Khan, Maulana Wahiduddin - Religion, Peace Dialogue: Search for a Relevant Islamic Theology

Religion, Peace Dialogue: Maulana Wahiduddin Khan?s Search for a Relevant Islamic Theology
Yoginder Sikand

Maulana Wahiduddin Khan is one of India?s most prolific Islamic scholars. In contrast to many traditional ?ulama, Khan has been actively engaged in promoting inter-faith dialogue and communal harmony, which he sees as an Islamic imperative. Although some of his controversial stances and pronouncements have earned him the hostility of several Muslims themselves, this has not stopped him from boldly speaking his mind on a range of issues of contemporary concern. This article is based on an examination some of Khan?s writings, focussing in particular on his understanding of what it means to be Muslim and Indian at the same time and the demands that these two identities make on the Indian Muslims. Although the Muslims of India are Khan?s primary focus, and the development of his own thought must be located in the specific Indian context, Khan also seeks to address the Muslim ummah as a whole, and, as the growing interest in his writings in other countries suggests, in this he has registered considerable success.

Early Years

Wahiduddin Khan was born in a family of Pathan landlords in 1925 at Badharia, a village near the town of Azamgarh, in the eastern United Provinces, now the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. His parents died when he was still a child, and he was brought up by his father?s brother, Sufi Hamid Majid Khan. Although his two brothers were sent to western-style schools for their education, the young Wahiduddin was enrolled at a traditional Islamic seminary, the Madrasat-ul Islah, in Sarai Mir, near Azamgarh, in order to train as an ?alim. Here he spent six years, graduating in 1944.

After his graduation, Khan returned to his village, instead of taking up employment in a mosque or madrasa, as did most of his classmates. Back with his family, he seems to have found himself a misfit, sensing a great chasm between himself and his brothers and other relatives who had received a modern education. A period of great introspection and disillusionment with the traditional understanding of Islam that he had imbibed at the madrasa followed, and Khan even turned to agnosticism for a while, finding that the madrasa education that he had received failed to provide answers to the issues besetting the modern world. This phase continued till 1948, when, reading the primary Islamic sources in their Arabic original, instead of relying on translations and commentaries, he ?re-discovered?, as he puts it, his faith in Islam. It was, in a sense, a ?born-again? experience for him, affirming a faith that was consciously chosen, rather than one inherited as part of his cultural tradition. Clearing away centuries of commentary and interpretation, and approaching the Qur?an and the Hadith directly, he came to believe, held the key to an understanding of Islam that could prove its relevance in the modern world. Khan now set about learning English on his own, reading widely the works of Western writers and philosophers. In particular, Khan claims to have been greatly influenced by Bertrand Russell. His exposure to western literature led him on to realise the pressing need to present Islam in a manner that would appeal to the modern mind.

This period of ?rediscovery? of Islam from its original sources coincided for Khan with a quest for a socially engaged spirituality. Coming under the influence of the writings of Abul ?Ala Maududi, founder of the Islamist Jama?at-i Islami, Khan joined the Jama?at-i Islami Hind, the Indian wing of the Jama?at, in 1949, attracted by Maududi?s understanding of Islam as a comprehensive world-view and a call for radical social revolution. His commitment to the Jama?at, his powers of organising and oratory, and, above all, his skilful pen, helped him move rapidly up the Jama?at?s hierarchy, being appointed, in a few years after he joined the organisation, as a member of its central organising committee (markaz-i majlis-i shur?a), and serving as one of the senior administrators of the Jama?at?s publishing house in Rampur. Khan wrote regularly for the Jama?at?s Urdu journal, Zindagi-i Nau (?The New Life?), and, in 1955, published his first book, Naye Ahad Ke Darwaze Par (?On the Threshold of a New Era?). This was soon followed by Mazhab Aur Jadid Challenge (?Islam and the Modern World?), which was later translated into Arabic, being well received in the Arab world and subsequently being incorporated in the syllabus of several Arab universities. As the titles of these books suggest, Khan was particularly concerned with developing an understanding of Islam that would appeal to the modern mind while at the same time remaining firmly grounded in the original sources of Islam.

Khan did not remain for long with the Jama?at though. Increasingly, he came to believe that the Jama?at?s own agenda, based as it was on working for an Islamic state in India, was not only impractical, but, moreover, not in keeping with what he saw he believed Islam expected of the Muslims of India in the situation that they found themselves. As Khan delved deeper into Maududi?s writings, he came to the conclusion that the very basis of Maududi?s understanding of Islam was faulty and mistaken, being a reaction to western imperialism rather than emerging from an authentic understanding of Islam. Faced with the challenge of European colonial rule over most of the Muslim world, Maududi, Khan concluded, had developed a quintessentially political understanding of Islam, seeing the Islamic mission as based on political, rather than ideological struggle, not ruling out resort to violent means to attain its goals. This understanding of Islam Khan now began to see as a result of a sense of loss, of defeat suffered by the Muslims at the hands of the West, rather than as emanating from a genuine spiritual quest.

Khan also gradually came to the conclusion that the Jama?at-i Islami?s political approach was ill suited to the needs and conditions of the Muslim minority in India. Rather than mobilising themselves to work for establishing an Islamic state, which was not only impractical in the given situation but which would further embitter the country?s non-Muslim majority, what Muslims urgently needed to do, Khan felt, was to attempt to build bridges with people of other faiths in the country. Khan began airing his differences with the Jama?at?s ideology and policies even while still a senior leader of the Jama?at, but as these differences began to grow, he decided to quit the organisation after serving it for fifteen years, in 1962.

Disillusioned with what he called the ?political-oriented religion? of the Jama?at, Khan was now attracted to what he saw as the ?God-oriented religion? preached by another Islamic revivalist movement, the Tablighi Jama?at. What seems to have struck Khan most about the Tablighi Jama?at was its strict aloofness from party politics, focussing, instead, on individual reform. For a beleaguered minority like the Indian Muslims, the Tablighi Jama?at, with its immediate concern with the ?Islamisation? of individual Muslims, rather than the capture of state power, seemed not only to be a more sensible and pragmatic strategy, but also one that was in keeping with what Khan regarded as the Prophetic practice (sunnah).

Active in the Tablighi Jama?at for some years, Khan gradually became disillusioned with it, too, and by 1975 had completely disassociated from it. He saw the movement?s hostility to ijtihad, or creative application of Islamic jurisprudence to meet the challenge of changing social conditions, and what he viewed as its aversion to critical thinking and the rational, scientific spirit, as placing a brake on his own intellectual development, and as, moreover, a betrayal of the Islamic imperative itself. Although he still remained appreciative of the role of the Tablighi Jama?at in creating Islamic awareness among ordinary Muslims, he believed that a new understanding of Islam was necessary to appeal to modern educated Indians, Muslims as well as Hindus and others. Accordingly, in September 1976, he set up his own research institute, the Islamic Centre, based in New Delhi, launching an Urdu monthly, al-Risala, to propagate his own views, which he saw as presenting Islam in a distinctly modern idiom. The journal, which is still published, consists almost entirely of articles written by Khan himself. In 1984, an English edition of al-Risala was started, and this was followed in 1990 with a Hindi edition. The journal today has a fairly large readership both in India and abroad, and several issues of it are also available on the Internet. Besides his journal, Khan has published, to date, over two hundred books, mainly in Urdu, some of which have been translated into European and various Indian languages, in addition to Arabic. Khan also regularly writes for various Indian newspapers on issues of contemporary importance from an Islamic perspective. He is one of the few Indan ?ulama to have seriously engaged with the largely non-Muslim ??mainstream? Indian press.

Many years of close involvement in the Jama?at-i Islami and the Tablighi Jama?at and a deep concern with the growing problem of Hindu-Muslim conflict in India provide the general context for an examination of the development and maturation of Khan?s own distinct understanding of Islam and of its place and role in the modern world. While his advocacy of a personalisation of the faith, focussing on individual reform rather than on political mobilisation, seems to be a result of the influence of his earlier association with the Tablighi Jama?at, his call for a radical ijtihad, going directly to the original sources of Islam?the Qur?an and the Hadith?by-passing centuries of tradition and interpretation of the primary Islamic corpus, clearly distinguishes him from the Tablighis. While he shares with many Islamists an insistence on the urgency of ijtihad, he urges the creative interpretation of the shari?ah for very different purposes, as we shall see. Khan?s primary concern being to express Islam as a perfectly suitable ideology for the modern age, he deals at great length in his writings with issues related to pluralism, inter-faith dialogue and peace, issues that he sees both the Islamists, with their radical rhetoric, and quietists, such as the Tablighi Jama?at, with their refusal to look beyond formulations of traditional fiqh, as unable, if not unwilling, to seriously consider. To Khan?s own distinct understanding of how Islam can be understood in the modern world, an understanding which he claims to be both authentic and at the same time relevant in today?s context, we now turn.

Peace and Dialogue and the Challenge of Pluralism:

Khan is among the few Indian ?ulama to have taken seriously the issue of pluralism and inter-community relations, free from the polemics and negative stereotypes that characterise the responses of many Muslims to people of other faiths, particularly the Hindus. Writing in the mid-1970s, Wilfred Cantwell Smith had remarked on the seeming inability of the Muslims of India to come to terms with a situation of being, in theory, equal citizens in a plural, multi-religious India, arguing that articulating a clear Islamic position on the matter was of the greatest importance for the community. This, in fact, is precisely what Khan seeks to do in many of his writings.

The Indian Muslim predicament, as a minority that sees itself as increasingly beleaguered and threatened by the rise of Hindu militancy, is one that Khan takes as one of his primary concerns. Khan insists that Muslims must come out of their ghettos, shed what he calls their ?persecution complex? and separatist mentality , search for opportunities that exist despite the odds that seem to weigh heavily against them, and work along with people of other faiths for building a new society. In other words, they should be guided by pragmatic considerations rather than by a misplaced idealism. Muslims must not sit back in despair, he argues, for Islam forbids despondency, branding it as a ?grave sin?. Khan quotes the Qur?an as saying that, ?No one despairs of God?s mercy except those who have no faith? (Q: 12:87).

In contrast to most Indian Muslim leaders, Khan sees the Muslims? predicament as almost entirely of their own making. While recognising that Muslims in India are indeed, by and large, poor, illiterate and backward, and often victims of organised violence, he argues that the problems that Muslims face stem, at root, from having abandoned the path of Islam and having strayed from the teachings of their religion. Because of this, he insists, God has appointed others as an instrument to express His anger with them, punishing them for their dereliction of their divine responsibilities as the khair ummat (?the best of the nations?), as the Qur?an describes the Muslim community. Hence, Khan argues, Muslims must not seek to blame others for their plight, and must, accordingly, desist from agitation or confrontation with them. Since their problems are a result of God?s wrath for their straying from the teachings of Islam, they must seek to win God?s favour, instead. If Muslims were to faithfully abide by the teachings of Islam in their own personal lives, he argues, they would be amply rewarded by God, and not only would their manifold problems would be resolved, but they would also be granted ?victory? (fateh) over others. Hence, as Khan sees it, Muslims must turn to internal reform rather than seeking external solutions to their problems through conflict with the state or with the dominant Hindus. This calls for the creation of an entirely new Muslim leadership, one that seeks to lead the community to the path of construction rather than confrontation.

Peace and building bridges with people of others, then, are a matter of particular urgency for Muslims, Khan argues. The growing challenge of Hindu militancy in India today has resulted in an increasing insecurity among the Muslims of the country. In response, some, albeit fringe, Muslim groups have called for armed conflict to defend the community, in the name of jihad. Khan sees this as a dangerous development, boding ill for the interests of the community, as well as, in his view, having no sanction in the Qur?an. He likens those who call for violence against others as the false prophets referred to in the Bible and Quran, who sought to mislead the Children of Israel from the path of God, feeding them ?the wine of false pride?, exaggerating their glories, provoking their emotions and leading them to an imaginary paradise. Instead of being motivated by this-worldly considerations and purely communal interests, which, Khan argues, are ?forbidden? (haram) in Islam and akin to the ?tribalism? (asabiyyat) which the Qur?an sternly condemns, Muslims, he says, must act solely in accordance with the teachings of their religion. Further, they must desist from seeking to promote their own worldly interests under the guise of Islam and Islamic jihad. Khan insists that Islam is synonymous with peace, and argues that Islam enjoins upon Muslims to explore every possible avenue for peaceful negotiation of conflicts before military means can be contemplated. He sees many such avenues open in India today that the Muslims have failed to consider.

Inter-religious dialogue assumes for him a particularly important role in this regard. Khan writes that the Qur?an positively encourages Muslims to dialogue with people of other faiths, on the basis of what they have in common?belief in the one God and the doing of righteous deeds?while insisting that all people have the right to their own faith (?Unto you your religion, and unto me mine? [Q: 109:6]). Every religion, he writes, upholds certain basic human values, such as love, compassion, peace and a concern for the poor and the marginalised, and these must form the basis of any dialogue initiative. Further, Islam insists that all human beings, in their capacity of being creatures of God, are brothers and sisters unto each other. Hence, Islam enjoins upon Muslims to live with others as ?brothers in spirit, too?. The Prophet Muhammad is said to have exhorted Muslims to show ?respect for every human being? and ?honour one of another creed?. Thus, Khan argues, Islam calls people of different faiths to display ?mutual respect? on the basis of their common humanity, while following their own religions. This is said to be the only realistic way to deal with a situation of religious pluralism.

Khan writes that the Muslims of India today find themselves in a position similar to that of the Prophet and his followers in Mecca, when the nascent Muslim community was small and relatively powerless. Just as the Prophet, at this stage, concerned himself only with peaceful preaching, so too must the Muslims of India Muslims eschew all confrontation with others and, instead, seek to win them over through dialogue and peaceful propagation of Islam. What is required, then, is a contextual reading of the Qur?an and the Prophetic tradition, the Meccan model providing the basic source of inspiration for Muslims today. Accordingly, Khan says, Muslims must seek to build bridges with others on the basis of the values that they hold in common, and, in accordance with the Prophetic example, work along with them for the establishment of a more just, prosperous and peaceful society. They must concern themselves with the problems and issues concerning the country as a whole, in a spirit of enlightened patriotism and love for the country , instead of, as at present, thinking only of their own communal interests. In the process, Muslims would be able to convince others that Islam has viable solutions to the problems affecting society at large. It is only by thereby ?proving their usefulness? to society as a whole that others would not only come to regard Muslims as valuable allies, but would also appreciate Islam as a religious option. Muslims, Khan adds, should actively work for the benefit of society at large, transforming themselves from ?takers? to ?givers?. Further, by removing others? misunderstandings of Islam as a violent religion, peaceful dialogue will also help facilitate Muslims being able to join the ?mainstream? of ?universal life, and participate in the benefits of global economic progress. If they were to devote themselves to promoting peace in society as a whole, they would also be able to focus their energies on the economic and educational development of the community which, owing to their past ?belligerence?, they have totally ignored.

Efforts to promote peace must necessarily mean that Muslims should reach out to people of other faiths in a spirit of constructive dialogue. Khan is one of the few Indian ?ulama to have seriously engaged in inter-religious dialogue initiatives, being a regular speaker and participant at meetings of various religious heads. He has also not hesitated to meet and interact with leaders of militantly anti-Muslim Hindu groups, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). He justifies this by arguing that in India Muslims have to learn to live along with the Hindus. Instead of looking, in vain, to the government to solve their problems, Muslims, he says, must seek to build better relations with all sections of the Hindus, this alone being a guarantee for the protection of their own interests. This has won him the epithet of ?the RSS Maulana? from some Muslims, but he insists that Muslims must seek to interact even with those who seem most vehemently opposed to them, in order to impress upon them the actual teachings of Islam.

A willingness to appreciate the common values that all religions hold in common does not, however, mean that all religions are equally valid. Khan insists that Islam is the most perfect religion, being the only religion whose scripture has survived intact. ?One can safely say?, he writes, ?that for a seeker after the Truth, there is [?] only one choice to make, and that is the choice of Islam, the only religion having true historical credibility?. As Khan puts it, the relation between Islam and other religions is like that between modern chemistry and medieval alchemy: although their subject matter is the same, Islam, like modern chemistry, is based on ?facts proved by strictly scientific methods?, while other religions, like alchemy, are grounded in ?unproven speculations?. And yet, he stresses, this consciousness of the superiority of Islam should not deter Muslims from being willing to enter into dialogue with others.

Genuine dialogue, for Khan, does not mean the removal of all differences between the different religions, and nor does it seek the evolution of an entirely new syncretic religion, combining the teachings of existing faiths. Khan argues that Islam adopts an eminently ?realistic? stance on the matter of inter-faith dialogue. Islam, he says, accepts the differences between various religions, but encourages Muslims to tolerate, indeed respect, people of other faiths. Islam?s attitude towards other religions, in other words, is based on the twin principles of ?agreeing to disagree? and ?unity of religious people?, as opposed to ?religious unity?. The Qur?an, Khan writes, clearly accommodates religious pluralism, laying down thus: ?You have your religion and I have mine?. This principle of tolerance, he adds, is also well exemplified in life of the Prophet. The Prophet is said to have held a religious ?trialogue? of Jews, Christians and Muslims in the mosque at Medina, perhaps the first of its kind in human history, in the course of which the Jews and the Christians were allowed to pray in the mosque in their own fashion. Thus, the Qur?an clearly lays down, and the Prophet?s agreement with the Jews and idolators of Medina clearly shows, that non-Muslims are to be let free to practice their own religion, and that Muslims must live in peace with them and desist from reviling their faith. Thus, although Islam insists on its distinctiveness, uniqueness and superiority, and is vehemently opposed to efforts at surmounting these differences through syncretism, it positively enjoins harmony, tolerance, respect and co-operation among people of different faiths. This is a call for ?unity despite differences?, which Khan sees as a more realistic possibility than the appeal for ?unity without differences?. Accordingly, he writes, Muslims must show ?esteem? and ?respect for other religions and religious communities?, while, at the same time, remaining aware of Islam?s own distinctiveness and superiority.

Inter-religious dialogue, for Khan, does not mean a dereliction of the Islamic duty of da?wah (?invitation?) or spreading the message of Islam, however. Khan argues that, in fact, dialogue opens up new avenues for da?wah work. It is only by establishing friendly and peaceful relations with others that Muslims can attempt to convince them of the truth of Islam, he notes. Islamic Da?wah is an entirely peaceful affair, for there can be, as the Qur?an says, ?No compulsion in religion?. Daw?ah, as a ?peaceful struggle of the propagation of Islam?, is, in fact, the ?real? form of ?Islamic activism?. After the death of the Prophet, Khan writes, the responsibility of da?wah rests on the shoulders of the entire Muslim ummah. This is the ummah?s ?primary duty?, which, however, the community has completely neglected. The ummah has been charged with spreading the Word of God and ?enjoining what is good and forbidding what is evil?. This is the only way for the Muslims to gain God?s favour and the only actual means for their own defence and protection. Hence, to abandon the responsibility of da?wah, Khan warns, would be to invite God?s anger. The major cause for the oppression of the Muslims, therefore, is that they have abandoned what is said to be their primary responsibility of conveying the message of God to others. If non-Muslims were to respond positively to Islamic missionary efforts and embrace Islam, Khan stresses, the threats that Muslims face from them would by themselves dissolve. However, even if they were not to convert to Islam, the work of da?wah would ?cause their hearts to be softened?. Enemies need to be converted into friends, Islam insists, and just as the Prophet returned good for evil, Muslims must seek to impress others with their character and the teachings of Islam, instead of alienating them through conflict.

Muslims must not be deterred by the violent opposition that they might face from others in the course of their da?wah work. A good shopkeeper, Khan writes, cheerfully accepts the angry comments of prospective customers. If he were to react in anger, he would lose their custom. Likewise, a good Muslim missionary (da?i) ignores the opposition and insults of others, dealing with them, instead, with ?decency?, for he knows that this is the only way to attract them to Islam. Sabr, or patience in the face of oppression, is a fundamental tenet in the Qur?an. Hence, Muslims must exercise patience in dealing with others, even in the face of grave provocation. God has promised victory to those who are steadfast in their commitment to Him, even though they might be numerically much smaller than their opponents. The Prophet is said to have exemplified this principle of steadfastness perfectly in his own missionary career. Muhammad and his companions were greatly persecuted by the Meccans, but yet they bravely carried out their mission of peaceful daw?ah undeterred, and finally succeeded in bringing almost all of Arabia to Islam.

Khan repeatedly refers to what he calls the ?Hudaibiyah principle? as a model for Muslims to follow. In the nineteenth year of his prophethood, Muhammad entered into a ten-year no-war treaty with his Meccan Qur?aish opponents at Hudaibiyah, which contained what some of his followers thought were conditions particularly humiliating for the Muslims. The Qur?an, however, announced it as a ?great victory? (fateh mubin), and so it proved itself to be. The Qur?aish refused to allow the Prophet to sign his name as ?the Messenger of Allah? on the document of the agreement, and, instead, forced him to simply write, ?Muhammad, son of Abdullah?. Further, they did not allow the Muslims to enter Mecca that year to perform the ?umra, and insisted that if any Meccan Muslim was to take refuge in Medina, he would have to be returned to them. Yet, the Prophet accepted these seemingly humiliating conditions, for he had, Khan says, a ?deep missionary plan? in mind. Peace with the Qur?aish opened up new possibilities of da?wah work for the Muslims, as a result of which in a few years? time, not just the Qur?aish alone, but, in fact, almost all of Arabia, turned Muslim. This shows, Khan argues, that ?the power of peace is stronger than the power of violence?, a valuable lesson for the Muslims of contemporary India to profit from.

Seeking to seriously engage with others through da?wah requires a complete transformation in the way Muslims view others. Traditional Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), Khan notes, developed in a context of Muslim political dominance, as a result of which the Muslims developed a ?politically ruling mentality?. Consequently, rather than seeing themselves as ?missionaries?, they thought of themselves as ?victors?. Their understanding of Islam was, thus, as a religion of ?pride? (fakhr wala islam). This was reflected in the way Islamic scholars viewed the world around them: in starkly dichotomous terms, dividing it into two watertight compartments, dar ul-islam and dar ul-harb. Khan sees this as an ?un-Islamic? way of looking at the world, and one that is both expansionist and inherently violent. He writes that, in actual fact, not just any territory ruled by non-Muslims should have been considered as dar ul-harb, but only those lands where Muslims were persecuted for their faith and so had to take to violence in self-defence. More problematic in this traditional approach, he says, is the complete ignoring of a third category, what he calls as the dar ul-da?wah (?the abode of invitation?, lands under non-Islamic rule, whose non-Muslim inhabitants should be invited to Islam). The traditional jurists, victims as they were of the ?politically ruling mentality?, could not envisage this possibility, looking at non-Muslims either as potential or as actual subjects. Islam is not a political programme, Khan insists, and so to view the world in the rigidly dichotomous way in which the traditional ?ulama saw it, based on the presence or otherwise of Muslim rule, is inadmissible. Instead of thinking of non-Muslims as foes, or as subjects or potential subjects, they must, Khan argues, be seen as part of God?s big family, and, moreover, as potential Muslims, as prospective converts to Islam, among whom Muslims should earnestly peaceful engage in da?wah efforts. This also requires a radical change in how Muslims see their own selves, as missionaries (da?is) rather than as rulers (hakims).

For Khan, one of the most urgent tasks before Muslims today is to abandon the false ?Islam of pride? and seek to recover the ?Islam of humility and balance? (tawaze wala islam), based on the fear of God, love, peace and harmony, instead of pride, conflict, hatred and confrontation. Muslims, he writes, have traditionally sought to relate themselves to others from a ?position of strength?. A true and faithful reading of the Qur?an, however, requires them to seek to relate to others from a ?position of modesty?. Instead of seeking inspiration from the history of Muslim conquests and imperial splendour, they must, he writes, drink directly from the font of the Qur?an and the Sunnah of the Prophet, which teach humility, love and compassion for all, Muslims as well as others. It is the glory of God, the Creator of all human beings, rather than the grandeur of Muslim kings and conquerors, that must inspire the Muslims and guide them in their engagement with the world. What Khan calls for is nothing less than a total paradigmatic shift in Muslim self-definition. Muslims must no longer assume that they are always in the right, and others always in the wrong, looking down on others as inferior, as inveterate foes and as deserving no rights. Challenging received notions regarding the religious ?Other?, Khan writes that non-Muslims must not, as a rule, be considered as kafirs. To label someone thus simply because he is not a Muslim is ?to violate God?s injunctions?. A kafir, Khan argues, is someone who knowingly rejects or conceals the truth. Since Muslims have not reached out to others with the message of the truth, they cannot be called kafirs at all. They should be considered, instead, as ?potential allies of Muslims against unbelief?. The prophets of God, he points out in support of his argument, addressed the people among whom they were commissioned to preach as ?brothers?, or ?my community?, not as kafirs. Further, even if non-Muslims were to reject Islam, it is not for Muslims to condemn them as kafirs, for that only God can do.

Khan outlines a detailed missionary approach, which he suggests Muslims should adopt in their dealings with people of other faiths. The Muslim missionary must ?remove all psychological barriers? between himself and the non-Muslims whom he addresses. Instead of being opposed to them, Muslims should have their ?welfare? and their ?best interests? in mind. In this, they should follow in the footsteps of the Sufis, whose values of ?love, peace and kindness? represent ?the true spirit of Islam?. The Prophet Muhammad, Khan notes, was sent as a ?blessing for all?, and not to chastise or wage war against those who did not accept him. Accordingly, an ideal Muslim, whose heart is filled with the love of God, would ?necessarily be filled with the love of [all] human beings?. The early Muslims were remarkably successful in their missionary work because they followed this principle and exercised ?full tolerance? (kamil rawadari) in their dealings with others, knowing well that if they resorted to force or attempted to prevent others from practising their religion it would provoke them to oppose the Muslims and refuse to accept Islam. Muslims must thus rise above communal considerations which have led to conflict with others, and which have wrongly been construed as jihad. They must desist from ?useless confrontation? with others. They must also unilaterally seek to disengage from communal controversies with others, placing the interests of Islam above their own worldly considerations. In this way, Khan suggests, they would not only help resolve these controversies, but would also impress others with the noble teachings of Islam. Motivated solely by a passion to spread the word of God, they must interact with others in a spirit of loving concern. If Muslims were to engage in this ?ideological struggle?, desisting from antagonising others, in accordance with the Prophetic example, Islam and its followers would, Khan says, finally emerge as ?victorious?, and ?dominant? (ghalib) throughout the world. ?Islam?, he stresses, can attain the position of ?an ideological superpower? if Muslims unilaterally put an end to conflict with others and, instead, focus all their attention and resources on peaceful missionary work. Consequently, Islam would be able to ?conquer the greatest power on earth?, and the Muslims would, once again, ?receive their place of honour and glory?.

This modern dawa?h, which Khan sees as a community-wide effort, also requires a radical questioning of traditional understanding of the concept of jihad. Islam, Khan writes, is a religion of peace. It is also an ?entirely tolerant? religion, calling human beings to ?the path of peace?. Peace is one of God?s ninety-nine names and paradise is called as the ?home of peace? in the Qur?an. The final aim of Islam, he writes, is the ?spiritual uplift of Man?, till he reaches the state of ?the soul at rest? (nafs al-mutma?ina). At this stage, others will ?receive from the Muslim nothing but peace?. Khan likens the ideal Muslim to a rose that provides its fragrance freely to all. Such a person ?no longer has the will or the capacity to do harm?. He gives ?life?, as opposed to ?death?, and lives like a ?flower?, instead of a ?thorn?. He has ?nothing but love in his heart to bestow on others?. The ?greatest problem? facing the Muslims today, however, Khan laments, is that they have forgotten this sunnah of peace that the Prophet taught and practised.

Peace and non-violence do not, however, mean inactivity or passivity. Rather, they call for a spirit of ?action in the full sense of the term?. Indeed, Khan writes, non-violence is ? a more forceful form of action than violence?. Khan prefers to call his approach as one of ?positive status quo-ism?, advocating gradual, incremental changes through peaceful reform rather than challenging the status quo through force. Islam, he argues, positively condemns ?strife? (fasad) and demands that its followers abide, as a general rule, by non-violence. True, Khan writes, the Prophet did engage in several battles, but these were all in self-defence, resorted to after all attempts at resolving conflicts with his enemies had failed. Even these battles were on a relatively minor scale, in the course of which not more than one hundred and thirty people lost their lives on both sides. In all, the Prophet is said to have spent a total of not more than one and a half days in actual fighting, out of his missionary career that lasted twenty-three years. In other words, for the Prophet, peaceful activism was the rule, and violence the exception.

Recognising that much of the violence that characterises the contemporary world stems from protest against injustice and oppression, Khan advises Muslims to remember that Islam calls for peace at any cost, which should not, therefore, be linked to the question of justice. The Prophet, he reminds his readers, accepted the conditions laid down by the Qur?aish in the peace treaty of Hudaibiyah which seemed to be patently unjust, heavily loaded against the Muslims. Yet, by accepting these terms, the Prophet enabled a climate of peace to be established, which helped facilitate the propagation of Islam on a large scale. In a matter of a few years after signing the peace treaty, almost all of Arabia embraced Islam, and the injustices that the Muslims had been subjected to were overcome. Muslims who are today waging violent struggle against injustice in various parts of the word must, therefore, seek peace as their first priority, de-linking it from the question of justice, for once peace is established, through peaceful da?wah work they would be able to win their opponents to their side, and the injustices that they are labouring under would automatically be resolved.

Criticising Islamist groups who have taken to the path of terror in the name of jihad, Khan writes that a clear distinction needs to be made between the Qur?anic commandment of jihad and that of qital. Jihad, Khan says, means ?striving in the path of God? and ?struggling one?s utmost?, and, in this sense, must infuse the entire life of a Muslim. Striving in God?s path can take many forms, almost all entirely peaceful. Thus, helping the poor, alleviating suffering and working for peace and harmony must all be seen as forms of jihad. In the specific contemporary Indian context, true jihad, Khan writes, would take the form of ?work of internal construction?, focussing on the economic and educational development of the marginalised sections of the community, rather than being ?directed outwards at others?. Preaching Islam to others would also be a form of jihad. Indeed, says Khan, the word jihad in its Qur?anic sense actually refers to ?non-violent?, ?peaceful? struggle or da?wah. The Qur?an directs the Muslims to engage in jihad, using the Holy Book as a weapon. In other words, jihad is, above all, an ?ideological struggle? aimed at ?conquering people?s hearts and minds through Islam?s superior philosophy?. On the other hand, the term qital is used in the Qur?an to refer specifically to violent, armed struggle. The Qur?an sanctions qital only under the most trying circumstances, after all efforts at peaceful negotiations have failed, and then, too, only in self-defence and for a limited period of time, until ?fitna (strife) is no more?. Fitna here is said to refer to as ?a system of religious persecution?, which no longer exists today, this having been destroyed first in Arabia by the Prophet and the early Muslims, the work being completed by the waves of reform that began in the West two centuries ago. In other words, Khan declares, today there is no scope or reason for Muslims to resort to violence in the name of jihad.

In contrast to many traditional ?ulama, Khan sees the modern world as opening up new spaces and possibilities for Islam. Instead of condemning modernity and the West, and focussing only on their negative features, Khan writes, Muslims must learn to critically engage with them and take advantage of the positive things that they have to offer. Muslims, he warns, should not see the West as the ?Devil?, as some of them are wont to. It is true, he admits, that certain economic and political policies of western countries have done great harm to the Muslims, but to see these as a reflection of some ?anti-Islamic conspiracy? is completely misleading, for they are, for the most part, a result of the interplay of economic interests. Rather than attacking the West, he suggests, Muslims must explore peaceful means to dialogue with it, for the West today has emerged as ?a supporting factor in the divine scheme of the communication of the Word of God to all human beings?. In particular, Muslims need to make use of Western communications technology to disseminate the message of Islam on a wide scale. The findings of Western science must also be used to confirm the truths of Islam, as Islam is said to have predicted numerous recent scientific discoveries which Western science has only recently ?proved?. The spirit of free enquiry on which Western modernity is based must, Khan advises, be taken advantage of by Muslims to convince others that of all the religions of the world it is only Islam that can stand the test of historical scrutiny, it also being the only religion that fully accords with reason, nature and the demands of the intellect. Islam, Khan insists, if properly understood, is bound to ?provide intellectual leadership? to the rest of the world, and in the process of doing so, the findings of Western science and its technological inventions must be put to the fullest use.

Islam and Politics

Viewing the reform of the individual as Islam?s primary concern, Khan sees the agenda espoused by Islamist groups, with their primary mission of establishing an Islamic state, as not only unrealistic, but as also un-Islamic and doomed to failure. ?Islam?, he argues, ?is not the name of a [?] political structure. Islam is the name of a personal action. And the opportunity to practice Islam personally remains the same in all situations, irrespective of whether Islam is politically in power or not?. Analysing the fortunes of Islamist groups, he argues that they have failed to ?establish the theoretical and practical ascendancy of Islam in even a small portion of the globe?, because the have been denied Divine help, for they ?have failed to accord to God’s design?. While the primary concern of the Muslims should be ?preparation for the Hereafter?, the Islamists have, instead, ?focussed their attention on worldly issues?, thus leading the community astray.

Arguing against the Islamists, Khan insists that Islam has not laid down any blueprint for a polity, but has only provided certain ground-rules and general principles for the conduct of political affairs. The fact that the first four ?Rightly Guided? Caliphs of the Sunnis were all appointed or nominated through different methods itself shows that there is no particular form of a Islamic political system as such. It is, Khan argues, for the Muslims themselves to exercise ijtihad or critical application of the general principles of the Qur?an in the light of changing social contexts to evolve political structures that meet the needs of a society in a state of constant flux. Although Khan does not elaborate on what he means by an Islamic state, he writes that it would be based on ?monotheistic doctrine? and, in practice, would be ?essentially identified with the principle of no-compulsion?. While admitting that Islamic teachings are ?so comprehensive? as to ?cover all aspects of life, including state, national and international problems?, he objects to what he sees as the efforts of the Islamists to reduce Islam to a mere political ideology. This, in his opinion, is to completely distort its basic message, and is ?totally without basis? in the Qur?an and the Hadith. Politics, he insists, is only a ?relative?, and not an ?absolute? part of Islam. He argues that the aim of the ?Islamic revolution? is actually to establish the ?intellectual?, as opposed to the political, dominance of Islam, adding that setting up an Islamic state is ?not the main target? of Islam. Hence, and here he stands in complete contrast to the Islamists, it is possible for Muslims to remain true to their faith and fulfil all its requirements even in the absence of an Islamic state. If Muslims find themselves in a position to establish an Islamic polity through peaceful means, they must do so, he says, but if circumstances are not propitious, they are not duty bound to do so. Khan argues that since Islam?s primary focus is on the individual rather than on society at large or the state, a situation, such as which prevails in India today, where Muslims are allowed to govern their personal lives according to the shari?ah but in all other matters must follow secular laws, is ?perfectly in consonance with Islam?.

Writing in the specific context of India, Khan is bitterly critical of the Muslim League and its demand for a separate Muslim state of Pakistan based on the ?two nation? theory , in addition to being vehemently opposed to fringe Islamist groups advocating an Islamic state in India. He believes that the Partition has not solved the communal question. Rather, it has only resulted in exacerbating it manifold. Now that Pakistan has become a reality and the Partition seems irrevocable, Khan says that Muslims in India must seek to fully integrate themselves into mainline Indian political parties, rather than set up one of their own. In this way, they would be able to pursue their interests in a more effective fashion, without antagonising the dominant Hindus. Khan appeals for pragmatism in politics, tacitly accepting what is, at least in theory, the secular Indian polity. To attempt to subordinate politics to religion, he writes, ?may be right or wrong from the ideological point of view?, but the experience of Islamist and militant Hindu groups of the last half century and more clearly shows, he says, that their course is ?certainly not the right one?. Rather than actually helping the cause of religion in any way, it has only led to ?a course of destruction?. The reason for this lies, Khan suggests, in a lack of appreciation, on the part of both the Islamists as well as advocates of a Hindu state, of ground-level ?realities? and ?natural causes?. Politics, after all, is the ?art of the possible?, and no amount of sloganeering and idealism can substitute for a critical understanding of actual empirical realities and possibilities. Khan remarks that a stark reality of the present world is the refusal to accept a state based on religion. Given this, the often violent attempts to establish a religion-based state are doomed to failure. An Islamic polity can only be established, if at all, through dialogue, debate and persuasion, and, most importantly, through a peaceful ?intellectual revolution?. In the meantime, the ?only practicable course? for the Muslims of India would be to accept the secular state as it is, and take advantage of the spaces and freedoms that it offers to pursue the religious agenda. For the Muslims in particular, as Khan sees it, the only choice is to accept the practical realities as they are, and ?mould themselves in accordance with reality rather than waste time in pursuing the unattainable goal of reality moulded to suit their own purposes?.

Khan?s understanding of the relation between Islam and politics extends to a critique of Islamist groups struggling for the establishment of an Islamic polity in Muslim-majority countries as well. Although he does not deny that a state ruled in accordance with the shari?ah is an integral part of the mission of Islam as such, he insists that the ideal Islamic polity can only emerge as a result of a gradual, organic process, based on what he calls a ?universal intellectual revolution?. The primary focus of the Islamic daw?ah must be the ?inner transformation? of the individual , for it is the reform of the individual, bringing him into a state of ?spirituality, compassion and tranquility?, rather than transforming the society or the state as such, which is the ?direct goal? of Islam. Islam?s ?primary? target, he insists, is the building up of an ?ideal individual?, and not an ideal society or and ideal state. If a sufficient number of individual Muslims begin to seriously and faithfully practise Islam in their own personal lives, he argues, a truly Islamic society will slowly emerge. Over time, as public opinion is suitably prepared, an Islamic state might be set-up, one that has the willing compliance of its subjects, but there is no guarantee that it will, and even if it does, it can ?take any workable form, this being neither predictable nor pre-determinable?. However, Khan argues, it is not for Muslims to directly strive for the establishment of the ideal Islamic polity. Rather, the Islamic state is a gift bestowed by God unto whom He wills. To actively seek to establish an Islamic state by force would, then, in a sense be an arrogation of a privilege reserved for God alone.

Khan insists that there is no guarantee that an ideal Islamic state can ever be established in this world. God has granted human beings the gift of free will, the capacity of choosing between evil and good. No perfect society is possible in this world, for, given Man?s free will, there will always be some people who choose to do evil instead of good. Hence, the ideal Islamic society, and its concomitant, the ideal Islamic state, can only be hoped for in the world to come, in paradise, which the Qur?an refers to as ?the home of peace?. Meanwhile, he suggests, we must be willing to recognise the all too imperfect world in which live today and seek to change it gradually, instead of hankering after imaginary utopias that are incapable of being realised in this world. This requires that Muslims adopt what Khan calls ?a pragmatic understanding? of the real world, taking advantage of the spaces that exist to carry on peaceful propaganda, undaunted by the odds that might seem to weigh heavily against them. This also means that instead of seeking idealistic solutions to their problems Muslims must adopt a ?realistic? approach.

This principle of peaceful ?gradualism? tempered with ?pragmatism? is seen as being in complete contrast to the efforts of Islamist groups to establish an Islamic state by force. Religiously-sanctified violence, Khan believes, has only given Islam, a ?religion of peace and mercy?, a bad name, making it synonymous for many with violence and terror, thus gravely damaging the cause of Islamic daw?ah. Their target being the capture of the state, rather than the reform of the individual, violence is endemic to the Islamists? agenda, Khan says, because confronting ruling regimes inevitably brings in its wake violent reprisals. Khan writes that ?Islamic extremism? is impelled, at root, from a reaction against western dominance, a result of a ?defeatist mentality?, and reflects both a wrong understanding of Islam as well as a bitter hatred for others, which he sees as having no sanction in Islam. Hatred in the name of religion, he says, is ?the greatest crime against humanity?, for ?sacred? violence can condone the slaughter of innocent people without the least feeling of remorse. ?God does not love the transgressors?, Khan quotes the Qur?an as saying, seeing Islamists who call for violence against others as having strayed far from the true Islamic path. This ?agitational Islam? is said to have little, if at all, to do with ?real Islam?.
Instead of imposing the shari?ah from above, through the agency of the state and despite people?s opposition to it, the effort, instead, should, Khan says, be to cultivate people?s minds and hearts so that they willingly accept to be ruled by the shari?ah. ?Implementing the shari?ah does not mean using the whip or the gun?, he writes. A political order, even one which is based on the shari?ah, which seeks to enforce its rules through such imposition, will be doomed to collapse. Moreover, he adds, to capture the state apparatus and use it to enforce the shari?ah in the face of unwillingness of the people is ?certainly not in keeping with the methods followed by the Prophet?. Instead, Muslims should seek to mobilise public opinion using peaceful means in order to convince others of the ?superiority? of the Islamic polity over other systems of governance. Only when they secure the willing acceptance of the people can Muslims actually succeed in establishing a political order based on the laws of Islam.

Convinced that efforts by Islamist groups to forcibly take over the state and impose Islamic law would end in failure and defeat, Khan appeals to Muslims to critically consider the fate of various abortive attempts in the past to do so, as well as, in contrast, the strategies that the early Muslims had adopted, which won them great successes. Efforts to replace existing socio-political systems by force are inevitably counter-productive, he warns, breaking down the ?social equilibrium? and breeding more violence in turn. In contrast, he advises, the ?most effective revolution? is a non-violent one that ?permits gradual and beneficial changes?. This is said to be well exemplified in the life of the Prophet himself and thus to have Islamic sanction. Khan writes that instead of attempting to establish an Islamic state in Mecca, when the Muslims were as yet unprepared for it, the Prophet focussed all his attention, for thirteen long years, on peaceful propagation. Likewise, when the Qur?aish declared war on the Muslims, instead of fighting back, Muhammad and his followers chose a non-violent way out, by shifting to Medina instead. Following in his footsteps, the Prophet?s grandson, Imam Hasan, refused to fight against the Umayyads over the caliphate, withdrawing from the battlefield and turning to the propagation of Islam instead. It is because non-violent activism, even in the face of great odds, is the only way to carry on the mission of da?wah that the classical Islamic scholars insisted that revolt against corrupt rulers, even those who did not rule according to Islam, was forbidden. Desisting from confrontation with the rulers, the ?ulama argued that the Muslims must focus all their energies instead on da?wah work. Based on this reading of the Qur?an and early Islamic history, Khan insists that Muslims today must desist from confrontation and violence, seek resolution of conflicts through peaceful means and actively engage with people of other faiths, while peacefully carrying on with their principal duty?conveying the message of Islam to all, which he sees as providing a solution to all the manifold problems that the world is beset with.


Khan?s ?re-discovery? of Islam represents a new and innovative way of understanding the faith, which, while rooted in the original sources of Islam, is willing to wholeheartedly, although critically, engage with modernity, responding positively to serious concerns such as questions of peace, inter-religious dialogue and political activism. His understanding of Islamic mission seeks to salvage Islam from centuries of interpretation and commentary, by going back directly to the Qur?an and the Hadith, striving to show that Islam indeed is a relevant force in our times, a positive alternative that can, as he sees it, provide an answer to many of the questions people are today asking themselves. In effect, what he calls for is a radically new Islamic theology (kalam) as well as a new Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), that are in accordance with the demands of the modern world and clearly set apart from traditional understandings of the faith in several crucial respects. This new vision of Islam, which Khan insists is a resurrection of the message taught by the Prophet, willingly embraces science and scientific rationality, although reason is to be subordinated to revelation. . It is also inspired by an ijtihad that roots itself in a contextual reading of the primary sources of Islam, stressing a policy of gradualism and pragmatism. This, not unexpectedly, has laid Khan open to the charge of opportunism and collusion with the ?enemies of Islam?. Yet, as the growing interest in his writings, not just in India, but elsewhere as well, suggests, his appeals seem to be striking an increasingly receptive chord among Muslims searching for an appropriate response to the dilemmas thrown up by the challenge of modernity.

Originally printed at http://www.islaminterfaith.org/nov2004/article1.htm, and reprinted at TAM with permission.


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