Maulana Azad and his concept of wahdat-e-deen

By Asghar Ali Engineer

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s Tarjuman- al-Qur’an is considered an important milestone in modern commentaries on Qur’an. Maulana’s approach to Qur’an was quite unique though modern yet not devoid of traditionalism. It is so difficult to achieve and this is Maulana’s achievement. Even most traditionalist would find it difficult to find fault with Maulana’s tafsir (commentary) and even most modern will find it difficult to disagree with his approach.

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It is well known that the Maulana could not complete the commentary due to his political preoccupations but the portion he could complete (up to 22nd chapter) covers almost all important and relevant issues like approach of Qur’an to other religions, question of women’s rights, certain references to Biblical issues about which there has been great controversies, story of Ashab al-Kahaf and so on. Maulana’s approach to these issues, one can say with full confidence, most modern in as much as latest research on these issues is concerned. Maulana’s writing on Dhu’l Qarnain is really a model of modern research on the subject and on this question Maulana has left nothing which modern scholars had not written until his time. In fact his research on Dhu’l Qarnain is a model to be followed by the commentators of the Qur’an.

However, we are not concerned here with these aspects of Maulana’s work on tafsir (commentary) but his approach to other religions as per Qur’an’s verses. Based on Qur’anic injunctions Maulana comes to form the concept of Wahdat-e-din i.e. unity of religion. Not that this was unknown before as Shah Waliyullah too refers to the concept of unity of religion in his Hujjat-u-Allah al-Balighah. Many sufi saints like Nizamuddin Awliya and Mazhar Jan-i-Janan also refer to truth of other religions like Hinduism, particularly in Indian context.

However, Maulana’s work on this is much more significant for number of reasons. His arguments are based not only on the verses of the Qur’an but also on his extensive knowledge of other religions like Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism and even Zorashtrianism. He very systematically argues both from Qur’anic perspective as well as on the basis of teachings of these religions and tries to validate the concept of Wahdat-i-din.

Maulana’s contribution also becomes more important in view of the modern world and its problems. He was writing colonial India which was rocked by communal violence and in that background Maulana’s concept became much more important. Those talking of two nations both from amongst Hindus as well as Muslims were emphasizing irreconcilability of two religions i.e. Hinduism and Islam. And Maulana refers to basic teachings of Islam and Hinduism and contradicts the approach of those who found two religions non-reconcilable. It was really great contribution for the cause of unity of Hindus and Muslims and common nationhood.

It is also important to note that the post-modern world is religiously plural and there is no country in the world which is not multi-cultural and religiously prelist. Earlier during medieval ages and even during modern period Europe and America were almost, if not entirely, mono-religious, mono-cultural and mono-lingual. But the entire scene changed in the period of post-modernity. Today entire world is multi-religious and multi cultural. The western social scientists in the west began to talk about pluralism and multi-culturalism only after migrations began to western countries from former colonies and west became multi-religious and multi-cultural.

Maulana had, as if foreseen the needs of the post-modern world and emphasized the significance of unity of religion. Maulana’s further contribution is that while referring to unity of religion he does not ignore the differences between practices of various religions. Here Maulana assumes the role of what I call socio-theologian and maintains that though essence of all religions is same there are significant differences in Shari’ah of all religions.

He thus distinguishes between din and shari’ah. He defines din as belief in doctrine of one God, in angles, in day of judgment, in prophets and in revealed scriptures brought by the messengers of Allah. And he quotes from teachings of various religions to prove his point. Thus in the concept of Wahdat-e-din his emphasis is on metaphysical doctrines on one hand, and, on value-structures of religions, on the other. He finds similarities in these metaphysical doctrines as well as in value-structures.

But these religions were revealed or came into existence into different societies with different historical and socio-cultural backgrounds and hence the laws given by these religions could not be the same. Laws (shari’ah) very much based on customs, traditions and cultural practices though the basis will be justice. However, justice finds different expressions in different cultures. Laws of marriage, divorce, inheritance, properties and so on will very much be culture-specific. They cannot be universal, like values and certain metaphysical doctrines.

I think Maulana’s insight into societies, their cultures and differing laws, is quite unique among commentators of Qur’an. Not many had this insight and that is why I tend to call him socio-theologian, rather than simply theologian. If one accepts this proposition that din and shari’ah are different many differences between followers of different religions can be eliminated.

I would also like to emphasize here that Qur’an also maintains that Allah has sent His prophets to different nations (qaums) with different shari’ahs. Thus while making this formulation Maulana is certainly not deviating from Qur’anic approach but is providing to his readers proper explanation based on understanding of different societies. Most of the commentators could not explain the causes of differences of shari’ah as they had not much understanding of societies. However, I must say Shah Waliyullah before Azad had remarkable understanding of Indian society of his time.

In today’s conflict torn world many powerful vested interests are misusing religious differences for promoting conflict among followers of different religions. Such vested interests are found among all religious communities. They invoke certain doctrines of religion to emphasize differences and then based on these differences they promote conflict and even religious wars to serve their own political interests. It is therefore, all the more necessary to promote Maulana’s understanding of unity of religion and causes of differences of shari’ah to wean away people from evil influence of such vested interests.

Apart from Maulana’s concept of wahdat-i-din his contribution to the concept of rububiyyah (sustenance) is also very important and this concept, like the one of wahdat-i-din is also a great unifying concept. In fact the first volume of Maulana Azad is devoted to these two concepts – rububiyyah and Wahdat-i-din and both these concepts are based on universal aspects of religions.

Maulana finds the concept of rububiyyah in the first chapter of the Qur’an i.e. surah Fatihah in which Qur’an describes Allah as Rabb-al-Alamin i.e. sustainer of this universe and universe includes everything and everyone. Maulana’s tafsir is most suitable for modern times and his concept of rububiyyah is no less. This concept also forges unity between followers of different religions and is most suitable for our post-modern society.

Maulana also maintains that every period has its own thought system (fikri nizam) and this nizam influences the mind of the commentator.[1] No commentator can escape these influences and hence no commentary of the Qur’an could be treated as final and universal. Maulana’s own tafsir has been greatly influenced by the period he lived in and hence his great emphasis on these two seminal concepts.

Maulana was also deeply involved in India’s freedom struggle and for freedom movement to succeed and for India to become free Hindu-Muslim unity was very fundamental. He was repeatedly imprisoned by the British imperialists and his tafsir was also once completely destroyed. Thus Maulana knew importance of freedom for India and necessity for Hindu-Muslim unity.

In his Presidential Address at Ramgarh session of Indian National Congress 1923 Maulana said that “Today, if an angel were to descend from the heaven and declare from the top of the Qutab Minar, that India will get Swaraj within twenty-four hours, provided she relinquishes Hindu-Muslim unity, I will relinquish Swaraj rather than give up Hindu-Muslim unity. Delay in the attainment of Swaraj will be a loss to India, but if our unity is lost, it will be a loss for entire mankind”.

Thus for Maulana universal brotherhood was very very fundamental and hence he gives so much importance to concepts of wahdat-e-din and rububiyyah (universal sustenance). Maulana rises above sectarian approach and adopts universal one as it was both his political need and also his philosophical outlook. But what is important is that Maulana does not base his arguments on extra-Qur’anic sources but purely on Qur’anic sources. He is not emphasizing this as his own outlook but develops his outlook from Qur’an itself. No one can fault Maulana’s approach and call it his own and not Qur’anic.

For example this argument that each qaum (nation has its own shari’ah he quoted the Qur’anic verse “For every one of you We appointed a law and a way´(5:48). This very verse also refers to diversity of religions. Thus it says, “If Allah had pleased He would have made you a single people, but that He might try you in what He gave you. So vie one with the other in virtuous deeds.” This verse also reflects Qur’anic position on several religions co-existing.

When Maulana argues about unity of religion, for some theologians there can be one problem. Maulana goes strictly by what Qur’an says about validity of all religions, and not what theologians of different religions maintain about teachings of their respective religions. The Qur’anic position is that all religions are one since Allah revealed them but the religious leaders of these religions corrupted original teachings and hence differences arose. Had they followed original teachings, these differences would not have been there. However, religious leaders of other communities would not agree with this view and maintain that their teachings as they are, are original teachings and they have not undergone any change.

Thus we find in the Qur’an – and Maulana quotes this verse, “Say: O People of the Book, you follow no good till you observe the Torah and the Gospel and that which is revealed to you from your Lord. And surely that which has been revealed to thee from thy Lord will make many of them increase in inordinacy (tughyanan) and disbelief: so grieve not for the disbelieving people”.

Thus Maulana discusses this in his Tarjuman al-Qur’an under the title “Qur’an ka perwan-e- mazahib se mutalibah (Qur’an’s demand from followers of religions) and goes on to say that Qur’an did not demand from followers of any religion to accept this new religion (i.e. Islam) but demands from every group (following any other religion) that they follow their respective religion in its original shape which has been distorted by them. If you did that (i.e. followed your religion in its original shape you will find that it is Islam to which I am calling you.[2]

But the Qur’an also maintains that there are few in every religious group who follow their religion in its original spirit and thus are closer to teachings of the Qur’an. Thus Qur’an says in the next verse “Surely those who believe and those who are Jews and Sabeans and the Christians – whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does good – they shall have no fear nor shall they grieve.” (5:69)

Commenting on this verse (5:69) Maulana says that for this reason Qur’an has heartily welcomed the faith and actions of these virtuous people who were present in different faith traditions and who had not wasted the real spirit of their respective faiths. However, such people are indeed very few and most of them belong to overwhelming majority who have distorted the original spirit of their faiths.[3]

Some religious scholars like Douglas have objected to Maulana’s approach that existing religions have distorted original teachings. But we can say in defence of Maulana that what he is saying is what Qur’an’ says and it is not his own. He is writing commentary and explaining Qur’an’s position. But what Maulana is emphasizing by way of his concept of unity of religion is highly helpful to the cause of human unity.

Also, one should fully comprehend Maulana’s as well as Qur’anic position fully. Qur’an treats an issue at different levels and does not simply accept or reject something as things are highly complex. Thus Qur’an treats this matter yet at a different level when it states, “They (People of the Book) are not all alike. Of the people of the Book there is an upright party who recite Allah’s messages in the night-time and they adore (Him). They believe in Allah and the Last Day, and they enjoin good and forbid evil and vie one with another in good deeds. And those are among the righteous.” “And whatever good they do, they will not be denied it. And Allah knows those who keep their duty.” (3:112-114)

Thus essentially Qur’an is concerned with good deeds (enjoining good and forbidding evil) and Qur’an praises those who adhere to this course of goodness and maintaining ethical conduct without developing any vested interests. Since world is today multi-religious everywhere our main concern should be moral and ethical conduct and maintaining original spirit of our respective faiths.

Maulana emphasizes precisely this aspect in the first volume of his Tarjuman al-Qur’an. He takes the Qur’anic words ma’ruf and munkar and explains their meaning. He says ma’ruf means what is known and acceptable and hence it represents good and munkar means what is denied by the society i.e. evil and Qur’an, according to Maulana maintains that there may be so many differences in matters of beliefs and doctrines (aoq’id) but there are certain things on which there is complete unanimity of their being good and there are certain things about which there is compete unanimity for their being evil.[4]

Then giving example he says all agree that one should speak truth and that one should not resort to lies. There is also agreement that honesty and integrity is good and dishonesty bad. All of us also agree that we should serve our parents, be helpful to our neighbors, that we should take care of the poor and needy, to be helpful to the oppressed are among the good deeds for all human beings and to oppress and bad behavior are most undesirable. And all the religions in the world, all the parties and groups, whatever their differences on matters of faith and doctrines, are unanimous on this.[5]

Thus Azad ultimately advises his readers to avoid doctrinal differences and insist on ethical and moral behavior. Our world would be very different if we did not fight on differences about our doctrines and instead concentrate on matters moral and ethical. In fact this is Qur’anic message also.

Thus Qur’an says, “And abuse not those whom they call upon besides Allah (i.e. worship others besides Allah) lest, exceeding the limits, they abuse Allah through ignorance. Thus to every people have We made their deeds fair-seeming; to their Lord is their return so He will inform them of what they did.” (6:109)

This is very clear statement by Qur’an that do not abuse each other or try to prove each other’s beliefs and doctrines wrong as Allah has made for each people their deeds fair-seeming to them i.e. every people think their doctrines and their deeds are best and hence do not quarrel about them and leave it to Allah who will decide on the Day of Judgment about their beliefs and deeds.

Thus Qur’an prefers coexistence to disputes about beliefs and rituals according to those beliefs and invites people to live in coexistence and leave their disputes to Allah. If human beings try to settle these doctrinal disputes their ego, their interests will come in their way and they will not be able to decide as every people would maintain only their doctrines are best.

Thus we see that at one level Qur’an says that Allah had sent only one truth through His messengers to different people but they distorted the truth and differences arose and hence if they follow original message there will exist no differences and by following their own original faith all differences will be resolved as truth is one and that is Islam (surrendering to the will of Allah).

Though this is the truth it can be contentious since all people would maintain we are following true religion and not distorted one and naturally would lead to serious differences and disputes. So at another level the Qur’an says that do not indulge in such disputations as it will result only in reviling each other and nothing else. So it says We have made each people their own deeds fair-seeming or luring so best thing is to live in peace and harmony and leave it to Allah to decide about their deeds on the Day of Judgment.

This is what Maulana Azad also pleads for as in multi-religious societies this is the best solution. Let us cooperate with each other on what is good and jointly fight against what is evil. Maulana emphasized this approach in early 20th century when Hindus and Muslims were fighting and communal violence was breaking out everywhere. No one was ready to let people believe what they thought to be true doctrine and emphasized their religion’s superiority.

Maulana Azad understood the real message of Qur’an during very difficult period and tried to explain it to Muslims this message of the Qur’an in simple Urdu. It is also Maulana’s great contribution that he tried to translate in very simple Urdu so that common Muslims and even others (as Urdu was widely spoken and understood in entire north India during his time) so that mutual hatred could be reduced, if not completely eliminated.

Even today Muslim can greatly benefit from this message if they care to read it and take it to non-Muslim sisters and brothers.


[1] – Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Tarjuman al-Qur’an (Sahitya Academy, Delhi, 1980) Vol.I, p-42.

[2] – See Tarjuman al-Qur’an ibid pp-416-17

[3] – op.cit p-418

[4] – Tarjuman al-Qur’an ibid. p-420-21

[5] – op.cit. p-421