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(also Pushtun, Pakhtun, or Pathan) or ethnic Afghans live primarily in eastern/southern Afghanistan, and northern/western parts of Pakistan. The Pashtun heartland roughly covers a large crescent-shaped belt following the Afghan-Pakistani border on the east, southward from Nuristan, across the south, and northward along the Iranian border almost to Herat. The Pashtuns call their dominian Pakhtunkhwa (Pakhtun Domain). Enclaves of Pashtuns also live scattered among other ethnic groups throughout Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Kashmir, India and in many countries of the Arabian Peninsula, where they have settled at various times since the end of the nineteenth century as shifts in populations occurred in response to political expediency, war and economic opportunities.

The Pashtuns are typically characterized by their language Pashto, the dialects of which fall into two main divisions: the northern and central, which preserves the ancient kh (as in "Pakhto" and “Pakhtun”), and the southern, which has the modern sh (as in "Pashto" and “Pashtun”) sound.

They are characterized by their culture also known as Pashto, their pre-Islamic indigenous code of honor Pashtunwali and their strict adherence to Islam. In some areas the term Pashto replaces Pashtunwali i.e. Pakhto ye wakra = He/she did according Pashto. Ma sara Pakhto waka = Do to me according to Pashto.

In all the main aspects of their being, their language Pashto defines them.

The Pashtuns are the world's largest segmentary lineage (patriarchal) tribal group in existence. The total population of the group is estimated to be over 50 million, but an accurate count remains elusive as there has not been an official census in Afghanistan since the 1970s, while in Pakistan, due to the migratory nature of many Pashtun tribes as well as the practice of secluding women, exact figures are to hard to attain.

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 and some ancient, about the origins of the Pashtun people, both among historians and the Pashtuns themselves.

Ancient text

The Greek historian Herodotus first mentions a people called 'Pactyan' living on the eastern frontier of Iran as early as the 1st millennium BCE. 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 too remains unproven. The Bactrians appear to have spoken a related Middle Iranian language and it is conceivable that some Pashtuns are at least partially descended from them.

Pashtuns are also historically referred to as ethnic Afghans as the terms Pashtun and Afghan were synymous until the advent of modern Afghanistan and the division of the Pashtuns by the Durand Line drawn by the British. According to W.K. Frazier Tyler, M.C. Gillet and several other scholars, "The word Afghan first appears in history in the Hudud-al-Alam in 982 AD." It was used by the Pashtuns and refers to a common legendary ancestor known as Afghana.

The Pashtuns are generally hypothesized to have emerged from the area around Kandahar and the Suleiman Mountains and began expanding millennia ago. But according to the mentions in various ancient texts about the people and areas of Pakhat, Pactyan, Paktikuk, and Paktues, modern researchers believe that the most likely originating place of the Pashtuns could have been the provinces of Paktiya and Paktika of Afghanistan.

Due to their geographic location, they have often been in close contact with the Persians, while religiously most Pashtuns, according to archaeological evidence, were most likely Buddhist and Zoroastrian with small minorities of pagans, Hindus, and Jews prior to the coming of Arab Muslims in the 8th century CE.

From the 1st century BCE to the 5th century CE the regions where the Pashtuns lived saw immense migrations of Eurasian peoples including the Aryans, 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.

Pashtun descent

There are also various groups which claim Pashtun descent and are largely found amongst other groups in Afghanistan and South Asia and generally do not speak Pashto and are often considered either overlapping groups or are simply assigned to the ethno-linguistic group that fits their geographic location and their mother tongue. These populations are usually only part-Pashtun, to varying degrees, and often trace their Pashtun ancestry through a paternal lineage, and are not universally viewed as ethnic Pashtuns.

Traditions behind the origins

In addition, some anthropologists lend credence to the oral traditions of the elder Pashtun tribes themselves. 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. Another book, that corresponds with most Pashtun historical records, Taaqati-Nasiri, states that in the 7th century a people called the Bani Israel settled in Ghor, southeast of Herat, Afghanistan and then migrated south and east. These Bani Israel references are 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'. Although originaly the Yusefzai were called Espazai or Aspazai (horse riders). The Afridis also claim through oral tradition that they are descendants of the Bani Israel tribe of Ephraim. While other clans of Afridi claim to be descendents of Alexander the Great's Greeks.

Other Pashtun tribes claim descent from Arabs including some even claiming to be descendants of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad.

Maghzan-e-Afghani's Bani-Israel theory has largely been debunked due to historical and linguistic inconsistencies. The oral tradition is a myth that grew out of a political and cultural struggle between Pashtuns and Mughals explains the historical backdrop for the creation of the myth, the inconsistencies of the myth, and the linguistical research that refutes any Semitic origins.

While the whole idea behind Maghzan-e-Afghan was to conclude the Pashtuns as foreigners in the region, it is believed that the reason why Pashtuns adapted to this tradition was basically because of the idea that they were monotheists even before the Arabs and everyone else in the region they resided.

Genetic insights

Research into human DNA has emerged as a new and innovative tool being used to explore the genetic make-up of various populations in order to ascertain historical population movements. According to some recent genetic research the anthropological evidence that the Pashto-speaking Pashtuns are an Indo-European people related to other Iranian groups as well as speakers of Dardic languages such as the Kalasha and the Nuristanis appears very probable but is not by any means conclusive at this time. The testing, though still in its initial phases, has not shown any substantial connection between the general Pashtun population sampled to the genetic markers found amongst most Greeks, Jews, or Arabs. What may be the case is that the Pashtuns have been slightly modified over time by various invaders, while maintaining their original base genetically overall. Ultimately, more research and a wider sampling of DNA will be required before the findings can be deemed conclusive and generally representative of Pashto-speaking Pashtuns.

Who is considered Pashtun?

Amongst historians, anthropologists, and the Pashtuns themselves, there is some debate as to who exactly is a Pashtun. The most prominent views are (1) that Pashtuns are predominantly a ethno-linguistic group of Aryan origin from the Eastern Iranian/Indo-Aryan group and their culture originated from the intermingling of ancient Aryans with invaders who are speakers of the Pashto language and live in a contiguous geographic location (this is the generally accepted academic view) in Afghanistan and Pakistan, (2) Pashtuns, in addition to being Pashto-speakers and meeting other criteria, are also Muslim and follow Pashtunwali and thus Jews, Christians, or atheists would be excluded, (3) to define the Pashtuns in terms of patrilineal descent going back to legendary times in accordance with the legend of Qais Abdur Rashid who is seen as the progenitor of the Pashtun people. We may call these the ethno-linguistic definition, religious-cultural definition, and the patrilineal definition.

Modern era

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) and formerly a high-ranking military official under the Turko-Iranian ruler Nadir Shah in Iran. He founded the empire which covered all of what is today Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, and Iranian Mashad. His successors would rule this empire for the next 40 years, while truncated Afghanistan emerged following conflicts with the Sikhs 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 in the hands of the two large empires against each other to maintain some semblance of autonomy. 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. However, at the same time, the major Communist factions during Communist rule of Afghanistan, the Khalq and the Parcham, were made up mostly of Pashtuns, epecically those from Paktia and Paktika Provinces. 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. 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.

Pashtuns have played an important role in the region. They have lead many of the Delhi Sultanates including the Suri and Lodhi dynasties. 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 a political and spiritual leader known for his non-violent opposition to British rule during the final years of the Empire on the Indian sub-continent, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan aka Bacha Khan. The 17th century warrior poet Khushal Khan Khattak, Afghan "Iron" Emir Abdur Rahman Khan and in modern times Pakistani cricketer turned politician Imran Khan, US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad.


Pashtuns comprise over 20% of Pakistan's population or 36 million and about 65% of Afghanistan's population totaling 19 million. All the figures are uncertain, particularly those for Afghanistan, and are affected by 4 million Afghan refugees that have settled in Pakistan












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