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Who Are the Pashtun?

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A Pashtun boy in Afghanistan's Kandahar Province, 2010.

A Pashtun farm boy in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, takes a break from harvesting wheat.

Chris Hondros / Getty Images
Definition:

With a population of at least 50 million, the Pashtun people are Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, and are also the second-largest ethnicity in Pakistan. Pashtuns are united by the Pashto language, which is a member of the Indo-Iranian language family, although many also speak Dari (Persian) or Urdu.

One important aspect of tradition Pashtun culture is the code of Pashtunwali or Pathanwali, which sets out standards for individual and communal behavior. This code may date back to at least the second century BCE, although undoubtedly it has undergone some modifications in the past two thousand years. Some of the principles of Pashtunwali include hospitality, justice, courage, loyalty and honoring women.

Interestingly, the Pashtuns do not have a single origin myth. Since DNA evidence shows that Central Asia was among the first places peopled after humans left Africa, the ancestors of the Pashtuns may have been in the area for an incredibly long time - so long that they no longer even tell stories of having come from someplace else. The Hindu origin story, the Rigveda, which was created as early as 1700 BCE, mentions a people called the Paktha who lived in what is now Afghanistan. It seems likely that the Pashtun have been in the area for at least 4,000 years, then, and probably far longer.

Most Pashtuns today are Sunni Muslims, although a small minority are Shi'a. As a result, some aspects of Pashtunwali seem to derive from Muslim law, which was introduced long after the code first developed. For example, one important concept in Pashtunwali is the worship of a single god, Allah.

Famous Pashtun people in history include the Ghaznavids, the Lodi family, who ruled the fifth iteration of the Delhi Sultanate, and current Afghan president Hamid Karzai.

Pronunciation: pahsh-TOON
Also Known As: Afghan
Alternate Spellings: Pakhtun, Pathan
Examples:
"The Pashtuns have a reputation for courage and fierce fighting, as evidenced by fatal British experiences in Afghanistan during the Great Game, the fiasco that was the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, and the UN's current trouble with the Taliban."
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