Islam in Afghanistan

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Islam in Afghanistan  (1912) 
by T. L. Pennell

This title is not a satisfactory one, but is adopted for want of a better. It is inaccurate, because my subject naturally includes in its scope a consideration of a large and important section of the Afghan race which does not reside in Afghanistan at all. The whole of the North-west Frontier Province of British India is inhabited by races which are either Afghan in origin or closely related thereto. Then, again, there are the numerous Afghan or "Pathan" tribes, peopling that wild intricacy of rugged mountains and sequestered valleys, which forms a buffer area between the above province and the territories of the Amir of Kabul, and which they jealously guard from the intrusion of strangers and the menace of settled government. We know much more about these two sections of the Afghan race than about the Afghans of Afghanistan proper, so it would be foolish to leave them outside the pale of our inquiry.

On the other hand, if we were to use the title "Islam among the Afghans," we should be still more inaccurate, as, of the four or five million people inhabiting that country, nearly two million are not Afghans. Of these, the most numerous class is that of the Tagiks (about 900,000); these are the descendants of an old Iranian race and call themselves Parsiwans, and are chiefly found in the northern provinces. Following these are the Hazaras, who number about 500,000. These must not be confused with the people of Hazara, an Indian district lying between the Pan jab and Kashmir, and having no relation to these people. The Hazaras are a race of Mongolian origin and profess the Shiah faith, and have consequently been frequently and remorselessly persecuted by the Sunni rulers of the country, and oppressed by their more powerful and numerous Sunni neighbours.

There are about 300,000 Uzbegs of Turkish origin, chiefly in Badakhshan and the valley of the Oxus. Some 50,000 Kizilbashis form the only other non-Afghan race worth mentioning. They are Persianized Turks, and, like the Hazaras, of the Shiah persuasion, but owing to their influential position at Kabul as traders and clerks, they have been more fortunate than the Hazaras in escaping persecution.

The Afghans style themselves "Bani Israel," and trace their descent, generation by generation, from King Saul, supposing that their ancestors were among the captives taken by the Kings of Assyria and subsequently deported by them to some part of Afghanistan, which was on the eastern confines of their dominions. To open up the vexed and much-discussed question of the truth of this tradition would need an article by itself, and I shall content myself by ^ajding that there is little doubt that the origin of the Afghans is a mixed one, in which the predominant element is a Turco-Iranian one with Semitic commixture, first from Israelitish sources and afterwards from Arabian. With the exception of a few thousand Hindu traders and shopkeepers, all the inhabitants of Afghanistan and all the Afghan tribes in British India and in independent territory are Mohammedans to a man. Islam is the state religion, the law is the law of Islam, and the people vie with their rulers in their zeal for their faith.

Some of the Pathan tribes on the North-west frontier of India are probably to be reckoned the most blindly fanatical followers of Islam to be found on the face of the earth. Yet their religious ignorance is on a par with their fanaticism, and though every little village has its mullah and its mosque, yet the mass of the people know only the most elementary facts of their religion. The religion of these untutored tribes may be summed up in this: a constant repetition in season and out of season of the Kalima ("There is no God but God, and Mohammed is the Prophet of God"), punctilious observance of the five prayers, fasting during Ramadhan, giving tithes to their mullahs, and regarding all non-Moslems as blasphemers and infidels, whom to rob is a pious act, and to murder in cold blood a sure passport to Paradise. Some of the more remote mountain tribes have receded even further into barbarism, and are so ignorant of Islam that they neglect prayers and fasting, and do not even circumcise their children.

On the other hand, no more punctilious observers of the outward law of Islam could be found anywhere than some of the more intelligent races, such, for instance, as the Provindahs, who are familiar in all parts of India as the stalwart, truculent Afghan traders ; and most of the men of these tribes are able to read the Koran in Arabic (without, however, understanding the meaning), and carry a copy about with them on their travels, usually se\^ii up in a leather or cloth case, worn round the neck, treated with great respect and read very ostentatiously. These men look upon the Mohammedans of India, with their laxer observances and Hindu-tainted ideas, as scarcely more than half-Mohammedans.

The worship of saints (Pirs), tombs (zyarats), and relics is very prevalent among the people, and in the case of some of the wilder tribes occupies a more important place in their daily life than the orthodox observances of Islam. The tombs of fakirs and places of pilgrimage are often situated on the summits of mountains and inaccessible places, with a view, apparently of making the merit of visiting them all the greater. The zyarat on the Takht-i-Suliman, a high frontier peak west of Dera Ismail Khan, is on an almost inaccessible ridge just below the summit, and the reason given for this situation is that when Hazrat Suliman was returning from India with his bride, he made a last halt of his flA^ng throne on this spot in order to give her a final view of her homeland. Every such shrine is marked by one or more trees, or perhaps in the more remote places by nothing more than a stunted bush. A long stick with a flag is tied to the tree, and the branches are covered with little bits of white or coloured cloth which have been tied there by pilgrims. Men and women perform long journeys to these zyarats in order to beg some favour from, or offer a prayer to the saint whose bones consecrate the spot. It may be for a child, or for recovery from illness, or for blessing on a journey or enterprise. The suppliant makes a small offering to the custodian of the shrine; and ties a rag torn from his clothing to the tree. He may in return receive a small piece torn from the flag of the shrine and a little bit of paper on which the holy man has inscribed some cabalistic letters. This the pilgrim sews up in a bit of leather or cloth, or, if rich, encloses in a small casket of silver and carries it tied somewhere about the person, perhaps to a fold or fringe of the turban or round the neck or upper arm.

A story related about the Afridis, illustrates their crass ignorance and their veneration for tombs. Some Afridis were, according to their wont, ambushed near a frequented highway, waiting for some unwary traveller to fall into their grasp. As chance would have it, a rich and portly Syed (holy man) was the first to come that way. They pounced upon him; he protested that they had made a mistake, that he was no blaspheming Hindu but a descendant of their own Prophet, a holy man whose prayers were sought by small and great, for did not all know that his prayers were admitted at once to the divine presence. " Now," said the unabashed bandits, "we are, indeed, in good fortune, for have we not long said that the only thing needed for our mountain is the grave of a genuine holy man, and God has sent him to us." They promptly killed the poor protesting Syed, annexed his goods and money, buried him with eclat on the top of their mountain, and now pray regularly at his tomb for any heavenly or mundane benefits they may desire.

Yet Afghanistan is not altogether untouched by the spirit of the new Islam. When H.M. the Amir visited India, he could not fail to have been struck by what he saw and learnt at the great centres of Mohammedan education in India, Aligarh, Lahore and elsewhere, and some of the words he uttered when addressing the students on the occasions of his visits to these institutions, show that he was profoundly impressed by the advantages to be obtained from giving Mohammedan youth a modern education. When he went back to Kabul, he took with him Mohammedan graduates from the Pan jab, and set about having a fully equipped college on modern lines at Kabul. It may be that its curriculum was needlessly hampered by the restrictions which the protests of the reactionary Ulema laid upon it, and that its utihty was damaged by the intrigues mth which the priestly class, antagonistic to all innovation, sought to blast it, yet we must hail it as one of the first efforts to free the state religion from the stagnation in which it had so long lain dormant, and to bring the Afghan people into line with the march of progress in other lands.

The land is governed according to Mohammedan law, and in every province there are courts known as Mahkama-i-Shara, presided over by kadis, assisted by muftis, in which this law is administered. Ultimate power, however, rests with the Amir, and in case of appeal he may affirm or annul any decision of these courts. The hakims, or governors of the provinces, also hold courts known as Mahkama-i-Hakim, in which civil suits unconnected with Mohammedan law are decided. Cases of Shara, in which the gazis do not agree, are referred to the Khan-i-Mulla at Kabul, and cases of treason, misconduct of, or embezzlement by, government officials, are referred to and decided by the Amir himself. To forsake Islam is a capital offence, and there is no doubt that even if the court did not inflict the extreme penalty, the vox populi would demand it.

There have been cases where mullahs of learning and distinction have undergone the extreme penalty of Mohammedan law, that of being stoned to death, merely because they have held and taught doctrines considered heretical by the Ecclesiastical Court. A remarkable instance occurred some years ago, when one of the most distinguished mullahs of Kabul was stoned to death for having become a disciple of the Messiah of Qadian, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. The Amir Abdur Rahman Khan laid down a code of procedure which was to cover all cases not provided for by the \piw of Islam, and the Amir of the time being has absolute power over the life and liberty of his subjects, and may execute, imprison, or otherwise punish them without the intervention of any court, or even in supersession of one.

There is no doubt that at the present time the presence of a Christian convert from Islam would not be tolerated within the boundaries of Afghanistan. It will be readily understood from the above that orthodoxy, in matters of religion, is little less than compulsory, and that owing to a natural reaction of the subjects on the ruler, it would be equally impossible for the Amir to depart from the role which was formerly entrusted to him, when in 1896 he was given by his officers of state the title of " Zia ul millat ud din " (Light of Religion and Faith). Even very slight predelictions which the Amir, after his return from India, evinced for Western methods and occupations, were regarded so suspiciously by the sticklers for orthodoxy, and so resented by the hierarchy of mullahs that it became obvious that the adoption of a liberal policy and the granting of an}^ degree of religious liberty would seriously endanger the throne.

Among Cis-frontier Pathans, however, heterodoxy is common. In the Yusufzai district numbers hold the Wahhabi doctrines and Mirzaites are common in Peshawar.

A remarkable schismatic movement was that inaugurated in the latter part of the sixteenth century by a religious reformer named Bazid, but called by his adherents Pir-i-Roshan. This man taught that no special observances, such as prayers, fasts, etc., were needed as a means of access to God, and that the Koran was superseded. He was bitterly opposed by Akhund Darweza, the historian of the Yusufzais, whose following termed him in derision Pir-i-Tarik. He, however, obtained a large following first in Dir, Swat and Bajour, and then among the Mohmands and people of Tirah. The last-mentioned country became his stronghold, and his followers became so militant that both Akbar and Jahangir were obliged to send expeditions against them, in one of which Birbal, Akbar's favourite, was killed. They went so far as to lay siege to Peshawar and over-run all the Frontier. The heresy, however, gradually died out, though it continued for a long time among the Afridis of Tirah.

At the present time the strict outward orthodoxy of Kabul contrasts with the free thought and liberal ideas of Peshawar, and fanaticism and religious prejudice are steadily on the decrease among the Pathan tribes of British India. The same cannot be said of the independent tribes wliich inhabit the mountains between India and Afghanistan. The Afridis, Waziris, and Mahsuds are the chief representatives of these tribes, and they are still barbarous, ignorant, and fanatical to a degree.

An unpleasant feature of their fanaticism is the frequency of acts of cjhaza or the assassination of Christians, Sikhs and Hindus from religious motives. The mullahs teach the young bloods that there is no more meritorious act in the sight of God than to creep up stealthily behind some unoffending and unsuspecting British officer, and, with fatal fire or blow, to destroy the life of a man whom perhaps the assassin may never have seen before, who may even have been his benefactor. If the ghazi succeeds in escaping, he will earn undying fame, and if he is slain or caught and hung, he makes forthmth a glorious entrance into the joys of Paradise, and the bards will voice his praises in odes to be sung all over the country-side for many a long day to come. Incited by this belief, and usually primed, too, with the intoxicating charas and Indian hemp, the young ghazi, for he is seldom more than a youth, will recklesslly throw his own life away in the murder, when he might have accomplished his object with less danger, though with less daring publicity. For instance, a few years ago, a regiment was marching out of Bannu with several mounted officers riding together at the head ; a ghazi suddenly dashed out from behind a culvert where he had been hiding, and shot one of the officers, holding his revolver almost against the unfortunate man's chest. He was at once knocked down and bayoneted by the sepoys, but he had courted that as a death of glory and a happy entry into Paradise.

Education is spreading rapidly among the Pathans of British India, and with it the old fanatical spirit is dying out. There are no less than twelve secondary schools in the North-west Frontier Province teaching up to the matriculation of the Panjab University, and there is an excellently equipped mission college at Peshawar which teaches up to the B.A., while the present Chief Commissioner, Sir George Roos-Keppel, has been the moving spirit in the organisation of a Mohammedan school and college on the lines of the well-known institution at Aligarh. This college has received the most liberal support from khans on both sides of the frontier, and it is hoped that some of the Trans-frontier chiefs may be induced to send their sons to it.

Among the independent tribes, the only attempt at education is that given by some of the mullahs in their mosques. They teach the Koran by rote, and sometimes a little Persian and theology. Arithmetic and general knowledge are altogether beyond their pale, and English is tabooed. Even in the large towns of Afghanistan, it is exceedingly rare to meet any one able to converse in the English language.

From what lias been said above, it is clear that Afghanistan is one of the most impregnable strongholds of Islam. Among the Pathan tribes, power is divided between the mullahs and the khans, or chiefs; in some parts the secular arm being more powerful, in others, the ecclesiastical, according to the personality^ and power of the leading men on either side. Just as some chiefs have risen to widely extended power and influence through personal force of character, so some mullahs have attained extraordinary ascendancy over the people, so much so that thousands are ready to flock to their standards when the tocsin of jihad, or religious war, is sounded ; in fact, in the numerous frontier outbreaks and wars, the mullahs have generally taken a more prominent position than the chiefs. They stand to gain more, at least in fame, and to lose less in the event of failure. The Povindah mullah, the Hadda mullah and others, have recently inflamed the tribes to war by travelling about, making incendiary speeches and putting forward the most extravagant claims to miraculous power, claims which as often as not are blindly believed, as, for instance, where the Povindah mullah told the Mahsuds that he had made them proof against British bullets, and the tribesmen swept down on the British camp up to the muzzles of the guns. The Akhund of 8wat is very widely revered all over the frontier, and men of all tribes make long pilgrimages to his zyarat in Swat, with regard to which fabulous tales of his hospitality are related. Another very popular place of pilgrimage is that of Pir Baba, in Buner.

The reader will have anticipated that all Christian missions for the Afghans have their headquarters in British India. Among the independent tribes the missionaries have itinerated but never resided. Into Afghanistan itself they have never penetrated. Two slight exceptions might be made to the last statement. As long ago as 1832, that remarkable and eccentric traveller-missionary, Dr. Joseph Wolf, traversed Afghanistan, and was well received in Kabul by the Amir, and here he preached in the bazaar, wearing, as was his wont on such occasions, his surplice and hood. This is probably the onl}' occasion on which a Christian missionary has ever preached in the bazaar of Kabul. After the war of 1839-40, the attitude of the Afghan people towards the British, and strangers in general, underwent a great change, and whereas before that war they were politely if not cordially received, afterwards it was as much as any man's life was worth to enter Afghanistan, whether in disguise or not.

The second exception was in the war of 1879-80, when a missionary, the Rev. G. M. Gordon, went to Kandahar as chaplain of the forces, and while there conversed and disputed with the priests and people. He hoped to start mission work there, but was killed while gallantly ministering to a soldier who had fallen wounded in a sortie. During this same war, the Indian pastor of Peshawar, the Rev. Imam Shah, travelled up to Kabul and ministered to the small Armenian congregation at that time residing there.

At the present time, the Church Missionary Society has large and well equipped missions at Peshawar, Bamiu, Dera Ismail Khan and Quetta, and branch stations at Akora, Charsadda, Thai, Karak, Shekh Mahmud, Darra Tang, Tank, Dadar, Shikarpur, Mastung and Chaman. The Central Asian Mission has work at Mardan in the Peshawar district. The work is educational, medical, zenana, itineration and bazaar preaching. There are mission high schools at Peshawar, Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan. One thousand six hundred and twenty-one scholars study in these schools, some of them being Pathans from across the frontier. There are hostels in connection with each school, and in these, those boys who come from a distance reside under the close supervision of the British missionary, and the influence exerted by these schools, in which daily Scripture teaching is given to all classes, is far-reaching. There is a mission college at Peshawar, in which education is given up to the B.A. degree of the Panjab University.

The chief mission hospitals are at Peshawar, Bannu, Dera Ismail Khan and Quetta, but most of the branch stations have medical work going on in some way or other. At these hospitals during the year 1910, no less than 236,167 visits were paid by out-patients ; 5,008 were treated as in-patients in the hospital wards, and 10,182 operations were performed. At all the hospitals at least one, but generally several Gospel addresses are given daily to the out-patients, while those in the wards have the benefit of regular services and systematic teaching, not to speak of the atmosphere of Christian sympathy and service by which they are surrounded. Among both in and out-patients are numerous Afghans who have come from Afghanistan itself, either specially for medical and surgical treatment, or in the ordinary course of trade and travel. These people remember what they have heard and learnt, and thus there are probably few villages in Eastern Afghanistan which do not possess some such quondam patients, who not only retail to their fellow villagers the teaching they have received, but often take back with them copies of the Gospel in Persian and Pashtu, and by what they have learnt of Christian love and sympathy, break down prejudice and prepare a welcome for the missionary himself.

The whole of the Bible has been translated into both Pashtu and Persian, the two languages, one or other of which is spoken throughout the country. "The Pilgrim's Progress" and some tracts and controversial treatises have also been translated. There are at present working among the people on the eastern border of Afghanistan (including those on furlough) : — 9 European ordained missionaries, 3 Indian clergymen, 14 doctors with European qualifications, 6 doctors with Indian qualifications, 8 European nurses, 5 schoolmasters (Christians), 12 catechists and readers, 32 Christian medical agents.

The earliest mission on the frontier was at Peshawar, and this was inaugurated in the year 1854 by some distinguished frontier officers, among whom Sir Herbert Edwardes and General Rannell Taylor may be mentioned. There have been some remarkable converts, and there are little Christian congregations at many stations along the frontier. Some of the converts have given their lives for their faith. More than one has been martyred in Afghanistan, preferring a cruel death to a denial of his faith. Other converts have gone forth as missionaries of the Cross to other lands, to Arabia, East Africa, Bengal, Burma, and other countries. Though numerically the congregations are small, the work accomphshed is very encouraging in other ways. An enormous amount of prejudice and opposition has been worn do^vn, welcome has been obtained in places formerly close barred, a large amount of Christian knowledge has been diffused, and wherever one goes along the frontier one meets with those who, well acquainted with the doctrines of Christianity, are frequently secret disciples of our Lord and Master Jesus Christ.

T. L. Pennell.
Bannlly India.