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

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."

Sarmad came to Delhi in 1654 and soon became a part of the close circle of Prince Dara Shikoh, where he had the company of saints, sadhus, monks and priests. In his essay, Azad called Dara a dervish who spent most of his time in the company of philosophers and sufis. Dara was the author of books such as Majma-ul-Bahrayn (Merging of the Two Oceans) about Islam and Hinduism, and Sirr-i-Akbar, a translation of the Upanishads and Bhagwad Gita into Persian. According to Syeda Hameed—the author of Maulana Azad, Islam and the Indian National Movement—Azad ranked Dara with Sarmad due to his capacity to rise above the narrow dogma of state-oriented religion towards an appreciation of universal truth in all faiths. In both the prince and the saint, Azad saw a reflection of what he himself wanted to achieve. He also believed that Sarmad and Dara were victims of the nexus between the state and religion.

In the essay, Azad explained that Sarmad was not a great political threat to Aurangzeb, thereby placing his execution under the reign of Aurangzeb within the broader history of Islam. Most of what Azad wrote sounds contemporaneous in the context of Islam and the global political disarray around it, "Throughout the thirteen centuries of Islam the pen of the jurists had been an unsheathed sword and the blood of thousands of truth-loving persons stains their verdicts (fatwa) ... Sarmad, too was murdered by the same sword."

Raif Badawi, a Saudi Arabian writer and activist who was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes for setting up a website that championed free speech, is one of the many victims of a similar nexus between the state and the mullah. In a secular and democratic India, we are fortunate that frivolous fatwas do not lead to executions. However, they do succeed in making some impact on the gullible and expose Islam to avoidable ridicule.

Azad commented on the three reasons for Sarmad's execution. To begin with, Sarmad recited only two words la illaha—there is no deityof the kalima, which was a negation of God. Azad believed that as a Sufi and a scholar Sarmad had reached the stage of denial and not an affirmation of God yet. In approval of Sarmad's refusal to recite the full Kalima, Azad wrote, “Why should Sarmad have said, ‘It exists’, concerning something he was not sure about yet.” Azad then went on to add: “Sarmad's crime was that he drank the cup in public, while others did in private." The second reason for Sarmad’s execution was that he moved around naked, which was socially unacceptable, and the third reason was the questions he raised around the accepted interpretation of meraj (the prophet ascending to heaven). The two lines of his rubai—a form of poetry—which were interpreted as heresy by the clerics, are worth sharing:

Mullah says that Mohammad ascended the Heavens

Sarmad says that the Heavens descended to Mohammad

Azad found no evidence of this couplet being heretical. On the contrary, he found the ulema deeply seeped in literalism and suffering from a lack of imagination for failing to realise that Sarmad's state was elevated in the eyes of Allah. Making this observation, Azad said "... they [the ulema] climbed on the pulpits of their mosques and madarsas and dreamt about the heights to which they could still rise. But Sarmad had reached the pinnacle of love from where the walls of the mosque and the temple are seen standing face to face."

More than hundred years ago, Azad was able to appreciate and applaud Dara Shikoh's eclecticism and Sarmad Shaheed’s free thinking and humanitarianism. Unfortunately, such possibilities of dissent and critical engagement within Islam have now been closed. To make matters worse, other religions appear to be appropriating this intolerance, morphing into the mirror image of a religion they love to hate. Azad also provided a befitting description of this disheartening scenario when he declared in a letter he wrote: “… the ulema are a hopeless lot. To believe that the traditional mind can still give way to regeneration is to believe against the laws of nature. We have no alternative but to ignore the rigid thinking altogether, focussing on the creation of a new mind which requires a radically different variety of literature and apprenticeship.”

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

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