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What Gandhi thought of Muslims and why that makes him our contemporary

In his essay ‘Gandhi’s Imagination of Muslims’, Hilal Ahmed analyses Gandhi’s writings and speeches to understand his views on Muslims as a political category.

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Why did Gandhi virtually pay no attention to the empirically evident Muslim socio-religious plurality?

Gandhi continued to use Hindu-Muslims as legitimate political categories throughout his political career. Even during the Partition riots, he spoke of Muslims as a homogeneous entity. In his prayer meeting of 12 September 1947, Gandhi said:

Let us know our own dharma. In the light of our dharma I would tell the people that our greatest duty is to see that the Hindus do not act in frenzy, nor the Sikhs indulge in acts of madness. . . . I appeal to the Muslims that they should open-heartedly declare that they belong to India and are loyal to the Union. If they are true to God and wish to live in the Indian Union, they just cannot be enemies of the Hindus. And I want the Muslims here to tell the Muslims in Pakistan who have become the enemies of the Hindus, not to go mad: ‘If you are going to indulge in such madness, we cannot co-operate with you. We will remain faithful to the Union, and salute the tricolour. We have to follow the order of the Government’.

(CWMG, Vol. 89, 01 August 1947–10 November 1947, p. 176)

This statement clearly identifies Muslims as one group of people that could now be divided into two categories: the Muslims who stay back in India and the Muslims who have migrated to Pakistan.

Was Gandhi not a victim of the colonial knowledge systems that conceptualized Indian communities as homogeneous entities?

Let us begin with Hind Swaraj – the small pamphlet that Gandhi wrote in 1909 and the only complied version of his ideas that he did not wish to change or disown. There is an interesting conversation between the reader and the editor about the inborn enmity between Hindus and Muslims. Gandhi, the editor in this episode, argues with the reader that expression such as ‘inborn enmity’ emerged only after the advent of British Raj. Describing Muslims as an inseparable constituent of Indian nation, Gandhi says:

Should we not remember that many Hindus and Mahomedans own the same ancestors and the same blood runs through their veins? Do people become enemies because they change their religion? Is the God of the Mahomedan different from the God of the Hindu? Religions are different roads converging to the same point. What does it matter that we take different roads so long as we reach the same goal? Wherein is the cause for quarrelling?
(Hind Swaraj, 1938, p. 46)

Also read: Dadabhai Naoroji believed the Indian civil service was the reason for India’s poverty


He further says:

Those who do not wish to misunderstand things may read up the Koran, and they will find therein hundreds of passages acceptable to the Hindus; and the Bhagavadgita contains passages to which not a Mahomedan can take exception. (Hind Swaraj, 1938, p. 48)
This portrayal of Muslims as a peace-loving Indian religious community and the Quran as a message of peace and love goes well with our postcolonial minority-rights driven sensitivities. Any post-Indira Gandhi Congress style self-declared secular leader might find this passage valuable to score a point over Hindutva bhakts of our times.

However, this was not the case with Gandhi. He was absolutely sure that one must have to make a crucial distinction between the religious discourses and everyday forms of lived religion.

In Gandhi’s opinion, the common Hindus and Muslims follow a religion that is far away from the moral teachings of Hinduism and Islam. Therefore, expecting that the reforms in religion would function instrumentally and transform the followers of that religion is an artificial premise.

One may argue that there is slight contradiction in Gandhi’s views. In Hind Swaraj, he establishes a direct link between religious texts and followers of Islam. But, in 1924, he seems to be convinced that actual conducts in the name of religion are different from the moral teachings of religion.

Let us go back to the debate that began in 1924 and continued for the next three years in the pages of Young India and Navajivan. In a long article Gandhi argues that the character of Muslims as a religious community should not be confused with Islamic morality that he discovers in the Quran. Nevertheless, he finds Muslims to be ‘bullies’ because of two possible reasons.

First, there is a mystified story of Islam that establishes the fact that Islam cannot be envisaged without violence and the rule of sword. Gandhi finds this ‘distorted’ version of Islam highly problematic. Second, the history of imperialism associated with Islamic expansion, Gandhi argues, transformed Muslims into an aggressive community.

Thus, Gandhi clearly poses a serious challenge to the process of growing Islamization among Muslims. He reminds us that the moral principles given in the Quran and the history of Muslims are different from each other. He seems to call upon Muslims to think of a different possibility: discovery of Islam without relying on the given Muslim history of violence and conquest.

Gandhi reminds us that there is a possibility of thinking multiple forms of valid and legitimate Islamic homogeneities without compromising with the universally celebrated principles of Islam. This creative imagination of Muslims of India, I argue, makes Gandhi our contemporary

This excerpt from the essay Gandhi’s Imagination of Muslims, part of Gandhi in Contemporary Times, has been published with permission from Routledge.

Also read: Nehru told Raja Rao: Enough of Rama, Krishna — 3,000 yrs of deities got us slavery, poverty


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  1. 1. “Any post-Indira Gandhi Congress style self-declared secular leader might find this passage valuable to score a point over Hindutva bhakts of our times.”
    Sir/mam, you are presenting the above statement as quote of Gandhi. I just want to know when did Mahatma Gandhi see any leader of post-Indira Gandhi era.

    2. You have mentioned passage (CWMG, Vol. 89, 01 August 1947–10 November 1947, p. 176). but didn’t mention, (CWMG, Vol. 87, 24 May 1947). Why is that?

    3. How is calling someone Hindutva Bhakt different that Islamist terrorist?

    4. It is request, not a question. I will looking forward to your article on Babasaheb’s view on Islam.(Not you interpretation of it)

    Thank You.

  2. Some people consider Gandhi a man governed by love seeking common ground as a plateau to move forward in compassionate peace. All people struggle with shortsighted imperfections yet Gandhi will always stand for forgiveness, kindness and acceptance that supercedes the human condition.
    It is easy to look back on his words and actions now and to see fault yet the overall message of Gandhi is to find as harmless as possible actions to unite while celebrating diversity. We are all far from perfect, still who if any of us will take on the burden Gandhi was willing to endure with the purest of heart any mere mortal may exist with? I will. Will you? Gandhi smiles on my troubled soul daily reminding me there is sunshine in all of us if we seek it and if we align with the intent to create peace we will have the most happiness ever known. Let love be the lens we see everyone and everything with and we will be as great as Gandhi.
    Thank you for this article. It is the beginning of a conversation rooted in peace.

  3. Looking or consistence in Gandhi’s mass of opinions is like searching or the proverbial needle in the haystack. A grain of gold out of a ton of ore. In 1923, when Swami Shraddhananda was stabbed and killed by a Muslim youth Rashid Ahmed, Gandhi called him a misguided brother. In 1924, in a communal riot in and around Lahore, the Hindus were driven out of their homes and localities by Muslim rioters. At that time he called Muslims bullies, and Hindus cowards. For Gandhi, religion and Hindu Dharma were poltical tools. He was no scholar. Don’t look for consistency in his periodic views.

  4. There’s a serious flaw in the following sentence being in italics as if Mahatma Gandhi said, which is not possible going by history: Any post-Indira Gandhi Congress style self-declared secular leader might find this passage valuable to score a point over Hindutva bhakts of our times. This is the observation of the author, and should be removed from italicising and given separately as the author’s view. Otherwise, Mahatma had been so right in whatever he said.

  5. we don’t need to care what side he took he took a decision neither side benefits…
    First – he shouldn’t have dragged the partition to the level of his wish or idealism to a hatred reach to the deep roots of the communities , its the will of the people he would have made Jinnah and Nehru stand together and made public statement we are working on things and people of both sides to stay calm- would have saved 2 million lives.. and 70 years rivalry
    Plan and negotiate and divide with sharing common resources like land access to Afghan and other Russian colonies etc ..
    They just signed whatever the Cyril Rat(d)cliff decided, he never visited before India – and even not really bothered to go around and visit the Border , it wasn’t English August then in India – he drew a line over the map and declared partition –
    worst two of the newly selected not elected PM’s just didn’t bother what is the real issue of moving millions of people along the border – they didn’t learn divide and conquer the work from the british but acted like cookie jar Monkey …
    Good thing Pakistanis didn’t worship Jinnah and his family and most of their leaders are patriotic worked for their countries safety – slavery wasn’t in their mind… but we Indians had all selfish mean leaders and nepotism at its core- very few leaders was real planes but they are all short lived..
    to sum of all we were fighting shoulder to shoulder against the british , suddenly we are slicing each others throat…reason Gandhi Nehru and Jinnah british took revenge by concealed the real patriot Netahji and create a fight between her former slaves..

  6. We are unfortunate to get freedom under Gandhi and Nehuru. Both are not good managers and are very cruel to Hindus. I never accept them as fighters.

    • Strange selfishness, we tend to dream of a different world standing on a platform contributed by the same individuals who form the very foundation of the platform

    • Perhaps you see the RSS – those who never fought for the independence of India and on the contrary, sided with the British – as fighters then? If it wasn’t for Gandhi’s ability to mobilize the masses and for the foresight and intellectualism of Nehru and the other passionate fighters, you wouldn’t have been in a position to make such stupid comments, ignorant of history. What people like you fail to grasp is that in hindsight, you’re all the more wise.

  7. Gandhi thought of Muslims as bullies and actually put that down in writing!! Interesting.

  8. It’s beyond doubt that antinational fake dynast nehru and fake Mahatma not only destroyed India but were responsible for killing of >3000000 Hindus. In spite of their heinous acts, the duo is glorified till date. These two rogues have distorted history and cheated Indians by and large.

  9. ”Islam cannot be envisaged without violence and the rule of sword.” And Muslims are very fanatic, intolerant, religious obsessed and violent people. Perceptions are based on evidence and that speaks volumes against Muslims.

  10. So in essence writer is saying Hindu God is same as Muslim God and this was also Gandhi’s view. So before we go further let us test it. Can witer who I presume will be person of emminece can he say so in Mecca or even in Jamma Masjid but it would come as surprise that Raghupati raja which includes Ishwer Allah tero naam is being played without any fuss at makeshift Ram Ram janam bhoomi temple.

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