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            The Pashtun (also Pashtoon, Pushtun, Pakhtun, Pathan or ethnic Afghan) are an ethnic/religious group of people living primarily in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India who follow Pashtoonwali. The Pashtuns are the world's largest patriarchal tribal group in existence.(Glatzer 2002: 265) The Pashtun people primarily speak Pashto, also known as Afghan. The word Afghan was originally a synonym for Pashtun, and it is still the use of the word in many parts of Afghanistan and the world. There has never been an accurate population census taken in Afghanistan, but the most common estimate is approximately 26 million. A staggering 5 million Afghans, one out of five people are thought to be in refugee camps along the country's borders and in neighboring nations. Pakistan has given refuge to 3 million Afghan refugees.


Linguistic Tribal Groups

            The origin of Pashtuns are traced form the lost tribes of Israel but this is not so clear. Their legends say that they are the descendants of Afghana, grandson of King Saul. Most of their names, customs and traditions are similar to the Jewish culture. Even, Pennell, a missionary to Afghan testifies, “Certainly the Pashtun physiognomy lends credence to this theory, and many customs still prevalent among them bear witness to their semitic origin.” (Pennell: 1914:17) The language of the Pashtuns is Pashto, also spelled Pushto, Pushtu, Pashtu, Pakhtu, Pukhtu, Pukhto and sometimes Paxto.

            The Pashtuns are predominantly a tribal people. This large tribe has dozens of sub-tribes whose members are in a way relatives to each other, in one way or other.More precisely, there are several levels of organization: the tabar (tribe) is subdivided into kinship groups each of which is a khel. The khel in turn is divided into smaller groups, each of which consists of several extended families or kahols. (Glatzer 2002: 271)

            The Pashtun tribe has many sub-tribes under its wing, which they call as Khel, in Pashto. Major Pashtun tribes include: Afridi, Awan, Bangash, Bhutan, Barakzai, Daulatzai, Dialback, Ghilzai/Chili, Jason, Quaker, Fundi, Chariot, Chateau, Lodi, Malice, Mashwanis, Mashed, Mart, Mohamedzai, Mohammed, Nazi, Orakzai, paparazzi, Swat, Chilean/shaman, Chinaware, Shtik,Talon, Tartness, Wizard, Yousafzai. (

Family Structure

            Pashtuns lead a way of life is the joint family system. All the family members, even the married sons, live jointly in a same house, under the authority of the father, who is the head of a family, manages the family affairs and exercises an immense influence in his own house. All those who earn in the family, married as well as un-married sons, contribute their share of income to the common pool of resources. All expenses on food, clothing, education, health, birth, marriages and deaths are taken from this common fund. The mantle of authority falls on the eldest son's shoulders after the death of the father or when old age renders him unable to discharge his functions efficiently. (Afridi: Customs)

            The birth of a female child generally passes un-noticed but the birth of a male child is a joyful event; an occasion of rejoicing and festivity. This is because of the fact that the very existence of an individual under a tribal system, largely depends upon the strength of arms and man power. Secondly the tribal society is patriarchal in structure where the law of inheritance rests with the male line.(Afridi: Customs)Pashtun women have no formal power and seldom appear in in public when strangers are in the area. However, behind the mud walls and inside the tent, they exercise considerable influence not only in the decision making concerning domestic affairs, but also in influencing their husbands and sons on political and extralegal issues discussed at local jirgah, the village council.


            Generally Pashtun males prefer to marry the offspring of father's brother or another near relative. Since endogamy is preferred and practiced, women seldom move far from their female kin, so the relationship remains intact. But, mostly, women don't have a choice to choose their marriage partner. Wadah, the marriage ceremony usually takes place on Thursday and Fridays. Marriage festivities commence three days before the scheduled date of the actual marriage. (Afridi: Customs)

            Walwar or head-money or bride price, which forms part of the negotiations, is determined at the time of engagement itself. In accordance with the Jirga's decision the groom's parents agree to pay in cash the specified amount to the girl's parents on the day of marriage. A part of the payment, is made on the spot. The rest of the money is paid on the marriage day. The more the bride's price the more she commands respect in her husband's family. (Afridi: Customs)

            Polygamy is practiced on a limited scale. A Pashtun takes a second wife only when the first one is issueless or differences between the husband and wife assume proportions beyond compromise. Divorces are not so common but exists. Sometimes the use of Talaq to divorce would result in murders and blood feuds. Marriages with widowed sisters-in-law are common and a brother considers it his bounden duty to marry the widow of his deceased brother.

Cultural Code

            The Pashtuns are Sunni Muslims, but their Islamic beliefs and behavior have often been tempered, and distorted, by cultural values that are sometimes at odds with the teachings of Islam. Pashtun cultural values are reflected in a code of ethics called simply Pashto in Pashto, and Pashtunwali (the way of the Pashtun by which Pashtuns are required to live). The tenets of 'Pashto' or formally known as Pashtunwali are:




Hospitality and protection to every guest,


The right of a fugitive to seek refuge, and acceptance of his bona fide offer of peace


Ancient Israelite Moses' Law, Tooth for a Tooth (the right of blood feuds or revenge)









Ghayrat & Namus

Defense of Zan, Zar and Zameen (Women/Family, Treasury and Property)

            This is a stringent code, a tough code for tough men, who of necessity to lead tough lives. Among these, three are most important in Pashtunwali code. They are Melmastia (Hospitality), Badal (Revenge) and Namus (Defense of Women/Family, Treasury and Property). This reveals that Pashtuns are very hospitable to their guests and at the same time they are much cruel and fighting in nature. To safeguard his honor, the honor of his family or clan, a Pashtun will sacrifice everything, including his money and his life. He will return even the slightest insult with interest. According to a Pashtun proverb, “He is not a Pashtun who does not give a blow for a pinch.” (Pakistan Handbook 1998:394) Pashtuns are fond of rifles and young boys can be seen carrying rifles under their arms. Seldom will they be seen un-armed. Their fondness for arms is evident from a Pashto proverb that though they might not have good food they must be in possession of fine arms. (Rehman: Pashtuns)

            In Pashtun culture, warfare plays an very important role. The Pashtuns engage in feuding in the off-agricultural season or when the herders are not moving out. The underlying sexual competition of male cousins for female cousins tends to create the more problem. The idealized Pashtun male should be a brave warrior in the battle, and an eloquent in jirgah, the tribal council. As Winston Churchill says,

“The Pathan tribes are always engaged in private or public war. Every man is a warrior, a politician and a theologian Every large house is a real feudal fortress....Every family cultivates its vendetta; every clan, its feud.... Nothing is ever forgotten and very few debts are left unpaid.” (

Social Gatherings

            The Hujra which represents the sociable character of the Pashtuns is an useful institution and it plays a pivotal role in their daily life. It serves as a club, dormitory, guest house and a place for ritual and feasting. It is used as a male dormitory where bachelors of the village sleep. It is a guest house where guests are jointly entertained by village folk and a community center for betrothals, marriages and social functions. It is a center for social activities as well as a platform for the Jirga's meetings where important decisions are made and family quarrels and tribal disputes are peacefully resolved. (Afridi: Social)

            The Jirga system is a council or assembly of tribal elders. The Jirga exercises both executive and judicial roles and settles all disputes pertaining to the distribution of land, property, blood feuds, blood money. Jirgas traditionally have neither leaders nor chairmen. The participants prefer to sit in circles in order to avoid any dominant position. Decisions are reached only through consensus. Therefore discussions last until everyone is convinced or until it becomes clear that there will be no consensus at that time. Once a decision is reached at a jirga, it is binding for every participant. (Glatzer 2002:272) The Jirga's decision is generally based on Shariat, local traditions, and fair justice.

            The elder's opinion prevails in all important matters. Youngsters are normally not expected to talk or laugh loudly in the presence of their elders. Especially in Jirgas, the younger members of the village are not allowed to speak. Everything is left to the choice of their elders. (Afridi: Social)


            Mostly all Pashtuns are Hanafi sunni muslims. There were many religions influenced the people of Afghanistan. After Aryans' rule, in 628 BC, Zoroaster introduced his new monotheistic religion called Zoroastrianism in Afghanistan. Then under king Kanishka Buddhist religion attained its heights in the country. Later in 650 AD, the Orthodox Caliphates, captured Afghanistan and introduced the Islamic religion by force. From that time onwards Afghans, especially the Pashtuns, practice Islam as their religion. (     

            At present a village Pashtun worldview could be termed as Animistic Islamic worldview. But the urban Pashtun worldview is in great dynamics. For a Pashtun everything is seen through a glass of Islamic religion. They have a zealousness for their belief and practice and they won't mind killing any number of people to save their religion. In fact they consider it a short road to paradise to kill Christians and other unbelievers. (Pennell 1914:21) The Pashtuns are punctilious in offering their daily prayers and observance of fast during the month of Ramazan. Whatever occupation they might be engaged in, whether business or pleasure, it was always interrupted at the hour of prayers. (Afridi: Social) On the occasion of Eid, Barawafat, Muharram, Shab-e-Barat and on certain other religious days, rich food is prepared to invoke the blessings of Allah.

Belief & Practice

            Muslims have six main beliefs: 1.Belief in Allah as the one and only God, 2.Belief in angels, 3.Belief in the holy books, 4.Belief in the Prophets (like Adam, Ibrahim, Musa, Dawud, Isa, and finally Muhammad), 5. Belief in the Day of Judgment, and 6.Belief in Predestination. Pashtuns are taught to believe these basic Islamic beliefs, even from their childhood by Mullahs. Apart from these Pashtuns also have numerous superstitious beliefs based upon their occupation and survival.

            When we come to the religious practice, the most important Islamic practices are the Five Pillars of Islam. These are the five obligations that every Muslim must satisfy in order to live a good and responsible life according to Islam. The Five Pillars consist of:

·       Shahadah: sincerely reciting the Muslim profession of faith

·       Salat: performing ritual prayers in the proper way five times each day

·       Zakat: paying an alms (or charity) tax to benefit the poor and the needy

·       Sawm: fasting during the month of Ramadan

·       Hajj: pilgrimage to Mecca  (Ala-Moudud  1980: 15)


            The Pashtuns believe in Jin, the evil spirit. The Jin, it is believed, can assume the form of a human being, beast, animal or of anything they want to. The Jin is stated to be of two kinds, believers and non-believers and good and bad. If a good tempered Jin takes a fancy to a person, it will attend upon him like a faithful and devoted friend, ready to render him any service even at odd hours. Any person possessed by a Jin is believed to have the power of discovering stolen articles and predicting the future. Even bad Jin can possess any one and when it occurs, a Mullah credited with the power of exorcising the evil spirits is immediately sent for. He recites a few verses from the Holy Quran and conjures the Jin to depart. The exorcist scolds the Jin in a threatening voice to leave. When it does not work, the exorcist writes a charm on a piece of paper and burns it under the afflicted man's nose.


            Mullah is a religious teacher and a priest of village mosque. Each Pakhtun village has a mosque in which a Mullah leads the daily prayers and teaches religious education to the village children. This Mullah is also authorized to perform all the ceremonies and rituals in the life of a Pashtun. The Mullah is served free meals and he receives alms from village people. These Mullahs have a great influence in their village and they constantly incite the people to acts of violence against their enemies (non-Muslims). They teach that the path to Paradise must be paved with the heads of infidels, either Christians or Hindus. Many spirited young Pashtuns have transformed into raging fanatic and blood thirsty murderer by the preaching of some unnoticed Mullahs. (Pennell 1914:22)

Rituals, Ceremonies and Festivals

            The first important ceremony in the child's life is performed by the village Mullah or priest or an old pious man. The Mullah whispers Azaan (call to prayers or profession of faith) in his or her ears. The second important ceremony in a child's life is Sar Kalai or hair cutting. When the child is about 40 days old, his or her hairs are shaved by a village barber. The third important ceremony is know as Soonat (Circumcision of a male child). The Circumcision ceremony is again performed by the village barber when the boy is over one year old. In the fourth stage the child, generally is sent to a Mullah in the village mosque for religious education, including learning by heart of Namaz and reading of the Holy Quran. Since blood feud is one of their cultural elements, they also teach how to use arms in fight.

            The major tribal festival in Pashtun is called Tobay Westal (supplicating God for rain). After a prolonged dry climate, the people of the villages headed by the Mullahs come out to the fields and offer prayers, at least for three consecutive days. Besides, children of the village come out in streets and collect wheat, maize and barley from the houses of the village. While collecting grain the children chant in a chorus “God in turn will give sons to anyone who gives wheat or maize or barley.” After the collection of grain the children cook it and they pray for rains. Since they respect dead people, they also go to the nearby graveyard and sprinkle water on graves.


            Pashtuns greatly fear and respect the dead saints, so they highly devote themselves to the shrines of the dead saints. The devotees pay frequent visits to shrines and enter there bare-footed and seek the saint's blessings for the restoration of falling health, wealth and success in certain their business. The more a saint enjoys reputation, the more his tomb attracts devotees. Some shrines have become specialized for a particular need or healing of a particular disease. For example prayers are offered for the birth of a male child at Ziarat Kaka Sahib and other shrines are considered effective for curing of madness, rheumatism, dog bites, hysteria and certain other ailments. (Afridi: Social)


            Pashtuns consider the sexual immorality as a big offense and a great sin. The cases of adultery and illicit relations are severely punished. Casting of an evil eye on woman will cost the very life of a man. If a man and woman committed adultery with mutual consent, then both of them will be put to death, by the judgment of jirga. If a man raped a woman by force, then the relatives of that woman has all rights to kill that offender and remove the shame. As same as adultery, murder is also a serious crime. But, there is a system of escape for the murderer. If the murderer feels repentant for his act, he can contact the deceased's family through jirga and pay a particular amount in accordance to the advice of jirga, then it will be considered as blood money given in compensation of blood shed. (Afridi: Customs)


            Pashtuns greatly fear evil spirits and evil eye. So some strange ways and means are devised by them to protect themselves from the evil eye and evil effects of Jinni and demons. Pashtun women believe that evil spirits cannot come near a newly born infant if a knife or a dagger is put near its pillow or at its head. Therefore, they always keep a sharp edged weapon besides the infant's pillow to ward off evil spirits. The sickness of child will be depicted as the influence of some evil spirits. So the mother murmurs enchantments and throws red hot metal in cold water to scare away the evil spirit or a possible evil eye. They also put amulets round the child's neck as a protection against the evil eye or bad spirits.

            A black spot is put on the child's forehead in an attempt to protect him against the evil eye. Some men and women are considered as notorious for an evil eye. In certain clans a child is deliberately kept dirty and ill clad for warding off the evil spirits. The claws of a leopard or a lion are also sometimes hung around their necks. On other occasions, like Jews, a goat or lamb is slaughtered and the blood of the sacrificed animal is sprinkled on the door or wall of the house to ward off possible natural calamities. Like these there are innumerable superstitious beliefs and practices are there among Pashtuns. (Afridi: Social)


            Among Pashtuns, Christians constitute only (approximate) 0.02%, where Muslims constitute (approximate) 99.98% and the Hindu presence is too meager to calculate. Christian missionaries tried so long to evangelize Pashtuns of Afghanistan, but none of them could make a difference. At present only few missionaries reside within the country and try to convey the gospel message. Some indigenous Christian churches are involving in personal evangelism but in a slow pace. Mostly, mission agencies in the country concentrate on social works like education, tribal literacy work, medical work and relief work. There is a Christian radio program in Pashto language, which tries to preach gospel and there is only a little response. Unfortunately there is no bible in Pashto language, where there are about 30 millions of Pashto speakers all over the world. The Jesus film also dubbed in the language of Pashto, but that too is ineffective. (Joshua Project: Pushtun) If we observe all of these, we can see that that there is no development in the mission work among Pashtuns. Why is this situation? Here are some important reasons perceived by the researcher:

1.   Pashtuns are very passionate about their culture, but missionaries never took a step to understand their culture and nor they tried to inculturate gospel in their Pashtun-Islamic culture.

2.   More than their tribal culture, Pashtuns are very much associated with their Islamic faith, rituals and traditions. So, to be a non-believer of Islam is unimaginable in the mind of a Pashtun.

3.   Pashtuns are much tired of westerners and their colonialistic attitude towards them. They also view Christianity as a religion of westerners, who always find ways to convert Muslims to Christianity. To be short, they hate Christians and

4.   The present Afghan government, even the former Taliban government are totally against Christian mission of evangelism. If they hear a missionary converting a Muslim, immediately they would cancel his visa and send him out of the country.

5.   Pashtun society is a closed community setup, and no one is allowed to take individual decision for himself, especially in religious and moral area. The jirga, the village council is in control of the whole village and hence the individuals cannot act anything without a nod from their jirga. Breaching this would cost their very life.

6.   Terrorism is one of the major job opportunities in Afghanistan so people of that job roam all over the country, therefore it is very difficult to identify terrorists and normal people. Most of the Taliban militants are Sunni Muslim Pashtuns. They are deadly against westerners and their Christianity.


            Tilling in this hard rock is itself a tough job, then how can we expect a harvest. This is the current mentality of the mission agencies. There is nothing wrong in their assumptions. Pashtuns indeed are a hard rock to till, but still we can build new strategies to penetrate the strongholds. From the past experience, we can clearly say that we cannot go against their culture or religion and win the battle. So I consider that if we form a strategy based on their fundamental worldview and religious belief, it possibly will workout in an society like Pashtun.

1. Put on the makeup of Pashtun

            Being a foreigner, a missionary cannot influence any Pashtun and make him to accept Christ. So, a missionary should learn the Pashto language fluently and he also should change into a Pashtun dress code to identify himself with other Pashtuns. It also advisable to grow beard in a Pashtun style. If possible, missionary can marry one of the Pashtun girls because this will help him to join the Pashtun society. It not easy for a Pashtun to give his daughter outside the tribe, but in urban areas this is possible.

            It is mostly recommended for any missionary to get a secular job and at the same time to involve in social welfare works. He also can participate in Pashtun social meetings and speak for their cause. By doing this a missionary can gain the goodwill of the people surrounding. The immediate implementation of big projects, will create a doubt in the minds of the Pashtun society. This will also be a hindrance for an open communication with them. The first stage is to sit and observe everything, that goes around the place, in order to get identified among Pashtuns.

2.   Relationship Evangelism

            In the second phase, a missionary should focus on inculturization of gospel in the religious language of Pashtuns. Christianity and Islam has many similarities, except some issues like “Jesus, the Son of God.” So there are many ways to relate with them. During this period, we should develop relationships with the local leaders and Mullahs. After having close relationship with the local Mullahs, a missionary can start a common talk about different faiths, their specialties and so on. Here, he will get some golden opportunities to share the gospel openly to Mullahs. By using Christian apologetics against Islam, a missionary can make the Mullahs to rethink about heir religion. This will surely yield some Mullahs to come to Christ. If a normal man converts to Christianity, he will be suppressed by the religious leaders of the village, but if a Mullah comes to Christ, it is comparatively an easy ride for him.

3.   Islamizing the Christianity

            Christianity, the missionary has his own cultural Christianity and when it comes to cross cultural mission, the missionary should translate his Christian faith in the language of Islam. Here, we can get a question of losing Christian identity. Are we losing Christian identity? No, we are not. Because Christ alone is the Christian identity and nothing else. According to me, when gospel enters Pashtuns, they would worship Jesus in Mosques in their Islamic style. Most of the existing cultural practices (like Soonat) will be retained, if not in a long run at least for a few following decades. There won't be much difference between a Muslim and a Non-Muslim in an outward appearance. Only the practices which hinder the Biblical salvation will be eliminated, but not immediately. This type of mission will work much better than the traditional method of proselytizing. With out giving much noise out side, we can silently work more effectively. Along with this, the missionary should translate lots of Biblical literature, as far as he can.

4. Addressing the Problem of Terrorism

            While doing the evangelizing work on one side, the missionary should not forget to address the alarming issue of terrorism. Although we retain most of their cultural aspect, we should not overlook the Pashtun behavior of fighting. The conflicting mentality and fighting tendency of Pashtuns should be reformed. Here, it is our responsibility to impart the Biblical principle of love into their basic worldview. Nothing is impossible with God. Another important thing to note is, at present, US occupation is there in Afghanistan. The terrorists are deadly against them. So the missionary should not mingle much with the US or their ally's soldiers. Because, this will create a misunderstanding between local people and us.


            Entering into the country of Afghanistan is itself not an easy task, further way to penetrate the society is still more difficult, but if we have the guidance of Holy Spirit and good mission strategies, we still can make a difference. On one side, the country has been ruined by terrorism and counter-terrorism over the period of years. On the other side poverty and starvation are killing the lower class people everyday. It is the responsibility of each and every Christian to disciple Pashtuns for Christ. In the past we could not because of our mistakes. But we have a future before to work. Certainly a work with perseverance will make a change among Pashtuns in Afghanistan.








Ala-Moudud, Abul

  1980 Towards Understanding Islam. Delhi: Maktaba Islami.



Glatzer, Bernt

  2002 Contemporary Society: Tribal Studies, Vol 5. New Delhi: Concept Publishers.


Grunlan, Stephen A. and Marvin K. Mayers

  1979 Cultural Anthropology, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Academic Books,                  Zondervan Publishing House.



  1998 Pakistan Handbook. Hong Kong: Moon Publications, pp. 394-396.



Pennell, Alice M.

  1914 Pennell of the Afghan Frontier: The Life Of Theodore Leighton Pennell.                        London: Seeley, Service & Co. Limited.


Ponraj, S. Devasagayam

  1993 An Introduction to Missionary Anthropology. Bihar: Mission Educational                       Books.


Afridi, Azim

  2004 Pakhtun Customs and Traditions. Online article, available at                    ,     accessed on October 18, 2005.



  2004 Pakhtuns: Land and People. Online article, available at                            , accessed on    October 18, 2005.



  2004 The Pakhtun Social Setup. Online article, available at                               , accessed on            October 18, 2005.


Blood, Peter R. (Ed.)

  1997 Afghanistan: A Country Study, Federal Research Division: Library of   Congress, Research Completed in 1997. Online webpages available at, accessed on October 15, 2005.


Joshua Project

  2005 Pushtun, Southern, Afghani of Afghanistan. Online article, available at           &

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