Role of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan in the spread of Deobandi ideology in Pashtuns – by Abdul Nishapuri


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This post, based on historical evidence, shows an inadvertent role played by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (Bacha Khan) in the spread of Deobandi madrassahs and ideology in the Pashtun areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly NWFP) province of Pakistan and the adjoining tribal areas (FATA). The aim is not to suggest that Bacha Khan himself was a sectarian Deobandi bigot, but to highlight an error of judgement on the part of a progressive leader in ignoring the inherent takfiri and intolerant nature of the (semi-Salafi) Deobandi idelogy and prioritizing it over more inclusvie Sunni Sufi/Barelvi strand of Islam.

It is our considered view that peaceful and tolerant Pashtun ethnicity must not be amalgamated with the takfiri Deobandi and Salafi/Wahabi ideologies which were imported in Pashtun areas (and other areas of Pakistan) in the last 150 to 200 years. Indeed, the problem doesn’t lie with the Arab, Punjabi or Pashtun ethnicity, the probelm of takfiri violence in the world of Islam is to do with the takfiri Jihadist ideologies inherent in the Deobandi and Salafi/Wahabi schools.

Pashtuns form the single largest community in Afghanistan, consisting of approximately 38% of the population.[1] Pakistan also hosts a significant Pashtun population, primarily in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP, new name Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), where they make up 78% of the population, and in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where they make up 99% of the population.[2] Overall, 15% of Pakistanis are Pashtun.[3]

Since its formal inception India in mid 19th century, Deobandi revivalist movement is notorious due to its inclination to Salafi/Wahabi strand of Islam, sectarian intolerance, violence and Jihadism. Particularly, since late 1970s, Deobandi seminaries (madrassas), clerics and religio-political groups in Pakistan have become increasingly radicalized due to generous Salafi/Wahabi funding from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries and institutional support of Pakistani, American and Saudi intelligence agencies. Deobandi Jihadi proxies have been used by Pakistan army in Afghanistan and Kashmir. In return, Deobandi clerics (ulema), seminaries and parties have enjoyed excessive power, money and monopoly of violence. Today, Deobandi militant groups in Pakistan (variously operating as TTP, LeJ, ASWJ, JeM etc) are involved not only in massacres of Sunni Barelvis, Shias, Hindus, Christians and Ahmadis, they are also responsible for massacres of secular and nationalist leaders and activists. Deobandi terror outfits are now an active part of Al Qaeda, Taliban and are known to operate in countries as diverse as Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Bahrain and Syria.

When developing a strategy involving the Pashtun community in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is relevant to understand the Deobandi sub-sect of Sunni Islam (which must be differentiated from Sunni Barelvis/Sufis, the majority Sunni sub-sect in India and Pakistan). Deobandi Islam is the most popular form of pedagogy in the Pashtun belt on both sides of the Durand Line that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan. Moreover, prominent Afghan and Pakistani Taliban leaders have studied in Deobandi seminaries.

In 1867, Darul Uloom was founded in the town of Deoband, India, as one of the first major seminaries to impart training in Deobandi Islam. The Darul Uloom Deoband claimed to inhert the Darul-Harb (place of war) type Jihadist ideals of Shah Waliullah, Syed Ahmed and Shah Ismail. It participated in several non-violent and violent movements to undermine the British rule in India. It was equally active in denouncing Sunni Barelvis/Sufis, Shias, Ahmadis, Hindus and Christians.

The Deobandi movement became the most popular school of Islamic thought among Pashtuns living on both sides of the Durand Line. Ironically, a key role in the spread of Deobandi ideology was played not only by Deobandi clerics such as Maulana Mufti Mahmood and Maulana Abdul Haq but also inadvertently by secular leaders such as Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (aka Bacha Khan).

Many prominent Pashtun community leaders established Deobandi seminaries in Pashtun areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a prominent Pashtun leader, was instrumental in establishing several schools based on Deobandi curriculum in the Pashtun belt.[10]

This post will help in understanding why many Pashtun nationalist and secular friends, who legitimately criticize Punjabi military establishment and Saudi Salafi ideology, remain generally mute on common Deobandi hate ideology of the TTP-ASWJ terrorists who are not only killing Shias, Sunni Barelvis, Christians etc but are also involved in massacres of secular and nationalist Pashtun activists and leaders. As a matter of fact, most Pashtun nationalist freinds not only remain mute on Deobandi hate ideology, they hardly clearly name and condemn ASWJ or Sipah-e-Sahaba, the takfiri Deobandi terrorist group responsible for massacres of Shias and Sunni Barelvis.

We are of the views that by founding and supporting Deobandi madrassas, Bacha Khan, at least inadvertently contributed to a movement which is currently fully demonstrating itself in the shape of takfiri Deobandi terror groups. It seems that Bacha Khan ignored the local Pashtun population’s adverse reaction to the semi-Salafi Jihadist movement of Syed Ahmed and Shah Ismail in Balakot and Swat. Syed Ahmed and Shah Ismail tried to enforce semi-Salafi takfiri Islam on local population, tried to curb Sufism and ban Pashtun cultural traditions and ceremonies, festivals etc. Both of them were killed in 1831 by local Sufi-oriented Pashtuns who did not accept the puritancial takfiri clerics.

In the subsequent decades, the Salafi-Wahhabi and semi-Deobandi influences started becoming more visible in the North Western Fronter Province (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). Here, from arvhive of New York Times, nearly a century and a half ago (1872), a stark warning of the emergence of a “mischievous nest of fanatical conspiracy” – a Salafi/Wahabi and Deobandi nest whose beliefs are similar to those of the Taliban and Al Qaeda – around the northwestern frontier of British-ruled India and Afghanistan. That is to say, modern Pakistan.

Wahhabi Fanatics Reported on the Afghan Frontier Feb. 13, …1872
By Stephen Farrell


However, Bacha Khan ignored to protect the traditional, non-puritanical aspect of the Pashtun society, and instead preferred to invest in Deobandi ideology and madrassas, instead of Sunni Sufi/Barelvi or secular schools. This misjudgment on his part had immense costs for peaceful Pashtun cluture and society in subsequent decades. Bacha Khan and traditional Deobandi clerics played a role in the spread of Deobandi ideology in tribal areas and N.W.F.P.

Moreover, Bacha Khan also extended support to the semi-national semi-Salafi Jihadist the Faqir of Ipi who resorted to violence to defend an exaggerated sense of Pashtun nationalism built on forced conversion and marriage of a Hindu girl to a Pashtun Sunni Muslim.

Due to its inherent violent nature (ignored by Bacha Khan), the Deobandi ideology was always attractive to Saudis and Salafi/Wahabi clerics who made sure that Pashtun society is increasingly radicalized by Deobandi and semi-Salafi ideologies. A radicalized Deobandi society in at least some Pashtun areas today lacks the tolerance and diversity that was seen in other Pashtun and non-Pashtun areas where Sunni Barelvi/Sufi and Shia ideologies were allowed to flourish. For example, Saudi Salafis and Pakistani establishemnt could not radicalize the Parachinar population because of the inherent reluctance of Shia Pashtuns towards takfiri Jihadism and violence.

[1] See the UNHCR Assessment for Pashtuns in Afghanistan, located at,,MARP,,AFG,4562d8cf2,469f3a5112,0.html.

[2] “Population by Mother Tongue,” 2006 Pakistan Census Report, Pakistan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs and Statistics, available at

[3] Ibid. Other Pakistani provinces host sizeable Pashtun populations: Baluchistan Province (29.84% Pashtun), Sindh Province (4.19% Pashtun), Punjab Province (1.16% Pashtun), and Islamabad (9.52% Pashtun).

[10] Sayed Wiqar Ali Shah, “Abdul Gaffar Khan,” Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, undated, available at

In his personal life, Bacha Khan was a devout Deobandi Muslim. He set up several Deobandi madrassas and went to hajj on five different times. Bacha Khan was so religious that he sent his eldest son Ghani Khan to a Deobandi darul uloom. However, Ghani Khan, after seeing the intolerant and ignorant mentality of Deobandi Mullahs, started criticizing them.

In 1910, Ghaffar Khan opened a Deobandi mosque school at his hometown, Utmanzai with the assistance of Maulvi Abdul Aziz. The school was temporarily closed down by the British authorities in 1915.

Abdul Ghaffar Khan commenced his social activities by setting up Deobandi madrassas and came into close contact with another social reformer of the area, Haji Fazli Wahid, popularly known as the Haji of Turangzai. Their combined efforts resulted in the opening of Deobandi seminaries (madrassas) called the Dar ul Ulum at Utmanzai and Gaddar (Mardan) in 1910. Apart from religious education, students were imparted the concept of patriotism. No details are available about the exact number of these Deobandi Madrassas or the number of students and teachers and the source of their income.6 The two were joined by some other Pashtoon intellectuals, particularly Maulvi Fazl-i-Rabi, Maulvi Taj Mohammad, Fazal Mahmood Makhfi and Abdul Aziz, most of whom were the graduates of Deoband.7 Abdul Ghaffar Khan was also in touch with Maulana Mahmood ul Hasan, the chief divine at Deoband and his pupil Ubaidullah Sindhi, who played a leading part in anti-British movements. They were then planning the establishment of an anti-British centre, deep inside the tribal area, but it did not materialise for the time being.8

6 Sayed Wiqar Ali Shah, Ethnicity, Islam and Nationalism: Muslim Politics in the North-West Frontier Province 1937-1947 (Karachi, Oxford University Press, 1999-2000), p. 18.

7 D. G. Tendulkar, Abdul Ghaffar Khan (Bombay, 1967), p. 22.

8 Ghaffar Khan, Zama Zhwand au Jaddo Jehad (Pashto) (Kabul, 1983), pp. 94-107.

As education was free and the Madaris were open to all communities, soon these madrassas got popularity and the number of students increased from 140 to 300. A silent converstion of Pashtuns to Deobandi ideology was taking place. 21

In 1921, Ghaffar Khan founded Anjuman-e-Islah-e-Afghana The stated objectives of the Anjuman included: promotion of unity amongst the Pashtoons, eradication of social evils, prevention of lavish spending on social events, encouragement of Pashto language and literature, and creation of ‘real love’ for Islam among the Pashtoons. On 10 April, 1921, the first branch of Azad Islamia Madrassa was opened at Utmanzai, followed by many more branches in different areas of the Peshawar Valley. No accurate figures are available about the exact number of these schools but a careful study suggests that they were as many as 70. The curriculum included teaching of the Holy Quran and Hadith, Fiqh, Islamic history, Pashto, Mathematics, English and Arabic.

In 1913, Ghaffar Khan participated in a congress sponsored by self-defined progressive Muslims, in the city of Agra. There he met several Deobandi and Salafi leader including Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (the Salafi Deobandi leaning leader of Indian National Congress), who later served as President of the Indian National Congress.

In 1914, in a similar congress in Deoband, Abdul Ghaffar took the suggestion of working with the people of the Northern mountain range (North West). He travelled to Bajaur (tribal area) for that purpose. In those lands he was faced with the most extreme forms of domination that the British authorities imposed on the Muslim population of the North, particularly the Pakhtun, who were obligated to make public courtesies to any English citizen they encountered. His experiences in Bajaur shook Abdul Ghaffar deeply. He decided to go into seclusion in one of the small (Deobandi) mosques of the region. There he began a long chilla (a spiritual retreat in the Islamic tradition, which includes fasting).

In 1913, Ghaffar Khan met with some leading nationalist leaders including the ulema of the Deoband seminary, who in early 1914 decided upon forming two centers for the struggle of independence, one in India and the other in the tribal territories of the frontier. To this end they decided to prepare an army, not necessarily unarmed and nonviolent. But before this plan could be executed, his Azad Madrassas were closed down and Khan faced an extended crackdown in the area brought about by the foreign rulers.

Abdul Ghaffar Khan also played a main role in the Deobandi-led Khilaft movement which played a key role in radicalizing of Deobandi and Salafi communities in India. The year 1919 saw India in turmoil; the economic situation had deteriorated; industrial workers were resentful of the working conditions, and the peasants were unhappy over general price-hike. The Muslims were deeply concerned about the treatment meted out to Turkish Caliph by the Allied Powers and the ‘nationalists’ were agitating over the ‘broken promises’ made during the course of War. To curb the ‘seditious’ and revolutionary activities in the country, the Government of India had decided to enforce the Rowlatt Act. It immediately roused a storm of protest. On 6 April, a successful all-India hartal was observed. In the NWFP, like the rest of India, protest meetings were held against the Rowlatt Act. Abdul Ghaffar Khan held a protest meeting at Utmanzai, attended by more than 50,000 people. In the rural areas of the Frontier, this was the first political occasion when such a large number of people participated to express solidarity on an all-India issue.9

Badshah Khan met Mohandas Gandhi in 1920 at a Khilafat conference in Delhi, heralding the mutual cooperation between the two and their friendship over close to three decades.

The provincial authorities could not remain a silent spectator of anti-British activities in the settled districts of the NWFP. Abdul Ghaffar Khan was immediately arrested and imprisoned, followed by a punitive fine of Rs. 30,000 upon the villagers of Utmanzai. Over a hundred and fifty notables were kept in confinement as hostages, until the fine was paid.10 After six months, Ghaffar Khan was released and allowed to join his family.

Already towards the end of 1918, the Khilafat movement had been launched in India. An offshoot of the Khilafat movement was the Hijrat movement. The Ulema declared India as Dar ul Harb (Land of War) and advised Muslims to migrate to Dar ul Islam (Land of Islam). Afghanistan, the neighbourly Muslim country with whom they had religious, cultural, political and ethnic ties, was deemed to be a safe destination. Amanullah Khan, the anti-British Amir of Afghanistan, offered asylum to the Indian Muslims. Eventually, more than 60,000 Muhajirin took shelter in Afghanistan. As Peshawar was the main city on the way to Afghanistan, it became the hub of the movement. Soon, it became impossible for the Afghan government to facilitate the settlement of these religious zealots in Afghanistan.11

In 1920, Bach Khan went to Delhi to attend the Khilafat conference. In the same year, Provincial Khilafat Committee was reconstituted and Abdul Gaffar Khan was appointed as its president. He collected funds in the NW Frontier Province for the Khilafat cause. He, then, migrated to Kabul as a part of the Khilafat/ Hijrat movement.

Abdul-Gaffar khan, during his visit to India in 1969, addressing the students of Darul-Uloom, said:-

“I have had relation with Darul-Uloom since the time the Shaikhul-Hind Maulana Mahmood Hasan was alive. Sitting here we used to make plans for the independence movement as to how we might drive away the English from this country and how we could make India free from the yoke of slavery of the English. This institution has made great efforts for the freedom of this country”.

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