I have been somewhat delayed in writing as of late, and perhaps a great deal of it has to do with the distractions of working in Afghanistan for the last ten months as a DoD civilian. I have been working with a Brigade Combat Team (BCT) in Nangarhar and Kunar Provinces, to include the Pakistan border. My job has been to help the military better work with the culture, to include helping understand and mitigate cultural disputes and misunderstandings, the kind we have seen flaring up in the last few months. The suicide vehicle-born IED that hit Jalalabad Air Field (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/27/afghanistan-quran-burning-protest_n_1302195.html ) went off several hundred meters from me, and it was shaking to say the least. Afghans are some of the most volatile, sensitive people in the world, and the latest Koran burnings in Bagram are prime demonstrations of this.
I have seen so much of this place, up close and personal, to include the Kyber Pass on the Pakistan border. It is here through which Alexander the Great, Darius, Gengis Khan, Chandragupta Maurya The Great (Sanskrit: चन्द्रगुप्त मौर्य महानHindi: चन्द्रगुप्त मौर्य महान), Demetrius I of Bactria (Greek: ΔΗΜΗΤΡΙΟΣ, Persian: /Pashto: دیمتریوس بلخی; a Buddhist Greco-Bactrian king), Muhammad Ghor, Mahmud Gaznavi, Ranjit Singh, the British, and many others have passed or failed to pass.
Islam passed through there as well. In Afghanistan, the expression of Islam is quite different than in other places. Islam is a faith described by the Quran, volumes of Hadithic records, scholastic material, jurisprudence, and different interpretations, all existing amidst core unifying themes of God’s unity (Taw’hid, توحيد), submission, justice, betterment of society (maslaHah, مصلحة), charity, worship, love of fellow man and woman, and a form of spoken and written language unparalleled in its expressional beauty-that of ancient Arabic. It is described by Muslims to be the original, untainted word of Allah, unrivaled in its beauty. As one who speaks and writes it (albeit not with native fluency), I can fully understand this.
Most Afghans don’t speak Arabic. The Pashtuns don’t even pronounce Ramadan correctly (they say ‘Ramazan’, due to differences in the Pashtun alphabet, which borrowed its script from Persian, which borrowed from the Arabs), and yet they claim with complete sincerity to be the most devout and dutiful Muslims on the planet. They abstain from drinking water during fasting hours on Ramadan in the strictest of fashions, and a good deal of work and business often slows or even shuts down because the people were too dehydrated to function during the day).
Most Pashtuns are illiterate, and receive their knowledge of Islam from local Mullas and oral tradition. Resultantly, the Islam they learn is fused with something called Pashtunwali, which is their trial-cultural system of honor and living, and the two sometimes become indistinguishable (loosely speaking, like the folk influence on Islam in Somalia or the fusion of African, Spanish and native religion on Puerto Rican and Haitian Catholicism).
Eastern Afghanistan, at its 4000-6000 year old Pashtunwali core, is the real heart of how this ‘Islamic’ country really works and behaves. This is critical when talking about ‘Islam’ in places like Afghanistan, where their ‘Islam’ is confused with their Pashtunwali system of tribal honor. As Pashtuns, Islam holds central importance in their expression of inner faith and public image, and they invoke Islam in everyday life, as does pashtunwali. To many, they are one and the same.
Are Pashtuns illiterate, poor, primitive, tribal, and prone to influence from elders, Maliks and Mullas? Absolutely. But from what I’ve personally seen and experienced, Pashtuns are indeed-in spite of these things-some of the most devout Muslims in the world, because their hearts are deeply in Islam. They are wonderful Muslims who can hopefully one day, God willing, read their Korans. Khoda Pay’man (God Bless)