Afghanistan from the inside

December 24, 2017

A selection of articles by prominent scholars on various periods and important texts that focus on the evolving nature of the Afghan national consciousness

Afghanistan from the inside

Afghanistan has perhaps not been dealt fairly by those in power. Being a weak state, it has been seen in the context of the region’s other powers. This status, or the lack of it, for Afghanistan was certified with greater authenticity when the two 19th century imperial powers determined its role as that of a buffer state for their own competing interests. And so it has remained in the last 100 years or so.

But efforts have been made to view Afghanistan as if from the inside -- to explore what the Afghans think of their own country, people and culture, and to challenge the ‘great game paradigm’.

The two can be opposite views, as to how outsiders view them (exonym) and how the people living in the area view themselves (autonym) during the course of the long history. In all likelihood, the two views have not stayed pristine in their approaches but have interacted with each other. In other words, the locals have also rephrased their understanding of themselves in the light of how others have been viewing them.

The book is well documented with many strands that may or may not have gone into the making of the Afghan national consciousness and a must read for Pakistanis where national identity is often challenged by the loosely constructed identity of the Afghans.

Nile Green, a professor at UCLA and the editor of the book, calls this dialogic -- the emergence of Afghan notions of the historical self is meant to see Afghan history through Afghan eyes, but they also factor in the Afghan construction of that past. Languages, genres, narratives and epistemologies through which the Afghans have conceived and constructed their past were never uniquely Afghan. Instead, they belonged to the wider cultural and political arenas with which Afghans interacted, including the more prestigious languages and genres of the neighbouring imperial and urban societies. They constructed their past with the cultural tools of others.

This is a selection of articles by prominent scholars -- like Christine Noelle-Karimi, Amin Tarzi, Robert D. McChesney, Annick Fenet, Thomas Wide, Senzil Nawid, Robert Nichols and Ingeborg Baldauf -- who have written on various periods and important texts that focus on the evolving nature of the Afghan national consciousness.

The earliest reference to groups known by their etymological precursor to the ‘Afghan’ label appeared in pre-Islamic works such as the Sanskrit Brihat Samhita which mentions the people Avagana. By the 15th century, the label ‘Afghan’ had spread far and wide through India where it gradually took on a textual form. The label ‘Afghan’ seems to have been adopted through interaction with speakers of other languages. In the early modern period when military and tribal elites came to patronise their own historical works, largely in Persian, the label that they used to describe themselves was ‘Afghan’.

And the texts kept appearing in various forms, adopted from Arabic via Persian, the most important was the chronicle tarikh biographical or poetical compendium tazkira and the hagiographical manaqib, as well as different forms in poetry, ranging from the refined epic borrowed from the Shahnameh Firdausi to Persian and Pashto folk ballads shared with Punjabi and other North Indian languages. Since the 20th century, other genres have also been imported like social realistic novels and memoirs.

Most of the work done in this context has been in Persian. The seeds can be identified with Faza’il-i-Balkh, a biographical compendium or hagiographical account, originally in Arabic but later translated into Persian.

Later in Ghazna under the dynastic patronage Tarikh Yamini was penned by Abu Nasr al-Utbi, and Tarikh-e Bayhaqi by Abul Fazl Bayhaqi, both written in Arabic. Later during Timurid rule, seminal historians like Jami, Mir Khavand and Khwandamir wrote their versions of history.

Meanwhile, Khan Jahan Lodi used the Tarikh-i- Khan Jahani Wa Makhzan-i-Afghani to build the narrative in India during the Mughal rule. But with the decline of the Mughal Empire, Ahmed Shah Durrani founded the first Afghan ruled state and under his patronage Tarikh-I Ahmad Shahi was written by Mahmud al-Husayni. At the same time, the Afghan elite in India continued to patronise their own histories in Urdu, rather than in Pashto and Persian.

Till the 20th century the label ‘Afghan’ was still restricted to people who would now usually be called Pashtuns. Under the Sadozai and Muhammadzai dynasties in the 18th and 19th centuries, Afghanistan took the geographical shape that it still more or less retains. The most remarkable work was the autobiography of Shah Shuja written during his exile in the Punjab, and then Tarik-e Afghanistan by Aliqoli Mirza, an Iranian civil servant who wrote his account to inform his own rulers of the danger presented by the Europeans in India.

Later Afghans wrote their own histories, the most prominent being Padshahan-i-Mutakhir-i-Afghanistan (The Last Emperor of Afghanistan) by Mirza Yaqub Ali Khafi. Another title, Amir Abd al Rahman Pand Nama Yi Dunya Wa Din first appeared in Kabul in 1885 as an autobiography but the most important change it brought about was its use of the label ‘Afghanistan’ a shift from ethnic to a national perspective.

Modernisation took over the themes of history writing during the reigns of King Habibullah and King Amanullah since transnational dynamics were again at play.

Fayz Muhammed was the first historian who wrote in the modern annalist mode, widening it through documentary-based writing. He was followed by Mahmud Tarzi who wrote Zhulida as well as the history of the war between Japan and Russia. When excavations started in Afghanistan it added another dimension to the history of the region. The publication of Shibli Naumani’s Sher-ul-Ajam -- which mentioned many Persian poets whom the Afghans claimed as their own -- certified or enhanced the assessment of their own culture. Many more works were also written in Urdu that pointed to the galvanisation of the Afghan national consciousness.

After the Soviet occupation and subsequent Taliban rule, Afghans sought refuge in many countries and its past was re-imagined from a variety of diasporic locations. The combined effects of mass Afghan refugee migration and the collapse of a central political authority have thus brought about a fragmentation of what has being emerging as a hegemonic national history of Afghanistan. Sayed Askar Mousavi’s work on the Hazara community rejected the nationalist version of Afghan history.

The book is well documented with many strands that may or may not have gone into the making of the Afghan national consciousness and a must read for Pakistanis where national identity is often challenged by the loosely constructed identity of the Afghans.

Afghan History through Afghan Eyes
Editor: Nile Green
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Year: 2017
Pages: 356
Price: Rs995

Afghanistan from the inside