Maulana Wahiduddin Khan: Understanding Islam in the Modern World

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by Yoginder Sikand

This blog looks at the writings of the Indian ‘alim, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, who has developed his own, in some respects, unique, understanding of Islam and its place in the modern world. It examines how he, as a member of the Indian Muslim minority, has sought to present Islam as well as making it possible for Muslims.  A second blog tomorrow will deal with specifically with the issue of peace.

Coming to terms with the challenges of modernity has been a major concern of many Muslim scholars and Islamic activists. How can Islam as a universal ideology be expressed in a global order characterised by the nation-state system? What position should the Islamic law (shari’ah) enjoy in a world system characterised, for the most part, by the separation of religion and politics and the relegation of religion to the private realm? Is an Islamic state necessarily an integral part of Islam? How should revelation be understood in the light of reason and science? How should Muslims relate to people of other faiths and ideologies? How can Muslim minorities remain faithful to their commitment to their faith while at the same time lead lives as loyal citizens of their countries where they live? These and related questions are some of the issues that modern Muslim scholars have sought, in their own ways, to grapple with.

This blog looks at the writings of the Indian ‘alim, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, who has developed his own, in some respects, unique, understanding of Islam and its place in the modern world. It examines how he, as a member of the Indian Muslim minority, has sought to present Islam in terms that are both intelligent to the modern mind, as well as making it possible for Muslims in India to attempt to create a balance between what have often seen to be their conflicting loyalties to the state, on the one hand, and to their religion, on the other. Although the Muslims of India are Khan’s primary focus, and the development of his own thought must be located in the specific Indian context, Khan seeks to address the Muslim ummah as a whole, and, as the growing interest in his writings in other countries suggests, in this he has registered considerable success.

The first part of this blog looks at Khan’s early life and formative influences, arguing that the development of his thought must be seen primarily as a response to the predicament that the Muslims of India found themselves in in post-1947 India, as a beleaguered, marginalised minority, victims of widespread poverty, pervasive discrimination and organised violence directed against them. 

Khan’s own understanding of Islam and its place in the modern world are shown as largely a response to what he saw as the failure or inability of other Islamic groups active in India at the time to provide a proper, and in his view, authentic Islamic leadership to the Muslim community. The second part of the blog examines the basic contours of Khan’s Islamic vision, focussing on how Khan attempts to develop a creative understanding of Islam that he sees as fully relevant for our times. In particular, this section looks at how he approaches the questions of peace, inter-faith dialogue and da’wah, or Islamic mission, as well as his critique of the politics of Islamism.

Early Years

Wahiduddin Khan was born in a family of Pathan landlords in 1925 at Badharia, a village near the town of Azamgarh, in the eastern United Provinces, now the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. His parents died when he was still a child, and he was brought up by his father’s brother, Sufi Hamid Majid Khan. Although his two brothers were sent to western-style schools for their education, the young Wahiduddin was enrolled at a traditional Islamic seminary, the Madrasat-ul Islam, in Sarai Mir, near Azamgarh, in order to train as an ‘alim. Here he spent six years, completing the ‘alim course, graduating in 1944. 

After his graduation, Khan returned to his village, instead of taking up employment in a mosque or madrasa, as did most of his class-mates. Back with his family, he seems to have found himself a misfit, sensing a great chasm between himself and his brothers and other relatives, who had received a modern, western, education. A period of great introspection and disillusionment with the traditional understanding of Islam that he had imbibed at the madrasa followed, and Khan even turned to agnosticism for a while, finding that the madrasa education that he had received failed to provide answers to the issues besetting the modern world. 

This phase continued till 1948, when, reading the primary Islamic sources in their Arabic original, instead of relying on translations and commentaries, he ‘re-discovered’ his faith in Islam. It was, in a sense, a ‘born-again’ experience for him, affirming a faith that was consciously chosen, rather than one inherited as part of one’s cultural tradition. Clearing away centuries of commentary and interpretation, and approaching the Qur’an and the Hadith directly, he came to believe, held the key to an understanding of Islam that could prove its relevance in the modern world. Khan now set about learning English on his own, reading widely the works of Western writers and philosophers. In particular, Khan claims to have been greatly influenced by Bertrand Russell. His exposure to western literature led him on to realise the pressing need to present Islam in a manner that would appeal to the modern, western-educated mind.1

This period of ‘rediscovery’ of Islam from its original sources coincided for Khan with a quest for a socially engaged spirituality. Coming under the influence of the writings of Abul ‘Ala Maududi, founder of the Islamist Jama’at-i-Islami, Khan joined the Jama’at-i-Islami Hind, the Indian wing of the Jama’at, in 1949, attracted by Maududi’s understanding of Islam as a comprehensive world-view and a call for radical social revolution. His commitment to the Jama’at, his powers of organising and oratory, and, above all, his skilful pen, helped him move rapidly up the Jama’at’s hierarchy, being appointed, in a few years after he joined the organisation, as a member of its central organising committee (markaz-i-majlis-i-shura), and serving as one of the senior administrators of the Jama’at’s publishing house in Rampur. 

Khan wrote regularly for the Jama’at’s Urdu journal, Zindagi (‘Life’), and, in 1955, published his first book, Naye Ahd Ke Darwaze Par (‘On the Threshold of a New Era’). This was soon followed by Mazhab Aur Jadid Challenge (‘Islam and the Modern World’), which was later translated into Arabic under the title Al-Islam Yatahdda, which became a best-seller in the Arab world, being incorporated in the syllabus of several Arab universities. As the titles of these books suggest, Khan was particularly concerned with developing an understanding of Islam that would appeal to the modern mind while at the same time remaining firmly grounded in the original sources of Islam.

Khan did not remain for long with the Jama’at though. Increasingly, it suggested to him that the Jama’at’s own agenda, based as it was on working towards establishing an Islamic state in India, was not only impractical, but, moreover, not in keeping with what Islam expected of the Muslims of India in the situation that they found themselves. As Khan delved deeper into Maududi’s writings, he came to believe that the very basis of Maududi’s understanding of Islam was faulty and mistaken, a reaction to western imperialism rather than emerging from an authentic understanding of Islam. Faced with the challenge of European colonial rule over most of the Muslim world, Maududi, Khan concluded, had developed a quintessentially political understanding of Islam, seeing the Islamic mission as based on political, rather than simply ideological struggle, not ruling out resort to violent means to attain its goals. This understanding of Islam he now began to see as a result of ‘a sense of loss’, of defeat suffered by the Muslims at the hands of the West, rather than as emanating from a deep, genuine spiritual quest. 2

Khan also gradually came to the conclusion that the Jama’at-i-Islami’s political approach was ill-suited to the needs and conditions of the Muslim minority in India. Rather than mobilising themselves to work for establishing an Islamic state, which was not only impractical in the given situation but which would further embitter the Hindu majority, what Muslims needed to do, Khan felt, was to attempt to build bridges with people of other faiths in the country. Khan began airing his differences with the Jama’at’s ideology and policies even while a senior leader of the Jama’at, but as these differences began to grow, he decided to quit the organisation after serving it for fifteen years, in 1962.

Disillusioned with what he calls the ‘political oriented religion’ of the Jama’at, Khan was now attracted to what he saw as the ‘God-oriented religion’ preached by another Islamic revivalist movement, the Tablighi Jama’at. What seems to have struck Khan most about the Tablighi Jama’at was its strict aloofness from party politics, focussing on individual reform, rather than, like the Jama’at-i-Islami, on attempting to establish an Islamic political order. For a beleaguered minority like the Indian Muslims, the Tablighi Jama’at, with its concern with the ‘Islamisation of the individual’, rather than capture of the state, seemed not only to be a more sensible and pragmatic strategy, but also one that was in keeping with the Prophetic practice (sunnah).3

Active in the Tablighi Jama’at for some years, Khan gradually became disillusioned with it, too, and by 1975 had completely disassociated from it. He saw the movement’s hostility to ijtihad, or creative application of Islamic law to meet the challenge of changing social conditions, and what he viewed as its aversion to critical, independent and creative thinking and the rational, scientific spirit, as placing a brake on his own intellectual development, and as, moreover, a betrayal of the Islamic imperative itself.4 Although he still remained appreciative of the role of the Tablighi Jama’at in creating Islamic awareness among ordinary Muslims, he believed that a new understanding of Islam was necessary to appeal to modern educated Indians, Muslims as well as Hindus and others. Accordingly, in September 1976, he set up his own research institute, the Islamic Centre, based in New Delhi, launching an Urdu monthly, al-Risala, to propagate his own views, which he saw as presenting Islam in a modern idiom. 

The journal consists almost entirely of articles written by Khan himself. In 1984, an English edition of al-Risala was started, and this was followed in 1990 with a Hindi edition. The journal today has a fairly large readership both in India and abroad, and several issues of it are also available on the Internet. Besides his journal, Khan has published, to date, over two hundred books, mainly in Urdu, some of which have been translated into European and various Indian languages, in addition to Arabic. Khan also regularly writes for various Indian newspapers on issues of contemporary importance from an Islamic perspective. He is certainly one of the few Indian ‘ulama to seriously engage with the largely non-Muslim ‘’mainstream’ Indian press.

Many years of close involvement in the Jama’at-i-Islami and the Tablighi Jama’at, a deep concern with the growing problem of Hindu-Muslim conflict in India, and the spread of Islamist movements, many of them violent, in large parts of the Muslim world, provide the general context for an examination of the development and maturation of Khan’s own distinct understanding of Islam and of its place and role in the modern world. While his advocacy of a personalisation of the faith, focussing on individual reform rather than on political mobilisation, seems to be a result of the influence of his earlier association with the Tablighi Jama’at, his call for a radical ijtihad, going directly to the original sources of Islam—the Qur’an and the Hadith—by-passing centuries of tradition and interpretation of the primary Islamic corpus, clearly distinguishes him from the Tablighis.5 While he shares with the Islamists an insistence on the urgency of ijtihad, he urges the creative interpretation of the shari’ah for very different purposes. 

Khan’s primary concern being to express Islam as a perfectly suitable ideology for the modern age, he deals at great length in his writings with issues related to pluralism, inter-faith dialogue and peace, issues that he sees both the Islamists, with their radical rhetoric, and quietists, such as the Tablighi Jama’at, with their refusal to look beyond formulations of traditional fiqh, as unable, if not unwilling, to seriously consider. To Khan’s own distinct understanding of how Islam can be understood in the modern world, an understanding which claims to be both authentic and at the same time relevant in today’s context, we now turn.

1 Interview with Wahiduddin Khan, New Delhi, 1 February, 2001.
2 Wahiduddin Khan, “Two Types ofMovements,”
3 Wahiduddin Khan, The Tabligh Movement, The Islamic Centre, New Delhi, 1986.
4 Interview with Wahiduddin Khan, New Delhi, 2 February, 2001.
5 Wahiduddin Khan, Islam Rediscovered: Discovering Islam From Its Original Sources , Goodword Books, New Delhi, 2001, p.70. q