Nonviolent soldier of Islam

I think of Islam as a warrior religion.  My mental picture of Mohammed is a man on horseback, sword in hand.  So I was astonished to read A Man to Match His Mountains: Badshah Khan, Nonviolent Soldier of Islam, which tells the story Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a 20th century Muslim leader of nonviolent struggle.

Known as the “Frontier Gandhi,” Ghaffar Khan led the Pathans (Pushtuns), one of the most warlike people who ever lived, in nonviolent struggle against British rule and then for autonomy within Pakistan.

The Pathans are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and the northwest border region of what is now Pakistan.  They have a reputation for being utterly fearless in battle and never allowing an insult or injury to go unavenged.  A nonviolent Pathan would have seemed as much a contradiction in terms in early 20th century India as a nonviolent Comanche or Apache in late 19th century North America.

Yet  Abdul Ghaffar Khan (Badshah was a title, like Mahatma) organized hundreds of thousands of Pathans into what was literally a nonviolent army.  His Khudai Khidmatgar had uniforms, military ranks, military drills and discipline, even a drum and bagpipe corps, but no weapons.  Weaponless, they endured beatings and imprisonment, and walked into machine gun fire in their struggle for freedom.

The Khudai Khidmatgar, a nonviolent army

Ghaffar Khan was born in 1890 into a well-to-do Pathan family in the Northwest Frontier Province of British India.  A British missionary arranged scholarships for him to study in England, but his family influenced him to turn them down, lest he be estranged from traditional values.  Instead he enlisted in the Guides, an auxiliary force to the British army in India.  He found the British treated Indians with contempt, and he resigned.

He started a new career as a reformer, organizing village schools.  If the authorities had allowed him to do this, his exploits might have ended there.  But the powers that be, both British and native, felt that education of the common people was a threat to their power.  They had him repeatedly imprisoned and exiled.  After a number of years he made contact with the Indian National Congress, and met Gandhi.  He learned Gandhi’s techniques of nonviolent resistance, and put them into practice himself.  He said, however, that he drew his inspiration for nonviolent struggle from the Koran, particularly the early prophecies drawn from the period when Mohammed and his early followers persisted under persecution.

One of the criticisms sometimes made of Gandhi is that nonviolent struggle would not avail against a really ruthless enemy, such as Hitler’s Nazis or Stalin’s Communists.  British repression fell short of what the Nazis and Communists did, but it was brutal enough.  The British destroyed whole villages for disobedience, they brutally beat anyone in their path, they imprisoned Ghaffar Khan and others without charging them with any crimes and they sometimes killed people indiscriminately.  And, like the Nazis and Communists, they feared any independent action by people they ruled.  Ghaffar Khan did not begin as a rebel against the British when he started his village schools.  The British made him a rebel when they put him in prison for trying to raise up his people.

I have read translations of the Koran, and, to me, its message is not a pacifistic one.  There are passages that could be quoted to justify military aggression and persecution, but, for me, the predominant message is to live in peace if you can, but be ready to fight unrelentingly if you have to.  I agree with this message, but it is not a pacifist one.

But then, Gandhi drew inspiration from the Bhagavad-Gita, whose conclusion is that the duty of Ajuna the charioteer as a warrior is to fight and obey orders, even in what he considers an unjust war.  And, for that matter, Christians and Jews are highly selective in their reading of the Mosaic Code.  I don’t say that Ghaffar Khan or Gandhi misinterpreted their sacred scriptures, only that how you interpret scripture depends on the values you bring to it as well as what the words say.

Gandhi and Ghaffar Khan both made a distinction between the “nonviolence of weakness” and the “nonviolence of strength.”  They said there is no value in being nonviolent if you are afraid to fight.  In fact, it is better to fight violently than to submit to wrong.  That is how Gandhi justified urging Indians to enlist in the British army during the Boer War and First World War.  He believed that you have to first be capable of fighting in order to meaningfully renounce violence.

Ghaffar Khan’s Khudai Khidmatgar show that the distance between brave, disciplined warriors and brave disciplined pacifists is small compared to the difference between both types of person and the average risk-averse, comfort-seeking person such as myself.

Eknath Easwaran’s book is highly readable, but does not explore Ghaffar Khan’s life in great depth, particularly the last 40 years of his life, when he was engaged in a struggle with the government of Pakistan for autonomy for the Pathan people.  He was frequently imprisoned, and once was Amnesty International’s “Prisoner of the Year.”   Like Gandhi, he opposed the partition of British India into India and Pakistan.  In the referendum on partition, a majority of the people of the Northwest Frontier Province voted to be part of India.  In the interest of peace, Ghaffar Khan consented to a second referendum in which the Khudai Khidmatgar did not vote, and so allowed union with Pakistan to go forward.

Ghaffar Khan died in 1988, and was buried, at his request, in Afghanistan, where he spent his period of exile.  The two sides in the civil war going on then agreed to a truce to allow his funeral ceremonies to take place.

Click on A Pacifist Uncovered for an article about Abdul Ghaffar Khan by Amitabh Pal in The Progressive magazine.

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