Why Maulana Azad's century-old defence of free thinking in Islam speaks against fundamentalism even today

23 June 2015
It is well known that Maulana Azad (right) stood for a composite nationalism and condemned religious dogmatism—both Hindu and Muslim. Despite criticism and ridicule, he stuck to his idea of India and to his idea of Islam. One of the most telling documents he left behind is an article on Sarmad Shaheed—an Armenian Jew who went on to become one of India’s most famous Sufi saints—written between 1909 and 1910
Rühe / Ullstein picture via Getty Images
It is well known that Maulana Azad (right) stood for a composite nationalism and condemned religious dogmatism—both Hindu and Muslim. Despite criticism and ridicule, he stuck to his idea of India and to his idea of Islam. One of the most telling documents he left behind is an article on Sarmad Shaheed—an Armenian Jew who went on to become one of India’s most famous Sufi saints—written between 1909 and 1910
Rühe / Ullstein picture via Getty Images

Between February and May this year, three bloggers—Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman and Ananta Bijoy Das—were hacked to death in Bangladesh. All of them lost their lives to Islamic fundamentalists who see no space for disagreement in Islam. On 26 March 2015, Masum Akhtar, the headmaster of a madrasa in Matiaburj near Kolkata was brutally attacked for "trying to be a Rushdie." Akhtar identified the predicament he and several other Muslims face today, when he said, "I am not anti-Islam. But my free thinking is not accepted by fundamentalist Muslims who are doing a great harm to the religion.” Maulana Azad, the famed scholar and freedom fighter defended this free thinking in Islam more than hundred years ago. The timing of his defence is relevant to understand the historical context of the contemporary misreading of Islam.

It is well known that Azad stood for a composite nationalism and condemned religious dogmatism—both Hindu and Muslim. Despite criticism and ridicule, he stuck to his idea of India and to his idea of Islam. His relevance in the current times, lies in his position is as an Islamic scholar who had the conviction to speak his mind without fear. A luxury that not many are able to avail today. Barring a few, most speak with a mild ambiguity while the rabid mullahs spew inanities with belligerence.

Azad's engagement with Islam began early on in his life. One of the most telling documents he left behind is an article on Sarmad Shaheed—an Armenian Jew who went on to become one of India’s most famous Sufi saints—written between 1909 and 1910, when Azad was a young man in his twenties. During this phase in his life, Azad had rejected the creed of his father, who followed the puritan Naqshbandi sufi order, and had found his own. Azad’s essay on Sarmad, which was written at the request of his old friend Khwaja Hasan Nizami of Dargah Nizamuddin Auliya, represents the creed he had discovered for himself.

The essay is a celebratory account of two characters who have been frequently ignored, if not maligned, in the Islamic history of India—Sarmad and his friend, Prince Dara Shikoh. Sarmad's eclectic and Sufi Islam had always unpalatable to the empowered mullahs, while Dara Shikoh was projected as a heretic in comparison to his brother, the puritan Aurangzeb. It is pertinent for us to revisit this essay and locate Azad's perceptive commentary on the Islam of the early twentieth century in the times and discourse that we are surrounded by now. A hundred years after both Shaheed and Dara Shikoh were killed for reneging on their faith, we are still executing fellow Muslims and others in the name of blasphemy.

Sarmad Shaheed and Dara Shikoh, it would not be inaccurate to claim, were the first victims of execution due to heresy or blasphemy in South Asia, tracing the origins of the prevailing blasphemy laws in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to the seventeenth century. Sarmad was born to Jewish-Armenian parents settled in Kashan, which was then a province of Iran. He studied under Mullah Sadra of Shiraz, beginning as a student of Christian and Islamic theology. He came to India as a trader and soon fell in love with a Hindu boy called Abhaichand in the Sindh region. Azad saw this temporal love as the first stage in a journey towards the ultimate Divine Beloved. Sarmad didn't know, wrote Azad, that "he would have to trade in the market-place of beauty and love instead of silver and gold."

S Irfan Habib is the Maulana Azad Chair at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi.

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