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Abul Kalam Azad - a genius without an audience?
Author/Source: Shad Shahid  Posted by: Shad Shahid
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In the early 20th century, when the state of Muslims in British India was rife with confusion, there emerged a scholar who could guide them in a calm and firm manner as per the need of the times. Abul Kalam Azad was this original thinker who always spoke in the language of the Qur'an but was perhaps born too soon as his audience were, in general, unprepared to heed him. This was the intellectually ripe time when other luminaries like Iqbal, Shaykh Mahmudul Hasan, Shibli Numani and Muhammad Ali Jauhar were coming out with their own outlooks on Islam.

Azad published a newspaper from Calcutta called Al-Hilal signifying that the resurgence of Islam was around the corner like the new moon. When he was exiled to Ranchi and the newspaper banned, he came out with another newspaper called Al-Balagh. Both of these also contained Azad's views on the Qur'an which were a departure from traditionalism and sought to interpret the scripture in the light of its own principles for a modern mind, while at the same time critiquing traditional outlooks. During World War 1, Azad trained volunteers to take over local authority in case the British withdrew from India. He also lent support to the Khilafat movement which opposed British involvement in dismantling the Ottoman Caliphate. Later, Azad spent a lot of time trying to understand what could be the best course of action for Indian Muslims in the present scenario.

His commentary on the Qur'an is titled Tarjuman-ul-Qur'an which he had to write twice, because the first manuscript was destroyed by the British. The second time (writing from prison), he could not complete the task beyond Surah Muminun (Surah 23) - nevertheless the commentary does offer insight into the Maulana's mind. Azad is caustic about earlier commentators like Imam Razi who, he thinks, has unnecessarily complicated what was a simple and clear text. In the world-view of Azad, the Qur'anic text is always clear and precise. His treatise on Surah Fatihah alone runs into more than 200 pages. Especially interesting is how Azad does a comparative study of the concept of God in all religions (including evolutionary views like Animism, Totemism and Shamanism) and finally concludes that the Islamic concept of God is the only one which is logically, morally and intuitively sound and perfect. It is surprising that the commentary is so less known in academic circles, perhaps because all jewels have to remain hidden.

Azad opposed the two-nation theory and offered his own solution to the problems of Indian Muslims- a loose federation wherein provinces with a Muslim majority could govern their own affairs. Unfortunately, neither side (Hindu or Muslim) listened to his opinion, and with the Partition of British India in 1947, a large chunk of Muslims (left behind in India), were clueless as to their future prospects. In his historic speech from the Jama Masjid at Delhi, Azad bitterly asked his fellowmen why they did not even bother to listen to his advice. Even at that juncture, he reiterated to them the Qur'anic counsel of hope that they will be without fear and grief if indeed they remained true believers.

Azad stayed back in India, as for him, he could not leave his fellow believers alone in that crucial juncture where they were reduced to a minority in their historical towns like Delhi, Hyderabad and Lucknow. He even became the first Education Minister of modern India, and oversaw the development of Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), thereby proving that a Muslim can not only live, but also lead in a multi-cultural society.

Azad's deep desire to modernize Indian Muslims however could not materialize as most of the elite class had migrated to Pakistan. As recently as last year, the Government of India has introduced scholarships in Azad's name for Muslim students wishing to pursue PhDs.

Azad's real name was Abul Kalam to which his erudition bears witness. Moreover, he added 'Azad' after his name signifying that regardless of the society (whether British-ruled or a multi-cultural India), a true Muslim is free from subservience to anyone save Allah. In this age, Indian Muslims, as well as all Muslims around the world, need to take lessons from Azad's worldview in order to redeem their self-dignity and once again become shining examples to the world. It is no surprise that secular India even today celebrates Azad's birthday each year, and medical and engineering colleges as well as universities are named after him.

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