TitleMaulana Abul Kalam Azid and the humanist element in religion

What can a Muslim teach us about nonviolence?

16 Mar 2010

■ Ramin Jahanbegloo
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Some years ago, the famous Catholic theologian Hans Kung said: “There can be no peace between the nations until there is peace between the religions. There can be no peace between the religions until there is dialogue between the religions.” Gandhi would have readily supported such a statement. Gandhi believed all religions were equal because according to him at the core of every religion were truth and love. As such, he had the same respect for other faiths as he had for his own because he believed such respect would not only remove religious rifts but also lead to a realization of the fact that religion was a stabilizing force, not a disturbing element. Gandhi’s basic axiom was that the scriptures of all religions point only in one direction: the quest for Truth. For him, Truth was far more important and more powerful than the religion itself. That is why he was critical of the hypocrisy in organized religion, rather than the principles on which they were based.

Gandhi’s mission was not to politicize religion, but to spiritualize politics, meaning to bind up everyday action in the public sphere with morality. Gandhi believed religion and politics should creatively co-mingle and not be separate entities. He believed that ethical and spiritual values must underlie daily politics. In other words, it was Gandhi’s moral and spiritual convictions that drew him into politics. Actually, one can say that Gandhi’s primary contribution to spirituality is nonviolence. Gandhi had the good fortune to have as his companions people belonging to different religions.

Truth, for Azad, was one and the same everywhere. The mistake was to equate particular forms of Truth with Truth itself

Two important among his Muslim colleagues were Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. Very few religious individuals show the daring and courage to criticize their own minds and to fight a battle against their own prejudices. Of the leading tolerant Muslims who have left a deep impact on the idea of pluralism in Islam, Maulana Azad stands out unique. He will not only be remembered in the history of India for the role he played in the national liberation movement of the country, but will also be considered as a Muslim leader who stood for a dialogue among Muslims and Hindus. Azad started his career in politics and activism as a revivalist Muslim and as an upholder of pure Islam. His early career from 1906 to 1920 was influenced by his religious teachings. During this period, Azad firmly believed that the Muslims were the leaders of the world. In his early writings and speeches, which appeared in his journal Al-Hilal, Azad talked about the superiority of Muslims over the followers of other religions and called for an ‘Islamic Way’ to independence. After 1920, a radical change appeared in the views of Maulana Azad and he ceased to be a revivalist Muslim and embraced Indian secular nationalism as a political philosophy.

Without a doubt the evolution of Azad’s outlook from Pan-Islamic to secular nationalist was determined by his friendship and collaboration with Mahatma Gandhi and by the rise of the communal problems in the Indian liberation movement. Through Gandhi, Azad learned that communal harmony played an important role in the future of India and that in spite of religious, ethnic and linguistic differences, India was one nation. Like Gandhi, Azad considered Hindu-Muslim unity as a necessary principle for the national reconstruction of India. The entire argument of Azad was to present Muslims with the fact that the fundamental teaching of the Qur’an is mercy and forgiveness (rahmat). Therefore, it followed for him that these attributes of God should also be uncalculated in humans. Azad’s faith in the essential unity of humanity and in the oneness of all religions stemmed essentially from the Sufi concept of ‘the unity of existence’ (wahdat-i-wujud).

Truth, for Azad, was one and the same everywhere. The mistake was to equate particular forms of Truth with Truth itself. Read from this angle, Azad’s most important book, Tarjuman-ul-Qur’an, illustrates Azad’s firm beliefs in tolerance and dialogue. It is in this book that Azad’s idea of religious pluralism is expressed powerfully by the concept of oneness of faiths (wahdat-i-Din). If, at root, all religions reflected the same message, then, for Azad, there was no room for Hindu as well as Muslim communalism. As a champion of Indian nationalism and democracy, Azad sought a synthesis of modern secularism and spiritual traditionalism. He took his stand upon Truth by unifying the soul of Islam with the glory of his nation. For Azad, secular nationalism could be an effective antidote to religious fanaticism in India if Indian political processes were guided and controlled by the political philosophy of secularism. Azad held that the conviction of dialogue among faiths and the spirit of peace characterized Islam. According to him, nonviolence provided an effective strategy in the struggle for independence. In light of his religious humanism, Azad stated that there was no justification whatsoever for imposing one religion on another because the fundamentals of religion (Din) were one. Therefore, according to him, every individual had a right to follow his own religious path.

In other words, Azad viewed religion from the wider perspective of a universal humanist and his entire philosophy was free from any form of religious narrowness and dogma. It is in relation with this aspect of Azad’s thought that the comment of India’s President Zakir Husain, finds all its relevance. “In my opinion,” says Zakir Husain, “the greatest service which the Maulana did was to teach people of every religion that there are two aspects of religion. One separates and creates hatred. This is the false aspect. The other, the true spirit of religion, brings people together; it creates understanding. It lies in the spirit of service, in sacrificing self for others. It implies belief in unity, in the essential unity of things.” Azad owed his political inspiration to his knowledge of Islam. But as a defender of shared common values, he believed that religions were the common heritage of all mankind. His increasing receptivity to the message of other faiths led him to the recognition of the humanist element in religion.

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  1. merzus says:

    I don’t know whether it is a matter of political necessity or a need to save religions from fading away and or to becoming more fundamentalist and divider.This discussion needs to get more attention and support in the public arena. I liked it

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