Islam in Afghanistan

Religion Percent
Distribution of religions

Islam in Afghanistan began to be practiced after the Arab Islamic conquest of Afghanistan from the 7th to the 10th centuries, with the last holdouts to conversion submitting in the late 19th century. Today, Islam is the official state religion of Afghanistan, with approximately 99.8% of the Afghan population being Muslim. About 80% practice Sunni Islam, belonging to the Hanafi Islamic law school, while 20-22% are believed to be Shias.[1][2][3] Most Shias (Shiites) belong to the Twelver branch and only a smaller number follow Ismailism.


Early History 7th

Built during the Ghurids in the 12th century, the Friday Mosque of Herat is one of the oldest mosques in Afghanistan.

During the 7th century, the Rashidun Caliphate Arabs entered modern-day Afghanistan after decisively defeating the Sassanian Persians in Nihawand. Following this colossal defeat, the last Sassanid Emperor, Yazdegerd III, who became a hunted fugitive, fled eastward deep into Central Asia. In pursuing Yazdegerd, the route the Arabs selected to enter the area was from north-eastern Iran[4] and thereafter into Herat, where they stationed a large portion of their army before advancing toward northern Afghanistan.

A large number of the inhabitants of northern Afghanistan accepted Islam through Umayyad missionary efforts, particularly under the reign of Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik and Umar ibn AbdulAziz.[5] In south, Abdur Rahman bin Samara introduced Islam to the natives of Zabulistan which was ruled by the Zunbils.[6]

A miniature from Padshahnama depicting the surrender of the Shia Safavid at Kandahar in 1638 to the Sunni Mughal army commanded by Kilij Khan.

During the reign of Al-Mu'tasim Islam was generally practiced amongst most inhabitants of the region and finally under Ya'qub-i Laith Saffari, Islam was by far, the predominant religion of Kabul along with other major cities of Afghanistan. The father of Abu Hanifa, Thabit bin Zuta, was a native from modern-day Afghanistan. He immigrated to Kufa (in Iraq), where Hanifa was born. Later, the Samanids propagated Sunni Islam deep into the heart of Central Asia, as the first complete translation of the Qur'an into Persian occurred in the 9th century. Since then, Islam has dominated the country's religious landscape. Islamic leaders have entered the political sphere at various times of crisis, but rarely exercised secular authority for long.

The remnants of a Shahi presence in Peshawar were expelled by Mahmud of Ghazni during 998 and 1030.[7] The Ghaznavids were replaced by the Ghurid Dynasty who expanded the already powerful Islamic empire. Believed to be first built during the Ghurids in the 12th century, the Friday Mosque of Herat is one of the oldest mosques in the country. During this period, known as the Islamic Golden Age, Afghanistan became the second major learning center in the Muslim world after Baghdad.[8][9]

After the Mongol invasion and destruction, the Timurids rebuilt the area and once again made it a center of Islamic learning. Shia Islam made its way to southern Afghanistan during the Safavid rule in the 16th century. Until Mir Wais Hotak liberated the Afghans in 1709, the Kandahar region of Afghanistan was often a battleground between the Shia Safavids and the Sunni Mughals.

Conquests by Ahmad Shah Durrani and Abdur Rahman Khan

Although Shariah courts existed in urban centers after King Ahmad Shah Durrani established an Afghan state in 1747, the primary judicial basis for the society remained in the tribal code of the Pashtunwali in areas where Pashtuns were the majority 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 Friday Mosque in Kandahar. Adjacent to it is the Shrine of the Cloak and the tomb of Ahmad Shah Durrani.

The first systematic employment of Islam as an instrument for state-building was introduced by King Abdur Rahman Khan (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 Pashtunwali. 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.

Men praying at the Blue Mosque (or Shrine of Hazrat Ali) in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

His successors continued and expanded King Abdur Rahman Khan's policies as they increased the momentum of secularization. Islam remained 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 Shah (1919–1929), 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.

A mosque in Lashkar Gah, in the south of the country

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.

Abdul Rahman Mosque in Kabul, which is the largest mosque in Afghanistan.

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 Mazari Sharif and Herat. Some of these professors and students became the leaders of the Mujahideen rebels in the 1980s.

Radicalization and NATO presence

The 1979 Soviet invasion in support of a communist government triggered a major intervention of religion into Afghan political conflict, and Islam united the multiethnic political opposition. With the takeover of government by the PDPA in April 1978, Islam had already become central to uniting the opposition against the communist ideology of the new rulers. As a politico-religious system, Islam is well-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 mujahideen to put into effect competing concepts of organization.

The Soviet invasion and the Iranian Revolution not only led national uprisings but also the importation of foreign radical Muslims to Afghanistan. The mujahideen 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 mujahideen 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 mujahideen were never fully able to replace traditional structures with a modern political system based on Islam. Most mujahideen 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.

Muslims praying together during an Eid al-Adha worship service at Kandahar Air Base in southern Afghanistan

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 mujahideen had forfeited the trust they once enjoyed.

In the fall of 1994 a group called the Taliban came forth vowing to cleanse the nation of warlords and criminals. Their intention was to create a "pure" Islamic government subject to their own strict interpretations of the Shariah. Many Pakistani politicians supported the Taliban, including Sami ul Haq who is regarded as the Father of the Taliban. A number of its leaders were one-time mujahideen members, but the bulk of their forces were 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 Hussain Ahmad, leader of the equally conservative Jamaat-e-Islami and longtime supporter of the mujahideen.

Headquartered in Kandahar, mostly Pashtuns 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 most of Afghanistan by 2001. 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 of murderers, stoning for adultery, amputation for theft, a ban on all forms of gambling such as kite flying, chess and cockfights, prohibition of music and videos, proscriptions against pictures of humans and animals, and an embargo on women's voices over the radio. Women were to remain as invisible as possible, behind the veil, in purdah in their homes, and dismissed from work or study outside their homes. They were toppled by a combined Afghan-NATO military force in late 2001. Majority of them escaped to neighboring Pakistan from where they launched insurgency against the current NATO-backed Afghan government. Peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government is ongoing as of 2013.

Islam in Afghan society

For Afghans, 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.

Afghans conducting their afternoon prayer in Kunar Province (December 2009).

Islam is a central, pervasive influence throughout Afghan society; religious observances punctuate the rhythm of each day and season. In addition to a central congregational 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, 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.

Men praying inside the Gardens of Babur in Kabul.

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 Qur'an, 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.

Afghan politicians and foreign diplomats praying at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

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.

Veneration of saints and shrines is opposed by some Islamic groups, particularly those ascribing to the Salafi or Ahle Hadith methodology. 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 Muhammad or a piece of his cloak (khirqah). A great many commemorate legends about the miraculous exploits of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth caliph and the first Imam of Shi'a Islam believed to be buried at the nation's most elaborate shrine located in the heart of Mazari 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 (usually a tawiz) to ward off the evil eye, assure loving relationships between husbands and wives and many other forms of solace. It should be noted however, that like saint veneration, such practices are generally not encouraged in Islam.

Shia Islam in Afghanistan

Abu Fazl Mosque in Kabul during construction in 2008, which is the largest Shia mosque in Afghanistan.[10]

About 22% of the Afghan population practice Shia.[1][2][3] Most Shias in Afghanistan belong to the Twelver branch. This includes the Hazara ethnic group and the smaller urbanized Kizilbash group, who are originally from eastern Iran.

The political involvement of Shia communities grew dramatically during the politicized era during and following the Soviet invasion. Politically aware Shia students formed the hardcore of the Afghan Maoist movement of the 1960s and early 1970s. After 1978, Shia rebel 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 Shi'a groups unsuccessfully negotiated for more equitable, consequential political and social roles.


Further information: Ismailism

The Ismaili Shiites accepted Ismail ibn Jafar instead of Musa al-Kadhim as the successor to Imam Jafar as-Sadiq. Ismaili communities in Afghanistan are less populous than the Twelver who consider the Ismaili 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.

Ismaili are seen to follow their leaders uncritically. The pir or leader of Afghan Ismaili 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 1980s Soviet war in Afghanistan this family acquired considerable political power. The Serena Hotel in Kabul is owned and operated by Ismailis.


The Ahmadiyya is considered a movement that began in the late 19th century by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in Qadian, India. It was seen as apostasy by most other Muslim groups, and accordingly only 12 years after Mirza Ghulam's claim of mahdi-hood, a couple of Ahmadiyya members were stoned to death in Kabul during 1901 to 1903. Later in the 1920s, King Amanullah Khan had several Ahmadiyya members forcibly reverted, and in 1924 affiliation with Ahmadiyya became a capital offense.[11]


Further information: Sufism

Three Sufi orders are prominent: the Naqshbandiya founded in Bukhara, the Qadiriya founded in Baghdad, and the Cheshtiya located at Chesht-i-Sharif east of Herat. Among the Naqshbandi, 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. Another famous Qadiriya pir named Mawlana Faizani came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s, and was a leading critic against the creeping influence of communist philosophy. Jailed in the mid-70s, Mawlana Faizani disappeared when the khalqis came to power and remains missing to this day.

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 River 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 Mazari Sharif are mostly associated with the Naqshbandiya. The Qadiriya are found mainly among the eastern Pushtun of Wardak, Paktia and Nangarhar, including many Ghilzai nomadic groups. Other smaller groups are settled in Kandahar and in Shindand, Farah Province. The Cheshtiya are centered in the Hari River valley. There are no formal Sufi orders among the Shi'a in the central Hazarajat, although some of the concepts are associated with Sayyids, descendants of the Prophet Mohammad, who are especially venerated among the Shi'a.

Afghanistan is unique in that there is little hostility between the ulama (religion scholars) and the Sufi orders. A number 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.

Despite the Afghan Sufis stable position in Afghan society, Sufi leaders were among those executed in 1978-1979 following the communist Saur Revolution, among them Baha'uddin Jan, the pir naqshbandi of the Aimaq of Purchaman District, Farah.[12]

See also


  1. 1 2 "Chapter 1: Religious Affiliation". The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity. Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project. August 9, 2012. Retrieved 4 September 2013.
  2. 1 2 "Country Profile: Afghanistan" (PDF). Library of Congress Country Studies on Afghanistan. Library of Congress. August 2005. Retrieved 2010-09-03. Religion: Virtually the entire population is Muslim. About 80 percent of Muslims are Sunni and 20 percent, Shia.
  3. 1 2 "Afghanistan". The World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Retrieved 2015-06-22.
  4. Arabic As a Minority Language By Jonathan Owens, pg. 181
  5. The preaching of Islam: a history of the propagation of the Muslim faith, By Thomas Walker Arnold, pg. 183
  6. André Wink, "Al-Hind: The Making of the Indo-Islamic World", Brill 1990. p 120
  7. Afghanistan: a new history By Martin Ewans Edition: 2, illustrated Published by Routledge, 2002 Page 15 ISBN 0-415-29826-1, ISBN 978-0-415-29826-1
  8. ""Ghaznavid Dynasty", History of Iran, Iran Chamber Society". Archived from the original on 24 November 2010. Retrieved 14 November 2010.
  9. "Afghanistan – John Ford Shroder, University of Nebraska". Archived from the original on October 31, 2009. Retrieved 19 May 2012.
  10. Vincent Littrell. [Islam: Ahmadiyya]. World Association of International Studies, February 17, 2006
  11. Olivier Roy. Islam and resistance in Afghanistan. Cambridge University Press, 1990. ISBN 0-521-39700-6, ISBN 978-0-521-39700-1
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