For India and Islam: Maulana Azad’s Vision of Religious Pluralism

Yoginder Sikand

Posted Sep 30, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
Bookmark and Share

For India and Islam: Maulana Azad�s Vision of Religious Pluralism

Yoginder Sikand

More than fifty years after �independence�, India is still struggling hard to come to terms with religious plurality. It is here that the example of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, one of the leading lights of the freedom movement, and one whose legacy is today little known, is particularly valuable. What is especially instructive about Azad’s life was his firm faith in Islam as well as his passionate commitment to communal harmony and a secular state. In this he provided a firm rebuttal to both Hindu as well as Muslim communalists who believed that commitment to one�s religion by definition meant unrelenting hostility to other faiths and their adherents.

As his title suggests, Azad was trained as a Maulana, an orthodox scholar of Islamic law and religion. Like many of his age, Azad�s Islamic spirituality was deeply imbued a broadminded Sufi mysticism that was firmly rooted in Islamic tradition and, at the same time, comfortable with religious plurality. In some of Azad’s writings one can even discern a celebration of religious diversity. The most striking instance of this is an essay that he wrote in 1910 on the famous Sufi, Sarmad Shahid, who was executed by Aurangzeb after being charged with heresy. Sarmad actually had a male Hindu admirer, Abhay Chand, and for his love for Abhay Chand was but an expression of his deep love for God.

Azad terms this relationship between the Muslim mystic and the Hindu man a manifestation of divine love, adding that through this Sarmad was able to reach the realm of truth which is far beyond what Azad described as empty debates on �belief� and �disbelief�. Azad�s faith in the essential oneness of humankind and of all religions stemmed essentially from the Sufi concept of wahdat-al-wujud or �The Unity of Existence�. According to concept, the light of God is present everywhere and all of creation is His manifestation. As Azad so beautifully put it in his address to the Khilafat Congress in 1920,  “Truth is one and the same everywhere, but it has various guises”. The fatal mistake that human beings had made, however, Azad added, was that they had equated particular external forms this one Truth with the Truth itself, thus leading to endless religious quarrels.

In Azad’s own words: “The misfortune is that the world worships mere terms and not their inner meaning�. “Thus�, he says, �though all may worship the same Truth, they will fight with each other on account of differences of the terms that they employ. If the veils of these externals and terms can be lifted so that Truth and Reality come before all unveiled, then, at once, all quarrels of this world will end, and all who quarrel will see that what all seek is one and the same”.

Azad’s commitment to the oneness of religion was itself deeply rooted in his own understanding of the Quran. The Quran mentions that God has sent prophets to every nation (qaum) without exception and that all of them, from Adam, the first, to Muhammad, the last, have taught the same religion � �the Surrender (to God)� or al-Islam in Arabic. The difference in the message of these various prophets was in the externals or laws and rituals associated with this one religion or deen. The core of their message however, was one and the same�surrender to God and the performance of good deeds. As Azad put it in his commentary of the Quran, the Tarjuman-al Quran: “The Quran states that the difference which exist between one religion and another are not differences in deen, the basic spirit of religion, but simply in its outward form�. 

In a celebrated work of his entitled Ghubar-i- Khatir, Azad drew close parallels between these Sufi concepts and the idea of pantheism of as expounded in the Hindu philosophic scriptures, the Upanishads.  If, at root, all religions reflected the same message, then, for Azad, there was no room in Islam for religious hatred and prejudice. As he wrote in his journal al- Hilal in 1913:

“Islam does not commend narrow-mindedness and racial and religious prejudice. It does not make the recognition of merit and virtue of human benevolence, mercy and love dependent upon and subject to distinctions of race and religion. Rather, Islam actually teaches us to respect every man who is good, whatever his religion, and to be drawn towards merits and virtues, whatever be the religion or race of the person who possesses them. If human beings were to be free of religious prejudice, then how much more would God Himself have to be above such failings!�

Azad believed that all human beings, irrespective of religion, were creatures of God. God, he said, was, above all, the, �Sustainer� (Rabb) of all people and He would reward them all for good deeds and not simply for belonging to one religious community or the other.

Azad’s Islamic universalism led him on to fiercely oppose both Muslim as well as Hindu communalism that saw no place for a genuinely religiously plural and democratic independent India. This made him into a vehement opponent of the Pakistan scheme put forward in 1940 by the Muslim League and encouraged by the Hindu Mahasabha and Hindu chauvinist elements within the Congress Party. For him, as he put it in a speech in 1946, the very idea of dividing territories into �Pak� (literally, �pure�) and �Na-Pak� (impure’) was itself un-Islamic. Indeed, as he saw it, Partition would undoubtedly bad for India but it would, actually, prove to be even worse for the Muslims themselves.
Azad believed that it was fanciful to imagine, as Muslim League leaders apparently did, that the mere fact of following the same religion could provide the base for a separate state for all Indian Muslims, mirroring the Hindu Mahsabha�s demand for Hindu Rashtra. In his book, �India Wins Freedom�, Azad went so far as to write that: “It is one of the greatest frauds on the people to suggest that religion can unite areas which are geographically, economically, linguistically and culturally different”. For him the example of the Prophet Muhammad was itself revealing in this regard.  After shifting to Medina from Mecca, the Prophet had entered into a pact with the Jews of Medina, bringing them and the Muslims into one �nation� (ummat). Accordingly, Azad suggested that this itself showed that Islam allowed for Muslims and non-Muslims to live together in one country, and he used this to stress the need for a united India of Hindus, Muslims and others.
Azad’s passionate pleas for religious harmony and a truly plural and democratic India, however, fell on deaf ears as India descended into a blood bath in 1947, instigated by Hindu and Muslim communal forces, including sections within Azad�s own Congress Party itself, and actively encouraged by the British. More than fifty years on, the lessons of history are yet to be learnt. And while fierce battles continue to erupt in the name of religion, memories of Azad’s life-long commitment to genuine religiosity and religious large-heartedness no longer receive even lip-sympathy.