Book discussion: Maulana Azad: A Life by S Irfan Habib

The Centre for Studies of Plural Societies (CSPS) organised a book discussion on Maulana Azad: A Life, authored by S. Irfan Habib on May 19, 2023, at the RKG Art & Culture Centre, New Delhi. Prof. Amar Farooqi, from Department of History, University of Delhi chaired the event, and Dr. Amir Ali, Assistant Professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University was the discussant.

Author- Prof S Irfan Habib is a historian of science and modern political history. Till recently, he was Abul Kalam Azad Chair at the National University for Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), New Delhi. His intellectual collaboration with Dhruv Raina as historians at the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies (NISTADS), New Delhi in the 1990s culminated in the publication of a series of research articles (collected as a volume titled Domesticating Modern Science, 2004) on the cultural redefinition of modern science in colonial India. They also edited a volume together on Joseph Needham (Situating the History of Science, 1999), the section on “Science in Twentieth South and South-East Asia” for volume 7 of UNESCO‘s History of Mankind Project, and a reader on social history of science in India (Social History of Science in Colonial India, 2007). As an author, his works have been subject to mostly positive critical reception.

Chair- Prof Amar Farooqui is retired Professor of History, University of Delhi. He taught history for many years at Hans Raj College, Delhi; and has been Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. His publications include Early Social Formations (2002); Smuggling as Subversion: Colonialism, Indian Merchants and the Politics of Opium, 1790-1843 (revised edition, 2005); Opium City: The Making of Early Victorian Bombay (2006); Sindias and the Raj: Princely Gwalior, c. 1800-1850 (2011), and Zafar and the Raj: Anglo-Mughal Delhi, c. 1800-1850 (2013).

Discussant- Dr Amir Ali is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Earlier he taught at the Department of Political Science, Jamia Millia Islamia, and was a visiting fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. His area of interests are Political Theory, Multiculturalism, Group Rights.


The discussion began with an introduction by Dr. Javed Iqbal Wani, Assistant Professor, School of Law, Governance and Citizenship, Ambedkar University Delhi who is also the honourary Head of Research and Publications at CSPS.  He emphasised the importance of the book and pointed out that Maulana Azad’s identity becomes crucial in contesting and resisting the politics of erasure in contemporary times. He introduced the speakers on the panel and outlined their intellectual legacies.

Prof. Farooqi introduced the book and highlighted how it renders itself unique by catching the often-overlooked facets of Azad’s life. In doing this, the book becomes an account of an alternative history, a rudiment of the felt histories often lost in the current of dominant narratives. It reflects the whole span of anti-colonial struggle from the original perspective of Azad as he lived it. Prof. Farooqi further stated the intellectual settings which loomed behind Azad and his nationalism, his vision and multiple clashing yet smoothly woven ideas regarding nationalism, Islam, culture, community, society, and life in general.

Habib while commenting on Azad’s life in the context of how Azad’s persona embodies the ambiguities and ambivalences which, despite all their dualities, are melted in his being, giving his vision the profundity, he is known for. He started out by tracing Azad’s birth in the city of Makkah, his encounter with Wahhabism and his initial vendetta against it, his Sufism, his travelling and settling down in Calcutta, inheritance of intellectual and cultural legacy from his father, the restrictions against the prevalent cultural and intellectual trends that his father imposed over him, his trespassing of these restrictions and developing a rather individualist sort of thinking valuing one’s own experiences. Habib’s interspersed the information about Azad’s personal and intellectual life with some lighter and humorous anecdotes, such as how Azad was commonly called to have been born 50 years old and how he secretly managed to learn sitar without his family ever noticing his interest in music. The further talked about his philosophy, comparative religious study, monotheism and politics, which were informed from his life experiences, was traced through his lesser-known travels to Lahore, his interactions with the literary circle there, his initial atheism, his broad literary engagement and newfound embracing of Islam. What is surprising about Azad, Habib emphasised, is that he compared all religions, and even atheism, and concluded that monotheism is the basis of all religions. He traces this point of conjuncture as a shared feature of all religious thoughts. His interest in Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan and appreciation of Allama Iqbal was also touched upon by Habib.  He specifically focused on Azad’s perception of Islam as a tool against imperialism, not only in India but wherever this interaction between a majority of Muslims and imperialism took place in the world. Lastly, Habib the touched upon the change in understanding of Islam through Azad’s life and the influence of his being on the intellectual, cultural, and political landscape of India and how that book attempts to investigate all such nuances.

Before concluding the session, Dr. Ali highlighted the erasure of Azad’s thought and mapped the degradation of Delhi as a historical city in recent decades as an intellectual and cultural centre that it historically had been since medieval times. He focused on how Azad’s thought interacts outside India and how it gets linked to the varying understanding of nationalism, imperialism, Islam and democracy in general and specifically in India. Dr. Ali hoped for the revival of intellectual exercises and cultural plurality as reflected through the thought and life of Maulana Azad and thanked Habib for his contribution to history and briefly described Azad’s life. The event ended with a vote of thanks given by Dr. Omair Anas, Director, CSPS. He along with the Director of the Art and Culture Center presented the panelists with plant saplings and thanked the participants for making the event a grand success.


This report is prepared by Iffat Khatoon and Sehajdeep Kaur, research interns at CSPS