Born on 29 September 1929, in a village called Zoori Munz, Geelani came from a poor family. His father, Syed Peer Shah Geelani, worked as a laborer, maintaining the canals near the village. Geelani attended a government school ten miles away. In 1945, he graduated from high school, and went to Lahore to study the Qur’an. A year later he returned to his village after his father had fallen ill. He became an imam in a nearby mosque while pursuing a Bachelors degree in Persian literature.
One day in 1949, Maulana Muhammad Syed Masoodi, a pro-Indian politician and General Secretary of the National Conference (NC) came to Zoori Munz. Geelani was conducting Friday prayers at a local mosque. Though Geelani was just 20, his oratory skills deeply impressed Masoodi. He became Geelani’s mentor and brought him to Srinagar as his assistant. Geelani was provided a room to stay at Mujahid Manzil, NC headquarters. For four years, Masoodi groomed him with his ideology as a secularist.
Geelani also used to teach at a government-run-school to earn more money. He also used to write op-eds for the Daily Khidmat, the mouthpiece of the Indian National Congress in Kashmir. In one editorial, he even praised India’s secular democracy.
In 1954, Geelani met Qari Saifuddin (Jamaat-e-Islami’s co-founder in Kashmir), who introduced him to the work of Maudoodi. Gradually, Maudoodi’s philosophy replaced the teachings of Masoodi in Geelani—who soon offered his life to strengthen Jamaat in Kashmir. He was first arrested in August 1962. During his 13-month imprisonment, his father died; Indian authorities, refusal to allow him to attend the funeral which further cemented his position.
As a Jamaat foot soldier, Geelani returned to northern Kashmir. He gave sermons on Fridays in local mosques, preached in madrassas, and taught Persian at a local middle school. By the beginning of the 1970s, Geelani decided to enter politics and in 1972 Geelani became an MLA (11,396 Votes-Jamaat ticket) for Sopore. He again won in 1977 (16,717 votes-Jamaat ticket) and in 1987 (24,392-MUF ticket) but resigned on moral grounds during the 1989 uprising and has boycotted all elections held since. An insurgency in the valley had increased in momentum after the 1987 elections had been rigged in favor of Farooq Abdullah, thousands of Kashmiris crossed over to POK for arms training to fight India.
Geelani, at first, was hesitant about supporting militants but later argued that they (Jamaat) cannot disown their men at the frontlines. The uprising was crushed with a heavy hand but Geelani kept going.
Geelani helped form The All Parties Hurriyat Conference in 1993, along with Mirwaiz Maulvi Farooq, Abdul Gani Lone, Maulvi Abbas Ansari and Abdul Ghani Bhat. He became the party’s chairman in 1997.
Since then, he has survived twelve assassination attempts and spent at least fifteen years in different prisons inside and outside J&K for espousing Kashmir’s accession to/merger with Pakistan and suffers from a variety of kidney and heart ailments due to it, which has led to eight surgeries till now. The government has maintained a “no contact” policy with him since 2001 because of his hardline ideology. As per them, most major nations follow their lead, but a small number of Human Rights and NGO activists still meet him at his residence where he is under house arrest since 2010.
Books are oxygen to me. As someone who has been under house arrest for so many years, books have been my life support. I spend some five hours reading every day. I was 20 when I read my first book, Haqeeqat-e-Zaqaat (The Essence of Charity) by Maulana Maududi. This book not only introduced me to his body of writing, but also to the political party, Jamaat-e-Islami, of which I became a member in 1953. It had such a tremendous impact on me that I immediately began to read his other books: Haqeeqat-e-Hajj (The Essence of Pilgrimage), Haqeeqat-e-Imam (The Essence of Leadership), Haqeeqat-e-Islam (The Essence of Islam), Haqeeqat-e-Jihad (The Essence of Holy War) and Haqeeqat-e-Salat (The Essence of Worship). I give these books the entire credit for whatever I am. These are the books that made me recognise that I must serve my people. – Syed Ali Geelani to Tahelka
He also likes reading Ibn Taymiyyah, Abul Hasan Ali Hasani Nadwi, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Mohammad Ali Jouhar and Muhammad Husain Azad. Mohammad Iqbal, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Asadullah Khan Ghalib are his favorite poets.