by Rahil Khan

Though he remains an icon of secular nationalism in modern-day India, Azad was actually born in Mecca in 1888 and lived there till he was about seven. His father Khairuddin, a scholar-sufi originally from Calcutta, was persuaded by his Calcuttan disciples to return back to that city. Under the strict tutelage of his father, Azad continued his Islamic studies, though the young prodigy resented the restrictive and authoritarian manner in which this syllabus was taught; therefore, on his own, Azad secretly cultivated a taste for Urdu books and Persian poetry and even learnt to play the sitar. Around this time he also experienced a revulsion against the pir-worship of his father’s disciples and a diminished desire to succeed his father as pir.

By the time he was thirteen, Azad had become totally disillusioned with his Islamic training and found solace in the modernist writings of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. However, the rationalism of Sir Syed only ended up reinforcing the boy’s earlier doubts about religion and Azad fell into a period of atheism which, according to him, lasted from the age of 14 to 22. During his later teenage years he seems to have come into close contact with the Hindu revolutionaries of Bengal. A combination of brief travel to the Middle East and his Arabic reading also exposed him more deeply to the reformist ideas of Sheikh Abduh of Egypt and the uncompromising nationalism and anti-imperialism of Mustafa Kamil.

After this period of spiritual homelessness, Azad, by the end of 1909, had an emotional/mystical experience that renewed his faith in religion and galvanised his personality in a dramatic way. Following this ‘conversion,’ Azad’s career really began to take-off in 1912 with the appearance of his Urdu journal Al-Hilal. Using breathtaking language, the journal simultaneously preached ‘pure’ Islam and Indian independence. Through his particular interpretation of Islam, Azad sought to bring Indian Muslims onto the platform of the freedom movement and to work in cooperation with Hindus who were already there. Despite his earlier admiration for Sir Syed, Azad was a harsh critic of the loyalist politics of Aligarh University.

Contrary to what is stated in certain types of historiography in India and Pakistan, Hindu-Muslim cooperation was not something that the Maulana adopted out of expediency or after his eventual meeting with Gandhi. Though the journal was ambiguous about specific methods of cooperation and post-Independence political arrangements, Hindu-Muslim unity was a sentiment he had been partial to from very early on in his life. This is evident in his poignant 1910 essay on the broad-minded Sufi saint Sarmad. However, there was a revivalist tone to Al-Hilal which critics would later say inadvertently reinforced communal consciousness among certain Muslims, even though the rhetorical devices had been used to arouse Muslims out of political lethargy.

When World War I broke out in Europe, the British government, viewing the journal as seditious, expelled Azad from Bengal and placed him under internment in Ranchi for three and a half years. A few weeks after his release, he met Mahatma Gandhi in Delhi for the first time; he accepted Gandhi’s program of non-cooperation and became the first prominent Muslim in India to declare himself an ally of the Mahatma. The massacres at Jallianwala Bagh had set all Indians afire, but Indian Muslims too in 1920 were greatly perturbed by the British government’s handling of the Turkish empire and the Khilafat during the War. In consultation with Azad, Gandhi persuaded the Congress to make the demand for the protection of the Khilafat a part of the national demand for freedom. The overlapping relationship between the Congress and the Khilafat Conference ended up bringing Muslims in large numbers to the freedom movement.

By 1921 Hindu-Muslim unity in the country seemed to be at an all-time high, and Azad was soon arrested. Yet this solidarity, while impressively achieved, proved to be a short-lived; upon his release in 1923, the country was passing through a particularly strong wave of communal rioting. In addition to other important factors, Muslims were shocked out of their reverie because of the Turkish government’s move to abolish the Khilafat. The ambiguous results of the Khilafat Movement has provoked criticism from some latter-day historians over Azad’s attempts at ‘fusing’ religion with politics. By unsystematically using Quranic arguments to support the Khilafat Movement and Hindu-Muslim cooperation, it has been suggested that Azad inadvertently cultivated identity politics among Muslims and allowed some of his ideas to be misconstrued by more communal interests.

Azad came to realize that in politics he could only be guided by the general principles of his religion and his knowledge of Indian Muslim history, rather than through invoking specific textual injunctions. By this time, he was also increasingly becoming an active member on the Congress stage, and his mediating skills largely prevented a split in the party between constitutionalists like Motilal Nehru and non-cooperatists like Vallabhai Patel. Though he continued his efforts to bring various Muslim organizations in line with Congress and involved in the freedom movement, in 1928 serious differences arose between the Congress and organizations like the Muslim League and the Khilafat Conference over the Nehru report. Azad was forced to break ties with the latter two organizations.

In 1930, the Congress declared complete independence as the goal of the national movement, and civil disobedience continued in vigour following Gandhi’s famous Salt March. Azad was imprisoned twice in a row during this period, and then released in 1936 along with the other Congress leaders. It was during these periods of imprisonment that the Maulana was able to complete the first edition of his famous Tarjuman al-Quran, his Urdu translation and commentary on the Quran. A second expanded edition was published during the 1940s. This incomplete translation and commentary would end up being his most definitive, though controversial, theological statement on how Indian Muslims could live out their religion in a religiously pluralist and politically secular environment. Hence, he articulated an Islam that was hospitable towards other forms of monotheism, especially Hinduism, and which placed emphasis on commonly held rules of righteous conduct. Though it was a landmark effort to inject a liberal ethos into Islam, the Tarjuman, unfortunately, did not have the overwhelming impact he hoped it would. The controversies that sprung up around this work, particularly from members of the ulema that were supporting him politically, dried up any inspiration in him to carry out the larger task of comprehensive religious reform and reinterpretation.

Following the passing away of M.A. Ansari in 1936, Azad became the most prominent Muslim in the Congress. By 1939 he was elected President of the party, though he was not the first Muslim to occupy that position. During the thirties the Muslim League had been gaining steam under Jinnah, and given special impetus because of grievances against certain Congress elected provincial governments. Azad’s presidential address at the Ramgarh session of the Congress in 1940 occurred just a few days before Jinnah’s historic Pakistan Resolution, and, in addition to articulating the point of view of the nationalist Muslims, became a classic statement on Indian secularism and a refutation of the two-nations theory.

Unfortunately, in addition to being caught in the cross-fire between Hindu and Muslim communalists, Azad by then had become subject to a trenchant campaign of criticism by influential Muslim political opponents. Many members of the religious and modern educated classes who earlier in his career had respected him and his religious ideas eventually turned against him because of this vilifying propaganda. Though he was capable of stirring large crowds with his brilliant oratory when called upon to do so, Azad’s pride and good manners kept him from publicly countering his detractors, and his intellectual and aristocratic nature kept him from reaching out directly to the Muslim masses when such an intervention was needed.

Azad was imprisoned for a fifth time in 1940, following a limited campaign of civil disobedience, and released a year later. By 1942, and following the more comprehensive Quit India Movement, he, along with the other Congress leaders, was imprisoned again. Upon his release in 1946, Azad remained Congress President throughout the War years. During his presidency, he tried to encourage Congress to come to terms with certain Muslim fears and to make some concessions with the League to avoid splitting the country; but both Jinnah’s single-mindedness and certain Congress mistakes prevented any settlement from occurring.

The Maulana reluctantly relinquished the Congress presidency in 1946, hoping that this would open an avenue between the Congress and the League; the latter party had refused to acknowledge a Muslim presence within the former one. He kept out of the coalition government formed that year, but in 1947, at Gandhi’s urging, he became Minister of Education. Azad had been totally opposed to Mountbatten’s plan for dividing the country, but by March of that year, Partition had become an inevitability; the polarization within the interim government, formed between the Congress and the League, and the rising communal violence throughout India had become too much. Though, like Gandhi, he was forced to accept Partition, he could never reconcile himself to it and was totally heartbroken by the event and its bloody aftermath.

Following Independence, he would hold the post of Minister of Education for ten years. Though he was not a particularly effective administrator, he did perform some important services such as cultivating technical, adult, and women’s education, and an academy of literature, as well as opposing the ejection of English as a national language. As in earlier years, he could not project the mystical piety of, say, a Baba Farid needed to draw the Muslim and Hindu masses to him; but his belief in religious pluralism and the need for a humanistic outlook broadened even further, and he openly identified parallels between Vedantic and Sufi thought in some of his addresses. His last years were marked by sadness and loneliness, a consequence of a life lived so individualistically. Abul Kalam Azad died in 1958 of a stroke and was buried in a dignified corner in Old Delhi near the Jama Masjid. It is a great irony that, while possessing a thorough Islamic training, Azad ended up espousing a secular nationalism informed by personal religious sensibilities, while his opponent Jinnah, a modernist with a minimal religious upbringing, ended up vying for a separate Muslim state informed by purely political considerations.


Douglas, Ian Henderson. Abul Kalam Azad: An Intellectual and Religious Biography. Edited by Gail Minnault and Christian Troll. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Gandhi, Rajmohan. Eight Lives: A Study of the Hindu-Muslim Encounter. New York: State University Press, 1986.

Hameed, Syeda Saiyidain. Islamic Seal on India’s Independence; Abul Kalam Azad – A Fresh Look. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Copyright: Rahil Khan