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Maulana Wahiduddin Khan talks on Islam and Peacebuilding

Q: Religion can be a blessing. But it can also become a curse, if it turns into fanaticism and disrespect for others. I appreciate your efforts in trying to present an understanding of Islam so that it is a blessing in people’s lives. I’d love to hear more about how are presenting Islam so as to highlight its commitment to peace and justice.

A: People often confuse between a religion and its followers, or those who claim to be its followers. They often conflate Islam with Muslims. I repeatedly stress that Islam and Muslims are two very different things.

The foremost source of knowledge about Islam is the Quran. The next source is the Hadith, from which we learn about aspects of the Prophet’s life. Now, according to my study, people generally refer to some battles that the Prophet fought, and on that basis say that Islam is a religion of war, of violence. But here one needs to differentiate between the basic principles of Islam and those aspects that were a result of temporal or time-related factors, factors that were a result of that particular historical period or age.

The Prophet started his mission in the seventh century C.E.. At that time in Arabia, the culture was tribal. It was seeped in tribal conflict and violence. Now, due to this particular age-specific or time-related factor, the Prophet was sometimes compelled to engage in war. But war itself is not an Islamic teaching. In fact, the Prophet sought to minimize war. Actually, he fought no full-fledged war as such. They were basically skirmishes.

Now, in this context one also needs to reflect: What is the real goal of Islam? It isn’t to conquer territories or capture political power. The real goal of Islam is to prepare individuals, to purify them—or what in Arabic is called tazkiyah. According to my study, the only goal of Islam is to purify people, to prepare them as positive personalities and to help them avoid negative thinking.

Q: In your writings, you call for a more contemporary understanding and application of the teachings of Islam. That seems to suggest that the Quran is to be understood and interpreted in a contextually-relevant manner.

Many religions have their origins in a particular social and historical context and are shaped in a particular way in order to meet certain social needs, among other things. For example, maybe the Prophet allowed for men to marry more than one woman in order to protect widows. But times and circumstances change. And so, to what degree do you think the Quran is final and sacrosanct, or can it be interpreted in the light of the contemporary social context?

A: The Quran is a relatively small book, and it contains relatively few legal rules. Only a few things have been declared as unlawful in the Quran—such as, for instance, wine, pork and adultery. There’s an important Islamic rule—that anything that is not declared as unlawful is lawful. So, that means that there’s great room for openness. And there is the facility of ijtihad, of evaluating and rethinking rules and regulations and developing new ones in the light of new conditions, in accordance with new needs, changed circumstances and the requirements of the age.

Q: What are your views on interfaith dialogue?

A: I believe interfaith dialogue is a very important process. For dialogue to be useful and meaningful requires true understanding and acceptance of the other. In this process of seeking to understand the other, if you discover that you have some differences with them—and there are bound to be differences since they are part of Nature and so it is but natural that you will find them—the best way is what the Quran says: “To you your religion, to me mine.” (109:6) It means to follow one religion and to respect all.

We at the Centre for Peace and Spirituality are all for interfaith dialogue. We regularly participate in interfaith get-togethers. Such dialogue is a must. But one must be clear that dialogue is not meant for debating. Rather, dialogue is meant in order to interact and grow in mutual learning. One must remember that differences in the religions cannot be eliminated—whether through dialogue or other means, including war. These differences will remain. But interfaith dialogue can help us greatly in enabling us to live together harmoniously despite our differences.

Q: You are a great proponent of dialogue with what some Muslim extremists might call kafirs. What is your understanding of the term kafir?

A: There’s great misunderstanding about this term. Literally, the word kafir means one who refuses or denies. But, unfortunately, people take it to be equal to non-Muslims. This is incorrect. People generally think that someone who isn’t a Muslim is a kafir, or that all non-Muslim are kafirs. But this is wrong. According to Islam, every person is simply what is called in Arabic insaan, a human being. The Quran refers on many occasions to people as insaan.

Q: What is the method or approach of your Centre for Peace and Spirituality? How is your work reflected in the lives of people?

A: Our focus is the individual. The mind is the centre of activity of the individual, and so, if you want to bring about a transformation of a person, his or her mind must change. We focus on changing people’s minds, from negativity to positivity. We stress the need for people to change their way of thinking.

Now, consider this fact: Our world is a world of many, many differences. Everywhere you go there are differences—religious, social, cultural, personal, and so on. Unskillful handling of differences causes people to become negative, and that leads to hate, to extremism, to violence, and even to war, terrorism and suicide-bombing. The root cause of all this lies in the mind, in a certain way of thinking. So, what we are doing is to try to re-engineer people’s minds on positive lines. We try to make them realize that differences are part of Nature, that differences simply cannot be eliminated.

People try to eliminate differences, but that’s just impossible. The Quran gives us very valuable guidance in this regard. It stresses sabr, which means patience. That is one of the greatest Islamic teachings. Patience means that one shouldn’t try to eliminate differences, but, rather, avoid getting agitated and worked up about them. It means to avoid getting entangled in wrangling about differences.

God has created us human beings with great potentials, many of which lie dormant within us. To activate these dormant potentials we need patience, we need dialogue, we need exchange, we need to relate with each other positively. It is this process that leads to tazkiyah, to becoming a purified personality

This, in brief, is our way of seeking to re-engineer people’s minds and to help them live with differences positively.

Ours is entirely non-political work. Our approach is on transforming individuals. If individuals are transformed in this way, society gradually gets transformed as well. We don’t organize big rallies or public speeches—the stage-activism sort of thing. Instead, we focus on publishing literature and organizing small meetings to help re-engineer people’s minds on spiritual, positive lines.

Q: You say that nonviolence is the way to succeed in all spheres of life. How did you arrive at this understanding?

A: I was born in a family that had a Gandhian tradition. My elder brother, Iqbal Ahmed Suhail Sahib, was a great admirer of Gandhiji. He used to wear khadi, and when I got married, he made me wear khadi, too! He used to take Gandhiji’s teachings and explain them to us along with wisdom from the Quran. So, from an early age onwards, I learnt about Gandhiji. So, that’s one factor in shaping my understanding of nonviolence.

Another factor was the Partition and the horrible violence that happened then. It made me passionate about working for peace in the country. I dedicated myself to peace-work, which was also one of Gandhiji’s major concerns. Later, I went on to establish the Centre for Peace and Spirituality, whose purpose is to promote peace in society and in the world and to nurture spirituality in individuals.

Peace and spirituality are interlinked. You can’t have one without the other. We are trying to promote both together. Unless there is peace you cannot do anything constructive. So, peace and spirituality—these two are our major focus.

Q: What is your aim in life?

A: God is my aim. The greatest truth is God, and we have to seek God, to attain Him. There is no bigger reality than God. But to realize God it is necessary that we be peaceful and that our environment be peaceful, too. So, for spirituality we need to work for peace as well.

My purpose in life is to work for peace and spirituality in the world. Working for developing spirituality within and a peaceful environment without go together—that’s part of the process of realizing God. And positive thinking is the basis of both, of spirituality and peace. The way to God is through positive thinking and working for peace in the world.

(Maulana Wahiduddin Khan heads the New Delhi-based Centre for Peace and Spirituality. For more details, see www.cpsglobal.org)