Time is not experienced uniformly. It is a self-evident truth when it comes to personal experience but may incur a cognitive strain and a force of imagination if historical time has to be seen relatively, or as a circle or, as Walter Benjamin among many others conceptualized, two parallel lines.
One temporal line represents empirical-historical time, where events occur but without fulfilling the very human need for a utopia of abundance. And the other is a Messianic or Cosmic time where the promise of human equality and social utopia in terms of human fulfillment is met. Walter Benjamin, the great German-Jewish philosopher, thought of Cosmic time as a metaphysical part of this objective reality. That is, because the means of its fulfillment were available, it is not mythical time or a promise but an actuality to be proven by human action in political practice.
Religious experience, however, also is felt as a Messianic experience of time, not in the ideological sense but in theological-political sense where, as Benjamin formulated, the ur-phenomenon, the original promise of religion, is a dream of a classless, equal society – the dream of a divine world of plenty on this Earth.
Abdul Ghaffar Khan, popularly known as Bacha Khan, dreamed of a utopia of social equality and freedom by breaking away from the empirical experience of history and from the cyclical, always-the-same social reality imposed by imperial centers and colonizers. His political struggle was for an alternative future: a Cosmic experience of time where the oppressions faced by the colonized would belong to a pre-history.
But his political practice had dual aspects. Not only did his struggle have Messianic aspects of delivering the oppressed, which is a trait shared by all progressive movements, but in the process he made the actual religious experience into a material means for bringing upon us that Messianic time – the time and experience of deliverance.
His political program, beliefs and values of non-violence were mediated by the social religious experience, thus not only revolutionizing the spiritual-religious experience but also elevating the profane to the sacred by redeeming from history fragments which contained the promise of a new future. In the context of theology, this can well be seen as a contribution to the Islamic theology of social experience. Bacha Khan found the inspiration for his non-violence in religion and taught his followers, the non-violent Khudai Khidmatgars, that their service to a political transformation is an act of worship – something which their very religion demanded of them.
The non-violence of Bacha Khan had for its inspiration and motif the forgiveness of Prophet Muhammad (SAW). Bacha Khan used to say that he had learned non-violence from the Prophet (SAW). For instance, when the Prophet (SAW) was attacked and forced out of Taif where he had gone to spread his message, the angel Gabriel appeared to him, saying that if he wished it, then the whole of Taif would be destroyed. At that moment, the Prophet (SAW) repeated prayers of peace for the people of Taif and the whole of humanity. Many other such traditions of his kindheartedness in the face of troubles and violence have had immense anecdotal moral value. They are still part of the lived spiritual experience of people following the faith.
Similarly, Karbala, which in itself has a universal symbolic value as a metaphor for struggle and standing up to the oppressor despite being outnumbered, was a recurring motif in Bacha Khan’s discourse of non-violence.
The non-violence of Bacha Khan was not a passive, apolitical and fatalist doctrine but an active resistance through defenseless bodies against the machine-guns of the oppressors and presenting mere, bare bodies as the only tool to bear and thus to neutralize the violence. For it was, after all, violence alone that was the only moral authority of the oppressors over the oppressed. When the oppressed, through non-violence, transcended the logic of violence, then the moral paucity of the oppressors was exposed.
At Karbala, what the Hussainis did was precisely this: they presented their bodies to take on the violence despite knowing their fate. It was a tale that Bacha Khan would recount to ground his anti-colonial political program of agitational politics and organizing on the basis of non-violence, drawing upon the spiritual experience that was the lived reality of the people.
Thus, the religious experience was taken from the dust of mythical ideology and was translated to a historico-political program, to be fulfilled in the empirical time through human action. The powers of a spiritual experience were released from the spell of myth and put into concrete material realm of historical struggle. The promise of a Cosmic time was mediated through material means, thus not only animating the empty time of now with sacred quality but also enriching the theology of religion by making it a force relevant to human socio-political experience.
When I say that Bacha Khan seized upon fragments of the past to inform the struggle in his era, I am referring to the struggle of Peer-e-Roshan, a 16th-century Pashtun mystic and revolutionary who fought against the Mughal empire the for freedom of his people. That struggle, too, was seeped in the spiritual tradition of fighting the unjust ruler.
Empirical historical time is circular. It is an empty time where there is a blind march towards a historical destination of salvation. This march is called “progress” by those who rule. They don’t see breaks in their recounting of time and history but a logical linear progress which culminated in the “now”, the present. And thus by the logic of arriving late in in the line, the social reality of the “now” has to be called progress.
But the past is not just an empty, un-disrupted march towards “now”. From the perspective of the oppressed, there is no progress, as the past is one empty line where the same always happens in the sense that one oppressor is replaced by the next, so the social relations of power always remain the same. But, simultaneously, the oppressed can also see history as filled with events which had promise of breaking away from the yoke of oppression and thus casting away the spell of historical progress imposed from above. Bacha Khan saw history through this latter lens: that of a promise of freedom and equality.
Walter Benjamin conceptualized this vision of history as, “Thus as a flashing image, in the now of recognition, the past is to be held fast.” And so the struggle of Peer-e-Roshan centuries before him flashed as an image to the perceptive eyes of Bacha Khan, and he held fast to that image – not for nostalgia or for an empty worship, but as a historical object to be redeemed in the present and translated into a political struggle of the material forms of today! The past was not a linear trajectory for Bacha Khan which culminated in oppression and subjection of Pashtuns because they were “noble savages”. Instead, for him it contained events where the same social relations of oppression that we see in our present were challenged through revolutionary creativity.
The struggle of Bacha Khan was rooted in the historicity of the moment but not limited by it in imagination and methods. The fragments of the past and the social utopia of freedom and equality were meant to guide us towards a future, rather than the vulgarity of a present blind to history and divorced from socio-cultural experiences and traditions.
It has to be kept in mind that Bacha Khan never saw himself as a revolutionary. Nor was his vocabulary that of revolution or of Marxist historical materialism. The dispute over reality or non-reality of thinking (any particular strain of it in the mind of the subject, too) was, as Marx said, scholastic. “Man must prove the truth” – in practice, that is.
The political struggle of Bacha Khan gave birth to its theory, as actions do. Bacha Khan not only secularized religious experience by formulating his non-violence in terms of religious precedents, but also broke with the linear time of empirical history to imagine jumping to the Cosmic experience of time through political action and proving that as the Cosmic time is possible, even an actual and part of our objective life. His political action was not ahistorical, as a progress born out of historical amnesia would have been. Instead, it was connected with redeeming images from the past which had the social utopian promise of equality and mediating that promise through the material forms of today.
For us, then, Bacha Khan also becomes a flashing image of the past, a fragment of a collective social utopia. The afterlife of Bacha Khan is that of a dream alive in today which has to be blasted out from the continuum of today to hold as a monad—a self-contained utopian promise — to transform our political and social reality.
The afterlife of Bacha Khan is that of a political revolution to be fulfilled.