Ghaffar Khan: leader of the world's first nonviolent army

A Man to Match His Mountains, by Eknath Easwaran. Petaluma, Calif.: Nilgiri Press. 240 pp. $7.95. To the Western observer, the world of Islam these days is one of strife and violence. War between Iran and Iraq. Afghan Mujahideen fighting Soviet troops, many of whom are Muslims themselves. Factional conflict in Lebanon. Terrorist attacks.

With the film ``A Passage to India'' and the TV series ``The Jewel in the Crown'' -- not to mention assassination and chemical tragedy -- India is much on the minds of Westerners these days as well.

These two things -- India and Islam -- come together in the remarkable story of a man who was one of Mohandas Gandhi's closest associates in bringing down the British Raj. He is Ghaffar Khan, who (at 95) is still alive in a Kabul hospital and who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The essence of Khan's story -- told here by an Indian scholar who has lived and taught in the United States since the 1960s -- is that the true nature of Islam is nonviolent. Like Gandhi (and Martin Luther King Jr. in this country), Khan sought to prove that great change could be effected through amal, yakeen, muhabat -- that is, selfless service, faith, love.

Khan came from a wealthy landowning family in that part of what is now Pakistan, near the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. This North-West Frontier Province was so wild and difficult to manage that the British called it ``the Grim.'' The Pathan tribes there were known not only for their ferocity in battle, but for their high sense of pride and honor, which -- for the slightest offense -- had to be avenged violently.

From such roots came Ghaffar Khan, an impressively tall and sturdy Muslim who turned away from violence. As a young man he began resisting the British colonialists, first by establishing schools, then -- as he began to hear of Gandhi's work -- expanding his organizing activities. From his rough Muslim tribesmen, the ``frontier Gandhi,'' as he was called, formed the red-shirted Khudai Khidmatgars -- the ``Servants of God'' -- as the world's first professional nonviolent army, numbering in the thousands. ``That such men,'' Gandhi said, ``who would have killed a human being with no more thought than they would kill a sheep or a 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.''

Yet Gandhi -- the most famous proponent of satyagraha (or ``soul-force'') -- was not surprised at this apparent conversion. For the Hindu leader of the movement for Indian independence, nonviolent resistance was anything but passive. It required great courage and a willingness to fight for the ``truth-struggle.''

For nearly 20 years, Gandhi the Hindu and Khan the Muslim worked together. They won some battles, lost others, spent much time in jail. When independence was won finally in 1947, they both resisted the partition of India and Pakistan. After Gandhi's assassination in 1948, Khan spent another quarter-century fighting for political freedom in Pakistan.

In total, Khan spent 30 years -- nearly one-third of his life -- imprisoned. His last arrest was just two years ago. Since then he has been released and allowed to go to Afghanistan for medical treatment.

``Khan's simplicity, deep faith, and selfless service represent the Islamic tradition at its purest and most enduring,'' writes Eknath Easwaran, who is also the author of ``Gandhi the Man.'' ``Khan and his `Servants of God' demonstrated conclusively that nonviolence -- love in action -- is deeply consonant with a vigorous, resurgent Islam.''

Khan believes just as strongly that the same is true of non-Muslims as well. It has been difficult to communicate with him in Afghanistan from the West. But through his son in Pakistan, he wrote Easwaran: ``The present-day world can only survive the mass production of nuclear weapons through nonviolence. The world needs Gandhi's message of love and peace more today than it ever did before, if it does not want to wipe out civilization and humanity itself from the earth's surface.''

Brad Knickerbocker is a correspondent in the Monitor's Washington bureau.

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