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Ethnic Groups
and Languages

The so-called true Afghans are the Pushtun tribes to whom the term “Afghan” was first applied. Ancestors of these Pushtun groups may have moved into the Indus Valley not long before the opening of the Christian era.

Beginning in the 11th and 12th centuries the Pushtuns spread from the Sulaiman (Sulayman) Range north toward Peshawar and Kabul. Their numbers increased, and they won renown for their martial character and pride in independence.

These Pushtuns, who are known also as Pakhtuns, Pukhtuns, Pashtuns, and Pathans, constitute between 50 and 60 percent of the population. They are Muslims of the Sunnite sect and speak Pushtu (Pashto), an Iranian language related to Persian.

Among the major Pushtu tribes are the Durrani (Durani), Ghilzai, Mohmand, and Shinwari; the ruling dynasty was Durrani. Elements of these tribes may be nomads, farmers living in villages, or sophisticated urban officials.

The Pushtuns are concentrated mainly in Nangrahar and Pakhtya provinces, but large numbers live in Kandahar and Herat provinces, and some have settled on irrigated land north of the Hindu Kush.

The Tajiks are another important ethnic group. They are of Iranian origin and speak Persian much like that current in eastern Iran. Most are Muslims of the Sunnite sect, but some in the west are Shiites.

Numbering well over 3 million, they live in villages and cultivate the land, although some are skilled artisans and merchants. Most of the Tajiks live in Kabul and Herat provinces, but mountain Tajiks are found north of the Hindu Kush, and others live along the Iranian frontier.

The Hazara, the third largest of the ethnically distinctive groups of the country, number perhaps 1.5 million. They are believed to be the descendants of Mongols who moved into the region between the 13th and 15th centuries. They speak a dialect of Persian that contains many Turkish words and are Muslims of the Shiite sect.

The area in which most of them live, the Hazarajat, comprises the high central massif of the country, a region where stony valleys and treeless plateaus make farming arduous. Some Hazara settled north of Maimana in the first decade of the 20th century; others are an important segment of the growing labor force of the city of Kabul.

Turk and Turko-Mongol elements have long been present in Afghanistan. In the northwest are some 350,000 Turkomans who live in dome-shaped tents and supplement sheep breeding with farming. They are Sunnite Muslims.

Uzbeks, more Mongoloid than Turkic in appearance, are found across the northern arc of the country, where they may number more than 1.5 million. Sunnite Muslims, they speak a Turkic language and are sedentary villagers, occupied in agriculture and trade. In the Wakhan corridor, the panhandle in the northeast that stretches to China, are some 30,000 Kyrgyz (Kirgiz), another Turko-Mongol group.

In western Afghanistan live several tribes known under the collective name of Chahar Aimak, meaning “four tribes.” Actually, there are five tribal groups in the west:

the Firuzkuhi (Firozkohi), Taimani, Jamshidi, Taimuri, and Western Hazaras. Scarcely any reliable information has been assembled on these groups, which may number 500,000.

In the south are found Baluch (Baloch), pastoral nomads who number over 170,000. They speak Baluchi (Balochi), an Iranian language.

From the standpoint of linguistic and ethnic origins, the most elusive group in the country is to be found in the high mountains of the northeast, not far north of Jalalabad. For a long time these people were called Kafirs (Arabic k#fir, infidel).

After their forcible conversion to Islam in the 1890's, they were called Nuris, meaning “people of light”-that is, the light of Islam. They themselves use neither name but refer to their two main divisions as the Siah Push, containing five tribes; and the Safed (Safid) Push, containing three.

Several dialects of the Dardic languages, transitional between Indo-Aryan and Iranian, are spoken. It is thought that the Kafirs are the descendants of the original population of the area.

Their way of life, which includes the use of high wooden houses, wooden effigies of the deceased, slaves, and ritual feasting, distinguishes them from all the other peoples of Afghanistan. See also NURI.

Among the ethnic groups, the Afghans have the greatest prestige and power. The Tajiks, besides being the most intensive cultivators, are numerous in government service and conspicuous in business and trade.

Among the languages, Persian (Dari) is the common tongue, the language of the capital and of most government business, and the medium of the country's cultural heritage.

From the 1930's the Afghan government had promoted the use of Pushtu as a means of enhancing national unity, and research has brought to light an extensive background of Pushtu literature. Under the constitution of 1964, both Pushtu and Persian were official languages...




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