Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Islam and non-violence — by Ishtiaq Ahmed


Abdul Ghaffar Khan was a man of peace. He approached Islam in the hope of finding a complementary message to Gandhi’s interpretation of Hinduism as Ram Raj and ahimsa (non-violence) and he found it

A question that keeps popping up in discussions on violence, terrorism and the Taliban is the following: is the use of force and violence intrinsic to Pakhtun culture? Superficially it seems that it must be so because the Pakhtuns, known as Pathans in the rest of the South Asian subcontinent, have been bearing firearms since a long time. They were producing firearms much before the Afghan jihad started. Many invasions of India were launched from the north-western mountain passes by the Afghans belonging to Pakhtun tribes and clans. Therefore, in popular memory a proclivity towards violence has been associated with the Pakhtuns. This, however, is a myth derived from an essentialist understanding of any culture.

Against such ‘evidence’ is the fact that apart from the mass civil disobedience movement that Mahatma Gandhi started from 1919 onwards, the most organised movement of peaceful resistance to colonial rule was put forth by the Pakhtun leader Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890-1988) and his Khudai Khidmatgars or Red Shirts. In Pakistani official narrative Abdul Ghaffar has been portrayed as a traitor because of his close association with the Indian National Congress. Such association found him opposed to the partition of India, and later when the partition did take place, he and the Khudai Khidmatgars came under a cloud. They were incarcerated for demanding Pakhtunistan — an entity that was conceived from complete independence to substantial autonomy. The problem was further complicated by the fact that the Pakhtuns did not recognise the Durand Line as an international border dividing the Pakhtun tribes between Afghanistan and Pakistan. That problem remained unresolved even when the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan (1996-2001). It is still a sticking point between the Karzai and Pakistani governments.

Here, we are not interested in the politics that drove the Khudai Khidmatgars and the Muslim League away from each other, except to note that in 1929 Abdul Ghafffar Khan approached both the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress for closer relations. However, while Gandhi responded to his overtures with warmth and sympathy, the Muslim League rebuffed him. The reason was that the Muslim League was opposed to mass-based politics till at least 1937, and even when it became a mass-based party, it was never involved in any anti-colonial agitation. Only on January 24, 1947, the Punjab Muslim League resisted inspection by the police of its office in Laxmi Building, Lahore, and some of their leaders were arrested for a few days.

On the other hand, the story of the Khudai Khidmatgars was entirely different. They were constantly getting into trouble with the British for protests and agitations that were carried out in the NWFP in coordination with similar initiatives of the Congress. Civil disobedience remained peaceful, but police repression against the Khudai Khidmatgars was severe. Torture was often employed against the leaders and cadres who bore the pain and humiliation with great dignity and stoicism.

It is important to mention that the Khudai Khidmatgar movement started initially as a social reform initiative that sought to promote modern education and opposed tribal vendettas among the various tribes and clans. It was a great success and at one time it had more than 100,000 cadres who were always at hand to carry out social services. The same cadres continued to work in the anti-colonial agitations, courting arrest and punishment.

Abdul Ghaffar Khan derived his inspiration from the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and Islam. He particularly emphasised the formative period in Makkah when the Prophet (PBUH) and his devoted followers had to face persecution but did not hit back at their oppressors. For Abdul Ghaffar Khan, violent confrontation with the British was counterproductive because the colonial state always succeeded in defeating armed resistance. Therefore, peaceful resistance was the only effective method to protest colonial domination.

The question then is: how come the Taliban and al Qaeda interpret Islam as a militant ideology that sanctions the use of naked terror? Are there two Islams? This is the most difficult question to ask but we must try to answer it if ever some new level of awareness is to be achieved. While teaching at Stockholm University, I would often be asked by my students the following question: what is the true or real message of the Quran? The question was being asked in the background of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

I came up with an answer and explanation, which I believe is honest and true. I told them that all religious scriptures are amenable to a variety of interpretations; hence also the Quran and indeed the life of the Prophet (PBUH). Therefore it depends on the enquirer what support he seeks from the sacred sources. For those who are convinced that violence is the way forward for Muslims, they can select those portions of the sacred sources that seem to sanction violence. On the other hand, those who believe in peaceful and civilised ways of conducting their affairs can find plenty of material in the same sources that confirms their standpoint as well.

Abdul Ghaffar Khan was a man of peace. He approached Islam in the hope of finding a complementary message to Gandhi’s interpretation of Hinduism as Ram Raj and ahimsa (non-violence) and he found it. The Taliban and al Qaeda arbitrarily emphasise the wars fought during the lifetime of the Prophet (PBUH) and indeed allusions to the use of violence against non-Muslims in the Quran. Similar things can happen in other religious traditions. I suppose when the Pope ordered the crusades against the Muslims, he surely was not interested in Jesus’ idea of offering the other cheek. Similarly, fundamentalist Jews cannot be serious about the 8th of the 10 Commandments, “You must not steal”, when under one pretext or another they keep confiscating Palestinian land in the occupied territories.

Even secular-minded individuals who do not subordinate their reason and conscience to religious authority have to make a choice. There is secular humanism that accepts all human beings as part of the same family, but there have been secular ideologies justifying racism and ultra-nationalism as well. Ultimately, it is the singer not the song that is important. In the higher court of history, nobody takes notice of the sources and motivations behind actions. It is the deeds that count. In any event, those who want to find practical guidance on the Islamic philosophy of non-violence in contemporary times should study the life of Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the activities of the Khudai Khidmatgar movement.

Ishtiaq Ahmed is a Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) and the South Asian Studies Programme at the National University of Singapore. He is also a Professor of Political Science at Stockholm University. He has published extensively on South Asian politics. At ISAS, he is currently working on a book, Is Pakistan a Garrison State? He can be reached at isasia@nus.edu.sg

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