Book Review: Badshah Khan and Islamic Nonviolence

by Paul Rogers

Badshah Khan wih Gandhi; photograph courtesy

The story of Badshah Khan, told in Heathcote Williams’ new book, Badshah Khan: Islamic Peace Warrior, London: Thin Man Press, 2015, is a powerful antidote to Islamophobia. Anyone who has also seen Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi will remember the vivid depiction of the Amritsar massacre in April 1919 when British and Gurkha troops under the command of General Reginald Dyer opened fire on unarmed protestors and killed well over 350 people. It was one of the worst atrocities committed by the British in India, but far from the only one.

Far less well-known is the massacre at the Qissa Khwani bazaar in Peshawar in April 1930. British troops opened fire with machine-guns on people protesting the arrest of Badshah Khan, the remarkable Pashtun leader and close associate of Gandhi who gave much of his life to the cause of nonviolence, although it is no reflection on Gandhi that Khan is so little known.

Badshah Khan’s full name was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, ‘Badshah’ meaning ‘King’, a term of respect in the same way that Gandhi was called “Mahatma”. The story of Khan’s life needs to be better known, not least as his abiding belief, rooted in the Qu’ran, was that Islam is essentially a religion of peace and nonviolence. His personification of this belief is a powerful antidote to the Islamophobia currently so prevalent across Europe and North America, and one among many reasons to welcome Heathcote Williams’ new “investigative poem”. This is a short but powerful book that surveys Khan’s life but also tracks his approach through to the modern era.

Khan himself is best known for founding the Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God), a nonviolent, peace “army”, also known as the Red Shirts. They drew many supporters from the Pashtun of what was then the north-west frontier region of India, who came to form a hugely important part of the movement for independence. At its peak, the Red Shirts had over 100,000 committed to peaceful, Gandhian nonviolent change and an end to British rule.

Inevitably, Khan incurred the enmity of the British and spent many years in prison, often in appalling conditions. But he and his movement survived  fierce opposition and repression. He became known as the Frontier Gandhi and, as a devout Muslim, said he drew his commitment to nonviolence directly from Islam. As he wrote: “There is nothing surprising in a Muslim or a Pashtun 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, but we had so far forgotten it that when Gandhi placed it before us, we thought he was sponsoring a novel creed”.

Badshah Khan, unlike Gandhi, survived the terrible period around independence and partition only to incur the enmity of successive Pakistani regimes, in part because of his close ties to India’s Congress Party, but also because of his long-term commitment to nonviolence. He was Amnesty International’s first ever “Prisoner of the Year” in 1962, surviving yet more imprisonment and repression to live to the age of 98. He died in 1988, having spent thirty of those years in prison, half in British India and half in Pakistan.

In many ways it is particularly fitting that his story should be retold in current conditions. Even more so in this poetic form by Heathcote Williams, author of the acclaimed Whale Nation, and a remarkable person in his own right.

What is really original and creative about the way Williams writes is that he combines a powerful poetic narrative with copious notes. It is an unusual approach but what it means is that almost every sentence leaves you wanting more, and more is exactly what you can get from the several pages of endnotes, many of them providing direct web links.

Badshah Khan: Islamic Peace Warrior can be read in a couple of hours, and can and should be re-read several times. The book introduces us to Khan’s life and thinking in a delightful way. It deserves to be a bestseller, the more so now.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Paul Rogers is Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University. Heathcote Williams is the author of Whale Nation; Sacred Elephant; Falling for a Dolphin and Autogeddon among others; courtesy

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi