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Mainstream, VOL LX No 17, New Delhi, April 16, 2022

Maulana Hasrat Mohani (1878-1951): A Synonym for Syncretism | Sajad Hasan Khan

Friday 15 April 2022


The acculturation and acquisition of many aesthetic sensibilities by Hindus and Muslims alike, giving way to a joint Hindu-Muslim syncretism in the Indian subcontinent since ages, has been one of the most significant forays of the Indian cultural aggregation. Starting with Amir Khusrau (1253-1325); Malik Mohammad Jaisi (b. 1498), Raskhan (1533-1618), Abdur Rahim Khan-e Khana (1556-1627), among a galaxy of other men and women; they expressed their love and devotion for Hindu gods and goddesses. Some of them even proclaimed love to be the only reason for every motion [1]. In the same fashion, another paragon of syncretism, Syed Fazlul Hassan (Hasrat Mohani 1878-1951) followed the same tradition.

Like other fascinators of this cultural synergy, Hasrat Mohani too displayed this attitude by portraying an undaunted reverence for the Hindu deity Lord Krishna. In fact, he was symbolizing the age old tradition, not something new, which becomes obvious when he himself, in defense of his love for Lord Krisha, argued that he was following the path of his spiritual mentor Hazrat Saiyyid Abdur Razzaq Bansavi. He writes:

Maslak-e ishq hai parastish-e husn
Ham nahin jaantey azaab-o-sawaab [2]

Born in 1878 in Mohan, District Unnao, (UP); Syed Fazlul Hassan (Hasrat Mohani) occupies a significant mention in the cultural, political and theological life of late colonial north India. His ancestors (a venerated/respectable branch of the family of the Prophet Mohammad)—claiming to have descended from the family of Hazrat Imam Ali Musa Raza—had settled in present-day Lucknow, after migrating from Nishapur (Iran), during the reign of Sultan Iltutmish (1210-36) [3]. Syed Azhar Hassan, his father, was perhaps born in the lineage of Sufi Shah Wajihuddin Mohammad. Azhar inherited several villages—in Haswa tehsil of Fatehpur district—owned by his paternal grandmother. Probably this was the only landed property owned (and later donated) by Hasrat Mohani.

Mohani—belonging to a petty zamindari family in Unnao—revealed a rich, integrated and colourful personality, which, ‘decades of intellectual hammering by saints,sufis,poets, and wandering monks’ had so laboriously brought into his being. It appears that Hasrat Mohani’s parents and ancestors had been the disciples of Shah Abdur Razaq Firangi Mahali. It was through them that he inherited a reverence for Shah Sahib. At the tender age of 16, he became ‘a formal initiate of the mystical order and a pledged disciple of Abdul Wahab’, the son and successor of Abdur Razzaq. Mohani’s literary atmosphere at home had opened vast vistas for his Urdu poetry. His mother and grandmother admired Nasim Dehalvi’s (disciple of Moomin) poetry. Muzaffar Hanafi (1989) writes that ‘his own family could boast of having produced such significant names in poetry as Hakim Mohammad Ishaq Hazik Mohani, Mohammad Ayub Sabir Mohani, Fakhrul Hassan Fitrat Mohani’. Even, Hasrat’s school headmaster Lachhmi (lakshmi) Narain had predicted a place for Hasrat in Urdu’s rich poetic canon. With such a rich literary background, Hasrat Mohani had put his versified pen to paper by the time he was just 15 years of age, so much so that his ghazals had started to appear in many literary journals of high repute, such as Payaam-e Yaar.

One of the ancestors of Hasrat Mohani had written: morey piyare Kanhayya birajat hain, Mohe Brij bhai Bansa nagri. My dear Kanhayya still lives in Bansa which has become as sacred as Brij to me. And interestingly, Hasrat himself visited Mathura on Krishna’s birthday, watched the dance and drama festival, and composed poems describing Krishna as the leader of the company of lovers. In this, he followed the example of his spiritual preceptor, Shah Abdur Razzaq; the poet Nazir Akbarabadi (d. 1830) who had written poems not only on Holi and Diwali but also on Krishna’s birth and Mahadeo’s wedding; and the prolific writer K.H Nizami (d.1955) who dedicated an entire book to Lord Krishna in 1919, entitled Krishna Beeti [4].

In 1923, on the occasion of Janamashthami, (Hindu festival to mark Krishna’s birth). Hasrat wrote his first love poem dedicated to Lord Krishna and observed:

 When he cast at me his especially kind glance,
My eyes lit up with a nameless unending vision.
Revered Krishna, bestow something on me too,
For at your feet lies the entire realm of love.
May that you accept Hasrat too at Mathura,
I hear you are specially kind to lovers. [5]

Hasrat’s love for important religious figures was neither limited by religious prejudices nor biased over sectarian differences. Along with Hindu deities he also paid homage at Husain’s mausoleum in Karbala. Basra-o-Baghdad se ta Kazmain; Ho ke chala soo-e mazar-e Husain; Khubi-e qismat jo hui rehnuma Banda-e Maula-e Najaf bhi bana. From Basra and Baghdad to Kazmain; Then came the tomb of Imam Husain And as good fortune guided me, I became one of the slaves of the Maula of Najaf [Hazrat Ali].

Although, Hasrat Mohani was heavily influenced by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who, it appears, had alienated the Muslim community during the Swadeshi Movement (1905-08) through his Shivaji and Ganapati processions. Yet, Mohani adhered to uphold secular credentials while celebrating Holi, Dewali and Eid- all alike, thus preserving and promoting the age-old composite culture of the Indian subcontinent. Once, on the occasion of Holi, the wife of Dr. Murari Lal (a friend of Mohani) splashed some colors on him and he wandered around for several days, even establishing namaz in the same color-stained clothes [6] Also, Hasrat was busy in composing love poems dedicated to Lord Krishna at a time when almost the whole of north India was witnessing spates of communal violence in the 1920s. He never let religion bypass his public life despite being a Sufi Moomin who would diligently observe all Islamic rites and go to Haj pilgrimage more than ten (10) times

In consonance with his praise for Krishna through poetry, Hasrat too buttressed the claim that there were many familiarities between the teachings of Islam and Gita. His thoughts revealed Krishna as an avataar of both beauty and love, hence regarded by many Sufis as a Vali (saint; a friend of God). Hasrat believed that Sri Krishna’s spirituality was still alive and active throughout India. Abdul Shakur, the principal at a Kanpur college and a good friend of Hasrat Mohani, gives the first comprehensive account of Mohani’s life along with his verse in 1946. ‘Recalling a conversation with Hasrat, Shakur declares that Hasrat equated love with Allah, beauty with truth and invoked a perpetual love for the beloved while performing worldly tasks. Both the expressions find mention in Hasrat’s own verse and are reflected in his love for Krishna’ [7].

In much conformity with the Sufi tradition, Mohani’s life too was characterized by the virtues of self-denial and self-sacrifice. He was a model of simplicity and sublimity. He always wore coarse handspun cloth. In essence, he acted literally on the golden principle, ‘example is better than precept’ [8]. The meager income derived from his business ventures and editor-ship sufficed to meet the necessary pre-requisites of a family life. The decidedly ‘oriental’ bent of Mohani’s taste and temper was his mystical inclination towards Sufism, his deep absorption in literature and poetry, his distaste for imported commodities; and above all his unswerving commitment to live life on one’s own terms in strict accordance with his particular code of ethics and beliefs. He described himself as a ‘Sufi Moomin’ and ‘Ishtiraki Muslim’ [9]; the term `moomin’ probably would serve as a metaphor of identification with the honest and pious common-folk, while the reference to sufism would point to egalitarianism.

This self-sacrificing attitude of Mohani also casts its impact on his politics. He always used to look more towards the interests of the nation and its people, rather than seeking his own ideas or benefits. May be, that is why he never subscribed wholly to any particular ideology or political institution, be it the INC, CPI, ML, or any other platform. Many Congress leaders, including Gandhi, criticized him because he did not support the concept of non-violence. Many League members, including Jinnah, criticized him because he did not subscribe to their many ideas. And several communist leaders, including Singaravelu and Satyabhakta attacked him for his propagation of ‘that communism which was in complete sync with the doctrines of Islam’.

Hasrat Mohani’s politics, according to Nafees Ahmad Siddiqui, may be described as, “Indian Nationalism and Hindu-Muslim unity, and whereby the two are completely interdependent.” As a nationalist, his ideal was complete independence for India; and he considered amity between the Hindus and Muslims of India as a primary pre-requisite for national existence [10].

Hasrat, the gadfly prisoner in colonial India, spent the greater part of his confinement in Naini Jail but was set free before his term; Hasrat attributed this to the miracle of Ahmed Abdul Haq, who had earned a place of honour in the Sabri-Chisti school of Islamic mysticism. After his release, he went to Rudauli, a qasba in Barabanki district, to attend the urs.

In July-August 1928, the All-Parties Conference set out on a programme of constitutional experimentation. It served to show the problem of combining castes and communities in a stable form. Hasrat neither accepted a half-hearted federalism nor centralization. Instead he stuck to the demand for complete Independence or ‘Long Live Revolution’, and rejected the Nehru Report for recommending dominion status instead of purna swaraj. At this point, his estrangement from the Congress widened, and he also became a suspect in the eyes of radical Muslims. The CPI expelled him; it refused to approve of his links with the Congress and the League [11]. Hasrat, who had his identity spelt out, gravitated towards the venerated Sufis of Firangi Mahal (Shah Abdul Wahab, Shah Abdul Wali, Maulana Anwar Ali, and Shah Abdur Razzaq).

This political estrangement of Hasrat with the congress had in no way affected his attitude towards the question of culture in India. Again on the occasion of Janmashtami on 28 August 1928, he wrote the following poem at Barsana, Radha’s birthplace in Mathura district:

I stand where Love’s perfect knowledge is found.
Whose is the flute whose melody fills me?
‘Men of Heart’ obtain in Mathura that fragrance of Unity
Which eternally permeates all life.
What good fortune, Hasrat, that your heart brims
With a glowing love for that musk-hued Beauty!

These are not two parallel concurrent strands, but merely two compatible phases in Hasrat’s thinking. His devotion to Krishna was in the true Sufi spirit. It was said of the Greeks that they were formed of three parts: their tongue spoke one thing, their mind mediated another, and their actions accorded with neither. Hasrat was made of very different stuff from the time-serving politicians. His faith gave him the strength to carry on in spite of adversities.

Hasrat Mohani was elected in the U.P. Assembly as a member, in 1946 on the ML party-ticket. In the same year, he was also elected as a distinguished member of the Constituent Assembly (that was constituted in 1946-49) [12]. A member of the Constituent Assembly, Mohani broke with Jinnah over his insistence that India be partitioned; however, he refused to sign the constitutional document too, because he stood for a “federation” after freedom (outlining his scheme in Urdu-i-Mu’alla). In his view, “the constitution of India should have been drafted and approved by a newly elected group that represented the freshly elected polity of the new nation and not the communally divided colonial government of the past. But, ‘when the scheme of Pakistan in its final shape was made public and came before the Muslim league council for approval, Hasrat, the old rebel, took exception to it and challenged the leadership in his own style’. In the storm of shouts, he stood high and firm to make his voice heard: “look here Mr Jinnah, you are surrounded by political adventurers”.

After partition, when many League members and Muslims decided to go to Pakistan, Mohani chose to remain in India, for he was a believer in Hindu-Muslim unity and strictly resisted the idea of partition, based on the Two-Nation theory. His unwillingness had several reasons; division of the country and the membership of Commonwealth being the main reasons, to which Mohani was irreconcilable.

In the midst of the communalization of social fabric in contemporary India, people are grappling with the solution to this menace. Amidst different responses, the importance of cultural dialogue between the two communities cannot be completely wiped out. Hasrat Mohani shows us a path of building cultural solidarities across various communities. His unswerving commitment to cultural syncretism calls upon the well wishers of peace and democracy to appropriate the syncretic cultural capital to again infuse civility in the political discourse of India.

(Author: Sajad Hassan Khan, Doctoral Candidate, Modern Indian History, Aligarh Muslim University)


[1]: Mushirul Hasan, From Pluralism to Separatism: Qasbas in Colonial Awadh, OUP, 2004.
[2]: Kulliyat-e Hasrat Mohani, Hyderabad, Intizami Press, 1943.
[3]: Muzaffar Hanafi, Hasrat Mohani, NBT, 1989.
[4]: K. H. Nizami, Krishna Beeti, Lala Thakurdas Printing Works, Delhi, 1919.
[5]: C. M. Naim, “The Maulana Who Loved Krishna”, EPW, Vol.48, No.17 (April, 2013).
[6]: Mohammad Umar, Maulana Hasrat Mohani: A Political Study, Shree Niwas Publications, 2009.
[7]: Abdul Shakoor,Hasrat Mohani, Ishrat Publishing: Lahore, 1965 [1946].
[8]: Asar Bin Yahya Ansari, Hasrat Mohani: Aek Siyasi Diary, Alia Publications, Dholia, 1977.
[9]: K. H. Ansari, The Emergence of Socialist Thiught Among North Indian Muslims: 1917-47, University of California Press, 1990.
[10]:Nafees Ahmad Siddiqui, Hasrat Mohani aur Inquilab-e Azaadi, OUP, Karachi, 2004.
[11]: Bipan Chandra (ed.), The Indian Left: Critical Appraisals, Vikas Publications, 1983.
[12]: Venkat Dhulipala, Creating A New Medina: State Power, Islam, and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India, Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2015.

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