Gandhi and the Contemporary Debate Around Islam

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"There will be no lasting peace on earth unless we learn not merely to tolerate but even to respect the other faiths as our own". - Mohandas K. Gandhi.

When the 9/11 happened in 2001, I was teaching a course, “The Globalization of World Politics,” at Ryerson University (Toronto). Following the tragedy, I told my frightened class of students -- many of them were Muslims -- that the hijackers had brought unprecedented injury to the Americans on their soil, but they, in the process, had forced common everyday North Americans and Europeans to take a closer look at Islam as a religion.

Just as the Americans, I lectured, had the capacity to gather around sufficient resources to medically map out and assign a digit to every single cell in the human body, they would pore over, dissect and codify every single word, line or paragraph written in and about Islam.

As the weeks and months progressed, a huge number of American families who had lost their loved ones in the 9//11 attacks spoke against the outright US invasion of Afghanistan or Iraq in their name. An eye for an eye, they must have believed with Mohandas Gandhi, would turn the world blind. As we see now, the open-ended wars couldn’t resolve the issues after years; new methods of violence and terrorism were invented that led to impassioned debate around Islam, Islamism and the role of the West. Gandhi’s principles of truth, non-violence, mutual respect and compassion for others became more relevant than ever.

With the body of knowledge on Islam mounting, the non-Muslim world now knew that the Quran, the holy book of the Muslims, was believed to be a collection (in installments and patches) of oral revelations of God through a messenger, Gabriel, to prophet Muhammad. The revelations to Muhammad began in 610 Christian Era when he was 40 and continued until before his death in 632. The recording of the Quran in different forms, therefore, spanned over 22 years and it wasn’t compiled into a present-day book format until the reign of an Islamic government (Caliphate) by a political leader (Uthman, the third Caliph), between 644 and 656.

The non-Muslim world also came to know that in order to understand Islam and its prophet Muhammad, one would have to read the Hadith along with the Quran. The Hadith was a collection of reports on the life and deeds of Muhammad (and other early Muslims) transmitted orally for two centuries after Muhammad’s death. Like the Quran, the Hadith also took some time in their actual production in the written or codified form. The Hadith, therefore, served as a source of Muhammad’s biography; they contextualized Quranic revelations and the Islamic laws.

The Hadith was recognized originally from six authoritative collections of reports; more got added later. The Shia Islam that branched off right after the death of Muhammad over the issues of succession and inheritance didn’t agree with the six collections and offered their own Hadith. The Shias considered Hadith only from Muhammad's bloodline (his daughter Fatima Zahra, cousin Ali who was also married to Fatima, and the grandchildren) as authoritative sources.

Mohandas Gandhi, during his active public life, also studied Islam, and paid eloquent tribute to its founder prophet Muhammad. He wrote:

"I wanted to know the best of the life of one who holds today undisputed sway over the hearts of millions of mankind ... I became more than ever convinced that it was not the sword that won a place in those days in the scheme of life. It was the rigid simplicity, the utter self-effacement of the Prophet, the scrupulous regard for pledges, his intense devotion to his friends and followers, his intrepidity, his selflessness, his absolute trust in God and his own mission -- these and not the sword carried everything before them and surmounted every obstacle...”

Gandhi went on to assert: "Muhammad was a great Prophet. He was brave and feared no man but God alone. He was never found to say one thing and do another. He acted as he felt. The Prophet was a Faqir, he could have commanded wealth if he had so desired...”

Unifying himself emotionally in no uncertain terms with Muhammad, Gandhi further said, “...I shed tears when I read of the privations, he, his family and companions suffered voluntarily. How can a truth-seeker like me help respect one whose mind was constantly fixed on God, whoever walked in God's fear and who had boundless compassion for mankind..."

In the post-modern globalized society, however, with the information technology (the search tools) dominating, a thorough and in-depth critical study of Islam along with Muhammad, also intensified. A re-evaluation of Islam and Muhammad had been undertaken as much by a number of university departments as also by the learned sons and daughters of the practicing Muslims in the East and the West.

Academically and scholarly, after going through a process of evidence-examination, interpretation and corroboration, the new generation now questioned many of the core elements of the religion itself. As a result, these researchers and Ex-Muslims have become either agnostics, atheists or turned into vocal opponents of Islam itself. The reference here is not to the rabble-rousers who are funded by lobbies of this or that interest and have astute political agenda, but to those who were avowed Muslims at one time, have delved deep into the scriptures, weighed the interpretations and then came out with open questions in a deliberative manner. They are the critics of Islam, but by no means anti-Muslims. In the orthodox and fundamentalist Islamic cultures, such reviewers will be punished for being “apostate”.

The critics of Islam who are in the middle don’t necessarily object to the five pillars of the religion that are: Shahadah (the declaration of faith), salat (daily prayers), sawm (fasting during the month of Ramadan), zakat (charity donation) and hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca). What they don’t agree with is the way the fundamentalist priests (the Mullahs) had established their sway on the interpretation and practice of Islam. They believe, however, with time and reforms -- as in any other religion -- the Islam would also shed its orthodoxy.

The staunch critics of Islam and Ex-Muslims, on the other hand, appear to negate the very foundation of the religion which commanded the followers to declare their unquestioned loyalty and commitment to the faith and accept that Muhammad was the last prophet. There’s an unswerving emphasis on the term, “last”. In a dynamic, evolving world -- even in the spiritual arena -- how can one be the last prophet or preacher, the critics question from a scientific angle.

As for the revelation and recording of the Quran that was completed during the Ramadan (the 9th month in the Islamic lunar calendar) 1400 years ago, there were disagreements over their method of collection, scribing, accuracy, coherence and consistency. They further argue, how can the Quran be a holy book when there are numerous references to polytheists, idol-worshippers, Jews and Christians as Qafirs (non-believers) and, therefore, subject to de-recognition, proselytizing or persecution. Such verses, writings or interpretations, they point out, were the source of inspiration to killings in the name of Islam.

The Quran, for example, is quoted as saying that “the punishment of those who wage war against Allah and his messenger is execution by beheading, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides.” In the same book statements are attributed to Allah (the God in Arabic) saying, “...I will instill terror into the hearts of the unbelievers. Smite ye above their necks and smite all their fingertips off.” There’s believed to be a clear instruction that says, “...when you meet the unbelievers strike off their heads...”

Even after such writings were dismissed as archaic or obsolete, the Qafirs, considered defiled and impure, were still not welcome to the door steps of the Muslim holy shrines of Mecca and Medina. The supreme holy places for the Muslims could be visited only by the Muslims.

On the persona of Muhammad himself, the critics pointed out, it might make sense in the tribal societies of the 7th century Arabia, to have multiple marriages in order to provide shelter to the war widows, expand tribal networks and political influence; however, what was the justification behind marrying a six-year-old, Aisha? Why couldn’t she be embraced as a daughter or a grand-daughter by a large family of Muhammad? The marriage in Islam is supposed to be between two consenting individuals. Was Aisha at an age when she could have given a well-considered decision of her own?

To take another example, a Jewish 19-year old war widow Safiyyah was taken as a wife of Muhammad after her husband, father and brother were killed; her entire tribe was maimed, decimated and subjugated in an enclave of Medina. Historically, since the spoils of war went to the victor, the ownership of Safiyyah could be regarded as a perfectly acceptable practice in 628, four years before Muhammad’s death. But, how does it reflect on the founder of the religion now?

The young boys and girls of the 21st century, global in their outlook and educated in a liberal Western environment, shouldn’t be expected to endorse or glorify such actions. If the citizens of the world were to accept the actions of Muhammad as justified, it may be argued, then what George Bush did to Iraq or Al-Bashar to Syria, or what Saudi Arabia was doing to Yemen were all justified.

In the Islamic community, other issues around which acrimonious and politically charged debates have been raging are polygamy often facilitated by easy 'talaq' (divorce), hijab or burqa (partial or full veiling of the ladies), khatna (female genital mutilation) and 'halala' (temporary marriage with another before a divorced lady rejoins her husband). Despite the fact that a few Muslim-majority societies and their regimes have discontinued many of such practices, the Islamists still insist on their retention, primarily, perhaps, to keep their distinct identity. The command to follow such practices, they maintain, is contained in the Sharia, the Islamic laws. They imply the Sharia is a far superior set of laws that should be implemented universally and until that happens, the world will remain divided between the territory of Islam (Dar-al-Islam) and the territory of war (Dar-al-harb).

Deeply religious and pacifist as Gandhi was during his entire public life, he too went through convulsive periods involving Islam and the Muslims: From the South African campaign (1906-1914) where he litigated for equal rights to the Indian Muslims and Hindus, to the Non-cooperation campaign (1920-1922) in India when he took the Muslim leaders of the Ottoman-related Khilafat movement (1919-1924) on board, to the Civil Disobedience movements of the 1930’s and 1940’s when he had to address the Hindu-Muslim communal tensions.

The reality of the troubled and checkered Islamic history must not have escaped Gandhi when he wrote way back in 1926 rather ambiguously, “...The sword is no emblem of Islam. But Islam was born in an environment where the sword was, and still remains, the supreme law... The sword is yet too much in evidence among the Mussalmans. It must be sheathed if Islam is to be what it means -- peace.” Himself an apostle of peace and nonviolence, Gandhi said there could be many reasons for him to die, but not a single reason to kill anyone. “To change one’s religion under the threat of force,” Gandhi asserted, “was no conversion, but rather cowardice”. He preached, “no religion taught man to kill fellowmen because he held different opinions or was of another religion”.

During his own time, Gandhi was disturbed by disruptive and violent behaviors of fringe elements. He wrote in 1947 that there was “no room for Goondaism (bullying) in any other religion worth the name, be it Islam, Hinduism or any other.” He had warned almost 23 years earlier, “...to revile one another's religion, to make reckless statements, to utter untruth, to break the heads of innocent men, to desecrate temples or mosques is a denial of God.” However, Gandhi was hopeful that the men who were of “comparatively pure in character would work among such men (goondas)” and eventually “convert and control” them.

An advocate of progress especially for those who were left out in the society, Gandhi had counseled the Indian Muslims to reform their strict practice of the purdah (the veil) system. He appeared to be a little muted about the reforms that were needed in the Indian Muslim community at that time, may be because his focus was on the struggle for Independence or on reforms within the Hindus concerning untouchability, poverty and backwardness.

Perhaps on account of religious sensitivity, he didn't appear to be so strident about socio-religious transformations in the Indian Muslim community. However, his Muslim followers like Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan, Maulana Azad, Humayun Kabir, Dr. Zakir Hussain and many others were first rate intellectuals and reformers. They were all focused on social emancipation affected by illiteracy, poverty and backwardness of every Indian community.

In the world of today, we needed a healer, not a tormentor; a unifier, not a divider. The key to the easing of the faith-related tension, according to Gandhi, was for everyone to follow “the best in his own religion and entertaining equal regard for the other religion and their followers”.

Gandhi, therefore, strongly recommended the following verse from the Quran:

“A perfect Muslim is he from whose tongue and hands mankind is safe. No man is true believer unless he desireth for his brother that which he desireth for himself. The most excellent jehad is that for the conquest of self. Assist any person oppressed, whether Muslim or non-Muslim.”


Dr. Binoy Shanker Prasad hails from Darbhanga and currently resides with his family in Dundas, Ontario (Canada). A former UGC teacher fellow (at JNU) in India and Fulbright scholar in the USA, he has taught politics and authored conference papers, articles and chapters on Bihar in previously published books in the United States, India, and Canada.

Dr. Prasad administers a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/OverseasBihari and has sponsored “Aware Citizenship Campaign” at a micro-level in his home-town.

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