Deccan Chronicle

Book Review | Anti-colonial thinker who gave the lie to Islamic conservatism

Deccan Chronicle.| Anand K Sahay

Published on: April 8, 2023 | Updated on: April 8, 2023
Cover photo of 'Maulana Azad: A Life' by S. Irfan Habib. (Photo by arrangement)

Cover photo of 'Maulana Azad: A Life' by S. Irfan Habib. (Photo by arrangement)

The life of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad is, regrettably, one of the lesser explored aspects of India’s anti-colonial movement. Deeper engagements with the Maulana’s lucid ideological thinking and philosophical moorings can be of value in the current phase of India’s public discourse when modes of thought and models of governance being officially presented are shaking the democratic vision that came with the freedom movement to its roots.

The present volume by Irfan Habib, the well-known historian of science and the development of modern political thought in a religiously diverse society, seeks to underline Azad’s deep-going concerns on primarily three planes — the Maulana’s unshakeable anti-colonial sentiment which probably coloured the rest of his thought, his intellectual struggles grounded in his profound understanding of Islamic theology, texts and history, and Azad’s all too palpable humanism, which may be deemed to be his creed in the final analysis.

The bulk of the book takes the reader through critical thinking in Islam, especially in the 19th and early part of the 20th century, and issues relating to Islam and nationalism that were posited by Sir Sayyad Ahmad Khan and Sir Muhammad Iqbal — and later the politician Muhammad Ali Jinnah — in a way that gave comfort to the ideology of Empire which relied on dividing the populace of colonies on atavistic lines, and Maulana Azad — taking from Jamaluddin Afghani primarily — in an altogether different direction.

Jinnah hated Azad, called him the "show boy of the Congress" and refused to engage with him either personally or through correspondence. Jinnah’s politics, aided by the British rulers of the time, led him to bring about the Partition of India. This effort was fuelled by the Muslim nawabs and big zamindars, and the Muslim business elite — the so-called Ashraf, the upper crust. On the other hand, the lower classes and the poor, the Ajlaf Habib shows, went by and large with the teachings and political activities of Azad, Maulana Husain Ahmed Madani of Deoband, and Allah Buksh Sumroo. A professional historian, the author brings to the writing copious citations.

Brilliant minds came forth as India experienced colonial modernity, and Maulana Azad certainly has a place amongst the narrowest of that elite. He had mastered the study of Arabic and Persian while entering his teens. By his late teens, he had founded and edited some of the most influential newspapers of the day. Around the time Gandhi arrived in India from South Africa, Azad had created sufficient stir through his anti-colonial writings to be put in jail by the rulers. Twice elected president of the Congress Party, the premier vehicle of the freedom movement, he had the credentials to match that of any other freedom fighter.

At home in Calcutta (now Kolkata), Azad — named Mohiuddin Ahmad — had rebelled against his eminent father, a well-known Islamic scholar and Sufi divine, before entering his teens. Unusual for a Muslim of his background, he learnt music — one of the great loves of his life — and pondered its theories and classics. He taught himself French and English and read advanced texts in these European languages.

His literary writings — samples of which are presented here — mark him out as an aesthete of the first rank. For a time, in his period of great questioning as a young man, Azad had stopped the namaaz, the Muslim daily prayer, and keeping of the Ramzan fast. A lifelong smoker, he did not hesitate to smoke in Gandhi’s presence, did not abstain from alcohol, and was addicted to fine teas. He was aloof of temperament but courteous and gracious, and possessed a touch of humour.

All of this ground — which the general reader is likely to be unfamiliar with — is covered here in ample detail. But the Maulana’s role as a leading light of the Congress deserves separate detailed treatment, as does his role as India’s first education minister, which is cursorily alluded to here. The editing required more expert handling.

Yet Habib’s study is timely. It takes forward our awareness and understanding of complex themes. It is a sensitive addition to the discussion on ideology and politics through the portrayal of an erudite and complex individual.

Maulana Azad: A Life

By S. Irfan Habib


pp. 305, Rs.899

About The Author

Anand Sahay is a senior journalist based in Delhi.

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