From Academic Kids

The Pashtuns (also Pushtun, Pakhtun, ethnic Afghan, or Pathan (by non-Pashtuns in Pakistan and India) are an ethno-linguistic group of people, living primarily in eastern and southern Afghanistan, the NWFP Province and Karachi in Pakistan, and small communities in India. The Pashtuns are characterized by their indigenous code (religion) 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 at ca. 40 million.


History and Origins

Pashtun 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.

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 AD." 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 BC to the 5th century AD the regions where the Pashtuns lived saw immense migrations of peoples from Central Asia and the Middle East: the arrival of the Sakas, Kushans, Huns, Gujjars Hebrews,and Greeks.

According to most anthropologists, the Pashtuns appear to be primarily of Aryan descent similar to the Persians, Kurds and Tajiks. 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).

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 AD. 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. See Theory of Pashtun descent from Israelites. 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. What may be the case is that the Pashtuns have been modified 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. The country's founder, Ahmad Shah Durrani, was a Pashtun. He founded the state, as we know it today, in 1747 and the Pashtuns would rule it for the next 200 years. The Pashtuns/Afghans fought both the British and Russians to a standstill during the Great Game. More recently the Pashtuns are known for being the primary ethnic group that comprised the Taliban, whose ideological basis began in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, 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.

Who is a Pashtun

Among 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, 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 the Pashtuns after the Arab invasions of Afghanistan and Sindh during the rise of Islam. These same tribes today are considered Pashtun by some due to their cultural assimilation of Pashtun culture. 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 religious definition is based on the laws of Pashtunwali, and that those who are Pashtun adhere to them.


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.

However, 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.


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]

Major Pashtuns tribes include:

Pashtun tribes are divided into four tribal groups: Sarbans, Batans, Ghurghusht and Karans.


  • 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

See also

ja:パシュトゥーン人 nl:Pathanen sv:Pashtuner


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