By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan
(Translation of the Urdu book Deen ki Siyasi Ta‘abir)
Where Does an Erroneous Interpretation of the Deen Take Us?
Following the publication of my book Ta‘abir ki Ghalati, the Jama‘at-e Islami came out with a considerable number of writings criticizing it. But the end result of these efforts was only to make even clearer than before that in the entire Jama‘at-e Islami circle, not a single person possessed even a single convincing bit of evidence in support of the political interpretation of Islam.
This is not really the place to repeat my views about Quranic verses and Hadith reports which I discussed in Ta‘abir ki Ghalati. Those who would like a more detailed discussion of these issues can find it in that book. Here, I would like to restrict myself to just one conclusion that seems to be a necessary fall-out of Maulana Maududi’s interpretation of the Deen. And that is that this interpretation has completely transformed the understanding of Islamic history. This is clearly evident in two of Maulana Maududi’s key books: Char Buniyadi Istilahen (‘Four Basic Terms’) and Tajdid-o-Ihya-e Deen.
In his Char Buniyadi Istilahen, Maulana Maududi discussed four Quranic terms: Ilah, Rabb, Ibaadat and Deen, and sought to explain them according to his perspective. In the preface to the book, he alleged that the meaning of ‘most Quranic words’ in the books of linguistics and Quranic commentary written in the later period of Muslim history had been ‘extremely narrowed down’ and their real import obscured. Thus, he alleged, the Quranic term Ilah had been wrongly translated as Mabud, a deity to be worshipped, Rabb as Parwardigar or Sustainer, Ibaadat as Parastish or worship, and Deen as Mazhab or religion. In this way, he claimed, these terms had acquired a special sort of spiritual or religious meaning. In his view, what he considered as their ‘civilisational’ and ‘political’ significance had, accordingly, been rendered invisible. He considered this book of his as lifting the veil over what he claimed to be the ‘true’ civilisational and political significance of these four important Quranic terms.
How, according to the Maulana, did such a massive alleged blunder take place in our understanding of these key Quranic terms? How did this alleged blunder continue through several centuries? The Maulana had a seemingly simple answer to these questions: ‘People in the past did not understand the Deen properly”, he claimed. In this way, he sought to argue for the alleged veracity of his understanding of the Deen, at the same time as he sought to change the very nature of Islamic history.
Muslims believe that, at least at the ideological level, there has been certain continuity in Islamic history. But if the Maulana is to be believed, this belief is erroneous. Going by his understanding, it is as if for a very long time, Islamic history was bedevilled by an enormous vacuum which no one was able to address before the advent of the Maulana himself!
In His Preface To This Book, The Maulana Claimed:
When the Quran was presented in Arabia, everyone knew what the word Ilah meant and who was called Rabb, because both these words were already used in their language. They knew what these words signified. And so, when they were told that Allah is the only Ilah and Rabb and that no one else shares in His Divinity and Sustainer-ship, they got the complete message […] In the same way, the words Ibaadat and Deen were already present in their language. They knew the meaning of Ibaadat and Deen. And so, when they were told to abandon the servitude of everyone else and to serve God alone and to separate themselves from every other Deen and enter God’s Deen, they faced no misunderstanding in comprehending the message of the Quran. On listening to it they understood what changes this teaching wanted to make in their pattern of life.
However, in later centuries, gradually the way these terms were understood began to shift from their original meaning; from how they were understood at the time the Quran was revealed. Departing from their original, expansive meaning, they began to be understood in a very narrow way, and their true significance was rendered unclear. One reason for this was the lack of sufficient taste for Arabic. A second reason was that for those who were born in an Islamic society, the terms Ilah and Rab and Deen and Ibaadat no longer had the same meaning that they had in the non-Muslim society at the time of the Quranic revelation. Because of these two reasons, in the books of linguistics and Quranic exegesis written in the later period, most Quranic words began being explained, not in terms of their real meaning, but, instead, as later Muslims understood them […] As a result of this, it became difficult for people to really understand even the essential subject-matter of the Quran.
The Maulana Further Claimed:
And so, the fact is that just because a veil was dropped over the meaning of these four basic terms, more than 3/4ths of the teachings of the Quran, in fact it’s essential spirit, was hidden from view. This is one major reason for the fact that people’s beliefs and actions are faulty despite having accepted Islam. Hence, in order to clarify the central Quranic teaching and its basic subject-matter, it is very essential that these terms be fully explained.
In this book, the so-called ‘invisiblised’ meanings that Maulana Maududi claims to ‘unveil’ of these four basic Quranic terms are pre-eminently political. In this way, it is clear that, according to him, the political dimension is the ‘essential subject-matter’ of the Quran, ‘more than 3/4ths’ of the Quran’s teachings, and ‘in fact, its essential spirit’. It is this political dimension that, in his view, is what he calls the Quran’s ‘central teaching’ and ‘essential subject-matter’.
If what the Maulana claimed is really true, then he has been very charitable by accusing only the later period of Muslim history of unawareness of the Quran, otherwise he could have extended his point even beyond that period!
If, according to the Maulana’s argument, the ‘essential subject-matter’ of the Quran has been invisiblised at the ideological and intellectual levels, it is but to be expected that this would greatly impact on the efforts of Ulema and religious reformers. According to a Hadith report, in every century God will appoint a Mujaddid, someone who will renew His Deen. According to this prophecy, not less than a dozen Mujaddids must certainly have appeared so far. But from the perspective of the political interpretation of Islam, it would appear that in the history of the last 1400 years, not a single person has been born who could, according to this interpretation, be considered to be a Mujaddid in the full sense of the term!
Maulana Maududi tried to ‘solve’ this question by arguing that Mujaddids are of two types: partial and complete. So, he claimed that all the Mujaddids who have appeared till now have all been partial Mujaddids. In his words, ‘The stage of the complete Mujaddids is empty till now.’ Revealingly, on the very first page of the Maulana’s book Tajdeed-o-Ihya-e Deen, the following words were once printed: ‘A Critical View of the Achievements of the Mujaddids of the Ummah’, but now these words have been deleted from the book. In this book, the Maulana termed all the Mujaddids who have appeared till now, without exception, as ‘partial Mujaddids’.
The matter does not rest here, however. There is more to it. The Maulana wrote that a Mujaddid is meant to do something of the sort of work of a prophet, in some sense. According to him, the basic difference between a Mujaddid and a prophet is that the latter receives Divine revelation, unlike the former. A Mujaddid does not acquire the same status as a prophet. Now, if one accepts as valid the political and ‘revolutionary’ interpretation of the Deen, then one would also have to accept that, like the Mujaddids, there are—God forbid!—‘partial prophets’, on the one hand, and ‘complete prophets’, on the other! This is because we know that the most of the prophets were not successful in bringing about a political revolution in their lands.
The fact of the matter is that, in practical terms and with some differences, most of the prophets did the sort of work that was done by the so-called ‘partial Mujaddid’. In the Maulana’s words, ‘The efforts of some of them were only to the extent of preparing the ground, such as the Prophet Abraham. Some launched, in practical terms, revolutionary movements but their work ended before establishing the Divine Government, such as the Messiah. And some of them took this movement to the stage of success, such as the Prophet Moses and the Prophet Muhammad’. It is as if, according to this ‘explanation’, the Prophet Abraham, the Friend of God, was a ‘partial prophet’ who could not take the revolutionary movement of Islam to the stage of success!
From this it is readily apparent how even a minor deviation from the truth can lead to enormous blunders.
A fiery propagandist of the Jama‘at-e Islami school of thought once sought to rectify this blunder by claiming that it is wrong to believe that all the prophets of God did not establish an Islamic Government. Writing in the July 1965 issue of the Jamaat’s journal Zindagi, he insisted that, in fact, all of the prophets had established such a Government! In his words:
It is possible that people will think this to be novel, but if we keep in front of us the practice (Sunnat) of God with regard to the prophets that the Quran talks about, then no doubt remains about the veracity of this assertion.
This man claimed that if the history of the earlier prophets had been carefully protected, it would have been possible to highlight ‘all the details of their Government’; in just the same way as one can with regard to the polity that the Prophet Muhammad established in Madina. In other words, he suggested that even though the Quran does not explicitly mention the establishment of Divine Government by earlier prophets, and this remains unknown to History so far, it must be accepted as an actual fact simply because this man’s conception of the Deen suggested to him that this must certainly have been the case!
This is the same sort of argument that Friedrich Engels employed when he claimed that while history had not recorded the conditions of pre-historic Man, his conception of the cosmos and human life led him to believe that pre-historical human society must certainly have been a communist one!
From this discussion, it is clearly apparent how a change in the direction in which one looks necessarily leads to a change in one’s basic conception of things. For instance, if you look at Indian history through the eyes of Mao Tse Tung, Mahatma Gandhi will appear to you as a ‘bourgeois agent’, while through Indian eyes he looks like the hero of the nation. In just the same way, if one sees the world in the light of the political interpretation of the deen, it would seem as if Muslim religious history has for very long been characterized by an enormous vacuum. You would be led to think that throughout almost the whole of Islamic history there was neither a proper and complete conception of the deen nor any person who really engaged, in a complete sense, in the essential mission of the deen!
Following from what we have discussed so far, is there any need left for additional evidence to prove the falsity of this political interpretation of Islam? The interpretation of the deen that requires one to believe that almost the whole of Islamic history is wrong is simply to be rejected.
My intention in uncovering the political interpretation of Islam is not to attack anyone’s intentions or to debate about anybody’s beliefs and actions. However, in response to my critique of this interpretation of Islam in my book Ta‘abir ki Ghalati, the Jama‘at-e Islami took it as blind criticism, similar to writings by some other writers who have opposed the Jama‘at. And so, the Jama‘at could not properly understand the basis and nature of my critique. Naturally, then, its reply to my book was thoroughly inappropriate.
When I look at whatever the Jama‘at-e Islami had to say in reply to my book, it seems like a wrestler entering into an empty wrestling-ring and beginning an imaginary wrestling match! All the arguments raised by the Jama‘at-e Islami against my critique, in written, verbal, published and unpublished form, were either about completely irrelevant issues or else based on a complete misrepresentation of my position. Some of these arguments clearly indicated that, driven by a fiery zeal to counter me, my critics from the Jama‘at completely forgot what the word ‘evidence’ means. Some of them went beyond all limits by indulging in mockery. Perhaps they thought that their lack of evidence against me could be made up in this way!
I must clarify here that I do not say that the literature on and about the political interpretation of Islam has been deliberately written with the aim of promoting deviation in Islam. Rather, this has happened unconsciously. The dominance of a certain way of thinking led one of the principal pioneers of this literature, Maulana Maududi, in a certain direction. Motivated with a passion for serving the deen, and not with the intention of disfiguring its image, he sought to explain the entire deen in a particular manner. To this extent I see him as faultless. But after this, when his intention had been drawn to this state of affairs, it was necessary for him to ponder on it, instead of considering his writings to be the last word and ignoring any critiques of it. Making a mistake is not a mistake in itself. But it is certainly a big mistake if someone continues to insist on his position despite his error being pointed out to him.
I am aware that for the author of this literature to have acknowledged his mistakes may not have seemed a simple issue because there were several delicate matters concealed behind them. That is why before I published Ta‘abir ki Ghalati, I repeatedly requested the leaders of the Jama‘at-e Islami for a very small thing. If they had accepted this then, and even if they accept it now, I was, considering the interests of the deen, ready to say that at least at the ideological level, this debate should be put an end to, even though at the level of principle, the matter still remained unresolved.
I proposed two possibilities in this regard in my book. The first had to do with Maulana Maududi himself, and the second with the Jama‘at-e Islami. As regards the first, I suggested that Maulana Maududi should declare that the conception of the deen that he had been trying to portray through his literature was not a general conception of the deen as it is, but, rather that, in accordance with the prevailing conditions, he had focused on some aspects of the deen in particular. The second proposal was that the Jama‘at-e Islami should clearly concede that the writings of Maulana Maududi were not a wholly certifiable or complete exposition of the ideology of the Jama‘at. If this were to happen, the status of Maulana Maududi’s literature in Jama‘at circles would naturally change. It would be considered relative, rather than absolute. And so, if this literature were read and used, it would be on the basis of their usefulness, just like many other books that are also read in Jama‘at circles. It would cease to enjoy the status and importance of an authentic legal manifesto or exposition of the Jamaat’s ideology.
I made these proposals before the publication of my book and in the book itself as well. The fact of the matter is that given the nature of the problem, these proposals made hardly any demands at all, and it was probably due to deep-rooted prejudice or else an unwillingness to reflect on the matters that I had raised that even these minimal requests were not accepted.
I know what status the literature of Maulana Maududi is coming to enjoy, in practical terms, in Jama‘at-e Islami circles. And perhaps the day is not far off when its status will be that of a sacred memorial—to touch or ‘dishonour’ which will undoubtedly be considered an unforgiveable crime. However, at the intellectual and practical levels, it will no longer have any relationship with people’s lives, just as has happened with Karl Marx and his writings. In the Communist world, Marx’s words are still considered to be some sort of holy writ. But in reality, they are now just decoration pieces in libraries and have no bearing at all on people’s lives, which are now directed by other ideologies. The same is bound to happen in the case of the Maulana’s writings.
An unrealistic and unnatural interpretation of any truth always passes through a historical process. It temporarily attracts and influences a particular group of people, and then it begins to weaken. Finally, it comes to be locked up in a cupboard in a museum!
Maulana Maududi’s literature is bound to meet this same fate. Its inheritors and custodians simply cannot stop this historical process. However, if they openly admit this inevitable development, it would undoubtedly be a great blessing.