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An evolving Pakhtunwali

Over the last millennium, Pakhtunwali saw phenomenal social and societal changes

An evolving Pakhtunwali

Pakhtunwali or Pashtunwali is a culture in every sense of the word. Look at it from a variety of angles and you would find it a rich resource in terms of a vibrant worldview and philosophy of life. However, its fuller understanding necessitates a diachronic approach (studying a phenomenon in its historical perspective) followed by a synchronic appreciation (probing the present state and use of the subject under investigation).

Historical analysis of Pakhtunwali is sine qua non in the context of current wave of crisis both in Pakistan and Afghanistan as the phenomenon is generally associated with Pakhtun culture. This perception is the natural corollary of the piecemeal approach to the study of Pakhtunwali over the last two centuries.

Resultantly, our understanding of this culture suffers from distortions, misappropriations, and serious shortcomings.

The piecemeal approach is accompanied by the essentialist attitude of the investigators. The latter approach assigns some permanent characteristics and attributes to a culture and the behaviour of a people is seen as determined by them. It just ‘reduces and otherises’ a culture in terms of stereotyping and constructivism.

Stereotyping and constructing national and socio-cultural identities are generally produced by vested interests. The behaviour of a people is seen in the context of concrete structure of a culture. All this is found in works so far produced on the culture of Pakhtunwali.

Pakhtunwali has been treated this way since the first encounter of Pakhtuns and the British, nay, traces in this regard might be found in the early phase of Pashto literature. The epic of Amir Karor — the first known Pakhtun poet belonging to the eighth century — is an important example of Pakhtun heroism and warlike attitude.

The essentialist understanding of Pakhtunwali ignores the process of its social and cultural changes. Questions such as the origin of Pakhtunwali and the historical processes and forces which caused it develop are not being seriously considered by investigators. It follows that discourse of the same nature about Pakhtunwali that is found in Pashto, English and Urdu.

Whether language corresponds to the actual reality or not? It is a hotly contested issue between the two poles of positivism — objectivity inclined and relativism-oriented. Hence, different discourses are available about the same phenomenon.

It is in this theoretical framework that language of the Pakhtuns (Pashto) and languages about the Pukhtuns (such as English and Urdu) vis-à-vis Pakhtunwali call for serious consideration. The same discourse which is dominantly found in Pashto, English, and Urdu repeats the so-called essentials of Pakhtunwali — nang (honour), badal  (revenge), paighor (taunt), nanawaate (beseeching pardon), tarburwali (agnatic rivalry) and melmasthia (hospitality) — in a casual manner.

“These things,” as this writer wrote in The Friday Times (February 4-10 2011) “though central to the Pakhtuns’ social life, are in no way the sum-total of Pakhtunwali, and the journalists and anthropologists who repeat them ad nauseam have really not done their homework. In fact, I would like to term this prevalent approach as repeating-Pakhtunwali-parrot-fashion”.

Pashto does contain a medley of representations of Pakhtuns and Pakhtunwali made by their political leaders, mystics, religious puritans, literary figures, historians, and the unknown enchanters of folklore. All these forms of representation reflect essentialist attitude and hold in common a certain amount of essence with orientalist understanding of Pakhtun culture.

One exception should be pointed out in all these genres of representation — the realm of Pakhtun spiritualism epitomised by sufis like Rahman Baba and the Roshania poets.

English sources form the next category of representation of Pakhtunwali. It has a great diversity as people from different socio-cultural, historico-geographical and religio-political backgrounds over the years have investigated the domain of Pakhtunwali.

It is, again, nothing short of ‘repeating-Pakhtunwali-parrot-fashion’ in essentialist mode. No holistic and diachronic analyses are found in these works.

Similarly, Urdu language presents another kind of representation of Pakhtunwali. This is to be generally related to the cultural and political horizon of Pakistan. It might also have political bearings, especially in the context of Indo-Pak and Pak-Afghan geo-strategic realities. As the larger portion of the population has greater access to Urdu media, the essentialist nature of Pakhtunwali gets widely portrayed in Pakistan.

All these understandings do not correspond to the cultural phenomenon of Pakhtunwali. They are merely tenuous representations. And it is purely in essentialist terms, coupled with piecemeal approach, that all the historical episodes of violence are associated with Pakhtunwali. All other internal and external factors, which remain instrumental in any such crises are being simply ignored.

‘Repeating-Pakhtunwali-parrot-fashion’ is an intentional, but also an unintentional in some cases, attempt aiming at socio-cultural and political constructionism. Its unavoidable effect is indoctrination and nurture of generations of Pakhtuns in terms of false consciousness, irrational thinking, and delusions of heroism.

All this provide a fertile ground for viewing individual and collective behaviour as caused by Pakhtunwali, an utter oversimplification of reality in the framework of certain preconceived constraining structures of culture. In this way, the process of social and cultural changes vis-à-vis Pakhtunwali is dehistoricised.

In contrast to the above-mentioned understanding of Pakhtunwali, a diachronic analysis, which would take into account the process of continuity and change and the resultant syncretic and dialectic nature of Pakhtunwali would portray this culture in totally different terms.

The long-awaited contextualisation of Pakhtunwali against the spatio-temporal dynamics in a historical perspective would show the futility and naivety of the essentialist attitude and piecemeal approach.

The diachronic analysis of Pakhtunwali requires situating it in the frontier homeland of Pakhtuns from times immemorial. The concept of frontier area reminds us the two categories of geographical limits by British historian Arnold Toynbee viz cul de sac and roundabout.

The former are closed areas on the fringes having no transit and characteristic of receiving things while the latter are open areas having routes and arteries which traverse them. It implies that roundabout areas happen as being vigorously receiving influences from different directions and radiating them further.

Peripheries turn into centres this way, one may argue. Pakhtun land in history has played such a unique role, a thesis substantiated by Gandhara culture (though a dominant group of academics would deny any contribution by Pakhtuns to Gandhara civilisation, a debate which I would like to avoid here).

Pakhtunwali has developed over centuries and seen phenomenal transformations via syncretic and dialectic processes. Against this backdrop, two different paradigms, with further subdivisions, in the history of Pakhtunwali are found. They are prior to Pakhtuns’ conversion to Islam and in the wake of this conversion.

Utterly disowned by Pakhtuns, investigations in relation to the first category suffer from crucial limitations in terms of lack of vivid literary evidence and the Islamisation of Pakhtun historiography as is clear from the story of the so-called conversion of Qais Abdur Rashid, Pakhtuns’ ancestor, to Islam on the invitation of Hazrat Khalid bin Walid. But all this shall not hinder and turn such investigations as futile pursuits. A viable research design, buttressed by multidisciplinary concerns, can bring success in this regard.

Intensive study of Pashto folklore, new approach to the analysis and interpretation of archaeological data, and anthropological and ethnographic investigations can help us greatly in knowing pre-Islamic layers of Pakhtun culture. Zoroastrian traces, Vedic elements, Buddhistic signs and symbols are still found in abundance in Pakhtun culture.

With the arrival of Islam, Pakhtunwali underwent important transformation. Well-known Pakhtun poets: Hamza Shinwari and Samandar Khan Samandar see, in a greatly exaggerated way, Pakhtunwali as in complete conformity with Islam, a view contradicted by Pashto folklore.

Irrespective of this debate, it should be observed that over the last millennium Pakhtunwali saw phenomenal social and societal changes. Nomadism, sedentism, transition from egalitarianism to feudalism and, lastly, modernism are landmark developments in its history. All these developments have effected fundamental changes in the culture of Pakhtunwali in a historical sense.

This passing reference to the history challenges the essentialist and piecemeal view of unchanging nature of Pakhtunwali. It also reveals its relevance by dint of its mutability in response to new socio-political realities.

It has been practised in conjunction with the dynamics of every new social environment. This necessitates its appreciation in a holistic sense of the concept of culture — in ideational and ecological contexts.

This new understanding of Pakhtunwali would lead to its welcoming in the process of institution building, policy making and, above all, putting an end to stereotyping. It would help Pakhtuns to live in conformity to the spirit of new circumstances instead, to be determined by purposeful constructions. 


  • Great work Bacha. A very exact interpretation…

  • Muhammad Arif Khan

    An interesting and thought provoking piece. Could someone help me get the author’s email address?
    Of all the articles i have read on Pushtunwali, this one has excited my understanding of the issue.

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