Religion becomes a part of the socio-cultural fabric and the political programs in a society where the terms of debate and engagement are defined by religion, political programs can contain an appeal to the religious sentiments or they can be articulated in the terminology and inspirations drawn from religion. Religion being absorbed into the socio-cultural milieu becomes a passive but potent force. For the most part religion can be assumed to be a background gatekeeper, explosive but in the background nonetheless. But at certain times religion and political manifestations of religion can channel whole debates, imagination and ideas about particular events, issues or programs. Appeal to religious sentiment is not always for the worst nor is the use of religious terminology, inspirations, and ideological drives. Given the level of religion embodied in the socio-cultural setting, the invocation of religion, per se, in itself, is normatively neutral. Transformative politics, a progressive social program and an agenda for changing cultural attitudes if framed under the terminology and appeal to the religious ideals can achieve socio-political progress by keeping harmony between the progress imagined and the social order in place. This exactly was how Abdul Ghaffar Khan who was also known as Bacha Khan invoked Islam and the teachings of Islam for a larger socio-political transformation of the Pashtun masses. Bacha Khan was a social reformer and a politician active in the then NWFP under the British Raj and then Pakistan. He was an ally of the All India Congress and in the official historiography is much maligned for his pre-partition politics, but Bacha Khan was much more than a politician. His movement was called Khudai Khidmatgar Tehreek (Movement for the service of God). This name today will be alarming for some, as the objective of the movement sounds like a neo-Jihadist or an Islamist front. However, the terms were Islamic, the framework was meant to be harmonious with the religious fascination of the masses which is also exhibited even in today’s socio-political setting. The movement was defined as, “Khuday ta da khidmat hajat nishta. Da hagha da makhluq khidmat kawal da haga khidmat dy,” which means “God is in no need of being served. Serving his creature is a service to him”. He also deconstructed the organisational structure and the spirit of the movement, “Da khuday pa khidmat ke ikhtilaf nistha. Ikhtilaf da khud gharzai na paida kegy,” which means that, “there is no difference to be made in the service to God. Differences are born out of self-interest.” Read these in terms of the concepts of Wahdat-ul-Wajood (unity of all existence), the most popular Sufi mystic tradition of the subcontinent. Bacha Khan was a close follower of Bayazid Ansari of the 17 century, who was popularly known as Peer-e-Rokhan, and had his own school of Sufi Islam. Moreover, he also fought the Mughals to build an autonomous land for the Pashtuns. It is important to truly detect the direction religious discourse is taking. In this time it may not be possible to use the ideals and semantics of religion for a secular and progressive future because mainstream politics have co-opted a fundamentalist variety of religion for their own interests. But it is possible to open alternative avenues of debate and thus an alternative imaginings of a future based on an egalitarian and tolerant interpretation of Islam, as Bacha Khan once did The Khudai Khidmatgar Tehreek was preceded by Tehreek-e-Islah-e-Afghan (reforms movement for Afghans). That movement was limited in scale, but it did define the direction that Khudai Khidmatgar would take. After seeing the wasted resources at weddings and the extra spending on lavish invitations, Bacha Khan would travel to each village and would lecture the people on the virtues of simplicity. He also urged the people to channel resources in to economic activities rather than wasting it on a single day. Later, the Khudai Khidmatgar Tehreek encouraged people to pledge that they would spend at-least two hours performing a service free of cost, it could be anything from cleaning the streets, to offering to help the poor. The Prophet’s (SAW) example was used to highlight the principle of nonviolence, especially the incident of Taif where he was pelted with stones but he refused to retaliate; religious injunctions were also used to spread a progressive social attitude. Regarding the question of the place of women in society, Bacha Khan said, “If you want to see the level of progress of a society, see how it treats women.” The Azad Madaris (schools) were open to both boys and girls in a deeply conservative setting, because of which he was targeted by Mullahs, however, he answered with forbearance and countered their arguments from within the corpus of Islam. The outlook, the program, the spirit and the matter of Bacha Khan’s movement was secular and progressive in nature, but in order to make that palatable he didn’t use borrowed terms and concepts which would have sounded alien at that time. The kind of social progress he imagined was also complemented by a practical and immediate political goal of freedom from British imperialism. This was not a conservative movement to reform the society, instead it was a movement to bring about a progressive social transformation and a radical political demand of freedom. Earlier I mentioned how religion was a passive but potent identifier of politics and political thinking, it is pertinent to recall that during that time the same kind Islam was used for completely different purposes as well. All India Muslim League became a place exclusively for Muslims and was used to create a separate homeland for Muslims, while Bacha Khan rallied masses for a secular future by using the same evocative grammar of religion. Religion, being part of the socio-cultural reality, should not always be reduced to the margins of theological debates. In our times, when there is a fervent debate about one kind of Islam and the use of blasphemy as a tool to silence critics and to weaponise the public sentiment to suppress dissent and dissuade an alternative viewpoint. It is important to truly detect the direction religious discourse is taking. In this time it may not be possible to use the ideals and semantics of religion for a secular and progressive future because mainstream politics have co-opted a fundamentalist variety of religion for their own interests. But it is possible to open alternative avenues of debate and thus an alternative imaginings of a future based on an egalitarian and tolerant interpretation of Islam, as Bacha Khan once did. The author writes about politics, culture, and the intersection of both. He is currently pursuing his PhD in South Korea Published in Daily Times, September 25th 2018.