MY JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
PROFESSOR GHULAM AZAM
(Abridged Translated version of the author’s original Bangla Memoir Jibone Ja Dekhlam)
Translated and Edited by Dr Salman Al-Azami
Copyright – The Ghulam Azam Foundation
I started Class 3 in 1934 at Barail Junior Madrasah three and a half miles away from my village home. As mentioned before, to learn Arabic I was required to retake Class 3 despite coming first in the Class 3 final exams in the village primary school. My youngest uncle Shafiqul Islam, who was three years older than me, used to be a lodging tutor in a house near my madrasah. He arranged daily meals for me in that house; however, I wasn’t able to live there, so I had to live with my uncle. When my uncle relocated to another house as a tutor a year later I took his place and had my food and lodging arrangements in the same house. In the following year, I came first in the Class 4 final exams, and our Bangla teacher Mr Shamsuddin arranged an improved tutored lodging for me at his cousin’s house quite far from the madrasah. I had to teach his cousin’s son, who was my classmate, although he was three to four years older than me. I would also help his younger brothers in their education.
The tutored lodging system in our country is very good for students who study away from home. I used to teach the Qur’an in the first house I stayed at and I helped my classmate and his younger siblings in the second one. My Bangla teacher was also in charge of the library when I was admitted in the madrasah in Class 3. He used to encourage me to take books from the library and also selected books for me to read. It was he who helped me develop the habit of reading beyond my textbooks – something that stayed with me for the rest of my life. I still remember the first book he gave me to read: Shiyal Pandit (The Fox Pundit). He drove me towards reading many works of fiction, which encouraged me to continue the routine even more.
A lot of time had to be spent doing my own studies and helping the children of the house’s owner, so there was no time to read books while at my desk. The only time I read those story books was while lying on my bed before sleeping, another habit that continued for the rest of my life. The habit is such that I could never sleep without reading. Without reading books the mind becomes scattered before sleep, whereas a thoughtful book helps to focus on a single subject leading to sleep relatively easily and quickly.
Junior Final Exam
All students of Class 6 in the junior madrasah sector of the district had to appear in a final exam at the district centre. Our headmaster had very high hopes that I would receive the scholarship in the exam, but an incident due to my ignorance meant that I had to be content with only first class marks but no scholarship. Although the incident was small, it turned out to be big for me, as it was the reason I missed the scholarship. I had never had tea before and no one in our house at that time used to drink tea. When my classmates, who shared the same hotel as me during the exams, were having tea I joined them and had two or three cups on the eve of the first set of exams. Our headmaster had told us that we should to go to bed by eleven and revise after the morning prayer. All my friends had fallen into a deep sleep and the lights were off, but I kept awake in my bed. I could hear the wall clock ringing every half hour and the sound of the municipality rubbish trucks until 2am before I could sleep. I found it difficult to wake up for the morning prayer, and when I tried to revise after coming back from prayer, I found sleep taking hold of me. The exam was a few hours later, so I continued my fight against sleep as I didn’t have the courage to tell the headmaster my experience of the previous night and seek his permission to have a small nap before the exam.
I became very happy seeing the questions in the exam hall as I knew the answers to all the questions; I started writing enthusiastically. However, I was so sleepy that I inadvertently slept on the desk a couple of times and the pen slipped out of my fingers. On both the occasions the invigilators woke me up and gave me back my pen that slipped off. Hence, I couldn’t answer all the questions and became very upset when the exam was over. I had to again fight against sleep during the second exam of the day at two o’clock as there was no scope to have a nap between the exams, and subsequently failed to answer all the questions in the second exam as well. I had never imagined that drinking tea would have such consequences. Thankfully, the exams in the next few days went well, but I did not have the courage to tell my headmaster how I could not answer all the questions on the first day, and did not tell anything to my classmates either out of embarrassment. I was worried that this incident could cost me not only the scholarship, but also first class marks. Thankfully, the Almighty saved my dignity and I could at least pass with first class marks.
Studying in Comilla1
I was admitted to Class 7 of the Hussamia High Madrasah in Comilla in January 1938. I still remember how well my teachers in the madrasah taught us. The head of the madrasah Mr Akhteruzzaman graduated in Arabic under the ‘New Scheme’. He had a strong personality and was very popular as a teacher. Many years later in the 60s, I saw him amongst the participants in a training camp of Jamaat-e-Islami during my visit there as the provincial secretary of the organisation. I immediately stood upon seeing one of my favourite teachers Mr Akhteruzzaman in the audience and said, “Sir, it is very awkward for me that you are sitting there and I am up on the stage.” He replied, “I was once your teacher and you were my student, but now you are my teacher in the Islamic movement and I am your student.” When I visited Comilla again a few years later he hosted me at his house as his guest and looked after me the way a decent host would. I was so impressed by his dedication towards the Islamic movement that I felt extremely sad when I heard the news of his passing away.
Tutorships in Comilla
I was a tutor in a house one and a half miles away from the madrasah. My only student in that house was a young boy in Class 1. His grandmother was very affectionate towards me and asked me to call her grandma. I was missing my own grandmother and was happy to have a new one far away from home. She would feed both her grandson and me together with care, which made me feel very comfortable in that house. My student had a strange habit; he would demand food that had not been cooked at a particular meal. Therefore, everyone tried to make sure that he didn’t know what was being cooked, but the elders had to struggle to convince him to eat whenever he demanded something that had not been cooked.
I came first in the final exam of Class 7 and, after hearing that I was a good student, a retired postmaster very eagerly took me to his house to tutor his son of Class 3. I was in that house for a year, which was adjacent to the northern wall of Comilla Central Jail. The District Magistrate of Comilla, an Englishman, used the road next to my room to go to work. I sometimes saw him walking towards the Christian cemetery along with his wife. I never dared to speak with him, but wished that he would begin a conversation with me one day. The Indian Civil Service (ICS) officers at that time were required to know the language of the area they worked in to such a level that they were able to understand the language spoken by the common citizens. I came to know this fact through personal experience. When my father was the Marriage Registrar in Chandina, a city 12 miles west of Comilla, I once saw an Englishman coming to my father’s office for inspection, riding on a horse. As he was sitting in the office, I brought snacks for him and found him talking to my father in Bangla, though I found it difficult to understand because of his accent. My father told me that district magistrates and people of similar high positions needed to know some basic Bangla for communicating with the local people.
Extra-Curricular Activities in Comilla Madrasah
Every Thursday a teacher in the madrasah would lead the weekly speech competitions that included debates, set speeches and improvised speeches etc. I used to watch them with huge interest. They were mainly dominated by students from Class 9 and Class 10. I proposed to my classmates that we should have similar sessions each week among ourselves, which most students supported and gave me the responsibility to organise. I had no previous experience of giving a speech other than reciting poems and taking part in small plays while in junior madrasah, so the weekly programmes provided the platform to gain some confidence, which helped me a lot when we were allowed to take part in the weekly speech competitions of the whole madrasah the following year.
Introduction to Politics
My first experience of joining a political march was with the Muslim League in 1939 when I was in Class 8. “Sher-e-Bangla”2 Fazlul Haque, was then the Provincial Prime Minister. The march was to protest against the move by the Indian National Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha party for a vote of no confidence to oust the Fazlul Haque ministry. The Muslim League was not very organised then, but the protests took place all over the country. I loved the experience of chanting slogans while bounding with energy and in the end broke my voice. I also used to go to the Town Hall to listen to speeches by political leaders and used to aspire to be able to give political speeches. I developed a good rapport with the President of Comilla District Muslim League, Advocate Zahirul Haque Lil Miah, who later became a minister in the Sher-e-Bangla cabinet in 1954. He was from our Nabinagar sub-district and had a brotherly relationship with my father, so I used to call him uncle and visit his house, where he would look after me with love and affection.
During that time, Palestine was the main issue of concern for the Muslims. It was in that year (1939) that the Second World War began and the first call for a Jewish state to be established in Palestine came from the US. The Daily Azad newspaper, established by Mawlana Akram Khan, was then the only daily newspaper for the Muslims. My father regularly received a copy of the newspaper by post from Kolkata, which helped me develop my habit of reading newspapers. I first came to know about the Palestine issue from this newspaper. I could know more about the problem after attending a public gathering on Palestine at the Town Hall. I found one of the speaker’s points very logical when he said, “If Americans are so sympathetic towards the Jewish cause then why don’t they establish a land for them in their own country? Canada and Australia also have large unused lands. Why do they need to drive away the Muslims who had been living there for 1500 years?”
The United States and its allies established the State of Israel in Palestine by force in 1948 after the Second World War. The demand for this began in 1939, against which Muslims around the world strongly protested. The Jewish community is the richest community in the world and the Israeli state was created as a reward for the financial contributions of the Jews and the support by the Jewish media for the Allied forces during the Second World War.
My First Political Speech
When I saw Uncle Lil Miah presiding over a Palestine related protest meeting of the Muslim League at the Town Hall Ground in 1939, I gathered some courage and approached him requesting him to give me a chance to speak. The point I liked in the previous meeting was not mentioned by any of the speakers, so I thought that I should raise it there. Lil Miah then announced, “Now a boy named Ghulam Azam will speak before you.” This was my first experience in a public meeting, so I enthusiastically went to the dais to speak. However, as soon as I stood in front of the audience I became nervous – my legs began to shake and I found it difficult to speak. I somehow managed to put my hands on the table next to me and loudly said what I wanted to say for about a minute and a half and sat down immediately. The audience gave me a big round of applause and after the meeting some of them approached me and asked me about my family background. One of them then commented, “He is a true grandson of Mawlana Abdus Subhan.”
I didn’t have the courage to give a speech any time soon after that. My father used to speak during the Eid congregations where I had no scope to speak. When I heard others speak I thought it was easy, but why my nervousness appeared while giving a speech was a mystery.
1 An eastern district in Bangladesh, next to the author’s home district, Brahmanbaria.
2 Means the ‘Tiger of Bengal’ – a title given to one of the most prominent political figures in 20th century East Bengal