If history's responsibility is to capture the life and achievements of great leaders and store the wisdom of the eras in its annals, it has failed in celebrating the story of an Islamic peacemaker called Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890-1988). He's undoubtedly the most overlooked Muslim nonviolence leader that the world must know; Khan's historic accomplishments exemplify the peaceful and nonviolent teachings of Prophet Mohammed. Very few know of Khan in his native region of today's Pakistan or Afghanistan; He's relatively better known in India as "Frontier Gandhi" because of his close association with Gandhi in India's nonviolent struggle for independence. Fitting as that is, our best tribute to Khan is to understand his merit and message in the unique context of the Pushtun's cause.Khan voluntarily took on the task of transforming the violent Pushtuns into a nonviolent peace brigade. With love, he influenced them to change their vengeful and hostile tendencies and get rid of their inner negative qualities. At the same time, he led the Pushtuns in a nonviolent and peaceful struggle in opposing the barbaric rule of the British empire. On hearing about this genius display of nonviolence of the brave, Gandhi remarked,"That such men who would have killed a human being with no more thought than they would kill a sheep or hen should at the bidding of one man have laid down their arms and accepted nonviolence as the superior weapon sounds almost like a fairy tale."Like Mother Theresa who served the poor and the destitute, Khan sacrificed his life for the betterment of these Pushtuns written off as incapable and unworthy of change. First of the kind in recorded history, the nonviolent "Khudai Khidmatgars" (Servants of God) stood tall with dignity taking the blows and not returning them, much to everyone's awe. The unfortunate events of the last 30 years (Soviet occupation of the 1970s and 80s, the Al Queda terrorist camps in Afghanistan, the Taliban rule, and the 2001 war on terror) and politics have obscured Khan's legacy of nonviolence. Amnesty International drew attention by recognizing Khan as the "Prisoner of the Year" in 1962; Khan was given the "Jewel of India" award for his commitment to nonviolence. Khan's life and works are based on the universal values of love, faith, and service to humanity and his legacy is beyond regional and Islamic boundaries. The world needs to recognize Khan's contributions to nonviolence and acknowledge his place with the other legends like Mahatma Gandhi of Hinduism and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., of Christianity. Eknath Easwaran, in his book on Khan entitled "Nonviolent Soldier of Islam" summarizes Khan's contributions as follows:"It is only a matter of time before his (Khan's) special light will begin to shine in many corners of the earth. For his contribution to the legacy of nonviolence has special significance today, when so many countries of the Islamic world are torn by violence. Just as Gandhi reminded Indians of their long-forgotten legacy of truth and nonviolence, it has been given to Badshah Khan to perform the same great service for Islam. His life is a perfect mirror of the profound values of love, faith, and selfless service embedded in Islam since its inception. His nonviolent "army of God" stands as a beacon to all Muslims who seek an alternative to the self-destructive violence of our times."
History of the Northwest Frontier ProvinceThe history and geography of the Northwest Frontier Province have not been kind to Khan’s cause. Guarding the northwest entry into colonial India (which spanned from today’s Pakistan on the west to Myanmar on the east) was the historic Khyber Pass , only 8-feet wide at the narrowest point and 33-miles long winding through the rugged, snow-clad mountains of the Hindu Kush . Khyber Pass is no ordinary gateway. It is a dangerous and strategic route to India which has witnessed several invasions including Alexander from Greece in 326 B.C.E, Persians, Genghis Khan, Mongols, Mughals , Turks, Scythians, White Huns, among many others. For hundreds of years, the Khyber Pass has also been a trade route bringing luxurious silks, Chinese porcelain, and spices to Middle-east and Europe .Gaurding the famous Khyber Pass was the job of about 2 millions Pushtuns who lived on the mountains. The history of the Pushtuns or “ Pathans ” in this province was violent with frequent guerilla warfare between the Pushtuns and the British forces. The British ruled the Pushtuns with hatred and wrath because the British wanted control of the Khyber Pass since India ’s security was at stake. The Pushtuns , proud warriors that they were, opposed the British at the slightest provocation and were determined to live in freedom without British humiliation. It was a cycle of violence breeding more violence, unrelenting with no end in sight. The British rule in the Province was hardly on a par with the rest of the Indian Provinces. After about 80-odd years of conflict, the British hardened their attitude toward the Pushtuns and adopted a standard code of torturous treatment described by Easwaran :“The British sent scores of expeditions into the Pathans ’ hills, shelled their strongholds, burned (and later bombed) their villages, beat, flogged, and jailed Pathans by the thousands. There were also a series of restrictive laws for the Pushtuns , lists Easwaran,“A man could be “transported” - sent to a foreign penal colony – for life without counsel or trial. Justice was at the hands of the political agent or pro-British landlords called in to hear cases. The most elementary rights extended to Her Majesty’s subjects throughout the Empire were denied the Pathans . All this only confirmed what the Pathans had long suspected: the imperial powers in Delhi and London regarded them as savages.”
Badshah Khan was born in 1890 in Utmanzai, near Peshawar, a prosperous village in colonial India's Northwest Frontier Province. He was a peace loving Pushtun leader who dedicated his life to reforming the people of his Pushtun community who were branded violent and savage during the final years to the British rule in the Indian subcontinent. Khan was educated in Edwardes Missionary School run by Reverand Wigram. Although a devout Muslim his entire life, his life was in sharp contrast to his contemporaries. Education as a means of social advancement remained a dominant theme throughout his life. As a young man, Khan started a school for Pashtun children. Later, he came under the influence of Haji Abdul Wahid Sahib, a social reformer. He also established contacts with other progressive Muslim leaders who urged him to work for the education and upliftment of the Pushtuns.Khan's goal was a united, independent and secular India. To achieve that end, he founded the Khudai Khidmatgars (Servants of God) in 1929. The Khudai Khidmatgars was based on the belief in the power of complete nonviolence. Also known as the "Red Shirts", the organization recruited over 100,000 members and became legendary in opposing at the hands of the British police and army. He worked tirelessly for the rights of his people without ever raising arms because he honestly believed that the upliftment of his people was essential preparation for independence. Khan's calls for social change, fair land distribution, and religious harmony threatened some religious leaders and big landlords. But he didn't let that come in the way of traveling 25 miles in a day, walking village to village, and speaking about social reform and having his Khudai Khidmagars members stage dramas depicting the value of nonviolence. Through strikes, political organization and nonviolent opposition, the Khudai Khidmatgars was able to achieve some success and came to dominate the politics of the Province (now a part of Pakistan) from 1930 until 1947. Khan was a champion of woman's rights and nonviolence and became a hero in a society dominated by violence and machismo. For almost 80 years, Khan never lost faith in his nonviolent methods; in fact he derived the strength and commitment toward nonviolence from Islam. He viewed his struggle as a Jihad but the enemy was holding the swords. Khan escaped two assassination attempts, survived three decades in prison, and died at the age of 98 and was buried in Afghanistan. Although he had been repeatedly imprisoned and persecuted, tens of thousands of mourners attended his funeral. A cease-fire was announced in the Afghan war to allow the funeral to take place. He was buried in AfghanistanTill the end, Badshah Khan firmly believed that, "Nonviolence is love and it stirs courage in people...No peace or tranquility can descend upon the people of the world until nonviolence is practiced."
Real Islam is a deep and unquestioning trust in God, the realization of the truth that "There is no deity save God" and of the threefold aspect of religious life; that of islam, complete surrender to God; iman, unquestioning faith in Him and His wisdom; and ihsan, to do the right thing and to act beautifully, because one knows that God is always watching man's actions and thoughts." Annemarie Schimmel, Professor of Indo-Muslim Culture, Harvard UniversityBadshah Khan was a devout Muslim whose surrender to God was rewarded by a divine wisdom to act rightfully. Khan derived deep inspiration from the Koran and based his life on Prophet Mohammed's universal principles of love (muhabat), service to humanity (amal), and faith (yakeen). His lifelong reform work, the constructive programs, and the nonviolence of the Khudai Khidmatgars can be best understood in light of the underlying Islamic and universal ethics. Khan's nonviolence was spiritual, based on Islam's "Sabr" (tenaciously holding on to a righteous cause without revenge or retaliation) just as Gandhi's nonviolence was based on Hindu principles of Ahimsa and Advaita. Khan's life is also an example of faith-based transformation of two kinds - his own "qutb" or divine analytic wisdom which awakened true faith in him and his reformation of 100,000 belligerent Pushtuns into nonviolent God's servants.Righteous ReformBadshah Khan's single-minded dedication to reform the Pushtuns is a direct result of his spiritual calling. Typically, the Khans of his time were wealthy landowners and socialites who wined and dined with the British rulers and were indifferent to the misery of the poor Pushtuns. But Badshah Khan was different; He felt an unexplainable desire to change the conditions of his Pushtun brothers. His two best friends were from the less-privileged sweeper community, a rare thing among the status-conscious Khans. Although Khan went to a Christian missionary school, he received religious education on the Koran and prayed five times a day as any devout Muslim. The initial influence to help and serve came in the form of Reverend Wigram, a kind and caring Principal of the missionary school. But a deeper desire to serve definitely came from the Koran. As a righteous king can clearly see through fairness and cruelty, this king among the Khans could see unrighteousness in the British treatment of his Pushtun brothers. Islam had taught Khan to fight against unlawful tyranny and oppression - only peacefully. Khan's personal experience with the British Army also changed the direction in his life. 17-Year old Khan, 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighing over 200 pounds, was easily selected to serve in the Guides (an elite corps of the infantry and cavalry division). He had dreamed of becoming a Guides officer since childhood. But when he saw his Pushtun friend, a commissioned Guides officer, being insulted by a British officer, Khan changed his mind. Khan angrily rejected his commission with the British Army. Khan's Guides episode acted as a catalyst for reform just as Mahatma Gandhi's humiliation when he was thrown out of the train in South Africa increased his fervor to fight the British.
Guided by the Prophet's teachings and the affirmations of Allah on his lips, Badshah Khan's reform goals took stronger and bigger shape. He realized that education was the only way to uplift the downtrodden Pushtuns. Barely 20 years old, Khan followed his intuition and opened a school for the Pushtun children. As his reform instincts kept growing, Khan increasingly wondered about the source of his desire to reform; Who was he - a twenty-year-old Mohammedzai farm boy, not even matriculated from high school - to uplift an ancient, noble people? Finding no answers from the outside, he sought answers from within. For several days and nights, Khan performed a "chilla", a fast, and prayed in a small mosque. Easwaran captures the essence of the transformed Khan at the end of the fast as follows:"It was early morning when Ghaffar Khan ended his fast...and walked out with a vague but powerful awareness that he was not the same man who had entered the mosque a few days before. He had not received the direct answers...but he felt a strength he had not known before. And he understood, dimly, that it was the strength of God. Islam! Submit! Surrender to the Lord and know His strength! Ghaffar felt swelling within him the desire to serve this great God. And since He needed no service, Ghaffar would serve His creatures instead - the tattered villagers who were too ignorant and too steeped in violence to help themselves."Easwaran compares Khan's transformation to St. Francis of Assisi's who had a similar spiritual experience 700 years ago. Just as St. Francis heard a clear voice commanding him to revitalize the Christian institutions, this Islamic prophet derived from within a singleness of purpose to tirelessly serve his community.Mahadev Desai, who wrote a biography Two Servants of God" on Badshah Khan and his brother Dr. Khan" described Khan's spiritual temperament:"The greatest thing in him is...his spirituality - better still, the true spirit of Islam - submission to God. He has measured Gandhiji's life all through with this yardstick...It is not Gandhi's name or fame that have attracted (Khan) to Gandhi, not his political work, nor his spirit of rebellion and revolution. It is (Gandhi's) pure and ascetic life and his insistence on self-purification that have had the greatest appeal for him, and (Khan's) whole life since 1919 onwards has been one sustained effort for self-purification."Badshah Khan, in his own words, describes his self-transformation:"As a young boy, I had had violent tendencies; the hot blood of the Pathans was in my veins. But in jail I had nothing to do except read the Koran. I read about the Prophet Mohammed in Mecca, about his patience, his suffering, his dedication. I had read it all before, as a child, but now I read it in the light of what I was hearing all around me about Gandhi's struggle against the British...They changed my life forever."With the gift of "Iman" (a complete and unshakable faith of a pure heart directed toward Allah) and an awakened "Nur" (the plentitude of light of God) Khan was now ready to help the Pushtuns and rise up to the Koran's calling in Surah II: 129:Our Lord! And raise up in them an Apostle from among them who shall recite to them Thy communications and teach them the Book and the wisdom, and purify them; surely Thou are the Mighty, the wise.The Buddha's message on self-transformation was "One who conquers himself is greater than another who conquers 1,000 times 1,000 men." Khan's transformational legacy is a marvelous feat of a man of God who conquered himself and helped 100,000 men reform themselves.
SPIRIT OF SERVICE"
I have one great desire. I want to rescue these gentle, brave, patriotic people from the tyranny of the foreigners who have disgraced and dishonored them. I want to create for them a world of freedom, where they can live in peace, where they can laugh and be happy...I want to wash away the stain of blood from their garments. I want to show the world how beautiful they are, these people from the hills, and then I want to proclaim: "Show me, if you can, any gentler, more courteous, more cultured people than these." Badshah Khan Khan saw ignorance, superstition, and the crushing weight of custom as main reasons for the misery of the Pushtuns. "Beneath the violence and ignorance," says Easwaran, "Khan saw men and women capable of extraordinary self-effacement, endurance, and courage. He knew his task: to educate, to enlighten, to lift up, to inspire. With understanding, he saw, the violence and venality would fall from the Pathan character like dead limbs from a tree."Realizing what needs to be done, Khan threw himself into the cause of reforming and transforming the Pushtuns through educational, agricultural, and social programs: In 1910, Khan started a school, hoping education would remove many hurdles in the Pushtuns' lives. It was an instant success and in a short time, he opened more including a high school quickly enrolling a large number of students. In 1912, he took on the leadership of the reform movement of Haji Abdul Wahid Saheb, a liberal reformer whose progressive thinking had a major influence on Khan. In 1921, Khan initiated the Reform Association of Afghanistan, a non-political missionary organization that encouraged economic, social, and educational improvements in the region. He encouraged the Pushtuns to open up stores as alternatives to agriculture as there wasn't enough land. Khan also established cooperative enlightenment centers in 1927 as part of the Peasant Association to improve local agriculture. The same year, Khan founded the Pushtun Youth League, which mainly included the graduates of his schools who carried out reform work. Khan was concerned about the women's issues including freedom to participate fully in society. To help spread more of his ideas, Khan started a journal in Pushtun with articles on hygiene, social issues, and Islamic law. He showed extraordinary daring in opposing the "purdah" so that women could come out from behind the veil. In 1929, sensing that the Pushtuns were ready Khan finally exhorted them to transform themselves to enjoy progress and prosperity eventually. Khan's words cut through their pride, but the Pushtuns knew the message was hurled with love. After much discussion, they agreed to take an oath: I am a Khudai Khidmatgars; and as God needs no service, but serving his creation is serving him, I promise to serve humanity in the name of God. I promise to refrain from violence and from taking revenge on those who oppress me or treat me with cruelty. I promise to refrain from taking part in feuds and quarrels and from creating enmity.I promise to treat every Pathan as my brother and friend.I promise to refrain from antisocial customs and practices.I promise to lead a simple life, to practice virtue and to refrain from evil.I promise to practice good manners and good behavior and not to lead a life of idleness.I promise to devote at least two hours a day to social work .The British treated the nonviolent Pushtuns as a ruse. Amitabh Pal writes in "The Progressive: A Pacifist uncovered" "The British reacted with a singular ferocity to the Khidmagar desire for independence from British rule, subjecting Khidmatgars members throughout the 1930s and 1940s to mass killings, and destruction of their homes and fields. Khan himself spent 15 of these years in prison, often in solitary confinement. But these Pushtuns refused to give up their adherence to nonviolence even in the face of such severe repression."With their wise leader guiding their gradual evolution out of violence and vengeance, the Pushtuns stunned the world when they exhibited the bravery in one incident in April 1930. Gene Sharp who has written a study of nonviolent resistance writes:"When those in front fell down wounded by the shots, those behind came forward with their breasts bare and exposed themselves to the fire, so much so that some people got as many as 21 bullets in their bodies, and all the people stood their ground without getting into a panic...The Anglo-Indian paper of Lahore, which represents the official view, itself wrote to the effect that the people came forward one after another to face the firing and when they fell wounded they were dragged back and others came forward to be shot at." Ghani Khan notes that his father, Badshah Khan, "had discovered that love can create more in a second than bombs can destroy in a century; that the kindest strength is the greatest strength; that only way to be truly brave is to be in the right." Born aristocrat and raised in luxury, Khan renounced his comforts, land, wealth, and even meat to live as an example for his followers. He was a gentle giant that the villagers loved and honored by rising up to his call. A long life of selfless service, constant self-purification, and the bonds of love between Khan and his followers made him a "rasul", a prophet as described in Surah VII 157 of the Koran:"Those who follow the Apostle-Prophet...(who) enjoins them good and forbids them evil, and makes lawful to them the good things and makes unlawful to them impure things, and removes from them their burden and shackles which were upon them; so (as for) those who believe in him and honor him, and help him, and follow the light which has been sent down with him, these it is that are the successful."
NONVIOLENCE OF THE SERVANTS OF GOD
Badshah Khan conducted his struggle against the British with nonviolence that was based on purely righteous faith in Islam; and yet his Khudai Khidmatgars had a universal and nonsectarian outlook. In an inspiring speech, Badshah Khan gives the Khudai Khidmatgars the most successful weapon to wage a nonviolent war:"I am going to give you a weapon that the police and army will not be able to stand against it. It is the weapon of the Prophet, but you are not aware of it. The weapon is patience and righteousness. No power on earth can stand against it. When you go back to your villages, tell your brethren that there is an army of God and its weapon is patience. Ask your brethren to join the army of God. Endure all hardships. If you exercise patience, victory will be yours."The reference to "patience", says Easwaran, is to "sabr" in Islam which means "tenacity in a righteous cause, cheerful resignation in misfortune, forgiveness, self-control, renunciation and refraining from revenge." Sabr denotes nonviolence, not Khan's nonviolent resistance. Easwaran continues, "In the mystics, particularly al-Ghazzali, sabr becomes a cardinal virtue in the "holy war" (jihad) between good and evil that every human being is called upon to wage in his or her own heart. Khan's reference to the Prophet is to the early years of the Prophet's teaching in Mecca, when he and his followers had to endure torment ranging from ridicule to the harshest persecution. Their stance was consistently to "hold on to truth without retaliating or retreating, in perfect submission (islam) to God's truth and the consequences of their faith." The Prophet's nonviolence is highlighted by Karen Armstrong,in an interview with The Giuardian (June 2002):"Islam is not the intolerant or violent religion of the western fantasy. Mohammed was forced to fight against the city of Mecca...and after five years of warfare, Mohammed turned to more peaceful methods and finally conquered Mecca by an ingenious campaign of non-violence."Khan's nonviolent movement had "first of all, a religious basis," writes nonviolence scholar Joan Bondurant in her Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict. "It took as its objective both local socioeconomic reform and political independence...Its adoption of nonviolence was more thorough than that of the Indian National Congress inasmuch as the Khudai Khidmatgars pledged themselves to nonviolence not only as a policy, but as a creed, a way of life.Khan mentions a discussion with a fellow Muslim who him asked to show the nonviolent core of Islam. Khan said, "I cited chapter and verse from the Koran to show the great emphasis that Islam has laid on peace." Khan continued, "I also showed to him how the greatest figures in Islamic history were known more for their forbearance and self-restraint than for their fierceness." Khan interpreted Islam as a moral code with pacifism at its center. Easwaran summarizes Khan's Islam:"A devout Muslim he showed in his life a face of Islam which non-Islamic countries seldom see, proving that within the scope of Islam exists a noble alternative to violence. His nonviolent army, the Servants of God, " was entirely Muslim, and based upon the ancient Islamic principles of universal brotherhood, submission to God, and the service of God through the service of His creatures."Nasim Wali Khan, Khan's daughter-in-law shares, "Badshah Khan told people that Islam operates on a simple principle - never hurt anyone by tongue, by gun, or by hand. Not to lie, steal, and harm is true Islam."Khan's nonviolence sprung out of Islam, but the Khidmatgars movement was nonsectarian. Bondurant points out "although the character of the movement was intensely Islamic...one of the objectives of the organization was the promotion of Hindu-Muslim unity." When Hindus and Sikhs were attacked in Peshawar, "10,000 Khidmatgars members helped protect their lives and property," notes Pal. Mahatma Gandhi wrote in the Foreword of the book on Khan brothers,"(Badshah Khan) was consumed with deep religious fervor. His was not a narrow creed. I found him to be a universalist. His politics, if he had any, were derived from his religion."In a conversation between the two great proponents of nonviolence - Badshah Khan and Mahatma Gandhi - Khan leaves us with a fitting message on religion as a source of peace: "Not one in hundred thousand knows the true spirit of Islam. I think at the back of our quarrels is the failure to recognize that all faiths contain enough inspiration for their adherents. The Holy Koran says in so many words that God sends messengers for all nations and peoples. All of them are Ahle Kitab (Men of the Book) and the Hindus are no less Ahle Kitab than Jews and Christians.""The Holy Prophet Mohammed came into this world and taught us: 'That man is a Muslim who never hurts anyone by word or deed, but who works for the benefit and happiness of God's creatures. Belief in God is to love one's fellow men.'"--