Interview with Maulana Wahiduddin Khan: Critique of Radical Islamism
Posted Dec 5, 2009

Interview with Maulana Wahiduddin Khan: Critique of Radical Islamism

by Yoginder Sikand

Pakistan-based radical Islamist groups such as the Lashkar-e Tayyeba and the Jaish-e Mohammad often refer to a saying (hadith) attributed to the Prophet Muhammad in which, so they claim, the Prophet is said to have prophesied a battle against India (ghazwat ul-hind) fought by a group of Muslims who would be saved from the fires of hell. This alleged hadith is routinely used by these groups as a major tool for recruitment and to justify war against India, which they describe as a jihad, promising their fighters that this would guarantee them a place in heaven.

In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, the noted Delhi-based Islamic scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan critiques what he regards as the gross misinterpretation of this hadith report, and also reflects on radical Islamism in Pakistan, which he regards as a total deviation from the Islamic tradition.

Q: What do you feel about this so-called hadith report about the ghazwat ul-hind which radical Islamist groups based in Pakistan like the Lashkar routinely use to justify their terror attacks on India?

A: There are many books of Hadith, and this report is contained in just one of them—in the collection by Imam al-Nasai. According to this report, the Prophet is claimed to have declared that God has saved two groups from among his followers from the fires of hell. The first group would consist of those who participate in the ghazwat ul-hind and the second would be those who would be with Jesus at the time of his Second Coming.

Groups like the Lashkar deliberately twist the term ghazwat ul-hind to give it a wrong meaning, claiming that it means a violent war to be waged against India by some Muslims. They translate the word ghazwa to mean a physical war. Actually, the original and literal meaning of the word simply is ‘to move or to shift from one place to another’. In the later period of Muslim history, however, the term came to be used synonymously with violent war, or what is also known as qital in Arabic. This is how the term ghazwat ul-hind is misinterpreted by groups such as the Lashkar.

I do not agree with this interpretation at all. The word ghazwa can be interpreted to simply mean a campaign with a mission, without necessarily connoting any form of violence at all. I interpret the term to mean a peaceful missionary campaign or what is called dawah in Arabic. The early books of sirah or biographies of the Prophet describe more than 80 what they call ghazwas, and of these only three involved actual fighting or war—the ghazwas of Badr, Uhud and Hunayn. The rest were intended to be peaceful missionary tours or campaigns consisting of delegations of Muslims, sometimes led by the Prophet, to various non-Muslim tribes. In some cases, these missionaries were attacked by their opponents and there were minor skirmishes when Muslims had to resort to self-defence, but in many cases this did not happen at all. All these are also termed as ghazwas in the early biographies of the Prophet.

So, I would interpret the hadith about the ghazwat ul-hind to mean that a group of Muslims would engage in peaceful missionary work in India, bringing the message of monotheism to this country. In my view, it is certainly not the violent hate-driven war that groups like the Lashkar say it is. 

This hadith has also to be considered along with another hadith ,which, quite predictably, groups like the Lashkar conveniently never quote, in which the Prophet is said to have declared that he felt ‘cool breeze of knowledge coming from the land of India’ (ajedo rih al-ilm min bilad al-hind). This can be interpreted to mean that the Prophet believed that one day India would become a great source of spiritual knowledge.

If this hadith is seen in conjunction with the hadith about the ghazwat ul-hind, it can be interpreted to mean that a group of Muslims would engage in peaceful missionary work in India, after which spiritual knowledge would spread out from India to other lands. This would be the absolute opposite of the explanation of the ghazwat ul-hind that radical groups like the Lashklar proffer.

Q: But is this your own personal interpretation or is this something that most Islamic scholars also agree with?

A: There is no consensus among the ulema or Islamic scholars on the veracity of this hadith. Generally, those hadith reports that have multiple chains of narrators (or what are called khabar-e mutawatir) are considered by the ulema to be sound, and those that have just one narrator (khabar-e wahid) are often seen as weak (zaif), suspect or dubious, and sometimes even completely fabricated (mauzu). It is crucial to note that this narration about the ghazwat ul-hind has just one narrator. And its veracity or otherwise must further be sought to be gauged by taking into account the fact that besides Imam al-Nasai’s collection, no other collection of Hadith reports contains this narration.

Q: Perhaps that might mean that this narration is fabricated, as is the case with literally hundreds of other so-called hadith reports. Might it not have been concocted and falsely attributed to the Prophet after his demise? I mean, if the Prophet really said all this about the ghazwat ul-hind, how is it that it is narrated only by a single reporter, and that too it is mentioned in just one collection of Hadith? Surely such a crucial thing, if it were genuine, should have had more narrators and should also have been mentioned in the other Hadith collections? What, then, do you have to say about the status of this alleged hadith? Do you think it is genuine? Or is it fabricated?

A: There are varying opinions among Muslim scholars about the reliability or otherwise of various hadith reports, and even about the very corpus of Hadith. Some scholars reject the entire corpus of Hadith as unreliable and insist that the only source of guidance should be the Quran. The majority of the ulema, however, consider the corpus of Hadith to also be a source of guidance, but at the same time many of them point out that several hadith reports, including some that are found in what the Sunnis regard as authoritative collections (sihah sitta), such as that by Imam Bukhari and Imam Muslim, are weak, unreliable or fabricated.

I don’t want to get into the question of whether or not this saying about ghazwat ul-hind is true or fabricated, because obviously different Muslim ideologues have different opinions. My point is that this hadith must be interpreted in the manner that I have done above, because that is precisely what I believe is in accordance with the teachings of the Quran. A generally accepted principle among the ulema is that if a hadith report or its interpretation goes against the Quran it must be rejected. And since the Lashkar’s interpretation of the hadith about the ghawzat ul-hind is a complete violation of the Quran and what it teaches about how people of other faiths should be related to, this interpretation must be rejected outright.

Q: What does the Quran say about this issue?

A: The Quran specifically mentions that there is to be no compulsion in religious matters. It says that Muslims must seek to convey God’s message to others through love and in a peaceful manner, not through force. And even if others choose not to accept this message they should be left in peace. Unfortunately, some radical, misguided so-called Islamic groups wrongly claim that Muslims must offer non-Muslims either Islam or death. This is completely absurd. 

Unlike what groups like the Lashkar wrongly argue, there is no room for offensive war in Islam. It allows only for war in self-defence, and that too only in cases of clear aggression and after all methods of peaceful negotiation have been tried and have failed. This is yet another reason why I firmly believe that the Lashkar’s interpretation of the narration about the ghazwat ul-hind is absolutely wrong.

Another fact that must be noted in this regard is that there is a consensus among the ulema that declaring war is the prerogative of only an established state, or, as it is expressed in Arabic, ar-rahil li al-imam. This means that in Islam all other forms of war are illegitimate or haram, including terrorism and proxy war such as that which groups like the Lashkar are engaged in.

Q: What do you feel about the so-called Islamic credentials of groups such as the Lashkar?

A: They are just a bunch of rabble-rousers. There are no reliable ulema among them. Their claims to speak on behalf of Islam are absolutely untenable.

Q: How, then, do you think groups like the Lashkar can be countered?

A: Self-styled Islamist groups represent a certain ideology and so obviously to counter them we need a counter-ideology. We have to present and propagate the true Islamic ideology to defeat these groups who are misinterpreting Islam for their own nefarious purposes. A simple military solution cannot suffice. In places like Assam or Sri Lanka, ongoing violent movements are mainly about politics, power or land, and hence can be solved by addressing these issues. But radical Islamist movements are, to a great extent, motivated by purely ideological, as opposed to simply material, concerns. This means that a powerful counter-ideology has to be devised to defeat them. They cannot be defeated simply by bombing their training camps.

Q: You regard groups like the Lashkar as sharply deviating from what you see as true Islam. How is it that such groups have such a prominent presence in Pakistan?

A: I have written extensively on this issue, most particularly in my recent book that deals with India-Pakistan relations. I would say that hatred and militancy lay at the very basis of the Pakistan demand, and so, in a sense, what is being witnessed in that country today is a logical culmination of the hate-driven and utterly baseless ‘two nation’ theory of the pre-Partition Muslim League.

You also have to understand that the political interpretation of Islam that groups like the Lashkar propagate is an illegitimate innovation, or what is called biddah in Arabic, a relatively recent invention, dating back to the early twentieth century. The two principle inventors of this ideology were the Egyptian Syed Qutb and the Pakistani ideologue Abul Ala Maududi, the founder of the Jamaat-e Islami. They were the ones to concoct the theory that Muslims are like a political party that must constantly struggle, using violence if need be, to rise up against existing systems and to establish what they called an Islamic state. They were the ones who first conceived the term and concept of Islam as a ‘complete ideology’ or ‘complete system’, or nizam-e shamil as it is called in Arabic or nizam-e kamil in Urdu. Before this, these terms were never used by Islamic scholars. These two ideologues claimed that those Muslims who did not agree with this theory were not true Muslims at all. That effectively meant that they considered that the many Muslim scholars and Sufis before them, starting from the Abbasid period onwards, who did not advocate this sort of radicalism, had departed from what they imagined was the true Islam. From this you can see what a major deviation in Islamic thought Islamist ideologues like Maududi and Qutb, and present-day groups like the Lashkar, actually represent.