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Maulana Wahiduddin Khan was an Islamic scholar who believed in dialogue


In a Manichean world darkened by narrow binaries, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan often stood as a source of light and hope. With his passing away, India and the world have lost a remarkable religious leader and Islamic theologian who tried, till the very last, to bridge differences especially amongst the believers of different faiths. A Padma Vibhushan awardee, the Maulana was unfairly caricatured by some as an establishment theologian (a sarkari Musalman, so to say). Nothing could be further from the truth!

Often controversial, always outspoken, the Maulana’s deep and absolute commitment to building peace was remarkable in its resoluteness despite some of his pronouncements being berated — most recently on the issue of the Babri Masjid. In person, the Maulana exuded an aura full of positivity, gentleness, composure to even non-believers and his charisma could be often spell-binding. Whenever I met or heard him, my faith in the essential goodness of humanity was rejuvenated.

Khan’s journey to prominence was striking. Born in Bhadaria in Azamgarh, he had most of his formal education in a madrassa, and was deeply influenced by both Gandhian non-violence as well as the role played by science and rationality in becoming instruments of progress. He fused these diverse impulses into a study of Islam; and injected the need to contemplate a practical pathway to gaining spiritual wisdom. Although formally of no Sufi order, his deep emphasis on self-introspection as well as his personality lent him a Dervish-like persona. He was prolific in his writings and his talks — Ar-risala (The Message), a magazine he started in 1976, “consisting of almost entirely his articles and writing”.

Not even his detractors could question his knowledge of the Quran, his understanding of the life of the Prophet and the collected traditions of the Hadith. And he brought this deep and almost encyclopaedic knowledge to pursuing single-mindedly his quest for world peace.

For him, peace was an absolute end in itself and it had to be pursued unconditionally. Only once peace was established did it throw open the opportunities to achieve other goals. For him, therefore, and often to the discomfort of a section of his followers, “peace with dignity” or “peace with justice” were non-sequiturs. Peace was indivisible and had to be pursued for its own sake.

The Maulana also saw his mission to help the world rediscover that the essence of Islam (both etymologically as well as substantively) was peace. Indeed, the Centre for Peace and Spirituality that he set up inspired activism by encouraging its members to become ambassadors of peace, including by promoting positivity and interfaith dialogue. A great champion of inter-faith dialogue and harmony, he believed in the power of dialogue (rather than debate which provokes strife and negativity). For him this conversation between religious leaders had to be based (not on glossing over deep differences between faiths) on mutual respect derived from the Quranic verse “lakum deenukum wa liya deen (for you your religion, for me mine)”.

The Maulana was drawn into controversy after he agreed with the Supreme Court judgment on the Babri Masjid. Even earlier he had argued that the solution to the issue was the relocation of the masjid. For him the issue had been magnified by the Hanifi school of jurisprudence, which believed that the land on which a mosque stood, had to be used as a mosque in perpetuity. Instead, he drew attention to that hadith, which held that the entire planet is a mosque for you wherever you happen to be at the moment of prayer.

For me, the Maulana’s profound understanding of jihad was fascinating. He often used the aftermath of the Ghazwa-e-Tabuk as an example where the Prophet of Islam had made a sharp distinction between jihad (of a lower order) against one’s opponents and the jihad-i-Akbari (the higher order jihad) against one’s ego and baser impulses. It was jihad-i-Akbari against one’s nafz, the Maulana argued, that was the supreme meaning of jihad. In one of his final lectures, he suggested that the coronavirus was not a curse, but a warning that humanity was deviating from the path of nature. And eventually, if there was recognition, introspection and a return to the path of being in harmony with nature, a better, more blessed world would reveal itself. We can only pray that the Maulana, with his infinite wisdom, was right on this occasion as well.

This article first appeared in the print edition on April 23, 2021 under the title ‘A life in faith’. The writer is professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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