Bacha Khan and the Taliban: Two Radically Different Visions of Islam

Henry Millstein, PhD., Content Manager and Analyst.

This opinion appeared at the ING blog.

As reported in the Washington Post this week (1/20/16), four terrorists from a Taliban faction attacked Bacha Khan University in Peshawar, Pakistan, killing at least 20 people—mostly university students. The attackers themselves were reported to be around 20 years old.

There’s a sad irony to this incident. Bacha Khan University is named for a colleague of Mohandas Gandhi in the Indian liberation struggle. Both the Taliban terrorists and Bacha Khan are Muslims—but the difference in their visions of Islam could not be greater.

The Taliban faction that attacked the university declared they did so in revenge for the killing of their mujahideen by Pakistani security forces. Vengeance and violence—justified by religious rhetoric—are their stock in trade. Bacha Khan, by contrast, saw nonviolence as the heart of Islam. He declared: “There is nothing surprising in a Muslim or Pathan like me subscribing to the creed of nonviolence. It is not a new creed. It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet all the time he was in Mecca.”

Abdul Ghaffar Khan (later named Bacha, “king,” by his followers) grew up among the Pathan people in the rugged terrain of what was then the northwest of British India. Never fully subdued by the British, the people of this region lived by a code of honor that at times led to ongoing blood feuds. Abdul Ghaffar at first worked as an educator to lead his people to a better life. Finding himself hemmed in by the colonial authorities who suspected his efforts to empower his compatriots, he became an ardent champion of Indian independence. Inspired by Gandhi, he found in his Islamic faith a call to consistent nonviolence of heart, word, and deed.

His efforts bore unexpected fruit. From the Pathans of his native region, a people known for their prowess with arms, he organized the world’s first non-violent army, the Khudai Khitmatgars, “Servants of God,” 100,000 strong. Its members swore to abide by non-violence, even in the face of provocation, and instead of the rifles, revolvers, and daggers many Pathans had customarily borne, they carried nothing but walking sticks. Their commitment to nonviolence was tested on the morning of May 13, 1930, when British troops overran their headquarters, deliberately trying to provoke them to violence. None of the Khudai Khitmatgars broke their oaths of nonviolence—and none ran away.

Pakistan’s Awami Party, a leader in the struggle against the Taliban, carries on much of Bacha Khan’s legacy.

There is, thus, a horrifying logic to the Taliban’s attack on a university named for this great exemplar of Islamic nonviolence; he stood for an understanding and practice of Islam diametrically opposed to that of the Taliban and similar groups wreaking havoc through the Muslim world and beyond. The spirit, the teaching, and the example of Muslims like Bacha Khan can serve as powerful weapons against the terrorist perversions of Islam and as refutation of the Islamophobic claim that Islam inherently promotes violence. Understanding this, ING is now preparing a curriculum on the life of Bacha Khan for use in schools, to bring home to a broader public the message of nonviolence that this great Muslim leader saw as the heart of his faith.