Imagining the Impossible

When I came upon a book about a nonviolent Islamic warrior from the Afghan border (Nonviolent Soldier of Islam, by Eknath Easwaran), I knew that I needed to read his story. Pakistan had been our family’s home during my father’s sabbatical year of teaching at the University of Peshawar in the 1960s, and I have felt connected to the region ever since. It’s been a private connection. I never met anyone who had been there, and it seemed as far away and forgotten as a place could be.

Yet I remember everything—the hard-baked earth, the mountains that rose without warning to the northwest, the buses painted in psychedelic colors and festooned with bells and beads, the blank walls of mud that hid all the life of the houses within, the Old City with its bazaar overflowing with people and goods, the tailors squatting on the ground with their sewing machines. We were told not to bother learning the national language since everybody in Peshawar spoke Pashto instead. The women were enveloped in burkas, and the men stared—at 12, I was of marriageable age.

When the United Sates started to bomb Afghanistan a year ago, my little frontier border town that no one had ever heard of become front page news. Every story, every place name evoked memories and images. I could see the mountains and the mud-walled villages. I could picture the fighting in the hills, the refugee camps. The people were real.

The women had been kind, but the men had scared me. They were fierce. They made their own rifles up in the hill villages. They stared through you. It was not hard to imagine how easily their passion might be sparked by a sense of injustice. I knew these Pashtuns were warriors. I grieved at their violence, but was not surprised.

What surprised me, what rocked me to my foundations, was Ghaffer Abdul Khan. How could Islam, the Northwest Frontier of British India, and a nonviolent army exist in the same universe? Yet there he was in the book, a quiet giant of a man, looking calmly off into the mountains side by side with Gandhi. All I knew of British colonialism in that area had come from the romance of Kipling poetry. I had no idea how harsh the repression had been up on the frontier where the British were doubly afraid, faced with warlike locals and the specter of Russia bearing down from the north. I had no idea that it was British strategy to incite the Pashtuns to violence, then use that violence as an excuse for massive military intervention.

Abdul Ghaffer Khan, the son of a village head and a good Muslim, wanted to serve his people. He set up schools in the villages of the Northwest Frontier, a seditious activity that cost him almost ten years in colonial jails in the 1920s and ’30s. Inspired by Gandhi, he organized a nonviolent army of 100,000 Pashtuns to lift up the local people and stand against the injustices of colonialism. These warriors became, in turn, an inspiration to Gandhi and all India. They were key players in the struggle for independence from Britain. Their militance and fierce willingness to face death proved that nonviolence was not just for the meek and mild.

Anyone could join Ghaffer Khan’s army, so long as he took the oath: "I am a servant of God; and as God needs no service, but serving his creation is serving him, I promise to serve humanity in the name of God. I promise to refrain from violence and from taking revenge. I promise to forgive those who oppress me or treat me with cruelty. I promise to refrain from taking part in feuds and quarrels and from creating enmity. . . ." Ghaffer Khan was matter-of-fact about the Islamic imperative to nonviolence; he took it for granted. In his great love for his people, he drew the very best out of them—and they showed it to the world.

But how many saw? I lived in the city where colonial troops killed hundreds of these unarmed and completely nonviolent warriors in a deadly and prolonged fusillade one January afternoon in 1930. I lived among the people who had confirmed Gandhi in his belief that true nonviolence comes not from weakness but from strength—and I never knew. I wonder, if someone had told me, if I could have imagined it.

Now I live in a world where Islamic militance is equated with violence, and where Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike equate destruction and retribution with strength. We are suffering from a colossal and dangerous ignorance and failure of the imagination—all of us. If we are to survive, we must cultivate our ability to imagine—and live into—the "impossible."