Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958) was an Islamic scholar, freedom fighter, freethinker, journalist, and independent India’s first education minister. With no formal education, he taught himself philosophy, languages, and literature. As a teenager, he published several newspapers and magazines, including the popular Urdu weekly Al-Hilal, through which he tried to convince Indian Muslims to oppose British rule. He was deeply influenced by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Jamaluddin Afghani. Inspired by Gandhi’s non-violent civil disobedience movement, Azad went on to join the Indian National Congress and was later elected its youngest president.

Historian S Irfan Habib, former Maulana Azad Chair at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi, in his recently published biography, Maulana Azad: A Life, charts the decisive moments in Azad’s life – from his early years of upbringing and critical engagement with Islam – that shaped his religious outlook – to his belief in the ideas of composite and inclusive nationalism and his staunch opposition to the politics of Muslim League.

Habib spoke to Scroll about Azad’s engagement with Islam, his evolving understanding of faith, how he fought communalists throughout his life, what it meant to stand for a united India till the end, and his valuable contribution to invigorating India’s formal education system after independence. Excerpts from the conversation:

You write that Maulana Azad was deeply committed to the cause of reforming the Muslim community in India. How far was he successful especially during his stint as India’s first education minister?
Maulana did begin his engagements with Islam early, questioning several prevalent beliefs and practices. He was firm in the view that anything inherited from tradition (taqlid) should not be followed blindly, and he did that in his own life when he questioned his father, who was himself an Islamic scholar. This spirit of questioning was instilled in his journalistic writings in Al-Hilal and other papers. However, as a minister of education he was not concerned with reform in the Muslim community alone, he had larger responsibilities that went beyond communitarian issues. In any case, he did not see himself as a reformer; he remained a critical commentator on Islam.

You argue in the book that Azad always wanted “Muslims to be their own interpreters of faith, not dependent on faith peddled by the Mullahs who always pushed their own half-baked and narrow interpretations of Islam.” How did his evolving understanding of faith shape his politics and relationship with the Indian Muslim community leading up to the Partition?
I have raised this issue in the book and have also expressed my reservations about Maulana’s argument that Muslims should be their own interpreters of faith. It was easy for Maulana to do this as a scholar who was born in a family of Islamic scholars, but for a lay believer it was not an easy task to disengage with the mullahs.

Thus, I find this criticism of the lay believers or even Islamic scholars in general a bit harsh. Actually, the real problem began very early, when the Quran, the word of God for believers, was declared to be the ultimate panacea for every malaise. The ulema took control and declared themselves God-appointed interlocutors between Him and the lay believers. All possibilities of independent thinking or ijtihad were closed. In such a situation, reformers of 19th century Islam in India and elsewhere were confronted with an uphill task. The tradition or taqlid had firmly trapped the believers in tunnel vision. Maulana Azad, while writing his Tarjuman, had such a community and Islam to engage with.

It will no doubt be an ideal situation when such a thing happens, but sadly it seems an improbable task. His evolving relationship with the Muslim community, leading up to the Partition, was not based merely on faith but more on the politics of the Muslim League and the role of the British government.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad.

Azad formed an Islamist political party Hizbullah in 1913, which also inspired Maulana Madudi, the ultra-revivalist leader and founder of Jamaat-e-Islami, before Azad decided to join the Congress in 1920. What explains this drastic ideological transformation, as you also write that Azad was “one of those leaders who began as a spokesperson of the Muslim cause but soon merged his sectarian identity into a larger one”?

Maulana Azad did begin as a pan-Islamist, who spoke against the subjugation of Muslim nations by imperialist powers. This sentiment is expressed strongly by Maulana in his papers Al-Hilal and later Al-Balagh, and it was because of his profile as a fiery journalist that the British saw him as one of the most dangerous persons in India. He was exiled to Moorabadi village near Ranchi for more than three years, while this period saw the emergence of Gandhi as a mass leader in Champaran, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the Khilafat movement as well.

After Maulana was released in January 1920, he was torn between two major options – either to find a secluded corner and indulge in reading and writing, or to get into public life and be part of the freedom struggle. Azad summed up his feelings as “it was a torrent in consonance with my will and intent, a torrent in which I could hear the voice of heavens, calling a man to accept God’s will instead of his own.” Ultimately, Azad upheld “God’s will” and surrendered his own, thus making a sacrifice for the cause of the country. It was soon after coming out of three years’ exile that Maulana Azad met Gandhi on January 18, 1920, for the first time. The meeting seemed to have had a profound impact on both of them. Gandhi had tried meeting Azad at Ranchi while he was interned there, but the government did not permit this, so they could not see each other.

Maulana, we can say, entered the nationalist struggle through the Khilafat agitation, and was later closely involved with most of the mass movements of the Congress. His sectarian identity was finally merged into an integrative one and this continued to be the case till the end.

Abul Kalam Azad with Jawaharlal Nehru and MK Gandhi, Wardha, August 1935.|Public Domain.

You write that Azad was influenced by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, and yet had many disagreements with his political positions. What were some of those disagreements?
Maulana Azad was deeply influenced by Sir Syed and his project of reform and modernisation. The impact of Syed Ahmad Khan’s writings on Azad was transformative. It resulted in the repudiation of his family’s traditional orthodoxy and a complete refocusing of his ideas about Islam. Sir Syed also changed Azad’s perception about knowledge. His writings not only made Azad aware of modern knowledge, they also got him totally enamoured of them. His beliefs and thought processes now were going through a storm. Maulana wrote that life was not just moving but galloping at a fast pace after his exposure to Sir Syed.

Everything old looked cheap and distasteful. Modern knowledge for him was all due to Sir Syed; anything associated with his name became almost divine. However, Maulana Azad had to distance himself from the collaborative aspect of Syed Ahmad’s philosophy where he believed that the Muslim community had to acquire modern knowledge, and that this was not possible without the help of the British, particularly after 1857. For Maulana, as a committed anti-imperialist, such a compromise had no place once he had decided to be part of the nationalist struggle.

The misuse of history to define a certain brand of nationalism is not a recent phenomenon, you write. Azad also had to cope with this malaise in the 1920s and 30s. How has nationalism been used as a divisive tool to fan religious polarisation, weakening inclusive nationalism as espoused by Azad during his lifetime?
I have stressed in the book that leaders like Maulana Azad fought on multiple fronts; they were not just fighting against the British, they were also confronting the communalists – both Hindu and Muslim. Maulana had an arduous task in countering the Muslim League’s divisive propaganda that the two-nation theory is the best possible option for Muslims. Azad stressed on indivisible or composite nationalism, where he went back to early Islamic history, when the Prophet of Islam created the first Muslim nation in Medina by aligning with the Jews. He saw no reason why the Muslims could not follow this example and join hands with Hindus and others in forming a composite nation. He was equally appalled with the Hindu communalists who were busy with sectarian campaigns like the shuddhi movement in the 1920s and raising other divisive issues while the need was to fight the British as a composite nationalist group.

You write that Azad wanted Hindus and Muslims to be part of one group as one nation. Is there still a possibility of the emergence of such an inclusive nation, since it’s under increased threat now given the rise of majoritarian nationalism?
Yes, Azad stood for a united India and remained steadfast in this resolve till the end. We are in the midst of polarising politics where religion has become a distinct marker of identity. Our strength used to be our heterogeneity, our unity in diversity – unfortunately this is perceived as our weakness today. There are attempts to see homogeneity in religion, in culture, in food and dress, and everything else. Our leaders like Azad, Gandhi, Patel or Nehru, and even Bhagat Singh did not leave behind this divisive inheritance. They questioned those who wanted to create a Hindu Rashtra in 1947 because Pakistan had decided to be an Islamic nation. They rubbished this demand by stressing that togetherness has been one of the major differences between the communal forces and the Congress.

Abul Kalam Azad with Jawaharlal Nehru. | Public Domain

You write that Azad argued that the demand for Pakistan was absurd, that he wanted the Muslim community to know that such a move would be disastrous for Muslims left behind in India. Has he been proved right, especially now when we see increased violence inflicted on Muslims by right wing groups emboldened by the ruling regime?
Yes, Azad found the demand for Pakistan absurd. He was conscious of the fact that religion cannot be a binding factor for a nation. He was proved right when language and culture took precedence over religion and Bangladesh was born in 1971. However, what is happening in India today is distressing. It seems that Maulana is being proved right again, which is surely unfortunate.

Azad countered the faith-based nationalism of the Muslim League and its own narrow understanding of nationalism. He also understood all those who espoused majoritarian nationalism to question separatist Muslim nationalism. Maulana Azad saw himself as a Muslim, but more than that he declared himself a proud Indian and part of the indivisible unit called Indian nationality. It was a precious part of his being, which he was not prepared to surrender at any cost. Azad declared in 1921 that “The need of the hour is that the seven crore Muslims living in India should establish such close ties and develop such fellow feeling with the twenty-two crore Hindus that they may henceforth be reckoned as one single nation and country, as inseparable parts of one combined and indivisible whole.” The majoritarian nationalism being flaunted today runs contrary to the idea of composite nationalism espoused by Azad all his life.

What was Azad’s equation with Jinnah after he became the youngest president of the Congress party? You write in the book that Azad was hated and derided as a “showboy of the Congress” and an “agent of Hindus” by Jinnah and Muslim League whose “sectarian politics” he opposed.
Maulana Azad had no relations with Jinnah. They were poles apart in their politics and remained so till the country was divided in 1947. Jinnah derided Azad whenever he spoke about him, but Maulana never responded to these insults. Jinnah and Muslim League targeted Maulana to suggest he was the only Muslim leader with the Congress who questioned their two-nation theory. I have engaged with this in the book and found it fallacious and contrary to available historical facts. Actually a large number of Muslim groups questioned the League and its divisive politics.

You write in detail about Azad’s contribution to invigorating India’s formal education system after Independence. What were some of the challenges he faced, which he also overcame to bring about a positive change in education and literacy?
Maulana Azad was confronted with a serious challenge when he took over as minister for education, science and culture. Some 85 per cent of the country was illiterate, and this included a large number of adults in 1947. In 1948, while addressing an education conference, Maulana reiterated: “Education, at any rate, must be pushed forward as rapidly as possible. We must not, for a moment, forget that it is the birthright of every individual to receive at least a basic education, without which he cannot discharge his duties as a citizen.”

Maulana also realised that equity in education is not conceivable merely through the expansion of school education. He was aware of the huge adult population which needed serious attention. For him, adult literacy and education were crucial for any idea of inclusive and equity-based education in India, particularly soon after the end of colonial rule.

Our education system had not been accessible to all since centuries, and it had worsened during the colonial era. Maulana also had to face the challenge of the Partition where millions were displaced, and education was a serious concern of most of these families.

Azad conceded with a sense of guilt as minister of education that the Central Government had only 1 per cent of the Budget allocated to education. He pleaded in the Constituent Assembly to raise this to 10 per cent. He pursued the objective with passion and was able to raise the allocation from 20 million rupees to around 350 million during his tenure as minister of education. These were some of the early challenges that Maulana faced when he took over the task as the first minister for education after independence.

Majid Maqbool is an independent journalist and writer based in Kashmir. He is on Twitter as @MaqboolMajid.