or maulanas. His mother was an Arab and the daughter of Sheikh Mohammad Zaher Watri and his father, Maulana Khairuddin, was a Bengali Muslim of Afghan origins. Khairuddin left India during tile Sepoy Mutiny and proceeded to Mecca and settled there. He came back to Calcutta with his family in 1890.

Because of his orthodox family background Azad had to pursue traditional Islamic education. He was taught at home, first by his father and later by appointed teachers who were eminent in their respective fields. Azad learned Arabic and Persian first and then philosophy, geometry, mathematics and algebra. He also learnt (English, world history, and politics through self study.

Azad was trained and educated to become a clergyman, He wrote many works, reinterpreting the holy Quran. His erudition let him to repudiate Taqliq or the tradition of conformity and accept the principle of Tajdid or innovation. He developed interest in the pan¬ Islamic doctrines of Jamaluddin Afghani and the Aligarh thought of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. Imbued with the pan-Islamic spirit, he visited Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Turkey. In Iraq he met the exiled revolutionaries who were fighting to establish a constitutional government in Iran. In Egypt he met Shaikh Muhammad Abduh and Saeed Pasha and other revolutionary activists of the Arab world. He had a first hand knowledge of the ideals and spirit of the young Turks in Constantinople. All these contacts metamorphosed him into a nationalist revolutionary.

On his return from abroad; Azad met two leading revolutionaries of Bengal- Aurobinto Ghosh and Sri Shyam Shundar Chakravarty,-and joined the revolutionary movement against British rule. Azad found that the revolutionary activities were restricted to Bengal and Bihar. Within two years, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad helped set up secret revolutionary centers all over north India and Bombay. During that time most of his revolutionaries were anti-Muslim because they felt that the British government was using the Muslim community against India’s freedom struggle. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad tried to convince his colleagues to shed their hostility towards Muslims.

In 1912, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad started a weekly journal in Urdu called Al-Hilal to increase the revolutionary recruits amongst the Muslims. Al-Hilal played an important role in forging Hindu-Muslim unity after the bad blood created between the two communities in the aftermath of Morley-Minto reforms. Al-Hilal became a revolutionary mouthpiece ventilating extremist views. ‘The government regarded Al- Hilal as propagator of secessionist views and banned it in 1914. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad then started another weekly called Al-Balagh with the same mission of propagating Indian nationalism and revolutionary ideas based on Hindu-Muslim unity. In 1916, the government banned this paper too and expelled Maulana Abul Kalam Azad from Calcutta and internet him at Ranchi from where he was released after the First World War 1920.

After his release, Azad roused the Muslim community through the Khilafat Movement. The aim of the movement was to re-instate the Khalifa as the head of British captured Turkey. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad supporded Non-Cooperation Movement started by Gandhiji and entered Indian National Congress in 1920. He was elected as the president of the special session of the Congress in Delhi (1923). Maulana Azad was again arrested in 1930 for violation of the salt laws as part of Gandhiji’s Salt Satyagraha. He was put in Meerut jail for a year and a half. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad became the president of Congress in 1940 (Ramgarh) and remained in the post till 1946. He was a staunch opponent of partition and supported a confederation of autonomous provinces with their own constitutions but common defense and economy. Partition hurt him great(y ant shattered his dream of an unified nation where Hindus and Muslims can co-exist and prosper together.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad served as the Minister of Education (the first education minister in independent India) in Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet from 1947 to 1958. He died of a stroke on February 22, 1958. For his invaluable contribution to the nation, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was posthumously awarded India’s highest civilian honour, Bharat Ratna in 1992.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies. (-). Remembering Maulana Abul Kalam Azad: A short Biography. Available: Last accessed 15th April 2014.


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