Abdullah Adiyar: from atheism to Islam

Developing Just Leadership

Anwar Chowdhury

Rajab 04, 1438 1997-03-01

Special Reports

by Anwar Chowdhury (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 1, Rajab, 1438)

For one who was an arch atheist, with a communist activist for a father, who could not accept Islam, knowing that it ‘required one to be strictly disciplined’, Abdullah Adiyar, the celebrated South Indian poet, playwright, orator and journalist of the Tamil-speaking world had come a long way when he breathed his last on 19 September. After almost a lifetime of achievements which would be the envy of most people, Adiyar made a name for himself throughout India, and across the seas, as a fervent champion of Islam, even before he himself had become a Muslim.

Abdullah Adiyar’s commitment to promoting Islam, ‘the religion of salvation’, was as strong as his belief that it is Allah alone who gives hidaya (guidance) to people, and it is not for him ‘to convert.’ He ran the Islamic Dawah Centre in Madras and was engaged in an Islamic project for satellite television for the 60 million strong Tamil viewers. He was a popular speaker on Islam not only in the towns and cities of Tamil Nadu but also abroad; he was invited to speak on the life of the Prophet by the Tamil Muslims of Britain. He also visited Sri Lanka and Singapore which have a large Tamil speaking population. He produced audio as well as video cassettes to teach Islam .

His devotion to da’wah remained undiminished despite a stroke last year; he could not speak or write much, but he was present at most Islamic gatherings, and never lost contact with Islamic da’wah work. His funeral prayer on Friday, 20 September, 1996 at Jami’ Masjid in Kodambakim and burial followed by a memorial gathering bore testimony to the niche he had found among Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Already an author of 120 novels, 13 plays and 13 books, editor of the daily Murasoli, (for 17 years) mouthpiece of Dravidian Munnetra Kazagham, the Tamil regional nationalist party, Adiyar had his introduction to Islam during the darkest days of his life, thanks to his wife Thayammal, a Christian then.

The state of emergency declared by prime minister Mrs Indira Gandhi in 1975 was a nightmare for politicians and opinion makers throughout India; under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, DMK workers in Tamil Nadu were flung into prison, Adiyar included. He was imprisoned and tortured, with lasting injuries to his stomach. In the bowels of despair and pain, the spark of Islam touched his soul. His wife’s Bible, to quote his words, “did not provide me the answer. The atheist in me was looking for answers to questions like ‘Why death? What is the reason for creation?’” But it spurred him to search for answers for his tortured soul which he eventually found in his study of the life of Prophet Muhammad, and the Qur’an. He read Yusuf Ali’s English translation, making notes which inspired him to write a series of 17 articles entitled: Nan Kadilikkum Islam (The Islam I love), also published in a book under the same title, Nan Kadilikkum Islam.

On his release in 1977 he started a journal Neerottam, in which he published his reflections on Islam. Without any patronage, the magazine did not last long, but the publication of those articles in a book Nan Kadilikkum Islam proved an instant success. The second edition was also snapped up. Translations quickly followed in many languages such as Malayalam, Telagu, Marathi, Hindi and Urdu.

The Urdu edition of The Islam I love led to a Sindhi edition in Pakistan in 1983, thanks to the late President Ziaul Haque. Idarai Majlise Adab, the publishers, invited Adiyar to Pakistan. He attended the Shah Abdul-Latif Bhittai Conference in Sukkur, where Ziaul Haque welcomed him as the guest of honour at the launching of the Sindhi edition by Sindhi Adab Melo. Adiyar visited Lahore and Karachi and was treated with such respect that he fondly recalled: `I was honoured as if I was the minister of a foreign state.’

Another magazine, Tangagurodun, was no more successful, but his publishing house, Neerottam Publications, he did not abandon. He published 12 books on Islam, some in refutation of critics; some of the titles were From prison to the Mosque, One God or many?, Islam Calls.

The one publication that had an indelible impression on so many was The Islam I love. Its impact on one reader, a zamindar (landowning aristocrat) in faraway Uttar Pradesh, was like a ricocheting bullet that first got the man in northern India than the unaware author in the south. His burning desire to meet Adiyar brought him to Madras

in 1987 to proclaim: “I accepted Islam after reading your book.” He was aghast when he saw, as the author himself admitted, “found me sunk in my chair with cigarette pressed between the fingers and an open whisky bottle On the table.”

The Zamindar’s bursting out in tears at the sight of him touched Adiyar’s conscience. After a sleepless night and reflection, he realised he had found God’s guidance. “Islam’s strict discipline” dissuaded him no longer. On 6 June 1987, Adiyar went straight to Ma’mur Mosque in Madras, and accepted Islam, taking the name Abd’Allah, the slave of Allah. His short story, Wife and My Peacock, won him in 1982 the Tamil Nadu state government’s award, ‘Kalaimammani’, but no work of his could have been dearer to him than the Nan Kadilikkum Islam which brought him the vista of Islam.

Adiyar was questioned by Indian intelligence officials about his efforts to invite people to Islam. He told them it was Islam itself attracted them. “No force on earth can stop conversions in the state of Tamil Nadu. No political pressure including the BJP [extremist Hinduist party] can stem the tide.”

Born on 16 May 1935 in the industrial city of Tiruppur, Tamil Nadu, Adiyar received his early education there. During his higher education in Koyamber (Coimbatore), he developed a flair for speaking and writing. Much impressed with Vinobe Bhave’s land for the landless movement, Adiyar made his journalistic debut in the famous Tamil poet Kanna Dasan’s magazine Tezli (Spring). Soon he came in contact with the Dravidian movement in South India which pulled him into the DMK. Impressed by him, the former chief minister, the late C N Annadurai, and the present chief minister who was close to him, appointed Adiyar editor of Murasoli.

Among those who have been influenced by Adiyar to follow Islam are a former district secretary of the Communist Party of India, Kodikkal Chellappa, now Kodikal Sheikh Abdullah; Dr B R Ambedkar’s colleague Veerabhadranam, now Muhammad Bilal; a Buddhist monk, Swami Ananda Bhikhu, now Muhammad Mujeebullah. Others have been inspired to write books on Islam.

Abdullah Adiyar is survived by his father Vankatachillam, wife and two sons -who are Muslim -and one daughter, and two brothers.

Courtesy: Impact International, London.

Muslimedia - March 1-15, 199

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