Book extract: Maulana Azad by Khushwant Singh

When Gandhi (reluctantly), Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel acquiesced to the partition of the country, Azad stood alone among the leaders in opposing it. Where did he derive his strength to tread the lonely path, the courage to maintain that he was right and the others wrong? Without doubt his inspiration came from only one source, the Quran…

(Excerpted with permission of Aleph Book Company from Extraordinary Indians: A Book of Profiles by Khushwant Singh, edited by Mala Dayal.)

Maulana Azad (1888–1958)

In the wake of Partition in August 1947, when millions of Muslims were compelled to leave their homes and properties to migrate to Pakistan, thousands had been butchered in the Hindu-Sikh versus Muslim riots and many were forced to seek shelter in refugee camps. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who had foreseen the consequences of dividing India on religious lines, addressed a vast throng of disillusioned Muslims of Delhi from the steps of Jama Masjid. He admonished them for not heeding the words of warning he had been speaking and writing his entire life. He said, ‘You may not remember that I told you about all this to come but you sliced away my tongue; when I picked up my pen you cut off my hands; when I tried to lead you along the right path, you broke my legs; when I tried to turn, you broke my back.’

From the time Azad started his journalistic and political career in Calcutta in 1912 his message to his fellow Muslims was consistently the same. He chided them for keeping away from the freedom movement and letting non-Muslims be in the forefront of the liberation struggle. While Mohammad Ali Jinnah dubbed him ‘The Show-boy of the Congress’ and the vast majority of Indian Muslims supported the Muslim League’s demand for a separate Muslim state, the Maulana remained a stolid supporter of the Indian National Congress. When Gandhi (reluctantly), Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel acquiesced to the partition of the country, Azad stood alone among the leaders in opposing it.

Where did he derive his strength to tread the lonely path, the courage to maintain that he was right and the others wrong? Without doubt his inspiration came from only one source, the Quran.

Azad was born in Makkah of an Indian father and an Arab mother. His first language was the language of the Quran, Arabic. His father came from a line of Islamic theologians and he was expected to continue in the profession. The family migrated back to Calcutta where Azad picked up Urdu and Persian. He went through a short phase of agnosticism, rejecting all faiths and apparently indulged himself in the pleasures of the flesh. Then he went back to Islam and from the very start of his career was convinced that it was the duty of Indian Muslims to join Hindus in the struggle for freedom. While still in his early twenties he started to publish an Urdu weekly, Al-Hilal. It rapidly picked up circulation, touching a figure of 29,000 (no mean figure for an Urdu journal in those days). Although he wrote mostly on religious topics, his nationalist views displeased the government, so the paper was banned. Azad launched another one, Al Balagha. It was in an issue of Al Balagha in 1916 that he announced that he had embarked on an Urdu translation of the Quran and had already rendered the first three chapters up to Surah Al-Imran, and hoped to finish the entire book by the end of the year.

That was not to be. On 3 March 1916, an order under the Defence of India Act compelled him to quit Calcutta. Most provincial governments refused him entry. His only choices were Bombay Presidency or Bihar. He chose Bihar because it was nearer to Calcutta and took up residence at Ranchi. He completed the translation of another chapter, Surah An-Nisa, where an order of internment was passed against him and all his papers seized. He appealed to the governor, Lord Sinha. After a fortnight, his papers were returned to him. This roused the ire of Sir Charles Cleveland, head of the CID, who travelled all the way from Delhi to Ranchi and re-seized the papers to have them scrutinized lest they contain inflammatory stuff. Hoping to have the papers returned to him, Azad went ahead with his translations and commentaries and completed the work in 1918. On his release he asked for his papers to be returned to him. After a long time they were, but before he could put them together he was re-arrested in November 1921 when the Indian National Congress was declared unlawful. For the third time his papers were seized and stuffed in gunny bags to be taken away. He was released after fifteen months in jail. His papers returned to him were torn, jumbled up and many pages destroyed. The Maulana lost heart and gave up the project as being ill-starred.

Five years later in 1927 he began all over again. He finished the translations and commentaries on 20 July 1930 while in detention in Meerut jail. The genesis of three volumes of The Tarjuman-ul Quran (Translation of the Quran) shows the mettle of Maulana Azad.

One may well ask, why this passion to translate a book which had been translated several times into Urdu, English and most world languages? Azad was convinced that existing translations had missed the message of the Quran by introducing esoteric meanings to words which were simple, clear, so that illiterate Arab tribesmen could understand them. This happened after the Prophet’s generation had died out and Islam had spread to non-Arab people. Greek, Iranian and Buddhist concepts found their way into interpreting the Quran. Personal views of commentators distorted meanings of simple Arabic words. Then there were the Sufis who looked for ‘hidden meanings’ when there was nothing hidden in the Quran. A verse states explicitly that the Quran was ‘a light gleaming before the men and in their right hand’. The revelations did not claim to be the basis of a new faith but a reminder of the faith proclaimed by prophets like Abraham, Moses and Jesus Christ.

‘This is no new tale of fiction,’ claims the Quran ‘but a confirmation of previous scriptures, an explanation of all things, and a guidance and mercy to those who believe.’

Azad’s motive was to ‘explain the Quran in the manner of the Quran. He rarely goes beyond explaining the etymology of the words used and was very sparing in quoting translations ascribed to the Prophet (Hadith) to shore up his arguments.

Although young in years and with scant knowledge of European languages, Azad read extensively on whatever he could find on religion or philosophy that was available to him. Inevitably the influence of Muslim theologians weighed heavily on him. Foremost was Imam Ghazali (twelfth century) who, like him, had passed through a period of disbelief before returning to religion. Ghazali turned to mysticism; Azad, who had a Sufi background, rejected mysticism. Nevertheless, he admired some Sufis like the dervish Sarmad, who was condemned as a heretic by the ulema and beheaded under the order of Emperor Aurangzeb. Sarmad’s green tomb is on the eastern end of the steps of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, close to where Maulana Azad is buried. Of Sarmad he said: ‘He stood on the minaret of love from which the walls of the kaaba and the temple appeared of equal height.’

It is interesting to note that Azad’s contemporary, the poet Allama Iqbal, who was as deeply concerned with the future of his community, and like Azad drew his inspiration from Islamic sources, took a completely different path. Between 1905 and 1910, both travelled abroad. Iqbal went to Europe and was deeply impressed with the vitality of Western civilization and became more conscious of the decadence that had overtaken the Islamic world. He gave expression to it in his famous poem, Shikwa (Complaint). Although addressed to Allah, he wrote of the glorious past of the idol-breaking conquerors fired with zeal. Azad travelled to Muslim countries struggling for freedom from European colonial powers and felt that the only hope was to revive Islam by firing the Muslims with the spirit that Allah had bequeathed to the Prophet through his revelations: the Quran. Iqbal was inspired by Islamic history; Azad by the Quran and the life of the Prophet. Iqbal came to the conclusion that Muslims were a people apart from the Hindus and their salvation lay in a state of their own.

Azad totally rejected the two-nation theory and the concept of a separate Muslim state as against the teachings of the Quran.

Of the three-volume translations of the Quran, the first, which deals with the opening Surah Al-Fatiha, is the most significant. It consists of a bare seven lines of a few words each:

In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful

Praise is for Allah only, the Lord of all Being

The Benevolent, the Merciful

Master of the Day of Recompense

Thee only do we serve and thee alone do we ask for help,

Direct us to the straight path

The path of those to whom thou hast been gracious

Not of those to who have incurred thy displeasure, nor of those who have gone astray.

This chapter has been described as the core or essence of the Quran, the sufficient and the treasure house. Since it is the most repeated part of the Quran, one of the revelations confirms: ‘O Prophet! It is a fact that we have given you these seven oft repeated verses and the great Quran. The Prophet himself acknowledged that it is ‘the greatest of the three chapters’ and ‘there is no chapter to compare with it’.

The Prophet never laid claims to propounding a new religion but bringing back a people who had strayed from this straight path of worshipping God into animism, ancestor worship, totemism and idolatry. The two most commonly used names of God, Allah and Rabh, were both pre-Islamic. Allah is really an exclamation of wonder at the universe and its creator: ‘Hail God’. The Sikhs’ Wahe Guru is exactly the same. Rabh is a portmanteau word meaning the provider (Al Razzaq) as well as teacher, master and Lord. The Quran begins with hamd (praise) to Allah (Bismillah) and his two great qualities, benevolence (Al Rahman) and mercy (Al Rahim). Thereafter it emphasizes his qualities as the provider—Sustainer of the universe (Rabbul Alamin).

Maulana Azad points out that the things most needed in life— air, water and earth (to provide food)—are free gifts of God given in abundance. The Quran emphasizes this: ‘And we send down water from the heavens in its due degree, and cause it to settle on the earth, and we have power for its withdrawal too, and by it, we cause gardens of palm trees and vineyards to spring forth for you, in which you have plenteous fruits and whereof you eat.’

Azad points out the difference between the Hindu and Islamic verses in the purpose of creation.

Hindus believe that the universe is God’s leela (sport) and unreal. Islam attributes deliberate purpose to creation.

Says the Quran: ‘We have not created the heavens and the earth and whatever is between them in sport: we have not created them but for a serious end.’ Azad produces a telling argument for the existence of God. The nature of man can hardly believe that there can be an action without an actor, orderliness without a director, a plan without a planner, a building without a builder, a design without a designer.

Proof of God’s existence, says Azad, is there for everyone who cares to see it and quotes the Quran. ‘Let man look at his food, it was He who first rained down copious rains, there cleft the earth with clefts, and caused the up-growth of the grain, and grapes and healing herbs, and fruits and herbage, for the service of yourselves and your cattle.’

One may as well ask, if God is all-powerful, just and merciful why do calamities like earthquakes, volcano eruptions and floods take such a heavy toll on innocent lives? The Quran answers that the good and useful survive—‘as to the former it is quickly gone and as to which is useful, it remaineth on the earth’.

Truth, assures the Quran, will always triumph over falsehood. God is Al-Haqqah—The Truthful One. ‘We will hurl the truth at falsehood and it shall smite it; and lo! it will vanish.’ The retribution for falsehood and evil need not be sudden because people are given time for repentance. ‘I am with those who wait,’ says the Quran. The time for repentance should not be frittered away. Repentance releases forces of mercy; every tear shed in contrition washes away the stains of sin. The Prophet himself gave assurance that ‘one who repents sincerely is like one who never committed sin’. Azad followed up with the exhortation: ‘What right have we to expect forgiveness from God when we have not learned to forgive our fellow creatures?’

It should be noted that, unlike Christianity, Islam does not ask people to love their enemies (which is contrary to nature) but only to forgive them. Hate the sin and not the sinner. It also justifies retaliation but limits it to the damage suffered. Contrary to popular notion, the Quran does not exhort Muslims to wage instant war against unbelievers (kafirs). It is only against those who persecute believers or revile the Quran and the Prophet that violence is sanctioned. Otherwise a person is free to believe what he or she thinks best.

‘To you, your way, and to me, mine,’ says the revelations and give the assurance: ‘There is no compulsion in religion’.

An important attribute of God is Adalat—Justice; he is the master of the day of recompense. Maulana Azad emphasized that divine justice is not dependent on the whim of God but entirely based on the law of causation—what you sow, you reap.

Azad differs from other theologians in saying that the concept of one almighty God is not an evolutionary process but the revival of one with which the world started: ‘Men were first of one religion only; then they fell to variance’, says the Quran. Azad also believed that the Islamic concept of God is more advanced than the Jewish and the Christian because the Jews regarded Him as the tribal God of a ‘chosen people’ while the Christians humanized him as much as they regarded Jesus as the ‘Son of God’.

The Quran was close to the Upanishads in refusing to define God (neti, neti—not this, not this) but took a more positive attitude by making Him a repository of attributes—creativity, providence, justice, mercy and so on.

The Prophet did his utmost to avoid being treated as an incarnation or avatar of Allah. When he died, his father-in-law, the first Caliph, spoke to the gathering: ‘He who worshipped Muhammad, let them know that Muhammad is dead, and he who worshipped God, let him know that God ever lives. He has no death.’ In emphasizing God as the sole object of worship, the Quran specifically forbade ascribing partners to share this singular sovereignty.

It is to this one rule of the universe that mankind must turn for guidance (Hidayat) to lead us along the straight path, the one trodden by the righteous, not evildoers.

It was his firm conviction in the unity of God and the brotherhood of mankind revealed in the Quran that made Maulana Azad turn his face against the concept of separate states based on religious differences. ‘Whatever your so-called race, your homeland, your nationality, and whatever your circumstances in life or sphere of activity, if only you all resolve to serve but one God, all these will lose their sting. Your hearts will be united. You will begin to feel that the entire globe is your home and that all mankind is but one people, and that you all form but a single family—Ayaal Allah—the family of God.’

(Photos courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

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