Cultural as well as political independence in the Islamic world has been a key debate for Islamist thinkers since the first day of Western colonialism in lands with a Muslim majority. Modern Islamic revivalism did not begin after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Rather, that was just a juncture that divided Muslim thinkers into different sects according to their focus. After the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the Caliphate was annihilated, some Muslim thinkers and political leaders tended to produce a new political understanding of Islam, while many others chose to join nationalist movements.
British colonial rule in India gave a material cause for Muslim activism. Though Muslim crowds were not well organized and did not have wide-ranging political entities like modern political parties to represent them and powerful armies to defend their homeland from invaders, they were interested in the challenging ideas of Islamic revivalists. As a result of the absence of a reliable Muslim political power and armed forces during occupation, Muslim revivalist movements tended to bring forth their activist nature in reaction to the impact of Western culture.
It is also an interesting point that many reactionary Muslim thinkers and activists had received a Western education, while some acted as modernist reformists until some breaking point. Mawlana ("Our Friend") Abu'l A'la Mawdudi was one of the well-educated Indian Muslim young men under the heavy impact of Western culture and philosophy before he began propagating new ideas for a complete political, economic and cultural system of Islam.
Mawlana Abu'l A'la was a member of a notable family in south-central India. He was born Sept. 25, 1903, in Aurangabad, Hyderabad (now Maharasthra) as the youngest of three sons of a lawyer, Mawlana Ahmad Hasan. He was named after one of his remote ancestors, Abu'l A'la, who lived in the 16th century. Mawdudi's family history goes back to Harat, Afghanistan. One of his great grandfathers was Mawdudi Chishty, the sheikh of the Chishtiyya Sufi order. Abu'l A'la's mother was a member of a Turkic family originating in Central Asia.
Abu'l A'la was home educated until age 11 to protect him from any Western influences. His father taught him Urdu, Persian, Arabic, logic, fiqh (Islamic law) and hadith. He joined a formal school in 8th grade. He was obliged to leave school in 1915 because of his father's poor health and began working to help his family's living.
In 1919, Mawdudi moved to Delhi where he studied German and English to read Western philosophy, sociology and history. Meanwhile, he worked as the editor of a weekly newspaper, "Tac," which was published by people close to the Congress Party. The British government in India shut the newspaper down because of an article written by Mawdudi that criticized colonial rule.
During the 1920s, Mawdudi acted as a journalist with critical ideas, particularly against British rule. He worked for several periodicals including al-Jamiah, the official gazette of the Jamiat-i Ulama, (Association of Muslim Scholars), where he worked as editor-in-chief from 1924 to 1927.
Abu'l A'la lost his faith in the Congress Party and its Muslim allies as the party gained a Hindu identity throughout the 1920s. Besides, he was a member of the Caliphate Movement, which failed after the Turkish Republic annihilated the Caliphate in 1924, which was the exact date when the Hindu-Muslim conflict arose severely.
In 1928, he returned to Hyderabad disillusioned with Western civilization and Indian politics. In Hyderabad, Mawdudi began working as editor-in-chief for the "Tarjuman al-Quran" (Interpreter of the Holy Quran), which would be the main medium scattering his views around Muslim India. In 1933, he published his first book, a collection of writings about the moral side of jihad, sacred war in Islam. Though he wrote a book on jihad, Mawdudi never accepted violence as a means for Islamic politics. He thought of jihad as self-defense. Jihad, according to Mawdudi's point of view, could only occur to protect unarmed civilians who could not protect themselves from attacks.
In the 1930s, Mawdudi criticized both the Indian nationalist movement that worked for a united India to be freed from the British colonialism and secular Muslim separatism led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
In 1941, Abu'l A'la Mawdudi established the Jamaat-i Islami in Lahore together with 75 Islamic scholars and intellectuals. They elected him president of the Jamaat-i Islami. The organization's center was moved to Panthakod in 1942. The organization held a massive congress in 1945 with about 800 delegates from all over the Indian sub-continent. Mawdudi declared the principles of the Islamic political movement at that congress.
After the partition of Pakistan from India in 1947, Jamaat-i Islami re-organized itself as two branches in Pakistan and India. Mawdudi stayed in Lahore, Pakistan, as the natural leader of Pakistan Jamaat-i Islami.
Mawdudi made great efforts to establish Pakistan as an Islamic state depending on Islamic laws and politics, which was denied by the secular government led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Mawdudi and many other Jamaat-i Islami leaders were arrested in 1948.
Thanks to massive reactions against the oppression by the secular government of newly found Pakistan, Mawdudi was released in 1950. In 1951, he moved to Karachi, where he met representatives of other Islamic political movements to declare the principles of the Islamic state to be founded in the future.
Mawdudi was arrested again in 1953 because of his writings against the Ahmadiyya sect, which he suggested were heretics. The Jamaat-i Islami leader was sentenced to death, which is similar to death sentences given to Islamic leaders all over the world in the modern period. However, again many people reacted against this cruel resolution, and the case was re-opened, and Mawdudi was acquitted.
During the 1950s, Mawdudi made speeches for an Islamic constitution. He visited East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to tell his ideas to the people. Some historians think that Jamaat-i Islami and its leader influenced the 1956 Constitution of Pakistan since the constitution includes open references to the Holy Quran and the Sunnah (praxis of Prophet Muhammad).
Mawdudi's official influence was not long lasting since General Ayub Khan annihilated the constitution and repressed Jamaat-i Islami after a military coup in 1958. Mawdudi would be arrested several times in the 1960s.
In the 1970s, Mawdudi and Jamaat-i Islami regained significance in central politics. Zia'ul Haq executed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and raised Mawdudi to the level of senior statesman and used some of his ideas for the so-called Islamization of Pakistan.
On the other hand, after 1971, Mawdudi left the leadership of Jamaat-i Islami and concentrated on scholarly works, including his long interpretation of the Holy Quran, namely "Tafhimu'l-Quran" (Meaning of the Holy Quran). He writes about the Quran:
"The Qur'an is ... a book that contains a message, an invitation, which generates a movement. The moment it began to be sent down, it impelled a quiet and pious man to ... raise his voice against falsehood, and pitted him in a grim struggle against the lords of disbelief, evil and iniquity ... it drew every pure and noble soul, and gathered them under the banner of truth. In every part of the country, it made all the mischievous and the corrupt to rise and wage war against the bearers of the truth."
According to Abu'l A'la Mawdudi's conceptualization, the tradition is corrupted and "true Islam" has been forgotten. Muslims should return to the Holy Quran to reaffirm and realize true Islam. This point of view is very common in Islamist circles all over the world now. Mawdudi has had great influence on Islamic movements in many countries, including Turkey. His "theo-democracy" is a detailed example of non-violent religious transformation in the Islamic world.
Mawdudi died on Sept. 22, 1979, in Buffalo, New York, in the U.S. where he was staying for health reasons. His body was returned to Pakistan, and over a million Muslims attended his funeral four days after his death.