A conversation with Islamic scholar Maulana Wahduddin Khan

Maria Khan I ICN Independent Catholic News I January 26, 2016

On 17 January 2016, Professor Edward J Alam and Dr Victor Edwin SJ interacted with Islamic scholar and peace activist, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan at his residence in New Delhi. Dr Alam is Professor at Notre Dame University, near Beirut, Lebanon, where he has taught philosophy and theology for twenty years. Born and raised in the United States, he is of Lebanese descent and has been living in Lebanon for the past twenty years. He holds the recently inaugurated Benedict XVI Endowed Chair of Religious, Cultural, and Philosophical Studies in the Faculty of Humanities at his university.

Interfaith Relations

Dr Alam shared with Maulana Wahduddin Khan some of his experiences from Lebanon. After the Lebanese civil war, one of the reasons the country returned to normalcy was the tradition of harmonious relations between Christians and Muslims. In Lebanon, March 25, the day which is believed by many to be when the angel Gabriel made the Annunciation to Mary, has become a national holiday, which is celebrated jointly by Christians and Muslims. It is an important event in the religious consciousness of both Muslims and Christians as Annunciation to Mary is prominently mentioned in both the Qur'an and the Bible. This celebration is a step towards reconciliation between communities and fostering interfaith harmony.

The Maulana said he was glad to know about the amicable relations between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon. "I think there is inherent unity between the three Semitic religions." There are also some differences between them, he said, and added, "According to me, it should not be our aim to eliminate these differences", because differences are a source for discussion and dialogue, which, in turn, leads to intellectual development.

The Pope Benedict XVI Chair at Notre Dame University, which Dr Alam holds, has been instituted to carry out research to help develop better understanding and relations between Christians and Muslims. The Maulana said that he, too, had participated in several interfaith dialogues. Speaking from his experience, he said, "I am a great proponent of dialogue between various religions. I think that in a dialogue, both sides should try to learn from each other rather than attempt to establish one's superiority over the other." A dialogue should not be turned into a debate, but conducted in a way that it becomes a means for mutual learning.

Shias and Sunnis

Lebanon has an equal percentage of Shias and Sunnis. The Maulana said that the Shia-Sunni dispute emerged as a result of political differences. The difference between Shias and Sunnis is only one. The Sunnis believe in the four 'Rightly-Guided' Caliphs: Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan and Ali ibn Abi Talib, while the Shias hold that Ali was the rightful heir of the Prophet and he alone should have become his successor. Thus, the Shia-Sunni dispute started off as a political, not religious, issue.' The many differences we see today between Sunnis and Shias were added on later and did not exist in the beginning.

The West and Muslims

The Maulana commented on his travels in the West, especially the USA. He said: "According to my experience, USA is a great country, because the common folk are tolerant and believe in freedom of expression." He further pointed out that in the USA one is free to do what one wants except that one should not become harmful for others. Muslims like others enjoy freedom in the USA provided they do not take to violence. The numerous mosques, Islamic centres and organizations in the country are a testimony to the opportunities Muslims can avail of in America."

Dr Alam asked the Maulana about the reception he had during his numerous tours to America. The Maulana replied that the response he has received has always been positive because he speaks about positivity. He related an incident during his visit to the USA in June 2011: "I was invited to deliver a lecture in a Church in New Jersey. After my talk, a Christian scholar said that there is a teaching in Christianity embodied in the saying 'Love your enemy' and asked if there was any such teaching in Islam. I said there was, and cited this verse from Chapter 43 of the Quran: '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' (41:34). This verse gives us the teaching that the categorization between 'enemy' and 'friend' is wrong. No person is your enemy: one is either your friend or your potential friend. You have to turn the potential into actuality through good behaviour."

The Maulana also explained why he was not negative towards the West. He said, "I have no negativity towards the West because it is predominantly the western nations that have ushered in the age of science and technology. The innumerable technological amenities and facilities we utilize today have been developed in the West. In this sense, I say that the West is the benefactor of humanity."

Dr Alam sought the Maulana's views on the so-called caliphate of the self-styled 'Islamic State of Iraq and Syria'. In his response, the Maulana explained that the first four caliphs after the death of the Prophet were not called khalifa (caliphs). Each of them was simply referred to as Amir al-muminin, or Leader of the Faithful. The word khalifa or 'caliph' first came to be used during the Abbasid period. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the so-called ISIS has proclaimed himself a worldwide caliph, but, the Maulana clarified, all Islamic scholars have been unanimous in their denunciation of the so-called 'statehood' and 'caliphate' of the self-styled ISIS. This is because caliphate in Islam cannot be declared or proclaimed unilaterally. Rather, a ruler is to be decided upon and duly appointed by consultation with people. This democratic principle is called shura in the Quran (42:38). According to Islam, the right form of government is that which is decided by the people. The Prophet of Islam is reported to have said: "As you are, so shall be your rulers." (Mishkat al-Masabih) This means that political rule should be determined by members of society and cannot be imposed upon a people against their will.

Father Victor asked that according to a verse in the Quran "all power belongs to God alone" (12:40) and that He is the Ruler. Does this not contradict the notion that rulership belongs to the people?

In response, the Maulana clarified that in this Quranic verse the statement that power belongs to God is meant in the supernatural sense, that is, God is the Creator, Sustainer and Controller of the entire universe. The verse does not have any political connotation.

"If this is the concept of political rule in Islam," Father Victor questioned, "why do we see a completely different scenario in several Muslim countries?"
The Maulana replied, "It is important to differentiate between Islam and Muslims--judge Muslims in the light of Islamic teachings, and not vice versa."

On Dargahs

Dr Alam also wanted to know what the Maulana had to say about dargahs or the shrines of Sufis.

"I do not believe in the 'dargah culture','" the Maulana replied. Those who go to dargahs believe that the saint to whose tomb they are paying respects has the power to fulfil their needs. However, according to Islam, God alone has the power to fulfil a person's needs and requirements. Thus, it is God to whom we need to turn to for fulfilment of our wants, the Maulana remarked.

"What, then, is the role of the Prophet, Ali, Hasan and Husayn in Islam?" Dr Alam asked.

The Maulana said that the Prophet is a human being, as mentioned in the Quran (17:93), the only difference is that he received revelations from God. No person, according to Islam, has the power to grant the fulfilment of requests or bestow blessings upon people. This power rests with God alone.
There has been a rise in fundamentalism among present Muslims. Dr. Alam enquired if this tendency was seen among Muslims in India, too.

The Maulana answered that India was a unique country in that the Indian people believe in the "many-ness" of reality. That is, they adhere to the principle "I am right and you are also right". It is as a result of this tolerant nature of Indians that only a relatively very small number of Muslims in the country have been influenced by fundamentalism. 

A few close disciples of the Maulana also attended the meeting. It was an experience of mutual learning, sharing and listening.

Maria Khan is a PhD scholar in Islamic Studies at Jamia Hamdard University, Delhi.