Madrasa education in South Asia suffers from a lack of a robust engagement with modern forms of education, including literature, science, theology, and philosophy. As a graduate from a women’s madrasa in Rampur, India, I know this through my personal experience. While the Madrasa Discourses program at the University of Notre Dame has successfully tried to remedy this gap by bringing the fields of science and philosophy to bear on Islamic thought, one area to engage with that could enhance its curriculum is that of literature, which can shape critical discourses in the humanities. One example of such engagement with literature for the formation of thought can be found in the life and writings of Mawlānā Abul Kalām Āzād (1888-1958).
Āzād, a prominent Muslim religious figure on the Indo-Pak subcontinent, deployed literature as a significant discursive resource in theological and religious conversations. The name Mawlānā Abul Kalām Āzād might not elicit instant name recognition with an international literary audience, but he was almost a household name on the subcontinent for the better part of the twentieth century. Āzād was a leading freedom fighter in India’s independence movement and went on to become the first Education Minister in post-independence India, a position that he held until his death in 1958. Āzād was a loyal member of the Indian National Congress and was its president twice, the first time from 1923-1924 and the second from 1940-1946.
I briefly explore a thread of his work that links the study of Islamic theology, the role of traditional madrasa education, and the use of literature. Thanks to Āzād’s deep connection with a range of Islamic literary resources he was in a position to both critique theological education in the madrasas and also frame a new inclusive theology for a multicultural and multi-religious India.
Born in the holy city of Mecca in 1888, Āzād hailed from both Indian and Arabian ancestry. His father offered spiritual leadership as a pīr (Sufi master) to tens of thousands of followers at his headquarters in Calcutta. Āzād was educated at the hands of his rigorous father and a set of private tutors his father scrupulously vetted. In his autobiographical essays known as Ghubār-i Khāṭir (The Accumulated Dust of the Conscience) he mentions how rigorous his education was while not so subtly registering his disagreement with the content of that education, describing how he increasingly found it suffocating. Out of this disagreement, Āzād came to espouse modern ideas that informed his thinking about religion that went beyond his traditionalist training.
Āzād was grounded in the Arabic and Persian theological, juridical, and literary classics at an early age. At home, he spoke a pidgin Arabic with his Arab mother and Urdu with his father. At a very early age he became interested in journalism, much to the chagrin of his father. His father had expected him to succeed him in the leadership of the charismatic Naqshbandi Sufi order. But Āzād diverted from the family tradition.
As a young adult he wrote as a journalist in Nairang-i- Ālam (Deception of the World) and thereafter in his own paper called Lisān-ul-Ṣidq (The Speech of Truth). His articles in Lisān-ul-Ṣidq reflected his progressive views on the subject of education and he drew on his own experiences. In those articles, he argued that educational reform was key to social reform. He launched a publication called al-Hilāl (1912-1914), which was nothing short of a revolution in Urdu journalism. Al-Hilāl played a transformative role in India’s freedom movement. It became an epitome of boldness and fearless journalism. Readers were often baffled and impressed as to how he intertwined religious ideas and political issues. Each publication bore the hallmarks of Āzād’s distinctive Urdu writing style, for which he set a new benchmark. The two newspapers, al-Hilāl and later al-Balāgh, are the most outstanding examples of his animated journalism.
Āzād’s traditional education remained foundational for his thought and he never gave up on his honorific “Mawlānā”—which signalled his status as a theologian—despite his turn to the virtues of modern education. His personal journey between two streams of education is captured in this observation: “The ancient belongs to me as a legacy from my forefathers, and so far as the modern is concerned I have carved my own way” (7). Gifted with a brilliant mind, Āzād acquired modern education thanks to his intellectual rigor as an autodidact. Bridging the old and the new, he arrived at a unique synthesis of Islamic humanism in the early twentieth century context of a multicultural, multilingual, and multi-religious India.
Even though he was deeply attached to his tradition, he was unwilling to follow it blindly. His interpretation of Islam was not conventional. He believed in independent thinking based on reason. For example, he believed that the madrasa system, which was intended to produce religious leaders in the Indian subcontinent, was outdated. Anguished in Accumulated Dust he described this educational system in an unvarnished manner:
“It was an outdated system of education which had become barren from every point of view. It is deficient in selection of the subjects of study, choice of books, modes lecturing and dictation, to mention but a few” (97).
Āzād agonized over the need to adopt a critical posture towards tradition, but he also recognized its immense power. In Accumulated Dust he criticizes the suffocating narrow-mindedness of his education but characterizes the power of tradition in these revealing words:
The biggest obstacles in the way of a person’s mental development are his traditional convictions. No power can incarcerate a person in the manner that the chains of traditional convictions can fetter one. One cannot break these chains easily, because one does not really wish to do so. One cherishes these fetters of tradition as precious ornaments. Each belief, practice and viewpoint gained through one’s family heritage and by means of one’s foundational education, accompaniment and apprenticeship (sohbat) appear to be like a sacred inheritance. One will defend this at all costs. But one will never have the courage to meddle with it. Sometimes the grasp of inherited convictions is so strong that even the most effective education as well as environmental changes cannot unshackle its hold. Education can to some extent influence the mind but cannot change the structure of the mind. The mind’s edifice is always constituted by a line of descent, family and centuries of successively handed down traditions whose hand will always be the most effective. (100)
One may thus ask how Āzād attained the power and courage to distance himself from tradition and then critically re-engage with his own tradition. I would argue that literature was the critical tool that enabled his critique. In fact, one can say that what set Āzād apart from his contemporaries was the literary bent of his mind, which made it possible for him to explore new domains of thought and re-deploy tradition in interesting ways.
Āzād took to poetry as almost an essential component of his critical thinking. In some of his most insightful writings he draws freely on Persian and Arabic classical poets to renew thinking without offending too many conservative religious scholars (ʿulamā). Intensely imaginative and romantic, he looked at the world through the eyes of a poet-philosopher and a visionary and refused to let himself be confined to the traditions provided to him by his family and education.
His literary taste and intellectual depth enabled him to confront the uncertainties and qualms about his inherited religious values and traditions. There did come a time in his early life when he was confronted with a tempest of questions. He wondered, for example, about the existence of the truth. His study of religions, philosophy, and poetry stirred many questions in his mind. The upheaval of confusions that shook his inner world of ideas can be traced to the many Persian, Arabic, and Urdu couplets he cites in his writings. These couplets not only satisfied the aesthetic sensibilities of Āzād as a reader but also enriched his mind with new insights and possibilities.
The divine, Āzād concluded, was a mystery and there were multiple ways to access God. In Accumulated Dust, a couplet from the poem of the late 16th and early 17th century Persian poet of Indian origin Muḥammad Ḥusayn Nazīrī Nisapūrī (1560-1614) allows him to tell us that God’s face is a mystery. We human beings try to find God through our own subjectivity and therefore the Divine comes to us in different forms:
“If the face of the truth is veiled, then the sin of looking at things nominally;
Is a flaw in your form-worshipping eyes” (41)
Āzād finds inspiration in a couplet of late medieval Persian-language poet of IndiaShaykh Abū al-Faiẓ Ibn Mubārak, better known as Faiẓī (1547-1595):
“The she-camel and its ringing bells are indispensable to the beauty of our caravan;
My desire for you allows me to cross the roads; but your pain only increases my desire” (41).
Faiẓī allows Āzād to think of life and religion as a journey of love in search of the eternal beloved. He draws on the visible beauty of a she-camel ploughing through the desert who breaks the silence of the desert by the jingling and ringing of the bells hanging around her neck. But this journey is not only about bells and their movement or the mellifluous sounds they make. There is another desire. The traveller is going in search of God. The traveller is in search of the Divine, the object of one’s love. Here God is personified as Love. These visible mediums that make it possible for one to travel through the desert—like the she-camel and bells— do not and cannot fully represent the enthusiasm in the heart of the traveller. The plight and quandary faced by the seeker in pursuit of the Divine only increases the enthusiasm.
This literary insight allows Āzād to explain that humans look at the divine differently over time. Although religions walk and talk separately, their destination is one. “The unity of [humankind] is the primary aim of religion,” writes Āzād in his famous commentary Tarjumān Al-Qur’ān. “[T]he message which every prophet delivered was that [humankind] were in reality one people and the one community, and there was but one God for all of them, and on that account, they should serve [God] together and live as members of but one family. Such was the message which every religion delivered” (138; see here also).
Under the leadership of Professor Ebrahim Moosa and his colleagues in the Contending Modernities program at the University of Notre Dame, the Madrasa Discourses (MD) program is an attempt to bridge different knowledge and cultural traditions. As an active participant, I have been a beneficiary of this program whose goals are to inculcate critical thinking and allow participants to explore multiple analytical approaches. The MD syllabus has been designed in a thoughtful way. It offers a variety of subjects and topics ranging from Islamic and Western philosophy, Muslim political thought, discussions about interreligious encounters, and debates that deepen our insights into language, logic, epistemology, and the philosophy of science.
My background in Arabic literature led me to realize that an additional emphasis on literature would add to this already immensely successful program. Following Āzād and the famous poet and literary Alṭāf Ḥusayn Hālī (d. 1914) among other thinkers, I believe that drawing on the literature that the participants already know so well from Arabic, Urdu, and Persian sources would propel them to develop a different kind of propensity for deep and critical insight. Literature has an invisible power. It resonates primarily in the body, soul, and the mind. It turns one into a contemplative mystic, a philosopher, a social critic, and a romantic, all at once, by its tender touch.
To think critically means one has to closely study one’s surroundings and look at things in unprecedented ways. We know that the voice of literature has the power to create such new ways of seeing. Literature speaks intimately to the reader, providing an insight into the inner working of the mind and body, leading to the production of innovative ideas and practices. Literature exposes the reader to new experiences both in the past and present. It also makes us bold and empowers us in what we believe in passionately and gives us new resolve to effectively oppose what is harmful.
Perhaps those of us who studied in the madrasas missed out on this valuable aspect of literature during our foundational training. I can say without any hesitation that what is alleged to be literature in the madrasa curriculum is a travesty. Classical Arabic and Persian literature is reduced to a few texts, mainly poems, and is used only in order to facilitate the memorization of some ancient vocabularies. We spent an inordinate amount of time analyzing and explaining new vocabulary, but we failed to grasp the soul of the narratives and poetry: their moral and aesthetic dimensions. Perhaps this is also a reason why our approach to every text and reading turns out to be dry, simplistic, and monotonous. Often, we fail to go beyond the words. Therefore, the inclusion of literature in the MD syllabus may turn out to be a fruitful and productive step in enhancing the learning experience through the imagination.
Āzād is an exemplary figure for Islamic thought. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that it was through literature that Āzād gained his critical bent of mind, insight, farsightedness and most of all a strong pen that moved generations and shaped their minds and imaginations. Madrasa Discourses may yet benefit and flourish if it explores literature most earnestly as a part of its intellectual framework.
 I thank Prof Ebrahim Moosa for his assistance in translating the Persian couplets into English and for his gracious help in editing this text.