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Āzād, Abū al-Kalām

By:
Christian W. Troll
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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Āzād, Abū al-Kalām

Abū al-Kalām Āzād (1888–1958) was an Urdu journalist, Islamic thinker, and religious universalist who symbolized the Muslim option of composite Indian nationalism. Mawlānā Āzād was born in Mecca, where his father Khairuddīn Dihlawī (1831–1908) had migrated in 1858 and later married the daughter of a muftī of Medina. The ancestors of Āzād had intellectual and spiritual links with Shaykh Aḥmad Sirhindī (d. 1624), Shah Walī Allāh Dihlawī (d. 1762), and Shah ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz (d. 1824). Khairuddīn was an influential ʿālim-pīr (learned Ṣūfī authority) with outspoken anti-Wahhābī leanings. The family moved to Calcutta around 1898.

Āzād was taught at home under the strict supervision of his father and completed, at the age of fifteen, the dars-i nizāmī course of higher Islamic studies. His phenomenal memory, as well as his public preaching, prose, and verse, made him famous as a child prodigy. Very early, however, he became critical of his father's bitter opposition to the scripturalist Wahhābīs and of his practices of taqlīd (reliance on tradition) and the pīr-murīdī relationship (between spiritual guide and disciple). For some time Āzād fell under the spell of the reformist ideas and rationalistic theology of Sayyid Aḥmad Khān (1817–1898). This was followed by a period of doubts, unbelief, and sensuous living. A deep experience of mystic love induced by earthly love led him back to faith in God by the end of 1909.

Āzād's journalistic career started in 1903 when he launched the short-lived reformist journal Lisān al-ṣidq. Thereafter he worked for short periods with al-Nadwah, the organ of the Nadvat al-ʿUlamāʿ academy in Lucknow, under the guidance of Muḥammad Shiblī Nuʿmānī (d. 1914), and with the renowned newspaper Vakīl in Amritsar. He was familiar with the contemporary writing of the Arab world in the vein of Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and those associated with the influential journal al-Manār with its roots in neo-Ḥanbalī theology. In 1908–1909 on a visit to western Asia he met Iranian nationalists in Iraq, and Arab nationalists and Turkish revolutionaries in Cairo, followers of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (d. 1938). He synthesized their ideas with his own experience of contact with the Bengal Hindu revolutionaries in the wake of the 1905 partition of Bengal.

In 1912 Āzād, through his widely influential weekly journal al-Hilāl (The Crescent), set out first to revive among the Muslims of India the true spirit of Qurʿānic Islam as the only solution to the nationʾs problems, and second to move them to political revolt through participation in the struggle of the Indian Congress Party for self-government. The fight for independence was a religious duty for Muslims, but they first had to be freed of their “pathological fear of the Hindus.” Āzād emerged as a forerunner of Mohandas Gandhi, who was to launch his anti-British noncooperation agitation in 1919. However, nonviolence for Āzād was a matter of policy, not of principle.

When the government forced al-Hilāl to close down, upon the outbreak of war between Turkey and Britain, Āzād started another journal, al-Balāgh. He was soon exiled from Bengal and spent three and a half years in internment near Ranchi. Immediately upon his release in January 1920, he joined the nationwide struggle for political freedom led by Gandhi. The address that Āzād delivered in February 1920, as president of the Bengal Provincial Khilafat Conference, served as a strong inspiration and theoretical basis for the Khilāfat movement. Referring to the covenant concluded in 622 between Muḥammad and the people of Medina, including Jews and pagans, Āzād described Muslim together with non-Muslim parties as a single community (ummah wāḥidah).

Āzād was again arrested toward the end of 1921 and formally put on trial. His defense, later published under the title Qaul-i fayṣal, occupies a prominent place in both the political history of India and the history of Urdu literature. In 1929 Āzād, in cooperation with thirty other nationalist Muslim leaders, convened the Nationalist Muslim Conference, but his real field of political activity was within the Congress. During the 1930s and 1940s he was imprisoned four times; he eventually spent one-seventh of his life interned or in jail. In 1940 Āzād was elected president of the All-India National Congress and held this position until 1946. He failed to prevent the partition of India, which was for him a lasting tragedy overshadowing the achievement of independence. In 1947 he joined the interim government of India as Minister of Education. This post, as well as that of deputy leader of Congress, he held until his death.

Āzād's overall religious perspective is marked by his unique temperament; he combined aesthetic experience and religious consciousness. The charming letters to his friend from the British prison at Ahmadnagar (Ghubār-i khāʿir, edited by Malik Ram, New Delhi, 1967; rev. ed. 1983) provide insight into his multifaceted Islamic sensitivity. Earlier, in his fragmentary autobiography Tazkirah (edited by Fazluddin Ahmad, Calcutta, 1919; rev. ed. Malik Ram, New Delhi, 1968), Āzād had offered a passionate discussion of such moral and religious issues as the eternal validity of the word of God, the affinity between earthly and sacred love, and the appreciation of beauty in its varied forms, including music, which he held to be compatible with the Qurʿān. All of Āzādʾs writings had a deeply religious tenor and were marked by his artistic, highly personalized diction, appealing to intuition rather than discursive reason.

Āzād's mind accommodated conflicting elements without any attempt to reconcile them in a conceptual whole. His countless writings and speeches all refer to a few fundamental attitudes and options sponsored by his interpretation or tafsīr of the Qurʿān. However, in Tarjumān al-Qurʿān, Āzād's annotated Urdu rendering of chapters 1 to 23, and especially in his commentary on the opening verses of the Qurʿān, his main concern is to let the Qurʿān speak for itself. The Qurʿān is a spiritual text concerning God and humanity, enjoining good and prohibiting evil. Pseudoscientific attributions of medieval or modern provenance must not distort its divine beauty and simplicity.

In their essence all faiths are one (dīn); their distinctiveness, expressed in different laws, is neither original nor inherent. Islam as the religion of the Qurʿān does not have to be politically and nationally separatist to be viable and effective in history. Moreover, God's attributes are readable in their qualities of nurture, harmony, and guidance as imprinted on the created universe. The Qurʿān indicates the middle path between transcendentalism and anthropomorphism. Praise, gratitude, and universal brotherhood are the obvious human responses. Although Āzād believed that human obduracy generates destructive “groupism,” he preferred not to probe the depths of sinful perversion in individuals or societies.

A basic lacuna in Āzād's religious scholarship is the absence of an updated hermeneutics of the fundamental sources of Islam—the Qurʿān and ḥadīth—and, based on that, a reformulation of the principles of legal construction. However, although he did not initiate a school of thought, his vision of Islam as Qurʿān-based universal humanism continues to inspire Muslim sensitivity, especially in the Urdu-speaking world.

Bibliography

  • Āzād, Abū al-Kalām. India Wins Freedom. Orient Longman, 2005. Reprint containing thirty pages originally withheld from publication.
  • Āzād, Abū al-Kalām. Khuṭubāt-i Āzād. New Delhi, 1981. The chief public speeches of Āzād, 1914–1948, in the Urdu original.
  • Āzād, Abū al-Kalām. Speeches of Maulana Azad, 1947–55. New Delhi, 1956.
  • Āzād, Abū al-Kalām. Tarjumān al-Qurʿān. 2 vols.Delhi, 1931–1936. Critical edition by Malik Ram. 4 vols. New Delhi, 1964–1976. Translated and edited by S. A. Latif, The Tarjumān al-Qurʿān. 3 vols. Bombay, 1962–1967.
  • Douglas, Ian Henderson. Abul Kalam Azad: An Intellectual and Religious Biography. Edited by Gail Minault and Christian W. Troll. New Delhi, 1988. The most penetrating study of Āzādʾs life and works. Comprehensive bibliography.
  • Faruqi, I. H. Azad. The Tarjuman al-Qurʿan: A Critical Analysis of Maulana Azadʾs Approach to the Understanding of the Qurʿan. New Delhi, 1982. Elucidates the links of Tarjumān with earlier Qurʿān exegesis and brings out its distinguishing features.
  • Hameed, Syeda Saiyidain. Islamic Seal on India's Independence: Abul Kalam Azad—A Fresh Look. New York: Oxford, 1998.
  • Hasan, Mushirul, ed. Islam and Indian Nationalism: Reflections on Abul Kalam Azad. New Delhi, 1992. Delineates Āzādʾs political trajectory in the context of nationalist struggles in West Asia and India.
  • Kabir, Humayun, ed. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad: A Memorial Volume. Bombay, 1959. Remains the most important collection of views and analyses of Āzād's personality and work by contemporaries.
  • Sarkar, Ichhamuddin. “Mawlana Abul Kalam as Azad: A Study of his Religious Views.”Hamdard Islamicus21, no. 4 (1998): 33–39.
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