May 5, 2014 By Interactive scholars

Non-violence: Islamic vis-à-vis the Gandhian


Does Gandhiji’s non-violence have any radical significance in the modern age? Does Islamic position on the struggle for justice, epitomized in the concept of jihad, support non-violent agitation? In the age of terrorism, which is unpredictable and exponential both in its state and anti-state manifestations, what can be a more ethical response to torture than non-violence?

Gandhi’s postulate on non-violence, which he termed ahimsa, has been approved as a viable radical action by many contemporary commentators. One of the important parallels that Gandhi’s non-violence has with other political movements is its effect on the anti-apartheid struggles in Africa. Read the article (…) about the parallelism and difference between Gandhi’s and Mandela’s approaches on non-violent resistance. Steve Biko, another anti-apartheid leader who was more radical than Mandela and was influenced by Frantz Fanon, was also influenced by Gandhi. Biko has enunciated the difference between the phase 1 and phase 2 of liberation, which is Psychological liberation (Conscientization)’’ and ‘‘Physical liberation’’ respectively. At the physical level, Biko believed that, ‘To publicly advocate violence as a means of political liberation would have been suicidal, for it would inevitably have invited the wrath of the apartheid regime and therefore defeated their purpose.’ However at the personal or individual level, ‘Biko certainly did not subscribe to the pacifist principle. He seems to have long understood Fanon’s view that, at an individual level, violence is a cleansing force which frees the colonized individual from inferiority complex, despair, inaction, and fear.’ (A Companion to African Philosophy, KwasiWiredu, Blackwell Publishing, P: 214)

We think this is radically a different position from Gandhi’s. There is innumerable difference in Gandhi’s literature to point out that only people who have mastered cowardice, inferiority complex, fear and despair are fit for non-violent struggle. He says, for example, ‘even if we believe in non-violence, it would not be proper for us refuse, through cowardice, to protect the weak. I might be ready to embrace a snake, but if it comes to bite you, I would kill it to protect you.’ (The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi, Orient Publishing (Imprint of Orient Paperbacks)-page 30). Whereas Biko believed in the superfluousness of violence as a political action aimed to achieve liberation, Gandhi believed in the cultivation of a nonviolent atman(in contrast to psychological liberation of Fanon and Biko) which guides our actions, including non-co-operation and non-violence. The difference between them is not so big that such an astute observer of African politics and identity as Mahmood Mamdani says: ‘If the contribution of Biko evokes a parallel, it is with that of Gandhi. Like Gandhi, Biko led by example, and fearlessly too. Unlike that of Gandhi, however, the life of Biko was cut short at a young age. But even that short life, like that of Gandhi, was testimony to the power of an idea.’ (Mahmood Mamdani, Address on Receiving an Honorary Doctorate at the University of Kwazulu Natal, 24 April, 2012)
Gandhi’s sourcebook of ethics is Bhagavd Gita. Gita is premised on Krishna’s moral insistence to Arjuna on the etiquettes of battle and the ethical framework that a fighter must develop. How can non-violence be congruent to this? This question was posed to Gandhi by many of his contemporaries, including Savarkar, about which Gandhi says: ‘When I was in London, I had talks with many revolutionaries. Shyamji Krishnavarma, Savarkar and others used to tell me that the Gita and Ramayana taught quite opposite of what I said they did.’ (The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi, Orient Publishing (Imprint of Orient Paperbacks)-page 28). Gandhi tries to resolve the contradiction between his insistence on nonviolence and the message of Gita, by interpreting the historical battle (played metaphorically or ‘pretextually’ in battlefield of Kurukshetra) as a psychological battle which is waged in the mind of an individual between good and evil. ‘In the Gita, the author has cleverly made use of the event to teach great truths…The very nature of dharma is such that one may easily fall into error if one is not vigilant.’

He resolves the difference between his postulates on non-violence and Krishna’s injunctions on ethical warfare in the following manner: ‘Arjuna has resolved to kill. It was not right, then, that he should shrink from killing particular individuals. His motives to kill should not be selfish.’ (Ibidi page 30). ‘The first thing to bear in mind is that Arjuna falls into the error of making a distinction between kinsmen and outsiders. Outsiders may be killed even if they are not oppressors, and kinsmen may not be killed even if they are not right. The gita Gita says, ‘No this is not right. We have no right to point an accusing finger at others. We should point out the lapses of our own people first.’ (Page 29-30)

However, Gandhi often goes beyond considering fight and killing merely as context and pretext for the enunciation of the internal struggles of man between good and evil. He dialectically analyses war as ‘text’, when he says that Arjuna must fight because ‘Arjuna’s laying down of arms would mean the annihilation of all those on his side.’ (Ibid page 30)

Gandhi’s focus on ethical consciousness and the moral courage associated with it radically prevents us from interpreting non-violence merely as a meek surrender. He has said that ‘where choice is set between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence… I prefer to use arms in defense of honor
rather than remain the vile witness of dishonor.’ While we agree that Gandhi’s emphasis on the vigilance of atman which creates non-violent consciousness is radical and, of course, the need of the hour, we can’t fully agree with the downplaying of the context or pretext of the battlefield.
According to the Quran, a non-violent society goes in accord with the divine plan of creation. The Quran says: ‘when your Lord said to the angels, “Indeed, I will make upon the earth a successive authority.” They said, “Will You place upon it one who causes corruption therein and sheds blood, while we declare Your praise and sanctify You?” Allah said, “Indeed, I know that which you do not know.” (2:30). In a battlefield, which come to exist as an exigency, the fighter must be conscious of the sanctity of life which the God made sanctified in the same way the angels declare God’s praise and sanctify Him. That is why fighting is recommended as a retaliatory measure and after all alternatives are used up. The Quranic philosophy of fighting is underlined in another verse: ‘Fighting therein is great [sin], but averting [people] from the way of Allah and disbelief in Him and [preventing access to] al-Masjid al-haram and the expulsion of its people therefrom are greater [evil] in the sight of Allah.’ (2:217). Fighting in itself is not a good course of action, it is a deterrent against worse evils like outrage, aggression and despotism. The Prophetic hadith on jihad al akbar stresses upon the development of inner consciousness, vigilance of mind, equanimity and moral courage in the post-war context. Commenting on the Prophetic stress on
the greater jihad (jihad against one’s self) vis-à-vis the lesser jihad (from whose ravages the Prophet and his team were returning, Shaykh Hisham Kabbani, prominent Lebanese-American Sufi, said: Jihad al Akbar means The jihad against the ego, the jihad against desires, the jihad against the devil, and the jihad against the lower world (jihad al-nafswa jihad al-hawawa jihad al-shaytanwa jihad al-dunya). Whoever struggles against these four, Allah will guide them to the ways of His good pleasure which lead to His Paradise, and whoever leaves jihad, then he leaves guidance in proportion to his leaving jihad. One can see that this position is not dissimilar to Gandhi’s stress upon the development of atman.
Gandhi was quite selective in offering sympathy to the violence (violence from which one can’t conscientiously flee like Arjuna). He attacked Mappila rebellion of 1921, of which most historians in Kerala have a sympathetic evaluation, as mopla Mopla madness (link). There are instances where nonviolence can’t be adopted as a sane political action. If the state is extremely violent, adopting untold repressive measures-in fact none has advised the state to be non-violent, since the mechanism of state or the state apparatus is built upon the violence and silence it routinely inflicts upon people – one can’t be advised to turn his other cheek. Israel is a case in point.

Biko once reported. ‘‘Some guy tried to clout me with a club. I went into him like a bull’’. On another occasion Biko recounts how he reacted on being slapped hard across the face by a security policeman: ‘‘I hit him right against the wall,’’ he said; ‘‘bust his false teeth’’. (A Companion to African Philosophy, KwasiWiredu, Blackwell Publishing, P: 214). Such a situation, where you are forced to respond to the violence in public space might not have occurred to Gandhi who was under the protection of an entourage and of a sympathetic (in the case of the Congress) or at least apathetic (in the case of the British) state machinery. He has never been on the other side of the repressive state, being lucky enough to go for negotiations with them in the round table conferences. That is the reason why Henna Arendt made the following comment on Gandhi: ‘If Gandhi’s enormously powerful and successful strategy of nonviolent resistance had met with a different enemy – Stalin’ s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, even prewar Japan, instead of England – the outcome would not have been decolonization, but massacre and submission.’ Gandhi seems to have been so much under the care of the state and his disciples that he could interpret violence as mere realpolitik and non-violence as the ideal to attain. There are people, Dalits in India for example, who are so much reeling under the pressure of violence, in fact the immediate victim of violence, that they have no leeway to philosophize their suffering.
The emphasis on moral conscience which makes non-violence a preferable category does have, however, relevance in the era of terror unleashed by the perverts of Al Qaeda. The stress upon non-violent commune is much more significant when we envisage a post-revolutionary or post-war social order.

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