Badshah Khan -- Badshah means chief of chiefs -- is the 95-year-old Islamic leader who organized nonviolent communities in the 1930s among the Pathans of the Khyber Pass in northwest India. The Pathans, a tribal society living in the valleys and mountains of the borderlands of what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan, were one of the earth's most violent people when Khan had the improbable idea that they were fit for a conversion.
For six centuries, they were fierce wielders of the sword -- against each other in tribal grudges that could span generations and against such invading armies as the British, who wanted the Northwest Frontier as the gateway from central Asia to India. Khan was the youngest son of a wealthy village chieftain in the Northwest Frontier Province, a rare Pathan who believed in love and forgiveness. His personal devoutness and his public generosity to strangers who came to the door were absorbed by the soul of the son.
In 1910, when he was 20, Khan began his first Islamic school. "I was well aware," he wrote in his autobiography "My Life and Struggle," "that the illiteracy and the ignorance of my people could only lead them to ruin and destruction. Therefore my first task, as I saw it, would be to try to eliminate illiteracy."
By 1918, Easwaran reports, Khan had visited all 500 villages of the Frontier Province: "He sat with the men in the guest houses and spoke of sacrifice and work and forgiveness, and in the evenings he laughed with their children around the cooking fires. The villagers loved but did not quite understand this gentle giant of a man."
Khan did not have a full understanding of himself. Then, in 1919, he met Mohandas Gandhi. Their resulting mutual commitment lasted until Gandhi's death in 1948. The Hindu pacifist, who was 21 years older than Khan, had recently returned from South Africa to begin his life's work of organizing India's poor into a nonviolent coalition against British colonialism. Khan recalled that Gandhi's ideas of nonviolence -- of satyagraha, soul force -- "changed my life forever."
Like Gandhi, Khan saw the moral wrongness of the British presence in India. Also like Gandhi, he was jailed repeatedly for organizing his Pathan followers and calling for independence. A third of Khan's long life has been spent in prisons. The British put him in solitary confinement -- and manacles -- because he opened unauthorized schools. The Indians jailed him for speechmaking. Under Pakistan he was imprisoned for 15 of the country's first 18 years of independence. Amnesty International selected Khan "Prisoner of the Year" in 1962. He was to be jailed still again -- at age 85 -- in 1975 and again at 93 under the dictatorship of Pakistan's President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq.
Khan said of all this: "I wonder what would have happened to me if I had had an easy life and had not had the privilege of tasting the joys of jail and all that it means."
In his work for peace and justice in the Northwest Frontier, Khan was never to win full political rights for the Pathans. He opposed the partition of India, as he surely opposes the violence that now subjugates Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the history of nonviolence -- deeper and broader than most people realize -- Khan is revered for organizing the Khudai Khidmatgars, "the Servants of God." These were Pathans who took an oath of nonviolence. They would eventually number 100,000.
"There is nothing surprising in a Muslim or a Pathan like me subscribing to the creed of nonviolence," Khan wrote. "It is not a new creed. It was followed 1,400 years ago by the Prophet all the time he was in Mecca, and it has since been followed by all those who wanted to throw off an oppressor's yoke. But we had so far forgotten it that when Ghandiji placed it before us, we thought he was sponsoring a novel creed." In time, Khan's successful resistance against the British led to his being called "the Frontier Gandhi."
Eknath Easwaran's great achievement is telling an American audience about an Islamic practitioner of pacifism at a moment when few in the West understand its effectiveness and fewer still associate it with anything Islamic. Easwaran, now in his mid-seventies and a teacher since 1960 at the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation in Berkeley, Calif., writes that Khan has endured as an effective teacher of his own and Gandhi's belief that nonviolence, if properly organized, is an effective spiritual and political force. "Were his example better known, the Western world, as well as Muslims caught in the web of violence all over the Middle East, might come to recognize that the highest religious values of Islam are deeply compatible with a nonviolence that has the power to resolve great conflicts."
At last report, Khan is alive in an Afghan village. At 95, he is no longer a political activist. Yet with a superb biography like this, he could become a global force, the kind that no armies or prisons can stop.