One of the great exponents of religious diversity and Indian pluralism, among the Islamic scholars in the country, was Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. Not many of us know that this famous Muslim freedom-fighter of India was also a mystic in his thought and practice. Born to a Qadiri and Naqshbandi Sufi cleric, Maulana Khairuddin Dehlvi, he was imbued in the mystical Islamic teachings at a very early age. Therefore, he began to think and contemplate over the essential truths of religion. Having acquired sound knowledge of the traditional Islamic theology, he reached the conclusion that the postulates and beliefs he had been taught were nothing short of sheer imitation (taqlid-e-jamid) of ancestors, strict adherence to the inherited dogmas and unchecked practice of ancient customs. Hence, he started questioning the common beliefs and practices, particularly those related to faith and theology. He studied extensively and got acquainted with almost everything pertaining to modern knowledge published in Arabic. Thus, he broadened his worldview and became open to all trends of thought and belief, maintaining a fine balance and moderation in his own religious and mystifcal views.
Maulana Azad’s mystical and pluralistic inclinations stemmed from a broader notion of Sufism well-imbedded in the Islamic tradition. In fact, his deep faith in the religious pluralism and brotherhood of mankind was based on the popular Sufi doctrine of wahdatul wujud (unity of being). Therefore, he had great veneration for Indian Sufi saints who, as he proclaimed, inspired him to the very core of his being. For instance, he was greatly inspired by India’s renowned Muslim mystic, Hazrat Sarmad Shahid, who was executed by Emperor Aurangzeb for being charged with heresy. Mualana wrote a very moving story of Hazrat Sarmad in one of his writings. He enumerates that one of Sarmad’s Hindu devotees, Abhay Chand, was endeared to him so much that he termed his love for Abhay Chand as an expression of his love for God. Dwelling on this harmonious, mystical and mutual interfaith relationship between Sarmad Shaheed and Abhay, Maulana Azad called it a manifestation of divine love.
On reason and rationality, Azad propounded that the spiritual experience of religion cannot be discarded by reason. This terrain of thought led him to disassociate with the modernist rejection of religious experience as well as the conservative clergy’s lack of respect for reason and rationality. He writes in Al-Hilal:
“I am compelled to separate myself from the religious reformers of today at this point, while agreeing to their objectives and principles. Their position is that whatever traditions they find the least bit contrary to their self-made standards of reason, they are immediately anxious to reject…Why should tradition be rejected merely on this basis? Religious knowledge has its own standards for testing thought and tradition” …
(This article was originally published in Asian Age in 2015).