With the coming of age of a non-violent reading of Muslim historical and political experiences, it is now clear that earlier understanding of the Muslim public sphere as a culturally threatening issue can no longer be a theoretical starting point for thinking the relation between Islam and democracy. Then the real question becomes: Do non-violent methods work in the Islamic context? There is no moral or political reason that Islamic society could not take a lead in developing non-violence today and there is every reason that most of them should. In promoting the paradigm of non-violence in Islam, Muslims can look back to the contemporary examples of leaders like Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad who through their rejection of violence and revenge and their readiness to live, cooperate, and construct with non-Muslims bequeathed a valuable legacy to our violent times. This legacy may be of a great help in the task of overcoming divides between secular and religious citizens in the Muslim world, but also in the making of a deliberative and empathic Muslim public sphere. Many consider Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan as a Pashtun nationalist, rather than as a proponent of non-violent Islam. Ghaffar Khan started forming his philosophy of non-violence before he came into contact with Gandhi. His non-violent action drew its inspiration from the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad, in contrast to Gandhi, whose ideals were largely inspired by the Bhagavad Gita, the New Testament and the writings of Thoreau, Ruskin, and Tolstoy. Abdul Ghaffar Khan used to say: ‘I did not learn secularism from Bapu. I found it in the Qur’an.’17 As such, Ghaffar Khan dominated the political scene of Indian struggle for independence and freedom at a crucial time which coincided with the Gandhian era of Satyagraha. Truth, love, and service were central to Ghaffar Khan’s conception of a spiritualized public sphere, where each faith would play an important role. Therefore, a very significant aspect of his thought and action was to bring about Hindu–Muslim unity. That is why he was firmly opposed to the creation of Pakistan, as a homeland for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. On this as on many other issues, he shared the vision of Maulana Azad to build an India in which ethnic identities would flourish. Both the leaders interpreted and practiced Islam as a religion of ‘patience’ (Sabr) and ‘mutual toleration’.
Azad, like Ghaffar Khan, was a passionate advocate of tolerance as one of the basic values of life and deeply believed in the essential similarity of the main teachings of all great religions. For him the real goal of religion was not to divide but to unite. The unity of religions as interpreted by Maulana Azad, is not the identity of religions, nor uniformity in beliefs. Religions, for Azad, are different roads converging on the same goal. That is to say, the same fundamental truths have been revealed by God in different scriptures, in different languages, through different prophets and in different nations. Therefore, as Azad says in his Tarjuman-ul-Quran: ‘It is not proper to consider these differences as the yardstick for truth and falsehood.’18 In fact, Azad distinguishes between ‘Din’ and ‘Shariah’. According to Azad ‘Shariah’ may differ from people to people, depending on time and place and modes of living in differing conditions, but ‘Din’, which is essence of religion or faith, is one among all. In other words, Azad’s questioning (which is also that of Ghaffar Khan) is that if religion expresses a universal truth, why should there be differences and conflicts among those professing different religions? By saying this, Azad defines ‘secularism’ not as a lack of religion and spirituality in the public sphere, but as equal respect for all religions. This approach criticizes a mono-religious or a mono-secular public sphere. So in his pluralist approach, Azad invites Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Parsees, and Christians, to live together in an enlightened climate of understanding, tolerance, amity, mutual respect and regard for each other.
That was also the dream of Mahatma Gandhi. For both of them, the real challenge was to ensure that the secular public sphere could uphold the constitutional rights for all religious minorities. In the mind of Muslim Gandhis like Ghaffar Khan and Maulana Azad, a secular public sphere meant separation of religion from the political, economic, cultural, and social aspects of life, and its being treated as a purely personal matter. It meant dissociation of the state from religion. It meant full freedom and respect for all religions. It meant equal opportunities for followers of all religions and no discrimination on the grounds of religion. Most of all, it meant firm opposition to communalism of all kinds. In the current context of Islam, it is this aspect of secularism that is most critical. The real battleground for a pluralist and non-violent Muslim public sphere is an engagement-influenced tolerance, a tolerance that is born out of constant communication and interaction between the secular and the religious. It is actually a struggle between those who wish to preserve the essence of their religious beliefs and those who seek to deliberately distort that essence into a theocratic element. To create and preserve political pluralism in Islamic societies, it is important for Muslims to learn from the experience of Muslim nonviolent thinkers and activists like Ghaffar Khan and Maulana Azad even though their experience is far from perfect. Non-violent Islam could give a new turn to secularism in Muslim societies. It could help the Muslim public sphere to be away from institutionalized religion, its theoretical formulations, and its unlived utopias. It is in such a context that secularism should be re-conceptualized, not as a principle of absolute separation between the Muslim public sphere and religion, but as a principle of even-handed treatment by the Muslim public sphere of all religions.