Hazrat Azad Rasool (r.a.) was born in the town of Kankroli in Udaipur, India, in 1920. From the childhood, he displayed a strong interest in spiritual pursuits. His developing mind quickly became preoccupied with esoteric questions: “Is there some power beyond the physical and mental plane of human experience? Does God exist? If God is one, why do religions differ?” Watching people pray, he wondered: “Are prayers really answered? Or do they just have psychological effects?” Such questions absorbed Hazrat from his earliest years.
Hindus have long held sacred the town of Kankroli, where Hazrat spent his childhood days. A large Hindu temple there attracted pilgrims from all over India, enabling young Azad Rasool to meet many learned and pious people. Even after he had moved away to pursue his education, Hazrat returned to Kankroli during summer vacations. As a young man, he would discuss his questions with the spiritual masters.
Hazrat entered Jamia Millia University at the primary level and continued there through his undergraduate studies. Combining his academic efforts and spiritual inclinations, he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree. He then went on to receive a second bachelor’s degree – this one in education – from Allahabad University.
Two professors at Jamia Millia played significant roles in Hazrat’s life. Professor M. Mujeeb, Hazrat’s history teacher, had studied at Oxford and authored numerous books, including Indian Muslims. Hazrat described Professor Mujeeb as “a lovely personality,” a man who, although not formally a Sufi, possessed the nature and character of a Sufi. Again and again, Professor Mujeeb told Hazrat, “Everybody is trying to take something. You should become a person who can give something.” These words deeply impressed the young man, later shaping his choice of career. A second professor who influenced Hazrat was Dr. E. J. Kallat, a kind and learned Christian. In addition to teaching English, Dr. Kallat supervised the college sports program and served as coach of the hockey team. Hazrat, who was captain of this team, became Dr. Kallat’s close acquaintance. “He taught us an important lesson,” Hazrat recalled. He said, ‘Make yourself a man. First deserve, then desire. In other words, you must qualify before you can earn anything.” Though not a Muslim, Dr. Kallat enjoined his students to “try to be good, reborn Muslims.” He would often invite Hazrat to his home, where they would read and discuss Biblical passages, along with Christian mysticism and other subjects.
Dr. Kallat’s respect for different faiths deepened his student’s interest in all religions. As Hazrat explained, “I was a Muslim by birth, but I was not always content with the religion I inherited. The moment I became competent enough to disassociate myself from it, I embarked on the path of investigation with an open mind and heart. I liberated myself from the bonds of traditional authorities and exposed my mind to all influences.”
Hazrat explored the validity of many religious systems. He looked for answers to his questions in the sacred texts of different faiths, held discussions with religious scholars and atheists, and became acquainted with modern philosophy and scientific methods. So fond was he of the Bhagavad Gita that he read it over and over again, eventually memorizing parts of it.
Hazrat also studied and experimented with spiritual practices in hopes of determining whether some more permanent reality underlies this phenomenon called “life.” He explored yoga and Vedanta, bathing in the sacred waters of the Ganges, living the life of a brahamachari (a celibate and disciplined student of yoga), and engaging in various other yogic practices. He delved into the academic study of Hinduism, as well. His master’s degree in philosophy from Aligarh Muslim University included specialization in both Hindu and Islamic thought.
Yet the yearning within remained unsatisfied. Hazrat had not yet found the path he sought. After earning his master’s degree, Hazrat received an offer to pursue doctoral studies in the United States. He declined. Determined to follow Professor Mujeeb’s guidance – to give rather than take – he joined the faculty of Jamia Millia University, although he qualified for higher-paying and more prestigious positions elsewhere. Many of his associates seized opportunities for status and financial gain. But Hazrat remained at the struggling new university, determined to serve its students even at the cost of being ridiculed as “an idealist.”
Hazrat’s commitment to Jamia Millia reflected his belief that there can be no better work than to teach children and help build their characters. The school’s goal was to prepare youths to be good citizens, Indian patriots, and true Muslims, not tools of the “British machinery” that dominated pre-independence India. All the teachers at Jamia Millia worked toward this end with missionary zeal.
At that time, Jamia Millia received no government subsidies. Its revenue came solely from grants, donations, community support, and tuition. Salaries were minimal. Hazrat earned forty rupees a month. Dr. Zakir Husain, Vice Chancellor of Jamia Millia and later president of India, received only eighty rupees. The teachers, however, regarded their work as reward in itself. They performed their duties as worship and strove to work for the sake of work.
Serving children provided one outlet for Hazrat’s desire to find meaning in life. He also continued to explore the nature of existence through philosophical and spiritual pursuits. His faculty appointment had made him Professor Mujeeb’s associate, and the two met periodically to discuss work. Often they would finish their business in twenty minutes and then spend an hour discussing Sufism in light of contemporary thought and science.
But despite years of seeking and effort, Hazrat remained disappointed. He concluded in his heart that the search he had embarked upon was difficult if not impossible.
Just as Hazrat was nearing despair, his friend R.R. Wahidi told him that the Sufi master Hazrat Shaykh Muhammad Sa’id Khan (r.a.) was traveling to their area. The shaykh taught Arabic in a school in Azamgarh, U.P., and was coming for a refresher course to Mathura, a town near Vrindavan, not far from Delhi. Mr. Wahidi suggested that Hazrat meet Shaykh Sa’id Khan (r.a.). Hazrat agreed. Looking back years later, he said, “I thought, ‘All right, I suppose I should go. Perhaps I will be able to receive some guidance from this man.'”
Hazrat went to Mathura with a sense of opportunity and hope. Arriving at the mosque, he was directed to the shaykh’s quarters. He approached the room, and there he saw a person seated, wearing simple dress and a round cap. The man noticed Hazrat and called him to enter. Hazrat presented him with a letter of introduction, which the shaykh read with approval.
Hazrat then told the shaykh why he had come. He explained that he had been searching for many years and had tested different paths. “If there is something real in your study,” he concluded, “please instruct me in it. But if this teaching is only talk to please people, then I would rather not waste your time or mine.”
Having heard all this, the shaykh replied, “This path is one of experience. Start, and see what happens.” That was all. This brief statement had an immediate impact. Hazrat said, “In that moment, I felt detached from the world, and my heart inclined strongly toward the shaykh. I felt love in my heart.” Then and there, Hazrat asked Shaykh Muhammad Sa’id Khan (r.a.) for instruction.
From the time of this initial meeting, Hazrat looked forward to meeting Shaykh Muhammad’s shaykh, Hazrat Hamid Hasan ‘Alawi (r.a.). His next winter vacation afforded him the chance. After spending time with Shaykh ‘Alawi (r.a.), Hazrat concluded that at last God had granted his prayers. He was fully convinced that he had reached the right person and the right path, the person and path that would quench his thirst and satisfy his inner urge. Thus began Hazrat’s journey.
In Sufism, Hazrat found the satisfaction that had so long eluded him. He found deeper meaning also in the religion of his birth. Decades later, he observed, “Now I am a Muslim not because I belong to a Muslim family, but because I discovered Islam through my own yearning, investigation, and experience.”
Hazrat studied with Shaykh Muhammad Sa’id Khan (r.a.) for thirty years, spending time with him while traveling and at his home in Azamgarh. Hazrat tried to be receptive to his shaykh’s guidance and instructions; his shaykh responded generously. Eventually, Hazrat received permission to instruct seekers in the sacred and profound teachings of five orders of Sufism; the Naqshbandi, Mujaddidi, Chishti, Qadiri, and Shadhili. Finally, a day came when Shaykh Muhammad Sa’id Khan (r.a.) told him, “Whatever I received from my shaykh, I have given to you. Now wait for the blessings of God, for success depends on His mercy and kindness. It does not come from the effort you put forth.” He then quoted the Qur’an: Allah bestows His blessings upon whom He wills.
During his early years on the path, Hazrat, like many new students, felt the urge to devote all his time to meditation and prayer. Yet students of Tasawwuf are not asked to renounce the world; rather, they are to be “in the world, not of the world.” In the familiar territory of day-to-day life, the seeker’s conditioning, biases, and patterns are most deeply set, and it is here that they must be overcome. It is here also that one can serve God and God’s creation. When Hazrat told Muhammad Sa’id Khan (r.a.) that he wished to resign his job and devote himself fully to spiritual practices, the shaykh forbade him from doing so. Performing a worldly job is integral to success on the path, he explained. Hazrat continued to work as a teacher and later became headmaster of Jamia Millia School, finally retiring after thirty-six years at the school.
During the lifetime of his shaykh, Hazrat turned his efforts toward making the Sufi teachings more accessible. It had long troubled him that while individuals from all over the world came to India in search of truth, few discovered the benefits offered by the Sufi way. Most inclined toward the better-known schools of Vedanta and yoga. Techniques were easy to come by; gurus circled the globe opening study centers. Signs of real progress, however, were rare, especially of progress that reflected the needs of individuals who had to live and work in contemporary society.
Convinced that Sufism could satisfy the modern seeker’s quest, Hazrat conceived the idea of a school offering instruction in the five main Sufi orders. With the consent and guidance of his shaykh, he created the Institute of Search for Truth, located in New Delhi.
In recent years, Hazrat established branches of the Institute under the name of The School of Sufi Teaching in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Poland, UK, Italy, Germany, Malaysia, Singapore, Oman and Kyrgyzstan.
This brief biographical sketch reveals fundamental qualities and requirements of a student of Sufism. The cheerfulness, faith, trust, and sincerity of Hazrat Azad Rasool (r.a.) were proven keys to success outwardly and, most importantly, inwardly. His ability to turn each challenge into an opportunity for growth and worship (‘ibadah) was a sign of the real Sufi.
From his earliest years, Hazrat yearned to discover life’s meaning and purpose. He made the effort to seek out a teacher; and, once he had found one, persevered in following the guide’s directions until he had attained his goal. All the while, he continued to fulfil worldly roles as husband, father, grandfather, school teacher, headmaster, community leader, and respected elder. Retirement from his profession did not mean retirement from the world. Rather, he dedicated more time to his spiritual mission and service, including the building of the Institute, the construction of a mosque and khanaqah (Sufi lodge), and his family duties. From his days as a schoolboy until his last breath, his life encapsulated what a Sufi should be.