Pashtun freedom fighter Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan

Islam's forgotten "Gandhi"

Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan was the founder of the world’s first professional non-violent army. Here in the West, the Islamic Gandhi is little known – but today his legacy is more relevant than ever. A portrait of the Pashtun "Badshah Khan" by Marian Brehmer

In September 2009, Hillary Clinton invited guests to the U.S. foreign ministry for Iftar, and in her address to the people assembled there she quoted a man who is almost unknown in the West. We must, Clinton explained, "be inspired by our leaders to fight poverty, injustice and hatred with the weapon of the Prophet: patience and righteousness."

The quote about the Prophet came from a Pashtun freedom fighter named Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who died thirty years ago in Peshawar, Pakistan. Alongside Mahatma Gandhi, Khan was one of the most important figures of the Indian struggle for independence against the British. His unshakeable belief in the principle of non-violence in mobilising the Pashtun population on the border earned Khan the epithet "Frontier Gandhi".

While Khan is still well-known in India and Pakistan - his face pops up in most Gandhi exhibitions – in the wider world, people now know little about this man who devoted his life to peaceful resistance against the British. Khan has all but disappeared into the shadow of Mahatma Gandhi.

Early on in his life, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan committed himself to social transformation in the Pashtun provinces, which as part of British India were under the control of the English colonial regiment. At the age of 20, Khan founded a school near Peshawar. He himself had been denied secondary education. Khan soon joined a Pashtun resistance movement, though this was quickly crushed by the British. In the years that followed, Khan travelled around 500 Pashtun villages to promote unity among the Pashtun people there. For his tireless activism, he was given the nickname "Badshah Khan" (king of the tribal leaders).

A spiritual affinity with Mahatma Gandhi

Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (source: DW)
Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan: "I am a believer in non-violence and I say that no peace or tranquillity will de-scend upon the people of the world until non-violence is practiced, because non-violence is love and it stirs courage in people"

In 1928, Khan met Mahatma Gandhi for the first time and joined the Indian National Congress, the leading movement in the Indian struggle for independence. The Mahatma’s ideals of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience, which he did not just preach but lived fully, made a deep impression on Khan. The two men formed a deep alliance that became a symbol of the subcontinent's religious pluralism. The Muslim didn’t just seek political counsel from Gandhi; he also wanted to be spiritually close to the man who was Hindu by birth.

Even from a purely visual point of view, this was a surprising friendship: at nearly six feet tall and weighing in at over a hundred kilos, Khan stood head and shoulders above the slight figure of Gandhi.

For Khan, the Mahatma’s philosophy was the most important source of inspiration for the change he wanted to bring to Pashtun society; a society that for centuries had been characterised by oppression, violence, inner and outer conflicts. The greatest obstacle in Khan's activism lay not in opposition from the British, but in the prevailing mindset of his own countrymen: life in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent was shaped by entrenched tribal thinking, revenge and an archaic concept of honour that often led to blood feuds between families.

In his book "Nonviolent Soldier of Islam", the Indian philosopher Eknath Easwaran describes Khan and his uncomfortable message to the Pashtuns as follows: "No one felt these contradictions [in Pashtun society] more strongly than Badshah Khan and no-one was more aware of the price Pashtuns were paying for their infatuation with violence. They had been dispossessed of their freedom, he held, only because of their own self-destructive tendencies."

Given the magnitude of the challenge with which Khan was faced, what he achieved in his lifetime is impressive and unparalleled to this day: in 1929, Khan founded the Khudayi Khidmatgar ("Servants of God") movement, which was joined by more than 100,000 Pashtuns. Armed with the "weapons" of the Prophet – patience and righteousness – Khan made the members of Khudayi Khidmatgar swear to remain completely non-violent in their struggle against the British. The Pashtun movement thus grew to become the world’s first professional non-violent army. Before being admitted, aspiring members of the Khudayi Khidmatgar had to swear an oath to serve humanity, forgive his oppressors and undertake two hours of social work every day.

The Qissa Khwani Bazaar massacre in Peshawar on 23 April 1930, in which the British shot around 250 unarmed men from the Khudayi Khidmatgar, was the hardest test for Khan’s movement. Despite the colonial power’s extreme violence, Khan's men still refused to take up arms. The British were blindsided by the Pashtuns' nonviolence. The massacre gave an important momentum to the Indian struggle for independence and caused consternation across the entire subcontinent. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan later wrote: "The British feared a nonviolent Pashtun more than a violent one. All the horrors the British perpetrated on the Pashtuns had only one purpose: to provoke them to violence."

Pioneering pacifism based on Islam

Now more than ever Khan’s pacifism, which was entirely based in the values of Islam, shows us the way forward in many respects. Based on Islamic principles such as universal brotherhood and commitment and service to God through serving his creatures, Khan not only brought profound transformation to a society that was hooked on violence, but made a decisive contribution to the success of the struggle for Indian independence.

This makes the second half of Khan’s life after Indian independence – and the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 – all the more tragic. As the leader of a Pashtun opposition party, the "Pakistan Azad Party", the "Badshah" spent many years incarcerated in Pakistani prisons. Khan described the treatment he received at the hands of the authorities in the newly-created country of Pakistan as worse than that meted out by the British to their prisoners. Amnesty International also drew attention to Khan’s imprisonment in the sixties.

During the years of the military government in the 1960s, Khan spent six years in Afghan exile in the city of Jalalabad. In 1984 he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Four years later, Khan died while under house arrest in Peshawar, at the age of 97. In order to allow a funeral to take place in his house in Jalalabad, the warring parties in the Soviet-Afghan War agreed a brief ceasefire. Tens of thousands of people crossed the Khyber Pass from Pakistan to attend Khan's funeral.

It seems that even in death, Khan managed to bring about peace, at least for a few days. But Afghanistan would soon slide into a bloody civil war in which the Pashtuns and Pakistan played leading roles. Khan's words from 1985 have lost none of their currency to this day: "Today’s world is travelling in some strange direction. You see that the world is going toward destruction and violence. And the speciality of violence is to create hatred among people and fear. I am a believer in non-violence and I say that no peace or tranquillity will descend upon the people of the world until non-violence is practiced, because non-violence is love and it stirs courage in people."

Especially in an age when Islam is primarily associated with violence, it is wise to engage with Khan's ideals – as a shining example of how, in the right hands, Islam can become a force for positive change. The philosopher Easwaran says of Khan: "Were his example better known, the world might come to recognize that the highest religious values of Islam are deeply compatible with a nonviolence that has the power to resolve conflicts even against heavy odds."

Hillary Clinton, at least, made an excellent choice by quoting Khan during Ramadan in 2009.

Marian Brehmer

© 2018

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

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