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Gandhi on theory and practice of Islam
By Dr. Anupma Kaushik
The word Islam means peace but today it invokes images of violence, totalitarianism and irrationality. (Afkhami, 1995, 33) Islam is one religion which of late has been associated with terrorism and fundamentalism worldwide. Names like ISIS, Boko Harem, Al Qaeda, Taliban, Al-Shabaab, have become synonym with fundamentalism and terrorism. (Times of India, 2015, 10)  The troubled spots in the world today such as Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan where violence and fundamentalism have disturbed peace are mostly associated with Islam. (The Hindu, 2015, 12) This raises the question whether Islam is a peaceful religion or not? However this is not a new question for a country like India which had a huge Muslim population living with people of other religions at times peacefully but at others not so peacefully. Even in pre independence era leaders like Gandhi had to deal with this issue.
Gandhi claimed that he had read the Quran more than once and also many books on Quran and the Prophet. (Gandhi, 1949, 235) He claimed he had read Maulana sahib’s Life of the Prophet and also Usva-e-Sahaba and insisted that Islam never sanctioned destroying places of worship of other religions. (Gandhi, 1949, 139) He also claimed that the Prophet often fasted and prayed and that the Prophet had revelations not in moments of ease and luxurious living. Gandhi claimed that he had cultivated respect for Islam. (Gandhi, 1949, 94) He clearly saw the difference between teaching and practice of Islam. He regarded Islam to be a religion of peace.  He claimed that there is nothing in the Quran to warrant the use of force for conversion.  He also claimed that the holy book says in the clearest language possible that there is no compulsion in religion.  To him the Prophets whole life was a repudiation of compulsion in religion.  He argued that Islam would cease to be a world religion if it were to rely upon force for its propagation.  (Gandhi, 1949, 19) He had the view that Islam in the days of Harun-al- Rashid and Mamun was the most tolerant amongst the world’s religions but there was a reaction against the liberalism of the teachers of their times. The reactionaries had many learned, able and influential men amongst them and they nearly overwhelmed the liberal and tolerant teachers and philosophers of Islam. He believed that Muslims are still suffering from the effect of that reaction, but he believed that Islam has sufficient in it to become purged of illiberalism and intolerance. (Gandhi, 1949, 99)
Muslims argued with Gandhi claiming that he is wrong in saying that Islam enjoins non-violence upon its followers and that the Prophet himself met force with force at Badr. Muslims even argued that use of force is allowed on the particular occasions specified by Islam and especially against the non Muslim Government Islam prescribes only sword, protracted battle and the cutting of throat. (Gandhi, 1949, 261) Gandhi accepted that being a non Muslim he can always be challenged and hence is at a disadvantage while interpreting the Quran. However he argued that he was aware of the battle of Badr and similar incidents in the Prophet’s life and also of the verses in the Quran that contradicted his claim of Islam being a peaceful religion. He asserted that it was possible that the teaching of a book or a man’s life may be different from isolated texts in a book or incidents in a life. (Gandhi, 1949, 262) Same goes for the Quran and the Prophet and to Gandhi the central teaching of the Quran remained that of peace. (Gandhi, 1949, 263) Gandhi acknowledged that some passages can be quoted from Quran which are contrary to peace. But he argued that same can be found in Christianity and Hinduism as well. He reasoned that we are all growing along with various religions. He acknowledged that the followers of Islam are too free with the sword, but in his opinion that was not because of teaching of Islam but due to the environment in which Islam was born. He argued that Islam is a comparatively new religion and is yet in the course of being interpreted. He rejected the claim of Maulvis to give a final interpretation to the message of the Mohamed.  (Gandhi, 1949, 134)
He found Muslims to be brave, generous and trusting if their suspicions were disarmed. (Gandhi, 1949, 62) He however acknowledged that in his experience he has found that Muslims are as a rule bully. (Gandhi, 1949, 48) However he tried to explain this behavior by stating that although non-violence has a predominant place in Quran, the 1300 years of imperialistic expansion has made the Muslims fighter as a body. They are therefore aggressive. Bullying is the natural excrescence of an aggressive spirit. Hence they have become bullies. (Gandhi, 1949, 66) He claimed to have read Quran and to him it did not sanction or enjoin murder. (Gandhi, 1949, 125) He believed that Muslims have an ordeal to pass through. He felt that they were too free with the knife and the pistol. He cautioned that the sword is not an emblem of Islam, but clarified that Islam was born in an environment where the sword was and remains the supreme law. He lamented that the sword is too much in evidence among the Muslims despite the message of the Prophet.  He advised that it must be sheathed if Islam is to be what it means - peace. (Gandhi, 1949, 131)
He clarified that however good Islam may be in abstract the only way it can be judged is by the effect produced by each of its votaries considered as a whole. (Gandhi, 1949, 63) He told the Muslims that they cannot protect Islam with the lathi (stick) or sword. The age of lathi (stick) is gone. A religion will be tested by the purity of its adherents. He argued that if a religion is left to the goondas (criminals) to defend it, it will do serious harm to that religion including Islam. Islam will in that case no longer remain the faith of fakirs (mendicant monks) and worshippers of Allah. (Gandhi, 1949, 78)
He objected to destruction of Hindu temples by Muslims. (Gandhi, 1949, 71) He acknowledged that he had found difficulty in the Muslim circles about invoking reverence for Hindu Vedas and incarnation. (Gandhi, 1949, 98) He expected Muslims to tolerate other religions. He reminded Muslims that Islam is judged by their conduct. (Gandhi, 1949, 72) However he also argued that when a person of any religion does evil, it is an evil done by one person against another and each one should personally try to remove the evil because we are persons first and our religious identity is secondary. One should not blame the Muslims as a whole for some evil committed by a person or a group of persons. (Gandhi, 1949, 22) He explained that when blood boils, prejudice reigns supreme; man whether he labels himself a Hindu, Muslim, Christian or what not becomes a beast. (Gandhi, 1949, 44)
He advised that it is no use becoming angry with all Muslims in general. (Gandhi, 1949, 24) He sought to gain Muslim friendship by right of love. (Gandhi, 1949, 26) In his characteristic non-violent arguments, he argued that if only one party were to continue its guilt and the other consistently remained patient and suffering the guilty party would be exhausted in the effort. If there is no reaction following the action the world would attain salvation. (Gandhi, 1949, 37) But if we answer an abuse with a slap a slap is returned with a kick, the kick than is returned by a bullet and so the circle of sin widens. But generally those who believe in taking a tooth for a tooth after a time forgive one another and become friends. So let us recognize this rule of mutual forgiveness and forget one another’s wrongs. The easiest method of achieving peace is to give up the idea of complaining against one another and to concentrate our attention upon taking preventive measures so that there is no recurrence of madness. (Gandhi, 1949, 38)
He argued that religion is being interpreted in the lives of those who are living these messages in silence and in perfect self dedication. The seat of religion is in the heart. We have to write the interpretation of our respective faiths with our blood.  (Gandhi, 1949, 135) He advised everyone to not force their views on one another. He argued that those who force others to respect their religious wishes are irreligious savages. (Gandhi, 1949, 46) He argued that an attitude of non violence in mutual relations is an indispensable condition. People must not break each other’s head in respect of religious matters. (Gandhi, 1949, 47)
He believed that Muslims alone are not to be blamed for everything in every place. (Gandhi, 1949, 84) When he received reports of acts of violence by Muslims he investigated the facts before passing judgments. (Gandhi, 1949, 55) He had to deal with cases in pre-independent India where Muslims had abducted Hindu boys and girls who were forced to embrace Islam. The remedy he suggested was non-violent resistance and if that is not possible than through most violent self-defense. (Gandhi, 1949, 119) He received complaints that Muslim men invade Hindu quarters and insult Hindu women. They also take forcible gifts from Hindu shopkeepers. (Gandhi, 1949, 152) Gandhi termed such men who let their women be abused and their goods be taken by force cowards. He said where there are cowards there are going to be bullies. Hence the cowards need to be taught how to be brave. (Gandhi, 1949, 152) But at hearing about murders of Hindus he asked out loud if Muslims are practicing terrorism. (Gandhi, 1949, 282)  He declared the Khaksar organisation to be a militant organization in 1940. (Gandhi, 1949, 301)
However he claimed that he can never be an enemy of Muslims no matter what any one or more of them may do to him. (Gandhi, 1949, 163) His ultimate remedy was to deal with the wrong but not to hurt the wrong doer. (Gandhi, 1949, 163) Thus to him the ultimate answer lay in the concept of ‘Live and Let Live’ or mutual forbearance and toleration in life. He claimed that this is the lesson he had learnt from the Quran. (Gandhi, 1949, 236) In his opinion, religion binds man to God and man to man and hence Islam binds not only Muslim to Muslim; but also Muslim to non-Muslims. The message of the Prophet was not just for Muslims and if anyone claims to the contrary he does greatest disservice to Islam and is poisoning the minds of Muslims. (Gandhi, 1949, 310)
In fact when he was travelling to quell Hindu-Muslim riots in Bengal, he always carried the Gita, the Quran and the Bible. (Gandhi, 1949, 500) He appealed to Muslims to do away with purdah system. (Gandhi, 1949, 502) When some Muslims objected to this and said that Gandhi had no right to speak on Islamic Law, Gandhi countered by saying that this is a narrow view of religion. He hoped that this narrow view was not shared by other Muslims. He claimed the right to study and interpret the message of Islam. He said that Islam was not a creed to be preserved in a box. It was open to mankind to examine it and accept or reject its tenets. (Gandhi, 1949, 523) He also appealed that women folk should be rescued from the thralldom of ignorance and superstition. (Gandhi, 1949, 506)
He considered himself to be as good a Muslim as he was a Hindu and an equally good Christian and Parsi. (Gandhi, 1949, 538) During his prayer meetings, he always included verses from the Quran Sharif. He reminded people of folly of looking upon one religion as better than another. (Gandhi, 1949, 585) Some people at times objected to recitation from the Quran when prayer meeting was being held in the Valmiki Temple. He preferred not to hold the prayer meeting without the recitations from the Quran. (Gandhi, 1949, 584) When some Muslims objected to his reading of Arabic verses from the Quran,herefused to accept the objection. He asked why cannot he acclaim Mohammed as his Prophet. (Gandhi, 1949, 589)
He advised both Hindus and Muslims to not look towards leaders for solutions but to look towards themselves and if they did than their desire for peace would be reflected by the leaders. (Gandhi, 1949, 505) He quoted from the Prophet that, “A perfect Muslim is he from whose tongue and hands mankind is safe. No man is true believer unless he desireth for his brother that which he desireth for himself. The most excellent jehad is that for the conquest of self. Assist any person oppressed, whether Muslim or non-Muslim.” (Gandhi, 1949, 509)
He welcomed inter-religious marriages with mutual friendship and respect for religion of each other. (Gandhi, 1949, 542) He did not believe in state religion and opposed state aid to religious bodies. He only wanted schools to give ethical teachings as fundamental ethics were common to all religions. (Gandhi, 1949, 543)

  1. Afkhami, Mahmaz, 1995, Faith and Freedom- Women's Human Rights in Muslim World, ondon: I.B. Tauris.
  2. Gandhi, M. K. 1949, Communal Unity, Ahemdabad: Navjeevan.
  3. ‘Libya says uncatchable Belmokhtar killed’, Times of India, (2015) 16. 6. 2015, Delhi.
  4. ‘Taliban attacks Afghan parliament’, The Hindu (2015) 23.6.2015, Delhi.

* ANUPMA KAUSHIK is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science and Public Administration, Dr Harisingh Gour Central University, Sagar, M.P. India. Email: