The Future Of Islam - 90 Years of Peace Building — The Life of Maulana Wahiduddin Khan by Jeffry R.
Excerpt from Searching for a King: Muslim Nonviolence and the Future of Islam by Jeffry R. Halverson
Chapter 8 — Maulana Wahiduddin Khan: The Ascetic
The Qur’an does not condone monasticism. It relates that Allah never asked people to undertake such extreme forms of piety, stating, “But monasticism, which they invented, We [i.e., Allah] did not prescribe it for them” (57: 27). Instead, the Qur’an and sunna of the Prophet Muhammad counsel Muslims to adhere to a form of moderate asceticism described in Islamic tradition as the “middle path.” India, home of one of the largest Muslim populations in the world , has a long-standing tradition of asceticism and monasticism, evident in the South Asian traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. The moderate asceticism advocated by Islam is certainly less withdrawn from the world than the asceticism found in these indigenous Indian traditions , which Muslims personally encountered when they arrived in the early eighth century. Nevertheless, the otherworldly piety of Muslim holy men and women, most notably among the Sufis, was something readily understood in the religious climate of the region.
The Muslim scholar, preacher of nonviolence, and vegetarian Wahiduddin Khan is a modern example of India’s Muslim holy men who embody the “middle path ” of Islam. Often seen dressed in a simple white robe, accented by his shaggy yet flowing grey beard and a large pair of black-rimmed glasses, Maulana (meaning “respected scholar,” or literally “our master”) Wahiduddin Khan visibly reflects the message that he teaches to his followers. A popular writer, speaker, and recipient of numerous humanitarian awards in India and abroad, he is a vocal champion of spiritual reform and nonviolence in Islam, actively engaged in what he calls the “true jihad.”
Although respected in religious circles, his Islamic education left him unprepared to deal with colleagues and critics who had received Western-style secular educations, including his own family members, which troubled him and shook his belief in Islam. But never one to back down from a challenge, Wahiduddin committed himself to the study of Arabic to examine Islamic sources in the original and English to study modern science and philosophy, including the writings of figures such as Karl Marx and Bertrand Russell, spending long hours in a library. This rigorous personal study ultimately renewed his faith in Islam and equipped him for the challenges that lay ahead.
The Jamaat-i Islami had been founded in Lahore in August 1941 as a platform for Mawdudi, a journalist by trade, to promote his radical vision of an Islamic state. The new ideological perspective offered by the Jamaat was presented as “true Islam ,” and traditional ulama and Sufi pirs were the targets of the group’s criticism and rebuke. The Jamaat sought to transform secular Pakistan into a state based on the sovereignty of God ( al-hakimiyya), which meant the full implementation of Islamic law (sharia) to replace idolatrous “man-made” systems. Some members of the group even advocated violent revolution as a means to this end. This was not the method publicly adopted by the leadership of the organization, though, which stressed instead the use of legal, constitutional channels for reforming Pakistan along Islamist lines. Nevertheless, the Jamaat’s activities were considered subversive, and it was frequently faced with government suppression. Meanwhile in India, the Jamaat-i Islami Hind, headquartered in Rampur at the time, focused its efforts on social services, advocacy, and Islamic propagation ( dawa) aimed at the eventual Islamization of Hindu-majority India.
During his time in the Jamaat-i Islami Hind, Wahiduddin Khan published his first book, Naye Ahd Ke Darwaze Par (On the Threshold of a New Era ), in Urdu in 1955. In it he presented his reformist vision of modern Islam for the first time. The book was followed by a second, more elaborate treatise titled Ilme Jadid Ka Challenge (Islam and Modern Challenges), better known by the title God Arises, which was later adopted by several Arab universities under the title al-Islam Yatahadda and translated into languages including English, Arabic, Malay, Hindi, and Turkish. God Arises is a thoroughly modernist rendering of Islam, arguing that the message of the Qur’an is entirely in harmony with the findings of modern science. “Today,” Wahiduddin writes, “that very same weapon — science — which was supposed to have brought religion to an ignominious end, has at last been turned against the scoffers and atheists, and we are, at the moment, witnessing the same momentous revolution in thinking that took place in the seventh century with the advent of the Prophet of Islam.” The advances of science, he further notes, have forced scholars of religion to reexamine the claims and tenets of their religions, including the notion that creation was the product of a godhead. “I am convinced that, far from having a damaging effect on religion,” he writes, “modern knowledge has served to clarify and consolidate its truths.”
In the process of traversing a range of scientific subject areas throughout the book, including physics, geology, and biology, Wahiduddin frequently turns to the subject of political systems and critiques the dominant Western ideologies of the day. These are the areas where his affiliation with Islamism at the time becomes most evident. For instance, he writes that “in both democratic and despotic systems, human equality has remained an unattainable ideal, for power has always had to be put in the hands of a few individuals, with others becoming their subjects; this disparity can only disappear when God is considered sovereign.” Such ideas clearly reflect Abu Ala Mawdudi’s conception of al-hakimiyya, which was also adopted by the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb in his own writings, such as the controversial book Milestones. Wahiduddin’s use of the concept, however, lacks the revolutionary zeal of Mawdudi or Qutb, seeking instead to articulate a holistic vision of Islamic society that offers practical social benefits and safeguards. He was far more interested in the social activism and organizational structure of the Jamaat than Mawdudi’s actual ideological vision.
A New Direction
In time Wahiduddin emerged as a prominent critic of Mawdudi’s Islamist ideas, which he saw as reactionary rather than authentically Islamic and abandoned the Jamaat and its political agenda in 1962. From Wahiduddin’s perspective, Mawdudi was treating politics as the center of Islamic activity, when tawhid (the oneness of God) is the actual heart of Islam and the call (dawa) to tawhid should be the center of all Islamic activity, making all else, including politics and economics, secondary. This break with the Islamists led Wahiduddin to gravitate toward another influential Muslim group, the Tablighi Jamaat, because it emphasized Islamic spirituality and political quietism. The Tablighi Jamaat was established in 1927 by Maulana Muhammad Ilyas in the Mewat region south of Delhi as an apolitical movement emphasizing Muslim personal renewal through “reverting” to the ways (sunna) of the Prophet Muhammad. Wahiduddin was, however, still interested in making Islam relevant to the modern age and grew disillusioned with the Tablighi’s archtraditionalism, rejection of ijtihad (creative rethinking), and perceived backwardness, ultimately leaving the organization in 1975. This break motivated Wahiduddin to establish his own organization, the Islamic Center at New Delhi , which quickly began to publish in Urdu a monthly Islamic journal called al-Risala, followed later by editions in English and Hindi, to freely express Wahiduddin’s ideas, including his views on nonviolence.
Wahiduddin’s conception of nonviolence is perhaps best articulated in his treatise Islam and Peace. Growing up at the height of India’s independence movement, Wahiduddin held great admiration for Mohandas Gandhi and expressed these sentiments in his book. For instance, he writes,
“Our greatest need is to fulfill Mahatma Gandhi’s mission … after political change we have to bring about social change in our country through Gandhi Andolan, that is, a nonviolent movement.”
Nonviolence, he states, begins in the mind of an individual, which is the basic unit of human society, and must be cultivated through a long and laborious struggle. This struggle (jihad) consists of many levels, but the most important is education and the development of the mind. He writes that “to make a nonviolent world for a peaceful society, there is only one way, and that is by using educative method[ s] to convert people’s thinking from violence to nonviolence, and to enable them to see the solution to matters of controversy through peaceful means” and that “it is from such intellectual awareness alone that a nonviolent world and a peaceful society can be constructed.” Nonviolence, he assures his readers, is completely in keeping with the teachings of the Qur’an. Pointing to chapter 2 , verse 205, Wahiduddin states that God does not love fasad, a term he interprets to mean violence, or any action that “results in disruption of the social system, causing huge losses in terms of lives and property.” He also refers his readers to the Qur’an’s emphasis on patience (sabr) above any other virtue , noting that “patience implies a peaceful response or reaction, whereas impatience implies a violent response.” The Qur’anic concept of jihad, he further argues, also refers to nonviolence:
Jihad means struggle, to struggle one’s utmost. It must be appreciated at the outset that this word is used for nonviolent struggle as opposed to violent struggle. One clear proof of this is the verse of the Qur’an (25: 52) which says: ‘Perform jihad with this (i.e., the word of the Qur’an ) most strenuously.’ The Qur’an is not a sword or a gun. It is a book of ideology. In such a case, performing jihad with the Qur’an would mean an ideological struggle to conquer peoples’ hearts and minds through Islam’s superior philosophy.
Wahiduddin contrasts his reading of jihad as nonviolent activism with the term qital, which is described as violent activism. Jihad, which awakens the conscience and overcomes the human ego, is marked by positive values, friendship, construction, and life, while qital is driven by the ego and embroils people in problems, destruction, and death.
Wahiduddin supports his reading of the Qur’an by referring to the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Unlike most of the proponents of Islamic nonviolence, Wahiduddin does not emphasize the primacy of the Meccan period over the Medinan period. In fact, he points to an event at the height of the Medinan period when Muhammad was embroiled in warfare against the pagan Meccans. In 628 Muhammad signed a peace treaty with the Meccans, known as the Treaty of Hudaybiyya. The treaty was established at a time of great tension when Muhammad and a thousand Muslims had traveled unarmed to pagan-ruled Mecca on pilgrimage. The treaty stipulated that fighting between the Muslims and the Meccans would cease for a period of ten years, even though many of the Muslims found the terms of the treaty disagreeable, including the stipulation that called for the return of some Muslim refugees to Mecca. Nevertheless, Muslim tradition has treated this event as a triumph for Islam. “Hudaybiyya,” Wahiduddin asserts, “symbolizes the greatness of the power of peace against the power of war.” The peace treaty, he argues, “enabled the energies of the believers to be utilized in peaceful constructive activities instead of being dissipated in a futile armed encounter.” Among the events that occurred then, Muslim tradition relates that Muhammad sent letters to the great rulers of the time, including Heraclius, emperor of Byzantium, and Chosroes, the shah of Sasanian Persia , inviting them to embrace Islam (i.e., dawa).
More importantly, however, the Treaty of Hudaybiyya meant that the Muslims could freely interact with their opponents in Mecca and Islam’s missionary message could be conveyed into the heart of hostile pagan territory. “The peace treaty,” Wahiduddin explains, “cleared the path for the direct propagation of Islam [and] the opponents came to accept Islam in such great numbers, so that ultimately, by numerical power alone, Islam became the victor.” This development ultimately allowed the Muslim conquest of Mecca in 630 (after the treaty was violated by a Meccan ally ) to occur without open combat, and Muhammad granted clemency to the city’s pagan inhabitants, who were once the most bitter and cruel enemies of Islam.
Stemming from his interpretations of the Qur’an and the life of the Prophet Muhammad, Wahiduddin rejects the “dichotomous thinking” found among many modern Muslims that divides the world into those who support Islam and those who seem to be its enemies. He notes that because “Western civilization does not appear to them to be friendly to Islam, they tend to regard it as an enemy of Islam.” Instead Wahiduddin points to an important third category where the latent potential for dawa resides. If Muslims were to extricate themselves from their “rigid pattern of thought,” they would see that the West actually falls into a category driven by economic interests and competition rather than actual enmity for Islam. The extremist narrative of violence, of course, disputes such a claim and articulates the very sort of dichotomy that Wahiduddin explicitly rejects.
Wahiduddin supports his view by invoking a dark and tragic event in Islamic history, a terrible time when innumerable Muslims perished. He refers to the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century, when the great Abbasid city of Baghdad was laid to waste and gruesome towers of human heads were left behind. The once powerful Muslims were conquered by the brutal force and superior armies of the pagan Mongols (Tartars), who swept through the heartlands of the Muslim world from the east. Through these tragic events, the Mongols became overt enemies of Islam. Yet, referring to the years that followed, when the Mongol rulers such as Ghazan Khan eventually converted to Islam, Wahiduddin notes that the Muslims “re-channeled their energies by silently engaging themselves in peaceful dawa work among the victorious Tartars,” and this dawa “verified the dictum of the Qur’an (in verse 41: 34) that, through dawa, the opponents of Islam would become its supporters and friends.” This view clearly has important implications for Muslims living in Hindu-majority India. The ideals of nonviolence and peaceful activism have frequently been put to the test there , where communal violence has remained tragically commonplace since the time of the partition.
One of the most tragic incidents in the history of Indian Islam occurred in 1992 when a massive crowd of Hindu extremists attacked and destroyed the Babri Mosque (built in 1528) in the northern town of Ayodhya to build a temple devoted to the god Rama on the site. The destruction of the mosque prompted nationwide rioting between Hindus and Muslims where more than two thousand people died and numerous other atrocities occurred. In Mumbai, for example, it was reported that men were stopped in the streets by Hindu mobs, forced to pull down their pants, and, if they were circumcised (as are Muslim men), they were stabbed. Women were gang-raped. Such horrific incidents obviously present a challenge for proponents of nonviolence seeking to persuade others to embrace their path. In the aftermath of the riots, Wahiduddin Khan addressed the tragedy through his official journal, al-Risala. The actions and slogans of the extremists, he wrote, were “undeniably against the teachings of the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi , and, if not immediately rectified, will plunge the country into total destruction.” As a solution to the conflict, he offered a three-point plan to bring about national reconciliation: (1) Muslims would give up any plan to rebuild the Babri Mosque ; (2) Hindus would give up any demands on any other Muslim religious sites; and (3) the Indian constitution would be amended to ensure that the status of all places of worship, other than Ayodhya, could not be changed. The proposal was accompanied by an organized fifteen-day peace march. Wahiduddin marched alongside a Jain leader, Acharya Muni Sushil Kumar, and a Hindu guru, Swami Chidanand Saraswati, addressing large crowds at thirty-five locations from Mumbai to Nagpur about interfaith harmony. The campaign did much to ease tensions at the time.
The shocking violence of the riots, however, still presented challenges to nonviolence that had to be addressed. As he acknowledged the “sacrifices” that Muslims had made and that the violence had “claimed more Muslim lives than the number of stones used in the mosque’s construction,” Wahiduddin never wavered in his commitment to nonviolence. Furthermore, he completely refrained from lashing out against the Hindu majority and argued instead that the demolition of the mosque had been purely political in nature and not a matter of religious intolerance , thus absolving Hindus as a whole of the blame. He further stressed that violence and cyclical retribution would have dire implications for all of India, including terrible economic implications that would harm the entire country’s future . “The present generation of India,” he wrote, “has to decide what kind of India it is going to bequeath to the coming generation — an advanced, prosperous India, or a poor, ruined India, unfit to be inhabited, by Hindus, Muslims or any other person.”
To foster a prosperous future for Muslims and all others in India, Wahiduddin insisted that education (and the resources to provide it) is absolutely essential. Society as a whole, he argued, must use the power of education to transform the way people think about their problems and enable them to seek the solution to matters through peaceful means. Challenges and conflicts can actually serve as catalysts for human progress, so long as the responses to those challenges are nonviolent and motivate greater education and innovation to meet the tests at hand. The violence and suffering that Muslims have experienced, Wahiduddin further rationalized, may even be the result of God’s wrath for their failure to be, as the Qur’an puts it (3: 110), the “best community raised up from humanity.” The Muslims must take their own destiny into their hands.
The political groups associated with the violence at Ayodhya , Gujarat, and other places, included the Bharatiya Janata Party, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and Vishva Hindu Parishad. The aggressive anti-Muslim sentiment found in these Hindu groups is well known and alarming. Therefore, it would certainly be understandable if Wahiduddin shunned such groups. Many in India’s Muslim minority feel cloistered and besieged because of the rise of militant Hindu ultranationalism (i.e., Hindutva). Some Muslims have even called for violence and armed conflict as a means to defend their communities against the groups. Wahiduddin, however, has rejected such calls and responded by quoting the Qur’an that “no one despairs of God’s mercy except those who have no faith” (12: 87), and he has met directly with the leaders of the RSS and other anti-Muslim Hindu groups. In his view, Muslims must interact with those who oppose them in order to demonstrate the true teachings of Islam (a form of dawa) and create dialogue to show that Muslims are useful allies for the progress of society. For this reason, some in the Muslim community have seen Wahiduddin as a traitor and dubbed him the “RSS Maulana.” Gandhi, of course, experienced similar criticism from certain Hindus in India, as did King from segments of the African American community.
Toward the Future
For his many efforts at promoting peace and nonviolence, Wahiduddin Khan has received numerous accolades, most recently the 2010 Rajiv Gandhi National Sadbhavana Award in India. He previously received the Demiurgus Peace International Award from the Nuclear Disarmament Forum in Zug, Switzerland, among several other international and national awards. Now in his eighties, Wahiduddin has produced some two hundred books in his lifetime, many of which have been translated into multiple languages. In the meantime, he has continued to lecture and teach throughout the world at Islamic and interfaith conferences designed to foster dialogue and peaceful relations among nations and communities. Promoting reconciliation between India and Pakistan, in particular, has been one of his top priorities. Many of these interfaith events have been organized by the nonprofit Centre for Peace and Spirituality (CPS), which Wahiduddin Khan founded in January of 2001 in New Delhi. The stated mission of the center is a bold and ambitious one, as it aims to “cause the message of peace and spirituality to enter each and every home of the world, in order to usher in an era of global peace and unity.”
Maulana Wahiduddin Khan embodies what Muslims traditionally call a zahid in Arabic. The term refers to a person who renounces or withdraws from worldly things. This designation is appropriate not only in reference to Wahiduddin’s ascetic piety, but perhaps more so for his renunciation of violence. For Wahiduddin, Islam offers the world an ideology of peace. Islam, he teaches, always seeks a state of peace, because all that Islam aims to create — spiritual progress , intellectual development, character building, social reform, education, and above all missionary work (dawa) — can only be achieved in an atmosphere of peace and harmony. Every teaching in Islam, he asserts, is based on the principle of peace, and any deviation from that principle is a deviation from Islam. For, as the Qur’an states, “God guides all who seek His favor to the paths of peace and leads them out of the darkness into the light” (5: 16).
Halverson, Jeffry R. (2012–09–30). Searching for a King: Muslim Nonviolence and the Future of Islam (p. 110). Potomac Books Inc.. Kindle Edition.