A few days before the death of Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, last week, his family circulated a video. It was of Maulana revealing the ‘final discovery’ of his long life: “Positive thinking,” Maulana declared, “is the greatest virtue in life.” He urged his family and followers not to harbour a single negative thought towards anyone.
It was clear when this video was circulated that the end of Maulana’s 96-year life was near. The end came on April 21, just four months after Maulana was awarded Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian award. The award was bestowed on Maulana for his exceptional services to spirituality in India.
It is not a coincidence that the names of two ‘Khansahibs’ stand out in recent decades, as recipients of India’s two highest civilian honours. The other is a Bharat Ratna. In the history of modern India, Bharat Ratna has also been conferred on one Khansahib. That Khansabib was of course Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan — commonly known in India as the ‘Frontier Gandhi’.
If my memory serves me well, in 1987, when Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan was awarded Bharat Ratna, there were only 18 other recipients of that award since 1947. That shows how rare it is for Bharat Ratna to be conferred on anyone.
Commonalities with Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan
The comparison of Maulana Wahiduddin Khan to Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan is not out of place. For one, there is the Gandhian connection. Like Ghaffar Khan, Wahiduddin Khan has remained committed to and implemented in his life the Gandhian philosophy of non-violence. Maulana Wahiduddin Khan was unique in developing and living by a philosophy of Islamic pacifism. One can also say that Ghaffar Khan, like Wahiduddin Khan after him, was a model of positivity.
I have been lucky enough to know the families of both Ghaffar Khan and Wahiduddin Khan pretty well. It is difficult to comprehend the degree to which Ghaffar Khan must have felt the pain of Partition. Still, once it came about, and Pakistan came into existence, Ghaffar Khan did not harbour a single negative thought towards Pakistan. This was in spite of the fact that he probably spent more years in prison and exile after the creation of Pakistan, than before it.
His daughter Mehr Taj was not so magnanimous. “The British used to respect my father,” she told me on more than one occasion. “His mistreatment at the hands of Pakistan was far greater than that meted out to him by the British.”
So in their pacifism and in their positivity, the two Khansahibs were remarkably similar. What about the Pashtoon connection? Bacha Khan’s whole life was dedicated to the service of the Pashtoons. Wahiduddin Khan’s commitment, as the Maulana title indicates, has been to spirituality as opposed to his ethnicity.
Still, when Maulana would meet anyone from Afghanistan, or from the Frontier, he would be quick to point out that his ancestors also were from those parts. “My forefathers hailed from Swat.” Maulana would set considerable store by his Pashtoon heritage.
It was the time of Nawabates in India, when Maulana Wahiduddin Khan’s ancestors came from Swat to Jaunpur, in what is now Uttar Pradesh in northern India. Like most other Nawabs, the Nawab of Jaunpur was a Pashtoon. It was only natural that Pashtoons should come from the frontier areas, to bolster the rule of their kinsmen. Maulana’s ancestor was one of these.
Maulana’s family later settled in Azamgarh, close to Jaunpur. Maulana received his early Islamic education from the relatively progressive Islahi madrasa in Azamgarh, founded by Allama Shibli Naumani. In contemporary sciences — a forte of Maulana Wahiduddin Khan — he was self-taught. “People think of me as a master type of person,” Maulana would observe. “In fact, I am a pure mulla.”
It was in 1967 that Maulana came from Azamgarh to Delhi, to set up a weekly magazine from the Jamiat’al-Ulema-e-Hind building in Qasim Jan Lane in Old Delhi. As he alighted from the train in Old Delhi, Maulana’s son Saniyasnain, then just a small boy and now director of Goodword Books in Delhi, recalls, “In one hand he was holding a basket with all his belongings. With his other hand, he was holding me.”
Maulana Wahiduddin went on to form his own journal Al-Risala. The rest, as they say, is history. Al-Risala went from strength to strength, with Goodword Books ensuring that Maulana’s publications reached every corner of the globe. In the 1980s, Maulana’s office moved, from his cramped quarters in Old Delhi, to more spacious accommodation in Nizamuddin West, in south Delhi.
Of course, Maulana wrote and published a huge number of books. Uniquely among Muslim scholars, he also moved with the times. New videos of his would appear on social media almost daily. Even posthumously, at least two videos have emerged. In one, a dying Maulana can be heard to movingly advise his followers not to be perturbed when they hear of his death. Everyone will pass on from this world, but God remains, and will never die.
There is yet another similarity with the Frontier Gandhi that one may mention, with regard to Wahiduddin Khan. That is that both attracted—and continue to attract—considerable opprobrium as well as praise. The opprobrium came from their own community. Maulana’s critics have been silent since he passed away.
Muslims would not be seen to be criticising the dead—particularly those who have recently passed away. Still, one can be sure that Maulana’s critics will be thinking that the praise of Maulana that has come from high circles has only come about due to his unflinching support of the ruling and predominantly Hindu nationalist BJP, both now, and when the party was in government in the early 1990s.
Knowing Maulana, and being familiar with him and his mission since the early 1980s, I would say this: Maulana Wahiduddin Khan was supportive, not just of the BJP, but of every government in India. This was not because he was political: it was because he was apolitical. It was because he did not wish to ruffle feathers, or create barriers in the path of his real mission, which was to transmit in a congenial environment the true teachings of Islam.
The Padma Vibhushan was not the first award bestowed on him by the Indian government. In 2010, he received the Rajiv Gandhi National Sadbhavana—Peace—Award. That award was instituted by a Congress government, in person by the Congress president, Rajiv Gandhi’s widow Sonia Gandhi.
It was among Muslims that Maulana Wahiduddin Khan divided opinion. His Hindu and indeed his non-Muslim countrymen in general—secular and Hindu nationalist alike—were united in their admiration of him. And they were the ones whom Maulana had in his sights, whom he wished to help have a better understanding—and a better opinion—of Islam. He was not preaching to the converted.
It was not because of Maulana’s politics that tributes to him, and sadness at his passing, have come from the President and the Prime Minister of India—along with countless others. The universal acclaim that has followed his death should rather be seen as a vindication of his peaceful and positive approach.
J.M.Butt, the only European to ever graduate from Darul Uloom Deoband, is the author of A Talib’s Tale: the Life and Times of a Pashtoon Englishman, published by Penguin India.