We at Hudson Institute’s South Asia Program are saddened to hear of the passing away of world renowned Islamic scholar from India, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan.
Dr. Maria Khan is affiliated with the Center for Peace and Spirituality (CPS) International, which was founded by her grandfather and well-known Muslim scholar and activist, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan. Maria Khan received her doctorate degree from the Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Hamdard, New Delhi. The topic of her PhD was The Quranic Concept of Dawah: Contemporary Relevance. She has edited translations of some of Maulana’s books and is sub-editor of Spirit of Islam, a monthly periodical of Islam. She is also the author of Ali ibn Abi Talib, and a regular contributor to the print and television media. Dr. Khan sat down with Hudson Institute’s Dr. Aparna Pande, director of the Initiative on Future of India and South Asia.
Dr. Pande: Thank you for being with us today, Dr. Khan. I was hoping we could start by asking you to enlighten our readers about the great scholar and reformer, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, who is also your grandfather, about the Maulana’s background, and his views and thoughts.
Dr. Khan: Yes. Thank you so much for letting me be here and sharing my thoughts. Maulana’s forefathers are from Afghanistan and part of his family migrated to India and they finally settled in the city of Azamgarh, which is today in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Maulana was educated in an Islamic seminary in Azamgarh, and that seminary is called Madrasatul Islah. After receiving his initial traditional education in Islam, Maulana began interacting with his relatives and extended family members. And he found a communication gap between him and them because he had graduated as a maulvi [an Islamic doctor of law] and learned Arabic.
But his family members had received Western-style education and they were very well conversant in English as well, and they would give references to modern thought in their conversations and discussions. This was the first kind of intellectual challenge Maulana faced, and it motivated him to study the English language. He realized that a paramount requirement of the modern age is to present Islam in the contemporary idiom. So, an aspect of Maulana is that he introduced a certain scientific temper in explaining Islamic concepts and ideas. I will give an example of one of the themes which is present in his writings concerning religious belief. That is, religion is a matter of self-discovery. The Quran urges the reader to reflect, ponder and contemplate. Maulana interprets this to mean that every believer or every individual must discover God at the intellectual level and not simply have blind faith in God. Faith is neither something that is imposed upon you nor is it something which you inherit from someone. Faith requires the involvement of your spiritual pursuit. Connected to this is the idea that simply being born into a Muslim family will not guarantee you salvation and there is no group-salvation in Islam. This notion described by Maulana negates the basis of Muslim supremacism: Muslims are no special group who will get salvation just because they are Muslims. Every individual Muslim has to discover his faith on his own. Muslims have to make intellectual effort to understand and follow their faith.
In Islamic jurisprudence, there is a principle called ijtihad (re-interpretation or re-application of Islamic teachings to changing times). Maulana has applied ijtihad concerning changes we see in the present age. For example, he has written that Muslims established a political empire in the past and were rulers of vast areas of the world. Some believe that gaining political authority is part of a Muslim’s religious duty and that it is enjoined upon Muslims by Islam. An important intellectual contribution Maulana has made is that he has discussed the evolution of the nature of political power through history.
Maulana has shown how political power monopolized everything from the economy to agriculture and even religion. But today we see that there is de-monopolization and decentralization, meaning that political power is now restricted to the spheres of governance and administration, while every other nonpolitical field outside of administration is now opened up to people to pursue freely.
So, for example, when the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century introduced his faith to a tribe called the Banu Shayban on the borders of the Persian empire, they refused to accept his message. They said that we have a pact with the [Persian] emperor, and one of the stipulations is that we should not entertain any novel idea or doctrine.
Today I do not need the sanction of an emperor to follow my faith. And most importantly, I do not need a Muslim empire to practice my faith. This led the Maulana to conclude that the struggle for political power is an anachronism and that today political dominance is not necessary for Islam. This is a fundamental change in the narrative on Islamic thought. I relate this to what Thomas Kuhn discussed in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He says that in the scientific world, when a particular paradigm collapses under the weight of new observations and new problems, then that opens up the possibility for the development of new paradigms. I would say that Maulana provided this new paradigm and new mindset to Muslims. He sees modern changes as pro-Islam, not anti-Islam, and believes that they are desirable and propitious for Islam.
Dr. Pande: I have quite a few questions on the broader issue you mentioned, but before I go into that, what I want to ask you was what led the Maulana to set up the Center for Peace and Spirituality and what led you to follow in your grandfather’s spot?
Dr. Khan: As I was growing up, I increasingly found religion irrelevant to my life because the society we live in tends to present religion to us simply as a list of dos and don’ts.
So, there was this disenchantment that I increasingly developed with religion and felt that it was outdated and could have been applicable in the seventh century but is certainly not applicable in the 21st century. And since I also was studying physics at college, I developed an inquisitive mind, a characteristic not encouraged in traditional religious circles. At the same time, I started interacting with Maulana, realizing that he appreciated critical thinking. In our discussions, the first statement that he would ask is: do you have any troubling questions. He would also provide a scriptural reference in favor of expressing dissent. [Quran 2:30] The Quran says that when God created Adam, at that time the Angels disagreed with God and said, why was there any need to create a creature like Adam when we were already there to glorify you? The Quran says that God did not chastise the angels. Rather, he clarified their apprehension by providing them a reason. [Quran 2:31] And therefore, God himself established that we have to engage with critical ideas, we do not have to suppress or censor them. Interacting with Maulana allowed me to explore Islam freely. And I would also say one of the reasons why I was attracted to Islam after my discussions with and reading of Maulana is that he focuses a lot on the wisdom that is contained in Islam.
So, he would not present the Prophet as a person who had miraculous abilities as a result of which he was able to resolve all the problems that he faced. Rather, he presents the Prophet in his writings as a person who used wisdom to manage the affairs of his life. For example, there was a very tense situation at the time when the Prophet was at Hudaybiyah, where he had to enter into a treaty in 628 AD. In the agreement on paper, the other side refused to write down the prefix “messenger of God” before the Prophet’s name. That was a humiliating moment, but the Prophet did not convert that moment or that issue into one of community prestige. He left behind the reactive psychology and tried to enter into a peace treaty, irrespective of all the conditions that were laid down before him, only to create a peaceful atmosphere for his work, which proved beneficial for him later on. These eternal pieces of wisdom from the Prophet appealed to me.
Another reason why I chose to study Islam is also based on my experience as an Indian Muslim. In this pluralistic age, the sociologist Peter Berger has said that your belief system is not self-evidently true. In a Muslim majority setting, you live within your worldview and simply absorb whatever is told to you about your faith. But in a pluralistic environment such as India, you have a more dynamic relationship with your faith. For example, some Muslims refer to non-Muslims as kuffar or nonbelievers, and this term is used in a derogatory way, giving the impression that non-Muslims are impure and should not be intermingled with. Now, I have been educated in a Christian school and then I went to study at Delhi University. I have friends from the Hindu, Christian, Sikh, and Jain communities. And I realized through my interactions with them that they are as much human as I am. This made me rethink aspects of the prevalent traditional narrative. I would go back to scripture and discuss with Maulana. I realized that kuffar was a temporary, non-derogative term used only for some contemporaries of the Prophet, and not a permanent label to be attached to a group or a community.
This is also one reason why I decided to work with CPS and let people know about the kind of rediscoveries I’m making about my faith. CPS, which stands for Center for Peace and Spirituality, was established in the year 2001. Now, before that, Maulana had been working individually. He had been writing numerous articles and books. Particularly his magazines, Al-Risala, which is published in Urdu, is very famous in the Indian subcontinent, and it is also available now in English as Spirit of Islam. These writings impacted several people who decided to come together to form an organization, which is now CPS. To explain the work CPS does, I will give two examples. We know that when the cartoon controversy emerged there were calls across the Muslim world that the magazine should be banned or that bilateral relations with France should be suspended. Some said we should file defamation suits against those who defame the Prophet. CPS members, however, believe in responding to such issues by introducing to people the Prophet they have discovered from scripture.
We take it as a matter of intellectual discussion. One of the very important projects that CPS has undertaken is to translate the Quran into various national and international languages so that people can know for themselves what the text contains. Part of our task is also to highlight the spiritual aspect of the Prophet’s teachings and values, which were the most prominent part of his mission or his prophetic career. Once a group of Germans came to our Center. One among them said that it seemed that the Prophet Muhammad was a person who commanded armies and indulged in military warfare throughout his lifetime. This is a popular impression of the Prophet. Our purpose is to share with people the fact that the Prophet was a seeker of truth. He adopted divine ethics, imparted spiritual lessons and wisdom to his companions, and enlightened people about the meaning and purpose of life.
The Maulana is a regular contributor to the Speaking Tree column, which is the spiritual column of The Times of India, and it is read by both Muslims and people of other faiths. Spirituality is increasingly becoming a common ground for discussion across communities here in India. So, there is a growing interfaith space and CPS tries to utilize this space by participating in various kinds of interfaith or interreligious dialogues. There is an increasing trend among youngsters to learn more about spirituality found in religion. A group of youngsters from the Hindu community came to me and said that we want to know more about your faith and the spiritual teachings of your faith, but don’t give us abstract theoretical principles. They said, tell us how you as a person have been transformed by your spirituality, how have you adopted spirituality, and received solace and peace in your life. Sharing spiritual experiences is a very important means of bringing people closer. We are also translating our literature into Hindi. Besides that, CPS also engages in practically applying the peaceful ideas of Islam. For example, Tipu Sultan [1750-1799] is a very famous Muslim soldier and military commander. His great-grandson, Dr. Ahmed Sultan is a reader of Maulana’s literature and writings. One time he went to Maharashtra and there was a town where a Ganapati procession was about to go on the streets. There was fear among Muslims that the procession would culminate into a riot. Dr. Sultan said to the Muslims that we cannot stop the procession, but we can stop the riot from happening. He advised the Imam of the mosque: When the procession goes past your mosque, you should come forward with Phool malas (garlands of flowers) and receive the processionists with these garlands. When the Imam did this, it completely changed the atmosphere. Such processions generally involve provocative slogans from both sides, escalating into a riot. But something which could have become a symbol of communal clash became a symbol of communal harmony. People started embracing each other, exchanging sweets and shaking hands. This is one of the ways in which we are trying to apply these peaceful teachings of Islam in India.
Dr. Pande: I have been an avid reader of Maulana’s columns and books. I will now quote a sentence from a book by the Maulana titled ‘Indian Muslims: Need for a Positive Outlook.’ “Both Hindus and Muslims have fallen into negative thinking because of one fear or another. If there’s a Hindu-Muslim problem in the country [India], it is because neither community has been able to play a truly constructive role in the shaping of the nation’s destiny.” You gave the example right now of Tipu Sultan’s great-grandson, but could you offer examples of how the Maulana and CPS have tried to implement this in action?
Dr. Khan: As far as the statement that you read out from his book, I would say that Maulana has studied Hindu-Muslim relations in the country extensively. When he made this statement, he meant that Partition left a legacy of Hindu-Muslim rivalry which was at its peak before Independence. This old antagonism continued to simmer. It did not die down, and we both know that any trivial matter between two individuals would assume the proportions of a full-scale riot between two communities. This is the negative thinking of the past, which Maulana advised both Hindus and Muslims to come out of and advised both communities to work together and collaborate for the development of the nation. This was also the constructive role that he was talking about, which was often hampered because of the general tendency of becoming a victim of communal psychology, which would lead to a lot of destructive episodes and loss of life and property. His advice has always been to take into consideration the larger interests of the nation. If there has been anything unpleasant from the Hindu side, or the Muslims think that something wrong has happened with them, then they should take the initiative to forgive. Maulana cites a particular verse of the Quran that says good deeds are to be done in return for bad deeds. (41:34) This is not only a matter of moral teaching, rather it is something that takes into account human psychology. If there is some kind of tension between me and somebody who belongs to another faith, and if I try to be more compassionate in listening to that person, if I am not reactive and defensive about myself or if I don’t hurl accusations at them or their community, and if instead I speak about the commonalities and the fact that we should try to maintain peace for our common betterment, then it helps in subduing the other person’s antagonism. It helps in creating a peaceful environment for dialogue and conducive atmosphere for community relations.
Dr. Pande: Thank you. India has the second-largest Muslim population in the world, after Indonesia, and yet India is a non-Muslim majority country. How do you, both as a scholar and a person, view the spread of Islam in India over the decades and where would you say we stand today?
Dr. Khan: There were two points of entry of Islam into India. The first was from the South. That is where Islam initially entered India. We know that Arab merchants were transporting goods from the Mediterranean into the southern coast of India. These merchants started to flourish on the southern Indian coast after they gradually started intermarrying with the local community and preaching their religion. India has always offered a very conducive atmosphere to Muslims. There has been no report of widespread persecution or the dwindling of Muslim populations. The Muslim population has only increased over the years. One of the very important aspects of Islam in India is that when Islam entered India from the north, the conquerors were not responsible for the spreading of the religion. Along with the conquerors came several teachers, Sufis, mystics, scholars, and they were the ones who were responsible for preaching the religion of love. Sufism has had a very important history in India. Even the colony in which I live, Nizamuddin West, is named after the famous Sufi saint, Nizamuddin Auliya [1238-1325]. We have the shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya nearby and people from different faiths and even westerners come to the shrine to offer their respects.
One reason why Islam did not become the majority religion here in India, is that Indian Islam has been largely Sufi Islam or mystical Islam, a peaceful and compassionate Islam. There have been no forceful conversions to Islam. It attracted people as and when it filled their spiritual void. Therefore, we see that the extent of the spread of Islam was natural.
Dr. Pande: Women have played a central role in the Indian subcontinent right from the days of the Indus Valley civilization and India has had women scholars, freedom fighters, and political leaders. Yet, I am sure you will agree with me, women face tremendous challenges even today and many of those challenges are rooted in religion, society, and culture. The Maulana has written on several issues including the role of women in Islam and India. Three women play a central role at CPS: Dr. Farida Khanam, Dr. Naghma Siddiqi, and yourself. Could you offer some thoughts on how you view these challenges and what is the way forward?
Dr. Khan: Yeah, I would like to begin with my own experience. When I started speaking about Islam on social media platforms, there was encouragement from people, but there was also a strand in the Muslim community who had a very different view. Some said that you should cover your entire face when you come out into public. Some said that you shouldn’t speak at all since a woman’s voice is awrah. Awrah is an Arabic word which means something to be concealed, so a woman’s voice is to be concealed from men unrelated to her. Others said that religion is the domain of men, not the domain of women, therefore we as women shouldn’t be coming forward to do this task.
But this was the moment when I went to Maulana and he said to me unequivocally, that my last advice to you is that you should try to find out your role in life which you want to perform, by studying scripture, by discussing with people and looking into other relevant resources. Once you have discovered your role, then let those who are issuing fatwas against you keep issuing fatwas. But you should remain firm on what you have decided. I think this advice was very empowering. It gave me the understanding that I am the one responsible for my future. Once I discover what I want to do, I should be steadfast and courageous enough to face detractors. This is how I was able to overcome the initial discouragement that I faced. I also find immense encouragement in the example of Aisha, the wife of the Prophet. A very interesting aspect of their relationship is that often there was discussion and dialogue between the Prophet and Aisha. She would often question the Prophet about something, which was followed by an intellectual exchange between the two. This is extremely important because you see Aisha as a woman interacting or exchanging with the Prophet as an intellectual partner or an intellectual companion, and not as an intellectual inferior.
After the Prophet died, Bibi Aisha continued to guide the community for another 50 years. She was the person to whom senior companions of the Prophet would come to discuss faith-related matters. They would come to her for her advice and counsel, and she would fearlessly speak about what she had understood about religion. This is extremely important for me since I am also studying Islam, and I have a model from early Islamic history of a woman who was at the helm of intellectual contributions.
I would like to also speak about some cultural challenges, which I feel are not religious, but common to all societies.
The first is the attitudinal challenge that we must face in society. So, for example, I was reading about the Indian particle physicist Rohini Godbole. She is a professor at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, a very prestigious institution. She has been recently awarded the French Order of Merit for collaboration between France and India on science. She went to the US to do her Ph.D. and returned after the completion of her degree. While speaking with a colleague, when he came to know that she had gone all the way to the U.S. and completed her Ph.D. after a ten-year-long period, he casually remarked, “I didn’t realize that you were so serious about this.” This example explains the kind of challenge we women face because, in Indian society, it is often said that a woman should take up a career that does not adversely impact her family life. They often say that you should go into teaching because you will have time for your career, and you will also have time to devote to your family. Research, academics and sciences are considered as fields women cannot handle. I think women should be welcome in whichever field they want to enter, and wherever they seek to best invest their talent.
And another important aspect concerning women that I want to speak about and something that I feel personally is that often the challenge is not as much external, as it is internal. I was reading about the American biochemist, Jennifer Doudna, who has been awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. She went to Harvard for her graduate studies. During her initial days at Harvard, she said I started doubting myself because there were so many smart people around me. I thought that I might not be able to stick around doing research. Women tend to doubt their abilities more than men. This is something which we have to overcome ourselves. If we women decide to do something, then we should be confident enough to follow through on it.
Dr. Pande: Indians of all faith played a role during India’s national sort of freedom struggle. Indian Muslims are present in every arena of Indian society, politics, culture, and economy. Yet, there has been a rise in Hindu majoritarianism in India and a concomitant growth in attacks on Indian Muslims. Majoritarianism is not a phenomenon unique to India but how do you view this issue in the Indian context and what do you see as the way forward?
Dr. Khan: One of the most important points I would like to mention is that it is generally portrayed that these attacks on Muslims, which you have mentioned, especially in Muslim literature, Muslim journals, and newspapers, represent the only situation that Muslims are confronting in India.
I do not agree with this notion. Although there is a lot of discussion around such occurrences, I think there is hardly any discussion on the achievements that Muslims are making. Only recently I was reading about the topper of the prestigious All India Pre Medical Examination. He is a Muslim called Shoyeb Aftab. And, interestingly, we had a top scorer from Kashmir’s Pulwama district. His name is Basit Bilal Khan. Basit Bilal Khan said something very wise. He said that if your goal is important to you, find ways rather than excuses. And, Shoyeb said, never take your eyes off your objective despite the difficulties. It is interesting to note that Shoyeb said that after completing my medical school, I would like to go into research in the cardiovascular field. He did not say that the reason is that I would like to serve the Muslim community after research. Rather, he said that in our country cardiovascular problems are increasingly becoming an epidemic. I want to address this problem in the country.
Why I am mentioning this is that today the greatest concern of the young Muslim in India is education. I will give the example of my locality or the area that I live in. I live in Nizamuddin West and there is a quarter attached to our colony called Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti. Now earlier, girls from this Muslim quarter used to come to work as domestic helps in the homes in our colony. But now, increasingly, it is becoming very difficult to find such girls because their families are now sending them off to school. The condition of Muslims has become far better than what it was before Independence. But we do not generally talk about this even though this is something that Maulana has emphasized extensively.
I would say that young Muslims have realized that they have remained backward in India due to the lack of culture of education in their community in the past. Madrassas dot the entire Indian landscape. But these are traditional Islamic seminaries. There are not many high-quality, modern secular institutions run by Muslims. This has been the cause of Muslims’ socio-economic decline compared to other communities.
But now you see that young Muslims are seeing opportunities everywhere and they want to utilize these opportunities to have a better share in the economic prosperity in this country. What is important to note here is that there is a desire to rise above the narrative of discrimination, inequity, and injustice.
It seems that young Muslims are now increasingly wanting to take their future into their own hands. I was speaking to a young girl who is pursuing her master’s in applied psychology from a university in Delhi. She said that our leaders and speakers seem to give us the impression that India is a country that has only problems to offer to us. But she said I am seeing that there is an increasingly visible alternative reality of Muslims in India, and I want to be part of that alternative reality, and I want my leaders to tell me what I can do or what I should do to become part of that alternative reality. So, I think these young Muslims will change the image of Muslims being a persecuted minority in India to being a creative minority in India, one that is helping in the development of the nation. What is also important is that to me, as a young Muslim in India, when I am exposed to discussions and conversations in Muslim circles, when I read Muslim newspapers, people giving speeches and sermons on the Muslim condition and constantly claiming that we have a bleak future in this country – this is something that makes you feel very depressed. It’s something that causes you to feel insecure, alienated, and marginalized, and I think this rhetoric has done the greatest disservice to the Indian Muslim community.
As far as this discussion on majoritarianism is concerned, I was recently having an online discussion with a few Muslims. A young Muslim called Jamal said that if the condition has become such that there are tendencies of majoritarianism in our society, then we Muslims should question how our society, or our country has reached this point. If there are aspects of polarization and distrust between communities, what can we as youngsters do to counter this tendency and bring back the old days?
I would say that we should initiate bridge-building activities. We should improve relations across communities and try to compassionately reach out to people. I want to share how young Muslims are already doing this.
In the lockdown period, I participated in a webinar. I learnt of a Calcutta-based group of young Muslims who wanted to help a poor Hindu locality. When this group of Muslim boys approached the Hindu locality, they were met with suspicion. They were not allowed to enter the locality and could not do their work. They came up with a very innovative and creative idea. They took some of their Hindu friends along with them to the locality, and that was a welcome step. They got a chance to do aid work, as this gesture helped in removal of the earlier atmosphere of suspicion.
I would say that it is important for us to understand why we have reached this point, instead of simply complaining about the present condition, railing against others and speaking about why things are becoming so hopeless, we at the individual level at least should begin to do something. We should act. In our small ways, in these little ways, hopefully, the condition will change and hopefully, things will come back to normal.
Dr. Pande: India is unique in that, unlike many other countries with large Muslim populations, there are still not that many Indian Muslims who have joined global jihadi organizations, from Al Qaeda to ISIS. I believe CPS has over the years taken part in helping de-radicalize youths. What would you say you have seen as the reason why some young people join these organizations?
Dr. Khan: So, yes, I would say that there are two broad reasons. First is the theological narrative, a certain theological narrative, which causes young people to become radicalized. We can term this theological narrative as the political interpretation of Islam, which was developed in the 19th and 20th centuries. These political ideologues of Islam have misinterpreted certain verses from the Quran and given them a political interpretation.
I will give an example. There is a verse in the Quran which says: “All power belongs to God alone,” or, ini l-hukmu ila lillah. (12:40) Now, the literal meaning of the Arabic word hukm, which appears in this verse, is power or authority. In this verse, hukm is meant in the sense of God exercising control and authority over the entire universe. He is the being or entity who has created the universe or the cosmos. And it is he who is sustaining and regulating it. This verse speaks of a reality which is already manifest and does not need to be brought into effect. But the political ideologues of Islam, have taken the word hukm in this verse to mean worldly political power or political authority. According to them, it is the responsibility of Muslims to impose God’s political rule all over the world.
Since there are so many countries where Muslim political rule does not exist, they desire to take political power into their hands, even if it involves violence. Many even indulge in violent activities aimed at destabilizing those countries or those political rules which they feel are irreligious. This political interpretation of the text of Islam, has to be addressed and Maulana has tried to do that. He has deconstructed the political interpretation and shown theologically how it is not drawn from the text’s real meaning. It is an erroneous interpretation of Islam.
Another reason why I feel that there is an initial inclination towards radicalization or radical groups is that if you see the workings of these radical groups, they try to focus a lot on doing negative propaganda about the countries in which Muslims reside. For example, to attract the youth they focus on certain experiences that Muslims have in these countries. One of the experiences that Muslims increasingly are having, especially in liberal, pluralistic, and even western societies, is an identity crisis. They feel that they are no more supreme, they are powerless. They feel that they have been defeated. Also, in Muslim literature, you see a lot of discussion about the moral depravities, materialism, and moral degeneracy of the West, and that there are elements in their culture that separate “us” from “them”. This brings in a feeling of alienation in these Muslim youth, and they develop a desire to associate with a cause that will bring back the imagined, pure world of the past.
Dr. Pande: Thank you. So, when you interact with these young people, what is it that you tell them to counter questions or concerns they have and disincentivize them from joining these groups?
Dr Khan: It is important for us to counter this narrative, to provide an alternative to this picture which is presented to Muslims. First of all, we have to address the identity crisis that Muslims face in the modern world. If you read the history of civilizations, every civilization is succeeded by another civilization after some time. Each civilization gets its role to play. The Muslims got the chance to lead humanity in a certain direction. And now it is the chance of the modern civilization spearheaded by the West. The Quran also affirms this when it says: “We bring these days to people by turns.” (3:140) Muslims must realize that earlier it was their turn to lead humanity or to lead civilization. Now it is the turn of the modern civilization which is headed by western countries. Instead of focusing a lot on the moral depravity of the West, it is important for Muslims to also focus on the enormous intellectual contributions that the West has made in the modern world, particularly in the fields of science. There is a massive intellectual output that helps in understanding the workings of the cosmos, the laws of the universe, and in providing profound insights into the nature of reality. This is extremely important for us. We should learn from all these discoveries, findings, and research. Even the Quran says to the reader to reflect over nature and to contemplate over the universe. Modern-day discoveries and findings of science provide us a deeper understanding of these verses of the Quran. Earlier I could not understand verses of the Quran that said that there are signs of God in the creation of the cosmos, for people of understanding. But I can understand these verses in a far better way after I refer to modern scientific discoveries and insights which western scientists have offered. They are helping me to understand my religion, and that is a great contribution that they have made.
In the Middle Ages, Muslims made contributions to civilization in terms of adding to human knowledge. Philip Hitti says that this very stream of knowledge travelled from Muslim Spain to Western Europe, where it helped in bringing about the Renaissance. Present Muslims should understand that we are part of the same civilizational journey which was earlier headed by Muslims and is now being headed by the West. It will give you a feeling of belonging to the same world and you would not want to have an alternative world created for you.
And most importantly, you see, there are so many amenities brought about by modern means of communication. Life has become so easy. The kind of freedom of conscience and freedom of religion we enjoy today were not even available to the prophets in the past. Why would I want the world of the past to come back when I have so much more to look forward to in the present? This aspect may help Muslims understand that they need not have an identity crisis. I was reading Jocelyne Cesari, who has written a book on Muslims in the West. She says that increasingly people in the West are looking to Islamic spirituality because they want to know how spirituality can help them find meaning in life. If some Muslims think that the materialism or moral degeneracy, they see in the West is unpleasant, then that is also an opportunity for Muslims, as Larry Poston and David Kerr have pointed out. Because they can now share their spiritual message or spiritual learnings from Islam and help people find meaning in life they so long for.
Dr. Pande: Thank you. There are those who argue that Islam and Democracy are antithetical. Yet, millions of Indian Muslims have participated in the democratic process for decades. What would you say when someone asked for your views on Islam and democracy?
Dr. Khan: Democracy is a form of government in which people’s representatives manage the socio-political affairs of the society. Islam distinguishes between two aspects of life. One is the individual sphere and the other is the collective sphere. As far as individual persons are concerned, Islam says that an individual is free to believe and can do whatever he wants in whichever way he wants. But as far as society is concerned, as far as a collectivity is concerned, then there are many people involved in there. This is why, when it comes to deciding matters for society, there should be consultation with others. The Quran also says that believers are those who conduct their affairs by mutual consultation. (42:38) We can interpret this as the formula of democracy according to Islam. Another very important point is that the Quran does not provide details of socio-political philosophy. One of the reasons for this is that according to Islam, the socio-political structure or the socio-political system depends upon the circumstances of society and the will of the people. Even the Prophet has said, “As you are, so shall be your rulers.” (Mishkat al-Masabih 3717) This means that government or the form of government emerges from within the society. There is no predesigned, pre-determined political system to be imposed on people, irrespective of their situation. Also, a fundamental aspect of Islamic theology is that God Almighty has given freedom to every individual so that he or she may develop his or her potential in whichever way he or she wants.
That is a fundamental aspect of Islamic theology. The Quran also says: “We created death and life to test which of you is best in conduct.” (67:2) Unless a person does not have freedom, he cannot be tested. This test can happen only in an environment where there is no coercion. This implies that nobody has the right to curtail people’s freedom by imposing against their will a system that forces them to abide by certain rules and curbs their free expression.
I was reading Mustafa Akyol recently and he said that in certain Muslim countries, although the structure is outwardly Islamic, on the inside you see that there are many young Muslims who are rebelling against Islam or fleeing from Islam. This is an experience we learn from modern-day society: if you impose your ideas undemocratically on people and if you do not allow them the freedom to choose, then you cause them to flee from those very ideas. This is why, freedom is central to Islam.
Dr. Pande: Thank you. Dr. Khan, before we stop is there anything you would like to tell our readers?
Dr. Khan: I would like to make two points. An aspect about radicalization is that often there are certain concepts and terminologies that are used to radicalize minds. For example, Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb, which respectively mean that Muslims reside in the Abode of Islam, while non-Muslims reside is the Abode of War. These are certain concepts that were developed by Muslim jurists in the Abbasid period when Muslims were politically dominant. It is important to note that this terminology is not found in the Quran. These terminologies are used to radicalize people, to create divisions between Muslims and people of other communities. If you see the Quran, you will realize that every prophet addressed his contemporaries as “O my people” or ya qawmi. The Quran too uses words like insan (human being), al-nas (people), Bani Adam (Children of Adam). The whole humankind, according to the Quranic scheme of things, is Dar al-Insan, or the abode of all human beings.
Another point which I would like to make in the end is about misinformation and negativity, which is spread on social media.
What we need to do is we have to counter this negative current with a positive stream of information. We cannot censor misinformation, but we have the full freedom to articulate our perspective forcefully. Negative news has a sensational aspect to it. It goes viral.
What CPS is trying to do is that we are trying to make positivity go viral. We are trying to highlight positive stories, positive developments, and positive experiences. For example, when in 2018 France won the FIFA World Cup, we took it as an opportunity to make a video on Islamophobia. We asked the question: Does Islamophobia exist in the absolute sense as is sometimes portrayed? We showed that the French football team had many Muslim players. They were shown praying for their team’s success in the video. Also, the French President was seen embracing all the French players after they had won the World Cup. These are incidents around which there is no discussion. Nobody would make a video on such incidents. Nobody would deliver a speech on this. Nobody would write an opinion piece on this. But this is what CPS is essentially trying to do. We have to bring good happenings and positive developments into conversation. This is also what the Prophet had counselled. We have to wipe out hatred with love. We cannot wipe out hatred by generating further hatred.