Wednesday 14 June 2017

Exploring Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam’s Muslim-Ness

Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam or APJ Abdul Kalam, as many Indians remember him, was a true visionary, leader and one of the dearest presidents that the country has ever seen. ‘Missile Man of India’, ‘People’s President’, were some of the many names that the country bestowed on this inspiring figure. Loved, and looked upon by almost all sections and strata of the society, Kalam was particularly close to the youth of the country. An ardent secular Indian nationalist with a love for Hindu culture and coming from humble origins, he was made the 11th president of India on 18th July 2002.
Kalam, from his childhood, was interested in mathematics and he later graduated from the Madras Institute of Technology. The time that he spent at DRDO and ISRO as a scientist, he focused on researches in space and defense arenas. He designed a hovercraft, was working on a rocket project,  had led the SLV-III (Satellite Launch Vehicle) project and was given the task to build ballistic missiles using the same technology of the SLV programme. Here he gave India, Agni and Prithvi missiles under the mission named IGMDP (Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme), which put India on the defence map of the world. Later, as a Chief Scientific Adviser, he coordinated the nuclear tests- Pokhran-II. It was after this success that he received the Bharat Ratna, for his role in the development of nuclear weapons.
Kalam was not merely a great scientist but also an inspirational leader. Dr. Baldev Raj, who is a Director at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, in an article aptly elucidates: “Dr. Kalam was a great leader. He never exposed the shortcomings of the failures of his team, instead, he took responsibility for them. However, when success was achieved, he gave full credit where it was due. That was the philosophy he practiced through his life (…) He had a wonderful gift for spotting talent and expertise across various fields. He could stand anywhere and inspire people. Dr. Kalam commanded unparalleled respect in the science and technology circles as well as the academia, not just because of his work as a scientist but because of his ethics.”
Even after achieving so much success in personal and political life, Kalam stayed true to his roots and set an example through his humanitarian nature. Kalam’s development of stents and calipers revolutionized the health care of our country. If on the one hand, these stents made affordable heart surgeries possible, the calipers made walking easy for children, who had been suffering from the weight of 4 kilograms attached to their body, as opposed to the 400 grams of the new calipers, and so, his scientific work was not only in the direction of weapons of mass destruction. Kathiresan, a former driver who drove Kalam’s car when Kalam was in DRDO and not the president, was motivated by Kalam to pursue higher studies. Kathiresan, who then had not cleared his tenth class, with Kalam teaching him English, later went on to do his PhD under the constant guidance of Kalam. There are several other incidents which portray the humanitarian side of Kalam. However, it is also important to note that during his entire timeline from joining DRDO as an ordinary scientist to being the president of India, his attitude towards life and his compassion towards other humans never altered. His care even extended to animals, as he saved the life of a dying peacock who was suffering from cancer. According to the staff at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Kalam would help every injured or sick bird he would find.
India has always romanticized the vision of an ‘aam admi’ rising to power and in the image of Kalam, this figure and the idea reaches its zenith. Shashi Tharoor, in an article on Kalam, elucidates on why the icon of the ‘aam admi’ was true in regards to Kalam: “Born in humble circumstances in a Muslim family in rural Tamil Nadu, a young boy who sold newspapers as a boy to help his family make ends meet, rose to the highest office in the land. And he did so not through the conventional route of a political career but through the dint of hard work as a scientist in government service.” Unlike Icarus, Kalam flew high and showed the youth of the country, that with hardwork and perseverance, anyone can achieve success.
In the same article, Tharoor also talks about the multifaceted character of Kalam whereby he would talk about “space travel one day, corporate social responsibility the next, rural uplift the day after: it seemed he had an idea a minute. Every pronouncement of his was imbued with pride in the past and boundless faith in the limitless possibilities of the future.” Kalam had a holistic developmental approach towards making India a developed country, which becomes clear in a speech delivered at the Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad, in which he asked Indians, among other things, to learn resilience and optimism from the Israelis. Kalam was a man of science, and the initiatives which he took up after his presidency included floating ideas like the Rashtriya Avishkar Abhiyan, wherein independent innovative scientific research by pre-college school students could be facilitated in laboratories, a scheme which has been set in motion (as someone who did do scientific research in high school for the Intel Science Fair facing many challenges, how I wish it had started those days!), and he, after his presidency, was involved in various public policy projects on the country, many of which involved technological innovation.
Kalam also had the vision for a second green revolution in India, which he articulated at a Gujarat Life Sciences event, with availability of high quality, dependable bio seeds and where farmers would be able to directly sell their produce to the market by eliminating the middle man. Furthermore, the pact that was signed between AU and India for a pan-Africa e-network during the summer of 2015 was actually the brainchild of Kalam. In a speech made on 16th September 2004 to the pan-African Parliament, he was the first to promote the idea of connecting India and Africa through e-network. Kalam also promoted the idea of not just introducing entrepreneurship as a subject in school, but also, that banks should pro-actively support innovations and innovators by funding them, for he felt that India needs more job-creators to meet the unemployment challenge. After retiring as president, Kalam would often be seen in public queues, never flaunting his past status or asking for special privileges.
P.M. Nair was the secretary to Dr Kalam and Kalam knew him from when he was the joint secretary in the department of defense production. Nair went on to write the book ‘Kalam Effect’, uncovering various unknown facts about the former president. Nair reiterates the fact that Kalam stayed humble from his days in Rameswaram to Rashtrapati Bhavan. He elaborates how Kalam would never keep the gifts which he would receive upon visiting various countries and would hand it over to the archives upon arrival. Furthermore, back in 2002, when he was expected to host the iftar Party during the month of Ramadan, Kalam, while being a devout Muslim according to Nair (and this is important), refused to waste money on feeding the well-fed and instead decided to donate it to various orphanages, and Islam does indeed place great emphasis on zakat or charity. In fact, he himself gave a cheque of Rs. 1 lakh and requested Nair to not make it public. He also mentions of the time when around 50 relatives of Kalam had come to visit him and he had arranged a trip for them to go around the city. He decided against wasting the hard earned money of the taxpayers and used his own instead for the trip. Choking with emotions, Nair further reflects on the incident when Kalam visited his house to meet his (Nair’s) ailing wife as he could not meet her on the last day of his tenure as the president.
After his demise, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had this to say about Dr. Kalam "The first thing that struck one about him was that, uniquely, he combined the honesty of a child with the energy of a teenager and the maturity of an adult."
In this article, I venture to discuss Kalam’s Muslim identity or Muslim-ness and how it has sought to be denied in both the theological and communitarian contexts by sections of Hindu rightists on one hand who sought to project him as being a Hindu with just a Muslim name and as exception to prove the rule among Muslims (like current minister Mahesh Sharma calling him a great nationalist and humanist “despite being a Muslim”) on one hand, and sections of Muslim rightists and left-liberals on the other, who sought to suggest that Kalam’s success in India was not any evidence of India’s tolerance to Muslims, for Kalam was just a namesake Muslim, and in fact, perhaps a stooge of those they see as Hindu fascists. In their eyes, Indian Muslims must claim perennial victimhood, seek community-specific concessions and not talk very much about the Pakistani state’s aggressive designs on India but insist that our foreign policy towards Pakistan be pacifist at all costs in the name of some cultural brotherhood that most Pakistanis have rejected with Jinnah’s “two-nation theory” and/or personal ties with some apparently lovely Pakistani individuals, irrespective of their government waging war or sponsoring terrorism. Also, very many left-liberals have a great fancy for Urdu and even a dislike for Sanskrit and ancient Hindu heritage, as even progressive writer Vikram Chandra has pointed out. While the cultural chauvinism and literalist reading of religious texts among large sections of religious rightists (not just under a Hindu banner, but others too) to make "scientific claims" without any concrete evidence is much talked about, acclaimed writer Vikram Chandra also highlights the Hinduphobia of large sections of (not all) our left-liberals, and how they overlook, or tend to shut down any conversation about, much that is genuinely beautiful about Sanskrit. And yes, all civilisations had their social evils and if Sanskrit as a language is to be despised for some of its literature which is regressive on issues like caste, then why not have the same attitude towards Arabic and Urdu for literature defending the burqa system and triple talaq?
Asaduddin Owaisi, leader of the MIM who has passed offensive remarks about Jews and Ahmedias, questioned Kalam’s Muslim-ness, citing Kalam’s appreciation for the Bhagwad Gita as a profound literary text offering much wisdom and for respecting spiritual leaders of other faiths, while even Rafiq Zakaria, a Congress politician who has written the most scathing biography of Jinnah ‘The Man Who Divided India’ (Zakaria rejected the two-nation theory, but did believe in community-specific concessions in education, employment and electoral representation), while admiring Kalam for his modesty and saying that while it is entirely Kalam’s choice to be or not be a practising or even communitarian Muslim, questioned Kalam’s Muslim-ness for refusing to be chief guest for  a certain event organised to mark Prophet Muhammad’s birthday (is that the benchmark?), other than citing anecdotes narrated by others of their having not heard Kalam talk much about Islam or his Muslim friends or relatives (how does that conclusively prove anything?) and because Kalam did not eat non-vegetarian food except eggs (Islam doesn’t mandate meat-eating anyway, even if vegetarianism is common among some sects and castes of Hindus in some regions, and even if vegetarianism culturally originated in India, vegetarians across the globe don’t become Hindu by default of their vegetarianism!). Another reason for left-liberals and Muslim rightists to not catch on to Kalam, a Tamil-speaking Muslim in love with Sanskrit, is that left-liberals adore Urdu and even have a dislike for Sanskrit and ancient Hindu heritage, ignoring that everything is not positive about Muslim beliefs and practices either, as discussed earlier.
Back in 2002, when the NDA and the UPA favored Kalam’s candidature, it was the Left Front which vehemently opposed and decided to make Lakshmi Sehgal their candidate for the post of the president. One of the central reasons for this opposition, at the wake of the 2002 Gujarat riots, was the accusation laid against NDA for choosing a Muslim face to recuperate from the damages caused. As this article points out, several Left party leaders and members has openly criticized Kalam by claiming, “Violence continuing unabated in Gujarat … we need a president who would be capable of applying his own constitutional wisdom to take serious decisions without being guided by anyone” (Ardhendu Bardhan), and “Kalam is a world famous scientist. It is better for him to be where he is” (Jyoti Basu), and some from the Left parties went an extra mile to being completely ridiculous by comparing Kalam with Hitler and claiming, “What is the guarantee that he will not turn out to be another Hitler?”
In an interview, Dr. Lakshmi Sehgal, a veteran of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA) who headed the regiment of female combatants and the candidate pitted against Kalam by the Left for the post of president in 2002, said-

 “APJ Abdul Kalam is really a putla or puppet in the hands of Hindutva forces represented by the Sangh Parivar and the BJP as its political front because till date he has not condemned the Gujarat incident.
Nor has he visited Gujarat where hundreds of innocent Indians were killed.
The RSS and other Sangh Parivar outfits are supporting Kalam because for them he is their dream Muslim who is vegetarian, a bachelor, a reader of the Gita instead of Quran, with a Natraj idol and what not. Dr Kalam may be an ideal Muslim for the Sangh Parivar, but he is not a Muslim like millions of Muslims in India.”
It is another matter that Kalam visited riot-torn Gujarat during and after the riots, and he placed great importance to Quranic teachings in his life, something discussed subsequently.
Many have questioned Kalam’s prospect of being the president of India, like in this article, Kalam is compared to former presidents Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Dr Radhakrishnan and Dr. Zakir Hussain, where his educational qualifications are compared to his predecessors, who have held “genuine PhD’s”. 
Some even questioned his capability as a scientist while branding his inventions and progress as mediocre. In this article, Krishna Prasad points to the ordinariness of the ‘missile man’ by stating, “As the adjectives trip off the tongues of those who don’t know a missile technologist (which Kalam is) from a nuclear scientist (which he is not), Kalam may seem like a man who can do no wrong. But critics of ‘Major General Prithviraj’ (the name Kalam assumed during Pokhran-II) point out that he is an all-too-human ‘Kalam Iyer’ (as his ISRO pals called him).” Furthermore, there is a clear streak of malice behind the title of the article itself- ‘Two Out of Five: India’s Mr Nuclear is also an all-too-human Kalam Iyer’. In calling Kalam as Kalam Iyer (as his friends and colleagues at ISRO would call him), there is a clear indication of what the author wishes to portray. Despite the author’s mild approval of Kalam's achievements by saying, “Certainly, there is no question in anybody’s mind that Kalam is India’s definitive ‘Missile Man’, the man who gave us a missile that could carry a nuclear warhead in spite of the sanctions”, along with an appreciation of successfully creating Agni and Prithvi missiles, the article clearly projects a one-sided view of “two out of five” success rate by not being able to develop the Trishul, Nag and Akash missiles.
One MV Ramana at Princeton University had this to say-
“Kalam often exhibits a tendency that’s come to mark several fields in India: dressing up even mediocre work with the tricolour to pass them off as great achievements. In his autobiography Wings of Fire, there’s a description of how Kalam reverse-engineered a Russian Rocket-assisted Take-off system, simply borrowing the crucial motors. Publicly, however, it was passed off as ‘indigenous development’ with Kalam credited for heading the project.”
If Kalam candidly conveyed the truth in his autobiography (which was a public document), how is he to be blamed for the government supposedly lying about the entirely indigenous nature of the project, dressing it up with the tricolour?!
The man behind the nuclear advancement in India is also criticized, like in this article in the following words-
“Clearly, Kalam was no Werner von Braun who designed the Nazi V-1 and V-2 rockets and led America’s manned flight foray into space with Alan Shepard’s sub-orbital fight. He most certainly was no Kurchatkov, who pioneered the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons programme.”
Critics of Kalam, in the wake of him being the president of India, left no stone unturned to strip him of all the laurels that this man deservedly achieved. According to a certain writer, the only one thing that was left to his “kamaal” was actually him being a BJP-RSS stooge who became the saving face for them post the 2002 riots.
The tone and tenor of this criticism follows the same as previous one. While the author states, “His entire professional life was spent in the Defence Research and Development Organization, which has not exactly distinguished itself in any great way. The sum of its failures, indeed, is far greater than its achievements”, he merely focuses on the failures of Kalam in scientific research and advancement. However, this author, like many other critics, fails to give Kalam the credit for his successes, thereby falsely attempting to strip Kalam of all that he has achieved by merely showcasing a lopsided view of his career.
In this article, I intend to prove that Kalam was indeed a believing Muslim (though being or not being a believer, atheist, agnostic or subscriber of any faith is indeed entirely a matter of personal choice, which shouldn’t be held against anyone) and he even stood strongly for justice for and inclusion of Muslims in the national mainstream, while not seeking community-specific concessions or doling out subtly anti-Hindu perennial victimhood narratives. Also, unlike many of the left-liberal literati and glitterati, he was an Indian nationalist (for national borders and national security would always remain relevant, for we can’t have a centrally governed world to everyone’s satisfaction when provinces within counties clash, no can we have societies without states to regulate crime) who had a vision for economically empowering the marginalized but that didn’t come in the way of his understanding the need for military security for India to safeguard its sovereignty in the nuclear age, especially when faced with two nuclear-armed neighbours (and contrary to the myth that India initiated the Indo-Pak nuclear arms race, it was indeed actually initiated by Pakistan), and that, in no way, implies any bigotry or hatred towards the general populace of any country, nor does it amount to being opposed to having a larger, global vision for humanity, but charity begins at home and India is our home. I may add that Kalam did not take Hindu lore literally, as very many people in the Hindu rightist camp do, something this article will also explore.

Why Discussing Kalam’s Muslim-Ness is Relevant
Basically, four approaches are suggested to counter the menace of Islamism (right-wing political Islam, of which jihadist terrorism is the most extreme manifestation) – the first is anti-Muslim bigotry, which is  actually counterproductive and only gives further fuel to the jihadist fire, the second is to harp on Muslim victimhood exaggerating it but without asking Muslims to introspect, which fails to explain why a harmless minority like the Yazidis of Iraq or a school-girl like Malala have been targets of jihadist terrorism, the third is denigrating Islam as a faith to make Muslims abandon Islam but which is only intellectually consistent coming from an atheist or agnostic for all faiths have controversial dimensions, and tu-tu-main-main debates over right or wrong interpretations of Islam or any other religion to prove superiority (otherwise, I do support promoting humanistic and progressive interpretations of Islam as accurate) can be endless, and the fourth one, which I subscribe to, is to promote a liberal and humanistic understanding of Muslim identity and Islam, rebutting wrong notions of perennial Muslim victimhood and portraying the likes of APJ Abdul Kalam as role models, which I think is the only viable option, and so, to acknowledge Kalam's Muslim-ness is essential if he is to be promoted as a role model for Muslims.  I do not believe that communalists under any banner, except arguably those actually resorting to killing innocent civilians, should be dehumanized or can never be logically made to modify their views, as the must-watch movie Road to Sangam, based on a true story, demonstrates, and to draw an analogy, you can see this video of a Muslim who initially wanted to become a terrorist seeking to blow up Jewish civilians but changed his standpoint about Israel for the better after visiting that country. It is not as though Muslims are another species  that can’t be rationally engaged with, the way some extreme anti-Muslim rightists almost make them out to be, portraying Muslims in general as cruel, slimy, backstabbing and aggressive (many Muslims whom the non-Muslim readers would know personally would not exhibit such traits if the non-Muslim readers were to analyze dispassionately, rather than making baseless presumptions, and indeed, most Indian Muslims are of Hindu ancestry and so, they share the same genes as the Hindus – Hindu religious lore also refers to treacherous human beings like the Kauravas wanting to burn the Pandavas in a wax palace; so, treachery was not unknown to India before the advent of Islam, as royal family feuds among the Nanda and Gupta rulers also demonstrate, and some of the worst atrocities in history have been committed by the likes of Hitler and Stalin, who were not Muslims, nor was Chengiz Khan who was an animist), but like many people in other communities in different contexts, some (not all) Muslims are in the stranglehold of anachronistic ideas like a global pan-Muslim fraternity and the upholding of Islamic theocracy, other than having prejudiced notions of an exaggerated sense of victimhood, and I have dealt with how to ideologically combat Muslim extremism in some depth in this article.
Some may question the wisdom of so much as discussing Kalam’s Muslim-ness and argue that his Indian-ness or humanism should be all that is worthy of discussion, but given that people are and should be free to practise or even culturally identify with any faith, it is relevant to discuss how Muslim-ness needn’t be seen as incompatible with Indian-ness or humanism, as a message to those Muslims who hold the two as not entirely compatible, as also for non-Muslims who do stereotype Muslims in a negative fashion. And I must say that those closet Hindu right-wingers trying to make a case for identity-blindness in the Indian national context are the ones who would protest against any act of Muslim communalism directed against Hindus, even if not particularly anti-India, but would not do so in case of Hindu communalism directed against Muslims or Christians, and so, their understanding of Indian-ness itself is a flawed, majoritarian one, similar to the majoritarian conceptions of nationalism in several Islamic theocracies (questioned even by liberal Muslims in those countries), but not as much in Muslim-majority secular states like Kazakhstan, Albania, Senegal or Burkina Faso. I would assert that not every instance of Muslim communalism in India necessarily, in the conventional sense, amounts to affinity with Pakistan or hostility to India, and while communalism, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or any other, strikes at what Tagore called the “idea of India”, any communal statement from a Muslim, like Azam Khan’s ridiculous statement attributing India’s victory in the Kargil war only to Muslim soldiers (but he did indeed explicitly glorify these Muslim soldiers serving India’s national cause in the same speech), should not be seen as “anti-national” in the conventional sense of the term if Hindu communal statements are not seen in the same vein, and even Asaduddin Owaisi has ridiculed Pakistan for the partition dividing the Muslims of the subcontinent as also for being backward as compared to India but bearing animosity towards India, making life difficult for Indian Muslims.
I personally know several Muslims who are unprejudiced and are strongly patriotic Indians, and I see no reason to see Indian Muslims loyal to their country as particularly being exceptions to the general norm. In fact, a Hindu acquaintance of mine, who studied at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), told me that while those cheering for Pakistan were quite a vocal lot there, most Muslims cheered for India, and this was in a Muslim-majority setting where the apparently pro-India majority did not have to conceal its true feelings, and another friend of mine, who is an Assamese Hindu from Guwahati and who is very resentful of the Bangladeshi Muslim influx in his state, told me that on a train journey, he overheard a conversation between two Muslims from AMU bashing the students who cheer for Pakistan. Also, another friend of mine whose father is an Indian Army officer once told me that he loves the entire Muslim community (though I don’t support any stereotyping, positive or negative!), for once, his father was fired at by militants in Kashmir and his father’s driver, a Muslim, rushed to bear the bullet to save his father’s life! He also narrated another anecdote of how a Muslim once donated blood to save his father’s life and asserted that he was not in the least ashamed of the fact that “Muslim blood” (whatever that is supposed to mean!) runs through his veins!
Those arguing that while there may be some or many Muslims who are Indian nationalists but they are not devout Muslims or aware of their faith, I would hereby like to contend that being a practising adherent of Islam and being a secular Indian nationalist are indeed compatible as per liberal interpretations of Islam. The global pan-Muslim line of thinking is anachronistic, and I can prove my case on this point, even employing Islamic theology as a valid touchstone, and even the idea of having to delink oneself from one’s non-Islamic heritage is not Islamic. Those time and again talking of a Muslim ummah or global pan-Muslim fraternity cite the following verse of the Quran-
“The believers are to live as nothing else but brothers.” (49:10)
However, in this process of heavily emphasizing a global pan-Muslim identity, such Muslims are providing an anachronistic interpretation. During Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime, Islam was largely confined to the Arab world and Muslims were under threat, since Islam had emerged as a challenge to the existing social order; thus, in that context, the emphasis on a religion-based fraternity meant something else (even Buddhism, which was a challenge to the existing order, emphasized the sangh in addition to Gautam Buddha and the dhamma, and even Christianity talks of a community of believers). However, with the passage of time, and especially now with the rise of nation-states (accommodating people of multiple religions) with a defined sovereignty that ought to be respected and global human rights activism (there were people of diverse faiths and nationalities, including people of Israeli origin, aboard the Gaza Flotilla), the concept hardly remains relevant in the same form. In fact, the fundamental message in the Quran is one of humanism. Verse 49:13, cited earlier and which comes after verse 49:10 (and later verses are believed to supersede earlier ones in the same chapter), illustrates this spirit and is stated hereunder-
“O mankind, indeed we have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.”
The above verse, while emphasizing human unity, also acknowledges nature’s law of diversity that makes the world beautiful, explaining the multiplicity of nations and tribes (without any religious connotation). This verse makes it clear that embracing Islam should not come in the way of being loyal to your nation, even if the majority there isn’t of Muslims, nor does following Islam imply a need to culturally or politically delink yourself from your country. In fact, Prophet Muhammad reportedly even explicitly stated that a true Muslim must love his/her country (Hub al-Watan e min al-Iman). Moreover, the term ‘ummah’ appears in the Quran only twice and has been used to refer to nations, without any religious connotation, and it was also used in the constitution of Medina drafted by Prophet Muhammad to connote a nation where Muslims and non-Muslims coexisted harmoniously. In this connection, I’d like to quote some excerpts from Tariq Ramadan’s book ‘The Messenger – The Meanings of the Life of Muhammad’-
“Abdullah ibn Judan, the chief of the Taym tribe and a member of one of the two great alliances of Meccan tribes (known as the People of the Perfume), decided to invite to his home all those who wanted to put an end to the conflicts and establish a pact of honor and justice that would bind the tribes beyond alliances based merely on tribal, political, or commercial interests.
Chiefs and members of numerous tribes this pledged that it was their collective duty to intervene in conflicts and side with the oppressed against the oppressors, whoever they might be and whatever alliances might link them to other tribes. This alliance, known as hilf al-fudul (the Pact of the Virtuous), was special in that it placed respect for the principles of justice and support of the oppressed above all other considerations of kinship or power. Young Muhammad, like Abu Bakr, who was to become his lifelong friend, took part in that historic meeting.
Long after Revelation has begun, Muhammad was to remember the terms of that pact and say: ‘I was present in Abdullah ibn Judan’s house when a pact was concluded, so excellent that I would not exchange my part in it even for a herd of red camels; and if now, in Islam, I was asked to take part in it, I would be glad to accept.’ Not only did the Prophet stress the excellence of the terms of the pact as opposed to the perverted tribal alliances prevailing at the time, but he added that even as the bearer of the message of Islam – even as a Muslim – he still accepted its substance and would not hesitate to participate again. That statement is of particular significance for Muslims, and at least three major teachings can be derived from it. We have seen that the Prophet had been advised to make good use of his past, but here the reflection goes even further: Muhammad acknowledges a pact that was established before the beginning of Revelation and which pledges to defend justice imperatively and to oppose the oppression of those who were destitute and powerless. This implies acknowledging that the act of laying out those principles is prior to and transcends belonging to Islam, because in fact Islam and its message came to confirm the substance of a treaty that human conscience had already independently formulated. Here, the Prophet clearly acknowledges the validity of a principle of justice and defense of the oppressed stipulated in a pact of the pre-Islamic era.”
“From the very start, the Prophet did not conceive the content of his message as the expression of pure otherness versus what the Arabs or the other societies of his time were producing. Islam does not establish a closed universe of reference but rather relies on a set of universal principles that can coincide with the fundamentals and values of other beliefs and religious traditions (those produced by a polytheistic society such as that of Mecca at the time). Islam is a message of justice that entails resisting oppression and protecting the dignity of the oppressed and the poor, and Muslims must recognize the moral value of a law or contract stipulating the requirement, whoever its authors and whatever the society, Muslim or not. Far from building an allegiance to Islam in which recognition and loyalty are exclusive to the community of faith, the Prophet strove to develop the believer’s conscience through adherence to principles transcending closed allegiances in the name of a primary loyalty to universal principles themselves. The last message brings nothing new to the affirmation of the principles of human dignity, justice, and equality: it merely recalls and confirms them. As regards moral values, the same intuition is present when the Prophet speaks of the qualities of individuals before and in Islam: ‘The best among you [as to their human and moral qualities] during the era before Islam [al-jahiliyyah] are the best in Islam, provided they understand it [Islam].’ The moral value of a human being reaches far beyond belonging to a particular universe of reference; within Islam, it requires added knowledge and understanding in order to grasp properly what Islam confirms (the principle of justice) and what it demands should be reformed.”
Thus, Muslims in their respective countries, following their religious edicts, should be humanistic nationalists of their respective countries devoted to the truth. To defend the wrong actions of Muslims is not in line with Islam. Prophet Muhammad himself said that Muslims must stop fellow Muslims from oppressing anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim. To quote the relevant Hadith (Shahi Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 43, Hadith Number 624)-
“Narated By Anas : Allah’s Apostle said, ‘Help your brother, whether he is an oppressor or he is an oppressed one.’ People asked, ‘O Allah’s Apostle! It is all right to help him if he is oppressed, but how should we help him if he is an oppressor?’ The Prophet said, ‘By preventing him from oppressing others’.”
Indeed, very many Egyptian, Iranian and Indonesian Muslims identify with and appreciate their Pharonoic, Zoroashtrian and Hindu heritage respectively. While there is indeed no dearth of Indian Muslims who are staunch Indian nationalists, there is indeed a section that tends to identify with a global pan-Muslim fraternity more than India (like there are some Indian Tamils who identify more with Sri Lankan Tamils than with India, and there are some Indian Jews identifying more with Israel than with India, joining the Israeli army rather than its Indian counterpart) and do not identify with India’s composite culture, instead portraying the arrival of Islam in India as the onset of civilization in India. In doing so, they are being as biased as the extreme Hindu rightist historiographers who try to portray India’s “Hindu past” as civilized and Muslims as barbaric foreigners, and neither narrative should be acceptable in a country that claims to reject Jinnah’s two-nation theory (interestingly, Muslim rightist historical narratives of the subcontinent and even Jinnah’s two-nation theory have been questioned and rebutted even by liberal Pakistani Muslim intellectuals). The fact is that the one who manned Shivaji’s artillery was a Muslim, Ibrahim Khan Gardi was a Muslim from the Maratha camp and fought Ahmad Shah Abdali, and Man Singh and Jai Singh respectively fought Rana Pratap and Chatrapati Shivaji at the behest of the Mughals, other than Jahangir and Shah Jahan having Hindu mothers.
Terrorism, and even terrorism citing a theological basis, is not a Muslim monopoly. As you can see here, very many instances of terrorism globally, even in the name of religion, have been carried out by those identifying themselves as Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus and even Buddhists, the victims of the acts of terrorists from each of these religious groupings not always being Muslims. However, just like most people of these religious groupings are not terrorists or supporters of terrorism, and they do not believe that their religion preaches terrorism, the same is the case with most Muslims (and not supporting terrorism applies to even most of those Muslims with other regressive and not-so-liberal attitudes on issues like gender and homosexuality).
It is possible to quote any scripture (allegedly out of context according to its liberal adherents) to justify malpractices, like some verses in the Bible namely Deuteronomy 13:12-15, Samuel 15:3, Leviticus 24:16 and Matthew 10:34 seemingly advocate violence against “non-believers” and the Purusha Sukta of the Rigved, an ancient Hindu scripture, is taken by some to justify caste discrimination, but these verses do not define the entire religion. This article mentioning an anecdote from the British parliament does make an interesting read in this regard, as does this video make an interesting watch in this connection. There are Quranic verses like 2:2565:25:85:326:1086:15110:9949:1360:8 and 109:6 preaching peace, religious tolerance and human brotherhood, as does the letter from Prophet Muhammad to the Christian monks of St Catherine’s monastery and there are episodes from Prophet Muhammad’s life, as per Islamic lore, indicative of such an approach too, such as his allowing a woman to throw garbage at him daily and his succeeding in ideologically, winning over her by way of humanitarian affection. Those suggesting that peaceful verses in the Quran are superseded by violent verses (which the vast majority of practising Muslims globally regard as contextual) would do well to note that verse 109:6 appears towards the end of the book, and preaches nothing but peace. Thus, the insinuation that moderate practising Muslims do not know their scriptures well enough does not necessarily always hold water, nor does the view that Muslim extremists are all ignorant of their scriptures, and while there are both moderates and radicals with limited understanding of their texts, there are those well versed with the texts but engaging in their own contextual interpretation, and we have to help the liberals (like Kalam, well versed with the Quran, as subsequently discussed) and moderates win the battle within Islam, as had happened earlier with Christianity and Judaism.
There is a fairly well-known website run by an apostate and basher of Islam who has even offered a cash prize to anyone who can disprove his allegations against Prophet Muhammad (but there are books by apostates of other religions criticizing their former religions too, the most famous one being ‘Why I Am Not a Christian’ by Bertrand Russell, and there’s also ‘Why I am Not a Hindu’ by Kancha Ilaiah, levelling very strong allegations), but practically, he is the judge of the debate, or to go by what he is saying, the “readership” of the website, a rather non-defined entity. In fact, he has acknowledged that he came across a Muslim who “intelligently argued his case and never descended to logical fallacies or insults” and while that Islam-basher “did not manage to convince him to leave Islam”, that Muslim earned his “utmost respect”, which implies that practically, the Islam-basher is the judge of the debate. Likewise, that Islam-basher has mentioned with reference to a scholar of Islam he debated with, that the latter was “a learned man, a moderate Muslim and a good human being” and someone he (the Islam-basher) has “utmost respect for”. So, that Islam-basher’s critique of Islam, whether valid or invalid, has no relevance in terms of making blanket stereotypes about the people we know as Muslims or even practising Muslims. By the way, that Islam-basher bashes Judaism too. And it is worth mentioning that I have encountered several practising Muslims on discussion groups on the social media, who have, in a very calm and composed fashion, logically refuted the allegations against Islam on such websites. Indeed, as you can see here and here, there are several other apostates of Islam who have stated that while they personally left Islam thinking that the extremist interpretations are correct and moderate ones wrong (as is the case with apostates of many other religions), they have equally explicitly emphasized that that does not in the least mean that they believe that most people identifying themselves as practising Muslims support violence against innocent people, and this applies very well to apostates like Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin, who despite being largely disowned by the Muslim community and being on the hit-list of extremists, spoke our fiercely against the Gujarat riots and the Dadri incident. Rushdie opposed the idea of voting to power Modi as India’s PM and later supported the award wapsi, while Nasrin expressed horror at the prospect of the cancellation of the Ghulam Ali concert in Mumbai, and she, as an atheist, has openly declared that she wants not only Islam but Hinduism and all other existing religions to die out the way the Pharonoic and Olympian faiths have.
And in fact, even speaking of the West, a report submitted by Europol, the criminal intelligence agency of the European Union, showed that only 3 out of the 249 terrorist attacks (amounting to about 1.2%) carried out in Europe in 2010 were carried out by Muslims. Even in the United States, most terrorist attacks from 1980 to 2005 were not carried out by Muslims. And no, I am not in the least seeking to undermine the heinousness of the crimes committed by some in the name of Islam by pointing to others having committed similar crimes under other ideological banners, for a more highlighted wrongdoing is no less of a wrongdoing than a less highlighted wrongdoing, but only to point out that viewing only Muslims as villains, and that too, all or even most of them, would indeed be grossly incorrect. However, despite jihadist terrorists being a microscopic minority of Muslims, Islamist terrorism has become a bigger global threat for its well-coordinated international network since the 1990s, with the US-backed Islamist resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan having signaled its rise. And, let us not forget that when we had the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the victims included Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim police officer who died fighting the terrorists (and by the way, there are more French Muslims in the local police, including those who have died fighting jihadist terrorists, than in the Al Qaeda unit in their country), Mustapha Ourad, a Muslim who was one of the magazine staff members killed in that attack and there was Lassana Bathily, a Muslim shopkeeper who gave sanctuary to many innocent civilians during the hostage crisis in Paris that followed. Even in the context of the more recent attacks in Paris, a Muslim security guard Zouheir, risking his own life, prevented one suicide bomber from entering a packed football stadium. More recently, Kenyan Muslims very laudably protected fellow bus commuters, who were Christians, from jihadist terrorists, and Kurdish, Emirati, Iraqi and Syrian Muslims have also been fighting the ISIS. In India too, most of the terrorism is not by Muslims, as you can see here and here.
Sacrificing animals as a religious ritual is not exclusive to Muslims, and ‘bali’ has existed among Hindus too, something Gautam Buddha (who lived centuries before Jesus and Muhammad) had opposed (and even Emperor Ashok the Great consumed meat of peacocks, which he stopped after embracing Buddhism, though interestingly, Buddhists in China, Japan, Bhutan, Vietnam etc. do consume meat, as do most Sikhs, Christians, Jews and Parsis, and what is halal for Muslims in terms of dietary regulations and the mode of slaughtering some animals is almost identical to what is kosher for Jews and several sects of Christians, and that is true for the practice of circumcision for males as well, which even has health benefits), and still continues in many Hindu temples across India, especially in West Bengal during the Navratri season. Also, it may interest some to know that the story of Prophet Abraham associated with Id-ul-Zuha is found in the Old Testament of the Bible too, which the Jews and Christians also believe in (those regarded as prophets by the Jews are regarded as prophets by the Christians too, with the addition of Jesus, and those regarded as prophets by the Christians are regarded as prophets by the Muslims as well, with the addition of Muhammad). And obviously, not all of Arab cuisine is non-vegetarian either, with Arab vegetarian dishes like strained yogurt using labneh cheese and sweet dishes like zlabia, popular in South Asia as jalebi!
And for those suggesting any marriage between a Hindu boy and Muslim girl as amounting to “love jihad”, they may note that many Muslim women too have married Hindu men, like Sussanne Khan, Zohra Sehgal (formerly Zohra Khan), Neelima Azim (Pankaj Kapoor’s wife), Nargis and leading Mumbai cyclist Firoza, and some have even converted to Hinduism upon marriage, like famous sitarist Annapurna Devi (formerly Roshanara Khan), fashion model Nalini Patel (formerly Nayyara Mirza), Maharashtra politician Asha Gawli (formerly Zubeida Mujawar), South Indian actress Khushboo Sundar (formerly Nakhat Khan) and Bollywood actress Zubeida.
Not too long ago, even the Modi sarkar conceded that there is no evidence whatsoever to justify the Hindu rightist conspiracy theory of the Taj Mahal having been a temple of Lord Shiv. And yes, historically, while many (not all) Muslim rulers have a historical record of intolerance to Hindus, so do many ancient Hindu rulers like Mihirakula and Pushyamitra Shunga have a historical record of intolerance to Buddhists (of course, there can be a debate on the historicity of these allegations, but the point is that religious intolerance wasn’t unheard of even in pre-Islamic times in India). One may add in this context that there is this totally incorrect notion that Muslims are the only ones who stop non-Muslims from entering some of their holiest places of worship like the Kaba in Mecca, but actually, several Hindu temples, like the Pashupati Nath temple in Nepal, too bar non-Hindus from entering them, while many mosques and Sufi shrines have absolutely no problem with non-Muslims visiting them or even praying there. Also, the conspiracy theory about the Kaba being a Shiv temple have their basis in the writings of one Mr. Oak, who was not even a historian, and he is actually not even taken seriously even by those historians, Indian or of other nationalities, who have saffron or other religious right-wing leanings, and in fact, some votaries of this theory claim that Lord Shiv has been ‘imprisoned’ by Muslims, which refutes the logic that God is all powerful! Oak also said that Christianity is Krishna-Neeti (though ‘Christianity’ as a term does not exist in Hebrew, and came about much later in history!) and many other such ludicrous things! There are websites making claims about non-existent Arabic texts to prove their point. While such propaganda (except the bit about Lord Shiv being ‘imprisoned’!) may please the Hindu chauvinist who desperately wishes to imagine ancient India to be the only centre of human civilization, impartially speaking, one ought to thoroughly dissect it before taking it seriously. These are just completely baseless rants being circulated on the social media that don’t have the backing of any serious historian, not even the most right-wing ones. These conspiracy theories are typical of loony religious rightists, including Muslim rightists in Pakistan attributing 26/11 to RAW and many genuine liberal Muslim intellectuals in Pakistan are dismissed by conspiracy theorists as agents of the CIA, RAW and/or Mossad!
There are also misplaced notions of Muslims potentially outnumbering Hindus in India, though the Muslim population growth rate is declining (not the population itself, which cannot decline usually for any community), and the population growth rate of Keralite Muslims is less than UPite Hindus, for instance, and yes, even otherwise, if someone sees Muslims potentially outnumbering Hindus in India as a real problem, they should appeal to the Indian government to legally impose a two-child norm for all Indian citizens, irrespective of religion, rather than just generate unnecessary hatred for an entire community and divide the nation. Many Hindus criticize Muslims for having many children because they practise polygamy as permitted by their faith (though census reports have established that Hindus are more polygamous than Muslims, even though it is illegal for the former, and I myself know a Hindu electrician in Delhi who has engaged in bigamy), even though that actually doesn’t make a difference to the number of children as long as the number of reproductive women remains the same. Four women would respectively give birth to the number of children they would, irrespective of whether they are married to one man or four different men! In fact, polygamy is not prohibited by Hinduism as a faith (and, in fact, it was outlawed for Hindus only after independence, and Nehru faced stern opposition for the same from orthodox Hindus). The Puranic lore is full of multiple marriages by a single man – to quote some prominent examples, Krishna had thousands of wives, prominent among whom were Rukmini, Satyabhama and Jambvati; his father Vasudev had two wives, Devki (Krishna‘s mother) and Rohini (Balram‘s mother) and Ram‘s father Dashrath had three wives, besides even Bheem having a wife other than Draupadi (Gatodkach‘s mother) and Arjun too had several, including Krishna‘s sister Subhadra. In fact, the law mandating monogamy for Hindus was introduced only after independence! Also, Islam mandates a limit of four wives and a responsibility of the husband to look after his multiple wives (if he has multiple wives in the first place) equally well, though I do agree that even this is anachronistic today. As for harems, these too have not been a monopoly of Muslim rulers, and the practice has existed among Hindu rulers too, such as in South India, and even among Buddhist rulers in Sri Lanka. And there are indeed many Hindus too, particularly in rural areas and in several cases, even among the urban educated class, who have several children even if they are monogamous. Many educated Hindus who have been public figures, like former president V.V. Giri, former prime minister Narasimha Rao and our very own Lalu Prasad Yadav have all had many children, and even Narendra Modi is the third of his parents’ six children.
Also, there are some who accuse Muslims of being the only community that carries out inter-cousin marriages, but that is true for Parsis as well and Hindu lore mentions Abhimanyu marrying his maternal uncle Balram‘s daughter (though this is a South Indian folk adaptation not to be found in the Puranic lore, it shows that the idea hasn‘t always been abhorrent in Hindu societies) and Rajasthani folklore has it that Prithviraj Chauhan too eloped with his cousin and while even this is contested by historians, he has never been looked down upon for the same, and even today, this practice exists in South Indian Hindu societies.
An allegation often leveled against Islam and Muslim societies is sexism. It should be noted that Prophet Muhammad’s wife Khadijah was a successful businesswoman, and the world’s oldest existing university, which is in Morocco and dates back to 859 AD, was set up by Fatima al Fihri, a well-educated Muslim woman. Prophet Muhammad is even believed to have mandated education for all, irrespective of gender, as you can see here and here, and in fact, the education cutting across gender lines even includes physical education. Interestingly, Prophet Muhammad himself is believed to have said that children (he did not specify only boys) must be taught archery, horse-riding and swimming. In fact, a woman, Nusaybah bint Ka’ab, fought in his army, just as Hindu lore refers to Arjun’s wife Chitrangada as an ace fighter and how Kaikeyi and Madri were ace charioteers. This article discusses in some detail the freedoms accorded to women by Islam and early Muslim societies, and how they partook in war, diplomacy, business and several other fields of life, and how the veil came in later as a norm in Muslim history.  Currently, many Kurdish Muslim women are bravely fighting the ISIS, and there was news of an Iraqi Kurdish woman, Rehana, killing over a hundred ISIS terrorists. Major Mariam Al Mansouri, a female fighter pilot from the UAE, has also been involved in anti-ISIS operations. While one would not assert that Islam or any other major global religion (and in this, we include the oriental faiths as much as the Abrahamic religions) is completely free from patriarchy (with all due respect to everyone’s religious sentiments), this mindset of prohibiting girls’ education represents a deeply patriarchal mindset among these ultra-conservative terrorists hailing from tribal Pashtun communities in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but has no basis in Islamic theology, and very many people across the globe who have identified themselves as Muslims have educated their daughters.
No Muslim-majority country (but for parts of them ruled by militias like the Taliban and ISIS), not even Saudi Arabia, has legally imposed wearing burqas (though only Iran has imposed headscarves; however, as regards wearing burqas, it must be noted that the Quran does not ordain it, nor do quotations attributed to Prophet Muhammad of undisputed authenticity), or prohibited women from driving (though only Saudi Arabia, other than militia-ruled regions, has imposed a ban on women driving, but a Saudi cleric also declared that there was nothing in the Islamic texts that prohibits women from driving. In Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, another Islamic state which largely follows the same Wahabi sect of Islam as Saudi Arabia, there are women-run family taxis, and Laleh Seddigh, an Iranian Muslim woman, is among the best car-racers globally, competing with men.
And yes, all those resorting to whataboutism misusing the tragedy of the Kashmiri Pandits or other such episodes should read this article and this one. And yes, I, for one, do not, in the least, shy away from calling the MIM a communal party which should be rejected, as you can see here. For all residual resentment against Muslims, I’d request you to peruse (not skim through and judge based on one’s preconceived notions) this e-book of mine available for free download.
It is true that Kalam opposed religion-specific, patriarchal personal laws to inswtead favour a uniform civil code, but the sharia  or Islamic law is not one of the five pillars of Islam, and many liberal Muslims have contended that respecting the laws of the country you live in, if multi-religious, is mandated by Islam, and practices like triple talaq don’t even have Quranic sanction. While freedom of worshjip is paramount, there is no consensus on Islamic law among Muslims themselves and what’s the harm, in subscribing to a modern human rights understanding in all spheres of law for a secular democracy?
Was Kalam Made President Only So That the BJP Could Flaunt Secular Credentials?
Now, coming to specifically discussing Kalam. One myth circulated about him is that he became president on account of his Muslim name in the wake of the bad press the BJP got in the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002. This view has been repeated so many times without rebuttal that it has almost come to acquire universal acceptance. However, this may not be exactly true.
As per several media investigations, the first choice as a president was former Maharashtra Governor, PC Alexander, and Kalam was not even seen as a contender. Thus the major race for the post was between PC Alexander, KR Narayanan (who was looking for a second term) and the then vice president Krishan Kant. However, it was Congress president Sonia Gandhi who rejected Alexander's candidature, despite Alexander being the Principal Secretary for three former Congress Ministers, which included, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and PV Narasimha Rao. It was clear that Kalam’s name was not even on the radar.
Prime Minister Vajpayee had ruled out Narayanan’s name at the outset. There was a severe ideological distaste between the NDA and the president, which Narayanan raised on several occasions, with the questioning over the selection of judges to the implementation of Article 356 of the constitution. The race was then narrowed down to PC Alexander and Krishan Kant.
Chandrababu Naidu, the then Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, expressed his dislike for Alexander and insisted on Kant. After a series of arguments, it was then decided that no name would be made public without achieving a consensus within the alliance. However, further decisions only made the situation murkier, with not even one constituent from Naveen Patnaik to Mamata Banerjee favoring Kant. The situation further worsened with Thackeray even threatening to quit. Soon Naidu was reproached, and then he decided to agree on Alexander for the post. Both Advani and Vajpayee congratulated Alexander on the news.
Just when a formal announcement was to be made, Naidu decided to backtrack by questioning the circumstances in which Alexander’s name was chosen. However, it was even more difficult for Kant’s name to be considered, following the backlash from their allies. It is important to note that the BJP had considered Kant’s candidature (who was a Hindu) and it was the likes of Mamata Banerjee who refused to accept the proposition. Thus, it further highlights the circumstances behind Kalam’s consideration was not made from a religious angle.
Amidst all this chaos, George Fernandes, Venkaiah Naidu and Pramod Mahajan reached out to Advani, being aware of the lack of time in making an announcement of their final candidate. It was here that Kalam’s name found its mention and was unanimously favored within the NDA. The Prime Minister also agreed on the name, who then called Naidu to consider the possibility. Naidu agreed, and the hunt was finally over.
Both the People’s Front and the Congress was shaken with this decision, with the People’s Front, consisting of Somnath Chatterji, Mulayam Singh Yadav, H.D. Deve Gowda, Surjeet Singh and A.B. Bardhan, still supporting Narayanan as their candidate. However, Mulayam Singh Yadav played a crucial role here with his unconditional support from Kalam. As a party, the SP refused to oppose a deserving Muslim candidate like Kalam. Furthermore, it was indeed Yadav who had once recommended Kalam’s name for the Bharat Ratna.
Two important things came out of this decision to make Kalam the candidate. Primarily, as Amar Singh put it “People are happy with Kalam. They are against the political class. They would prefer a Sachin Tendulkar or Infosys’ N.R. Narayan Murthy to an Amar Singh”. Secondly, in favor of the BJP, Kalam’s candidature saw the breaking of the People’s Front and the Congress bowing down to the consensus made by the NDA. However, the blame put on Kalam and the BJP, for portraying an image of tolerance, especially post the riots in 2002, does not hold true under the light of the circumstances surrounding the acceptance of Kalam’s candidature.
Furthermore, the truth is that the BJP and its precursor, the Jan Sangh, had always had their share of Muslim faces and the Jan Sangh had even earlier supported Zakir Hussain for the presidency, and so, they may not have needed to desperately appoint a Muslim as president, when the central government under Vajpayee wasn’t being particularly blamed for the Gujarat carnage anyway. However, even if one were to assume that the BJP was driven by this very agenda to promote Kalam (despite their so many earlier choices to the contrary, some rejected by the opposition), why must Kalam have necessarily rejected this offer of presidency, which would give him a platform for reaching out to the nation to further advance his ideas of development and integration, and possibly even bust anti-Muslim stereotypes? Did he subsequently act as a stooge of the BJP, especially on the issue of communalism, or was he deliberately chosen by the BJP for his supposedly being a non-practising Muslim, which would perhaps not help bust negative stereotypes about practicing Muslims? Let us explore both these questions.
 Was Kalam a Believer?
Kalam, unlike many other scientists globally, was not an atheist or agnostic, and did not view science and spirituality as incompatible. Indeed, some of the greatest scientists like Galileo, Newton and Einstein were believers. As Einstein put it-
“In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for the support of such views.”
To quote Dr. Kalam on this point-
“If at a subatomic level particles can become unstable and disintegrate, how far was it removed from the state of all human life? Science sought to provide answers to all natural phenomena, and spirituality helped us understand our place in the entire scheme of universe. While one looked at it through the solid certainties of mathematics and formulae, spirituality did so by opening up the mind and heart to experiences and by going deeper within one’s own self. Hazily, it started getting apparent to me that the connections between what was becoming my world and the one my father inhabited were not that far removed from one another.” (My Journey)
“There were many moments that occurred while I was at MIT (Madras Institute of Technology) when I found myself avidly exploring the world of science. All this was happening at a period in the country’s history when, starting from the prime minister himself - Jawaharlal Nehru - great emphasis was being laid on the development of the scientific temperament. All around me, especially in an educational like ours, I observed that we were being encouraged to leave behind the traditional ways of thinking and embrace this new climate. It was best if we used scientific methods in the pursuit of knowledge. Brought up as I was steeped in religious climate of Rameswaram, I found this very difficult to do. Instead, I found myself giving shape to my earlier glimmerings of the essential oneness of science and spirituality.” (My Journey)
“My third and last year at MIT was a year of transition and was to have a great impact on my later life. In those days, a new of climate of political enlightenment and industrial effort was sweeping across the country. I had to test my belief in God and see if it could fit into the matrix of scientific thinking. The accepted view was that a belief in scientific methods was the only valid approach to knowledge. If so, I wondered, was matter alone the ultimate reality and were spiritual phenomena, but a manifestation of matter? Were all ethical values relative, and was sensory perception the only source of knowledge and truth? I wondered about these issues, attempting to sort out the vexing question of “scientific temper” and my own spiritual interests. The value system in which I had been nurtured was profoundly religious. I had been taught that true reality lay beyond the material world in the spiritual realm and that knowledge could be obtained only through inner experience.” (Wings of Fire: An Autobiography)
“I have always been a religious person in the sense that I maintain a working partnership with God. I was aware that the best world required more ability than I possessed and therefore I needed help that only God could give me. I made a true estimate of my own ability, then raised it by 50 percent and put myself in God’s hands. In this partnership, I have always received ball the power I needed, and in fact have actually felt it flowing through me. Today, I can affirm that the kingdom of God is within you in the form of this power, to help you achieve your goals and realize your dreams.” (Wings of Fire: An Autobiography)
A colleague of Kalam’s claimed that he had never seen Kalam offering namaz or even discussing his Muslim relatives, and that, on the other hand, he had known Kalam to have great knowledge and admiration for Hinduism. We will come to Kalam’s connection to Hinduism subsequently, but is it necessary that Kalam not having discussed Islamic theology or his Muslim relatives with that colleague meant that he didn’t value them?
Was Kalam a Practising Muslim?
The truth is that Kalam publicly acknowledged himself as a practising Muslim and someone who greatly valued the Quran and the Hadiths, interpreting them in a liberal and humanistic fashion, even before he became president, in his autobiography ‘Wings of Fire’ released in 1999, and the same trend is evident in his later works too. Let us have a look at some such excerpts from his books-
“And the holy Quran is, of course, a constant companion.” (From Ignited Minds, on being asked which his favorite books are, he answered mentioning four books: Man the Unknown by Dr. Alexis Carrel, Tiruvalluvar’s Thirukkural, Lillian Eichler Watson’s Light from Many Lamps and the Quran)
“Caliph Omar never saw his position in terms of the special privileges that it carried. To him government was a sacred trust and he did his best not to betray that trust in any way.” (Ignited Minds)
“In September 2001, I visited the Dargah Sharif of Sufi mystic Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, better known as Gharib Nawaz, at Ajmer. Here, in AD 1256, at the age of 114, the saint entered his cell to pray in seclusion for six days, at the end of which he passed away. As I went around the Dargah, I was struck by the beauty of all that the shrine symbolized. Eight hundred years ago, a saint travelled from Arabia, passing through many lands before reaching Ajmer. Here he brought together different communities who lived peacefully around his shrine.
The teachings and message of Khwaja Gharib Nawaz have been of an exceptional character. His simple teachings penetrated even a stony heart; his affectionate look could silence the fiercest enemy; he brought the message of universal love and peace. Chishti Sufis who succeeded him continued the tradition set by him. They were truly the pioneers in national integration.
The teachings of Khwaja Sahib have been recorded in several books. For him, one who possesses the magnanimity of the river, the kindness of the sun and humility of the earth is closest to god. Khwaja Sahib said that the noblest character is possessed by the one who is graceful in poverty, content in hunger, cheerful in grief and friendly in hostility. According to this great saint, the surest way to avoid the punishment of hell is to feed the hungry, to redress the aggrieved and to help the distressed.”  (Ignited Minds)
“I have learned over the years to maintain my equanimity regardless of circumstances. I have faced failures and disappointments without feeling defeated, I wish to live the rest of my life at peace with myself and others I have no wish to engage in quarrels with others.
This is the challenge before the individual as he tries to transcend his limitations.
At this point, I recall a sura from the Holy Quran.
‘O prophet, you proclaim to the people
Who do not accept your preaching,
What you worship, I do not worship,
And what I worship, you do not worship;
The result of your actions belongs to you,
The result of my actions belongs to me.’”  (Ignited Minds)
“On one occasion, as I was leaving for Bangalore I spoke to my friend of mine and told him that I would be talking to young people and whether he had any suggestions. He did not offer any suggestions as such, but offered me these nuggets of wisdom.
‘When you speak, speak the truth; perform when you promise; discharge your trust…withhold your hands from striking, and from taking that which is unlawful and bad…
‘What actions are most excellent? To gladden the heart of a human being, to feed the hungry, to help the afflicted, to lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful and to remove the wrongs of the injured…
All God’s creatures are His family; and he is the most beloved of god who tries to do most good to god’s creatures.’
These are the sayings of Prophet Mohammad. My friend who told me this is a great grandson of a Deekshidhar in Tamil Nadu and grandson of a Ganapathigal (Vedic scholar). He is none other than Y.S. Rajan.” (Ignited Minds)
“I would like to conclude this book with an answer to one last question, asked of me on Id. The question was: What prayer did you say on this occasion?
I replied, apart from praying for the health and happiness of my teachers, friends and relatives, I said this prayer:
‘O Almighty, create thoughts and actions in the minds of the people of my nation so that they live united.
Help all religious leaders of my country give strength to the people to combat forces of division. Embed the thought “Nation is bigger than the individual” in the minds of the leaders and people.
O God, bless my people to work and transform the country into a prosperous nation soon.’”   (Ignited Minds)
“I would study for an hour and return by 5 a.m. By then my father would be ready to take me to the Arabic School nearby, where I learnt the Koran Sharif.” (My Journey)
 “The words from the Holy Koran ring in my ears when I think of them: ‘Light upon light. Allah guides His light to whom he will.’
In my personal life too, these works have given me comfort and helped me make sense of the vicissitudes of life. When I lost my parents within the span of a year, I remember praying at the mosque in Rameswaram, overcome with grief and regret for not having met my mother more often before she passed away. But after some time this line from the Koran came to me. It told me that the passing away of souls in inevitable and the only constant is God: ‘your wealth and children are only temptation whereas Allah! With Him is eternal award.’” (My Journey)
“I remember my father starting his day at 4 am, by reading the namaz before dawn. After the namaz, he used to walk down to a small coconut grove we owned, about 4 miles from our home. He would return, with about a dozen coconuts tied together thrown over his shoulders, and only then would he have his breakfast. This remained his routine even when he was in his late sixties.
I have throughout my life tried to emulate my father in, my own world of science and technology. I have endeavored to understand the fundamental truths revealed to me by my father, and feel convinced that there exists a divine power that can lift one up from confusion, misery, melancholy and failure, and guide one to one’s true place. And once an individual severs his emotional and physical bondage, he is on the road to freedom, happiness and peace of mind.”  (Wings of Fire: An Autobiography)
“I halted for a week in Delhi, the city of the great Sufi Saint Hazrat Nizamuddin, and appeared for the interview at DTD&P (air). I did well at the interview.”  (Wings of Fire: An Autobiography)
“I took some time off before going abroad and went to Rameswaram. My father was very pleased to learn about the opportunity that has come my way. He took me to the mosque and organized a special namaz in thanksgiving. I could feel the power of God flowing in a circuit through my father to me and back to God; we were all under the spell of the prayer.”  (Wings of Fire: An Autobiography)
(On contemptuous pride) “My mother had once narrated an incident from the Holy Book- after God created man, he asked the angels to prostrate themselves before Adam. Everybody prostrated themselves except Iblis, or Satan, who refused. ‘Why did you not prostrate yourself?’ Allah asked. ‘You created me of fire and him of clay. Does not take make me more nobler than Adam?’ Satan contended. God said, “Be gone from paradise! This not place for your contemptuous pride.” Satan obeyed, but not before cursing Adam with the same fate. Soon Adam followed suit by becoming a transgressor after eating the forbidden fruit. Allah said, ‘Go hence and may your descendants live a life of doubt and mistrust’.” (Wings of Fire: An Autobiography)
“The SLV mission will be accomplished with, and through, a large number of people. You will require a tremendous amount of tolerance and patience, he (Dr. Bhrama Prakash) said. It reminded me of what my father used to read to me from the Holy Qur’an on the distinction between right and wrong: ‘We have sent no apostle before you who did not eat or walk about the market squares. We test you by means of one another. Will you not have patience?’”  (Wings of Fire: An Autobiography)
“The Holy Qur’an says: ‘We have sent down to you revelations showing you an account of those who have gone before you and an admonition to righteous men.’ I sought to share the wisdom of these extremely brilliant people. ‘Light upon light. Allah guides to His light whom He will. He has knowledge of all things.’” (Wings of Fire: An Autobiography)
“My father held my hands for a long time. There were no tears in his eyes either. ‘Do you not see, Abul, how the Lord strengthens the shadows? Had it been his will, He could have made them constant. But He makes the sun their guide, little by little He shortens them. It is He who has made the night a mantle for you, and sleep a rest. Jallaluddin has gone into a long sleep- a dreamless sleep, a complete rest of all his being within simple unconsciousness. Nothing will befall us except what Allah has ordained. He is our Guardian. In Allah, my son, put your trust.’” (Wings of Fire: An Autobiography)
“An inspiring aphorism in the Qur’an on the passing away of souls filled my mind: ‘Your wealth and children are only a temptation whereas: Allah! With Him is an eternal award.’ I came out of the mosque with my mind at peace and proceeded to the railway station. I always remember that when the call for namaz sounded, our home would transform into a small mosque. My father and my mother leading, and their children and grandchildren following.”  (Wings of Fire: An Autobiography)
His Syncretic Approach to Islam
Yes, Dr. Kalam’s take on Islam was indeed very syncretic, wherein he not only respected other religions in a ‘live and let live’ fashion but embraced them as all coming from the same divine source. For instance, he says-
“I would stare at Jallaluddin and then look towards the large group of pilgrims around the temple, taking holy dips in the sea, performing rituals and reciting prayers with a sense of respect towards the same Unknown, who we treat as the formless almighty. I never doubted that the prayers in the temple reached the same destination as the ones offered in our mosque.” (My Journey)
In an interview between Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam and Y.S Rajan with Swamishri Kalam says:
“Swamiji, when I first launched a rocket it failed and I became very depressed and disheartened. At that time I thought about becoming a sannyasi, and gave up everything. (In this context, one sadhu added, ‘Dr. Kalam studies the Gita. Reads it every day, and has tremendous patriotism.’)”
While addressing the students of Sri Satya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, Dr Kalam quoted from the Gita:
“In the battle scene, where Arjuna is hesitating to fight against his own kith and kin Kurukshetra, Lord Krishna shows Arjuna a vision of Vrindavan where the whole garden is blossoming with beautiful flowers and fragrance attracting honeybees. It ios an enchanting scene… In another vision of the garden, all the flowers which blossomed in the morning now fall to the ground. Lord Krishna tells Arjuna, ‘see the flower, how generously it distributes perfume and honey. It gives to all, gives freely its essence. When its work is done, it falls away quietly. Try to be like the flower, unassuming despite all its qualities.”
Dr. Kalam said in his address after receiving the first copy of Encyclopedia on Hinduism:
“When I looked at the definition of Hinduism, I found that it is Dharma which upholds this created universe, supports it and sustains it, without which the universe will just fall apart. For each phase of life, Dharma prescribes different types of action. When I think of Dharma, I am reminded of a divine hymn of righteousness.”
Dr.  Kalam quoted from the Atharva Veda (Book 4, Hymn 16) at the start of the ‘Orientation’ part in ‘Wings of Fire’:
“This earth is His, to Him belong those vast and boundless skies; Both seas within Him rest and yet in that small pool He lies.”
“I went to Bombay to attend the interview. I was unsure about the type of questions I would have to face at the interview. There was hardly any time to read up or talk to any experienced person. Lakshmana Sastry’s voice quoting from the Bhagawad Gita echoed in my ears: All beings are born to delusion… overcome by the dualities which arise from wish and hate… But those men of virtuous deeds in whom sin has come to an end, freed from the delusion of dualities, worship Me steadfast in their vows.” (Wings of Fire)
“The atmosphere of Rameswaram, with its flocking pilgrims, was conducive to such discussion. Our first halt would be at the imposing temple of Lord Shiva. Circling around the temple with the same reverence as any pilgrim from a distant part of the country, we felt a flow of energy pass through us.” (Wings of Fire)
“I later went to the mosque and met the maulvi and the kazi and offered namaz there. About fifty students were learning the Holy Quran. I sat with them and asked them to recite the Alhamthu, the Sura that embodies the Quran. In Kanchi, I was privileged to see the Vedic recitation and the recitations from the Quran proceeding side by side. Therein lies the greatness and essence of India. Can Kanchi’s integrated approach towards learning become the beacon for us and later for the world?” (Ignited Minds)
“I well understand different points of view, particularly about God. I have read and assimilated the knowledge contained in different religious texts – from the Koran to the Gita to the Holy Bible. Together they have made me a product of this unique land of ours, a syncretic creation of the best of our diverse traditions.” (My Journey)
But does this necessarily make him any less of a Muslim? While theological debates among Muslims themselves on what constitute true Islamic beliefs are endless, in a general societal sense, anyone identifying himself as a Muslim (or Hindu) in the religious and/or non-religious cultural sense ought to be seen as one, and even an atheist or agnostic Muslim (Dr. Kalam wasn’t one) is interesting as is an atheist or agnostic Christian, for their atheism can be placed in the context of their religious and religious-communitarian backgrounds, which is to say that someone born and brought up in a Muslim family can be open-minded enough to become an atheist. Those stereotyping Muslims or Hindus on occasions like riots or other forms of discrimination often only use the name as a benchmark.
Is there evidence of any strand of Islamic theological heritage that Dr. Kalam can be associated with, or he was he just a solitary exception? Well, he wasn’t all that much of a solitary exception, and as we have seen, he subscribed to Sufi Islam, having high regard for Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer, among others.  Sufi Islam isn’t entirely uniformly heterodox but its very many strands indeed are, nor can it be appropriated by Hinduism.
Muslims not subscribing to Sufi schools of thought are not necessarily extremists, and most of them too believe in religious tolerance, at least of the ‘live and let live’ variety. One of the most liberal and modernist Islamic preachers in South Asia, Javed Ahmad Ghamdi in Pakistan, is, for example, not a proponent of Sufism. Likewise, Sufism too is not uniform, and there are multiple Sufi orders (and multiple points of view within one Sufi order), all of which cannot be held to be equally liberal, and the Naqshbandi school of Sufi thought, for instance, has elements opposed to music (not every Naqshbandi is anti-music either), as was the case with our nationalist leader Maulana Azad’s father Maulana Khairuddin, who was even averse to modern education. A certain Hindu-rightist critic of Sufi Islam, in an article that got many Facebook shares, cited some Naqshbandi clerics’ antipathy to the Sikh Gurus, but over looks that the Sikh Gurus themselves incorporated poetry by non-Naqshbandi Sufis like Baba Farid, and requested Mian Mir, a Qadri Sufi, to lay the foundation of the Golden Temple, to which Mian Mir consented. And while acts of bombings or shootouts classified as terrorist attacks (of which innocent Muslims, even in Muslim-majority countries, are also becoming victims) are indeed seldom to be seen among adherents of Sufi Islam, it is not as though communal attitudes are nowhere to be seen among them, and many of them too actively campaigned, at times even violently engaging in riots, for the partition of India on religious lines, and one of India’s most communal Muslim politicians allegedly involved in riots, Azam Khan, is from the Barelvi sect of Sufi Islam, as is Mumtaz Qadri, assassin of liberal Pakistani Muslim politician Salman Taseer, Taseer having raised his voice against the blasphemy law being misused against Pakistani Christians. Besides, while the Quran or even the quotations of Prophet Muhammad do not prohibit women from joining worship congregations with men, most mosques in our subcontinent disallow women (not the case in Egypt, Turkey etc.), and even many Sufi shrines don’t allow women in the sanctum sanctorum. So, steep classifications of Sufi and non-Sufi as translating to liberal and illiberal respectively are not always appropriate, though it can be indeed broadly said that the more dangerously violent and illiberal trends may be seen more in the puritan, non-Sufi sects.
Now, India’s religious syncretism is a matter of concern for the very communal puritans in all religious groupings residing in this pluralistic nation, and the most obvious opposition to the argument of any stereotypical notions about the practice of Islam necessarily always being “intolerant” to others lies in the all-embracing approach of Sufi shrines present across India. Thus, it is only natural that this annoys the ultra-rightist elements among the Hindus, and so, they tend to explain this phenomenon, which they can’t buy as intrinsic to Islam, by way of either appropriating Sufi Islam as uniquely Indian and borne out of only Hindu influences or by way of suggesting Sufism to be a smokescreen for a sinister agenda. Of course, many ignorant and gullible people buy either of these two contentions.
Let’s take the former contention of appropriation first. The idea that Indian Muslims are “different” from Muslims elsewhere in terms of being more liberal is one that is put forth not only by Hindu rightists but even by many other people, but is hollow chauvinism. Implicit in this contention is the idea that Muslims in all parts of the world other than India, while not necessarily being supporters of terrorism, are necessarily very regressive and sexist in their thinking, and are not very accommodating towards people of other religions, and certainly not of questioning mainstream Islamic beliefs and practices, leave alone Islam itself. This hypothesis actually smacks of baseless chauvinistic Indian nationalism to say the least. While it is true that most Muslim-majority countries have theocratic constitutions (though many of them in Central Asia, Africa and Europe have secular constitutions too) and Islam being a relatively recent religion in world history as compared to Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and the likes, is yet to undergo, to borrow a usage of Lt Gen (Retd) Ata Hasnain of the Indian Army, as much churning from within as compared to older religions to have a more broad-based consensus among its adherents on embracing modern human rights values in totality, the position of women and non-Muslim minorities in Bosnia, Malaysia, Chad, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan or even the UAE cannot be equated with that in Saudi Arabia or the erstwhile Talibanised Afghanistan. And within Saudi Arabia too, for example, women, supported by gender-sensitised men, have flouted the driving ban imposed on them, and people like Raif Badawi are facing lashes for boldly espousing secular democracy, and many such people exist in our western neighbour Pakistan too, by the way. Also, the phenomenon of criticizing and rejecting Islam by people from Muslim families has historically existed even in the Middle East. Take, for example, Al Maari (whose statue in Syria was recently beheaded by ISIS terrorists) and Ibn al Rawandi. Besides, many secular Indians are indeed blissfully ignorant of extremism among sections of Indian Muslims, and the intolerance of many Muslim rulers in the Sultanate period and thereafter debunks the idea that Indian Islam was always tolerant till before some Gulf money started pouring in over the last few decades, and a dichotomy of Islam in India and the Middle East would actually be a bit too generalised.
However, it’s not just the scepticism of religion, as expressed by the likes of Ghalib, being confined to Indian Muslims that is alluded to but that the mystical, syncretic Sufi Islam was born in India and exists only here. This is simply not true, and it exists among Muslim communities ranging from Morocco to Turkey to Iran to China (and is still practised by some even in Saudi Arabia), and some of the most well-known Sufis, like Rumi from Turkey and Omar Khayyam from Persia, were not Indian. Some other prominent Sufis who were Arab or North African are Dhun Nun Misri, Haris al Muhsaibi, Abul Hasan Sari Saqti, Bayazid Bistami, Sahl ibn Abdullah Tustari, Abul Hasan Nuri, Junayd of Baghdad, Mansur al Hallaj, Abu Bakr Shibli, Abu Al Hasan Khaeqani, Abu Said ibn Abi Khair, Al Ghazali and Ibn al Arabi, among very many others.
Coming to Sufi Islam being a tool for conversions, it was not born in India, and came to India from the Middle East (though influenced by Indian philosophy even in the Middle East, as also Greek and Persian philosophies), and here, like elsewhere, sought to emphasise the pluralistic and accommodating side of Islam, given Islam’s emphasis on every nation having been sent its messenger by God (Prophet Muhammad being the last), thus implying the validity of all religions insofar as basically containing the same divinity, even if corrupted over a period of time. Very many mainstream Muslims do indeed believe that Islam is the only religion that can lead to God since the advent of Prophet Muhammad, as mainstream Christians believe the same for Christianity since the advent of Jesus, but that doesn’t entail intolerance towards those of other faiths. To explain this with an analogy, if a certain coaching centre (analogous to Islam or Christianity, going by the mainstream interpretation) claims it is the only one that can get students admitted into say, IIT (analogous to heaven), and even encourages its students to get students of other coaching centres and those not taking any coaching to join that particular coaching centre, it cannot be equated with forcing others to join their institute or killing those not willing to do so. In fact, both the Bible and the Quran preach the message of peaceful coexistence with other religious groups (2:2565:25:85:326:1086:15110:9949:1360:8 and 109:6 in the context of the Quran and  Rom. 12:18 and 1 Tim 2:2  in the context of the Bible). If many practitioners of Sufi Islam held this view (of Islam being the only religion leading to heaven, and while the Bible and the Quran have violent verses, they are taken by peace-loving adherents of the religions as contextual, as has been discussed here), and even sought to peacefully convert others to Islam from this standpoint, even employing symbolism from local lore, as Peter did in Athens, that should not be seen as problematic, so long as there was no luring or coercion, and the form of Islam advocated preached tolerance to others. While Hinduism is not a proselytising religion in the conventional sense, when ISKCON and other such outfits have propagated Hindu beliefs and practices overseas, many Christians, Jews etc. have converted to Hinduism too, which is indeed completely valid even from a modern human rights standpoint, and Sufis did not have to engage in idolatry or other Hindu practices if they didn’t subscribe to them to prove their tolerance.
However, some of the adherents of Sufi Islam have even controversially suggested that all religions, given their basic divinity, can lead to God. In support of their argument, the following Quranic verses have been cited (the reference to ‘people of the book’ is to Jews and Christians, whose prophets are also regarded as prophets by Muslims)-
“Paradise is not [obtained] by your wishful thinking nor by that of the People of the Book. Whoever does a wrong will be recompensed for it, and he will not find besides Allah a protector or a helper.” (4:123)
“Say (unto them): If the abode of the Hereafter in the providence of Allah is indeed for you alone and not for others of mankind (as ye pretend), then long for death (for ye must long for death) if ye are truthful. But they will never long for it, because of that which their own hands have sent before them. Allah is aware of evil-doers.” (2:94, 95)
“And among the People of the Book is he who, if you entrust him with a great amount [of wealth], he will return it to you. And among them is he who, if you entrust him with a [single] silver coin, he will not return it to you unless you are constantly standing over him [demanding it]. That is because they say, ‘There is no blame upon us concerning the unlearned.’ And they speak untruth about Allah while they know [it].
But yes, whoever fulfills his commitment and fears Allah – then indeed, Allah loves those who fear Him.”
“They are not [all] the same; among the People of the Book is a community standing [in obedience], reciting the verses of Allah during periods of the night and prostrating [in prayer].
They believe in Allah and the Last Day, and they enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and hasten to good deeds. And those are among the righteous.
Indeed, those who disbelieve – never will their wealth or their children avail them against Allah at all, and those are the companions of the Fire; they will abide therein eternally.” (3:113-116)
Thus, it is clear that as per the Quran, not all Jews and Christians will burn in the hell-fire! Furthermore, the Quran reiterates this for even others identified as non-Muslims in the following verse-
“The believers, Jews, Sabeans, and the Christians who believe in God and the Day of Judgment and who do what is right will have nothing to fear nor will they be grieved.” (5:69)
The following verse also hints in this direction-
“Indeed, those who have believed and those who were Jews and the Sabeans and the Christians and the Zoroastrians and those who associated with Allah – Allah will judge between them on the Day of Resurrection. Indeed Allah is, over all things, Witness.” (22:17)
Thus, the 15th century Indian Sufi poet Abdul Quddus Gangohi wrote-
“What is this unwholesome uproar that one is a believer and the other a disbeliever? One is obedient and the other a sinner; one is on the right path and the other has gone astray; one is Muslim and pious and the other is a heretic and pantheist. The truth is that all submit to Supreme Lord like flowers of different colours integrate into one garland.”
Earlier, an 12th century Persian Sufi poet Sanai had written-
“What can be done with quarrelsome fellow travelers, boastful marketplace morons?
If you were really a lover you’d see that faith and infidelity are one…
Oh, what is the use? Nitpicking about such things is a hobby for the numb-brained!”
And Al Arabi, a 13th century Arab Sufi poet, wrote-
“A garden among the flames!
My heart can take on any form
A meadow for gazelles, a monastery for monks,
For the idolaters, it is temple, for devout pilgrim, it is the Kaba,
The tables of the Torah, the scrolls of the Quran
My creed is Love; wherever its caravan turns along the way,
That is my belief, my faith.”
Perhaps, the interpretation of the usage of the term ‘Islam’ in the Quran by such ultra-heterodox Sufis in the context of being the only valid religion to attain heaven is taking ‘Islam’ not as the denominational religion it came to be, but its literal meaning as a regular Arabic word, implying ‘peace’ or ‘submission’.
Next, we may discuss the line of argument that Sufism is only a smokescreen, a device, an advertisement to eventually bring people to an intolerant version of Islam, which is the end product, or a way to make non-Muslims accept second-class citizenship in a Muslim theocracy at the very least. A very simple rebuttal to the idea that proponents of Sufi Islam don’t mean what they’re saying and actually are acting at the behest of intolerant Muslims is the simple fact that adherents of Sufism have fallen prey to the intolerant brand of Islam as have non-Muslims, be it historically, with the assassination of Sufi saints like Sarmad in India and Mansoor in Baghdad, the detention of Dhun Nun Misri (who claimed to decode secrets of the Egyptian Pharonoic faith that predated Islam) or even the Taliban and ISIS targeting Sufi shrines even today. If Sufis were actually agents of the extremists, this wouldn’t have been the case and this is, as I see it, indeed the most irrefutable argument.
In India, Sadia Dahlvi has written about about Prince Dara Shikoh executed by his brother Aurangzeb on the charges of heresy (no one has questioned or countered this)-
“Prince Dara Shikoh, son of emperor Shahjehan and disciple of Mullah Shah wrote to Shah Muhibullah, a reputed Sufi of Allahabad enquiring whether discrimination between Hindu and Muslim subjects is permissible in state matters. The Chisti Sufi replied in the negative, explained that God sent Prophet Muhammad S.A.W. as ‘Rahmat al Alameen’, Mercy for all of creation and not for Muslims alone. Dara Shikoh translated the Upanishads into Persian with the help of learned Hindu scholars.”
A Sufi from Sindh, Shah Abdul Latif, even engaged in idol-worship in a Hindu temple, justifying it saying that the spirit was correct and Allah had punished Satan for not bowing before man, Allah’s finest creation. A Sindhi Hindu writer who also believes in Sufism, like many other Sindhi Hindus (who even often recall being protected by many Sufism-following Sindhi Muslims during the horrendous partition riots), Motilal Jotwani, has described it in the following words-
“Shah Habib probably took Abdul Latif to be a kafir (non-believer) for the latter had showed respect for the idol at Hinglaj. But Shah Abdul Latif saw the idols as symbols. He looked up to his father with awe and admiration, but very often would show him his own will and wisdom. He, therefore. did not acquiesce to his judgement, and was reminded of Azazil (later, Satan) who had disobeyed the command of God by not bowing before the idol of Hadrat Adam (man) and forfeited his high position. Had he shown flexibility of mind and done it running contrary to the provision of shariah for a while he would have been close to God like all other angels who had obeyed him. Abdul Latif says: ‘To be one with Him/ set aside the chapters of the shariah and be a kafir’.”
Sufi interpretations of the Quran have room for such heterodoxy owing to their esoteric nature, as discussed in some detail here. Indeed, many Sufis have even suggested that the ritualistic fasts and prayers of Islam were not as fundamental once one really touches the spiritual and mystical side of oneself, though many scholars like Ghazali and Waliullah tried to suggest that this was going too far in terms of heterodoxy, and their version of Sufism was relatively less heterodox. Yes, such Sufis subscribing to mainstream Islamic customs also subscribed to an Islamic legal system (sharia), and this was in a period of history when religion and state were yet to be separated even in Europe, but it matters that their version of the sharia wasn’t necessarily rooted in the writings of Muslim jurists who interpreted the Quran and the quotations of Prophet Muhammad in a very orthodox fashion stifling rights of women and non-Muslims, as the example of the Sufi saint Muhibullah referred to above, clearly demonstrates. The sharia has multiple interpretations and versions, on which no consensus has been arrived on in the Islamic world till date.
Yes, it is also true that many Sufis had good relations with several Muslim rulers and gave them their blessings when it came to military conquest, but military conquest was the norm before the world wars of the 20th century, with even Hindu lore referring to Ram engaging in the ashwamedh yagya and Yudhishthir in the rajsui yagya geared for military conquest with the support of sages, and Ashok in India and Akhenaton in Egypt advocating state sovereignty were exceptions in pre-modern world history.
Some have accused the Sufi saints of not opposing intolerant policies by many Muslim rulers, but many Sufis stayed aloof from matters of governance, the Delhi Sultanate period was not a democratic era with such freedom of expression to defy the rulers and heterodox Sufis like Sarmad were also assassinated by intolerant rulers. However, there have been instances of even non-Sufi Muslim clergy advising rulers to not desecrate Hindu temples, the most noted example being such advice having being given to Sultan Sikandar of Kashmir. That way, even many Bhakti saints of the Hindus haven’t left many accounts of Muslim intolerance. By the way, several ancient Hindu rulers like Mihirakula and Pushyamitra Shunga too have been accused of anti-Buddhist intolerance in historical records.
Thus, many of the arguments advanced against Sufi Islam or denying it of its Islamic nature by Hindu rightists don’t really hold much water.
Did Kalam Value His Muslim Relatives and Friends?
Kalam’s writings show the regard and affection he had for his relatives and Muslim friends even after he became a professional scientist, stating Jamaluddin and Samsuddin to have been his childhood mentors (he also praises Hindu priests and school teachers who influenced him in his childhood, but that’s another matter). Here are some excerpts discussing the same-
“By the time we finished our work, it was already morning. Suddenly at the breakfast table, I remembered that I was to attend my niece Zameela’s wedding at Rameswaram that evening. I thought it was already too late to do anything. Even if I could catch the Madras flight later in the day, how would I reach Rameswaram from there? There was no air link between Madras and Madurai from where I could board the evening train to Rameswaram. A pang of guilt dampened my spirits. Was it fair, I asked myself, to forget my family commitments and obligations? Zameela was more like a daughter to me. The thought of missing her wedding because of professional preoccupations at Delhi was very distressing. I finished breakfast and left for the meeting.” (Wings of Fire: An Autobiography)
“The incidents around my mother and father were written because even now, at the age of eighty two, I still cherish the values and ethics that they lovingly inculcated in me. The qualities they instilled in me, and which I learnt from observing them and by understanding their reactions to the adversities they faced, have helped me live better, and through these values my parents still live strongly within me. When my father talked about the importance of understanding people’s minds, or faced difficulties stoically, I remembered his words years later when I was battling various odds myself. In my mother’s tender touch and sensitive upbringing of her children I found a world of love and kindness. I also felt compelled to record in detail the contributions of my sister Zohra and her generosity; the openness of the outlook of my first mentor, Ahmed Jalalluddin, that first encouraged me to think of studying further.” (My Journey)
“Jalalluddin’s relationship with God was slightly different from the one I was used to seeing in my father. My father was a pious man who followed every rule of worship- not just outwardly but as a deeply felt need within him. Saying the namaz and every other form of prayer was as much a part of his being as breathing or eating. Jalalluddin, too, was a devout man. However, for him, God was almost like a friend. He talked to God, and presented all his problems to Him in the way one does to a living entity. For him, it was inconceivable that god would not present a solution if Jalalluddin spoke about his dilemmas to Him. As we made our way with the pilgrims and I watched them perform their rituals, and listened to Jalalluddin at the same time, in my mind these two faiths melded into one. Was it possible that in this serene atmosphere of Rameswaram the prayers of so many of the faithful, uttered in different tongues and born from various beliefs, were reaching different gods? It could not be. I was convinced that the one who heard everyone out was a common entity. But I also secretly wondered if my friend has a special connection that allowed him to see God everywhere, and it was that which let him speak so freely to Him.” (My Journey)
“Jallaluddin would talk about God as if he had a working partnership with Him. He would present all his doubts to God as if He were standing nearby to dispose of them. I only wondered whether Jallaluddin had any other special connection to God.” (Wings of Fire: An Autobiography)
“The only source of information about the outside world was the newspaper. The agency that distributed newspapers was run by my cousin Samsuddin. Along with Jalalluddin, he was a big influence in my early life. Though he could read and write, Samsuddin was not well travelled nor highly educated. Yet he had such affection for me and encouraged me in so many ways, that he became a guiding light for me. These men understood my deepest thoughts and feelings before I could articulate them. To me they were adults who could reach out beyond the narrow confines of their daily lives and business and see the larger world.” (My Journey)
“My friend Ahmed Jallaluddin was an ordinary man for many. But my friend and mentor Ahmed Jallaluddin was also a remarkable man. He brought about the change and shaped the minds of those around him with the sheer power of his love, simplicity and understanding. There are such remarkable men in every city and village in this country. I was lucky that I found him so near to me and that he chose to grasp my hands when he did in order to make me the man I would become one day.” (My Journey)
“My life took its course, and after completing my schooling at Ramanathapuram, I decided to move to Madras (now Chennai) to study engineering at the Madras Institute of Technology (MIT). In the intervening years, Zohra was determined that I give wings to my aspirations and Jallaluddin remained my mentor. Yet, our financial situation remained the same. Our household was still dependent on the earnings from the business started by my father. How could they afford to pay the sum of Rs. 600 that was the admission fee at MIT? While today this may seem like a very small amount, at the time, for us, it was equivalent to nearly a lakh rupees.
That was when I saw the true grit in my sister. Nothing would stop her little brother, she told her husband. My parents had saved and got some pieces of gold jewellery made for her. Traditionally in Indian households, the women may wear the jewellery on certain occasions, but many also use them as a safeguard- a kind of insurance policy for rainy days when there are unexpected cash requirements. Without a moment’s further thought, and not worrying that the jewellery may one day be needed for her own family, for she was now a married woman, Zohra announced that she would use the pieces as guarantee with a moneylender and borrow the sum required for my admission.
I was deeply touched by her gesture. It was one of the most selfless things anyone had ever done for me. At the time of need Zohra has the solution to the problem, and she gave what she could with a full heart. She knew that her brother would work hard. She kept faith in my abilities- that I would qualify as an engineer. Her gold bangles and chain were mortgaged, the money came and I was admitted to MIT. I vowed at the time to release her jewellery from mortgage as soon as I started earning. I eventually did do so by studying hard and earning a scholarship.” (Ignited Minds)
Was Dr. Kalam a Literalist When it Came to Hindu Lore and Did he Believe in Astrology?
Nor was Kalam a literalist when it came to Hindu lore, taking it to be factually accurate history the way many in the Hindu right, like our current ICHR chief Y. Sudarshan Rao, do. Kalam was full of praise for the documented achievements of Indian scientists but didn’t take religious lore on face value, as much as he appreciated the wisdom in ancient Hindu texts. Indeed, with all due respect to everyone’s religious sentiments, a lot of the religious lore can be relegated to the sphere of fiction for all religions. Going by the Jewish texts, even Solomon had a flying vehicle, and many science-fiction stories by writers like Joules Verne have mentioned things really invented later, but that does not mean those stories were true when they were written, nor does referring to real places like Delhi or Mumbai or Hastinapur or Kurukshetra in a fiction story make that story true, and as Karan Thapar, whether you love him or hate him, logically points out – “how do you account for the fact the scientific knowledge and achievements you are boasting of have been lost, if not also long forgotten, and there is no trace of any records to substantiate they ever occurred?”
To quote Kalam on this point-
There are references to robots in Indian mythology as well. The eleventh century Lokapannatti tells the story of King Ajatashatru of Magadha (Patna), who gathered the Buddha’s relics and hid them in an underground stupa. The relics were protected by mechanical robots called ‘bhuta vahana yantra’ until they were disarmed by King Ashoka, another Magadha king. Are these stories true? Very unlikely. But they do show humankind’s fascination for machines that look like humans and can perform various tasks.” (Reignited)
“Humankind has always been fascinated by flight. The Ramayana talks about a kind of aircraft called Vayuyan, which only the greatest and mightiest kings owned. Greek mythology mentions Pegasus, a pure white horse with wings which belonged to the gods.
Do you know which was the first vehicle designed to make man fly? It wasn’t an aircraft, a rocket or even a hot air balloon. It was a kite! In 1000 BCE, that is, about 3000 years ago, the Chinese invented giant kites which could carry a human being. These kites were flown over enemy armies to determine how big they were and which direction they were coming in. Of course, these kites weren’t the safest fliers. Strong winds would turn them over or blow them off their target. Crashing was a problem too.
In 1010 CE, a monk named Oliver of Malmesbury became the first man to fly for some distance with the aid of wings. He jumped from Malmesbury Abbey, England, and flew a short distance before crashing to the ground and injuring himself. But this didn’t stop others from continuing to design flights, keeping birds and even bats in mind. The problem of crashing, however, persisted. Many scientists were injured and some even lost their lives. The first man to land safely was Hezarfen Calebi who, in the seventeenth century, leapt from a tower in Galata (Turkey) and landed safely in a marketplace.
In 1804, roughly 200 years after the world’s first safe landing, George Cayley built a glider. Parallel to this, humans started experimenting with hot air and hydrogen balloons.” (Reignited)
Kalam did not believe in astrology (as a field of science) as many Hindu rightists do, as evident in this excerpt from a book he wrote before becoming president-
“As an art, I have nothing against astrology, but if it seeks acceptance under the guise of science, I reject it. I do not know how these myths evolved about planets, star constellations, and even satellites – that they can exercise power on human beings. The highly complicated calculations manipulated around the precise movements of celestial bodies, to derive highly subjective conclusions appear illogical to me.” (Wings of Fire: An Autobiography)
Did Dr. Kalam Condemn Discrimination and Violence Against Innocent Muslims?
Kalam had also been vocal against certain instances of discrimination he faced as a Muslim. Some excerpts on this point-
“One day when I was in the fifth standard at the Rameswaram Elementary School, a new teacher came to our class, I used to wear a cap which marked me as a Muslim, and I always sat in the front row next to Ramanadha Sastry, who wore a sacred thread. The new teacher could not stomach a Hindu priest’s son sitting with a Muslim boy. In accordance with our social ranking as the new teacher saw it, I was asked to go and sit on the back bench. I felt very sad, and so did Ramanadha Sastry. He looked utterly downcast as I shifted my seat in the last row. The image of him weeping when I shifted to the last row left a lasting impression on me.
After school, we went home and told our respective parents about the incident. Lakshmana Sastry summoned the teacher and in our presence, told the teacher that he should not spread the poison of social inequality and communal intolerance in the minds of innocent children. He bluntly asked the teacher to either apologize or quit the school and the island. Not only did the teacher regret his behavior, but the strong sense of conviction Lakshmana Sastry conveyed ultimately reformed this young teacher.” (Wings of Fire: An Autobiography)
“My father was the imam of the Rameswaram mosque.  He was a deeply devout man with complete and utter faith in the Koran.  He inculcated all the habits of a good Muslim in his children and indeed in his entire family.  For the people of the town, he was a philosopher and guide-someone they could turn to with their problems, whether spiritual or otherwise.
One of his closest friends was the priest of the Ramanathaswamy Temple, Pakshi Lakshmana Sastry. Sastrygal was not only the priest but also a very learned man, well versed in Vedic knowledge.  I still remember his visage perfectly.  He was always dressed in the traditional attire of a temple priest, in his dhoti and angavastram.  On his head he sported the mandatory tuft of the Brahmins, the Kudumi.  He was one of the kindest, most gentle men I knew.
There was a third person who was as important in the spiritual life of our little community and that was Father Bodal, the priest of the lime church in the town.  He was as involved in the welfare of the churchgoers of Rameswaram as my father and Sastrygal, and as concerned about the need for harmony and peace in Rameswaram.
The memory of these three leaned men is still etched in my mind.  I can still see them-one in his turban and imam’s cloak, another in his dhoti and the third in his cassock.  They met every Friday evening, at around four-thirty, and discussed matters of religion and the happenings of the town.  Sometimes people came to visit them at that time with specific issues to be resolve, or the three men kept each other appraised of anything that could potentially threaten the peace among the people and together, they tried to word out ways of clearing miscommunication or scotching rumours before they assumed dangerous proportions.  The fundamental requirement for peace-effective communication among sections of the people-was always kept alive by these three patriarchs.  Their discussions ranged over a number of topics-The Freedom Movement that was taking the country in an entirely new direction, the attitude of the British government to the calls of the nationalists and how all this affected us, concerned them deeply.  They quietly soothed the society around them, making it a harmonious whole where everyone could have an opportunity to speak freely to them.
One incident from my childhood brought this reality close to my life.  I was then about eight years old, and studying in the third standard. My best friends were Ramanadha Sastry, Aravindan and Sivaprakasan.  All of them were Brahmins and Ramanadhan, in fact, was Pakshi Lakshmana Sastry’s son. We led the usual life of schoolboys, spending most of the day together in the classroom and outside.  Like all good friends, our day was incomplete if, at any time, one of us was absent and we could not share with each other the minute details of all that is important for boys of that age.  In the classroom, we say near one another and Ramanadhan and I shared the same bench.
(…) Schools of that time particularly small one like mine did not have uniforms. We were free to wear any traditional items required by our religion.  My friend Ramanadhan sported a tuft, or kudumi, like his father.  (Later, when he grew up, he too became the priest of the temple after his father.) I went to school wearing my little woven skullcap, like all Muslim boys of the town.  Not once had any of us either noticed or remarked upon this.
When we were in the third standard, there was a great excitement in our lives – we had a new teacher at school.  In a small self-contained community, this was a matter of much excitement and discussion. We students were agog with anticipation to know what our new teacher would be like.  Would he be strict or lenient?  Quick-tempered or patient?  We could not wait for him to start teaching us.  And the first day he came to the classroom, all our eagerness spilled forth.
The teacher was a Hindu, a Brahmin.  As soon as he entered the classroom, he cast a quick appraising eye over us all, perhaps taking in the diverse attire of this bunch of boys.  Today, I think he must have missed noticing the bright eyes and eager smile of the children – strangely, those are the first things that strike me when confronted by a roomful of children!  But our new teacher was quick to get down to business. He walked to the front of the class and the first people his eyes settled on were Ramanadhan and I.  We were the star pupils, always eager to learn and participate, and say right in front.  His eyes lingered on my cap and on Ramanandhan’s tuft.  A look of annoyance, even disbelief, washed over his face.  Without giving and reason, he demanded to know my name.  When I told him, I was peremptorily told to gather my things and move to the back tow, for reasons known only to him.
I felt sad, even humiliated. I wondered why this had happened. Ramanadhan was in tears.  I still recall his large eyes awash with tears as I picked up my books and moved away from him.
But neither of us was ready to let this go unreported.  That very day I told my father about it, and Ramanadhan told his father too.  The men were shocked and dismayed.  This went against everything they had worked for! A teacher, who was supposed to be imparting knowledge and opening up our minds, was instead doing just the opposite. We had rarely seen these tow mild-mannered gentlemen so agitated.  They immediately spoke to one another and confirmed the details of the incident.
The next Friday, when dusk was falling, they met a usual.  Father Bodal was present too.  The teacher had been summoned, and presented himself.  In the gathering darkness, as day turned into night, my father and Sastrygal told him in no uncertain terms that the scourge of religious divisions, which was disturbing India’s fabric in other parts of the country, would not be allowed to grow here.  They would not allow children to be segregated; they would certainly not tolerate anyone who made religion a divisive factor instead of being inclusive; and they would never let this infect the minds of the younger members of the society.
All of this was conveyed to our teacher with dignity and courtesy.  Would he want to see himself as a man of knowledge to whom the future of the country could be entrusted, he was asked.  Our teacher stood silent, thinking.  Then finally he spoke.  Yes, he acknowledged, he had tried to separate the two boys.  Any no, he had not bothered to think through the consequences of his actions when he did so.  This was the way he had seen society being structured around him always, and he was just blindly following the rules.  No one had ever taught him otherwise, or made him see the futility of such divisions.  He promised to rectify the wrong he had done the very next day.  And he did do so.
This was how I had a first-hand experience of the way the three religious elders settled a matter firmly and openly.  They made the problem go away without letting it grow and fester-the essence of good management in any situation, I later learnt.
It was also the fist glimmer of a thought that has shaped me since; that it must always be our inner connections and strength of beliefs that dictate our actions.  External forces, temptations and counsels will always be dinned into us, but those among us who stand up to what we innately believe to be good and right will finally be at peace with ourselves.  Our country needs citizens who trust their individuality, who cannot be manipulated by people with unscrupulous agendas.” (My Journey)
“One day he (Sivasubramaniam Iyer, his science teacher and a devout Brahmin) invited me to his home for a meal. His wife was horrified at the idea of a Muslim boy being invited to dine in her ritually pure kitchen. She refused to serve me in her kitchen. Sivasubramaniam Iyer was not perturbed, nor did he get angry with his wife, but instead, served me with his own hands and sat down beside me to eat his meal. His wife watched us from behind the kitchen door. I wondered whether she observed any difference in the way I ate rice, drank water or cleaned the floor after the meal. When I was leaving his house, Sivasubramaniam Iyer invited me to join him for dinner again the next weekend. Observing my hesitation, he told me not to get upset, saying, ‘Once you decide to change the system, such problems have to be confronted.’ When I visited his house next week, his wide took me inside her kitchen and served me food with her own hands.” (Wings of Fire: An Autobiography)
In his book Transcendence: My Spiritual Experiences with Pramukh Maharaj, Dr. Kalam talks about his visit to Gujarat after the riots of 2002, stating that after the earthquake in Gujarat in 2001-
“Mindless violence of 2002 dealt us another unexpected blow… Innocents were killed, families were rendered helpless, and property built through years of toil was destroyed. The violence was a crippling blow to an already shattered and hurting Gujarat,”
“PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee was discomfited by my decision. He asked me, ‘Do you consider going to Gujarat at this essential?’ I replied, ‘I must go and talk to the people as a President. I consider this my first major task.’”
Before being elected as the president of India, Kalam had visited the riot-torn Gujarat in 2002. In these disturbed circumstances, Kalam explains the futility of communal tensions, by explaining in the dedication to the book Ignited Minds-
“I dedicate this book to a child who is studying in class 12. Her name is Snehal Thakkar. On 11 April 2002 when I reached Anand by road in the evening, it was under curfew following communal disturbances. The next day, at the Anandalaya High School, while talking to the students, a question came up: ‘Who is our enemy?’
There were many answers, but the one we all agreed was correct came from her. ‘Our enemy is poverty.’
It is the root cause of our problems and should be the object of our fight, not our own.”
Furthermore, Kalam feared that the then Chief Minister, Narendra Modi would attempt to boycott his trip, as Kalam states, “At the ministry and bureaucratic level, it was suggested that I should not venture into Gujarat at that point of time. One of the main reasons was political.”

However, Modi, along with his cabinet colleagues, accompanied Kalam on this visit to Gujarat. Adding to this is the claim made by L.K. Advani in his book My Take, where he quotes Kalam saying,

“Many apprehensions were expressed, among them that my visit might be boycotted by the Chief Minister, that I would receive a cold reception and that there would be agitations from many sides. But, to my great surprise when I landed at Gandhinagar, not only the Chief Minister, but his whole Cabinet colleagues and a large number of legislative members and administrators including the public were present at the airport. I visited twelve areas — three relief camps and nine riot-hit locations where losses were high. Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister, was with me throughout the visit. In one way, this helped me, wherever I went, the type of petitions and complaints and as he was with me I was able to suggest to him that actions be taken as quickly as possible.”

After his visit, he writes in Creating a Livable Planet, “The increasing intolerance for the views of others and increasing contempt for the way of life or religion of others, or the expression of these differences through lawless violence against people cannot be justified in any context.”

Dr. Kalam Not Having Antipathy to Christians
While it’s clear that Dr. Kalam had no antipathy to Christians even from earlier excerpts, given that the loony Hindu right deems it alright to violently target innocent Christian men, women and children and attack churches over the conversion issue and to label all or most Indian Christians as being anti-national, here are a few excerpts on how Dr. Kalam didn't share this worldview-
“I left for the USA with Dr. Arunachalam on an invitation from the United States Air Force. Roddam Narasimha of National Aeronautical Laboratory and KK Ganapathy of HAL accompanied us. After finishing our work at the Pentagon in Washington, we landed in San Francisco on our way to Los Angeles to visit Northrop Corporation. I utilized this opportunity to visit the Crystal Cathedral built by my favorite author, Robert Schuller. I was amazed by the sheer beauty of this all glass, four pointed, star shaped structure that is more than 400 feet from one point to another. The glass roof which is 100 feet longer than a football field seemed to float in space. This cathedral has been built at the cost of several million dollars through donations organized by Schuller. “God can do tremendous things through the person who doesn’t care about who gets the credit. The ego involvement must go,” writes Schuller. “Before God trusts you with success, you have to prove yourself humble enough to handle the big prize.” I prayed to God in Schuller’s church to help me build a Research Center at the Imarat Kancha- that would be my Crystal Cathedral.” (Wings of Fire: An Autobiography)

“Acquiring that area for our purpose was a huge challenge for Professor Sarabhai. He approached the Kerala government administrators first. After surveying the profile of the land and the coastline, we found that the place was inhabited by thousands of fishing folk. It also had an ancient St. Mary Magdalene Church, the Bishop’s House and a school. Acquiring this land was going to be a very difficult indeed. So many people would have to be relocated. And what about the important institutions that stood there? While most of administrative officials barely understood the potential usage of the land, thanks to Vikram Sarabhai’s reputation, they were at least willing to provide land in an alternative area. But professor Sarabhai was in a predicament which neither politicians nor administrators could understand. The location of Thumba was unique, and any alternative would hugely undermine the space research.
After much debate and discussion, somebody suggested we approach the only person who could possibly advise and help- Reverend Father Peter Bernard Pereira, the bishop of the region. Professor Sarabhai approached the bishop on a Saturday evening. As a junior scientist, I accompanied him. The meeting between the two turned out to be historical.
Reverend Father exclaimed, ‘Oh Vikram, you are asking for my children’s abode, my abode and God’s abode. How is it possible?’ Then he fell into deep thought.
Father Pereira finally asked Professor Sarabhai to come to church the following Sunday at 9 in the morning.
Professor Sarabhai went to the church with his ream again on Sunday. At that time Father Pereira was reading out from the Bible. After the prayer, the bishop invited Professor Sarabhai to the dais and introduced him to the people with a speech which as clear in my mind as it was when it was delivered five decades ago: ‘Dear children, here is a scientist, Professor Vikram Sarabhai. What do the sciences do? All of us experience, including this church, the light from electricity. I am able to talk to your through this microphone, which is made possible by technology. The diagnosis and treatment given to patients by doctors come from medical science. Science through technology enhances the comfort and quality of human life. What do I do, as a preacher? I pray for you, for your well being, for your peace. In short, what Vikram is doing and what I am doing are the same- both science and spirituality seek the Almighty’s blessings for human prosperity. Dear children, Professor Vikram says that he will build within a year, near the coast, alternative facilities to what we have. Now dear children, can we give your abode, can we give my abode, can we give God’s abode for a great scientific mission?’ There was a pin-drop silence. Then everyone got up and said ‘Amen’, making the whole church reverberate.
That church became our design centre, where we started rocket assembly, and the bishop’s house served as a workplace for our scientists. Later, the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) led to the establishment of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Center (VSSC). The space research activities transformed into multiple space centers throughout the country. Now this church has become an important center for learning, where thousands of people come to know about the dynamic history of the space programme in India. Of course, the Thumba citizens received well-equipped facilities, a place of worship and an educational centre in an alternative place.
Professor Vikram Sarabhai and Rev. Bernard Pereira may not be with us anymore, but their work, which has been instrumental in the birth of India’s space missions, truly lives on.” (Reignited)
“At St. Joseph’s, I was lucky to find a teacher like the Rev. Father TN Sequeira. He taught us English and was also our hostel warden. We were about a hundred boys living in the three-storeyed hostel building. Rev. Father used to visit each boy every night with a Bible in his hand. His energy and patience was amazing. He was a very considerate person who took care of even the most minute requirements of his students. On Deepavali, on his instructions, the Brother in charge of the hostel and the mess volunteers would visit each room and distribute good gingelly oil for the ritual bath.
I stayed on the St. Joseph’s campus for four years and shared my room with two others. One was an orthodox Iyengar from Srirangam and the other a Syrian Christian from Kerala. The three of us had a wonderful time together. When I was made secretary of the vegetarian mess during my third year in the hostel, we invited the Rector, Rev. Father Kalathil, over for lunch one Sunday. Our menu included the choicest preparations from our diverse backgrounds. The result was rather unexpected, but Rev. Father was lavish in his praise of our efforts. We enjoyed every moment with Rev. Father Kalathil, who participated in our unsophisticated conversation with childlike enthusiasm. It was a memorable event for us all.” (Wings of Fire)
“During my stay at Ramanathapuram, my relationship with him grew beyond that of teacher and pupil. In his company, I learnt that one could exercise enormous influence over the events of one’s own life. Iyadurai Solomon used to say, “To succeed in life and achieve results, you must understand and master three mighty forces— desire, belief, and expectation.” Iyadurai Solomon, who later became a Reverend, taught me that before anything I wanted could happen, I had to desire it intensely and be absolutely certain it would happen. To take an example from my own life, I had been fascinated by the mysteries of the sky and the flight of birds from early childhood. I used to watch cranes and seagulls soar into flight and longed to fly. Simple, provincial boy though I was, I was convinced that one day I, too, would soar up into the skies. Indeed, I was the first child from Rameswaram to fly.
Iyadurai Solomon was a great teacher because he instilled in all the children a sense of their own worth. Solomon raised my self-esteem to a high point and convinced me, the son of parents who had not had the benefits of education that I too could aspire to become whatever I wished. “With faith, you can change your destiny,” he would say.” (Wings of Fire)
“I went to Madurai Kamaraj University the same month to deliver their convocation address. When I reached Madurai, I asked after my high school teacher Iyadurai Solomon, who was by now a Reverend and eighty years old. I was told that he lived in a suburb of Madurai, so I took a taxi and looked for his house. Rev. Solomon knew that I was going to give the convocation address that day. However, he had no way of getting there. There was a touching reunion between teacher and pupil. Dr PC Alexander, the Governor of Tamil Nadu, who was presiding over the function, was deeply moved on seeing the elderly teacher who had not forgotten his pupil of long ago, and requested him to share the dais.
‘Every convocation day of every University is like opening the floodgates of energy which, once harnessed by institutions, organizations and industry, aids in nation- building,’ I told the young graduates. Somehow I felt I was echoing Rev. Solomon’s words, spoken about half a century ago. After my lecture, I bowed down before my teacher. ‘Great dreams of great dreamers are always transcended,’ I told Rev. Solomon. ‘You have not only reached my goals, Kalam! You have eclipsed them,’ he told me in a voice choked with emotion.” (Wings of Fire)
Did Kalam Explicitly Emphasize Secularism and Pluralism for India?
Kalam had a strong view on secular democracy. Have a look at these excerpts-
“I then narrated to the Brahma Kumaris how the Bishop at Thumba allowed transfer of the land belonging to the church for setting up a space research station. What is the conclusion to be drawn from this story? I asked them. The Brahma Kumaris responded by saying that our civilization is rich, which leads to forward thinking, harmony and better understanding. With such great nation and people, why are there communal clashes? I think that when a nation doesn’t have a vision, small minds take over its affairs.” (Ignited Minds)
“In India, the core culture goes beyond time. It precedes the arrival of Islam; it precedes the arrival of Christianity. The early Christians, like the Syrian Christians of Kerala, have retained their Indianness with admirable determination. Are they less Christian because their married women wear the mangalsutra or their menfolk wear the dhoti in the Kerala style? Kerala’s Chief Minister, A.K. Antony, is not a heretic because he and his people are part of Kerala’s culture. Being a Christian does not make him an alien. On the contrary, it gives an added dimension to his Indianness. A.R. Rahman may be a Muslim but his voice echoes in the soul of all Indians, of whatever faith, when he sings Vande Mataram.
Why can’t we develop a cultural – not religious – context for our heritage that serves to make Indians of us all? The time has come for us to stop differentiating. What we need today is a vision for the nation which can bring unity.”   (Ignited Minds)
“My childhood town of Rameswaram is a small island.  Its highest spot is the top of a hill called Gandamadana Parvatham.  Standing there, you could see the whole of Rameswaram stretched our around you-lush green coconut palms swaying everywhere, the sea in the distance and the looming gopuram of the Ramanathaswamy Temple presiding over the skyline.  It was a quiet town then.  The people made their living from either fishing or coconut farming, and from the tourism that occurred due to the temple.  Rameswaram is one of the holiest pilgrimage spots for many Indians, and the town was almost always full of pilgrims and tourists.
The small local population consisted of mostly Hindu household, with a sprinkling of Muslims like us, and Christians too.  Each community lived in healthy contentment next to the other.  The divisions and vicissitudes of the outside world rarely made their way here.  The daily papers brought news of upheavals and communal fault lines being drawn elsewhere, but here, life continued at its age-old leisurely pace.
The quiet harmony had been in place for generations.  My father loved to tell us the story of our great-great-grandfather, who once saved the idol of the Ramanathaswamy Temple.  The story went that on a certain festival day, the vigraha, or idol, would be taken out of the sanctrum sanctorum and carried in a procession around the temple precincts.  The temple has a number of tanks dotting it, and the idol was taken around periphery of these tanks too.  During one such procession, in a sequence of events no one remembers clearly any more, the vigraha fell into the tank.  What a calamity that was!  People stood rooted in horror, imagining the wrath of the gods failing upon them very soon.
One person, however, did not lose his presence of mind-my great-great-grandfather.  He leapt into the tank and retrieved the idol in no time. The gratitude of the priests and other temple officials was overwhelming.  Yes, he was a Muslim.  And yes, cast and religious purists would be horrified at the most sacred element of the temple being handled by someone not authorized to do so, but none of these feelings were articulated.  Instead, my great-great-grandfather was treated like a hero.  The temple also made a proclamation that from now on, at the festival, the temple would give Mudal Marayadai to him.  This was a rare honour for anyone, let alone for someone from a different religion. It meant that on each festival day, the temple would first honour, or give marayadai to my great-great-grandfather.  This tradition went on for years and years and the Marayadai would be given to my father too.”
“If I am asked what it is like to be a Muslim in this country, I can point to the people I grew up with – my father, Sastrygal and Father Bodal, indeed many others like them whom I met later – who have upheld the religious and moral standards of our nation.  In their own ways they have contributed to make ours a country we can justly proclaim to be a multi-religious, multi-ethnic nation, where there is space for each of us to breathe.  Yes, we have deep problems and fissures being created daily, but if the generations to come remember the stories of people like my great-great-grandfather and the imam and priests of the Rameswaram of long ago, I am sure we will continue to survive and thrive as a secular democracy forever.” (My Journey)
“The boat business was a great success. My father employed some men to operate it, and groups of pilgrims would use the service to reach Dhanushkodi. There were days when I would slip in among the crowd and sit with the crew as they steered the boat to and from Rameswaram. I heard the story of Rama and how he built the bridge to Lanka with the help of his army of monkeys; how he brought back Sita and stopped at Rameswaram again, so that they could perform penance for having killed Ravana; how Hanuman was told to bring back a large lingam from far up north, but when he took too long, Sita would not wait and fashioned a lingam with her own hands to worship Shiva. These stories and many others washed around me in different tongues and shapes, as people from all over India used our ferry service.” (My Journey)
“Ajmer is located in the picturesque Aravalli range. Besides the Dargah Sharif it has the holy lake of Pushkar. These two holy places symbolize, as it were, the abiding amity between two major religions of India. Ajmer presents a model of a peaceful society. I performed namaz as a thanksgiving for this amity. The scene reminded me of the similar location of two other religious centres, Nagore Dargah and Velankanni church.” (Ignited Minds)

Dr. Kalam’s Admiration for Mahatma Gandhi
Dr. Kalam had high regard for Mahatma Gandhi and condemned his assassination, unlike many loony Hindu rightists hailing Godse as their martyr. As for clarifying misconceptions about Mahatma Gandhi, please see this other piece by me. Here are some quotes of Dr. Kalam on Gandhiji-
“It was, however, a disturbed sleep, and sometime in the middle of it, I fell to thinking why the human race, the best of all of God’s creations, has been so deeply divided by violence. I imagined a conversation between five people who together symbolize the finest attributes of the human mind and whom I admire deeply… I saw myself in a desert with miles of sand all around. There was full moon and the desert was bathed in its light. Five Men – Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Emperor Asoka, Abraham Lincoln and Caliph Omar - stood in a circle, their clothes ruffled by the wind.”
“As I stood by, I wondered. Why the Kalinga war, why the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and of Abraham Lincoln? Or many others like them? Has God Almighty faltered in His creation? Is the destruction of mankind essential for a Second Creation?
In that blissful silence the Mahatma spoke, ‘Friends, the divine message we are hearing is the message of creation. Since we all belong to planet earth, we may give a message to mankind, how people of different races, religions, and languages can live peacefully and prosperously together.
God almighty has blessed us all with something unique that we passed on to mankind thorough our deeds and doctrine. Is that working? Is there any divine message or doctrine? Divine beauty should enter the human soul and happiness blossom in the body and mind. Is it possible?’” (Ignited Minds)
“On 15 August 1947, my high school teacher, Rev. Iyyadurai Solomon, took me to hear the midnight freedom speech of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. We were all moved to hear him say that we were free. Banner headlines announced the momentous event in next day’s newspapers. But alongside the report of Panditji’s speech in the Tamil newspaper I read, was another news item, one that has been embedded in my memory. It was about how Mahatma Gandhi was walking barefoot in Noakhali, to help assuage the pain of the riot-affected families there. Normally, as father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi should have been on the ramparts of Red Fort, the first one to unfurl the national flag. Instead, he was at Noakhali. Such was the Mahatma’s greatness, and what an everlasting impact it left on the mind of a schoolboy.” (Ignited Minds)
“The subject of transparency and values brings to my mind Gandhiji. I happened to meet in Delhi his granddaughter, Sumitra Kulkarni. I asked her, ‘Sumitraji, is there a particular incident (in respect of honesty in public life) that you always remember from your grandfather?’
She narrated to me this story. ‘Every day, as you all would have heard, Mahatma Gandhi held a prayer meeting at a fixed time in the evening. After the prayers there would be a collection of voluntary gifts for the welfare of harijans and others. The devotees of Gandhiji used to collect whatever was given by the people of all sections and this collection was counted by a few members suggested by Gandhiji. The amount so collected would be informed to Gandhiji before dinner. The next day, a man from the bank would come to collect the money for deposit.’
‘Once the man reported that there was a shortage of few paise in the money handed over to him and the amount informed to Gandhiji the previous night. Gandhiji, on hearing this, was so upset that he went on fast saying that this is a poor man’s donation and we have no business to lose any of it.’ This episode is a unique example of transparency in public life. Well, in the same country we are witnessing the best and the worst. We should all, particularly the young generation, launch a movement for a transparent India, just as our fathers fought for our freedom. Transparency is a cornerstone of development.” (Ignited Minds)
It becomes clear that Dr. Kalam was not only a believing Muslim but was also, by no means, a supporter of Hindu communalism.


Karmanye Thadani
Knowledge Council

The author would like to thank his friend Girish Nair for his inputs.

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