Maulana Wahiduddin Khan on Muslim leadership in contemporary India

By Yoginder Sikand,,

Maulana Wahiduddin Khan is one of India’s leading Islamic scholars. Based in New Delhi, he has authored over 100 books, and edits the monthly journal Al-Risala. He also heads the Centre for Peace and Spirituality. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, he talks about the Muslim leadership in contemporary India.

What do you have to say about the Muslim leadership in present-day India? How has it been able to address the many issues and challenges that Muslims are today confronted with?

Although they form the single largest minority in India, the Indian Muslims, I regret to say, completely lack leadership. Those who are projected by the media as Muslim leaders are largely media creations. The media highlights some men who deliver fiery speeches or make sensationalist statements and then presents them as ‘Muslim leaders’. And, in this way, both Islam and Muslims get a bad name.

A real leader is one who leads people, and who is followed by the people —a person like Gandhi. Unfortunately, the Indian Muslims do not have any such leader. A true leader is one whose advice people heed. But, Indian Muslims do not have any such leader today.

Let me cite an instance to clarify what I mean. The destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 was one of the biggest disasters and challenges that the Indian Muslims had to face after the Partition. Soon after the demolition of the mosque, various figures associated with the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, which presents itself as the leader of the Muslims of India, gathered in Bombay and declared that, henceforth, Muslims must observe the day of the demolition of the mosque as Babri Masjid Day every year. But, Muslims ignored their advice. So, what was the leadership that these men were able to provide?

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There are several factors for the absence of Muslim leadership, but I will focus on just some of them. One reason is that Muslims have not even gone through what can be called the pre-leadership process, which requires serious political education of the community on realistic lines. This requires reaching out to the community and educating the people about practical political realities. Because this sort of education has not been even attempted, Muslim votes, even in Muslim-dominated constituencies, are easily split, as a result of which Muslim candidates are not able to be elected. There are almost 100 constituencies across India where Muslims are in sizeable numbers and where, if they vote sensibly, they can easily ensure the victory of Muslim candidates. But because Muslims are not politically educated and lack proper political consciousness, and because of the political ambitions of some of their self-styled leaders, multiple Muslim candidates stand for elections in these constituencies and they all lose. This is one of the reasons for the fact that Muslims are far less in numbers in elected assemblies than what their numbers warrant.

How should this problem be addressed?

Political awareness, educating Muslims about the importance of secularism and democracy, is really crucial. In this regard, I think the existing Muslim or Urdu media and ‘leaders’ have failed to play the role they should have. Instead of providing sensible advice and properly educating Muslims, the Muslim media and ‘leaders’ have just one job—to protest and complain—against the state, against Hindutva outfits and against other communities. This is a very negative approach. What we need is a positive approach and positive efforts, not negative reactions that cannot change things and that, in fact, make them worse.

My point, therefore, is that in order to create a positive-oriented and effective leadership, we need to create proper political consciousness among Muslims. We need to educate them so that they are able to understand that democracy and secularism are not un-Islamic or anti-Islamic. This is a wrong interpretation of Islam. In Islam, certain beliefs, such as faith in the one God and belief in the finality of the prophethood of the Prophet Muhammad, are fixed and cannot change. At the same time, however, Islam allows us flexibility in political policies which must be suited to different spatio-temporal contexts. Unfortunately, some ideologues refuse to recognize this, and continue to brand secularism and democracy as ‘un-Islamic’ and hanker after the dream of establishing an Islamic state or take refuge in the memory of the times when Muslims ruled India, thus making elections only a means for Muslims to express their anger.

Islam is an eminently practical religion. God says in the Quran that He does not place a burden on people more than they can bear. In the light of this, it can safely be said that to hanker after the dream of an Islamic or Muslim state in India, where Muslims are a minority, as some ideologues do, is not just wholly impractical but also not at all in accordance with the Islamic method. It is also bound to exacerbate communal conflicts even further.

What, then, should Muslims do?

Because Islam is a practical religion, it calls for a practical and realistic form of politics to serve its higher aims. In this context, it is imperative that Muslims take a realistic and practical approach to politics, which, sadly, their ‘leaders’ lack. Muslims must be made aware of the political realities they are faced with. They need to be convinced that secularism and democracy are not un-Islamic, and that are really a boon or blessing that provide new opportunities for us, which we have failed to take advantage of. A true leader is one who discovers opportunities even in adversity and knows how to use them in a positive manner. Sadly, self-styled Muslim ‘leaders’ do not possess this skill at all.

Another reason for the absence of leadership among Muslims is their marked tendency to blame others for all their ills. Although this is not warranted by Islam at all, many Muslims today believe that it is non-Muslims who are wholly responsible for their backwardness. Hence, they consider non-Muslims as ‘enemies’ and allege that they are engaged in all sorts of conspiracies against them. This attitude leads them to look at others with hate and anger, and does no good to Muslims themselves. In this way, these Muslims spare themselves the responsibility of introspection. They absolve themselves of any responsibility for their own pathetic state of affairs.

This sort of very negative thinking has become deeply ingrained among Muslims in recent decades. One of the major causes of this was European colonialism, which decimated existing Muslim empires. The colonial invasion of Muslim lands provoked strong reactions among Muslims against the West. Instead of simply targeting the West, they should also have recognized their own weaknesses, which is what allowed the West to invade and occupy their lands in the first place. This, however, Muslims did not do. Hence, they were unable to properly appreciate the fact that the West was able to dominate Muslims because after the early centuries of Islam Muslims stopped making any contributions to science and technology. Instead of looking within and seeing where they had gone wrong and understanding how this had weakened them and allowed the West to conquer them, they focused all their energies on attacking the West for their ills. This approach laid the seeds of negative thinking, of blaming others entirely for their problems, instead of seeing where they themselves had gone wrong.

This negative thinking was never seriously addressed, and so now it has become a deep-rooted tradition. When people get into a reactive, negative mode of thinking, they cannot think positively. This, lamentably, is the present-day Muslim predicament. They do not seem to realize that by agitating constantly against others they are driving them away from Islam and further alienating them from Muslims. In this way, they are working against the divine task that has been given to the believers to undertake, ofdawah or conveying the message of Islam to others. By constantly branding others for their ills, they are also making themselves even more incapable of relating to others properly, of working together with them for common purposes and of learning positive and useful things from them. This is certainly one of the major causes of Muslim backwardness not just in India but worldwide, too.

What are your views on the Muslim religious leadership? Often, they come up with unnecessary fatwas that stir considerable controversy, being quickly highlighted and sensationalized by the media.

I am totally against the misuse of fatwas. A fatwa is a personal opinion, and it must be about a problem that directly concerns the questioner personally. If it is asked about a general social problem, it leads to what I call the phenomenon of ‘fatwa activism’, which, to my mind, is a biddat or unwanted innovation, which is impermissible in Islam. Such general social problems should be addressed by social reform, counselling, not by fatwas. Issuing fatwas against general social ills cannot cure them. What is needed, instead, is sustained social reform—through writing and activism. Often, fatwas given on such social issues simply fail to have any effect at all. Moreover, if these fatwas are incorrect, they only lead to further stigmatization of Muslims and to reinforcing unwarranted, but, at the same time, deeply-rooted, misconceptions about Islam.

Take the case of the fatwa recently issued by an Indian madrasa on working Muslim women. How many such women are going to obey the fatwa at all? Hardly any, if at all, I imagine.

To stop this misuse of fatwas, we need to address the issue of general Muslim educational and intellectual backwardness. The only way out of this predicament is for Muslims to take to modern education. If that happens, all this would automatically stop. In this regard, it is heartening to note that growing numbers of young Muslims are indeed going in for modern education, though I must state that the standards of Muslim schools remain woefully low.

Another point that must be kept in mind is that simply having a madrasa degree or a certificate of having gone through a mufti training course does not qualify one to issue fatwa. The ulema are described in a report attributed to the Prophet Muhammad as the ‘heirs of the prophets’ (waris-e anbiya). This is undoubtedly true, but it does not mean that any and every person who has studied in a madrasa is an ‘heir of the prophets’. Rather, that noble status is reserved for those who are truly ulema or ulema-e haq, who know both the Quran and the Hadith and also have a thorough knowledge of the situation prevailing in their societies. On the other hand are the ‘scholars’ who have neither the deep knowledge of Islam nor the spirit of the age, and whose wrong interpretations of Islam can cause great strife and damage the image of Islam.

I think it is imperative for us to realize that the time for fatwa activism is now over. What we need now is dawah activism, which is something that I have been engaged in for several decades. As Muslims, our principle task isdawah, which entails relating with love and concern to people of other faiths as well as to present before others the true teachings of the Quran. In this regard, I regret to say that certain totally unwarranted interpretations of Islam and fatwas constitute the major challenge to dawah work. They create among non-Muslims the image that Muslims are misfits who are simply unable to properly adjust to this modern age, who are ignorant of this world, and who believe that violence and agitation are the only means to have their voices heard.

You just mentioned the need for modern education. What has been the attitude of Muslim leaders towards this issue?

As I said, it is heartening to note that increasing numbers of Muslim boys and girls are going in for higher modern education today. This must be at the core of the agenda of Muslim organizations. They must also ensure that the quality of the education that Muslim schools provide is excellent, which is not actually the case presently.

At the same time, I would also insist that Muslims seek to stand on merit, rather than on artificial crutches like reservations. Look at institutions like the Jamia Millia Islamia and the Aligarh Muslim University, which Muslim organizations insist must cater essentially to Muslims, for, as some Muslims argue, where else could Muslims go? This sort of thinking is self-defeating and can only dampen the pursuit of merit and excellence and further Muslim intellectual backwardness. Islam stresses merit but self-styled Muslim leaders demand reservations and other crutches. This is the age of competition and we must realize this.

To put it mildly, you do not enjoy much popularity among most Muslims. Some of them even brand you, if I may be permitted to say this, as an ‘agent’—of the West, Israel or the BJP. What do you have to say about this?

It is not true to say that all or most Muslims are opposed to my way of thinking. My books and my magazine, Al-Risala, are widely read among Muslims. My television programmes also have a large number of viewers, Muslims as well as others.

It is true that some Islamist ideologues do not agree with me. But, the fact of the matter is that even many of these critics do not find fault with my works on the Quran, the Hadith and the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Rather, what they find problematic is my approach to political and community-related issues.

Personally, I do not agree entirely with your approach on various political issues, such as Kashmir and Palestine. But, as you were saying…

Let me finish. My position on these and other political issues is not something that I have devised on my own. Rather, it is inspired by my understanding of Islam, which stresses realism and a realistic approach to such conflicts. So, for instance, I maintain that if the Arabs had accepted the Balfour Declaration, the Palestinians would not be in such a pathetic position today and the West Asian crisis would not have assumed such catastrophic proportions. Likewise, my position on the Babri Masjid was that Muslims must not agitate on the streets but should let the courts decide the matter. Similarly, I have consistently maintained that the Kashmiris must accept the Line of Control as a permanent international border.

So, as I was saying, while my writings on the Quran, the Prophet, and Islam in general are widely appreciated among Muslims, including among my critics, my position on these political or communal conflicts are what my critics do not like. They want me to lambast the RSS, America, and the Jews, which I do not do because the correct Islamic position is to blame oneself instead of others for one’s own problems. The Quran clearly spells out that whatever ill befalls a person is because of man’s own doings. Thus, it says:

‘Whatever of misfortune striketh you, it is what your right hands have earned’ (42: 30).

This is a clear Islamic principle. Elsewhere, the Quran talks about the damage that Muslims suffered in the battles of Uhud and Hunayn, wherein the aggressors were the pagan Quraish, but here, too, it says that the losses the Muslims had to face were because of their own mistakes—in Uhud because of their own differences (3:152) and in Hunayn because of their pride (9:25) . Here the Quran does not place the blame for the Muslims’ losses on the pagan Quraish even though the latter were the ones who had started the fighting. This clearly indicates a central Islamic principle—that one must constantly introspect and, instead of blaming others for one’s weaknesses, one must recognize one’s own faults and seek to rectify them.

That is why I constantly appeal to Muslims to search within, to see where they have gone wrong instead of constantly blaming others for their miseries. But, when, in accordance with this Islamic principle, I do so, I am met with angry outpourings from many Muslims, who, out of anger and communal pride, falsely brand me as an agent of the West or of Israel or the RSS or whatever and of being funded by them.

This is not at all the correct Islamic approach. The fact of the matter is that their attitude to such political and communal issues and even their own interpretation of Islam is deeply moulded by narrow communal prejudice, which is a contradiction of true Islam. I cannot at all agree with some Muslims who go to the extent of branding non-Muslims as ‘unclean’ and ‘enemies of Islam’, because this is simply not permissible in Islam, if it is understood in its right perspective. Such so-called Muslims are themselves an enemy of Islam and Islamic dawah while claiming to champion these causes.

Despite the criticism that I face, I refuse to play the blame game and to brand non-Muslims as enemies and the cause of the miseries of the Muslims. This is simply because Islam does not permit me to do so. According to Islam, the prime responsibility of Muslims is to engage indawah, inviting others to Islam, the path of God. This requires that we, in our capacity of dais should treat others not as enemies but as madu’ or recipients of the Islamic dawah. For that we need to relate to them with love, sincerity and concern, not with hatred.

(Maulana Wahiduddin Khan can be contacted on [email protected] Many of his writings can be accessed on

Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.)