Azad: Biography Of An Independent Thinker

Syed Irfan Habib has done a great service by putting in sharp relief Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s life and thus making it possible to understand his role in history

Azad: Biography Of An Independent Thinker

One of the most famous Muslim stalwarts of the Indian freedom struggle was Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. Azad was an Islamic scholar who understood his religion as a call to create the brotherhood of man unencumbered by religious, racial or sectarian prejudices. It was in the light of these philosophical ideals and convictions that he led a multifaceted life as a scholar, social reformer and political leader.

In the current times when distortion of facts and obfuscation of truth is rampant in both Pakistan and India and communalisation of scholarship pervades academic undertakings, we must be grateful to S. Irfan Habib for taking up the cudgels to defend the truth. He has done yeoman service by meticulously and painstakingly examining Maulana Azad’s life in both private and public spheres.

Title: Maulana Azad A Life: The Biography of an Independent Thinker who fought for an Inclusive India

Author: S Irfan Habib 

Publishers: Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2023

We learn that Azad, named Mohinuddin Ahmad by his parents, was born in Makkah on November 11, 1888, where his father Khairuddin had shifted just before the 1857 uprising. The family had been Sunni Islamic scholars for generations. His mother Aliya was an Arab. Azad was a precocious child and a rebel. His overbearing father exercised excessive control over him which Azad resented. Sir Syed’s rationalism, Jamaluddin Afghani’s anti-imperialism as well as the modernism of the Egyptian Mohammad Abduh influenced him as did Altaf Hussain Hali and Shibli Nomani dynamism. All this helped him develop an eclectic understanding of Islam which was progressive and dynamic.

He started a career as a journalist at a very early age. Al-Hilal was started by him in Calcutta in 1912 but his anti-colonial writing resulted in the British government imposing heavy fines and security deposits. As a result, he had to shut it down and in 1915 launched Al-Balagh, which too faced government repression and he was exiled to a village in Ranchi, in Bihar. He started other publications too but had to face government repression every time. 

The most important aspect of Azad’s life was his lifelong commitment to the freedom of India. Azad was initially a pan-Islamist and became a leading figure in the Khilafat movement but later became a firm believer in joining hands with all other communities in India to liberate it from British rule. He met Gandhi in 1920 who profoundly impressed him. Like other leading Congress leaders he was imprisoned several times for publishing material considered seditious and as a leader of the Indian National Congress he became the most ardent Islamic scholar committed to composite nationalism. He found no contradiction in celebrating Islam as his faith and India as his motherland. He interpreted the Holy Quran and the Life of the Prophet (PBUH) as struggles for freedom and justice for humankind.

This brought him in conflict with both VD Savarkar, whose Hindutva overruled unity between Hindus and Muslims, as well as Allama Iqbal and the All-India Muslim League who too used Islamic arguments to preach Muslim separatism and based nationalism not on loyalty to the common homeland but to faith in Islam. The author quotes Azad on composite nationalism:

“Our shared life of a thousand years has forged a common nationality […] Whether we like it or not, we have now become an Indian nation, united and indivisible. No false idea of separatism can break our oneness.”

Of course, other Muslim leaders too believed in composite Indian nationalism including Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madani, Allah Baksh Somroo and many others. According to S Irfan Habib, it was because of Azad’s influence that a substantial Muslim population can be found in western Uttar Pradesh.

Besides the Tarjuman al-Quran which is Azad’s celebrated commentary on the Quran, his collection of letters known as the Ghubar-i-Khatir is considered a tour de force of a literary craftsman. Written mostly while in prison, in the letters he takes up such diverse subjects as faith, history, philosophy, the complexities of life and his yearning for solitude, his passion for music, the ultimate questions about the meaning of life and its ending in death.

A most important inclusion in the book is that of Abul Kalam Azad’s outstanding contributions to India as its first education minister. A vile propaganda is currently going on in India that Azad was illiterate simply because he had not had formal schooling and was taught at home. Also, it is claimed that he did not speak English. We learn that not only was Azad fully conversant in English but also had taught himself French and used to read French literature. Jawaharlal Nehru was fully aware of Azad’s erudition and the latter’s commitment to education. At a press conference after becoming India’s first education minister, Azad observed:

“Nothing has more important bearing on the quality of the individual than the type of education imparted. A truly liberal and humanitarian education may transform the outlook of people and set it on the path of progress and prosperity, while an ill-conceived or unscientific system may destroy all the hopes which been cherished by generations of pioneers in the cause of national freedom.”

Azad died on 22 February 1958. Syed Irfan Habib has done a great service by putting in sharp relief Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s life and thus making it possible to understand his role in history in a comprehensive manner. 

The writer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at: