Vinoba Bhave and his understanding of Islam

By Asghar Ali Engineer,

A friend of mine Daniel Mazgaonkar gave me a Hindi copy of Vinoba Bhave’s book on Islam to see whether the Qur’anic verses and hadith have been correctly quoted. I am reading it particularly those portions wherein Vinoba Bhaveji has quoted Qur’anic verses and ahadith. I have yet to go through the whole text but meanwhile certain portions which I read are worth writing about.

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Those who do not know Vinoba Bhave I should say he was closely associated with Gandhiji and his philosophy and as per Gandhiji’s approach undertook land distribution among landless peasants, the land obtained from landlords on voluntary basis. This was thought to an alternate model to state acquiring surplus land through legislation and re-distributing it among the landless. However, this alternative proved to be as much a failure as the state model as the landlords mostly donated, where they did donate, infertile and uncultivable land.

That apart, here we are concerned only with Vinoba Bhave’s views on Islam. I had heard that Vonobaji knew several languages including the Arabic and that he read the Qur’an in original Arabic. I do not know the truth of this claim by some of his followers but I must say that his understanding of the Qur’an appears to be quite sound and his comparison of Hinduism and Islam in many places in this book is very authentic and of the same standard as that of Dara Shikoh in his Majm’ul Bahrayn (Commingling of Two Oceans – Islam and Hinduism)

In my opinion this book when published will be quite helpful in promoting better understanding between Hindus and Muslims, a vital need today when so-called scholars, academics and media analysts spread misunderstanding on the basis of very superficial knowledge of both Islam and Hinduism. After Dara Shikoh, Maulana Azad was a great scholar of comparative religion who, in his commentary of Qur’an, Tarjuman Al-Qur’an rendered great service to understanding correct message of Islam and other religions including Hinduism.

I think after Maulana Azad, Vinobaji from amongst Hindus, has showed proper understanding of spirit of religions including Islam. Today unfortunately scholars of religions – and I am referring to scholars of all religions, project religion more to serve political needs than as religion per se, much is being written on Islam, for and against, but to serve certain political agenda. Either way religious spirit is lost or we score some political points.

It is therefore highly necessary to retrieve original spirit of Islam and Hinduism and project them on the basis of their religious philosophy and this can indeed do a yeoman service to our conflict torn country. Democratic politics, having become merely a power politics, politicians put their own religion at stake. Power must be won at any cost even by rendering immense disservice to ones own religion. Hindutvawadis distort their own religion and Muslim extremists do same disservice to Islam.

In the sixth chapter of his book Vinoba Bhave attempts to capture true spirit of both Hinduism and Islam. Before I put forward Vinobaji’s views on Islam I would like to point out one error committed by him right in the beginning of the chapter itself. He says that Muhammad Rasulullah was coined by his followers and he himself never claimed that. This is fundamental mistake which must be corrected by the editors of the book perhaps in the footnote. Qur’an itself, which is divine, proclaims Muhammad as Rasulullah (Messenger of Allah).

But when Vinobaji says Muhammad never claimed to take Allah’s place, he is very right. Qur’an itself describes Muhammad (PBUH) as ‘abduhu wa Rasuluhu (i.e. His servant and His messenger). Vinobaji rightly points out that Muhammad (PBUH) said that he has brought no new truth but is proclaiming what the same truth as proclaimed by previous prophets. Perhaps in this respect Hinduism comes close to Islam as it also accepts truth everywhere and the Rigveda also proclaims that truth is one but the wise call it by various names.

But then Vinobaji also repeats that Muhammad Saheb only claimed that I am merely Allah’s messenger and Allah’s servant, I am not Allah. I am there to proclaim His Message, nothing more. Vinoba also points out that Qur’an says that for every people there is guide (messenger. 13:7). He also points to another significant verse of the Qur’an; “We do not distinguish between any of them (messengers of Allah)”. (2:136). He also points out that Qur’an has given names of certain prophets but has said there are many more prophets all of whom not have been named here. Thus Islam accepts truth of all other religions.

Vinobaji also points out with reference to the Qur’an that there are many ways of ‘ibaadat (worshipping Allah). Qur’an says “For every one there is direction in which he turns (himself), so vie with one another in good works.” (2:148). Thus one should not fight about ways of worshipping but excel each other in good works. Here I would like to refer to Nizamuddin Awliya’s story.

One day early morning he was walking along the bank of Jamuna in Delhi and he saw some Hindu women bathing in Jamuna and worshipping sun. He told his disciple Khusro: “O Khusro! these women are also worshipping Allah though their way is different”. Thus the Sufi saints were closer to the spirit of the Qur’an as they were more spiritual in their attitude and did not take ‘ibadat in mere technical and mechanical sense.

Vinobaji also throws light in chapter five on the concept of Allah. Prophet Muhammad mainly preached oneness of God and Vinoba refers to chapter 112 (Qul Huwallahu Ahad). Muhammad (PBUH) did not accept any form or idol or picture or even symbol of Allah. And, he says, prophet also cannot be incarnation (awtar) of Allah. Then he compares this with the Indian philosophy (Bhartiya Darshan) of advaita.

Vinobaji says in India, Brahma has been accepted as nirgun, nirakar (i.e. without attributes and without form). Islam believes, according to Vinobaji, in Allah as formless but with attributes (nirakar and sagun) Qur’an describes various attributes of Allah (sifat) But this is not fully correct as M’uatazilas and Shi’ahs believe in Allah without attributes and explain away these attributes in different way. According to M’uatazila and Shi’as any attribute makes Allah dependent and this goes against tawhid (oneness of Allah)

Then Vinobaji discusses idol worship in Hindu religion and explains its meaning and significance. This whole discussion is worth reading. He says in Hindu Shastras there is no idol worship but it has not been prohibited either. He very skillfully explains importance of amurt Bhagwan i.e. formless God and throws light on its importance. He says worshipping an idol would mean confining God to the idol and not seeing God elsewhere. He, therefore says if you confine God to an idol you will be deceiving yourself.

But then he also explains why Hindus worship idols. He says the Hindus have made idols of different attribute of God and by worshipping these idols he worships different attributes of God. He also points out that on one hand Muslims believe in one formless God but Qur’an also refers to wajhullah, yadullah (i.e. Mouth and Hands of Allah). He says these are problems of human language. You want to worship a formless God but also in terms of human language you have to use these words.

I must say Vinobaji comes close to Mazhar Jan-i-Janan, an eighteenth century Sufi saints from Delhi who gave an opinion that Hindus are not kafirs when asked by one of his disciples. He gave various reasons for that. He also quoted from Hindu shastras to show that ishwara is nirgun and nirakar in Hindu philosophy and this is the highest form of tawhid. He also quotes the verse from the Qur’an that We have sent prophet to every people and how can Allah not fulfill His promise in case of Indian people. He must have sent His prophets to Hindustan also.

Then Mazhar Jan-i-Janan explains away idol worship among Hindus. He says, like Vinobaji that there is no idol worship in Hindu shastras but common Hindus cannot conceive of formless God and then something concrete to worship and that is how idol worship developed among Hindus. He says idols are not ishwara in itself but a way to Ishwara and idol worship he describes as a journey from aakar to nirankar i.e. from form to formlessness and then compares it with Sufi’s concept of Shaikh.

According to Mazhar Jan-i-Janan a sufi reaches Allah through a sheikh, a master. Shaikh cannot be Allah but a way to Allah so an idol is not Ishwara but a way to Ishwara. Though it is not possible to attempt full exposition of Vinoba’s explanation of idol worship in this book but it comes quite close to that of Jan-i-Janan.

Thus in Indian tradition and in Indian Islam we find several parallels if we rise above power struggles and try to understand religions on their own ground. Many great thinkers, sufi saints, philosophers and religious leaders have, in their own way struggled to arrive at this truth. Among them in India are Guru Nanak, Kabir, Sufi Saints like Nizamuddin Awliya, Jaan-i-Janan, Dara Shikoh and in our own times Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Vinobaji and several others.

However, in our communal fights we have appropriated them too as our property.