- An Intellectual, A Nationalist, and An Islamist
By Rehan Khan
Syed Ghulam Muhiuddin, famous as Abul Kalaam Azad, was born in the city of Mecca on 11 November 1888 into a learned family of scholars. Possessing an enchanting disposition and espousing a scholarly deportment, at an early age he carved out a swelling constituency of followers. His impeccable oratory skills, literary prowess, lingual competence, and diction of argumentation, made the scholarly class of intellectuals gravitate towards him. He not only engaged himself in intellectual pursuits, but also committed his energies to defining the political contours of the Indian Subcontinent. Precocious and hardworking, he claimed a role in the scholarly and political vanguard of the Indian Subcontinent. The journals Al-Hilal and Al-Balagh brought out under his auspices in the early decades of the 20th century were, along with being treasure-troves of peerless scholarship and cutting-edge research, were also a conduit for the dissemination of political ideas. His books Gubhar-e-Khatir, Tazkira, and India wins Freedom proved to be classics in their own right. His commentary on the Chapters of the Quran collectively called Tarjuman-ul-Quran and his insightful research on the different aspects of the Islamic heritage (especially on Zulkarnain) proved his intellectual mettle. Al-Manar, a famous journal based in Egypt and brought out under the editorship of Rashid Rida, also featured some of his thoughtful contributions. Politically vibrant and intellectually productive, Azad earned for himself fame and respect across the Islamic World.
Azad forcefully argued in his works that the Islamic philosophical theology, as an independent stream of intellectual scholasticism, crystallised in the later phase of the 8th century and developed into a sophisticated system of creedal formulations by the end of the 11th century. Absorbing in its corpus the long-standing legacies of ancient Greek philosophical speculation, Iranian mystical illuminative gnosis, Syriac syllogism, and Indian intellectualised ratiocination, Islamic theology attained the highest station of rigour and reasoning by the earlier decades of the 14th century. Devoid of any serious inquiry, the subsequent three centuries gave rise to an intellectual stagnation allowing only for a rehearsal of obsolete dialectic formulae.
Azad was a passionate Islamist till 1920, an expressive nationalist from 1920 to 1958, and an accomplished intellectual all life. Quite unfortunately, he is still condemned for his stand on composite nationalism in Pakistan and is eulogised in India for the same reasons; but both in the process reduce him to a symbol of nationalism and turn a blind eye to the two other components of his life. It is about the time that we reclaim him in totality
Did the intellectual decadence continue? Azad contended in his book Tazkirah that the 18th century paved the way for the revival of Islamic theology with an emphasis on rationalisation. Shah Waliullah in India, Shawkani in Yemen, and Abdel Ghani al-Nablusi in Syria built the foundations of modern discourse on speculative theology. In the succeeding centuries, Islamic theology was further systemised, elaborated, and championed by scholars as eminent as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Chiragh Ali, Mumtaz Ali, and Maulana Shibli in India, Jamaluddin Afghani and Malkam Khan in Iran, Khairuddin Tunisi in the Ottoman-dominated regions, Tahtawi and Mufti Muhammad Abduh in Egypt, Rashid Rida in Lebanon, and Kawakabi in Syria. Anchored firmly in the same tradition of modernist scholars, Azad also made an attempt to revisit the traditional system of creedal formulations in Islam with a bold ambition to align it with modern forms of human reasoning and sensibilities. Dispensing with the obsolete notions of legal formalism, dialectic abstractions, and mystical ecstasies; doing away with formulaic representations of feminine identities, political norms, and social strata; and severely criticising the medieval schools of Maturidism, Aashrism, and Hanbalism, Azad strove intellectually to resurrect a spirit of fresh inquiry born out of the conviction to recalibrate it with modern forms and systems of knowledge.
To his chagrin, the conservative intellectual voices spearheaded by the ulama of Deoband and Farangi Mahal did not express or offer a commitment to align themselves with the emerging modern realities of the world. Azad insisted on the rejuvenation of an Ijtihad-inspired tradition of innovative reasoning in order to dispense with the hackneyed idiom of medievalism in our scholasticism and to seek for the unexplored vistas and horizons of knowledge. The inertia-crippled, apathetic intellectual elite sabotaged all his endeavours and pushed him against the wall. Simultaneously, the Caliphate also came to an end. Disgusted and distressed by the conservatism of ulama and the abolition of the Caliphate, Azad completely abstained from any further overtures to the conservative scholarly class, distanced himself from Muslim nationalism and committed himself to the cause of the nationalist political campaign for the liberation of India from the clutches of the British Crown. He joined the Indian National Congress and rose to become its President in 1939. He continued to champion the notion of composite nationalism, but did not fail to contribute intellectually.
Abul Kalaam Azad was also the first scholar to have interpreted Islam as a full-blooded political ideology geared towards the establishment of a political order. To this end, he not only produced a well-wrought argumentative reasoning built around the classic traditional edifice, he also floated the idea of a disciplined Islamist organisation and named it Hezbollah. Maulana Mawdudi, Hassan-al-Banna, Ayatollah Khomeini elaborated and perfected this vision of political ideology, but were surely the late comers. Islamism, as a modern political expression of Islam, experienced its reincarnations in the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda in Tunisia, the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, the PJD in Morocco, and JI in Pakistan. All these Islamist parties, in their basic proposition in pursuit of genuinely legitimate Islamic political order, trace their organisational and intellectual pedigree back to the oeuvre of Abul Kalaam Azad.
From being an advocate of a massive Islamist uprising and a champion of intellectual renaissance of a high order in the early years, Azad restricted himself to being a voice of Indian nationalist political agitation in the latter part of his life. The embodiment of Islamism transmuted into an insignia of composite nationalism. The fervour of nationalism replaced the passion of Islamism. Azad conducted himself as an Islamist till 1920, carried himself along as a nationalist from 1920 till 1958, and remained an intellectual all his life. His intellectual standing far outweighed his political activism both in the content of output and in the sum of ramifications, but his political partisanship overshadowed his literary ingenuity. Islamists of all shades found in his writings their patriarch, the advocates of composite nationalism found in his political agitation a gallant fighter, the scholarly elite found in his literature a maestro, and the Subcontinent found in him a genius of all times.
Azad was a passionate Islamist till 1920, an expressive nationalist from 1920 to 1958, and an accomplished intellectual all life. Quite unfortunately, he is still condemned for his stand on composite nationalism in Pakistan and is eulogised in India for the same reasons; but both in the process reduce him to a symbol of nationalism and turn a blind eye to the two other components of his life. It is about the time that we reclaim him in totality.