Indian Muslim communities are always ‘advised’ to go for radical religious reforms in order to cope with the challenges posed by modernity. It is argued that that if Islam is reformed and modernised the followers of Islam would eventually become more tolerant, secular, and above all, modern.
There are three positions on Islamic reforms in contemporary India. The so-called secular political parties and leaders do not wish to talk about the social problems of Muslim communities. For them, these are the internal issues of minorities that should be resolved internally by themselves.
The Hindutva groups, on the other hand, highlight the issues such as population growth of Muslims and triple talaq to establish cultural supremacy of Hindus over Muslims. They do offer universally applicable solutions (such as uniform civil code) to reform Muslim society; yet, their deep adherence to Hindutva essentialism does not allow them to think beyond Muslim separatism (and terrorism!).
And, finally there are self-styled ‘cultural/liberal Muslims’, who argue for reform without paying any attention to sociological-cultural diversity of Islamic societies and everyday lives of common Muslims.
The assumption that Muslims are more religious than any other social group seems to dominate these popular interpretations.
Interestingly, Gandhi is the only intellectual-political leader, who does not subscribe to these oversimplified portrayals of Muslims and Islam.
As a strong Hindu believer, Gandhi does not shy away from raising difficult questions with regard to Muslims; and, at the same time, offering cultural-sensitive answers to social problems. Gandhi, therefore, can be a good example to ask: how to and how (not to) talk of Islamic reforms.
Muslims versus Islam
Gandhi made a crucial distinction between religious discourses and the everyday world of religious communities. In 1924 when a series of communal riots broke out in northern India, a group of Muslims met Gandhi and proposed a workable solution to communalism. They suggested that Hindus should recognise Prophet Mohammad as a prophet and Allah as almighty God and Muslims should pay equal respect to Lord Ram, Lord Krishna and Vedas as a divine book. Gandhi very categorically rejected this proposal. He writes:
The solution was not quite so simple… (it)… might be good enough for the cultured few, but it would prove ineffective for the man in the street. For the Hindus cow-protection and the playing of music even near the mosque was the substance of Hinduism, and for the Mussalmans cow-killing and prohibition of music was the substance of Islam. (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 29, p.187)
In Gandhi’s opinion, thus, the common Hindus and Muslims follow a religion which is far away from the moral teachings of Hinduism and Islam. Therefore, expecting that the religious reforms would transform the followers of that religion is an artificial premise.
Muslims as Bullies
Gandhi describes Muslims as bullies. In an article published in 1924, Gandhi asserts, ‘My own experience but confirms the opinion that the Mussalman as a rule is a bully.’
The character of Muslims as a religious community, Gandhi suggests, should not be confused with Islamic morality that he discovers in the Quran. Muslims, nevertheless, are bullies because of two possible contextual reasons.
First, there is a mystified story of Islam that establishes the fact that Islam cannot be envisaged without violence and the rule of sword. Gandhi finds this ‘distorted’ version of Islam highly problematic. He argues:
The sword is no emblem of Islam. …Islam was born in an environment where the sword was and still remains the supreme law. The message of Jesus has proved ineffective because the environment was unready to receive it. So with the message of the Prophet. The sword is yet too much in evidence among Mussalmans. It must be sheathed if Islam is to be what it means—peace. … Reliance upon the sword is wholly inconsistent with reliance upon God. There should be, on their part, unequivocal mass condemnation of the atrocity.
Secondly, the history of imperialism associated with Islamic expansion, Gandhi argues, transformed Muslims into a fighting community.
The Mussalman, being generally in a minority, has as a class developed into a bully. Moreover, being heir to fresh traditions, he exhibits the virility of a comparatively new system of life. Though, in my opinion, non-violence has a predominant place in the Koran, the thirteen hundred years of imperialistic expansion has made the Mussalmans fighters as a body. They are therefore aggressive. Bullying is the natural excrescence of an aggressive spirit.
Islam without history
Gandhi very confidently asserted his moral right as a Hindu religious person to talk about the Quran, the life of Prophet Mohammad and at the same time, the moral religious decline of Muslim communities. On a number of occasions, Gandhi made it clear that Muslims were not the exclusive proprietors of the message of Islam.
This evocation of universally applicable Islamic ethnics is compatible with Gandhi’s meanings of religion. Gandhi notes, ‘all religions are more or less true. All proceed from the same God, but all are imperfect because they have come down to us through imperfect human instrumentality’. (Young India, 29 May 1924, p. 180).
Islam, in this sense, is also an imperfect religion. However, in order to understand the moral teachings of Islam, Gandhi seems to suggest, one must de-historicise the Quran and demystify the figure of the Prophet Mohammad and the first four Caliphs.
Whatever may have been necessary or permissible during the Prophet’s lifetime…(That) …cannot be defended on the mere ground of its mention in the Koran. Every formula of every religion has in this age of reason, to submit to the acid test of reason and universal justice if it is to ask for universal assent. Error can claim no exemption even if it can be supported by the scriptures of the world. (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 30, p.312)
Here, Gandhi takes a radical position. Elaborating the distinction between religion and believers of religion, he brings in the question of reason and universal justice. The teachings of Quran, therefore, are to be examined in relation to the moral-cultural values of society.
Demystified figure of the Prophet
However, unlike polemical Hindutva leaders or ultra secularists of our time, Gandhi draws his legitimacy from the demystified figure of the Prophet. In a long essay published in his journal, Young India, Gandhi very categorically argued that the life of Prophet Mohammad exemplified a struggle for justice, peace and equality.
I became…convinced that 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 fearlessness, his absolute trust in God and his own mission. These and not the sword carried everything before them and surmounted every obstacle. (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 29, p.134)
Despite this reverence for the Prophet, Gandhi makes a serious attempt to dig out moral principles from the stories weaved around these great religious icons. Writing about Umar, he argues:
I fear that the acts of this great and just man are being presented to the Mussalman masses in a most distorted fashion. I know that if he rose from his grave, he would disown the many acts of the so-called followers of Islam which are a crude caricature of those of the great Umar himself. (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 29 p.134.)
Gandhi’s resourceful reading of the Quran and the life of Islamic figures, particularly of the Prophet, empowers him to think of an independent context-oriented and reason-based Islamic morality, which, he seems to expect, does not contradict with his imagination of Truth and Ahimsa.
Gandhi employed this peace-oriented Islamic morality to respond to a number of sensitive social issues concerning the Muslim communities. He openly opposed Parda system; he remained critical of the practice of stoning to death in the name of Islam; and, he denounced the forced conversion of Hindus to Islam. Yet, he remained culturally embedded and asked all religious communities to discover the moral truth of religion without compromising with the universal spirit of justice and equality.
Muslims and Modernity is a fortnightly column by Hilal Ahmed. The author can be contacted on Twitter @Ahmed1Hilal.