Radically Nonviolent Islam?
Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his Muslim Army of Peace
Since August 31 of this year, the US military has conducted 9 reported cross-border attacks in Pakistan in its ongoing mission to crush the Taliban, Al Qaeda and their allied terrorist organizations. These groups have, according to US intelligence sources, 157 training camps in the tribal areas and the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan.
Is it possible for us to imagine that, in this area of the world which has come to be associated with radical Islam, terrorism, global jihad, disregard for the rights of women and lack of decent education for children, there was once a nonviolent Muslim army of 100,000 men AND women? An army that promoted social reform and education among its people? An army which faced armed British soldiers with hands devoid of weapons, risking imprisonment and death to communicate the message that British rule of their people and occupation of their land must end? An army led by a man whose ideas of nonviolence rooted in Islam predated his connection with the most famous proponent of nonviolence in the world: Mahatma Gandhi? An army dreamed and recruited into existence by a man who, though he lived for 98 years (dying just 20 years ago in 1988), is little known today even in Pakistan, whose official histories do not mention his name? Is it possible to imagine that this army, along with the millions who joined Mahatma Gandhi in the movement known as satyagraha (soul force), would succeed in expelling from its borders the most powerful empire the world had ever known?
It may be almost impossible to imagine. But it is true. The man’s name was Abdul Ghaffar Khan, and he lived from 1890 until 1988. During his lifetime he became known affectionately as “Badshah” (king) Khan.
Khan was born into a prominent Pashtun family in the Northwest Frontier Province of what was then colonial India. Pashtuns (also known as Pakhtuns and Pathans) are an ethnic group that originates from eastern Iran and make up the majority of the population of eastern Afghanistan and large portions of Pakistan. They are Muslims and are well known for their intense commitment to a traditional code of honor called Pukhtunwali. This code of honor has long been maintained through a tradition of blood revenge for which they have been legendary for centuries. They are a people who have been fiercely resistant to domination by anyone and have fought the British, the Soviets and other occupying forces with ferocity.
Within this culture of blood revenge, under the heavy handed rule of the local British commissioners, and the expansive reach of Queen Victoria’s Pax Britannica, Ghaffar Khan was born the son of a wealthy landowner and village chief and his wife in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP). The British had had enormous difficulty in gaining control over this area of India, but had been determined to succeed. India was the biggest source of wealth for the empire and the Northwest Frontier Province (so named by the British) was the land gateway into India. The defeat of the Province was secured through the burning of villages and the wholesale killing of men, women and children. Because of the strong resistance of the Pashtuns, who were highly skilled in warfare and the use of firearms, the British suffered their worst casualties in securing this small patch of their empire in the mid 1800s.
Once in control, the British maintained it using their famous “divide and rule” strategy: pitting tribes against one another, showing preference to one group, which would result in conflict among tribes and subtribes in the region. Though already prone to violence, this deepened divisions among the Pashtun people. The British colonial rulers discouraged, even disallowed education for the Pashtuns. Though already providing little formal education to their children, and subject to local mullahs who decried education, this policy moved the Pashtuns deeper into illiteracy and ignorance.
Abdul Ghaffar Khan inherited a deep Muslim religiosity from both his parents. His mother in particular spent long periods of time in prayer. His father, as a local community leader, demonstrated resistance to the extremes of the Pashtun code of honor, showing tolerance and encouraging reconciliation in his community rather than blood revenge. This deep faith, concern for the well being of his community, and desire for peace, became the building blocks within Khan of the spiritual leader he would become for more than three fourths of the 20th century.
Khan has been dubbed the “Muslim St. Francis” because, responding to a call from God, he renounced his family’s wealth and position and, as a young adult, became an itinerant advocate of social reform, education, and political freedom among the tribes of the NWFP. He built his first school in 1910 (at age 20) and was to build many more. While treated skeptically and often with hostility by British colonial representatives and Pashtun leaders alike, Khan was welcomed with great affection in local villages where he traveled on foot with his message of encouragement, transformation and peace, all based firmly in his faith in God and the words of the Prophet in the Qur’an. Khan wrote in his 1969 autobiography that “Islam is amal, yakeen, muhabat [work, faith and love].”
A small group of young people who wanted to know how they best respond to Khan’s call for social reform were the catalyst for Khan’s dream to create a nonviolent army, called the Khudai Khidmatgars (KKs), or “the Servants of God,” for the purposes of the “social uplift” of the Pashtun people. Because the social uplift of the people was inextricably linked with the need to be in control of their own destiny, this army was soon to become a movement of political resistance to British rule as well. Though many expressed surprise that a Muslim would subscribe to nonviolence, Ghaffar Khan argued that it was central to the Prophet Muhammad’s approach in Mecca 1400 years previous. Khan called nonviolence the “weapon of the Prophet.”
To recruit, train and develop the “Servants of God,” Khan set up training camps throughout the Northwest Frontier Province, where today can be found camps training suicide bombers. In the camps groups of up to 800 men and women had religious instruction, physical fitness training, and political education. They even learned to spin and grind wheat. Similar to a traditional military, participants wore uniforms, participated in drills, were highly disciplined and had a clear chain of command. They would need as much if not more courage and bravery in their mission as an armed military, for they were soon to face humiliation, beatings, the destruction of their home, jail, even death in promotion of their cause. Each member of the Khudai Khidmatgars took the following oath, which is quoted in D. Tendulkar’s 1967 biography of Ghaffar Khan:
1. I am a servant of God, and as God needs no service, but serving his creation is serving him, I promise to serve humanity in the name of God.
2. I promise to refrain from violence and from taking revenge.
3. I promise to forgive those who oppress me or treat me with cruelty.
4. I promise to refrain from taking part in feuds and quarrels and from creating enmity.
5. I promise to treat every Pathan as my brother and friend.
6. I promise to refrain from antisocial customs and practices.
7. I promise to live a simple life, to practice virtue and to refrain from evil.
8. I promise to practice good manners and good behavior and not to lead a life of idleness.
9. I promise to devote at least two hours a day to social work. I shall expect no reward for my services.
10. I shall be fearless and be prepared for any sacrifice.
After taking this oath and being trained, KK members went back into local communities to build schools, work on development projects, promote hygiene and sanitation, and be an active, peaceful presence in public meetings.
Khan met Gandhi in 1928 and the two men became great friends and partners in a movement to nonviolently remove the British and bring independence to India. Gandhi helped Khan to deepen and expand his understanding of nonviolence not just as a tool for resistance, but as a full way of life. Their relationship was an important sign of the possibility of unity and cooperation between Hindus and Muslims at a time of growing tension. A KK regiment was sent at one point into a Hindu and Sikh community to protect it from violent attacks by Muslims. Khan and Gandhi traveled many places together and spoke and prayed at many events alongside one another. Khan and Gandhi were both opposed to the movement favoring the creation of Pakistan, which was to be a Muslim state, believing that unity among people of all faiths in one nation was possible, even preferable. This, along with his commitment to nonviolence and ongoing efforts to promote human rights in the new country of Pakistan, resulted in Khan being persecuted, jailed for years at a time, and placed under house arrest by the Pakistani government after independence. He eventually went into voluntary exile in Afghanistan.
Khan himself spent over 15 years in British jails in India during his lifetime, often in solitary confinement and usually without a trial. Amidst the intense repression of the KK’s by the colonial leadership, which included cases of the British military firing on unarmed gatherings of the KKs and mass killings, not once did a member of the Servants of God use a weapon in response.
“Badshah” Khan died on January 20, 1988 at the age of 98. Thousands of mourners walked 70 miles over the Khyber Pass, accompanying his coffin to Islamabad, where he was buried.
It is truly a sad fact that this man of faith and courage, commitment to humanity and peace has slipped into obscurity. No. It is more than a sad fact. It is a tragedy. The person and the spirit of Abdul Ghaffar Khan has far too much to offer our world today to be left in such obscurity. First, he is a great spiritual mentor for Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus alike. He held strongly and deeply to his own tradition while showing honor and appreciation for others. He took the tenets of his faith and made them real in his actions. He gained strength, hope and encouragement through prayer and meditation. The oath that he and the Servants of God took is a great testimony to faith in action.
Khan’s movement, along with that of Gandhi, is yet another example of the power of nonviolence, and we can never have enough of these. It has been said that war is so much more compelling than peace. Khan’s creation of the KK army provided the opportunity for people to participate in a peace movement that could be just as compelling as war, a movement that would require as much courage, camaraderie and passion.
The Khudai Khidmatgars, 100,000 strong at their peak, are a potent challenge to the prevailing view of so many that Islam is inherently a violent faith. Khan’s primary teaching text was the Qur’an, and his model of faith was the Prophet Muhammad. Can Christians claim that there was ever such a Christian army, as much as we claim that the founder of our faith taught love, peace and forgiveness?
Finally, the life and work of Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the Khudai Khidmatgars offers us an extraordinary model for political and social activism. Khan’s movement had strength and integrity from the beginning because he led by example. He owned little, he prayed a lot, and he expected no sacrifice from others that he was not willing to make himself. He began by focusing on the people at the bottom and on the outside and worked to empower them and to convince them that they could improve their own lives. By asking the KK members to commit to 2 hours of social service every day, he sent two powerful messages to the people: that the British were not the only force that was keeping the Pashtuns impoverished, uneducated and embroiled in violence, and that changing themselves was the starting point for changing their situation of oppression. Being empowered to serve others meant they no longer needed to be victims. It is important, however, that they added to this self-help paradigm the political activism that allowed them to participate in the overturning of British rule in their land. As long as someone else controlled their land and their future, they would never be able to fully realize their potential as Servants of God.
Whoever coined the phrase “radical Islam” and associated it with the intentional slaughter of innocent human beings, has unfortunately led us to a place in which a deeply rooted commitment to Islam is viewed as contrary to a spirit of reconciliation and peace. Could lifting up Abdul Ghaffar Khan as a spiritual mentor, passionate peacemaker, and humble servant of God help us all reshape our ideas of what “radical Islam” truly is?
Easwaran, E. (1984) Nonviolent Soldier of Islam: Badshah Khan, A Man to Match His Mountains. Tomales, California: Nilgiri Press.
Johansen, R. (1997) Radical Islam and Nonviolence: A Case Study of Religious Empowerment and Constraint among Pashtuns. Journal of Peace Research, 34(1): p.53-71. URL http://jpr.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/34/1/53
Lynch, D. (2005) Structure, chance and choice for Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the Khudai Khidmatgars. http://www.asianreflection.com