The location of Afghanistan astride the land routes between the Indian subcontinent, Iran, and central Asia has enticed conquerors throughout history

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Islam is one of the few commonalities in Afghan society despite the existence of sectarian differences and variations in Quranic and legal interpretations. It faces no competition from other religions as only scattered minorities of Hindus and Sikhs, who came originally as traders from India, and Jews, lived in urban centers. By 1985 virtually all Jews had emigrated.

In their war of liberation against the Soviet Union, resistance groups striving for a pan-Afghan constituency appealed to Afghans on the basis of their Muslim identity. The term used for the resistance fighters, mujahidin, translates as "those waging jihad." Jihad, meaning to strive or to struggle to follow God's will, both within oneself and in the defense of Islam, is an obligation incumbent on all Muslims.

Early Development of Islam

In AD 570 Mohammad ibn Abdullah was born into the family of a caravan merchant belonging to the Hashimite branch of the ruling Quraysh tribe that lived in the prosperous Arabian town of Mecca. In AD 610, at the age of forty, Mohammad began to receive the first of a series of revelations from God which were transmitted to him through the angel Gabriel over a period of 22 years. These directives of moral principles are contained in the Quran (The Recitation), the sacred scripture of Islam.

The Prophet Mohammad preached against socioeconomic inequities and denounced polytheism with its thriving pilgrimage business centered around the Kaaba shrine and numerous religious sites in the vicinity of Mecca. His vigorous reform messages challenged the powerful ruling establishment, threatened their economic and political interests and eventually earned him their bitter enmity.

Forced to leave Mecca in 622, he moved with a group of followers to the town of Yathrib, later called Medina. Here he established a Muslim community-state, consolidating both temporal and spiritual leadership in his person. The migration to Medina is known as the hijra and the creation of a Muslim community (ummah) marks the beginning of the Islamic era. The Muslim calendar, based on a 354-day lunar year, begins in AD 622. From Medina, the Prophet Mohammad fought a series of successful battles and returned to Mecca in triumph in AD 630, shortly before his death in 632.

After the Prophet Mohammad's death, the leaders of the Muslim community chose as his successor or caliph, Abu Bakr, who was one of the Prophet's earliest followers as well as the father of Aisha, the youngest and most beautiful of the Prophet's wives. There were those, however, who favored Ali, the Prophet's cousin and husband of his daughter Fatima. These supporters of Ali were known as Shiat-u-Ali (Party of Ali), later to be called Shia. Ali eventually succeeded as the fourth caliph in AD 656, but this led to civil war in 661 during which Ali was assassinated. Ali's son Husayn led a second rebellion in 680 during which he was killed at the Battle of Karbala which is commemorated by the Shia each year on the tenth of Muharram. Husayn's death marks the division of Islam into Sunni and Shia, ending the period in which the entire Islamic community recognized a single caliph.

Sunni and Shia Islam

The historical divide of Islam into Sunni, or so-called orthodox Islam, and Shia, was caused more by political dispute over successors than doctrinal differences, although differences gradually assumed theological and metaphysical overtones. Despite the split, within centuries Islam reached far into Africa, eastward to the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia, as well as northward into Central Asia. This expansion was accomplished by traders and missionaries as much as by conquest.

Sunni constitute 85 percent of the world's Muslims; Shia about 15 percent. Each division has four major Shariah or schools of theological law. The Sunni: Hanafi, dominant in the Arab Middle East, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan; Maleki, in north, central and west Africa and Egypt; Shafii, in east Africa, Indonesia and southeast Asia; Hanbali, in Saudi Arabia. The Shia: Ithna Ashariya or Imami, the state religion in Iran, dominant in Iraq and also found in Afghanistan; Nizari Ismaili, present throughout the Muslim world, including Afghanistan, led by the Aga Khan; Zaidiya, in Yemen; Mutazila, in Syria and Lebanon.


The growth of Sufism (from suf, Arabic for wool; possibly referring to woolen robes worn by early ascetics) was another important development in the history of Islam. The great Sufi orders or brotherhoods (tariqa) were first established in the twelfth century by scholars disillusioned in their search for Truth through the intellectual application of the austere practices advocated by the various schools of Islamic doctrine. A belief in the oneness of man with God is central to Sufism. Sufis seek to achieve a personal communion with God during mystic moments of union brought about by various methods, including meditation, recitation of sacred phrases, breathing exercises, dancing, hymn singing, music, and physical gyrations.

Sufi religious life centers around a learned religious leader or spiritual guide referred to as shaykh (in Persian, pir) whose mystical teachings guide students (murids) along the path (tariqa) that leads each to the ecstacy of his own moment of intimacy with God. Relationships between the master and disciple are very close. Many famous Sufi shaykh attracted large bodies of followers, and the sites of their brotherhoods became not only renowned spiritual institutions, but also popular social and cultural community centers providing medical, educational, and welfare services, including soup kitchens for the poor and hungry. These centers oftentimes amassed considerable wealth from gifts from pilgrims and from endowments (awaqf; singular, waqf), an important institution providing community social services. With wealth they acquired social and political power. This building of a sense of an alternative community within Sufism threatened the status of established religious authorities (ulama), undermining their institutionalized perceptions of an universal, unified Islamic community (ummah) following the Shariah, the "straight path" of Islamic law. The orthodox ulama initially declared Sufism heretical, but over time came to tolerate it as long as its adherents abided by Islamic laws.

Sufi practices are found today among both Sunni and Shia communities, although it tends to be more widespread among Sunnis, perhaps because Shia attach great value to the intercession of saints and most Shia embrace mysticism and encourage emotional responses to God and to Shia martyrs, especially those connected with the tragedy of Karbala which is commemorated on Ashura, the 10th day of Moharram, when dramatic recitations, passion plays (taziya) and street processions, which include self-flagellation, take place.

Sufis describe their personal experiences in a vast variety of poetic expression. The poetry of the Sufis is considered the best in the Persian language, and among the most notable of all poetic styles. Particularly honored are Sadi and Hafiz of Shiraz in Iran, and Baydil from the Persian-speaking Moghal court of Delhi. Universally acclaimed Afghan Sufi poets include Ansari (eleventh century) and Jami (fifteenth century) of Herat, Sanayi of Ghazni (twelfth century) , and Rumi of Balkh (thirteenth century), the founder of the order of whirling dervishes, whose Mathnawi is considered by many to be the greatest poem ever written in Persian.

Tenets of Islam

Islam means surrender or submission to the will of God; one who submits is a MuslimThe basic creed or profession of faith, the shahadah, succinctly states: "There is no god but Allah (God), and Mohammad is His Prophet/Messenger." Mohammad is the "seal of the prophets"; his revelation is believed to complete for all time the series of revelations received by Jews and Christians.

After the Prophet's death, his followers compiled those of his words regarded as coming directly and literally from God. This became the Quran, the holy scripture of Islam. The precedent of the Prophet's personal deeds and behavior were set forth in the Sunna as a supplement extending the Quran. Other sayings and teachings recalled by those who had known him during his lifetime are known as Hadith. Together, the Quran, the Sunnah and the Hadith form a comprehensive guide to the spiritual, ethical, and social conduct of life. Islamic jurisprudence, the Shariah, which is based on these sources, is a system of ethics regulating conduct.

Thus Islam is a legalistic religion with sets of God-given laws that are applied to all aspects of everyday life. Historically, Islam recognizes no distinction between religious and temporal spheres of life for all human behavior is expected to comply with God's will. It draws no distinction between the religious and the secular nor differentiates between religious and secular law. Therefore there is no concept of the separation of church and state.

The Shariah, along with commentaries (tafsir) on the Quran and Hadith, developed primarily through the accretion of precedent and interpretations by various learned judges and scholars (ulama) attempting to divine the will of Allah through juristic analogical reasoning (qiyas) and consensus (ijma). By the tenth and eleventh centuries, these legal opinions had hardened into rigid authoritative doctrine, and the right to exercise independent reasoned interpretation (ijtihad) was effectively denied. This severely limited flexibility in Sunni Islamic law. In contrast, Shia Islam tended not to curb the use of ijtihad to such an extent.

Sunni communities have no clerical hierarchy: each individual stands in a personal relationship to God needing no intermediary. Any adult versed in the form of prayer is entitled to lead prayers. Men who lead prayers, preach sermons, and interpret the law do so by virtue of their superior knowledge and scholarship rather than because of any special powers or prerogatives conferred by ordination. Among the Shia, on the other hand, a highly structured hierarchy of divinely inspired religio-political leaders exists. The Imam who must be directly descended from the Prophet Mohammad and Ali is invested as the final authoritative interpreter of God's will as formulated by Islamic law.

Every individual is responsible for carrying out the duties and rituals commonly referred to as the Five Pillars of Islam. These include the recitation of the creed (shahadah), daily prayer (salat, namaz in Afghanistan), almsgiving (zakat), fasting (sawm, ruzah in Afghanistan), and pilgrimage (hajj).

The muezzin intones the call to prayer to the entire community five times a day, at day-break, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset and nightfall. Ritual ablutions of purification proceed prayers. Prescribed body movements, including genuflections and prostrations, accompany the prayers, which the worshiper recites while facing toward Mecca, the holy center of Islam where the Kaaba has remained sacred since the polytheistic idols were destroyed following the conquest of Mecca in AD 630. Prayers may be performed wherever a person may be at the required time, but congregational prayers in the central mosque on Friday are usual. Friday noon prayers provide the occasion for weekly sermons by religious leaders. In numbers of Muslim societies, women may also worship at mosques where they are provided segregated areas, although most prefer to pray at home.

Daily prayers consist of specified prayers, including the opening verse and other passages from the Quran. At the end, the shahadah is recited. Prayers seeking aid or guidance in personal difficulties must be offered separately.

Zakat or almsgiving fulfills the individual's obligation towards his shared responsibility for the welfare of the community. Alms may be given individually; in some cases zakat is collected for distribution by governments.

The ninth month of the Muslim calendar is Ramadan (in Arabic) a period of obligatory fasting that commemorates the Prophet Mohammad's receipt of God's revelation, the Quran. Fasting is an act of self-discipline that leads to piety and expresses submission and commitment to God. By underscoring the equality of all Muslims, fasting strengthens a sense of community. During Ramadan, all but the sick, weak, pregnant or nursing women, soldiers on duty, travelers on necessary journeys, and young children are enjoined from eating, drinking, sexual activity, or smoking from sunrise to sunset. Official work hours often are shortened during this period.

Because the lunar calendar is eleven days shorter than the solar calendar, Ramadan revolves through the seasons over the years. When Ramadan falls in the summertime, a fast imposes considerable hardship on those who must do physical work. Id al Fitr, a three-day feast and holiday, ends the month of Ramadan and is the occasion for new clothes and much visiting between family members.

Ramadan is followed by the beginning of the hajj pilgrimage season during the twelfth month of the lunar calendar. At least once in their lifetime both men and women should, if economically able, make the hajj to the holy city of Mecca where special rites are focused on the Kaaba and nearby sites associated with the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son Ismail. Pilgrims, dressed in two white, seamless pieces of cloth (ihram), perform various traditional rites expressing unity and harmony with the worldwide Muslim community (ummah) by affirming obedience to God and their intent to lead a righteous life following the path directed by God. Returning pilgrims are entitled to use the honorific "hajji" and enjoy a respected status in their communities. Id al Adha, the feast of sacrifice, marks the end of the hajj month. The sacrificial meat is often shared with neighbors and the needy.

The permanent struggle for the triumph of God's word on earth, jihad, represents an additional duty. This concept is often taken to mean holy war, but in its basic sense it encompasses the efforts made by individuals to live a virtuous life overcoming all forms of evil so as to follow Islam.

Aside from specific duties, Islam imposes a code of ethical conduct encouraging generosity, fairness, honesty, tolerance, respect and service for the benefit of the common welfare of the ummah. It forbids the shedding of human blood, thieving and lying. It also gives explicit guidance on proper family relations and forbids adultery, gambling, usury, and the consumption of carrion, blood, pork, and alcohol.

Islamic Expression in Afghanistan

Arab armies carrying the banner of Islam reached the Afghan area in AD 642. On the western periphery, the princes of Herat and Seistan gave way to rule by Arab governors, but in the east cities submitted only to rise in revolt and the hastily converted returned to their old beliefs once the armies passed. Later, in the 9th century, Yaqub ibn Layth Saffari, founder of the local Saffarid dynasty in the Seistan, swept through the Afghan area conquering in the name of Islam; in the north the Islamic dynasty of the Samanids ruling from Bokhara took Balkh in AD 900 and extended their realm as far as Kandahar. Meanwhile a Turkish slave general who had been dismissed by the Samanids conquered Ghazni. A successor, the great Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni (998-1030), conducted numerous iconoclastic campaigns into India and returned laden with rich booty. Ghazni, until then an insignificant fort-town, became one of the most brilliant capitals of the Islamic world.

Today, approximately 99 percent of Afghans are Muslims. Eighty-five percent are Sunni of the Hanafi School; the rest are Shia, the majority of whom are Imami along with smaller numbers of Ismailis. There is also a strong influence of Sufism among both Sunni and Shia communities.

Sunnis of the Hanafi School

The Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence was founded by Abu Hanifa, one of the earliest Muslim scholar-interpreters to seek new ways of applying Islamic tenets to everyday life. He died in Iraq in AD 767. Abu Hanifa's interpretation of Muslim law was extremely tolerant of differences within Muslim communities. He also separated belief from practice, elevating belief over practice. Sunni are found throughout Afghanistan.

Ithna Ashariya (Twelver or Imami) Shia

Religious succession is basic to Shia/Sunni differences, and also divides the Shia. The two major Shia communities in Afghanistan are the Ithna Ashariya or Twelvers, also called Imami, and the Ismaili, sometimes called the Seveners. The Imami Shia recognize twelve successive Imams, beginning with Ali and ending in AD 874 with the disappearance of the twelfth who will return as a messianic figure at the end of the world.

The most numerous Imami Shia groups in Afghanistan are the Imami Hazara living in the Hazarajat of central Afghanistan, and the Imami Farsiwan of Herat Province. Mixtures occur in certain areas such as Bamiyan Province where Sunni, Imami and Ismaili may be found. Imami Shia are also found in urban centers such as Kabul, Kandahar, Ghazni, and Mazar-i-Sharif where numbers of Qizilbash and Hazara reside. Urban Shia are successful small business entrepreneurs; many gained from the development of education that began in the 1950s.

The political involvement of Shia communities grew dramatically during the politicized era during and following the Soviet invasion. Politically aware Shia students formed the hard core of the Afghan Maoist movement of the 1960s and early 1970s After 1978, Shia mujahidin groups in the Hazarajat, although frequently at odds with one another, were active in the jihad and subsequently in the fighting for the control of Kabul. During the political maneuvering leading up to the establishment of The Islamic State of Afghanistan in 1992, the Shia groups unsuccessfully negotiated for more equitable, consequential political and social roles. This heightened profile created a backlash among some Sunni groups, notably those associated with the Hezb-i Islami of Mawlawi Yunus Khalis and the Ittihad-i-Islam of Professor Abd al-Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf. Violent sectarian confrontations took place, particularly in and around Kabul.


The Ismaili Shia are also known as Seveners because in the eighth century their leaders rejected the heir designated by the sixth Imam, Jafar al Sadiq (d.765), whom the Imami accepted. The new group instead chose to recognize Jafar's eldest son, Ismail, as the seventh Imam and the Shia community split into two branches.

Ismaili communities in Afghanistan are less populous than the Imami who consider the Ismailis heretical. They are found primarily in and near the eastern Hazarajat, in the Baghlan area north of the Hindu Kush, among the mountain Tajik of Badakhshan, and amongst the Wakhi in the Wakhan Corridor.

Many Ismaili believe the line of Imam ceased when Ismail died before his father in AD 760; others believe he did not die but remains in seclusion and will return at the end of the world. Ismaili beliefs are complex and syncretic, combining elements from the philosophies of Plotinus, Pythagoras, Aristotle, gnosticism, and the Manichaeans, as well as components of Judaism, Christianity, and Eastern religions. Ismaili conceptions of the Imamat differ greatly from those of other Muslims and their tenets are unique. Their beliefs about the creation of the world are idiosyncratic, as is their historical ecumenism, tolerance of religious differences, and religious hierarchy. There is a division of theology into exoteric (including the conservative Shariah) and esoteric (including the mystical exegesis of the Quran which leads to haqiqa, the ultimate realty). These beliefs and practices are veiled in secrecy and Ismaili place particular emphasis on taqiya meaning to shield or guard, the practice that permits the believer to deny publicly his Shia membership for self-protection, as long as he continues to believe and worship in private. Taqiya is permissible in most Shia, and some Sunni, sects.

Ismailis in Afghanistan are generally regarded with suspicion by other ethnic groups and for the most part their economic status is very poor. Although Ismaili in other areas such as the northern areas of Pakistan operate well-organized social welfare programs including schools, hospitals and cooperatives, little has been done among Afghan Ismaili communities.

Considered less zealous than other Afghan Muslims, Ismaili are seen to follow their leaders uncritically. The pir or leader of Afghan Ismailis comes from the Sayyid family of Kayan, located near Doshi, a small town at the northern foot of the Salang Pass, in western Baghlan Province. During the Soviet-Afghan War this family acquired considerable political power.


Sufism has considerable influence in Afghanistan, in both rural and urban settings, especially among the middle classes of larger villages, town and cities.

Three Sufi orders are prominent: the Naqshbandiya founded in Bokhara, the Qadiriya founded in Baghdad, and the Cheshtiya located at Chesht-i-Sharif east of Herat. Among the Naqshbani, Ahmad al Faruqi Kabuli, born north of Kabul, acquired renown for his teachings in India during the reign of the Moghul Emperor Akbar in the sixteenth century. Sometime during the nineteenth century members of this family moved back to Kabul where they established a madrassa and a khanaqah in Shor Bazar which became a center of religious and political influence. Many Afghan Naqshbandi are linked with the Mujaddedi family. Sibghatullah Mujaddedi, leader of the mujahidin Jabha-i Nejat-i Melli party, became the head of this order when his predecessor, along with 79 male members of the family, were executed in Kabul by the Taraki-Amin government in January 1979. He served for two months as the first acting president of the Islamic State of Afghanistan established in April 1992.

Hazrat Naqib Sahib, father of Sayyid Ahmad Gailani Effendi, the present pir of the Qadiriya, established the family seat in Afghanistan on the outskirts of Jalalabad during the 1920s. Pir Ahmad Gailani is the leader of the mujahidin Mahaz-i Melli Islami party. The leadership of both the Naqshbandiya and Qadiriya orders derive from heredity rather than religious scholarship.

The Cheshtiya order was founded by Mawdid al-Cheshti who was born in the twelfth century and later taught in India. The Cheshtiya brotherhood, concentrated in the Hari Rud valley around Obe, Karukh and Chehst-i-Sharif, is very strong locally and maintains madrasas with fine libraries. Traditionally the Cheshtiya have kept aloof from politics, although they were effectively active during the resistance within their own organizations and in their own areas.

Herat and its environs has the largest number and greatest diversity of Sufi branches, many of which are connected with local tombs of pir (ziarat). Other Sufi groups are found all across the north, with important centers in Maimana, Faryab Province, and in Kunduz. The brotherhoods in Kabul and around Mazar-i-Sharif are mostly associated with the Naqshbandiya. The Qadiriya are found mainly among the eastern Pushtun of Wardak, Paktya and Ningrahar, including many Ghilzai nomadic groups. Other smaller groups are settled in Kandahar and in Shindand, Farah Province. The Cheshtiya are centered in the Hari Rud Valley. There are no formal Sufi orders among the Shia in the central Hazarajat, although some of the concepts are associated with Sayyids, descendants of the Prophet Mohammad, who are especially venerated among the Shia.

Afghanistan is unique in that there is little hostility between the ulama and the Sufi orders. Numbers of Sufi leaders are considered as ulama, and many ulama closely associate with Sufi brotherhoods. The general populace accords Sufis respect for their learning and for possessing karamat, the psychic spiritual power conferred upon them by God that enables pirs to perform acts of generosity and bestow blessings (barakat). Sufism therefore is an effective popular force. In addition, since Sufi leaders distance themselves from the mundane, they are at times turned to as more disinterested mediators in tribal disputes in preference to mullahs who are reputed to escalate minor secular issues into volatile confrontations couched in Islamic rhetoric.

Meaning and Practice

Islam represents a potentially unifying symbolic system which offsets the divisiveness that frequently rises from the existence of a deep pride in tribal loyalties and an abounding sense of personal and family honor found in multitribal and multiethnic societies such as Afghanistan.

Islam is a central, pervasive influence throughout Afghan society; religious observances punctuate the rythmn of each day and season. In addition to a central Friday mosque for weekly communal prayers which are not obligatory but generally attended, smaller community-maintained mosques stand at the center of villages, as well as town and city neighborhoods. Mosques serve not only as places of worship, but for a multitude of functions, including shelter for guests, places to meet and gossip, the focus of social religious festivities and schools. Almost every Afghan has at one time during his youth studied at a mosque school; for many this is the only formal education they receive.

Because Islam is a total way of life and functions as a comprehensive code of social behavior regulating all human relationships, individual and family status depends on the proper observance of the society's value system based on concepts defined in Islam. These are characterized by honesty, frugality, generosity, virtuousness, piousness, fairness, truthfulness, tolerance and respect for others. To uphold family honor, elders also control the behavior of their children according to these same Islamic prescriptions. At times, even competitive relations between tribal or ethnic groups are expressed in terms claiming religious superiority. In short, Islam structures day-to-day interactions of all members of the community.

The religious establishment consists of several levels. Any Muslim can lead informal groups in prayer. Mullahs who officiate at mosques are normally appointed by the government after consultation with their communities and, although partially financed by the government, mullahs are largely dependent for their livelihood on community contributions including shelter and a portion of the harvest. Supposedly versed in the Quran, Sunnah, Hadith and Shariah, they must ensure that their communities are knowledgeable in the fundamentals of Islamic ritual and behavior. This qualifies them to arbitrate disputes over religious interpretation. Often they function as paid teachers responsible for religious education classes held in mosques where children learn basic moral values and correct ritual practices. Their role has additional social aspects for they officiate on the occasion of life crisis rituals associated with births, marriages and deaths.

But rural mullahs are not part of an institutionalized hierarchy of clergy. Most are part-time mullahs working also as farmers or craftsmen. Some are barely literate, or only slightly more educated than the people they serve. Often, but by no means always, they are men of minimal wealth and, because they depend for their livelihood on the community that appoints them, they have little authority even within their own social boundaries. They are often treated with scant respect and are the butt of a vast body of jokes making fun of their arrogance and ignorance. Yet their role as religious arbiters forces them to take positions on issues that have political ramifications and since mullahs often disagree with one another, pitting one community against the other, they are frequently perceived as disruptive elements within their communities.

Other religious figures include the muezzin who calls the congregation to prayer and the khadim, the mosque caretakers. Qari are experts at reciting the Quran; hafiz know it by heart. Hafiz are often blind and associated with brotherhoods at important shrines. Qazi, religious judges, are part of the government judicial system responsible for the application of Shariah laws.

Ulama is the term that describes the body of scholars who have acquired ilm or religious learning. As such they are seen as the transmitters of religious texts, doctrines and values, as well as interpreters of the Shariah. Maulana and Mawlawi are titles given to members of the ulama and religious dignitaries. Sayyids among both Sunni and Shia refer to descendants of the Prophet Mohammad who enjoy social and religious prestige throughout the Muslim world.

Within Sufi networks there are a host of religious personalities in addition to pirs. Among these are various types of mendicants such as malangs who renounce the impermanence of this world and embrace poverty in order to detach themselves from the chains of materialism so as to better realize the divine. Some malang attach themselves to, or swear loyalty to, a particular brotherhood, but others wander alone, often garbed in colorful creative clothing. Some, like faqirs, claim to have been given a Divine mission and miraculous powers. They eschew home, family and worldly goods, sleeping in mosques or graveyards, especially those attached to shrines of saints. In a culture where family and kin are basic to individual psychological and economic identity, anyone who voluntarily relinquishes these ties is considered to have been favored by God with a special mission. As a result, they are respectfully tolerated and often given alms.

Veneration of saints and shrines (mazar, ziarat) is not encouraged in Islam and is actively suppressed by some groups. Nevertheless, Afghanistan's landscape is liberally strewn with shrines honoring saints of all descriptions. Many of Afghanistan's oldest villages and towns grew up around shrines of considerable antiquity. Some are used as sanctuaries by fugitives.

Shrines vary in form from simple mounds of earth or stones marked by pennants to lavishly ornamented complexes surrounding a central domed tomb. These large establishments are controlled by prominent religious and secular leaders. Shrines may mark the final resting place of a fallen hero (shahid), a venerated religious teacher, a renowned Sufi poet, or relics, such as a hair of the Prophet Mohammad or a piece of his cloak (khirqah). A great many commemorate legends about the miraculous exploits of Ali, the first Imam of Shia Islam, believed to be buried at the nation's most elaborate shrine located in the heart of Mazar-i-Sharif, the Exalted Shrine. Hazrat Ali is revered throughout Afghanistan for his role as an intermediary in the face of tyranny.

Festive annual fairs celebrated at shrines attract thousands of pilgrims and bring together all sections of communities. Pilgrims also visit shrines to seek the intercession of the saint for special favors, be it a cure for illness or the birth of a son. Women are particularly devoted to activities associated with shrines. These visits may be short or last several days and many pilgrims carry away specially blessed curative and protective amulets (tawiz) to ward off the evil eye, assure loving relationships between husbands and wives and many other forms of solace.

Politicized Islam

Although Shariah courts existed in urban centers after Ahmad Shah Durrani established an Afghan state in 1747, the primary judicial basis for the society remained in the tribal code of the Pushtunwali until the end of the nineteenth century. Sporadic fatwas (formal legal opinions) were issued and occasional jihads were called not so much to advance Islamic ideology as to sanction the actions of specific individuals against their political opponents so that power might be consolidated.

The first systematic employment of Islam as an instrument for state-building was introduced by Amir Abdur Rahman (1880-1901) during his drive toward centralization. He decreed that all laws must comply with Islamic law and thus elevated the Shariah over customary laws embodied in the Pushtunwali. The ulama were enlisted to legitimize and sanction his state efforts as well as his central authority. This enhanced the religious community on the one hand, but as they were increasingly inducted into the bureaucracy as servants of the state, the religious leadership was ultimately weakened. Many economic privileges enjoyed by religious personalities and institutions were restructured within the framework of the state, the propagation of learning, once the sole prerogative of the ulama, was closely supervised, and the Amir became the supreme arbiter of justice.

His successors continued and expanded Amir Abdur Rahman's policies as they increased the momentum of secularization. Islam continued central to interactions, but the religious establishment remained essentially non-political, functioning as a moral rather than a political influence. Nevertheless, Islam asserted itself in times of national crisis. And, when the religious leadership considered themselves severely threatened, charismatic religious personalities periodically employed Islam to rally disparate groups in opposition to the state. They rose up on several occasions against King Amanullah (1919-929), for example, in protest against reforms they believed to be western intrusions inimical to Islam.

Subsequent rulers, mindful of traditional attitudes antithetical to secularization were careful to underline the compatibility of Islam with modernization. Even so, and despite its pivotal position within the society which continued to draw no distinction between religion and state, the role of religion in state affairs continued to decline.

The 1931 Constitution made the Hanafi Shariah the state religion, while the 1964 Constitution simply prescribed that the state should conduct its religious ritual according to the Hanafi School. The 1977 Constitution, declared Islam the religion of Afghanistan, but made no mention that the state ritual should be Hanafi. The Penal Code (1976) and Civil Law (1977), covering the entire field of social justice, represent major attempts to cope with elements of secular law, based on, but superseded by other systems. Courts, for instance, were enjoined to consider cases first according to secular law, resorting to the BCShariah in areas where secular law did not exist. By 1978, the government of the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) openly expressed its aversion to the religious establishment. This precipitated the fledgling Islamist Movement into a national revolt; Islam moved from its passive stance on the periphery to play an active role.

Politicized Islam in Afghanistan represents a break from Afghan traditions. The Islamist Movement originated in 1958 among faculties of Kabul University, particularly within the Faculty of Islamic Law which had been formed in 1952 with the announced purpose of raising the quality of religious teaching to accommodate modern science and technology. The founders were largely professors influenced by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, a party formed in the 1930s that was dedicated to Islamic revivalism and social, economic, and political equity. Their objective is to come to terms with the modern world through the development of a political ideology based on Islam. The Afghan leaders, while indebted to many of these concepts, did not forge strong ties to similar movements in other countries.

The liberalization of government attitudes following the passage of the 1964 Constitution ushered in a period of intense activism among students at Kabul University. Professors and their students set up the Muslim Youth Organization (Sazmani Jawanani Musulman) in the mid-1960s at the same time that the leftists were also forming many parties. Initially communist students outnumbered the Muslim students, but by 1970 the Muslim Youth had gained a majority in student elections. Their membership was recruited from university faculties and from secondary schools in several cities such as Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat. These professors and students became the leaders of the Afghan Resistance in the 1980s.

With the takeover of government by the PDPA in April 1978, Islam became central to uniting the opposition against the communist ideology of the new rulers. As a politico-religious system, Islam is ideally suited to the needs of a diverse, unorganized, often mutually antagonistic citizenry wishing to forge a united front against a common enemy; and war permitted various groups within the mujahidin to put into effect competing concepts of organization.

The mujahidin leaders were charismatic figures with dyadic ties to followers. In many cases military and political leaders replaced the tribal leadership; at times the religious leadership was strengthened; often the religious combined with the political leadership. Followers selected their local leaders on the basis of personal choice and precedence among regions, sects, ethnic groups or tribes, but the major leaders rose to prominence through their ties to outsiders who controlled the resources of money and arms.

With the support of foreign aid, the mujahidin were ultimately successful in their jihad to drive out the Soviet forces, but not in their attempts to construct a political alternative to govern Afghanistan after their victory. Throughout the war, the mujahidin were never fully able to replace traditional structures with a modern political system based on Islam. Most mujahidin commanders either used traditional patterns of power, becoming the new khans, or sought to adapt modern political structures to the traditional society. In time the prominent leaders accumulated wealth and power and, in contrast to the past, wealth became a determining factor in the delineation of power at all levels.

With the departure of foreign troops and the long sought demise of Kabul's leftist government, The Islamic State of Afghanistan finally came into being in April 1992. This represented a distinct break with Afghan history, for religious specialists had never before exercised state power. But the new government failed to establish its legitimacy and, as much of its financial support dissipated, local and middle range commanders and their militia not only fought among themselves but resorted to a host of unacceptable practices in their protracted scrambles for power and profit. Throughout the nation the populous suffered from harassment, extortion, kidnapping, burglary, hijacking and acts dishonoring women. Drug trafficking increased alarmingly; nowhere were the highways safe. The mujahidin had forfeited the trust they once enjoyed.

In the fall of 1994 a Muslim "student militia" came forth vowing to cleanse the nation of the excesses sullying the jihad. Their avowed intention is to bring in a "pure" Islamic state subject to their own strict interpretations of the Shariah. Many of the leaders of this movement called the Taliban (seekers or students of Islam) were one-time mujahidin themselves, but the bulk of their forces are comprised of young Afghan refugees trained in Pakistani madrassas (religious schools), especially those run by the Jamiat-e Ulema-e Islam Pakistan, the aggressively conservative Pakistani political religious party headed by Maulana Fazlur Rahman, arch rival of Qazi Husain Ahmed, leader of the equally conservative Jamaat-e-Islami and long time supporter of the mujahidin.

Headquartered in Kandahar, initially almost entirely Pushtun, predominantly from the rural areas, and from the top leadership down to the fighting militia characteristically in their thirties or forties and even younger, the Taliban swept the country. In September 1996 they captured Kabul and ruled over two-thirds of Afghanistan.

The meteoric take over went almost unchallenged. Arms were collected and security was established. At the same time, acts committed for the purpose of enforcing the Shariah included public executions for murder, stoning for adultery, amputation for theft, a bann on all forms of gambling such as kite flying, chess and kawk (partridge) fighting, prohibition of music and videos, proscriptions against pictures of humans and animals, and an embargo on women's voices over the radio. Women are to remain as invisible as possible, behind the veil, in purdah in their homes, and dismissed from work or study outside their homes. Like many before them, the Taliban wave the flag of women's chasteness to prove their superior Muslimness.

Because of the strong religious sentiments that animate their minds, rural Afghans are still mostly captivated by the Taliban at the beginning of 1997. Others look on appalled at the rigidly orthodox dictates of these self-proclaimed arbiters of Islamic rectitude. To them Taliban interpretations of the Shariah are foreign deviations alien to the Islam practiced in Afghan society which has always stressed moderation, tolerance, dignity, individual choice and egalitarianism.

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