It’s Time to Recollect Mahatma Gandhi’s Views on Namaz

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Mahatma Gandhi ensured that nothing stood in the way from preventing Muslims from offering namaz. He believed that preventing it was against the Sarva Dharma Sama Bhava, the foundational pillar of secularism enshrined in our Constitution.

By S.N Sahu

People offer namaz on the first Friday of the holy month ramzan, Eqra Masjid, Ranchi, May 18, 2018In his February 29, 1920 article Hindu Muslim Unity, Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “My dream is that a Vaishnava , with a mark on his forehead and a bead necklace, or an ash-smeared Hindu with a rudraksha necklace, ever so punctilious in his sandhya and ablutions, and a pious Muslim saying his namaz regularly can live as brothers. God willing, the dream will be realised”.
The prevention of Muslims from offering namaz in public places by some groups in Gurugram recently goes against Gandhi’s vision. It imperils the ideal of Sarva Dharma Sama Bhava, the foundational pillar of secularism enshrined in our Constitution. It is tragic that some forces are trying to shatter Gandhi’s dream in the name of Hinduism, which Gandhi said is no narrow creed but a grand evolutionary process encompassing in its scope the ideals of Jesus, Muhammad and Zoroaster.
The forthcoming 150th birth anniversary celebrations of Mahatma Gandhi should make us more aware of his legacy. In My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi recollects how in the Tolstoy Farm he established in South Africa during his first satyagraha, the Muslims freely followed their religion and offered their daily namaz without any hindrance.
Gandhi juxtaposed forms of prayer associated with all faiths and underlined their essential unity and linked them to the performance of one’s duty. On this he wrote, “There can be no greater mistake than to suppose that the recitation of the gayatri, the namaz or the Christian prayer are superstitions fit to be practised by the ignorant and the credulous”. He adds, “Fasting and prayer… are a most powerful process of purification and that which purifies necessarily enables us the better to do our duty and to attain our goal.” Therefore, in preventing Muslims from offering namaz, attempts are being made to prevent them to purify themselves and perform their duties as citizens.
Gandhi refused to construct a temple in Sabarmati Ashram and place an idol there in spite of the request of Meera Ben to do so. He believed that the open space was his prayer hall, the ceiling of which was the sky and the four sides (east, west, north and south) constituted its four walls. He explained that prayer offered in such a hall could transcend the barriers of faith, caste, language and nationality.
While participating in numerous open air prayer meetings across India and speaking on such occasions, Gandhi used to stop at the scheduled time meant for Muslim participants to offer namaz and resume his speech after that. On one occasion while addressing a prayer meeting on November 16, 1946, he stopped for the Muslim participants to offer namaz and when pin drop silence was not being observed, he chided those causing disturbance and observed, “Culture and good breeding required that they should observe silence when others said their prayer.”
It is fascinating to note that Gandhi understood namaz not only as a form of prayer but also as a form of exercise and it was evident from his observation in 1921 that, “One gets exercise through namaz.” In 1946 while addressing a prayer meeting in Delhi, he told that someone sent him a book describing how namaz should be offered and he found a sentence in it to the effect that prayer offered in congregation was 27 times as effective as prayer said by oneself. He then observed that if they all joined in the prayer whole-heartedly and methodically it would transform the atmosphere and riots in Delhi would become an impossibility.
To uphold the cause of Sarva Dharma Sama Bhava, Gandhi’s thoughts on namaz are of abiding significance.
(S N Sahu is former OSD and press secretary to President of India K.R Narayanan. The views expressed are personal).