Maulana Wahiduddin Khan on Islam, Peace, Justice and Dialogue

Yoginder Sikand and Victor Edwin 

   In a conversation with a group of Christians who are members of Islamic Studies Association (ISA), Delhi Maulana Wahiduddin Khan’s tells about his understanding of Islam, Peace, Justice and Dialogue. ISA aims to work for communal harmony and national integration in India. The Constitution of ISA notes; “In the name of God and His ever greater service, to promote national integration of all Indian cultural, social and religious groups and support Government programs for this purpose”, and to “work towards harmonious relations among Muslims, Christians, Hindu and other religious and social communities in India”. This broad desire is focused on the first specific step:  “to promote study, research and teaching regarding the history, religion, culture, socio-economic conditions and other aspects of Islam”.


 Q: You give great importance to peace. Can you share some of your insights on this issue?

 A: I am a born pacifist. Peace is an issue that is very dear to me. After long years of study, I discovered that in Islam, peace has the status of the highest good or the summum bonum. Many people in the West think that freedom is the summum bonum, but I don’t agree. It is peace that is the summum bonum, the highest good.

 Why, you might ask?

 The answer is that because without peace, there is no progress. You can’t engage in any normal activity, whether religious or secular, if there’s no peace. That said, it is very unfortunate that Muslims don’t know the importance of peace. They know only the work of jihad—in the sense of confrontation with others. Some of them are actively engaged in fighting others, while some are engaged in the same thing but passively. Yet, according to my study, peace is Islam’s greatest concern, as it should be of every person, no matter what her or his religion, who sincerely wants to bring about real and meaningful change in the world.

Q: In a society characterized by injustice and conflict, how do you think peace can be established?

 A: That’s a very good question. We all want peace, and so we need to be clear as to the right way or method through which peace can be established.  There is a widespread belief that peace cannot be established without justice. People who advocate this approach argue that, first of all justice must be established and then only can you have peace. And so, they talk of a ‘just peace’.  This is precisely what Muslims everywhere argue—in Palestine, in Pakistan, in Iran or wherever. They say, “Give us justice, and only then will there be peace. Only then will we agree to lay down arms and enter into a peace agreement.”

 This type of thinking, however, is completely wrong. According to my understanding, justice is not part of peace. Peace should not be bracketed with justice, or with anything else. If you try to do so, it will only prolong conflict and war, and then peace will become impossible. It is putting the cart before the horse.  This is my experience.

The proper approach in this regard is to accept peace for its own sake, and not to link it with anything—with human rights or justice or whatever. Once there is peace in society, peace between former opponents, existing opportunities can be availed of. After that, gradually, justice may also be established.

This principle is exemplified in the life of the Prophet Muhammad. He and many of his companions were proceeding towards Makkah in order to perform the ‘minor pilgrimage’, when they were stopped by their Makkan opponents at a place called Hudaibiya. The Makkans did not let the Muslims proceed to Makkah. At this time, the Prophet entered into a peace treaty with them, which included conditions that were clearly weighed heavily in favour of the Makkans. Yet, the Prophet accepted this peace treaty.

Some of the Prophet’s companions wanted to first solve the problems that existed at that time between the Makkans and the Muslims, instead of first accepting peace. The Prophet did not agree with this approach. Instead, he unilaterally accepted the conditions of the Makkans. The Hudaibiya peace treaty thus became possible only because the Prophet accepted all the conditions of the other party and did not insist on justice.

This shows the importance of peace for its own sake in Islam, not linking it to, or predicating it on, justice or human rights. This is expressed in a phrase that appears in the Quran (4:128): As-sulh khair, which means ‘reconciliation is best’.   Peace at any cost is, thus, a key principle. After long study, I have discovered that peace is the basis of all kinds of positive, constructive activities—educational, economic, social, cultural religious, and so on. And the only way to establish peace is to adopt the formula of ‘Peace for the sake of peace’, without attaching any conditions to it.  This formula, I must stress, is not my invention. Rather, it is taught by Islam.

Q: The Prophet’s attitude, as reflected in the example of the treaty you mentioned, reflects a deeply spiritual approach, accepting all the conditions of his opponents for the sake of peace. It certainly isn’t easy.

 A: The choice is actually always between peace without any conditions, and no peace at all. There is no third alternative, such as peace with justice or a ‘just peace’, that some people, including many Muslims, insist on.  This is my experience.  I can’t think of any society that has been able to establish real peace if justice is insisted on as a necessary condition for it. This sort of condition only leads to the prolongation of conflict, and only further hampers prospects for establishing genuine, sustainable peace.

 The Arabs, for instance, seem to believe in this principle of peace-with-justice, and that’s why they seem to be perpetually fighting. And because of this, they keep failing, losing everything and not gaining anything at all. This is because this formula of peace-with-justice is simply unworkable in the real world. It might seem alluring or attractive to some, but it is actually completely impracticable.

Q: Ignoring justice in order to establish peace gives the impression that one is indifferent to the injustices that prevail in this world. What do you have to say about this?

 A: According to my experience, it is simply impossible to have ideal peace or ideal justice in this world. This has never happened. I believe in workable peace and workable justice, not ideal peace or ideal justice, in this world.

 As I mentioned earlier, many people bracket peace and justice, but I disagree with this approach completely. Peace for the sake of peace is workable, but not peace for the sake of justice. This does not mean that I am indifferent to justice. My point is that once there is peace, one can avail of existing opportunities and engage in constructive and positive activities, and then you may be able to secure justice.

 Consider the Indian case, for instance. I enjoy perfect peace in India, although there are many Indian Muslims who are negative about India. They say that they are oppressed, that they face discrimination. They talk of communal riots. And so, they are not living in peace. Instead, they are ridden with tension, anger, and hate, and with the desire for revenge.  But take me—I live with complete peace of mind. It is because I am not hankering after ideal justice. I am content with workable justice. Not complaining about this and that has given me the mental peace I need to avail of the many opportunities that abound in India.

 Because I was not agitated, demanding ideal justice and protesting against this and that, and because I was content with workable justice, I was able to discover these opportunities and avail of them. This approach led me to be grateful for the many opportunities that exist here.

 I think India is a unique country. The Hindus are the only people who believe in the concept of the many-ness of reality. This is a unique concept. The Hindus believe that all religions are true, that I am true and so are you. All other people believe ‘I am true and you are wrong’. They believe in the oneness of reality, that there is only one truth, while the Hindus believe in the many-ness of reality. This concept gave me a wonderful opportunity, to work for my religion, and my work is deeply appreciated by many Hindus, too. This kind of opportunity is absent in other countries.

 So, to reiterate a point I made earlier, I always live with peace of mind, because I never claim that justice has been denied to me. When I know that only workable justice is possible in this world, why should I demand or expect ideal justice and complain that it doesn’t exist? If I enjoy workable justice, why clamour for something that doesn’t and cannot exist in this world?

Q: But what about justice? Ignoring it for the sake of peace might mean legitimizing injustice, isn’t it?

 A: If you think in terms of ideal justice, you may feel that I might be denying the importance of justice. The fact, however, is that ideal justice is simply impossible in this world. Only workable justice is possible here. To be at peace, you need to recognize this and accept it as a fact of life, as a reality. But if you don’t, and if you keep chasing the elusive dream of establishing ideal justice, you will only harm yourself, and others also. You will destroy your peace of mind, and that of other people, too.

 In every country, one can enjoy workable justice. And if you cheerfully accept this as a fact of life and live peacefully, you can, as I said, discover and avail of the many opportunities that exist to progress—in both the religious and secular spheres. This will help promote justice, too—but this happens gradually and indirectly, and not by demanding and insisting on justice along with peace.  My point is that according to my definition of justice, only workable justice is achievable in this world, not ideal justice. Workable justice is achievable in any and every country. So, no one can live with the claim that he was denied justice, because workable justice is available everywhere.

Q: But there is so much discrimination, which leads to injustice. What does ‘workable justice’ mean in this context?

 A: The term ‘justice’ itself needs greater clarity. It needs to be more clearly defined. For example, many Muslims complain that in India they are denied justice, that during communal violence, the police acts against them. And so on.  According to my knowledge, however, in every such case, Muslims are to be blamed. They call it ‘injustice’, but I say that they are paying the price for their stupid policies. In every case that I have observed, Muslims adopted stupid policies, and that led to police action.

 Q: If ideal justice doesn’t exist in this world, and only workable justice does, should we then just forget about ideal justice? Or, should we make efforts to transform workable justice into ideal justice?

  A: As I indicated earlier, establishing ideal justice in this world is simply impossible. According to Islam, and also according to Christianity, we have been put in this world as a test. Man is born free, because without freedom, there is no test. God has made us as free creatures, creatures with free-will. And because we are free, we are free to misuse our freedom, too, and this leads to injustice. Since some people are bound to misuse their God-given freedom, this makes it impossible to establish ideal justice in this world.

  In fact, ideal justice in this world is not in the Creation Plan of God. Islam accepts this point. In the Quran, there is no verse that says that we have to establish ideal justice. This fanciful notion of establishing ideal justice in this world, through force if necessary, is only the product of some fertile imaginations—as for instance, the Egyptian Islamist ideologue, Sayyid Qutb, who wrote a thick volume on this thesis, titled Social Justice in Islam, wherein he insisted that Muslims must establish a system of ideal justice on earth.  This approach, however, is not Islamic. It isn’t practical either.

 Q: If ideal justice is not achievable in this world, does it mean we should stop talking about it?

  A: I would say that ideal justice in this world is not only not achievable, but that it is also not good for human beings.

 Why, you are bound to ask?

 This is because if there is ideal justice, there will be no challenge, no competition, no differences, and this will stop the process of intellectual development. Inequalities and absence of ideal justice work as such a challenge. Establishing ideal peace or ideal justice is tantamount to abolishing such challenges. And that, in turn, is tantamount to putting a break in human progress.

 You might have heard of the British historian Arnold Toynbee. He wrote a 12-volume treatise, titled The Study of History. There, he talked about a basic law of nature based on the challenge-response mechanism. Challenges, he pointed out, lead to responses, and this leads to human progress.  I fully agree with this thesis. If you are able to establish ideal peace or ideal justice, it means that you have put an end to challenges, and, hence, to human progress. This type of peace or justice has no value really, because challenges are necessary for all kinds of progress, in both the secular as well as religious fields.

Q: What do you think is the role of forgiveness in establishing peace? I think it is something that is important.

 A: You may be right, but my aim is quite different. I use the term ‘avoidance’, rather than ‘forgiveness’. By ‘avoidance’ I mean avoidance of clash or confrontation with others. Avoidance of clash or confrontation is a general principle. When you are driving a vehicle, you have to avoid crashing into another vehicle if you want to be safe and happy. So, too, in society. You need to learn to avoid stepping on other people’s toes if you want to be happy and achieve your goals. Forgiveness is, of course, good, but with regard to peace, I would particularly stress the importance of avoiding confrontation with others.

Q: So, if there is peace, it brings about a conversion of hearts, which then might bring about justice?

A: Yes. That’s true. That said, I want to reiterate that the concept of justice is not well-defined. People often use it in a very vague way. For instance, I feel that in India, I enjoy justice in the complete sense of the term. But some other Muslims claim that they do not enjoy justice here. So, ‘justice’ and ‘injustice’ are not well-defined terms. It is your perception that determines if you think you are living with justice or with injustice.

I have never complained that in India I am denied, or have been denied, justice. I believe that I have got justice in India. I also believe that I have more justice in India than Muslims do in the almost 60 Muslim-majority countries that exist. I have visited some of these countries, and so I know this as a fact. I speak from personal experience. India is better than all these countries on the basis of my definition of justice. In Muslim countries, I don’t hope to find justice, because in every one of them there is extremism and there’s no openness, while in India there is tolerance, there is acceptance, there is openness. According to my definition of justice, I am enjoying justice in India and I have no complaints at all.

 Q: I think dialogue between Muslims and Christians is very important. But when I advocate this sort of dialogue, some of my fellow Christians bring up the question of the law against apostasy from Islam in certain Muslim countries. According to this law, if someone abandons Islam, he should be killed. This law, which its advocates say is sanctioned in Islam, doesn’t help Christian-Muslim dialogue. In fact, is a major obstacle to such dialogue. Catholics have now accepted the right of people to choose to follow their conscience. And so, if a Catholic converts to some other religion, he won’t be killed. His right to follow his conscience will be respected. What are your views about the apostasy law in some Muslim countries?

 A:  The true Islamic position on apostasy is reflected in this verse of the Quran (2:217): Whoever of you turns back from his faith and dies as a denier of the truth will have his deeds come to nothing in this world and the Hereafter, and he will be an inhabitant of the Fire, to abide therein forever.   This verse refers to someone who abandons Islam and dies. It mentions that after he dies, God punishes Him in the Hereafter. This indicates that such a person dies a natural death, and is not killed for apostasy. So, this verse clearly shows that capital punishment for apostasy from Islam is not sanctioned by the Quran.

It was only later, maybe two hundred years after the Prophet, that Muslim fuqaha or jurisprudents, devised this law that apostates from Islam should be killed. These fuqahaemerged in the Abbasid period, in the period of Muslim empires. This law that they devised has no sanction in the Quran. It was formulated by the fuqaha, and I don’t believe in the fuqaha on this matter. I believe in the Quran and the Sunnah, the practice of the Prophet. Since this punishment is not sanctioned by the Quran and the Sunnah, it is un-Islamic.

 There is total religious freedom in Islam, and you are free to opt for any religion you like. If you are a Muslim and choose to abandon Islam, you are free to do so. So, the law on apostasy is a violation of this Islamic freedom. I’ve written a book in Urdu on this subject of the law of apostasy, and also on the issue of abuse of the Prophet. In that book, I have shown that the punishment of death that is prescribed byfuqaha for apostasy and for abusing the Prophet is not Islamic. Rather, it is an innovation, and has no sanction in Islam.

 Q: You have contacts with Christian leaders who are interested in Muslim-Christian dialogue. What do you see as the common grounds that Muslims and Christians have to work which can form a basis for them to work together for peace?

 A: There is a great common ground in Jesus Christ’s commandment to love one’s enemies. The Quran (41:34) gives the same teaching, in these words: Good and evil deeds are not equal. Repel evil with what is better; then you will see that one who was once your enemy has become your dearest friend […] This Quranic verse indicates that your enemy is your potential friend.

 I love the formula ‘Love your enemy’. It’s the only formula that can give you positivity. If you love your enemy, it means actually that no one is your enemy, and that you can live in positive thinking. This is really very important in life. Negative thinking is the greatest evil, and positive thinking is the greatest good. And this formula, of loving your enemy, is the only workable formula for positive thinking and positive living.

Q: Christians and Muslims both talk of striving to do God’s will. This seems to be major common ground between the two. What do you say?

 A: Yes, this can serve as common ground, but there’s a problem here, because the concept of doing God’s will is differently understood by Christians and Muslims. This is related to their different understandings of God, because of which God’s will is also interpreted differently. Stressing this as common ground, then, might create contradictions between the two while engaging in dialogue. And that is something that we must stay away from. Unfortunately, Muslims generally don’t do that. Instead, when dialoguing with others, they try to impose or establish their point of view. Because of this, they simply aren’t competent to engage in such dialogue. In contrast to this, the approach I advocate steers clear from contradictions and controversies, and this facilitates, rather than hinders, dialogue and understanding between people of different faiths.

Q: I guess many Christians suffer from the same sense of superiority. They, too, want to prove that they are right and others are wrong.

 A: But I, for one, don’t do that, I can confidently say. I don’t believe in any such superiority or inferiority. I never use these terms. The Quran doesn’t say that Islam is a superior religion. This sort of claim is alien to the Quran. The Quran (2:285) tells us that all the many messengers of God are equal and that we should not make any distinction between them. None is superior to the others.

 Q: Christianity gives great stress on love. I’ve read the translation of the Quran, but I’ve never seen the word ‘love’ there. So, is it possible to talk of love as encouraged by the Quran, or is it something else that replaces love and that is central to Islam?

 A: The word ‘love’ doesn’t appear in the Quran, but in its place the Quran uses another word—nush or nasih (For example, 7:62, 7:68). It denotes well-wishing. It is used in the same sense as love is used in the Bible. Christianity says that we should love our neighbour, and Islam says that you should be your neighbour’s well-wisher. Both mean the same thing really. In fact, you should love all and be a well-wisher of all.  The importance Islam places on love or well-wishing for one’s neighbour is indicated, for instance, in this beautiful saying, attributed to the Prophet of Islam:

Gabriel counselled me so persistently about the rights of the neighbour that I felt he was going to declare him an heir.