For Mahatma Gandhi, in the same way as for Ghaffar Khan and Maulana Azad, the real challenge was to ensure that the secular public sphere could uphold the constitutional rights for all religious minorities.  (Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint)
For Mahatma Gandhi, in the same way as for Ghaffar Khan and Maulana Azad, the real challenge was to ensure that the secular public sphere could uphold the constitutional rights for all religious minorities. (Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint)

Religious pluralism and Gandhian values

  • In Gandhi’s lifetime, there were several Muslim Gandhis. Can their message be reclaimed in these troubled times?
  • Just as Mahatma Gandhi considered Hinduism to be based on ‘ahimsa’, so did Abdul Ghaffar Khan interpret Islam to be one based on non-violence

New Delhi:The image of a fanatical and violent Muslim has become a dominant stereotype since 11 September 2001. In the contemporary world, Muslim experiences of peacemaking and non-violence are lost to the stronger media-made images of Islam as a religion of conflict and war. Violence has become the symbolic image of Islam in the West and in the East.

Historically, however, Islam, like all other religions, including Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism, has shown both tolerance and intolerance towards other religions and communities. History provides us with many examples of Muslim tolerance towards other faiths. For more than a century during the Middle Ages, for instance, Cordoba (in Spanish Andalusia) witnessed a great flowering of religious freedom, which, while not perfect, was tolerant enough to accommodate many Jewish and Christian intellectuals, who lived and wrote and flourished side-by-side with their Muslim counterparts in a strikingly pluralistic society.

The cultural legacy of Cordoba is impressive in its scale and splendour, and remains a successful model of associative reconciliation and non-violent cross-cultural learning that we see being put into action during the Mughal period in India, and later by Muslims who collaborated with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in the Indian independence movement.

Through his “soft reading" of the Hindu scriptures, as also the texts of Christianity and Islam, Gandhi found a clarion call for active non-violence in all these religions. As such, he thought faith can only push a person, be that a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim, to promote peace and non-violent social change. For him, the basic principles of religions were not just pious ideals, but actual laws of action in the world. Maybe this is why Gandhi challenged fervent believers of different religions to seek God through their own active pursuit of truth and non-violence, instead of being literalist interpreters of the Hindu, Muslim or Christian scriptures.

In this enterprise, he was helped by his readings of spiritual writers like Leo Tolstoy. “We believe", asserted Gandhi, “Tolstoy’s teaching will win increasing appreciation with the passage of time... He pointed out that selfish priests, Brahmins, and mullahs had distorted the teaching of Christianity and other religions, and misled the people. What Tolstoy believed with special conviction was that, in essence, all religions held soul force to be superior to brute force... There is no room in religion for anything other than compassion. A man of religion will not wish ill even to his enemy. Therefore, if people want to follow the path of religion, they must do nothing but good..."

Defying religious dogma

There is no doubt that Gandhi’s action in South Africa and later in India was shaped by his conviction that all religious boundaries are arbitrary and false. That is why Gandhi’s view of religion brought into its fold people belonging to different religions. Though deeply religious by nature, Gandhi did not believe in rituals, customs, traditions, dogmas, and other formalities observed for the sake of religion.

Like Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi’s religion was not confined to temples, churches, books, and other such outer forms. Gandhi was convinced that a mere doctrinaire approach in the field of religion does not help to create inter-religious fellowship. Dogmatic religions do not help promote creative dialogue. Dogmas tend to directly or indirectly breed an attitude of dislike towards other religions. Mahatma Gandhi’s mission was to find a common ground based on non-violence among religions.

Gandhi argued that a person who believes in Truth and God cannot go to a place of worship one day, and the next day foster hatred and violence. He made no exception in the case of Islam. Gandhi did not hesitate to declare that “even the teachings themselves of the Koran cannot be exempt from criticism. Every true scripture only gains by criticism. After all, we have no other guide but our reason to tell us what may be regarded as revealed and what may not be."

Disheartened by the “us-and-them" divisions and mutual disregard between the Muslims and the Hindus, Gandhi engaged in an open dialogue with Islam and the Muslims. He never accepted the argument that Hindus and Muslims constituted two separate elements in Indian society.

Gandhi had the good fortune to have as his colleagues some people belonging to different religions. Three important examples are C.F. Andrews, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. While Gandhi’s familiarity with Islam and his admiration for Prophet Muhammad are no secret, one has to mention also the direct influence of Muslim non-violent activists like Ghaffar Khan and Maulana Azad on him. Many historians have ignored the fact that Gandhi had a very high esteem for Islam, and regarded it as a religion of peace, love, kindness and brotherhood of all men.

As Gandhi himself said in this connection, “I do regard Islam to be a religion of peace in the same sense as Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism are." Gandhi was also impressed by the personal and social codes of behaviour like prayer, fasting, and alms-giving that Islam prescribed. This respectful response of Gandhi to Islam was neither a matter of political pragmatism nor a façade to unify Muslims and Hindus during the struggle for independence, but it went far beyond to a philosophical understanding of the very essence of Islam.

“My reading of the Koran has convinced me that the basis of Islam is not violence but is unadulterated peace," affirmed Mahatma Gandhi. “It regards forbearance as superior to vengeance. The very word ‘Islam’ means peace, which is non-violence. My experience of all of India tells me that the Hindus and the Muslims know how to live in peace among themselves. I decline to believe that the people have said goodbye to their senses, so as to make it impossible to live in peace with each other, as they have done for generations. The enmity cannot last forever."

Azad and frontier Gandhi

Gandhi was persuaded to believe that in the Islamic world, as in the Hindu religion and Christianity, there were men and women who, being moral in character, would work toward non-violence and peace in the world. Maybe that is why Gandhi found among his early Muslim friends and collaborators not just freedom fighters but elements who could potentially limit sectarian and communal tensions in India. Like Gandhi himself, these Muslim leaders struggled to highlight the resources in their own religious tradition that could build non-violent social movements, while wrestling to reveal and repudiate the forces of violence inherent in those traditions.

As a matter of fact, when we look at the lives and thoughts of some of these Muslim leaders who worked with Gandhi to win India’s independence, we understand that the complaint of many in India and the West that “there is no Muslim Gandhi" comes from their ignorance of important personalities like Maulana Azad and Abdul Ghaffar Khan, and not from any reputed lack of non-violent intellectual or political actors in the Islamic tradition.

Just as Gandhi considered Hinduism to be based on ahimsa, so did Abdul Ghaffar Khan interpret Islam to be one based on non-violence. “My non-violence has almost become a matter of faith with me," explained Ghaffar Khan. “I believed in Gandhi’s ahimsa long before. But the unparalleled success of the experiment in my province has made me a confirmed champion of non-violence… Surely, there is nothing surprising in a Muslim or a Pathan like me subscribing to this creed. It is not a new creed. It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet, all the time he was in Mecca. And it has since been followed by all those who wanted to throw off the oppressor’s yoke. But we had so far forgotten it that when Mahatma Gandhi placed it before us, we thought that he was sponsoring a new creed or a novel weapon."

Ghaffar Khan’s profound belief in the truth and effectiveness of non-violence came from the depths of his personal experience of Islam. For him, Islam was selfless service, faith, and love. And he underlined that “without these, one calling himself a Muslim is like a sounding brass and tinkling cymbal". As a Muslim voice of tolerance, Ghaffar Khan was revered by Mahatma Gandhi, who viewed Khan and his Pathan followers as an illustration of the courage it takes to live a non-violent life. In an interview in 1985, Abdul Ghaffar Khan affirmed: “I am a believer in non-violence and I say that no peace or tranquillity will descend upon the people of the world until non-violence is practised, because non-violence is love and it stirs courage in people."

Other Muslim leaders who cooperated with Gandhi, and among them Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, also opposed violence. Azad was a pluralist Muslim because for him “return to the devotion to one God" did not mean conversion to any particular religion. On the contrary, he considered the multiplicity of religions as a positive good, and the sole purpose of religion for him was unity in diversity.

“The unity of humankind is the primary aim of religion," writes Azad in his famous book The Tarjuman Al-Qur’an. “The message which every prophet delivered was that humankind is in reality one people and one community, and that there was but one God for all of them, and on that account, they should serve God together and live as members of one family. Such was the message which every religion delivered. But curiously, the followers of each religion disregarded the message so much so that every country, every community, and every race resolved itself into a separate group and raised groupism to the position of religion."

Gandhian secularism

Azad’s Islamic humanism led him to fiercely oppose both Muslim as well as Hindu communalism, which found no place within the framework of Gandhian religious pluralism. In other words, Azad asked the same question as Ghaffar Khan did: if religion expresses a universal truth, why should there be differences and conflicts among those professing different religions? By saying this, Azad defined “secularism" not as lack of religion and spirituality in the public sphere but as equal respect for all religions.

The reasoning behind this approach was to criticize a mono-religious or a mono-secular public sphere. So, in his pluralist approach, Azad invited Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Parsis, and Christians to live together in an enlightened climate of understanding, tolerance and mutual respect for each other. That was also the dream of Mahatma Gandhi. For Gandhi, in the same way as for Ghaffar Khan and Maulana Azad, the real challenge was to ensure that the secular public sphere could uphold the constitutional rights of all religious minorities.

In the mind of Muslim Gandhis like Ghaffar Khan and Maulana Azad, a secular public sphere meant separation of religion from the political, economic, cultural and social aspects of life, with religion being treated as a purely personal matter. It meant dissociation of the state from religion. It also meant full freedom and respect for all religions, and equal opportunities for the followers of all religions.

This was Gandhi’s dream, and also of the Muslim Gandhis. This dream will become a reality when religion is no more a factor in the “othering" and “dehumanizing" of others. That dream, forever ingrained in the Constitution of India, as in the Constitution of many other liberal countries, already seems to be no more a reality and is only becoming less real as time goes on. As such, the harsh criticism of religious fanaticism by Muslim Gandhis continues to offer a solid theoretical terrain for a non-violent critique of both Hindu communalism and Muslim fundamentalism.

This return to Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Maulana Azad means accepting the Gandhian invitation to self-examination and self-criticism. The results of such a process are certainly unpredictable, but given the Gandhian view that no one possesses the whole truth, and that truth emerges in a dialogical encounter among subjects, the making of a new Muslim Gandhi in the 21st century is a challenge which compels and invites our participation.

Ramin Jahanbegloo is professor, vice dean and executive director of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace Studies at OP Jindal Global University.

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