Historian S Irfan Habib’s eponymous book on Maulana Azad may not strictly be a biography. It doesn’t particularly concern itself with presenting all of Azad’s life to the reader, and whatever is narrated, doesn’t conform to any chronological moorings. Habib acknowledges this, and perhaps these are best left to the earlier biographical accounts. What Habib wants the reader to focus on, and indeed, what makes Maulana Azad: A Life an important read for today’s times, is Azad’s perfect reconciliation of identities held, without letting one overwhelm the other. Of course, this may not have always been there, but the evolution of this state, embodied in the man who was one of the tallest leaders of the Indian national movement and the country’s first education minister, is remarkable in the example it holds for many of our leaders today, in politics and outside, across faiths.
Habib’s thematic division of Azad’s life covers his constant engagement and tension with critical thinking in Islam, the staunchness of his belief in Indian nationalism being a civic nationalism, as opposed to a ethnic/religious nationalism espoused by Jinnah and Savarkar, how keenly he understood education’s seminality for building a new India, and his ruminations in Ghubar-i-Khatir (The Dust of Memories).
For the purpose of this review, we will stick to the portion that has insights from Azad’s life on what we sorely need today—the ability to transcend (and not necessarily censor) faith in our quest to define ourselves within, and as, the nation.
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In the early pages of Maulana Azad, Habib underlines with a quote how acutely Azad understood the limitations of faith-based nationalism: “It is one of the greatest frauds on the people to suggest that religious affinity can unite areas which are geographically, economically, linguistically, and culturally different. It is true that Islam sought to establish a society which transcends racial, linguistic, economic, and political frontiers. History however has proved that after the first few decades, or at most the first century, Islam was not able to unite all Muslim countries into one state on the basis of Islam alone.”
India’s integrity holds, even after seven-and-a half-decades of independence, even as the rich diversity of its languages, geography, cultures, and religions abides. It isn’t a tale of perfect bliss, sure, but that we have held together despite the creases and tears should surely have cemented our sense of nationhood and the civic nationalism that underpins it? So, when some mainline political parties and their founts outside started telling Indians that it is a certain ‘glue’—Hindutva—that holds the nation together, should we not have laughed instead of swallowing it whole?
Habib traces Azad’s evolution as a Muslim, an Islamic scholar and a secular, inclusive nationalist. One impetus to this evolution perhaps came from the time Azad spent with Mustafa Kamil Pasha, the Egyptian nationalist activist, who fought against the British occupation of his country. Pasha’s party, Al Hizb al-Watani, and its policy of zero tolerance for British imperialism relied not on Islamic nationalism, but on greater cooperation between the Muslims and non-Muslims of Egypt. Azad found that Arab Muslim nationalists “took it for granted” that their Coptic Orthodox Christian compatriots would be part of the national struggle for independence. His travels in West Asia, where nations were in the thick of their struggles to overthrow imperial-colonial yokes, further strengthened his counter to faith-based nationalism of the Muslim League and its peers on the other side of the religious divide. Contrast Azad’s call for a Ummat-i-Wahida (one nation, borne by the unity of the people of India as ‘one combined and indivisible whole’ where faith doesn’t play a role) with the call for a Hindu Rashtra.
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Azad had written in Al-Hilal, with the growing influence of the Muslim League on Muslims in the subcontinent in mind and to chastise the latter, who, he feared, were ‘getting carried away by communal politics’: “History shall record that they (Muslims swayed by the League) were a pitiable and bewitched people … they were led by the nose by their master, who made them dance to their tunes… they neither used their brains nor raised their voices”. And, he remained, throughout his life, an Islamic scholar of preeminence, devoted to his faith, and an advocate of pan-Islamic solidarity. His belief in the secular nationalist foundation of the freedom movement, and later, of the newly independent nation never did falter.
Bringing into sharp relief the ability to uphold inclusivist values even as one embraces one’s faith in its fullness, through the life of Maulana Azad, Habib renders the true idea of India valuable service.
Maulana Azad: A Life
S Irfan Habib
Aleph Book Company
Pp 318, Rs 899