The crisis of national and religious identity in Afghanistan today

On the anniversary of Afghanistan’s Communist Party coup d’état, how Afghani modernization had to deal with a series of “others” like British colonialism, Soviet communism, or US capitalism, hindering development of a strong national identity.  

Sayed Hassan Akhlaq
27 April 2015
Amanullah, King of Afghanistan,1919 - 1929.

Amanullah, King of Afghanistan,1919 - 1929. Wikicommons.Some rights reserved.Afghanistan finally took its current name as a country in reformist king Amanullah Khan’s 1923 constitution. Amanullah Khan wanted to rapidly modernize Afghanistan along western lines.  Most of the changes that Amanullah Khan initiated rapidly failed. He also met with little success in his goal of creating Afghani national identity. Amanullah Khan’s struggle to forge this national identity continues today.

By 870, Arabic Muslims completed the campaign they began in 642 to dominate the lands that make up present day Afghanistan. During the next five centuries, most Afghanis converted to Islam. Afghani Muslims have made major contributions to Shariah, theology, Sufism, philosophy, physical sciences, literature, and art with local features. The founder of the largest, most rational school of Shariah among Muslims, Abu Hanifah, had Afghani ancestors in Kabul.  Balkh, in northern Afghanistan has been a main source of intellectual thought in the history of Islamic theology and was known as Murij Abad (the palace of Murjitte; the most liberal group in the history of Islam which shunned the idea of judging people based on their religious deeds).  Very great Sufis like Khawja Abdullah Ansari, Sanaii, Howjwari, Rumi and Jami were Afghanis, and enhanced the Afghani understanding of Islam. The major philosophers of Islam, including al-Farabi and Avicenna, were from Afghanistan and had a great impact on Islamic theology.  Biruni, perhaps the greatest scientist in Islamic history flourished in Ghazni. Afghani writers and poets like Firdawsi, Nasir Khesrow, and Rumi generated the greater part of Persian rich literatures. Herat’s school of miniature painting is known for its outstanding style and affected greatly Iranian and Indian schools.

This fertile ground shaped Afghani Islam and culture in a unique form, open to different cultures and traditions. This is why tribal traditions, even among the most conservative people of Pashtu in southern and eastern Afghanistan have been more influential than Islamic traditions. During its reign, the Taliban tried hard to replace several tribal customs with religious ones, such as those regarding women and marriage, but they did not succeed. The tradition-conscious Pashtu and the hierarchical Sufis backed current president Muhammad Ashraf Ghani, though he is known for his western mindset and Christian wife.  


Amanullah Khan as a young prince.

Amanullah Khan as a young prince. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.The process of modernization in Afghanistan begun with Amanullah Khan (1892-1960), who seized power in 1919, after his father, Amir Habibullah, was assassinated. It is widely believed that Amanullah supported the plot, knowing that he could then institute his proposed reforms.  Focusing on this very complicated event brings us to the heart of the current crisis. There are three dimensions. 

The first is political. The conflictual background with British power, War World I, and colonialism’s shift from military to economic domination provided the chance for Amanullah to declare war against Britain for Afghanistan’s independence in May 1919.  In addition to their military campaigns, the British even created a civil war between Sunni and Shiite in Qandahar, before finally accepting Afghanistan’s independence in August 1919.

After that, Amanullah maintained friendly relation with western powers, including the British. However, the memory of colonialism still remains strong in Afghani minds, in part thanks to the popular notions that Britain planted to undermine Amanullah’s reformist agenda, stirring up religious zealots against the King. 

Secondly, radical reformism. Amanullah established a new modern cabinet, enacted a constitution, and made elementary education obligatory for all Afghanis. Unlike previous Afghans, Amanullah understood the value of education. He emphasized it so much that, during his reign, education programs received more from the annual budget than all other activities except the defense department and payments to the loyal family. In 1927 Amanullah spent just over six months visiting Egypt, Turkey, Iran, India, Italy, France, Germany, British, and Russia in order to learn from their experiences with reform. He came back to Afghanistan with dreams of modernizing the country very rapidly. Having founded co-educational schooling and sent several unmarried Afghani girls abroad to study, he focused on dress code changes for men which prohibited traditional regional dress, removed traditional Hijabs from women, prohibited polygamy, and encouraged Afghani women to look to men for equality.

This angered conservatives, who then spread propaganda against him.  Pictures taken of his wife during his trip abroad, without the traditional Hijab, circulated among uneducated people, and gave them the impression the King had abandoned his faith. A conflict between religious identity and national identity was triggered. In eastern Afghanistan, the Shinwari tribe launched a local rebellion and took power in several districts. They demanded that the king divorce the first lady, close girls’ schools, rescind the constitution, give clerics political positions, and shut down all foreign legations in Kabul except the British one. It was rebels from northern Afghanistan under the leadership of Bache Saqaw, however, who finally stormed Kabul and brought down Amanullah. 

Thirdly – there is the tribal issue. Bache Saqaw came to power calling himself “The Servant of the Religion and of the Messenger of God,” and did away with Amanullah’s reforms and the constitution. Bache Saqaw himself lasted only about nine months before he too was sacked, accused of assassinating the king and taking power illegally. Bache Saqaw’s ouster at the hands of those who had previously supported him has fueled many suspicions among historians, that the British masterminded Amanullah’s elimination – and then Bache Saqaw’s – to keep Afghanistan without a strong, modern leader, and therefore under British influence.

Bache Saqaw’s grip on power was never assured, even without Britain’s alleged interference, because of his Tajik ethnicity. The country’s large Pashtu majority would not have borne this. Even in the twentieth century and contemporary Afghanistan, tribal identities remain stronger than either religious ones or the newly national identity.

Although Amanullah’s successor, Nadir Shah, did not appear to take modernization seriously, his son Zahir Shah, now called “the Father of the nation” in the present constitution of Afghanistan, took major steps toward modernization in his last decade of power.  He stayed in power for forty years (1933-1973), the last decade of which is known as “the decade of democracy” and “the decade of the Constitution.”

In 1964, the new constitution was adopted which was later accepted in 2001 as the temporary constitution of Afghanistan (excepting its articles on the monarchy). The term “Afghan,” referring to the nationality of Afghanis appeared there for the first time.  It was previously used for Pashtu people only. During that period, however, Zahir Shah developed the country’s educational system and fostered political freedom. The political parties established in those years can be categorized in two main factions: majority Marxist parties and minority Islamist student associations. The first groups were inspired by Russian and Chinese social-communist parties, and the second by Egyptian Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood. They had a hand in the formation of the current socio-political conditions of Afghanistan, strongly influenced as they were by the modernization projects of the Marxist and Islamist agendas. 

In 1973, while the king was visiting abroad, Muhammad Dawood, the Shah’s brother-in-law and cousin, took power through a coup d’etat and declared the country a Republic, with the support of socialist and communist activists. In his last years, Dawood drew closer to the US and distanced himself from Moscow and the main Afghan communist party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, or PDPA. This led to the assassination of Dawood and his family in the Haft-e Saur Revolution of April 28, 1978. 

Afghanistan’s political system then changed from a republic to the Democratic Republic with the PDPA as the main focus of power. The PDPA later split into two opposing parties, and coups led finally to the Soviet Union’s invasion in 1979 lasting to 1989. The political struggle between Islamist groups and the Marxist government, as well as the cold war between the Soviet Union and the US, was fought out in a brutal civil war in Afghanistan between the Mujahidin and the communist government.  Politicized modernization soon exposed its hidden potential to turn into militant radicalism. 

Modernization in Afghanistan may have begun with the establishment of independence from the British, but, as we will see, it led to the arrival of militant Islamism from other countries. The Soviet Union’s backing for Afghanistan’s communist government prompted the US to support the anti-Soviet Mujahidin, therefore making Afghanistan a battlefield on which to pursue its Cold War objectives. 

Afghani modernization became the struggle to deal with a series of “others” like British colonialism, Soviet communism, or US capitalism. Afghanis’ reflexive backlash against the alien systems those “others” brought to their country occurred even without a clear or advanced understanding of these others, or an accurate picture of how their own society could benefit from rejecting the others’ ways – in whole or in part. This hindered the development of a strong national identity, fuelling suspicious about foreigners and a crisis in religious identity. 


The majority of Afghani Muslims are Sunnis. More specifically, they are Maturidi, and with regards to Islamic Jurisprudence, they are Hanafi. Maturidi is a rational school of theology which values reason over revelation. There is, therefore, no connection between them and the Salafists, who are trained to understand Islam through the literal interpretation of revelation. 

Also, the Hanafi School emphasizes a similarly rational approach to understanding and interpreting Islamic law. Its founder, Imam Abu Hanifah, was the most liberal and rational Imam among the four leaders of Sunni Islam’s Shariah school. In this context, liberal means openness to secular achievements and concerns, while rational means that the Quran’s words should be interpreted in a common-sense way rather than taking only their literal meaning at the moment of revelation. 

It is well-known that Hanifah accepted only 17 Hadiths (quotations) as narrated by the Prophet.  For this rational approach his school was known as “the people of opinion,” as opposed to the Madenia Schools, which accepted thousands of Hadiths and were known as “the people of Hadith/Narration”. Imam Malik accepted 300, and Imam Ahmad bn Hambal, considered as the Salafis’ spiritual leader 30000 Hadiths. Abu Hanifah used to refuse even proven Hadiths which seemed no longer to make sense. Therefore, there is a huge chasm between the Afghan Hanafi rational school and current Salafi textual approaches. 

For example, a well known Fatwa from the Hanafi School equates Wahhabism with the Kharijites. Wahhabism is the most influential movement within Salafism, following Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab’s (1703-1792) extremist view of Islam, which favors literal interpretation of the holy texts. The Kharijites were an extremist Muslim group active in the seventh century in what is today Saudi Arabia and Iraq, fighting against both Sunni and Shiite holy figures. They were the first group in Islam’s history who used excommunication (Takfir), and fought against and finally assassinated Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth Caliph of Sunni Islam and the first Imam of the Shiites. The Kharijites also promoted the idea of immigration (Hijra) as part of their radical doctrines. These two features, excommunication and immigration, have reappeared in Wahhaabi Islam in recent centuries. The Hanafi’s Fatwa equating Wahhabism with the Kharijites demonstrates not only the former’s disapproval of Wahhabi extremist views, but also shows the distance between the two schools’ points of view.

The extremism of the Wahhabi/Salafi school caused the three kings of Afghanistan, Dost Muhammad Khan (1793-1863), Sher Ali Khan (1825-1879), and Abdur Rahman Khan (1844-1901) to stoutly resist the formation of Salafi movements in Afghanistan.  For instance, King Sher Ali Khan himself wrote a book called “Shahab-e Saqib Dar radd-e Wahhabiyat-e Kazib” (A meteor against false Wahhabism). The last king supported local religious leaders who wrote and published a common work called, “Taqwim al-Din” (Straightening the faith). The authors argued that Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab was evil incarnate, a half-learned man bent on misleading and ultimately dividing the Muslims community. 

For most of the twentieth century Afghani religious students studied at Al-Azhar, in Cairo, and Deubandi in India, neither of which fell under the sway of Wahhabi textualism. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, however, provided an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to finance and train Afghani Sunni as part of their support for the Mujahidin. They promoted Wahhabism as the “true belief,” in sharp contrast to the “infidel” communist government and the “deviant” Islam followed by Sufis and Shiites. Despite this infusion of money, ideology, and inspiration, Afghani Sunni Mujahidin groups, such as Jamiiayt Islami and Hizb-e Islami, steered clear of Wahhabi ideology because of their grounding in the Afghani moderate style of Islam. The majority of Sunni Mujahidin were more influenced by the Islamic Brotherhood and anti-colonial ideology. 

When the Soviet Union left Afghanistan there was a major controversy over whether fighting against the central Afghani government is legal as Jihad. For example, under Hanafi jurisprudence, Afghanistan could only make the transition from Dar al-Islam (house of Islam) to Dar al-Harb (house of war) and thus become a proper battlefield for Jihad, if three conditions were met: (1) if all Islamic rules were replaced with infidel rules; (2) if Islamic lands became adjacent to the lawful battlefield (the land of war); and (3) if there is no safety for Muslims.  Thus, although Afghanistan bordered on the Soviet Union, Jihad was inappropriate because Muslims were largely safe and Kabul’s communist government had to some extent supplanted Islamic rules with secular ones, but not whole Islamic rules. Jihadists still fighting the central government therefore did so on political, rather than religious grounds. This failure to follow Hanafi law therefore created a collapse in religious identity.    

However, although their leaders were more or less moderate, the foot soldiers who were immigrants to Pakistan were gradually accepting Wahhabi ideology in Pakistani Madrasas financed by the Saudis. The extremists of the Taliban took power as a result of the civil war and corruption among the Mujahidin, but also thanks to Pakistani support. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were the only countries which recognized the Taliban regime and provided them substantial aid. Although the Taliban denied being Wahhabi, to a large extent Afghani Mujahidin considered them to be foreigners.        

As a result, Afghanistan lost its spirit of moderate Islam under the influence of foreign Islamist entities: a confluence of the Egyptian Brotherhood in the Sunni Mujahidin, Saudi Salafism in the Taliban, and the Iranian Revolution among Shiite political groups. 

Afghanistan’s identity crisis

Before the process of modernization, Afghanis used to identify with religious and tribal values. The process of modernization brought to them the concept of the nation-state and then nationality. This formation of the nation is not yet complete, however.  For example, during this period various national flags and anthems appeared but mostly they did not last because they reflected ideological agendas rather than national ideals. Even the name of Afghanistan still is controversial since it may reflect only one tribal identity. While the constitution and Pashtu groups emphasize the term “Afghan” referring to Afghani citizens, non-Pashtu groups use “Afghanistani.” Last year a huge dispute erupted over issuing new Afghani national ID cards mentioning tribal identity. The latest presidential election in Afghanistan, the only peaceful transition of power in modern Afghanistan, led to very aggressive and heated debate due to tribal and racial tensions. All this only suggests how much Afghanis still struggle to establish a national identity. 

If the process of nation-making has had only limited success up till this point, the shaping of a religious identity is visibly regressing. The dominance of textual trends is going to affect new generations. The corrupt government and un-seen benefits of international aid for public benefit or infrastructural construction in Afghanistan has always paved and still paves the way for extremists. Mujahidin who have appeared under the name of Islam and fought against communist governments became tribal and political parties who looked out for their own economic and political interests rather than the religious ideals they claimed to fight for. During fights against the Taliban they were supported by Russia who was their earlier enemy. The current Chief Executive Officer of Afghanistan who is supposed to represent the Mujahidin side, suggested a well-known member of the PDPA for interior ministry. Despite the Taliban’s widely known religious extremism in Afghanistan, they are still offered negotiations thanks to various tribal affiliations. 

In sum, the lack of a national identity and the distance from the moderating spirit of Afghani Islam have led to the crisis of the Afghani spirit. The same crisis makes any clear prediction about Afghanistan’s future fraught with difficulty. 

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