A thinker in the eyes of scholars

Disagreements apart, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan was a prolific author, an erudite scholar, and one of the globally renowned Indian Muslim scholars of Islamic thought
A thinker in the eyes of scholars
The Islamic scholar was honoured with the Padma Bhushan in 2000, and was awarded the Padma Vibhushan this year. Photo Courtesy: @WahiduddinKhan/Twitter

Maulana Wahiduddin Khan (hereinafter MWK) was born on 1st January, 1925 at Azamgarh (UP) and died, due to Covid-19 complications, on 21st April 2021 (at Apollo Hospital, New Delhi). A leading scholar of Islamic thought among contemporary Indian Muslims, an Islamic spiritual leader, a Quran commentator, and an ardent advocate of peace, harmony, pluralism, gender justice, interfaith dialogue and social harmony, he founded 'Centre for Peace and Spirituality' in 2001 (New Delhi). Being well versed in classical Islamic learning and modern sciences, his mission was the establishment of world-wide peace and he features in 2009 edition of The Muslim 500 (The World's 500 Most Influential Muslims) wherein he was described as 'Islam's Spiritual Ambassador to the world'.

He authored over 200 books on Islam and its diverse aspects—ranging from Quran, Sirah/ prophetic wisdom, theology, morality, spirituality, non-violence, peace/ peace-building, to gender studies and Islam and science. Though he wrote mostly in Urdu, but many of his work have been translated in Arabic, Hindi, English and various European languages as well. He also wrote commentary on the Quran—Tazkir al-Qur'an—and it has been translated into English as well (a full list of his books can be accessed from www.cpsglobal.org).

A receipient of various national and internatonal awards, MWK died at an age of 96, on 21st April 2021 at Appollo hospital New Delhi after he tested positive for COVID-19. His son, Dr(s) Zafarul Islam Khan and Saniyasnain Khan, and grandchildren (Maria Khan, Sadia Khan, Raamish Siddiqui) announced his death through social media (Twitter and Facebook). His death was mourned not only in the sub-continent but globally as well. His death has indeed created a big void, which is impossible to fill, in the scholarly world.

The President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, and Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, also tweeted about MWK's death on 22nd April, expressing grief over his death, and remembered his "significant contribution to peace, harmony and reforms in society" and "his insightful knowledge on matters of theology and spirituality", respectively. Prof. Amitab Mattoo, a renowned academic, in his Tweet mentioned him as a "scholar, theologian, writer and a great peacemaker". Syed Sadatullah Husaini (JIH president), in a condolence message, said: "Maulana Wahiduddin Khan was undoubtedly an outstanding thinker who had a profound impact on our times.  Maulana's role in uniting different religious groups in the country and in creating an atmosphere of dialogue and discussion between them is unforgettable. the efforts of the late Maulana to present Islam in a modern style and with strong scientific and logical arguments will always remain his abiding legacy".

His death caused a wave of sorrow and grief not only in India but abroad as well, and a glimpse of this can be had from the headings of various news reports and obituaries published in various newspapers, magazines, and online portals—(inter)nationally:

  • "A Tribute to Maulana Wahiduddin Khan": Padma Vibhushan MWK was an intellectual giant and an erudite scholar who devoted his life to pursuance of principles of peace (Raamish Siddiqui, Outlook, 23rd April)
  • "In Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, India loses an advocate of inter-religious harmony to Covid-19: MWK dispelled false notions about Islam, and called for peace and harmony in the country" (Shubhangi Misra, The Print, 22nd April)
  • "India Mourns Islamic scholar Maulana wahiduddin Khan" (Aandolu Agency, 22nd April)
  • "Maulana Wahiduddin Khan was an Islamic scholar who believed in dialogue": MWK saw his mission to help the world rediscover that the essence of Islam was peace (Amitabh Mattoo, The Indian Express, 23rd April)
  • "Maulana Wahiduddin Khan: the advocate of religious harmony who told Muslims to relinquish Babri claims" (Manoj C G, The Indian Express, 23rd April)
  • "Wahiduddin Khan, the Maulana who brought about a revolution in the Muslim world, dies of COVID-related complications" (Ziya Us Salam, Frontline,23rd  April)

Various scholars have evaluated his works and thought and the aim of this write-up—as a mark of tribute to MWK—is to present a summary of some of the significant writings, of recent past and of the recently published obituaries, giving us clearly ideas how his work and thought have been evaluated and received over the years globally.

Dr Yoginder Sikand (an Indian writer/ academic and currently a freelance researcher based in Bangalore) has done a good research on MWK and in one of his research works (published in Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations, 2003), he describes MWK as "one of India's best known Islamic scholars", whose "close involvement in the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Tablighi Jamaat" in the formative phase of his career-as-scholar and "a deep concern with the growing problem of Hindu–Muslim conflict in India … 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".

In 2006, Prof. Irfan A. Omar (Associate Professor, Theology Department, Marquette University, USA) contributed a chapter to Ibrahim Abu-Rabi's The Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Islamic Thought in which he described MWK as "a leading scholar of Islamic thought among Indian Muslims today", who "combines knowledge of traditional religious sciences ('ulum al-din) with the cultural, socio-political, and ethical discourse of his times".

Dr Muhammad Seedat (Institute for Social and Health Sciences, University of South Africa), has evaluated MWK's works on peace and peace-making/building as a "representative of a socio-normative approach to social justice" in his research on MWK's conception of Peace and its relevance in contemporary Islamic thought (published in South African Journal of Psychology, 2006).

Prof. Dietrich Reetz (Free University Berlin, Germany) in his research on "Muslim Grassroots Leaders in India" (published in NBAR's Who Speaks for Islam, 2010) mentions that MWK "preaches a non-sectarian combination of Islamic scholarship, Sufi traditions, and New Age influences, especially by networking through his journal Al-Risala".

Prof. M. A. Muqtedar Khan (University of Delaware, USA) in an encyclopedia entry on MWK (in Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics, 2014, I: 691-92) writes: "In spite of [all the] controversy surrounding his thought and politics, Maulana Wahiduddin has for decades enjoyed a reputation as a thoughtful, independent and critical Muslim thinker in India."

Dr. M. R.  Anjum and Bilal Ahmad Wani, in their co-authored study on "Concept of Peace in Islam: A Study of Contributions of Maulana Wahiduddin Khan to Peaceful Coexistence" (International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications, 2017) concluded that the "peace, spirituality  and  Dawah  are  the  values  that  occupy  a  place  very  close  to  the  heart  of Maulana.  These  in  fact  form  the  very  core  of  his  religious  philosophy".

Dr Gowhar Quadir Wani (presently a faculty member of Islamic Studies at IUST, Awantipora) sums up MWK's Tadhkir al-Qur'an (in Quran Interpretation in Urdu—A Critical Study, 2019) in these words: "Wahiduddin Khan has done a commendable job in presenting the Qur'an as a book of admonitions. His commentary finds its significance in that it is equally useful for both scholarly people as well as laymen for it focuses on the simple divine message that appeals to the human nature in a catchy way". About the English version of Tazkirul Quran, The Quran—Translation and Commentary (2011; edited and translated by his daughter Dr Farida Khanam; retired professor of Islamic Studies from Jamia Milia Islamia, and current Chairperson of CPS International), Prof. Abdur Raheem Kidwai (Aligarh Muslim University) in its review (in his God's Word, Man's Interpretations, 2018, pp. 58-63) writes: MWK is a "prolific Indian scholar of Islam. He is nonetheless criticized by some for his apologetic views. … [H]e has been remarkably successful in exploring and conveying energetically and effectively the divine notes of admonition and reminder which permeate the Quranic text". In his final analysis, Prof. Kidwai describes MWK's Tafsir, "notwithstanding some serious shortcomings" as a "substantial addition to the tafsir corpus in English, especially in view of its forceful, inspiring elucidation of the main articles of the Islamic faith". Similarly, Dr Reiko Okawa (Meiji Gakuin University, Tokyo, Japan) in her study on "Wahiduddin Khan's Reading of Peace and Spirituality in the Scripture" (International Journal of Islamic Thought, 2019) attempted to "illustrate how Khan created a peaceful understanding of the Quran in contemporary India" by focusing on "the background to Khan's thought" and "the features of his interpretation of the Quran". She concludes that "Khan's interpretation, deeply reflecting his own ideas and containing messages to minority Muslims, provides three main remarkable themes, being scripture, spirituality and peace."

It is noteworthy to mention that many research works (PG to PhD) have been carried on MWK's life, works and thought in the recent decades in various universities of India.

From the above assessment, it becomes evident that MWK's scholarly output was enormous, and his coverage of subjects was diverse. Though one may have many disagreements with MWK's thoughts on certain religious/ theological and political issues—expressed in his various works, including his monthly al-Risala and his Tafsir—but no one can deny profundity of his scholarship, diversity and richness of subjects he covered, his lucid but captivating style, his ability of expressing complex scholarly subjects with great brevity, and his rational way of interpretation of Islam, and things Islamic. "He was one of the masters of modern theology and his contributions will continue to benefit the world of Islamic academia". He interpreted Islam simply but logically, laden with historical evidences and rational/ scientific interpretation/ explanation—much apt and appealing for the (post)modern readers(hip). MWK's death is indeed a great loss to the humanity at large. May Allah accept all his good deeds and forgive for his lapses!!

The author is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at GDC Sogam, Kupwara (J&K).

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