Review of Eknath Easwaran, Nonviolent Soldier of Islam (Berkeley, CA: Blue Mountain Center, 1999)
By Aisha Muhammed
Published in The Wolf, Winter 2002
Islam and Nonviolence. In the post 9-11 political climate the two words mix like water and oil. Starting from the premise that nonviolence is the heart of lslam, Eknath Easwaran excavates the vilified religion from underthe rubble of sensational media representations in Nonviolent Soldier of Islam.In his account of Ghaffar Khan’s life (bornin1890) and work he brings to light Islam’s ideals of selfless service, faith and love, which pave the pathway to freedom.
In captivity Khan discovers freedom, in a violent culture he nurtures a nonviolent army, in serving his community in an apolitical manner he induces significant political change
Easwaran’s prose reads like a peacemaker’s fairytale. Acting upon a deep commitment, Khan uplifts the impoverished Pathans, performing a miracle by teaching them nonviolence. The plot centers upon three additional actors: the villainous British Crown engaging in repressive action to secure India (the “jewel” of the Empire), Khan’s companion Gandhi who empowers a nation through love in action, and the Pathans, the violent underdogs who experience a nonviolent metamorphosis as they resist British imperialism.
The motive behind the Empire’s efforts to secure the Frontier Province is simple- if the Pathan homeland, the gateway to India goes, so does India. Easwaran examines how the British ingeniously exploited Racial, the strict Pushtun code of revenge, to set in motion a vicious cycle of violence which kept the Pathans at each other’s throats and prevented them from uniting against imperialist Khan understood that Pathan violence, much like modern-day Islamic “terrorism” stemmed not from bloodlust, but emerged as a consequence of imperialism, ignorance and custom. He was also aware that Pathans lived their short lives in contradiction, asthe values of Racialand Islam opposed each other. These insights were at the core of Khan’s mission to educate and empower his people by establishing schools in the villages dotting the Frontier.
Khan’s biography is also the biography of the first nonviolent army in history, the Khudai Khitmatgars or “Servants of God,” who took an oath to lay down their weapons and serve God by serving the community. Drawn from Khan’s pool of graduates, the red-shined Khudai Khitmatgars proved to be a menace to British rule. The British feared a nonviolent Pathan more than a violent one because he was unpredictable and armed with a potent ideology.
Easwaran’s account is striking in its powerful yet economic use of language to capture the dialectics of nonviolence: in captivity Khan discovers freedom, in a violent culture he nurtures a nonviolent army, in serving his community in an apolitical manner he induces significant political change. Also remarkable about the book is Easwaran’s documentation of the influence of women in Khan’s personal and political life. Encouraged by his mother, who supported his controversial choices, the empowerment of women became an essential part of Khan’s nonviolence. Noting that women were rising up in India, Khan urged Pathan women to do the same, maintaining that complete freedom could not be won if women remained oppressed.
Despite Easwaran’s tendency to romanticize Khan’s life in parts of the book, Nonviolent Soldier of Islam,deserves a contemporary reading not only because it reclaims Islam as a peace-loving religion, but because it corrects misconceptions of nonviolence as passive resistance and a weapon of the weak. “True nonviolence did not issue from weakness but from strength. It was a matter of the powerful voluntarily withholding their power in a conflict, choosing to suffer for the sake of a principle rather than inflict suffering—even though they could.”
In light of current efforts to launch a nonviolent peaceforce, Easwaran’s book provides a powerful case study. Modern-day peacemakers can learn from this concrete example of the transformative power of nonviolence, while using it to dispel criticism and doubt about its effectiveness in a time when violence is accepted as a natural component of conflict.