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Allama Iqbal, Bacha Khan and terrorists – by Suroosh Irfani

It might well be that the heartless war our homegrown jihadis and Afghan Taliban are waging against Pakistan exemplifies Islam’s dangerous inversion that Iqbal had warned against some three generations ago. Such inversion has virtually displaced Bacha Khan and Iqbal’s spiritual humanism by a jihadi extremism at war with humanity

“Muslims are at war with one another, in their hearts they only harbor schism. They cry out if someone else pulls a brick out of a mosque which they themselves shun” — Allama Iqbal, Armaghan e Hijaz (verse translated by Mustansir Mir)

When Muhammad Iqbal, the ‘spiritual founder of Pakistan’, wrote the above verses shortly before his death in 1938, the blowing up of mosques and beheadings of fellow Muslims had not yet become part of everyday Muslim life. Nor was the destruction of schools, or the ban on girls’ education and music part of a freedom struggle that led to the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947.

Indeed, by the 1930s when Iqbal’s Islamic rethink had earned him the appellations of ‘Poet of Islam’ and ‘Wiseman of the Ummah’, non-violence was shaping the freedom struggle against British rule in much of India. While Gandhi was emblematic of such a struggle, shades of non-violence also permeated Muslim political discourse. Such a discourse was as much in evidence in the ‘martial’ North West Frontier Province — the cradle of jihadi terror in Pakistan today — as the rest of India.

However, as Britain started discussing India’s future in a series of Round Table Conferences during the 1930s, Iqbal was apprehensive that Britain might “transfer political authority to the Hindus” for its “material benefits”, leaving Muslims marginalised in India. Such a development, he warned, could be “disastrous…You will drive the Indian Muslims to use the same weapon against the [Hindu] Government…as Gandhi did against the British Government.” (Iqbal’s Letter to Sir Francis Younghusband, The Civil and Military Gazette, July 31, 1931).

Clearly, his poetics of Muslim ascendancy notwithstanding, non-violence for Iqbal was integral to India’s democratic experiment as it “educated people…without destroying the structures of government itself”.

However, as the Round Table Conferences continued in London, the NWFP was swept by a populist upsurge for social reform and political rights never before seen in Muslim history: a non-violent movement led by Pashtun leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, just after his return from Haj in 1929. Called the Servants of God Movement (Khudai Khidmatgar Tehreek), it reflected the onset of a radical transformation in popular imagination in a tribal culture, where violence constituted mutual deterrence under the rubric of ‘badla’, or revenge.

Convinced that Pashtun would be denied their rightful place in the modern world so long as they remained mired in colonialism, poverty and violence, Ghaffar Khan struggled to undo the triple curse by invoking non-violence as “the weapon of the Prophet Muhammad [PBUH]” and the driving spirit of his movement. The Prophet’s [PBUH] non-violence, Khan argued, exemplified “patience and righteousness”, and so long as the Servants of God remained true to the Prophet’s [PBUH] example, no power on earth could subdue them.

Consequently, as social and educational reforms of the Servants of God began transforming lives, people hailed the saintly Khan as a ‘saviour king’ — Bacha Khan.

Indeed, one could say that the spiritual politics of servanthood that Bacha Khan invoked in the name of God and the Prophet [PBUH] was, at one level, the social corollary of an ideal that Iqbal espoused in his poetry. In Javid Nama, Iqbal’s magnum opus reflecting the creative imagination of a new Muslim consciousness, he expounds the mystical meanings of the concept of servanthood as a deepening of consciousness with diverse expressions, its high point being the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as His servant, abday’hu.

In a sense, while Bacha Khan and Iqbal stood at opposite ends of Indian politics — the former struggled for a united India, the latter for Muslim separation — they exemplified different facets of the same discourse of non-violence. This is borne out by an inner vision of Iqbal that inspired him to write Armaghan e Hijaz — his last poetic work composed in both Persian and Urdu.

In the vision late one night, a tall saintly figure appeared in Iqbal’s room, emphatically urged him to raise a grouping of 500 men, and then disappeared in the night, leaving the ‘Poet of the East’ deeply shaken. It is worth noting that Iqbal’s vision occurred in a political context, when several radical Indian Muslims were secretly crossing over to Afghanistan to organise armed struggle against the British Indian government. Given such context, did the vision imply that Iqbal, too, should raise an army of 500 holy warriors for jihad against the British?

Iqbal discussed the vision with his father, a Sufi of the Qadiriya order, who interpreted it as a call for writing a poetic work of 500 verses to educate Muslims and deepen their humanity. As Faqir Wahiddudin notes in his biography of Iqbal (Rozgar e Faqir, p.117), the truth of the father’s interpretation was borne out when Iqbal composed Armaghan e Hijaz. Comprising just over 500 verses, the work unfolds with an allusion to Iqbal’s vision: here Iqbal declares that he is “raising a new army of Love”, to counter a dangerous revolt that’s brewing against the heart of Islam from within.

It might well be that the heartless war our homegrown jihadis and Afghan Taliban are waging against Pakistan exemplifies Islam’s dangerous inversion that Iqbal had warned against some three generations ago. Such inversion has virtually displaced Bacha Khan and Iqbal’s spiritual humanism by a jihadi extremism at war with humanity.

Clearly, Pakistan’s survival as a modern democratic state is hinged on healing an inner Muslim split that has turned Iqbal’s dream state into a nightmare. Such healing entails, on the one hand, an urgent recovery of Iqbal and Bacha Khan’s spiritual politics; and on the other hand, rethinking of a flawed security outlook that sees India as mortal enemy and Taliban as strategic asset.

Indeed, the “strategic renaissance” the Pakistan Army needs for reclaiming the NWFP from Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, as Lt-Gen (retd) Talat Masood has pointed out, will remain elusive without Iqbal and Bacha Khan’s presence as a cultural force.

Suroosh Irfani is an educator and writer based in Lahore. He can be reached at

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  • Bacha Khan’s legacy

    Wednesday, January 20, 2010
    Sartaj Khan

    Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan, also known as Bacha Khan, died on Jan 20, 1988. What is the legacy of this great reformer — an adherent of non-violence and anti-imperialism?

    Bacha Khan was born in the house of a ‘minor’ Khan in 1890. Two important events took place before his birth: the advent of British Empire in the Peshawar valley in 1849 and the Mutiny of 1857. But the most import events that left an impact on his thoughts and shaped his struggle later took place between his birth and 1929. He launched his Khudai Khidmatgar (Red Shirts) Movement in 1929. The British were able to divide the Pakhtun land externally with Afghanistan in 1893 and internally into three parts. Seven years later there was the great uprising of the Pakhtuns against the British Empire in the tribal belt. All these developments shaped the thoughts of Bacha Khan, one of the great reformers of the subcontinent.

    The British Empire introduced drastic changes in Pakhtoon society in accordance with imperialist interests. The development of the new irrigation system was accompanied by the introduction of many laws, including permanent settlements, imposition of heavy taxes, commencement of capitalist economic relations and a system of modern communications and transportation. The introduction of permanent land ownership was the most important one and this created a loyal minority of Nawabs, Khans and Pirs at the expense of commoners.

    The great majority of masses were alienated from land in one way or another. It is estimated that in the course of 30 years 60 per cent of arable land was confiscated by landlords with the backing of the colonial power. The share of the common man declined by 30 per cent in just 20 years.

    The introduction of a market economy and extraction of surplus crops from the rural poor resulted in the ruin of the traditional petty bourgeoisie. A new class emerged out of the ruin of Pashtun society. It resulted in the emergence of new merchants and minor Khans on the one hand and alienated rural poor and traditional artisans on the other. The situation was exploited by the Khudai Khidmatgars in the settled areas of NWFP.

    A very different system and strategy was adopted in the tribal belt. The so-called Sandeman system was introduced by the British in Balochistan and in the tribal belt. But it was in the settled districts where the impact of capitalist market relationships was felt extensively.

    As Hamza Alavi and Eric Wolf pointed out in their research on peasants’ struggles, it was middle-class peasants who could stand up against the big landlords. So in the settled areas of NWFP it was Bacha Khan, a minor Khan of Charsadda, who founded a movement of the rural poor.

    Before launching his anti-colonial movement, he not only collaborated with many Pakhtun reformers but also actively took part in many social and political movements of his time.

    The British were alarmed by upheavals of the rural poor under the leadership of Bacha Khan and other minor Khans. The development was linked with the rise of Bolshevik Russia and was considered a threat to the British imperial power in the Indian subcontinent. The movement enjoyed the support of various sections of Pakhtun society. The interests of the minor Khans were translated in such a way that it became the focal point of the whole society. Syed Waqar Ali Shah aptly analysed the support of different strata of society for the movement led by Bacha Khan:

    “To the Pakhtun intelligentsia, it was a movement for the revival of Pakhtun culture with its distinct identity. To the smaller Khans, it was a movement that demanded political reforms for the province that would enfranchise them and give them a greater role in governance. Its anti-colonial stand suited the majority of anti-establishment ulema, who always regarded British rule in the subcontinent as a curse. For the peasants and other poor classes it was against their economic oppressors: British imperialism and its agents, the pro-British Nawabs, Khan Bahadurs and the big Khans.”

    Traditionally, people such as blacksmiths, barbers, goldsmiths and even the mullah are not considered Pakhtuns. But the movement was able to mobilise every downtrodden section of society around a common cause — social justice and an end to colonialism. The enemy was quite obvious: big landlords and the power behind them, the British. At the moment the Muslim League was a representative of the big landlords, Khans and Pirs. The movement culminated in the victory of the Congress in NWFP.

    But the movement was exposed to contradictions once the Khudai Khidmatgars and the Congress came to power in the province. On the eve of the great peasant uprising in Ghaladir, Mardan, the provincial government sided with the Nawab of Turo against its own supporters. They extensively worked in Hazara and the Khudai Khidmatgars were marginalised there after two consecutive peasant conferences in the late 1930s.

    The peasants were now organised by Maulana Abdul Rahim Popalzai. Many intellectuals and urban professionals were disappointed when Maulana Popalzai, a socialist leader as well as Mufti-e-Azam of the province, was arrested at the behest of the big landlords. Maulana Popalzai died in jail. It was a great blow to the Khan brothers — Dr Khan Sahib and Bacha Khan. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the president of the Congress, was so upset by the arrest of the great freedom fighter that he wrote a letter to the Khan brothers to express his discontent with the development.

    Many urban professionals had left the movement, such as Sardar Abdul Rab Nishter and Khan Abdul Qayyum Khan. The Khudai Khidmatgar movement in its prime lost the support of tenants who had migrated from the tribal belt adjacent to the fertile settled areas of the Mohmands, Bajauris, Buneris, Malizais, Salarzais and others. Consequently, tenant cultivators deserted the movement in large numbers.

    But the movement enjoyed the support of traditional petty artisans, small landowners and many landlords. Despite the British propaganda against him and his movement by the British, the big landlords, the Pirs and the mullahs, Bacha Khan’s anti-colonial stance and struggle for social justice enabled him to face all odds. The Khudai Khidmatgar movement inspired generations of Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line, especially in the settled districts of NWFP.

    The writer is an activist. Email: sartaj2000

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