Obaidullah Sindhi: A fascinating figure

Reviewed by Zuhair Siddiqi

MAULANA OBAIDULLAH SINDHI, HALAAT-1-ZINDGI, Taaleemat, aur siyasi afkaar by Mohammad Sarwar. Fifth edition, Published by Sind Saagar Academy, Lahore. pp. 440; price Rs. 16.00.

geust-contMaulana Obaidullah Sindhi is one of the many fascinating, but now nearly forgotten, figures in the recent cultural and political history of Muslim India. For nearly a third of his life he remained in exile, and when he returned home early in 1939, the political atmosphere was not at all congenial for a man of ideas. No Muslim intellectual who did not carry a Muslim League flag could then expect a patient hearing in his own community. On the other hand, the Maulana’s aversion to Gandhian obscurantism ruled out an active association with the Congress in spite of his general sympathy with its objectives. He continued to preach his religious and political ideas independently, and died in 1944.

Although he was a Punjabi by birth and lived in Sind for many long years, we have read scarcely anything about him in Pakistan except in the writings of his ardent devotee,

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar. The work under review, which appeared in 1943, was first published in Pakistan in 1967. Together with a complement volume entitled Ifadat-o-Malfoozat, it forms a comprehensive study of the life, thought and works of that remarkable man.

Born posthumously in a Sikh family in a Sialkot village, Obaidullah fell under the spell of Islam while still a boy, abandoned his home and family, and embraced the faith of his choice at the hands of a Muslim divine in Sind. At the age of twenty-five, he went for higher religious education to the famous school at Deoband, where he was taught by Maulana Mahmud-ul-Hasan and mastered the traditional Islamic disciplines. After graduation, he returned to Sind, taught for several years, and also established a madrassah where he used to bear the students’ expenses and maintain the teachers. After a few years he went back to Deoband, at the instance of Maulana Mahmud-ul-Hasan, and undertook to organise the old students of the Dar-ul-Uloom. But his mind was too independent to accept the rigid conformism of the Deoband school and he fell out with a section of its ulema, who denounced him as a heretic. He later moved to Delhi and devoted himself to the propagation of his own views on the reconstruction of Muslim society. He took his stand firmly on the Quran and attacked the conventional beliefs and doctrines that he found repugnant to the spirit and essence of the Book.

Advocate of modernism

During the Great War, he was caught in the current of the prevailing pro-Turkish sentiment in Muslim India, and at the instance of Maulana Mahmud-ul-Hasan, went to Kabul to persuade the Afghan ruler to attack the British. He failed, but stayed on in Kabul during the rest of the war years. After the end of the war he became the president of the first branch of the Indian National Congress in Kabul. In 1922, he left Afghanistan for the Soviet Union, where he lived for nearly a year. In the following year he moved to Turkey to witness her rebirth and transformation under Mustafa Kemal. A few years later he went to the Hejaz, where he devoted himself to study and teaching for over a decade.

It was during this long stay in Arabia that Obaidullah embarked upon an exhaustive study of the works of the eminent Muslim thinker and divine of the eighteenth century, Shah Waliullah. He became an ardent follower, and the thoughts and teachings of the Shah dominated his ideas and activities during the rest of his life.

The Maulana did not know any Western language, but he had an open mind and a keen observation, and during his long stay abroad he responded favourably to the currents of radical and revolutionary ideas then sweeping the world around him. He became a strong advocate of socio-economic reform and modernisation in the Muslim world, and pleaded for an ungrudging acceptance of nationalism as a determining factor in its future political organisation.

Federal nationalism

The author has explained Obaidullah Sindhi’s religious and political ideas clearly and concisely, and devoted a whole chapter to the political movement associated with Shah Waliullah. The work is, however, dominated by a reverential spirit which seems to rule out a critical approach. Maulana Obaidullah was as much a hero to Mr. Sarwar as Shah Waliullah was to the Maulana, and neither of them has subjected his hero’s ideas to a really critical examination. The doctrine of wahdat-ul-wujud, as interpreted by the Shah in the eighteenth century, is no doubt noble and sublime; but its utility as a basis for national integration in India was doubtful even at that time, and it had clearly become irrelevant when Maulana Obaidullah sought to preach it two hundred years later.

In spite of his nationalist leanings, Maulana Obaidullah, did not stand for a total national integration in India and envisaged for the Muslims a measure of autonomy far beyond that permissible in a normal federation. This is explained, at least partly, by his aversion to the infiltration of Hindu spiritualism , into Congress politics; in any event, it is significant that the “political manifesto” issued by him as far back as 1924, from Istanbul, envisaged a three-tier system very similar to that proposed under the Cabinet Mission scheme in 1946. Even otherwise, Mr. Sarwar has made it clear that the Maulana’s vision of a free India was not that of an integrated national State; he rather believed in a multinational State based on autonomous linguistic units. It is not clear, however, how he proposed to reconcile the linguistic principle with the claims of Muslim separatism.

Perhaps, the most remarkable aspect of the Maulana’s thought and politics is his ungrudging acceptance of the economic and social consequences of the industrial revolution and his passion for an equitable economic order free from the exploitation of man by man. He urged the Muslims to realize that the industrial revolution and the sweeping social and economic changes that had overtaken the West had not only transformed the methods of production but shaken the very basis of the social and juristic systems under the old order. He wanted the world of Islam to open its eyes and respond to the winds of change rather than continue to coddle itself in revivalist dreams incapable of being realized.

Source: Viewpoint  February 25, 1977