Malala Yousafzai and the Tradition of Islamic Nonviolence

Malala Yousafzai has captured our love and imagination.

Malala was recently a guest on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. She is the 16 year old Pakistani girl who fought for education in the face of persecution from the Taliban. She explained on the show that, “Education is the power for women and that’s why the terrorists are afraid of education. They do not want women to get education because then women would become more powerful.” In the face of persecution from the Taliban, Malala says she “spoke on every media channel I could and I raised my voice on every platform that I could and I said, ‘I need to tell the world what is happening in Swat and I need to tell the world that Swat is suffering from terrorism and we need to fight against terrorism.”

But it was what she said next that stole our hearts. She reflected upon what she would do if a member of the Taliban came to take her life.

If you hit a Talib…then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat another with that much cruelty and that much harshly. You must fight others, but through peace and through dialogue and through education. Then I’ll tell him how important education is and that I even want education for your children as well. And I’ll tell him, ‘That’s what I want to tell you. Now do what you want.’

There is certainly power in education, but we can use education for very destructive purposes. Look at atomic bombs and chemical warfare, for example. We all know that undisciplined intelligence can bring catastrophic destruction. That’s why Malala’s response to the Taliban was so powerful. Indeed, poor education is a problem that humanity faces, but our biggest problem is violence. Malala fought back, but she knew that fighting back with violence would only cause more problems. So she fought back with the power of peace and nonviolence.

Islam and Nonviolence

Missing from much of the discussion about Malala is her faith. One Muslim commentator states that Malala represents “the kind of strong Muslim woman [that] we are all so proud of.” Of course, male or female, Muslim or non-Muslim, the world needs more people like Malala willing to fight for justice with radical nonviolence.

Malala’s nonviolence in the face of brutality brings up an important question about Islam. Many people assume that Islam is inherently violent and out to conquer the world. If that’s the case, then how do we explain Malala and the countless other Muslims who have fought for justice through nonviolence?

Christians like myself must hear our Muslim brothers and sisters’ call for nonviolence as a result of their faith, not as a contradiction of their faith. For example, Abdul Ghaffar Khan played a crucial role in ending British occupation in India. His story is told in Eknath Easwaran’s masterful book, Nonviolent Soldier of Islam. Khan stated that “Islam is work, faith, and love and without these the name ‘Muslim is a sounding brass and a tinkling symbol.’” His life of nonviolence was rooted in his faith. He stated,

There is nothing surprising in a Muslim or a Pathan like me subscribing to the creed of nonviolence. It is not a new creed. It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet Muhammad 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.

Like Malala, Khan was inspired by Islam to fight against injustice, especially the injustice of poor education. Only the rich were able to send their children to school in his culture, so Khan created schools for poor girls and boys. Also like Malala, Khan knew that education wasn’t enough. It must be used to create cultures of nonviolence. So, in the face of British violence, Khan influenced 100,000 of his fellow Pathans to join his nonviolent army. Called the Khudai Khidmatgars, or “Servants of God,” each member signed a pledge that they wouldn’t retaliate. It stated:

I am a Khudai Khidmatgar; 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.

I promise to treat every Pathan as my brother and friend.

I promise to refrain from antisocial customs and practices.

I promise to live a simple life, to practice virtue and refrain from evil.

I promise to practice good manners and good behavior and not to lead a life of idleness. I promise to devote at least two hours a day to social work.

My fellow Christians must listen and speak with our Muslim brothers and sisters who are committed to nonviolence. A simple google search for “Islam nonviolence” will provide many important results. Another good place to start is a book called Islam and Nonviolence, which describes current nonviolent movements within Islam.

We love stories like Malala and Khan’s because they embody the power of nonviolence. They point us toward the Islamic proclamation that God’s mercy and compassion encompasses all things, and indeed, all people. Malala and Khan received God’s grace and compassion and freely offered it to all people, including their enemies. Hopefully, their stories will continue to inspire us to follow in their footsteps.

(You can also join the discussion about this article on Sojourners. For more on Malala Yousafzai, see Adam’s sermon “On Saying Yes: An Israelite Girl, Malala Yousafzai, and Jesus.

5 replies
  1. Marie De Carlo
    Marie De Carlo says:

    Malala gives voice to all women who seek an education!Malala speaks for all women , not only Muslims.” I am Malala” !!

    Reply
  2. Tom Truby
    Tom Truby says:

    Thank you Adam. You are moving me toward a more excepting and benevolent attitude on Islam and our Muslim brothers and sisters.

    Reply
    • Adam Ericksen
      Adam Ericksen says:

      Lol! You are welcome, my friend! Malala is certainly challenging our cultural mood concerning Islam. There are a lot of Muslims who share her spirit. I hope Malala’s story inspires us to hear theirs, too. They could use our support – and we could use theirs!

      Reply

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