He tried to rescue his faith from the clutches of political utopians who read into Islam a complete political system
“The ideology behind present-day terrorism is that, Islam being a political system, it is the duty of all Muslims to establish Islamic rule in the world. This thinking was not prevalent during the time of the Prophet Muhammad. It is a later innovation which was developed in the last few centuries by a handful of people. Having become widespread in the Muslim world today, it is leading to present-day violence.”[i]
Is Islam a political ideology or a religious belief system? This is a question that in the contemporary world continues to baffle many people across the globe. Of course, politics and religion are not mutually exclusive. Some religious beliefs do influence our politics, as they influence various other realms of human life. No one can entirely reduce the Abrahamic faiths to their soteriological aspects since almost all three of the major Abrahamic faiths carry within themselves some political pretensions. But can religion (in this case, Islam) serve as a political ideology? Or to put it in another way, can religion which was primary designed to address soteriological and eschatological themes, be turned into a sociopolitical model?
For a few centuries, this question was posed only by the orientalists who were interested in understanding this mysterious Arabian faith. But since the middle half of the 20th century, and particularly in the 21st century, this has become a common question that almost all intellectually sentient denizens of the world often ask.
What happened in the 20th century that made people realise the importance of this question? A new idea was born. A different interpretation of Islam was expounded by Syed Qutb and Hasan-al-Banah in Egypt, Syed Abul Ala Mawdudi in Indian Subcontinent, and Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. This interpretation stressed the “inherent” political dimensions of Islam and offered an Islamic sociopolitical alternative to the western political ideologies, most notably Liberal democracy and Communism. But, for many decades, this remained an area of interest only for academics. However, the beginning of the 21st century showed us what this new interpretation of Islam was capable of. It was so powerful in its message that it motivated people to do horrendous deeds often at the expense of their own lives.
The September 11 attacks marked the beginning of an era when religion once again became the motivator for global violence. This had been almost non-existent in the west ever since the Enlightenment. Whereas most of the violence in the 20th century was the doing of secular ideologies and often anti-theistic dictators (Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot), the Islamist violence was carried out under religious slogans and the perpetrators explicitly stated their aims in religious terms. Their ideas and goals were fairly simple; Islam is not simply a faith like others, it is a whole sociopolitical system that should replace other systems. To be a Muslim proper requires faith not only in the main pillars of Islam, but also in its political message.
But what was “New” about this interpretation? Is it not true that Islam is political? That it is, much like Judaism, and unlike Christianity, a religion of “Laws”? After all, there has never been the idea of a secular Law in Classical Islamic theology. So, what was so radically new in this movement?
This question was perhaps addressed by many, but no one answered it (In my humble opinion) as coherently as a scholar from the Indian city of Azamgarh. His name was Maulana Wahiduddin Khan. Born in 1925, he was initially inspired by the works of Maulana Mawdudi and joined his Islamic political party(jamaat-e-Islami). It is often stated sarcastically (and mostly by the political opponents of Jamaat-e-Islami) that whoever joins this party, never leaves. Or if they do leave, the party never leaves them (“Insan Jamaat-e -Islami sy nikal sakta hai, liken Insaan sy Jamaat-e-Islami nahi”). Insinuating as it may sound, but there is some truth in it. Political Islam, much like secular totalitarian ideas like Marxism, does possess an aura which is hard to let go if you have been gravitated to it once. It is often noticed by many that people who do abandon their Marxist leanings still persist in seeing the world from a Marxist lens.
Perhaps, the same could be said about Political Islam. But that certainly was not the case with the inquisitive Maulana Wahiduddin Khan. He carried on with his quest for the Pristine faith, and soon developed significant differences with Mawdudi and his Party. I have explored in great details those differences before[ii] and for the sake of brevity I will not mention them again. Suffice to say that I found Maulana Wahiduddin Khan’s critique extremely profound. Mawdudi’s overly politicised interpretation of Islam was put to question by many, most notably by Maulana Husayn Ahmed Madani of Deoband, and Mawdudi’s own former associate, Maulana Manzur Numani. But what differed Maulana Wahiduddin’s Khan critique was that he knew precisely what the source of Mawdudi’s inspiration was; western Totalitarianism. In Khan, Mawdudi and the rest of the Islamists had found their worst nemesis; a theologian well versed in western thought which had hitherto remained their specialty (Traditional clergy has never accorded any significant attention to foreign ideas). According to Khan, the problem was not that the Islamist focus on the Political aspects of Islam, but that they perceive politics as the overarching objective of Islam.
“My objection to Mawdudi’s writings is that in giving importance to the political aspects of the religion, he engaged in such inordinate exaggeration that he made it the basis of an entire interpretation of the religion. I do not object to his including politics in the religion. Everyone knows that politics, too, is included in Islam. I do not consider it wrong that he stressed political aspects in his writings, because if at a particular time a preacher feels the need to stress a particular aspect of the faith, he must do so, otherwise people cannot be suitably enthused to try to bring about necessary changes.
If the matter rested here, no one would have cause to object. My objection is this, that Mawdudi so greatly exaggerated the importance of the political aspect of Islam that he evolved a political interpretation of Islam. This is just like how exaggerating the importance of economics beyond what was warranted led to the development of Marxism as a completely new ideology.
The difference does not lie in the fact that Mawdudi stressed the issue of politics. Rather, it lies in the fact that he promoted a certain mindset, a distinct mentality, that sees everything in a political hue.”[iii]
Accordingly, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan termed Islamism as the “Political interpretation of Islam”. This also answers the question I posed before about the lack of native secularism within Islam. While it is true that Islam does entail political injunctions; they have always been deemed as secondary to the spiritual teachings of faith. Islamists, however, reverse the pattern.
This is also an observation shared by the noted Islamic historian Seyyed Vali Nasr. According to Vali Nasr:
‘’Mawdudi’s teachings on Islam and Islamic state parted with the traditional perspective to a large extent: he defined faith, the meaning of spirituality and the nature of the relations between Islam and society very differently from the traditionalist view. His overtly and exclusively political reading was distinguished from the essentially soteriological and spiritual concerns of traditional Islam.”[iv]
Although Maulana Wahiduddin’s criticism was sound, it was not always accepted by everyone(inevitably). In fact, many argued that if Islamists are influenced by western totalitarianism, he was influenced by Gandhian philosophy, so much so that he concocted an interpretation of Islam that entirely did away with aggressive politics. It might well be the case, but still, it is much better to be influenced by Gandhi, than to be influenced by the likes of Mussolini Or Lenin. And if we are to deal with such philosophical abstractions as “Pristine Islam” or “Correct Islam”, then let it be known that there is no interpretation of any religious text that is free of our own biases or external influences.
What is more pertinent to ask is what has been the consequence of Islamism? When Maulana first wrote his book (back in 1963), militant Islam was still pretty much in its infancy. But he had already prognosticated the eventual reliance of Political Islam on violent measures. Like all other utopias, Political Islam too had to resort to militancy in order to achieve its goals.
“A large number of Muslims, and especially many easily influenced youth, have become obsessed with this ideology and are trying to establish the political rule of Islam, thinking it to be their ticket to paradise. Having failed to achieve this objective of establishing Islamic rule by the peaceful method, they have started resorting to suicide bombing, the idea being that if we cannot eliminate non-Islamic rule, then let us at least de-stabilise it and pave the way for Islamic rule.”[v]
Many people accused him of indulging in appeasement, that he was always critical of Muslims’ attitude and paid little attention to bigoted sentiments of others. But surely, should we not all start with our own house and fight our own demons? Where has the idea of aggressive politics lead us? Can we really complain about Islamophobia seeing the atrocities being committed by Islamist zealots not only in the Middle East but also in the streets of Paris, Nice, and Berlin?
This reminds me of an interesting contrast drawn by the esteemed Orientalist Bernard Lewis in his book What went wrong?. According to Lewis, the decline of the Muslim world and the rise of Christian Europe cultivated two types of responses in Muslim society. One response was to admit one’s shortcomings and do self-reflection. The other response was reactionary and retaliatory; it failed to admit any short-comings and looked instead for scapegoats to blame for its sudden fall from grace. Sometimes, the scapegoats were the Jews, sometimes Christians, and sometimes — in fact, most of the time — they were people within Muslim societies (individuals like Maulana Wahiduddin Khan who encouraged introspection and reform). According to Lewis, the first group posed the question, “What went wrong?”, while the latter group asked, “Who did this to us?” It is quite clear to which group Maulana Wahiduddin Khan belonged.
It is becoming increasingly evident that there is no global conspiracy against Islam and Muslims. People who seek conspiracies in everything are bound to find them everywhere. Such is the predicament of a conspiracy-seeking mindset.
Although Maulana Wahiduddin Khan wrote on almost every subject, and published over 200 books in his lifetime, it would have been impossible to encompass all of them. Therefore, I chose the subject that resonates with my own work. Maulana Wahiduddin Khan’s work typified the core teachings of almost all world religions: Do not expect a world free of evil. No amount of political action will ever suffice in providing mankind eternal bliss on earth. He tried to rescue his faith from the clutches of political utopians who read into Islam a complete political system, promising that the Kingdom of God can indeed be emulated in the “City of Man” (to borrow the phrase from Saint Augustine of Hippo).
Maulana Wahiduddin Khan is no more; but let us hope that his approach would inculcate in all of us, so that we too would seek self-correction and self-purification. It is only his approach to Islam that can bring us out of the turmoil that we find ourselves in. May his message of peace, tolerance, compassion, and pluralism echo forever in our minds and hearts.
“Thou hast created us for thyself O lord, and our hearts are restless until they come to rest in thee.” – Saint Augustine, 4th century Christian mystic.
[iv] Mawdudi and the Making of Islamic Revivalism; Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr.