Information about the Pashtun

The Pashtuns (also Pushtun, Pakhtun, ethnic Afghan, or Pathan) are an ethno-linguistic group of eastern Iranian stock, living primarily in eastern and southern Afghanistan, the NWFP Province and Baluchistan with large colonies found in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore in Pakistan. There are smaller communities in Iran and India, and a large migrant worker community in the countries of the Arabian peninsula. The Pashtuns are typically characterized both by their language, Muslim religion, and their pre-Islamic indigenous code of honor and culture, Pashtunwali. The Pashtuns are the world's largest segmentary lineage (patriarchal) tribal group in existence. The total population of the group is estimated to be about 40 million, but may be much higher as accurate census counts often prove difficult given the migratory nature of many Pashtun tribes as well as the practice of secluding women.

History and Origins

The Father of modern Afghanistan: Ahmad Shah DurraniPashtun culture is ancient and much of it is yet to be recorded in contemporary times. There are many conflicting theories, some contemporary, some ancient, about the origins of the Pashtun people, both among historians and the Pashtun themselves.

Herodotus and several other Greek and Roman historians have mentioned a people called 'Pactyan' living on the eastern frontier of Iran as early as the first millennium CE. It has been conjectured that these may be the ancestors of today's Pashtuns, but there is no specific evidence for this. In addition, the Rig-Veda mentions a tribe called the 'Pakhat' as inhabiting present-day Afghanistan and some have speculated that they may have been early ancestors of the Pashtuns, but this remains unproven. The Bactrians appear to have spoken a related Eastern Iranian language and it is conceivable that the Pashtuns are at least partially descended from them, especially Pashtuns in the Kabul and Peshawar regions.

The Pashtuns most likely were living near somewhere in the vicinity of the city of Kandahar and the Suleiman Mountains and began expanding millennia ago. Due to their geographic location, they have often been in close contact with the Persians and religiously most Pashtuns were probably Zoroastrian, Buddhist, and pagan prior to the coming of Muslim invaders.

According to the writer W.K. Frazier Tytler writing in his book Afghanistan, "The word Afghan… first appears in history in the Hudud-al-Alam, a work by an unknown Arab geographer who wrote in 982 CE." Until the advent of the modern Afghan state in the 18th century, the word Afghan had been synonymous with Pashtun.

"The supposition that the Pathans are any different from the Afghans is not borne out either by the legendary accounts associated with the origin of this people or by historical or ethnological data." (Afghan Immigration in the Early Middle Ages, by K.S Lal).

From the 1st century BCE to the 5th century CE the regions where the Pashtuns lived saw immense migrations of Eurasian peoples including the Persians, Sakas, Scythians, Kushans, Huns, and Greeks. Later invaders would include Muslim Arabs and Central Asian Turkic tribes as well as the devastating assaults by the Mongols.

According to most anthropologists, the Pashtuns appear to be primarily of Aryan descent (as well as being modified by various other invaders and migrants over the centuries) and are very similar to the Persians, Kurds, Tajiks and Baluchis. The Pashtuns have eastern Iranian origins as the Pashto language is classified as an eastern Iranian tongue distantly related to Ossetic among other Iranian languages (see Ethnologue for further details). Many Pashtuns have intermingled with various invaders, neighoring groups, and migrants including possibly the Ghilzai who may have mingled with Turkic tribes, the Durrani who have interacted considerably with the Tajiks, the Hazaragi Pashtuns who are of mixed Pashtun and Hazara ancestry, Hindko-speaking Punjabi Pathans, and many Pathan groups in India who have mixed with local Indian populations as well. The Pashtuns overall are predominantly a Caucasoid people with Mediterranean features, but blonde hair and blue and green eyes are not uncommon, especially amongst remote mountain tribes. Some Pashtuns show traces of Mongol ancestry such as the Hazaragi Pashtuns while Pathans in India often display many phenotype similarities to Indian groups.

There are more mythological and romanticized origins for the Pashtuns. For example, according to the Encyclopedia of Islam, the Theory of Pashtun descent from Israelites is traced to Maghzan-e-Afghani who compiled a history for Khan-e-Jehan Lodhi in the reign of Mughal Emperor Jehangir in the 16th century CE. This reference is in line with the commonly held view by Pashtuns that when the twelve tribes of Israel were dispersed (see Israel and Judah, Lost Ten Tribes), the tribe of Joseph among other Hebrew tribes settled in the region. Hence the term 'Yusef Zai' in Pashto translates to the 'sons of Joseph'; the Yusefzai are the 8th largest tribe of the Pashtuns. Other Pashtuns claim descent from Arabs and some groups such as the Afridis claim to be descended from Alexander the Great's Greeks as well. Recent genetic researches have basically led to earlier anthropological conclusions that the Pashtuns are an Indo-European people related to other Iranian groups as well as speakers of Dardic languages such as the Kalasha as well as the Nuristanis. What may be the case is that the Pashtuns have been slightly modified over time by various invaders, while maintaining their eastern Iranian base both linguistically and genetically overall.

The Pashtuns are intimately tied to the history of modern-era Afghanistan stretching back to the Durrani Empire. The country's founder, Ahmad Shah Durrani, was an Abdali (Durrani) Pashtun and formerly a high-ranking military official under the Turko-Iranian ruler Nadir Shah in Iran. He founded the empire of Greater Afghanistan which covered all of what is today Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir and a portion of Iranian Mashad in 1747 and the Pashtuns would rule this empire for the next 80 years, while truncated Afghanistan emerged following conflicts with the Sikhs (see also Ranjit Singh) and the British. The Pashtuns/Afghans fought the British to a standstill and kept the Russians at bay during the Great Game during which Afghanistan managed to remain an independent state that played the two large empires against each other to maintain some semblance of autonomy. However, the British annexed the Pashtun majority regions that now comprise western Pakistan following the demarcation of the Durand Line and this would lead to the Pashtunistan dispute between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the 20th century, Pashtun troops enlisted in the British Indian army and fought in World War II and became an important component of the Frontier Scouts and the Pakistan army as well as the modern Afghan military and were active in the opposition against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. More recently the Pashtuns became known for being the primary ethnic group that comprised the Taliban, whose ideological basis began in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and their activity was centered around the city of Peshawar and at the Madarassa-e-Haqqania in Akora, Khattak. In addition to Peshawar, the cities of Kandahar and Kabul figure quite prominently in Pashtun culture and the city of Quetta in Baluchistan also has a Pashtun majority population. The current President of Afghanistan is an ethnic Pashtun, Hamid Karzai, while in neighboring Pakistan another ethnic Pashtun also attained the Presidency in the 1950s and 1960s, Ayub Khan. The Afghan royal family now represented by Muhammad Zahir Shah is also of ethnic Pashtun origin. Other prominent Pashtuns include the 17th century warrior poet Khushal Khan Khattak, Afghan "Iron" Emir Abdur Rahman Khan and in modern times Pakistani cricketer turned politician Imran Khan among many others.

Who is a Pashtun

Pashtun Refugee Girl, Sharbat GulaAmong historians, anthropologists, and the Pashtun themselves, there is controversy as to exactly who is a Pashtun. The three most prominent views are (1) to define the Pashtun in terms of patrilineal descent going back to legendary times, (2) to consider Pashtun any tribes who have for hundreds of years lived in the relevant geographic area and who speak Pashto and live in an essentially similar manner though may not have a patrilieal descent connection, and (3) only those who follow Pashtunwali regardless of language or ethnicity. We may call these the patrilineal definition, cultural definition, and religious definition respectively.

The patrilineal definition is based on an important orthodox law of Pashtunwali and tradition of Pashtun society. It states simply that if your father is not a Pashtun, neither are you. This law has kept the immemorial trait of the Pashtuns being an exclusively patriarchal tribe intact. Under this definition it does not matter which language you speak (Pashto, Persian, Urdu, English, etc.), but that your father be an ethnic Pashtun. Thus the Afridis and Yousafzai of Bhopal, India have lost both the language and presumably many of the ways of their ancestors, but by being able to trace their fathers' ethnic heritage back to the Pashtun tribes, who some believe are descendants of the four sons of a Qais Abdur Rashid, a possible progenitor of the Pashtun, they remain "Pashtun". Thus, under the patrilineal definition language is not in itself a defining point. This patrilineal law is rooted in Pashtunwali.

The cultural definition would include all Pashto speakers and those tribes and communities who have assimilated into Pashtun tradition, who, however, may not have a patrilineal connection. A prime example of this are the Arab tribes who settled amongst and intermingled with the Pashtuns after the Arab invasions of Afghanistan and Sindh during the rise of Islam. These same tribes today are considered Pashtun by most due to their cultural assimilation of Pashtun culture and likely intermarriage with Pashtuns. Additionally, some feel that this cultural definition excludes those whose connection is merely ancestral- though of this there is great debate and historical precedent. Taking this idea further, the cultural definition would exclude the Afridis and Yousafzai of Bhopal, India who are in fact ethnic Pashtuns, but would include some tribal groups that do not share the specific patriarchal ethnic descent required by the patrilineal definition, notably the Swatis, who claim patrilineal descent from Muhammad, the founder of Islam.

The social definition for Pashtuns is partially based upon the laws of Pashtunwali, and that those who are Pashtun adhere to them. In addition, for many Pashtuns religion is of great importance and being a Muslim is also one of the basic precepts that define a Pashtun, especially from the point of view of other Pashtuns. This notion of religion fused with ethnicity is found amongst various other groups as well such as the Armenians who, for example, also identify themselves as Armenian only if there is adherence to the Christian faith. Even amongst the Islamic population, there is a Shia minority amongst the Pashtuns, while the majority are of the Sunni sect. In addition, there was a small Pashto-speaking Jewish population that left for Israel. Overall, more flexibility can be found amongst Pashtun intellectuals and academics who sometimes simply define who is and is not a Pashtun based upon other criteria that excludes religion.


Throughout Pashtun history poets, prophets, kings and warriors have been the most revered members of society. The term 'Pakhto' or 'Pashto' from which they derive their name is not merely the name of their language, but synonymous with an honour code and religion known as Pashtunwali. The main tenets of 'Pakhto' or formally known as Pashtunwali are:
  1. Hospitality and asylum to all guests seeking help.
  2. Justice: Ancient Israelite Moses' Law, Tooth for a Tooth.
  3. Defense of 'Zan, Zar and Zameen' (Women/Family, Treasury and Property).
  4. Personal Independence. Pashtuns are fiercely independent and there is a lot of internal competition.
Most decisions in tribal life are made by a 'Jirga' or 'Senate' of elected elders and wise men. However, Pashtun society is also marked by its matriarchal tendencies. Folktales involving reverence for Pashtun mothers and matriarchs are common and are passed down from parent to child, as most Pashtun heritage, through a rich oral tradition.

As noted above, some historians believe that the name Pakhtun has its origin in Pactyan, the name of an ancient Iranian tribe that lived in the Persian Satrapy Arachosia, and reported by Herodotus and contemporaries. This identification is uncertain.


The Pashtuns are predominantly a tribal people, however, increasing numbers now dwell in cities and urban settlements. Many still identify themselves with various clans.

More precisely, there are several levels of organization: the tabar (tribe) is subdivided into kinship groups each of which is a khel. The khel in turn is divided into smaller groups (pllarina or plarganey), each of which consists of several extended families or kahols. [Wardak, 2003, p. 7] "A large tribe often has dozens of sub-tribes whose members may see themselves as belonging to each, some, or all of the sub-tribes in different social situations (co-operative, competitive, confrontational) and identify with each accordingly." [ibid., p. 10]

Some defined Pashtun tribes include:
  • Ahmadzai
  • Afridi
  • Alekozai
  • Awan
  • Baburi
  • Bangash
  • Bhittani
  • Barakzai
  • Daulatzai
  • Dilazak
  • Durrani
  • Edo-Khel
  • Gandapur
  • Ghilzai/Ghalji
  • Jadoon
  • Kakar
  • Kakazai
  • Kuchi
  • Kundi
  • Kharoti
  • Khattak
  • Lodhi
  • Mangal
  • Mashwanis
  • Marwat
  • Mohamedzai
  • Mohmand/Moomand
  • Niazi
  • Noorzai
  • Orakzai
  • Popalzay
  • Shilmani
  • Shinwari
  • Shirani
  • Shatak
  • Suleimonkhel
  • Suri
  • Tanoli
  • Taraki
  • Tareens
  • Totakhel
  • Umarzai
  • Wardak
  • Waziri
  • Yousafzai/Esapzey
  • Zadran
  • Zazi/Jaji
Pashtun tribes are divided into four tribal groups: Sarbans, Batans, Ghurghusht and Karans. References
  • Ahmad, Aisha and Boase, Roger. 2003. "Pashtun Tales from the Pakistan-Afghan Frontier: From the Pakistan-Afghan Frontier." Saqi Books (March 1, 2003). [1].
  • Ahmed, Akbar S. 1976. Millennium and Charisma among Pathans: A Critical Essay in
  • Social Anthropology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Ahmed, Akbar S. 1980. Pukhtun economy and society. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • Banuazizi, Ali and Myron Weiner (eds.). 1994. "The Politics of Social Transformation in Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan (Contemporary Issues in the Middle East)." Syracuse University Press. [2].
  • Banuazizi, Ali and Myron Weiner (eds.). 1988. "The State, Religion, and Ethnic Politics: Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan (Contemporary Issues in the Middle East)." Syracuse University Press. [3].
  • Careo, Olaf. 1984. "The Pathans: 500 B.C.-A.D. 1957 (Oxford in Asia Historical Reprints)". Oxford University Press. [4]
  • Dani, Ahmad Hasan. 1985. "Peshawar: Historic city of the Frontier." Sang-e-Meel Publications (1995). [5].
  • Dupree, Louis. 1997. "Afghanistan." Oxford University Press. [6].
  • Elphinstone, Mountstuart. 1815. "An account of the Kingdom of Caubul and its dependencies in Persia, Tartary, and India,: comprising a view of the Afghaun nation." Akadem. Druck- u. Verlagsanst (1969). [7].
  • Habibi, Abdul Hai. 2003. "Afghanistan: An Abridged History." Fenestra Books. [8].
  • Hopkirk, Peter. 1984. "The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia." Kodansha Globe; Reprint edition. [9].
  • Wardak, Ali "Jirga - A Traditional Mechanism of Conflict Resolution in Afghanistan", 2003, online at UNPAN (the United Nations Online Network in Public Administration and Finance).
  • A Study of the Greek Ancestry of Northern Pakistani Ethnic Groups Using 115 Microsatellite Markers. A. Mansoor, Q. Ayub, et al.Am. J. Human Genetics, Oct 2001 v69 i4 p399

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