Born in 1888, Firoz Bakht, commonly called Muhiyuddin Ahmad, was two when his parents settled at Calcutta; his father, Maulana Khairuddin, became famous here as a spiritual guide.
Still in his teens, Muhiyuddin Ahmad using the pseudonym Abul Kalam Azad acquired a high reputation for his writings on religion and literature in the standard Urdu journals of the time.
The education Maulana Azad received, mostly from his father, was traditional. He did not go to any Madrasa, nor did he attend any modern institution of western education. Learning at home he completed the traditional course of higher Islamic education at sixteen instead of the normal twenty or twenty - five.
About the same time he was exposed to the writings of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Keeping it a secret from his father, he started learning English and by his own effort acquired enough knowledge of the language to study advanced books on history and philosophy.
This led him, although unnoticed by others, to the stage of what he called - 'atheism' and 'sinfulness.' Maulana Azad remained in this stage of spiritual dilemma till the age of twenty - two. About the same time his political ideas were also in turmoil. He wanted to see his country free from the British rule. But he did not approve of the Congress movement on account of its 'slowness'; also he could not join the Muslim League whose political goal he found unpredictable.
Thus he associated himself with the Hindu revolutionaries of Bengal in spite of their 'exclusive' and indifferent attitude to the Muslims. He managed, however, to convince them that the systematic exclusion of Muslims from the group would ultimately make political struggle much more difficult.
In order to politicise his community, Maulana Azad started from 13 July 1912 an Urdu weekly the Al - Hilal from Calcutta. Its influence was prodigious. He was politically and religiously radical. The paper shocked the conservatives and created a furore; but there were many Muslims ready to follow him.
In the pages of the Al-Hilal Maulana Azad began to criticize the 'loyal' attitude of the Muslims to the British, and the 'hostile' attitude of the British to the Muslim world in general. The Government of Bengal unhappy with its editorial policy, put pressure on the paper.
Meanwhile World War I broke out and the publication was banned in 1914 by the Bengal Government. On 12 November 1915 Maulana Azad started a new weekly, the Al-Balagh from Calcutta, which continued till 31 March 1916.
The publication of the Al - Balagh was also banned by the Government of Bengal and Maulana Azad was exiled from Calcutta under the Defence of India Regulations. The Governments of Punjab, Delhi, United Provinces and Bombay had already prohibited his entry into their provinces under the same Regulations.
The only province he could conveniently stay in was Bihar, and he therefore went to Ranchi, where he was interned till 1 January 1920. From 1920 till 1945 Abul Kalam Azad was in and out of prison a number of times.
After he was released from Ranchi he was elected President of the All - India Khilafat Committee at the Calcutta session in 1920, and President of the Unity Conference at Delhi in 1924.
In 1928 he presided over the Nationalist Muslim Conference. He was appointed in 1937 a member of the Congress Parliamentary Sub - Committee to guide the Provincial Congress Ministries.
He was twice elected President of the Indian National Congress, the first time in 1923 when he was only thirty - five years old, and the second time in 1940. He continued as the President of the Congress till 1946, for no election was held during this period as almost every Congress leader was in prison on account of the Quit India Movement in 1942.
After the leaders were released Maulana Azad, as the President of the Congress, led the negotiations with the British Cabinet Mission in 1946, and when India became independent he was appointed Education Minister, a position in which he continued till his death on February 22, 1958.
Azad's religious ideas were not widely influential. He expressed himself in Urdu, and thus limited himself to a particular group. The majority of the Indians did not really know what Azad was saying.
Another reason was political. He was in the Congress, and was considered a party-man. Thus whatever he said about the unity of religion was taken by many Muslims who used to read him as the reflection of his political ideas, and therefore to be discarded.
Also, on the question of Muslims' traditional religious education, Maulana Azad was unorthodox. He was among those few who were not shaken in their faith in composite nationalism even by partition. He was a great orator and a match-less writer.
“Full eleven centuries have passed by since then. Islam has now as great a claim on the soil of India as Hinduism. If Hinduism has been the religion of the people here for several thousands of years Islam also has been their religion for a thousand years.
Just as a Hindu can say with pride that he is an Indian and follows Hinduism, so also we can say with equal pride that we are Indians and follow Islam. I shall enlarge this orbit still further. The Indian Christian is equally entitled to say with pride that he is an Indian and is following a religion of India, namely Christianity.”
From the Presidential Address - Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, I.N.C. Session, 1940, Ramgarh