Published:  12:33 AM, 02 February 2019

Gandhi and Islam


Gandhi's eulogy further testified: "Muhammad was a great Prophet. He was brave and feared no man but God alone. He was never found to say one thing and do another. He acted as he felt. The Prophet was a Faqir, he could have commanded wealth if he had so desired.

I shed tears when I read of the privations, he, his family and companions suffered voluntarily. How can a truth-seeker like me help respecting one whose mind was constantly fixed on God, who ever walked in God's fear and who had boundless compassion for mankind." (Young India).

The sayings of the holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) impressed Gandhi to such a great extent that he hailed those as "the treasures of mankind". In his "Introduction to The Sayings of Muhammad (Sm.") by Allama Sir Abdullah Al-Mamun Al -Suhrawardy, he unhesitatingly declared: "I have read Sir Abdullah Suhrawardy's collection of the sayings of the Prophet with much interest and profit. They are among the treasures of mankind, not merely Muslims."

Mention may be made in this connection that the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy came to appraise the real personality of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) through Sir Abdullah Al-Mamun Al-Suhrawardy's "The Sayings of Muhammad (Sm.)" and "a copy of this book was found in the large over-coat in which he wrapped himself before setting out on that last walk of his to die in the fields he used to till."

Gandhi read Washington Irving's "Life of Mahomet" and was so impressed by it that he began to publish a simple translation of it in "Indian Opinion" for the benefit of its readers.No wonder, Gandhi continued to consider Muhammad (pbuh) a spiritual revolutionary who had made the world into a better place because of his unswerving dedication to the truth he perceived.

As regards the spirit of democracy, gospel of brotherhood and the message of tolerance propagated by Islam, Gandhi acknowledged in unequivocal terms: "In its glorious days Islam was not intolerant. It commanded the admiration of the world. When the West was sunk in darkness, a bright star rose in the Eastern firmament and gave light and comfort to a groaning world. Islam is not a false religion. Let Hindus study it reverently and they will love it even as I do."

"Priesthood no more - Mohammed the Prophet had broken the spell of priesthood before long. Islam did not need a mediator between God and man. It was a democratic religion from the beginning. No institution stood between the Creator and the created.

Through the knowledge of the Qur'an everybody had access to the revelation, which would be expounded freely, without any synod, putting limitations upon it. In this respect Islam did not need any reformation similar to that in Christianity, and as a matter of fact the democratic spirit which has reigned in Islam began in Christianity only with the rise of Nationalism and the Reformation."

"Someone has said that Europeans in South Africa dread the advent of Islam.... Islam that civilized Spain, Islam that took the torch of light to Morocco and preached to the world the Gospel of Brotherhood. The Europeans of South Africa dread the advent of Islam, as they claim equality with the white races. They may well dread it. If brotherhood is a sin, if it is equality of the colored races that they dread, then their dread is well founded." (Gandhi, Mahatma, as quoted by K.S. Ramakrishna Rao in Muhummed - The Prophet of Islam, p. 17).

In addition to his interest in the example of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as a man who changed the world by putting his faith into action, Gandhi also studied the Holy Qur'an regularly. He spent a considerable time studying the Holy Qur'an during his intermittent sojourns in Indian jails as the guest of His Imperial Majesty.

"He wanted, as he often said," claims Sheila McDonough, "to know from the inside the hearts of his Muslim fellow-workers, and he believed that understanding their scripture was the way to understanding them. There were a number of areas in which he believed that he recognised similarities of themes between the insights he had gained from his understanding of Hindu scriptures, and the Qur'an. The word 'surrender' is one instance.

This is the common English translation of the word Islam and is acknowledged to be the basic affirmation of all Muslim faith, namely surrendering to God, and to God alone. Gandhi felt that this was similar to the understanding of surrender he gained from an Upanishadic passage. Gandhi thought there was no significant difference between the Qur'an and the Upanishads on the issue of the necessity for total self-abandonment to God."

Another similarity he discerned was the teaching that one should respond to evil with good. This seems to have one of the earliest affirmations that he took very seriously to heart when he learned it from a Vaishnava hymn. There is a very similar moral teaching in the Qur'an: "Only men possessed of mind remember; who fulfill God's covenant......patient men , desirous of the Face of their Lord,   perform the prayer, and expend of that We have provided them, secretly and in public, and who avert evil with good."(17:90) (Sheila Mcdonough, ibid, p.114).

In Gandhi's opinion, dharma meant firmness in upholding truth. This would be similar to his understanding of Qur'anic imperative in Surah Fatiha to remain on the straight path, and not be led astray. No wonder, he continuously used Surah Fatiha from the Holy Qur'an as part of his daily prayer service.

"Gandhi also advised the Hindus as well as the Sikhs to read the Koran as they read the Gita and the Granth Saheb. And to the Musulmans he would say that they too should read the Gita and the Granth Saheb with the same reverence with which they read the Koran." (Abdul Waheed Khan, India Wins Freedom: The Other Side, p.269).

While discussing Suddhi and Sangathan movements Gandhi even went to the extent of asking : "Why cannot Hindus believe in the divinity of the Qur'an and say with us that there is no God but God and Muhammad is His Prophet? Ours is not an exclusive religion, but it is essentially inclusive." (Hindu-Muslim Unity, pp. 68-69).

Gandhi also believed the teachings about the attributes of God to be very similar in the scriptures of Hinduism and Islam. He did not hesitate to speak of Caliph Ali bin Abu Talib (RA) as a model of restraint, and thus a model for those who would take up the method of Satyagraha. (Satyagraha means utter insistence upon truth. When a man insists on truth, it gives him power).

In his own words: "You must know how to restrain your anger, if you desire to maintain non-violence in action for any length of time. Hazrat Ali, the hero of Islam, was once spat upon by an adversary; and it is my conviction that if he had not restrained his anger at the time, Islam would not have maintained its unbroken career of progress up to the present time." (Seven Months with Mahatma Gandhi, pp185-186).

Gandhi also paid eloquent tribute to the incomparable sacrifice made by Imams Hassan and Hussain (RA). The glorious example of Imam Hussain (RA), the grandson of the holy Prophet of Islam (pbuh), who suffered martyrdom at the hands of a cruel and hostile state, is equated by Gandhi with tapascharya, the Hindu belief in the power of suffering to transform consciousness: "All religions in the world are thus strict in regard to pledges...Even if only a few among you take the pledge, we shall have reward through them.

Muslim students have before them the example of Imams Hassan and Hussain. Islam has not been kept alive by the sword, but by the many fakirs with a high sense of honour whom it has produced.... I have nothing to give you in the way of excitement.... I want to give you quiet courage. I want you to have hearts pure enough for self-sacrifice, for tapascharya. (Collected Works, Vol. 19, pp.48-50).

Gandhi believed that what he called 'the Sufi aspect of Islam' taught patience and self-discipline which Indian Muslims should learn to practice and the Bhakti forms of Hinduism preached egalitarianism which Hindus should learn to understand in its true spirit.

He firmly believed that the Holy Qur'an stresses mercy and patience as essential human virtues. He refused to believe that irrational violence was a particular characteristic of the Muslims or the Hindus. He always interpreted irrational Muslim violence as corrupt understanding of Islam, as Hindu violence was equally a corrupt understanding of Hinduism.

No wonder, Gandhi was cut to the quick when a terrible communal riot broke out in Calcutta on August 16, 1946. In the next few years, mutual killing and destruction continued among Hindus and Muslims in many parts of the country.

There were attacks on Hindu villages by Muslims in Noakhali and similar outbursts of violence against Muslim villages by Hindus in Bihar. The grief-stricken Bapu lamented: "We represented in India (the undivided India) all the principal religions of the earth, and it is a matter of deep humiliation to confess that we are a house divided against itself; that we Hindus and Muslims are flying at one another."(Collected Works, Vol. XLVIII, p.9).

Nothing became him so well as the end of his life. His cherished dream had come true - freedom had come. But with freedom came communal passions and Hindus and Muslims massacred one another. The frail old man, on the verge of his eightieth year, went from place to place, seeking to establish peace and goodwill while there were enmity and strife. He went to Noakhali to soothe the Hindus who had suffered from Muslim atrocities.

He went to Patna to heal the sufferings of the Muslims at the hands of Hindus. He went to Delhi and each day he preached love and communal amity. "Gandhi indeed lived his final years, in the midst of a sort of hell on earth. There can scarcely be a worse kind of hell than outbursts of malicious violence among the very persons one has given one's life to serving."(Sheila McDonough, ibid, p.83).

An insensate fanatic named Nathuram Godse, unable to bear Gandhi's message of goodwill and inter-faith harmony, shot him dead even when he was on his way to his prayers. That day, - January 30, 1948, - will remain a day of mourning for ever not only in India but in all places where people shun hostility and love peace and harmony between all faiths. (The End)


Syed Ashraf Ali --- scholar and researcher on Islam --- passed away a few years ago. This article comes from his personal library

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