Volume 1 Number 12
Understanding the Muslim Mind By Rajmohan Gandhi
01 August 1988

Gandhi has provided a splendid tour de force of aspects of Muslim, mainly political, thinking during a crucial period of the sub-continent's history.

Intelligently conceived, admirably argued, and elegantly presented, Rajmohan Gandhi's Understanding the Muslim Mind is one of the more significant books to appear in recent years on the subject in the Indian context. It is in a sense a personal attempt to understand the Hindu-Muslim question, `which has broken hopes, hearts and India's unity', and has been undertaken with the hope that it might `inform us of times when the other side too was large-hearted, and of other times when our side also was small-minded'. This is certainly a laudable exercise, which should create a better climate for mutual respect and understanding. The cause of bridge-building could hardly have found a more eloquent advocate, with such an impeccable pedigree, as Rajmohan Gandhi.

Gandhi has attempted to give an inkling of the Muslim mind in the sub-continent through pen-sketches of eight leading personalities-Sir Syed (1817-1898), Muhammad Iqbal (1876 - 1938), Muhammad Ali (1878 - 1931), M A Jinnah (1876 - 1948), Fazlul Haq (1873 -1962), Abul Kalam Azad (1888 -1958), Liaqat Ali Khan (1895 -1951) and Zakir Husain (1877 - 1969). Carefully chosen, these individuals represent important currents in Muslim thinking and politics.

Through skilful and often brilliant portrayals of these main actors, perceptive insights into the characters of those with whom they interacted, acute analysis of the wider milieu, interesting anecdotes, abundant sympathy and gentle reproach, Gandhi has provided a splendid tour de force of aspects of Muslim, mainly political, thinking during a crucial period of the sub-continent's history. Inasmuch as this story is narrated against the backdrop of interaction with the Hindus it also provides insights, albeit indirectly, into the Hindu mind.

Causes of amity
With considerable skill, Gandhi has covered much ground in a short book. Inevitably, however, it has led to some generalizations, and often an excessive reliance on secondary literature. In places, this dependence on modern writers with quite obvious contemporary concerns often projects a harmony or a discord which need not necessarily have existed at the time in question.

The causes of Hindu-Muslim amity within India and of inter-state understanding in the sub-continent are important. However the book is too ambitious in trying to create the climate for both simultaneously. Historically the two have had interconnections but at another level they are also independent, and often the mixing of the two creates confusion. In modern India, for instance, the question of Hindu-Muslim relations has increasingly attained an autonomy of its own which is quite distinct and should be dissociated from the context of inter-state relationships.

In the introductory chapter, Gandhi almost inadvertently uses the political discourse of the period to judge the institutions of medieval times. While acknowledging that Muslim rule in India did not provide the lesson for a state faith he nevertheless goes on to suggest that sharing of political power was outside the experience of Muslims. Medieval rulers based their claims on birth and race, not popular will, but sharing was not an alien concept.

Gandhi makes useful observations, however, about the unity of the ethnic origins of Hindus and Muslims; common bases of their languages; nature of conversion to Islam and cultural syncretism. He also cites numerous examples of camaraderie and close personal friendship between devout Muslims and Hindus.
Despite being affected in places by secondary writings, Gandhi provides an interesting analysis of the life of Sir Syed (who founded Aligarh Muslim University). The author would have done well to balance the views of Aligarh's critics with those of someone like Sir Hamilton Gibb, who regarded it as the first modernist institution in the Islamic world.

Muhammad Iqbal's contact with the West and with influences such as Nietzsche are adequately discussed. But, as in the case of Sir Syed, the influences on him from within the Islamic tradition, such as the Qur'an and the poetry of the Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Rumi, do not find enough mention. Iqbal's criticism of mysticism is selective, not a total denunciation of the Sufi path. An awareness of this helps to reconcile some of the contradictions that Gandhi finds in Iqbal. An Islamic paradigm is essential in order to understand Iqbal's thought. It reconciles the concept of man's viceregency of God with his being a mere particle of dust; shows how strong personalities need not necessarily be hurtful of others; how development of the self is inextricably linked with the development of the wider world; explains why the immutability of the parameters of the Islamic law led Iqbal to oscillate between daring and hesitation in his advocacy of reform. The suggestion that Islam, which means submission and surrender, is lauded by Iqbal in relation to women not men, though based on a misconception, is nonetheless novel.

Through colourful vignettes, Gandhi takes us through nearly 50 years of political history. Muhammad Ali's forceful personality and his passionate commitment to the cause of the Caliphate; Jinnah's integrity and honesty; Fazlul Haq's warmth and flexibility; Azad's erudition and oratory; Liaquat's organizational ability and Zakir Husain's gentleness and catholicity are all brought out. There are apt comparisons made between Jinnah on the one hand and Gandhi, Fazlul Haq and Azad on the other.

This study raises important questions and once again identifies landmarks in a saga of politics in which culture, religion, nationalism and personal ambitions all play a part. The withdrawal of non-cooperation by Gandhi in 1922, Jinnah's proposals, the Nehru report, Congress-League discussions on power-sharing in 1937 and the Cabinet Mission Plan are important might-havebeens in the history of this period. Gandhi brings out the ambivalences on either side at some of these important junctures, shows how counter-productive the use of religious symbolism could be and recounts a tale of innumerable missed opportunities.

Why separatists?
None of the eight discussed at any point were lukewarm in their personal commitment to Hindu-Muslim unity. None of them started out as separatists, but a majority ended up as such. One wonders why? Gandhi blames the arrogance and partisanship of the Congress and the League, personality conflicts, sectionalism, use of religious symbolism etc. He reminds us about the need for a national non-religious idiom to be developed in India which should tolerate the other man's religious idiom. Given the historical and demographic configurations of the Hindu-Muslim presence in the sub-continent, Gandhi wisely counsels both the communities to live amicably together and the respective countries to learn to co-exist in peace and friendship.

This book represents a trend and an approach which should be encouraged. A natural sequel would be to study eight Hindu lives, and who would be more eligible to do that than Rajmohan Gandhi himself?

Dr Farhan Ahmed Nizami is Director of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. `Understanding the Muslim Mind' was originally published in 1986 by Roli Books International, Delhi, and by the State University of New York Press under the title `Eight Lives: a study of the Hindu-Muslim encounter'.

Unless stated otherwise, all content on this site falls under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence 3.0