Is a Muslim Gandhi possible?
Though during centuries thousands of people have been killed in the name of religion, it can not be denied that some religious people like Lord Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. have played a positive role in removing sense of hatred and violence in human culture. Gandhi’s mission was not to politicize religion, but to spiritualize politics, meaning to bind up everyday action in the public sphere with morality. While Gandhi’s familiarity with Islam and his admiration for the prophet Muhammad are no secret, one has to mention also the direct influence of Muslim nonviolent activists like Ghaffar Khan and Maulana Azad on him. The complaint of many in the West since 9/11, that “there is no Muslim Gandhi”, comes from their ignorance of important personalities like Maulana Azad and Abdul Ghaffar Khan.
This is the paper presented by the author at the Istanbul Seminars organized by Reset Dialogues on Civilizations in Istanbul from June 2nd to the 6th 2008.
Everyone knows the central ontological question: “Why there is being, being rather than nothing?”. But there is another central philosophical question which the human race has been unable to answer: “Why is there violence, violence rather than non-violence?”. The world that we live in today is witnessing conflicts and large-scale violence. Innocent people are losing their lives and many are being forced to leave their homes. In such a scenario, the need for peace and nonviolence is deeply felt. Though many are skeptical about the relevance of nonviolence in today's world, some people continue to believe that nonviolence is still relevant in an age of terrorism and nuclear proliferation. As the global challenges and dangers have increased so has people’s commitment to nonviolence.
As such, non-violence has a tremendous opportunity in today's strife-ridden world, because its failure has not been proven in every case, but the failure of violence has been proven in a many cases. Nonviolence is not an easy option. At the time of choosing non-violence as an integral part of our societies, we need to be aware of the gulf which separates our everyday violence up to now, and the way we need to organize nonviolence from now on. Having said that, we are not dealing here with a utopia, but with a deliberate and effective struggle against the evil of violence. And here we may note that religious individuals have often played a role in checking the levels of violence and opposing it both within their own communities and within others. It is true that religious communities justify the use of violence by the state and often maintain silence in the face of violence. There are many reasons for such action, including, the concern for the survival of their own doctrine or simply dogmatic and monistic ways of looking at the two concepts of Truth and God. Some religious traditions have violent images of the Divine, which may imply a hard and harsh interpretation of reality and a framing of the worth of one’s faith in terms of the lesser worth of other faiths.
Though during centuries thousands of people have been killed in the name of religion, it can not be denied that some religious people like Lord Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. have played a positive role in removing sense of hatred and violence in human culture and developed a sense of moral values and love for others. The lives and thoughts of the prophets of nonviolence is a beautiful and moral frame for thinking otherwise in our contemporary violent order and very dangerous world. A frame where our concern with our lives and the lives of others around us is placed between the choice of morality and the choice of violence. All cultures have for goal and ideal the first, but end up by structuring, maintaining and legitimizing the second. This is where a third element appears between the moral ideal of humanity and its history as a violent reality. This middle element is the work of nonviolent individuals who rise from the heart of violent cultures. That is certainly a paradox, a rational and logical paradox, but not a spiritual one. This has to do with the fact that nonviolence is more a moral and spiritual development of a faith than an imperative part of it. It is in this context that one can understand when he affirmed that “The only people of earth who do not see Christ and his teachings as nonviolent are Christians.” In other words, nonviolence is a moral imperative which is grounded not in the dogmatic and institutional structures of religions, but in the individual readings and approaches to these religions.
Gandhi’s inner voice
Gandhi’s mission was not to politicize religion, but to spiritualize politics, meaning to bind up everyday action in the public sphere with morality. That is why to him, morality was prized by almost all the great religions of the world. Gandhi believed that at the core of every religion every individual could find Truth (satya), nonviolence (ahimsa) and the Golden Rule. That is why he was critical of the hypocrisy in organized religion, rather than the principles on which they were based. For him, Truth was far more important and more powerful than the religion itself. He stated that “Truth is God.”, meaning that God was an aspect of Truth (satya). According to Gandhi, Truth as God lives within us. It is that little voice that tells us what to do, but also guides the universe.
Gandhi’s “inner voice” is equivalent of Socrates’ “daimon”, an authority higher than the laws of the land. “For me - says Gandhi - the voice of God, of Conscience, of Truth or the Inner Voice . . . mean one and the same thing . . . . For me the voice was more real than my own existence. It has never failed me, and for that matter, any one else.” Furthermore, Gandhi refers to the inner voice as a Soul force that has the power to elicit the Divine in us as opposed to following the dictates of organized religion. This voice would affirm our commitment to non-violence, since its compassionate quality will lead us to a dialogical exchange with the self and the others. The inner voice, therefore, may be described as a kind of spiritual insight that enhances one’s sense of differentiation between the good and the evil. That is to say, one is invited to action by one’s inner voice rather than compelled to action as a response to the external environment. One thing to keep in mind, that many people seem to forget, is that Gandhi was a normal man like you and me. He made mistakes just like every other man, but had the courage to always follow his inner voice even in his imperfectness. However, what distinguishes Mahatma Gandhi from other religious thinkers is that his spirit of nonviolence was founded on his inner realization of spirituality. Nonviolence for Gandhi was not just a political tactic, but spirituality and a way of life.
The spirituality of nonviolence
Actually, one can say that Gandhi’s primary contribution to spirituality is nonviolence. This is how he challenges people of faith to recognize their religious hypocrisies. Gandhi argued that a person who believes in Truth and God cannot go to mosque, synagogue, temple or church one day, and the next day foster hatred and violence. Therefore for Gandhi, the spirituality of nonviolence had to be applied to all facets of life. It is interesting to see how much Gandhi was able to influence believers of other religions by unlocking the spiritual dynamic in all of them. Through his “soft reading” of the Hindu scriptures, but also that of Christianity and Islam, Gandhi found a clarion call to active nonviolence in all these religions. As such, he thought Christians, Jews and Muslims that faith pushes us to promote peace and nonviolent 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 nonviolence instead of being literalist interpreters of the Hindu, Muslim or Christian scriptures. Gandhi had the good fortune to have as his colleague's people belonging to different religions.
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan
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 the prophet Muhammad are no secret, one has to mention also the direct influence of Muslim nonviolent 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.” (Young India, 10.7.1924). Gandhi was also impressed by the personal and social codes of behavior that Islam prescribed, like prayer, fasting and alms giving. 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 Quran has convinced me that the basis of Islam is not violence but is unadulterated Peace”, affirmed Mahatma Gandhi. “It regards forbearance as a superior to vengeance. The very word ‘Islam’ means Peace, which is nonviolence. My experience of all India tells me that the Hindus and the Muslims know how to live at Peace among themselves. I decline to believe that the people have said good-bye to their senses, so as to make it impossible to live at Peace with each other, as they done for generations. The enmity cannot last forever.” Gandhi was persuaded that in the Islamic world, as in the Hindu religion and Christianity, there were men and women who, being moral in character, would work nonviolence and peace in the world. Maybe that is why Gandhi found in these Muslims, more than mere fighters for independence, 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 bring India back to independence we understand that the complaint of many in the West since 9/11, that “there is no Muslim Gandhi”, comes from their ignorance of important personalities like Maulana Azad and Abdul Ghaffar Khan, not from any reputed lack of nonviolent intellectual and political actors in the Islamic tradition.
Just as Gandhi considered Hinduism to be based on non-violent ahimsa, so Abdul Ghaffar Khan reinterpreted his Islam to be based on nonviolence. For both reformers, systematic non-violent social transformation was a matter of faith. “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.” (Tendulkar, 93-94).
Ghaffar Khan’s profound belief in the truth and effectiveness of nonviolence 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.” (Tendulkar, 48). 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 nonviolent life. In these days when one tends to associate the Islamic world with violence, it is refreshing to know that some individuals in the 20th century opened us to a perception that Islam can be in harmony with nonviolence. Were his example better known, the world might come to recognize that being a Muslim and a nonviolent are not incompatible. In an interview in 1985 Abdul Ghaffar Khan affirmed: “I am a believer in nonviolence and I say that no peace or tranquility will descend upon the people of the world until nonviolence is practiced, because nonviolence is love and it stirs courage in people.” But Abdul Ghaffar Khan was not the only Muslim to explore systematic nonviolence in the social and political spheres.
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 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 that 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…” (Azad: Tarjuman al-Qur'an, 1:168-72).
Drawing close parallels between the Sufi concepts and the idea of oneness of Reality, as expounded in the Hindu scriptures, Azad declared that “differences which exist between one religion and another are not differences in the basic spirit of religion, but simply in its outward form.” (Tarjuman al-Qur'an). As such, Azad's Islamic humanism led him on to fiercely oppose both Muslim as well as Hindu communalism and fundamentalism, that saw no place for a genuinely religiously pluralism. He wrote in his journal al- Hilal in 1913: “Islam does not commend narrow-mindedness and racial and religious prejudice. It does not make the recognition of merit and virtue of human benevolence, mercy and love dependent upon and subject to distinctions of race and religion. Rather, Islam actually teaches us to respect every man who is good, whatever his religion, and to be drawn towards merits and virtues, whatever be the religion or race of the person who possesses them. If human beings were to be free of religious prejudice, then how much more would God Himself have to be above such failings?”.
Maulana Azad clearly accepted principles of nonviolence and participated in Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent movement. The end result was Azad’s unequivocal endorsement of Hindu-Muslim peaceful coexistence in an independent India. Of course, Azad was not successful in convincing Muhammad Ali Jinnah to cease calling for the creation of Pakistan, which was an extremely violent process. But such history illustrates how Islam has always been used for both nonviolent and violent purposes. Therefore, there is no denying that the life stories of Ghaffar Khan and Maulana Azad is the history of the challenge of Muslims with violence and nonviolence. It also proves that nonviolent action could be consistent with Islamic principles. It is in the spirit of Azad and Ghaffar Khan that the Islamic world should encourage socio-political changes through nonviolent means, promoting tolerance and acceptance of pluralism and diversity.
The Muslim tradition of nonviolence
The greatest problem facing Islam today is, as I see it, that Muslims have almost totally forgotten the tradition of non-violence among Muslims themselves. It is as the result of this oblivion, that despite all their political efforts Muslims have achieved no positive gain. Rather whatever they already had as a civilizational potential has been lost by the violence of Islamic fundamentalism. However, there is still hope to believe that a strategy for Muslim nonviolent action, developed by Maulana Azad and Abdul Ghaffar Khan, could have applications in contemporary conflicts where change is desirable but violent means are often self-destructive. If imaginative Muslim leadership today could draw upon the nonviolent contributions of individuals like Ghaffar Khan and Maulana Azad, even in contexts where violent reactions may seem justified, then a possible tension among religious or ethnic communities might be managed without great danger for the human race.
Today, Islam and Muslims are largely portrayed in much of the world as synonymous with terrorism. There is a stereotypical image that Islam and nonviolence cannot coexist. Let us be honest. Many of us when we think of Islam, we probably don't think of nonviolence, but rather we think of “Islamic terrorists” going on suicide bombing raids or “Islamic extremists” blowing up planes and buildings. The truth is that in Islam, like all other great religions, there are fundamentalists and extremists who manipulate what is written in their holy book to justify their acts of violence and terrorism. Actually, modern fundamentalism that ended in terror actions in Judaism, Christianity and Islam presented itself as a form of resistance to the secular and atheist world by launching a backlash toward the symbols of modernity, including commercial buildings, train stations, and undergrounds. It is the right time for liberal and moderate Muslims to construct a new image of Islam as a religion that is compatible with the modern world and is able to interact with the West, and coordinate itself with the international norms. So it is in the interest of Islamic societies and Muslims in general to change the perception of the world on Islam as a violent religion by changing the way in which their societies often attempt to solve differences among them and with others. This is not a way to be hypocritical or to underestimate the civilizational potential of Islam, but it is a critical attitude to improve social and political conditions within Islam. Very often, Muslims protest against arguments such as this one that I am suggesting. However, by using violence as a social and political modus vivendi, many Muslims put their moral judgments and philosophical arguments at the same level that what they allegedly criticize and reject as unjust and inhuman, and that puts them, by definition at an equally low or even lower level of morality.
And this is not a game to gamble on; in Muslim countries that have embraced violence against their citizens or others, the violations of individual liberties is a matter of daily practice. Most Muslim societies are stricken with the poverty, corruption and social disparities that are endemic to the developing world. These frustrations express themselves in religious "fundamentalist" terms, as Islamist movements also tend to support social and political revolutions. The other dimension to "fundamentalist" movements is external rather than internal. Muslim fundamentalists perceive the West and its allies to be responsible for imperialist policies directed at politically and economically suppressing Muslim populations. Anger at these Western policies fuels religious extremism and regressive views of violence all over the Islamic world, which could effectively bring to silence non-violent interpretations of Islam everywhere. Because there appear to be no effective responses to the suffering of the people in Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan, Muslim publics are easily convinced that violent strategies are the only solution. Those who suggest otherwise, unfortunately, lose public legitimacy.
Reading Gandhi as a problematizer of violence and modernity in Muslim countries today helps these to problematize Gandhi’s nonviolence in these countries. As such, Gandhi’s harsh critics of tradition and modernity offer a theoretical terrain for a nonviolent critic of violence in Muslim theology and political philosophy. In other words, in order to develop an Islamic approach to nonviolence that is dialogical and pluralistic, one needs to move beyond western models of peace building and conflict resolution by building upon contemporary models of peace and nonviolence in the Muslim world. This return to figures such as Khan 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 remains a challenge. But as Martin Luther King Jr. used to say: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.”