SYEDA HAMEED | 14 NOVEMBER, 2016
NEW DELHI: November 11 was the birth anniversary of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Independent India's first Education Minister, our most erudite scholar and finest mind of the freedom movement. He was born 128 years ago in the city of Makkah. Let me use his own unparalleled expression from his autobiography Tazkirah to describe his birth:
'I who am an aimless wanderer, a stranger to my times and myself, nourished on wounded sentiments, filled with the fullness of longing, a wreck of unfulfilled desires, named Ahmed, called Abul Kalam was born in 1888 (1305 Al Hijri) coming to a world whose existence is presumption, from a non existence that has the semblance of reality, and became exposed to the allegation of being alive.'
Maybe it was the aura of the day which woke me up at 4 30 tht morning. 4 a.m was Azad's best hour when his creative energy was at its peak. No matter whether he was at home or in prison, on a train or a houseboat, he cherished this time when without any interference he could pour boiling water on jasmine tea leaves and brew for himself what he referred as 'aatish e saiyyal' (liquid fire).
The country forgot his birth, at least the media did. Tomorrow we may hear about the mandatory chadar placed on his grave at Chandni Chowk. Maybe cross party lines a few will garland his portrait at Parliament House, a short film may be shown here and there, but none if this will cause a ripple in the public mind. Too many bigger issues are preoccupying that space.
For me, as Azad's biographer this is the moment to remind the world of his relevance to the global preoccupation with Islam and terror. Also to remind the Muslims that in Azad lies the answer to their largest concern I,e. identity in the face of growing hostility and alienation. In his writings and their philosophical underpinnings lie the keys to these complex questions.
In 1931 while he was extradited in Ranchi, he had completed his translation, commentary and explication of the Quran. His mastery of the subject was due to an Arab mother, hence the mother tongue, classic Arabic, being spoken at home. This and the academic rigor of his father Maulana Khairuddin, himself a renowned scholar, who returned to India and settled in Calcutta, made Azad a master theologian without ever having attended formal school.
It was this cognition which made him call himself Abul Kalam (literal meaning, 'father of the Word') a title that I as his biographer and a believing and practicing Muslim fully endorse. The annotated Quran which Azad presented the world reflects the word of Allah as it was revealed to the Prophet, simple, direct, unadorned by all the artifices which very quickly began attaching themselves to the Kalam.
Allah, Azad writes, is Rabbul Alimeen, not Rabbul Muslimeen. Therefore he belongs to all people, the world over. He is not the lord any one sect, religion or creed. Having said that he explains the concept of Allah's 'Rububiyat' which means his nurture of all creatures, human, animal, plants. He explains the concept of Allah as Rahman and Rahim, which is a higher concept than Qahar and Jabbar (terrible, oppressive).
This monumental work which is the world's best bet to understand Islam is tragically incomplete. While Azad was being hounded by the British, his press was confiscated and closed and he was extradited to Ranchi. The manuscript was thus destroyed and of the 30 parts, only 17 remain. But the first Surah Al Hamd which consists of 7 lines and within these 7 lies the essence of the Quran has a commentary of more than a hundred pages. This is enough for the world to understand Quran's spirit and message.
For the Muslim Ummah which is spread all over the world, Azad's writings offer a vision and courage to discover their own truth. It begins with his writings in the journal Al Hilal which he launched in Calcutta in 1912. We often forget that this was the time when Gandhi was in South Africa and the Indian nationalists were just beginning to appear on the scene. It is forgotten that even before launching Al Hilal, Azad had joined Jugantar and Anushilan, Bengal resistance movement, with leaders like Rash Behari Ghosh.
In Al Hilal he exhorted Muslims to join the freedom struggle as their duty enjoined on them by religion. At the time his peers were Motilal Nehru, Tilak, and Bidhan Chandra Roy. None of the leaders like Nehru, Patel or Gandhi had arrived on the scene. Having inspired Muslims to join the freedom movement he was elected as the youngest Congress President at age 35 when he addressed the Delhi Convention in 1923. There he made his famous statement about Hindu Muslim unity.
'Today if an angel were to descend from the Heaven and declare from the heights of the Qutab Minar that India will get Swaraj within 24 hours provided she relinquishes Hindu Muslim unity, I will relinquish Swaraj rather than give up Hindu Muslim unity. Delay in the attainment of Swaraj will be a loss to India but if our unity is lost it will be a loss to entire mankind.'
This was his creed; consequently he was the last man left in the room when the entire Congress trooped out to vote for partition. Even the Mahatma had given up. From the other end it was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan whose anti partition stand was carved in stone. Azad had warned them against going in hordes to the newly created Pakistan in his famous address to Delhi Muslims. What will you gain, he asked them? You will be strangers in a strange land where regional identities will clash with yours. Religion cannot become the basis for carving separation. History vindicated Azad and Bangladesh was born.
Azad's voice needs to be heard and understood if the world wants to extract sanity from the mayhem which today threatens to madden the human race.
(Syeda Hameed was a former Member of the Planning Commission. She is the biographer of Maulana Azad)