“Nonviolence is not for cowards,” Mahatma Gandhi told his friend Badshah Khan in 1930. “It is for the brave, the courageous.” At the time they were working shoulder to shoulder, a Hindu and a Muslim, for Indian independence and for peace, as described in Eknath Easwaran’s biography, Nonviolent Soldier of Islam (Nilgiri, 1999).

“If you want your people to prosper, you must start living for community.”

Khan (1890–1988) was born Abdul Ghaffar Khan near Peshawar, in what is now Pakistan but was then British India’s North-West Frontier Province. The region was notorious for the violent uprisings of the Pathans (or Pashtuns), a fiercely proud Muslim people who followed an ancient code of tribal honor that caused fierce family feuds to rage for generations.

The son of a prosperous landowner, Khan was educated in missionary schools. He was then offered a commission with the Guides, an elite military corps, but turned it down. He increasingly turned his attention to the unedu­cated, impoverished people of his region, traveling from village to village, building schools, and teaching about agriculture and sanitation. His organizing work earned him the attention of the British who, worried about the burgeoning Free India movement, were suspicious of any attempts to unite the Pathans.

“I am a believer in nonviolence and I say that no peace or tranquility will descend upon the people of the world until nonviolence is practiced, because nonviolence is love and it stirs courage in people.” Badshah Khan, quoted in Nonviolent Soldier of Islam (Nilgiri, 1999)

Khan was arrested in 1921 as a subversive, and remained imprisoned until 1924. After his release, he established a nonviolent army called the Khudai Khidmatgars (“Servants of God”). Organized with the structure of a professional military force, it was open to all Pathans, both women and men, who were willing to take its oath of service and nonviolence. Known as the Red Shirts for the color of their uniform, Khudai Khidmatgars announced that “freedom is our goal” – freedom from British ­oppression, from poverty and ignorance, and from the violence of their own culture. They opened schools, taught, and organized public ­meetings. Khan insisted that women be allowed an education. He said in a speech: “God makes no distinction between men and women. If someone can surpass another, it is only through good deeds and morals.”

Jason Landsel, Forerunners: Badshah Khan

Despite their nonviolence, the Khudai Khidmatgars faced some of the harshest repression meted out by British troops to any independence group. In an April 1930 massacre in Peshawar, the group’s unarmed members faced sustained machine-gun fire, and at least two hundred were killed. Witnesses reported that they went willingly and nonviolently to their deaths, clutching only their Qurans and shouting, “God is great!”

When independence finally arrived in 1947, Khan opposed the All-India Muslim League’s demand for the partition of Pakistan and India, earning the enmity of Pakistan’s first leader, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Khan was placed under house arrest until 1954, and was repeatedly imprisoned in the 1960s and 1970s. He died under house arrest in 1988, having spent a total of thirty years in confinement.

Khan’s legacy continues to inspire new generations of nonviolent Muslim activists – such as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai – who bear out Khan’s words: “That person is a Muslim who never hurts anyone by word or deed, but who works for the benefit and happiness of God’s creatures.”