views updated May 08 2018


ETHNONYMS: Afghan, Pashtun, Pukhtun, Rohilla


Identification. The Pathan inhabit southern and eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan. Their language is Pushto (Pashto) and, except for a small minority, they are Sunni Muslims. Pathan dynasties constituted and, until recently, have controlled the tribal kingdom of Afghanistan, and during some periods Pathan or Afghan monarchs established their rule on the Indian plains.

Location. The Pathan inhabit an area roughly bounded by Kabul in the northeast and Herat in the northwest. It extends as far east as the Indus River and in the south an approximate boundary can be drawn from Sibi through Quetta to Qandahar. Pathan tribes like the Mohmand, Wazirs, Sulemankhel, and Achakzais actually straddle the international border. The topography of the area is primarily mountainous, consisting of a part of the Alpine-Himalayan mountain range in central Afghanistan and the Sulaiman range in Pakistan. To the east Pathan territory extends onto the Indus Plain and in the south onto the Iranian Plateau. The climate of Afghanistan is semiarid with cold winters and dry summers. The eastern Pathan areas are affected by the humidity and rain of the Indian monsoons. In addition Pathan live in and contribute to social life in certain areas of Indian such as Rampur (Rohilla) and cities like Bombay.

Demography. The 1984 population of Pushto speakers was approximately 20 million. This includes 11 million native to Pakistan and 9 million originating in Afghanistan. Because of the civil war that has persisted in Afghanistan since 1979, roughly 2 million Pathans have left for Pakistan as refugees. The Pathan constituted from 50 to 60 percent of the population of prewar Afghanistan. As the largest and most influential ethnic group, the Pathan have dominated the society and politics of that country for the past 200 years. Other Important ethnic minorities in Afghanistan include the Hazaras, Tajiks, and Uzbeks. Since the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan, the Pathan constitute Pakistan's second-largest ethnic group. According to Pakistan's 1981 census 13 percent of the nation's households are Pushto-speaking. Punjabis make up the majority of Pakistan's population; other important linguistic groups are Sindhis, Baluchis, and Urdu speakers.

Linguistic Affiliation. Pushto is in the Iranian Branch of the Indo-European Language Family. The two principal dialects, which differ in pronunciation, are Southwestern or Qandahari Pushto and Northeastern or Peshawari Pukhto. Most Pathans in Afghanistan speak Dari, a dialect of Farsi or Persian, as a second language, and it has had a strong influence on Pushto. Both languages are written in the Arabic script, modified to accommodate consonants that do not occur in Arabic.

History and Cultural Relations

The origin of the Pathan is debated. Linguistic evidence indicates Indo-European ancestry, while some tribal genealogies claim Semitic links. The regions of Afghanistan, eastern Iran, and western India have been some of the most heavily invaded in history and so the Pathan of today are probably a heterogeneous group. Among the invaders who have entered and established empires in the area have been Iranians, Greeks, Hindus, Turks, Mongols, Uzbeks, Sikhs, British, and Russians. The first historical reference to the Pathan (AD. 982) refers to Afghans living in the Sulaiman Mountains. The first significant impact they had outside of that area was as troops in the armies of Mahmud of Ghazni, a Muslim Turk, who led a number of invasions against the Hindu kings in north India around the year 1000. Nearly 300 years later Afghan kings themselves took power in Delhi. The Pathan Khaljis and later Lodhis ruled there until displaced by Babur, the first of the Mogul emperors, in the early sixteenth Century. It is ironic that Pathan kings ruled India before they ruled the mountainous areas to the west that are their Homelands. That feat was not accomplished until 1747 when, from a base in Qandahar, Ahmed Shah Abdali fused together an empire that encompassed parts of Iran and India as well as Afghanistan. Members of his tribe ruled a more truncated Afghanistan until 1973. British involvement in Pathan areas was a consequence of efforts to protect the western borders of their Indian empire and check the southern advance of the Russians. In 1879, following the Second Anglo-Afghan War, the Afghan government conceded control of all the passes into India to the British and in 1893 the Durand Line was established, delineating the spheres of responsibility of the two governments. It is now the international border dividing the Pathan between two nation-states.


While some Pathan are nomadic and others urban, the majority dwell in villages of 2 to 400 families. Frequently the Villages cluster around a larger town and are always located with concern for the availability of water and for defense. Settlement patterns reflect lineage politics with dominant lineages holding the choice or strategic lands. Genealogical closeness determines a group's location relative to them. Nomadic groups are primarily cattle herders who move with the seasons to follow pasture. They follow set routes and have traditional camping sites. Like the villages, camps are structured around the tents of the senior lineages. Houses are generally constructed of mud or sun-dried mud bricks covered with mud plaster. The only valuable parts of the house are the doors and the wood beams that support a flat roof of mats covered with mud and twigs. In small villages households consist of high-walled compounds frequently resembling fortresses, complete with towers on the corners. A clear and strict demarcation is observed between the areas (hujra ) where the public may enter and be entertained and the family's living space. Women are secluded from the former (according to the Islamic custom of purdah) and animals and grain stores are kept in the latter. In the traditional style nomadic tents are woven from black goat's hair and supported by posts or arched poles and guy ropes.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Agriculture, Primarily grain farming, and animal husbandry are the most important activities in the Pathan economy. The practice of agriculture is largely limited by the rough terrain and arid climate to river valleys; elsewhere, it depends on the scant rainfall. The most important crop is wheat, followed by barley and maize. Cultivation is done primarily by hand or with animals, though, where possible, mechanization is taking place. Traditional irrigation techniques such as kareezes, a series of wells connected by an underground tunnel, are in many cases being replaced by tube wells. Other important agricultural products are fresh and dried orchard fruits, nuts, vegetables, opium, and hashish. In addition to raising stock, nomads as well as some farmers engage in trade and moneylending. The Presence of the border dividing Pathan territory into two Countries also makes smuggling a lucrative pursuit. Domesticated animals include both fat-tailed and short-tailed sheep, goats, cattle, water buffalo, chickens, camels, donkeys, and horses.

Industrial Arts. Many industrial activities such as carpentry, bricklaying, and shoemaking are done by part-time Pashtun specialists who also farm. However, in many areas non-Pathan occupational groups carry out these activities, as well as others such as weaving, blacksmithing, and goldsmithing. An exception is the manufacture of guns; in certain areas, notably Darra Adam Khel south of Peshawar, Pathans produce guns in small factories.

Trade. Villages in Pathan areas have until recently been largely self-sufficient. Traditionally trade and even farming were activities looked down upon by Pathans who saw raiding, smuggling, and politics as honorable pursuits. In areas where such attitudes persist, trade is carried out by non-Pathan (frequently Hindu) shopkeepers and peddlers or through barter with nomads. Despite these traditions, in large towns and urban areas Pathans have earned reputations as successful traders and businessmen.

Division of Labor. The strict observance of purdah results in a marked division of labor between the sexes. Although rural women may participate in the harvesting of crops, they remain primarily inside the compound where they are expected to do the traditional home tasks of rearing children, maintaining the house, cooking, etc. Indeed, purdah is frequently observed to such an extent that women are not allowed to go out in public to do the shopping; thus, the shopping is all done by men. Purdah is less strictly observed by nomadic groups.

Land Tenure. In the arid, low-yield regions the small landholdings are self-cultivated by the malik (petty chief or household elder) and his sons. In areas of greater productivity, where khans (village or tribal chiefs) own larger tracts, tenants do the work. Tenants receive about 20 percent of the product if they only supply labor and higher percentages if they supply implements or draft animals. Until early this Century in the Swat and Mardan valleys the equality of the Pathan clans was underlined by the custom of wesh by which they periodically redistributed land between themselves. This involved physically shifting households and belongings to other parts of the valleys. Excess population from Pathan areas has traditionally left the area to serve as mercenaries in the armies of India, to work as tenants on the lands of others or, more currently, to act as laborers or entrepreneurs in the cities of Pakistan or the Persian Gulf states.


Kin Groups and Descent. Segmentary tribal structure and unilineal descent define Pathan kin groups. Genealogical and geographic divisions generally coincide. The most pertinent division within the tribal structure is the clan subsection, that is, the children of one man, generally encompassing four or five generations. It is within this sphere that one marries, makes alliances, and is in conflict. The smallest unit is the kor, or household, and it implies cohabitation with a living grandfather. This is the major economic and social unit; its members may cohabit in a village, a single compound, or a nomadic group. Descent is patrilineal.

Kinship Terminology. Aspects of the Eskimo system, in which avuncular and cousin terms are uniform, are present, though certain collaterals are distinguished. For example, while all other female cousins carry the same term as do all other male ones, the father's brother's daughter (potential or preferred bride) and father's brother's son (rival for Inheritance and thus potential enemy) are given distinct terms.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Although polygamy with up to four wives is permitted under Muslim law, monogamy is prevalent. Marriages are overwhelmingly endogamous within the clan and to a large degree within the subsection. Parallel-cousin marriage with father's brother's daughter is preferred among some tribes. Marriages are arranged by the couple's parents and their plans are generally fulfilled. The union is commonly contracted on the basis of bride-price. Frequently the bride's parents spend the money received in bride-price as dowry to meet the future domestic needs of the couple. A common practice is exchange marriage between close agnatic kin in which a sister or daughter is given and one simultaneously taken. Residence after marriage is virilocal, the bride coming to live in a single compound with the son, who receives separate quarters within it. The death of the patriarch of a family is frequently the time when such joint or compound families divide themselves into separate compounds. Despite the ease of obtaining a divorce under Muslim law, it is very rare among Pathans. The bride-price and the man's honor are lost if the woman remarries.

Domestic Unit. The household (kor) is the primary unit of consumption and cooperation and is conceived of as those who share a hearth or as a man and/or his sons. Three main types of domestic unit are found: (1) the nuclear family; (2) the compound family, in which a patriarch and/or his sons and their wives live together and share expenses; and (3) the joint family, in which the nuclear families in a compound, frequently brothers, keep independent budgets.

Inheritance. Land is divided as inheritance only among the males and on the basis of equality. The eldest brother is generally given an extra share to be used for the upkeep of the family guest house (hujra). It is over the inheritance of land that rivalry develops between brothers and, in the next Generation, cousins. Despite Islamic injunctions, neither wives nor daughters inherit property.

Socialization. With the separation of the sexes inherent in Islam, children are raised primarily by their mother and elder sisters. In the segregated atmosphere that prevails there is a great deal of competition for attention and affection, though men tend to be indulgent toward children. Boys are circumcised by their seventh year.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Pathan are divided into a number of different politicoadministrative structures. In Afghanistan the state, itself evolved from the tribal system, has historically exerted only loose control except in the major cities. In Pakistan several different systems prevail that are largely the legacy of British imperial administration. Although most Pathans live in Districts where Pakistan's civil and criminal laws prevail, some tribes, such as the Mohmand and Wazirs, are within Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), while others, such as those in Malakand in the North-West Frontier Province or those in Zhob Agency in Baluchistan, are within Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA). In FATA and PATA tribal and customary law holds sway.

Social Organization. Despite administrative divisions Pathan maintain a conception of their cultural and ethnic unity. This idea stems from the segmentary tribal structure and the associated notion of descent from a common ancestor. A. S. Ahmed has identified two principles of social Organization among the Pathan, nang (honor) and qalang (taxes or rent). In areas where nang prevails traditional values are practiced, there is little social stratification, and there is no Central political authority. In qalang areas landownership, not lineage membership, gives status and social stratification is prevalent, along with political centralization in the hands of an aristocracy. In both contexts mullahs, Sayyids (descendants of the Prophet Mohammed), and occupation groups play their special roles in Pathan society but stand outside Pathan genealogy.

Political Organization. To varying degrees Pathans are assimilated into the administrative structure of the area in which they live. In the last twenty-five years Afghanistan has officially moved from being a constitutional monarchy to a republic and finally to a democratic republic. Despite these changes (and until the current civil war) the relationship Between the government and the rural population changed Little. Since the government's presence has usually been for the purpose of extracting taxes or conscripts, the villagers' attitude toward it has generally been defensive and nonCooperative. To some extent the same was true on the other side of the border where there was ongoing resistance to British rule, though British administration was accepted in some areas and British subsidies in others. Although most Pathans supported the movement for the creation of Pakistan, others wanted to reunite Pathans on both sides of the border in a country to be called "Pakhtunistan." Since then the Pakhtunistan movement has smoldered in various forms in both countries. An important political role is played by indigenous decision-making councils called jirgas. They are made up of maliks and decide various intra- or intertribal matters on the basis of tribal custom and, to a lesser extent, Islamic law. In Afghanistan the institution extends to the national level where the Loya Jirga, made up of tribal, ethnic, and Religious leaders, meets to decide important issues.

Social Control. Traditionally social control was maintained by a code of behavior and honor called Pakhtunwali. It combines the principles of revenge, hospitality to guests, defense of those who have sought protection in one's care, the chastity of married women, and restraint toward those considered weak or helpless (Hindus, women, and boys). Pakhtunwali in some cases contradicts and generally takes precedence over Islamic law. It is harshthe penalty for illicit sexual behavior, for example, is deathand it is enforced by strong social pressure. Violations of law outside of the activities the code encompasses are dealt with by the jirga or the government administration.

Conflict. As noted, the rivalry with father's brother's son for property, power, and wives is a constant source of conflict, as is Pakhtunwali itself, since even petty quarrels can escalate to a point where honor is involved. Efforts to encapsulate the Pathan into political systems seen as alien are also a source of conflict. It is frequently at such times of external threat that religious leaders assume political importance since resistance takes the form of a holy struggle or jihad. Conflict resolution is done through the jirga or through the intervention of Religious figures.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Islam is an essential and unifying theme in Pathan life, and it also unites the Pathan with an international community of believers. The overwhelming majority of Pathan is Sunni Muslim of the Hanafi legal school. Some groups, notably in the Kurram and Orakzai agencies of Pakistan, practice Shia Islam. A number of supernatural figures reside among the Pathan. Jinn are spirits born of fire that can enter and possess people. Other negative beings include the ghosts of disturbed or cursed souls, witches, and fairies. The souls of pious figures can also return to Earth to play a more positive role.

Religious Practitioners. While Islam has no ordained priesthood, religious leaders are recognized. At the village level this role is played by the mullah, a man who has attained some religious training. Besides tending the mosque and making the call to prayer five times a day, he officiates at the rites of passage that mark the stages of life, birth, circumcision, marriage, and death. Another important figure is the Sayyed who stands outside the tribal structure, since his genealogy extends to the Prophet himself and not to the ancestors of the Pathans. Not bound by the Pashtun code of honor, Sayyeds are saintly figures who can arbitrate between conflicting groups.

Ceremonies. Besides ceremonies at the various rites of passage, the religious calendar includes: three days of celebration at the end of Ramazan, the month of fasting; a day observed by the ritual slaying of sheep in memory of Ibrahim slaying a sheep in place of his son on Allah's order; and the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed.

Arts. Poetry is the art most esteemed by Pathans. Their greatest poet, Khushhal (d. 1689), wrote both love poems and patriotic poems. Embroidered waistcoats and elaborately decorated rifle butts were traditionally the major visual arts.

Medicine. While some medical facilities are being introduced, people customarily go to the mullah or traditional herbalist for cures. A jinn possessing the patient is commonly held to be the cause of disease. Indigenous treatment is in a tradition said to be of Greek origin or in a religious tradition worked out centuries ago. A common cure consists of the wearing of talismans around the neck composed of magic formulas or verses of the Quran sewn up in cloth or leather.

Death and Afterlife. In Islam the body is to be buried ritually pure so that the soul is prepared to enter Heaven on Judgment Day. After death the body is washed and wrapped in a white sheet. A mullah performs the death rites, leading the congregated mourners in a special prayer. The body is buried with the face pointing toward Mecca. Mourning obligations continue after the burial. The deceased's relatives gather at the grave on the first few Fridays and on the fortieth day after the death, and they observe the first year's anniversary of the death with a final memorial ceremony.

See also Kohistani; Sayyid


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: traditional Structure and Economic Development in a Tribal Society. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Barth, Fredrik (1972). Political Leadership among Swat Pathans. London School of Economics Monographs on Social Anthropology, no. 19. London: Athlone Press.

Caroe, Olaf (1958). The Pathans 550 b.c.-a.d. 1957. London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's Press.

Dupree, Louis (1980). Afghanistan. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.



views updated May 18 2018

Pathans (Pashtuns) Muslim tribes of se Afghanistan and nw Pakistan. They speak various dialects of an e Iranian language, Pashto, and are composed of about 60 tribes, numbering in total perhaps 10 million. Formerly, they were pastoralists inhabiting the mountainous border regions, but they are now mainly farmers and are more widely spread. In their clashes with the British in the 19th century, they gained a reputation as formidable warriors. Their way of life was disrupted during the Soviet occupation (1979–89) and the subsequent civil wars in Afghanistan.