Peace in a Plural Society

Maulana Wahiduddin Khan (Translated by Yoginder Sikand)

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Peace in a Plural Society

By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan (Translated by Yoginder Sikand)


India won its political independence from the British in 1947, but this was accompanied by the tragic Partition of the country. The Partition was based on the ‘two-nation’ theory. But far from solving the problem of communal conflict between Hindus and Muslims, it only further exacerbated it. Prior to the Partition, the conflict was between two communities, but, with the Partition, it now became one between two countries.

The Partition was accompanied by horrific communal violence on both sides of the newly-created border. It has continued unabated thereafter. In order to address the issue, the first Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, called a national-level conference in October 1961. At the conference it was decided to set up a National Integration Council to deal with matters related to communal harmony. The second conference of the Council was held in June 1962. Many speakers spoke on the occasion, suggesting various measures to promote communal harmony. Yet, no action was taken on their suggestions. The third meeting of the Council was called by Indira Gandhi in Srinagar in 1968, where legal action was suggested against those spreading communal conflict. Some other steps were also mooted. But still, nothing practical came out of this, and so, even today, the situation in the country is about the same as it was in 1947 as far as the issue of communalism is concerned.

What is the reason for this failure? My answer is that this is, to a large extent, because the issue has been seen simply as one to do with the question of law and order. However, in actual fact, the nature of the matter is something quite different. It is actually deeply related to the lack of intellectual and social awareness. Thus, the problem of communalism requires a change in people’s ways of thinking and in their sense of discernment.

Religious Differences

I want to clarify some basic issues first which relate to this vital question of properly educating people about the issue of communalism. The first is to do with the issue of religious differences. There are, in fact, obvious differences between the different religions. For instance, some religions believe in monism, others in monotheism, yet others in polytheism, and some even believe that there are 330 million gods or even more. Some religions preach the discovery of truth by oneself, while others believe that such truth is revealed by God through messengers.

Some people think that these religious differences are themselves the major cause for communal conflict. They claim that communal conflict can be stopped only when these differences are put an end to. ‘Bulldoze them all’, say some extremists, but of course this is completely impractical.

In the face of the reality of religious differences, some other people seek to ‘prove’ that all religions are, actually, one and the same. But this is like extracting portions from the Constitutions of different countries and putting them together in a single book and then claiming that all the Constitutions of the world are the same. Naturally, this will not be acceptable to the citizens of the different countries, who will outright reject such a claim since it is false.

I have often pondered on the question of religious differences, and, on the basis of my study of different religions, feel that to say that all religions are the same is not true. In actual fact, religions differ from each other in numerous ways. Hence, to claim that the teachings of all the religions are identical is quite fallacious. Even if, by some unknown means, it could be argued that the texts of the different religions are, in actual fact, basically the same, there are multiple and conflicting interpretations of each of these texts, as a result of which each religion is further divided into numerous sects.

Such differences or variety is not limited just to religion alone. The entire world is based on and characterised by differences. These differences are so pervasive that no two things or people are wholly identical. As someone very rightly said, ‘Nature abhors uniformity’.  When difference is itself a law of nature, how can religion be an exception to this rule? Just as there is diversity in everything in the world, so too is their diversity in religion, too. We have not thought it necessary to do away with differences in other matters, but, instead, have agreed to disagree. We should adopt this same practical approach and principle in matters of religion as well. Here, too, we should accept diversity and differences and seek to promote unity despite them, instead of seeking an imaginary unity by trying to do away with this diversity. The only way to solve the issue of religious differences is to follow one and respect all.

Cultural Differences

The issue of cultural difference is also a vexed one. Different social groups are characterised by cultural differences, and this is a social fact. Some people regard these differences as the root of communal conflict. They argue that to end this conflict these differences should be wiped off and a single, common culture should be imposed on everyone so that, thereby, ‘cultural unity’ can be promoted. Likewise, some people seek to overcome cultural or religious differences by advocating what they call ‘social re-engineering’ or ‘cultural nationalism’.  These are completely impractical approaches. They are tantamount to what I had earlier referred to as ‘cultural bull-dozing’.  Culture cannot be made or destroyed by individuals at will like this. It cannot be formulated and prepared by someone sitting in a drawing-room. Rather, it is a product of a long process of historical development.

In the wake of the Second World War, numerous ideologues in different parts of the world began calling for the establishment of a mono-cultural society in the name of promoting national unity. This mono-cultural approach was tried, for instance, in Canada, but it proved completely impractical and had to be soon abandoned. Now, Canada has officially adopted multiculturalism as its policy and has abandoned mono-culturalism for good. This happened in the United States as well.  After World War II, a movement to promote what was called ‘Americanisation’ emerged, which sought to impose a single culture on all Americans, but this failed and now in America, too, multiculturalism is the recognised policy.

Cultural differences are not merely a matter of differences between two communities. Such differences are to be found among different sub-groups in each community. It is impractical, indeed impossible, to do away with these differences. Cultural and religious homogeneity are not in accordance with the principles of nature and of history. It has never happened in the past, and nor can it happen in the future, for culture follows its own logic of evolution and cannot be formulated by someone and then imposed on all others. Therefore, the only practical way to come to terms with differences, religious as well as cultural, between communities, is to adopt the approach of ‘Live and Let Live’ and of peaceful toleration and co-existence. Engaging in conflict in order to seek to do away with these differences will be of no avail. Far from eliminating the differences, it will only magnify them even more, making the problem even more intractable.

Some people claim that India belongs to the Hindus, and that they are devoted to this country. They claim that this is not the case with the Muslims of the country, whose centres of devotion—Mecca and Medina—are located outside India. That is why, they allege, Muslims cannot be loyal to India. I differ with this argument, however. If a Hindu is devoted to the temple of Somnath, this does not mean that he is not devoted to a temple elsewhere. If someone loves his mother, it surely does not mean that he has no love for his father. Similarly, if an Indian Muslim has an emotional bonding with Mecca and Medina, it does not mean that he has no love for India. Surely, human beings, whether Hindus, Muslims or others, are expansive enough to contain within them multiple loves and bondings. This is something that every man and woman knows and experiences personally. As a Western philosopher very aptly put it, ‘I am large enough to contain all these contradictions’.

Religion and Politics

Very often religion is dragged into communal controversies. Repeatedly, political and communal controversies are turned into religious issues, this further igniting peoples’ passions and exacerbating communal conflicts. Because of this, many people have turned against religion itself. They say that human beings do not need religion, and that, hence, religion must be destroyed and only then is communal harmony possible.

I think this is an extremist response to an extremist issue, a secular extremist response to religious extremism. This is not a desirable approach. I believe that, in itself, religion is not a problem. What is a problem is the political exploitation of religion by some people and forces. Hence, it is this, the exploitation of religion, rather than religion itself, that needs to be combated and put an end to.

Religion has two parts: the personal and the collective. The former refers to beliefs, worship, morality and spiritualism. The latter pertains to political and social laws. I believe that the right approach would, in general conditions, be to focus only on the former. All effort should be placed on promoting the true spirit of religion. As for the political and social laws of religion, they should not be highlighted until such time as society is itself prepared for them, because they can be established only if the entire society collectively is willing to abide by them. Only when that happens should the question of this aspect of religion be raised. This can be called a practical division between religion and politics. That is, while in terms of theory or principle, politics can continue being considered part of religion, in the face of practical realities the enforcement of the political rules of religion can be postponed. This is a wise and practical approach. In this way, the demands both of religion and of politics will be respected: that of religion in the present, and of politics, in the future. On the other hand, if this pragmatic policy is not adopted and both aspects of religion are sought to be focussed on then the demands of neither religion nor politics can be respected.

Religious Beliefs and Communal Harmony

Muslims have some complaints about certain Hindu beliefs, which they think hamper communal harmony. I will not discuss this matter here, but I will only advise Muslims that they should abide by the Islamic principle of tolerance. On the other hand, Hindus have some complaints against or misunderstandings about Muslims, and these I would like to dwell upon now. In particular, I would like to discuss some Islamic terms which are, or can become, causes of misunderstandings between Hindus and Muslims.

But before that I want to make a brief diversion. It has become a common practice that if a Muslim does something wrong, Hindus write and speak against him. And vice versa. From the point of view of social reform, this approach is absolutely wrong. Instead, the opposite should happen. If a Muslim does wrong, then Muslim ulema and scholars must speak against him; and if a Hindu does wrong then Hindu leaders must do likewise. It is like if a child does something wrong, his own father is the first to scold him. The father does not wait for the neighbours to come to admonish him. And, in any case, if he is scolded by his neighbours instead of his father it will have no meaningful effect on him. This is because, quite naturally, one listens more to the admonishments of one’s own close ones and, accordingly, seeks to reform oneself. If someone who is not one’s own scolds or admonishes one, one takes it in a different spirit, as a challenge to one’s pride. And this has no positive impact. This principle must be carefully borne in mind when it comes to the question of promoting communal harmony.

Community, Nation and Nationalism

Let me come back to the discussion of some Islamic terms that need explanation. Clarifying their real meaning can help in promoting better relations between Muslims and others. On the other hand, incorrect interpretation of these terms can only further magnify differences between them.

The first term is that of qaumiyat or ‘nationality’. From the Quran it appears that the prophets addressed their people, including those who did not follow the true faith, as people who belonged to their own nationality. Hence, the believers and non-believers shared the same nationality. In other words, nationality is determined by one’s homeland, not by one’s religion. The word to denote the community formed by adherence to a common religion is not qaum, but millat. In today’s world, one’s homeland, not one’s religion, determines one’s nationality, and Islam agrees with this principle.

In this regard, the ‘two-nation’ theory—the claim that the Hindus and Muslims of India are two separate nations—is un-Islamic. It creates in the minds of Muslims of India the belief that they are a separate nation and all other Indians belong to another nation. This is wrong even from the Islamic point of view. The true Islamic position is that the Muslims of India should regard themselves as belonging to the same nationality as other Indians, just as all the prophets of God regarded even people who did not accept God’s faith but who belonged to their communities as members of the same nationality.

Some people take an extremist position in defining the concept of nationality, so much so that they equate it with religion. This is a case of ideological extremism. Some modern Islamic scholars have interpreted Islam in such an extremist manner that they branded all other systems other than Islam as evil and false. They declared it illegal for Muslims to live under any such system, so much so that they even announced that under such systems no Muslims should receive government education, seek government employment, vote in elections or approach the country’s courts to have their disputes solved. They claimed that all this was haram or forbidden in Islam.

This notion of so-called wholly evil and false systems was the product of some extremist minds, and does not have anything to do with the Islam of God and the Prophet. This is why practical realities forced many of those who once upheld this erroneous notion to abandon it. The same happened in relation to the issue of nationality. Some extremists had gone to the other extent of presenting nationalism as a complete religion by itself. But this ideology, too, was, over time, exposed as hollow in the face of empirical reality. Consequently, in general today nationalism is understood in roughly the same natural manner in which it is portrayed in the Quran.

Most Indian Muslim leaders of the first half of the twentieth century could not properly appreciate or understand these issues. They adopted an unnatural and extremist notion about nation and nationalism and declared the notion of nationalism as determined by one’s homeland, instead of religion, to be un-Islamic, claiming that this sort of nationalism threatened to take the role or status enjoyed by religion. This, of course, went against the actual Islamic notion of nation. Strangely, most ulema and Muslim intellectuals of that period considered this political issue to be a matter of life and death for Islam as a religion, while, in actual fact, no political upheavals can ever pose a challenge to the eternal truth of Islam. Some Indian Muslim scholars of this period even declared that the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate was tantamount to the decline of the Islamic shariah. This has never happened and nor can it ever happen! The period of the four Righteously-Guided Caliphs came to an end but still Islam continued to spread. And it continued to expand even after the Umayyad and Abbasid Empires collapsed, and also after Muslim rule in Spain and that of the Fatimids in Egypt and the Mughals in India came to an end. The decline of these Muslim Sultanates could not and did not cause any decline of Islam.

Kufr and Kafirs

Some people claim that the notions of kufr and kafir are a major stumbling block to communal harmony. However, this is a misunderstanding which has nothing to do with the Quran as properly understood. The word kufr literally means to ‘deny’, and the word kafir means ‘one who denies’. Kufr can be an attribute of an individual; it is not the ethic name for a group. The investigation of kufr with regard to any person can happen when he has been offered invitation to the faith in the manner that the prophets engaged in and this is carried on till its end by presenting proper and requisite proofs, or what is called ehtemam-e hujaat. Without this sort of invitation it is not proper to declare that a particular person has engaged in kufr or ‘denial’. Likewise, it is not right for ordinary people to specifically claim a person or a group to have become kafirs. The act of kufr is actually related to one’s intentions and God alone knows what these are. That is why it is only for God and His Prophet, who has been given knowledge by God, to openly and clearly declare and specify if and when a particular person is a kafir or ‘denier’.


The Term ‘Dar ul-Harb’ or ‘Abode of War’

The term dar ul-harb or ‘abode of war’ came into being after the death of the Prophet, probably in the period of Abbasid rule. The term is not found in the Quran or the Hadith. This clearly shows that the term was coined by jurists based on their own reasoning (ijtihad), and is not mentioned or used in the original Islamic scriptures. And that which is ijtihadi, a product of human reasoning and reflection, can be right or wrong. In my opinion, the term and concept of dar ul-harb reflects an ijithadi error. The Prophet faced difficult challenges but he never declared any area as dar ul-harb. I feel that the Quran and Hadith both indicate a different sort of notion of ‘abode’: what can be called the dar ul-dawa or ‘abode of invitation to the faith’. This is what is in accordance with the Islamic spirit. Islam regards all people as those who should be invited to or addressed by its message, irrespective of whether these people are at peace or at war with its followers.


The Notion of Jihad

Due to the erroneous interpretations of some Muslims, the notion has been created that jihad means physical warfare. These Muslims believe that Muslims are God’s representatives on earth, and that they are charged with the responsibility of establishing God’s government here and of forcing people to obey God’s laws. This understanding of jihad is undoubtedly wrong and has nothing to do with the correct understanding of the Quran and the Prophet’s practice.

The notion that reforms can be brought about through force, especially in a plural society, is unacceptable. In plural societies, no community can seek a right for itself which it is not willing to allow to others. If a community thinks it is its right to engage in war ostensibly for the sake of God or for social reform, it will have to concede the same right to other communities, too. What will then happen is that in the name of so-called reform all the communities will be at war with each other. And, then, instead of any reform, a never-ending spiral of conflict and violence will ensue. In actual fact, there can be only one acceptable form of violence, and that is violence in self-defence. Other than this, there is no sanction for any sort of war.

Related to this is the memory of violent misdeeds of the past, in the age of monarchy. At that time it was thought that the king was superior to the law and that he could do whatever he wanted. Accordingly, almost all kings engaged in such deeds that had no legal or moral sanction. Some Muslim kings of India, too, did the same. For instance, Mahmud Ghaznavi destroyed the Somnath temple and looted its treasury. Likewise, it is said that Aurangzeb destroyed a temple in Benaras and built a mosque in its place. And so on.

Such deeds were committed by kings all over the world in those days. But that is now just a part of ancient history. But while in many countries this has been forgotten, this is not the case in India, where it has become the cause of considerable bitterness between Hindus and Muslims, leading to communal conflict and posing a major challenge in the path of promoting communal harmony.

The basic reason for this, I believe, is that Muslim ulema and scholars have wrongly depicted the Muslim rulers of India as ‘Islamic’ rulers, and consider them to be a part of the history of Islam as a religion. In actual fact, however, the status of these rulers was merely that of rulers who belonged to some dynasties. It is completely wrong to consider their rule as ‘Islamic’ rule. These two things are totally different. But because this difference was not kept in mind, the events that were associated with particular Muslim kings or Muslim dynasties came to be associated in people’s minds with Islam as a religion. Many Muslims made the mistake of imagining the period of Muslim kings as a source of Islamic pride and as part of the history of Islam as a religion, considering it as a proof or expression of the supremacy of Islam. On the other hand, many Hindus started demanding what they called the addressing or reversal of historical wrongs. Naturally, both these stances only led to further conflict.

Both sides are at fault, I believe. The fault of many Muslims is that they are not ready to re-look at the history of these Muslim rulers because they wrongly believe this to be part of their religious history. And the fault of the Hindus is that they are not willing to forget the past. They insist on what they say is the righting of historical wrongs, even if this makes for even more conflict in the present-day. Both sides need to become pragmatic. Muslims should not treat the Muslim rulers of the past as ‘Islamic rulers’, but, instead, should look upon their reign as simply that of certain dynasties. They should disown the un-Islamic and immoral deeds that many of these rulers committed. They should openly condemn them for this, including Mahmud Ghaznavi or Aurangzeb or anyone else. On the other hand, Hindus should seek to forget the past because, as the saying goes, ‘The past is past’. They should desist from emotionalism in this regard and adopt a pragmatic and realistic approach. Hindus should remember that historical wrongs have always happened but still no one has been able to remedy any of them. To seek to right historical wrongs is foolish, and can only destroy the present and the future while not being able to change what has already happened. This is completely against the law of nature.

Unfortunately, however, this trend of thinking is deeply-rooted in India. On the other hand, those countries that have sought to forget their past and to concentrate, instead, on building their present have achieved major successes. One example of this is Japan. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Japan did not seek to correct the wrongs committed against it by America, but, instead, focussed on trying to build itself. The result: Japan is today an economic superpower. In contrast, India tried to rectify historical wrongs, and that only further exacerbated the country’s backwardness.


To come back to where I started, let me repeat that tolerance and toleration of differences alone can ensure peace in a plural society. It is a law or principle of nature that there should be such differences between different social groups. That is why communal harmony cannot come about by seeking to destroy these differences.  Rather, this can be possible only by accepting and tolerating them. To seek to put an end to these differences is to seek to defy a basic natural law, and, obviously, this cannot succeed. No group or individual can defy and defeat natural laws. That is why pragmatism demands that as far as the issue of religious and cultural differences is concerned we must abide by the principle of toleration rather than resort to conflict. Tolerate differences in order to create unity, because seeking to establish unity by suppressing or destroying differences is impossible.

Translated from the chapter titled Aman Mushtarik Samaj Mai (‘Peace in a Plural Society’) in Maulana Wahiduddin Khan’s Urdu book Aman-e Alam (‘Global Peace’) [Goodword Books, New Delhi], pp.142-160.