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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
Education in Dhaka
When I was in Class 8, my uncle, Mr Shafiqul Islam, was a student of Dhaka Islamic Intermediate College (Now Kobi Nazrul College). My father realized that the student who had come second (after me) in the Class 8 final exams received 100 marks less than me. He thought that I should study in a competitive environment where there are students better than me; so after consulting with my uncle he decided to enrol me in Islamic Intermediate College in Dhaka.
My father first took me to the Superintendent1 of the high madrasah for a ‘transfer certificate’2. The Superintendent was surprised and said, “I will be hurt if you take away my most favourite student of Class 8. I am hopeful that he will get scholarship in the high madrasah final exam”.
My father replied, “I am taking him to Dhaka so that he achieves good results. He will come across many talented students there and will face tough competition, which will enable him to get even better results”. The Superintendent then had no other option but to give me the transfer certificate.
In 1940, I was admitted into Class 9 at the Islamic Intermediate College and I stayed in the Koltabazar Hostel near the college. The standards of both the teachers and the students were much higher than those in Comilla, and I could only achieve sixth position in the quarterly final examination. Thus the pride I had developed by coming first in each examination from Class 1 to 8 suffered a huge blow. Hearing this, my father wrote a letter to encourage me saying, “You didn’t have to face this type of competition in Comilla, which is why I took you to Dhaka. Now you have to study even harder. I do not demand that you come first in your class, but I expect you to achieve more than 75% marks in all subjects.” I was fourth when I was promoted to Class 10, but the mark I got was not much less than the boy who stood first. I was slightly disappointed for not coming first, but was not devastated as I achieved good marks in all subjects.
The Scout Movement
I joined the Scout Movement while in class nine in Dhaka. The Superintendent of the Koltabazar Hostel was a Scoutmaster who encouraged me to join this movement. Scouting taught me many useful things of everyday life, e.g., the knowledge of the human body. We were given an English book where the nervous system, blood circular system, respiratory system etc. were explained through diagrams. I learned these very enthusiastically and the knowledge I gained was useful to me for the rest of my life.
In the Scouts I also had to learn how to cook and obtained a ‘cooking badge’ after winning a competition. This skill was also very handy in later life when I was living in staff accommodation in Rangpur Carmichael College until my wedding. I would have been in trouble had I not known how to cook, as most of the servants who worked for me were unable to and I had to give them cooking lessons. They learned cooking so well that two of them found good jobs because of their cooking skills.
There were some other practical things I learned through scouting such as first aid, rescue skills etc., which I had to teach as the Scout troop leader of my institution- when I was in Class 10. There was a big Scout jamboree in Joydevpur in Gazipur district in 1941 where I became good friends with Mr Tajuddin, who later became the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. He came to that jamboree as the troop leader of Government Muslim High School, Dhaka.
I enjoyed the Scout Movement so much that I wanted to join the University Officer Training Corps (UOTC) after starting university- as it was of higher level than scouting. However, I was not permitted to join as I had grown a beard. The then UOTC officer Matiur Rahman saw my scout certificates and said with regret, “I am very upset that I can’t accept you for technical reasons.” He also informed me that the British government allowed beard and turban for Sikhs as part of their uniform, but they didn’t have any such provision in Dhaka University.
High Madrasah Final Exam
As in the scholarship exam, I also failed to attain my desired result in the high madrasah final exams held in March 1942. Our principal hoped that at least four of us would get a first grade scholarship, but his expectations for me were not fulfilled due to illness. There was a malaria epidemic all over South Asia at that time with many people losing their lives. It took ten years to make our region malaria free. I suffered from malaria for a few months; it first struck me while I was in Class 8 in Comilla. I was so afraid of this fever that I used to tell others that I have ‘fever-phobia’. The temperature would go extremely high and my body would shake so much that I had to be held tightly with two to three quilts. When the fever would go down, the sweat would dampen the bed and the bed sheet needed to be changed. It would take an hour or two for the temperature to lower, but it would return within 10-15 hours. I also had severe headache during the fever. The fever would leave in around two weeks, but used to make me extremely weak, and, as there was no vaccine at that time, it would relapse in a few months. The treatment for malaria was very tormenting as well. The injections they gave me were so agonizing that I needed to use a hot water bottle for hours to ease the pain. The horrible bitter taste of the quinine medicine meant that I needed a lot of sweets to remove the taste from my tongue. My sufferings with this terrible disease continued for four years.
I suffered from a severe malaria attack three weeks before my high madrasah final exams in March 1942, and the principal admitted me to the Mitford Hospital. This was the only government hospital at that time, which also had a medical school where students from high school and high madrasah were eligible to enrol. It was a four-year degree known as LMF. My principal wrote to the hospital Superintendent, “Please take care of this boy as I am very hopeful that he will get a scholarship in the exam that will be held after three weeks”. The hospital authority obliged in such a way that I was somewhat overwhelmed by their special care. I was given injections on my arms and hips, and the pain was so intense that even a hot water bottle was of no use. Moreover, the taste of quinine was unbearable. I probably swallowed several gallons of quinine in those four years. The Superintendent used to visit me every day, which led to special care by the doctors and nurses. My health improved over a week, but malaria made me so weak that I couldn’t study for more than two hours at a time.
Two weeks later I found myself in the exam hall and due to my post illness weakness I was even struggling to write in the exam hall with my fingers often bending and the pen slipping away. I had to massage my fingers for a while before being able to write again. Therefore, despite knowing the answers to all the questions, I could only answer 80-85% of the questions in almost all exams apart from Maths, in which I was confident of achieving 100%. I told my father after the exam that I expected to get first division, but not scholarship. I returned to Chandina still in a weak state after the exam. My father had been living in Chandina since 1936, so I would hardly go to our village home as I spent my holidays with my parents in Chandina.
When the results were due three months later, I was again suffering from malaria. I became so feeble that I collapsed one day after coming out of the toilet. My body temperature would rise up to 105-6 degrees, and one day it raised up to 107 degrees, causing me to faint again. I was shivering under two quilts on the day when my results were declared. My father rushed home from work looking very happy and said that he just received a telegram from Comilla sent by my uncle Shafiqul Islam, which said, “My dear nephew Ghulam Azam has achieved 13th place”3. I also became emotional with this unexpected success and jumped out of bed kicking the quilts away. To my surprise the fever was gone and didn’t return until a few months later. I was surprised to see how the mental state influences our health condition.
During that period, exams of all high schools in Dhaka city and the high madrasahs of the entire Bengal were under the Dhaka Board, while all high school exams outside Dhaka city were controlled by Calcutta (now Kolkata) University. The medium of education under the Dhaka Board was still English at that time, although Kolkata had already introduced Bangla as a medium. Dhaka Board moved to the Bangla medium system two years after I completed high madrasah.
My Interest in Science
As I was very accomplished in maths my teachers inspired me to take the ISC4 for which it was necessary to move to Dhaka Intermediate College as Islamic Intermediate College did not have a science department. However, my father would not allow me to enrol onto the ISC programme saying, “You will have no opportunity to study Arabic if you do the ISC. Have you forgotten that your grandfather had told you to master Arabic, English and Bangla?” I still wanted to study science despite my father reminding me what my grandfather had said. He became angry and said, “I didn’t put you into a madrasah and have you enrolled onto the New Scheme for worldly reasons, given that studying Qur’an, Hadith, Fiqh5 etc. does not lead one to have enough income. You are the eldest in the generation. If you don’t learn Arabic well then you will not be able to study the Qur’an well, and without this competence how will you lead your younger siblings towards Islam?” Yet I was not ready to leave science even after all this discussion and my father was quick to notice it through my body language. He became even angrier and said, “Okay, then I will send you directly to a madrasah. Whatever English and Bangla you have learned is enough. Now study Qur’an, hadith and fiqh.” I managed to save myself from going to madrasah by surrendering to my father’s reprimand, but remained a bit disappointed at my father for not allowing me to study the ISC, though there was a consolation that I could at least study at university.
When I dedicated myself to extensive study of the Qur’an and Hadith after joining Jamaat-e-Islami in 1954 I observed that my background in Arabic was immensely helpful in my work in the Islamic movement. Since then I have been praying to Allah so that He rewards my father for insisting on my studying Arabic and enhancing my knowledge in Islam. If I hadn’t learned that much Arabic at that time I would have considered my life as a Muslim to be a total waste.
My Intermediate Education
I began my higher secondary education, Intermediate in Arts (IA), under the New Scheme in the college section of Islamic Intermediate College in July 1942. A large number of students with scholarships and first division results from high madrasahs around the country were enrolled in that college, so the competition in class was very high, which got more intense when teachers gave tasks in class. I thoroughly enjoyed that competition and worked very hard to do well.
The quality of my teachers in English, Bangla, Qur’an, Hadith and Fiqh was very high; I felt encouraged being taught by them, but the Arabic teachers would only translate the texts from Arabic to English and I felt that my command over the language was not improving the way I wanted. I wished my Arabic teachers would use similar techniques as their English counterparts who adopted different methods to ensure that we learn the language well, but it was not to be. Our English teachers would never use the Bangla language in an English class however our Arabic teachers only ever used English to teach us, never Arabic.
There were 10 papers at IA level worth 1000 marks, which included Bangla (200), English (200), Arabic (200), Qur’an (100), Hadith (100) and Fiqh (100). There was a choice between two subjects for the remaining 100 marks; they were English and Logic. Most students chose Logic as it tended to result in very high scores, whereas no one had ever received a first grade scholarship by taking English. However, I didn’t hesitate to take English as I had studied the New Scheme to study Arabic, English and Bangla. By the grace of Allah I was the first person to get a first grade scholarship in IA with English as the optional subject, though I could not achieve any higher than the tenth position in the merit list.
1 Head of different types of institutions, e.g., madrasahs, hostels, hospitals etc.
2 An essential certificate to change educational institution
3 Until recently national board exams in Bangladesh used to announce a list of top twenty students in combined merit list. The author stood 13th in that list.
4 Intermediate in Science, i.e., higher secondary in science
5 Islamic jurisprudence
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