[Editor’s note: We are very pleased to welcome Kevin Bell to Jihadica. Kevin has lived in Afghanistan and Tajikistan for a number of years and recently wrote a master’s thesis on Yunis Khalis for Princeton’s Near Eastern Studies Department. He’s hunting for a job in Afghanistan–probably not for long given his proficiency in Pashto. You can follow him on Twitter @allegorycave]
Yunis Khalis is best known for his role as the leader of the Hizb-e Islami (Khalis) mujahidin political party, and as a host to Osama bin Laden in 1996 in Jalalabad. However, even a cursory review of the various Khalis biographies written in Pashto reveals that there was far more to his life, interests, and influence on Afghan politics than might be indicated by a discussion limited to his role as a jihadi leader.
I extensively discuss many of these new perspectives about Khalis in my forthcoming report from the Combating Terrorism Center, but some of the most interesting episodes from the biographical literature are unfortunately not included in that study. The most fascinating and unexpected of these is Din Muhammad’s account of Yunis Khalis’s “medical practice” as a homeopathic healer.
Din Muhammad begins by pointing out that Yunis Khalis’s curriculum as a madrasa student in pre-partition India included exposure to Greek medical texts, but Khalis’s real introduction to the theory and practice of medicine began after he went into exile in Pakistan in 1974. Shortly after Khalis arrived in Pakistan he spent some time living in the home of Mawlawi Salim in Kurram Agency. Mawlawi Salim was already an established medical practitioner who wrote books about homeopathic healing in Urdu from his home. Khalis spent some time perusing these and asking Salim questions about the more challenging parts of the text before he traveled to Peshawar where the majority of the mujahidin leadership then resided. By this time Khalis had acquired enough knowledge to begin his own research and he began to practice homeopathy independently after buying some books and medicines from the bazaar in Peshawar.
In order to substantiate his account of Khalis’s knowledge of medicine, Din Muhammad eagerly recounts two incidents where he witnessed the effectiveness of Yunis Khalis as a healer. Although we immediately notice that the illnesses/wounds that Khalis heals in these two anecdotes are neither dramatic nor life threatening, Din Muhammad’s point is not that Khalis was a miracle worker. Once he establishes that Khalis actually understood something about medicine, Din Muhammad uses this to make a larger point about Khalis’s character: he was generous with his time, skills, and treasure, and he did not charge the poor for his services. This is a theme which Din Muhammad picks up elsewhere, such as in his account of the construction of Khalis’s new neighborhood of Najm al-Jihad south of Jalalabad for widows, orphans, and disabled mujahidin after the end of the Soviet Afghan War.
We are right to question the possible bias of authors like Din Muhammad who have such a clear personal connection to their subject matter. However, it is easy enough to argue that the state of our knowledge of Yunis Khalis is so poor that even accounts of him that are semi-hagiographical in nature deserve real attention. He is a key figure in the history of both the development of the Haqqani Network and the growth of the Eastern Shura (aka Jalalabad Shura) in the mid 1990s.
But ultimately, that has nothing to do with why I enjoyed reading this particular subsection of Din Muhammad’s biography. This account of Khalis as a homeopath reminds us that there are systems of knowledge and ways of approaching learning in the Afghan frontier that are both vital and important to local communities, and almost totally unanalyzed in the West. Considering that I have only scratched the surface of the extant primary source material about Yunis Khalis and other major Afghan mujahidin leaders, I expect that further study will reveal even more surprising and interesting addenda to our understanding of the history of Afghan Islamism.