Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was among the top builders of modern India. He was also one of the most prominent Muslim personalities of twentieth century. An Islamic thinker of international repute, he possessed good qualities of the past but with modern outlook and believed in oneness of all human beings. He advocated for learning through liberal, modern and universal education combining the rationalism of western sciences.
Thoughtful and reflective, Maulana had studied in great depth the causes of the decline of Muslim Societies around the world. The main cause for the Fall of Ummah, according to Maulana Azad, was the involvement of Muslims in unproductive activities and ignoring the facts of the fast changing world. Through his speeches and writings, Maulana repeatedly reminded Muslims that their own irrational and un-Islamic attitude was responsible for their decline in practically in every walk of life. He, therefore, addressed Muslims in these words: "You have spent several nights of indifference (Urdu-ghaflat) and complacency (Urdu-sarshari). For God’s sake, get up now and see how much the sun has risen and how far your co-travelers (non-Muslims) have gone ahead of you." (Ghubar-e-Khatir- by Maulana Azad)
Maulana felt that after 16th Century, the situation of knowledge in Muslim and European societies interchanged completely. Now Europe started to follow Muslims way of progressive thinking and enquiry whereas Muslims copied Europe way of life of Middle Ages (Dark Age) that was full of superstition, bigotry and retrograde thoughts. He says "Now (after 16th Century,) the contrast in qualities as during Crusades, became apparent. The place of Muslims (Progress) was taken over by Europe and that of Europe (Dark Ages) by Muslims." (Ghubar-e-Khatir- by Maulana Azad)
According to Maulana Azad, the success story of Muslims during Middle Ages was entirely due to their dependence on "Ilm-O-danish" (Knowledge and Wisdom). Europe, at that time, depended on invocation and benediction for all the problems of life, even for wining Wars. Muslims used to fight with Arms of Iron and Fire. Europe depended only on the Help of God. Muslims depended on God as well as materialistic sources provided by Nature. One was the follower of only spiritualistic powers; the other was dependent on both spiritualism and materialism. One waited for Miracles to appear and the other waited for success of their sincere efforts. Miracles never appeared but the efforts provided success to Muslims” (During Crusades). (Ghubar-e-Khatir- by Maulana Azad)
Maulana always believed that Duaein (Invocation) by Be Ilm (Ignorants) and Be 'amal (Men with no initiative) results in escapism. To prove his point, he described the incident of Bukhara. He wrote, “During the early nineteenth century, Russian forces surrounded the city of Bukhara. Instead of confronting the enemy, Ruler of Bukhara issued instructions that in all the Mosques and Dargahs, Invocational Prayers (Khatm Khwajgan) be organized. On one side the guns were playing havoc and on the other loud calls of Invocatory Prayers were resounding. Guns versus Prayers. The obvious happened. Bukhara fell to Russian forces. Invocation does help but for those who have the courage to fight. For people without courage, Prayers become the source of escape from reality" (Ghubar-e-Khatir, by Maulana Azad).
In a similar incident, the ruler of Egypt, Murad, instead of defending against the forces of Napoleon during 1798, issued instructions to recite Bukhari Sharif (Religious Book- Collections of prophetic Traditions) in all the Mosques in order to quell the enemy. Again the obvious happened and before the recitation could be completed, the whole of Egypt was conquered by Napoleon forces.
In his various speeches (Khutbat Azad –Addresses by Azad, Edited by Malik Ram, Sahitya Academy,Delhi, Fifth Edition, 1997), Maulana Azad has dealt in quite details about the Rise and Fall of Islamic Societies. In this connection, he has referred to an article written by an eminent traveler and historian Prof. Armin Wembrey, published in Budapest Herald (1901).
Prof. Wembrey, a national of Hungary, was a great friend of Turks. He lived with them for more than two decades and visited most of the Islamic world. After living all these years with Muslims, he was disillusioned with their behaviors and attitudes towards worldly affairs. He, therefore, left their company and went back to his native land where he adversely commented on Muslims. According to Maulana, Wembrey wrote "There is no point in supporting Muslims any more. They do not have any interest in worldly affairs and do not wish to contribute in development. They have no vision, no commitments and sense of responsibility. All that they know and do is Ibadat Guzari (prayers). They are not capable for working for the cause of humanity. The best thing for the West remains to annex their entire territories and share them amongst themselves."
Maulana Azad, pained by these comments, observed that "if such are the views of friends of Muslims, imagine what the enemies would be thinking of them. For instance, he quoted another European Scholar, Maxin Hardin who wrote (London Times - 1910) that "How long Muslims would be let free. Islam is a danger. Whatever area is captured of Muslim Land, it is the rightful property of Europe. Its return is madness.” (Khutbat Azad)
Inspite of anti-Islamic stance of Europe, Maulana Azad was indeed great protagonist for international peace and unity but he knew that without acquiring might and fighting spirit, it was not possible to get respect and honour. He, therefore, vehemently advocated that "the hand is sacred which is holding a white flag, signifying peace, but only those can only survive who firmly hold in their hand a deadly sword because that is the only way for asking Justice and defending themselves from the perpetrators of tyranny." (Khutbat Azad)
Maulana Azad had the genuine feeling that spreading false propaganda against Muslim had started by the West as early as 16th century. In this connection he observed "Islam with all its values and qualities became a victim of false propaganda by the West. It was said that Islam lives on the booty of loot and arson. Sir Syed was probably the first sincere Muslim who confronted the Muslim haters and rejected all insinuations." (Khutbat Azad)
Maulana Azad was against separating religion from worldly knowledge. He advised Muslims to acquire modern knowledge and in this connection he appealed to them to contribute large sums for the establishment of Aligarh Muslim University which till then was a College only. He observed, "the day Muslim University will be established; it will be completion of the exhortation and message of our Prophet."
Maulana was an important Islamic scholar and had great respect for the Madarsahs. However, with the changing of times, he felt that the Madarsahs needed to make suitable changes in their approach of imparting knowledge. He, therefore, advised "If education is meant for human beings and purpose is it’s applicability in daily life, then teach them in such a manner that they are not frightened. But if the education is meant for angels, then you do what you like. The world has changed and in view of this fact we should have made changes in our education system hundred years back but if it was not done at that time, then atleast do it now. What we are teaching today in our Madarsahs in the name of Ma’qulat (Logic and Philosophy) is simply outdated and has no place in today’s world. We should accept the ground realities and understand that in place of outdated philosophica subjects, we need to teach students the problems facing the Ummah. If you do not do it, that means you do not understand the basics of life and wish to fight with the unstoppable changing times. ---- History teaches us that in the clash between Qadamatparsti (Conservatism) and Modernism, the loser has always been Qadamatprasti. True, that Abul Fazal and Faizi were the products of Madarsahs and that they had done well with their administrative capabilities. But that was a long time back. That education can not work now. Times have changed. Now you are isolated because you remain at the same place (Madarsahs) where you entered five hundred years back. During all these years, world has seen vast development and changes. The subjects you are teaching today have no relevance to the need of present times. The result is obvious. There is big wall between you and the world. You lag behind in all walks of life. You are supposed to be Nikamme (worthless). We must accept that we have committed grave mistakes by not reconciling with the changing times." (Khutbat Azad)
Inspite of the Fall of Islamic Societies, Maulana Azad never compromised with spirit of Islam that stressed for unity and brotherhood. Throughout his life he stood for the unity of India and its composite culture as well as cordiality between Hindus and Muslims. Once he said “ If our Prophet could advocate unity between Quraish and all the communities in and around Madina (as one nation), don’t you think that it is not the religious duty to unite with the Hindus of Hindustan. ” He repeatedly expressed his views that "As a true Muslim, I have inherited Islam's glorious traditions of the last fourteen hundred years. I am not prepared to loose even a small part of that legacy. I have another equally deep realization, not hindered by the Islamic spirit. that I am an Indian, and proud being an Indian. If the whole world is my country and is to be honored, the dust of India has the first place. If all mankind are my brothers, then the Indians have the first place."
At another occasion, he said "Today, if some Angel comes from a cloud and declared from Qutub Minar that - Swaraj can be granted within twenty four hours provided demand (wish) of Hindu-Muslim Unity is withdrawn, I will not accept the offer. If Swaraj is delayed, it is the loss of India but if efforts for Hindu Muslim unity are given up, it is the loss of humanity.” (Khutbat Azad)