Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890-1988)

Nonviolent Resister of British Colonial Rule in India

Abdul Ghaffar Khan in 1947

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Abdul Ghaffar Khan was a Pashtun born under the British occupation of the Indian subcontinent. In the North-West Frontier Province (now part of Pakistan) the Pashtuns were noted for fierce blood feuds and for their staunch resistance to the British. In turn, the British were known for responding in equally brutal fashion.

Development of a Peace Army

Ghaffar Khan joined the movement for independence and was moved by the calm, strong demeanor of the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi. He forged an Islamic teaching of nonviolence based on the Muslim values of amal (selfless service), yakeen (faith) and muhabat (love). Through his leadership as a teacher and organizer, he developed a nonviolent army called the Khudai Khidmatgars (Servants of God) to resist the British. Over 100,000 Pashtuns joined this red-shirted army who swore an oath to live a simple life of service, refraining from violence or any form of revenge. Ghaffar Khan spoke of this form of struggle as a jihad conducted with only the enemy holding swords.

Abdul Ghaffar Khan on his way to an independence conference

Abdul Ghaffar Khan on his way to an independence conference in 1946
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Ghaffar Khan’s Khudai Khidmatgars became one of the most potent forces for protest against British colonial rule through protests and strikes. In the city of Peshawar, British soldiers fired on the Khudai Khidmatgars, killing hundreds and wounding over a thousand, though the protesters were unarmed. As people fell, new ranks of the red shirts would boldly step forward to nonviolently risk being shot. One unit of British soldiers were so moved by their nonviolent courage that they refused to follow orders en masse. It was later said that the British feared a nonviolent Pashtun more than a violent one, because their nonviolent resistance made the North-West Frontier Province ungovernable.

Relationship with and Similarities to Gandhi

Gandhi and Ghaffar Khan worked alongside each other toward a vision of an India in which Hindus and Muslims could live in peace. They learned from each other, respected each other’s faith and were influenced by each other. Ironically, they would both suffer from their own co-religionists because of their prophetic call for a multi-religious nation. Gandhi was killed by a Hindu extremist for urging peace with Muslims, and Ghaffar Khan was imprisoned by an Islamic government in Pakistan for being pro-Indian.

Gandhi and Abdul Ghaffar Khan during a prayer

Gandhi and Abdul Ghaffar Khan during a prayer
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Later Years

After the break-up of India into India and Pakistan, Ghaffar Khan tried to obtain democracy for his Pashtun people in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, maintaining nonviolent convictions and actions. He spent over 30 years in prison for his convictions.

He died in 1988 at age of 98 under house arrest, a life-long witness for the compatibility of nonviolence and Islam. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He once said:

My religion is truth, love and service to God and humanity. Every religion that has come into the world has brought the message of love and brotherhood. Those who are indifferent to the welfare of their fellowmen, whose hearts are empty of love, they do not know the meaning of religion.

See Also

Related Interfaith Peacemakers Profiles

Related External Resources